Gothic Reading Group was probably the first social activity I engaged in as a 1st-year graduate student, and as such it played a really important function in making me feel like part of a community. Coming together with a small group of veteran grad students who loved spooky, weird stories like me was a highlight of my first year.
So it may seem odd to report that I felt rather anxious about reviving this group and leading it with my friend and colleague Kyle Brett. Walking down to Packer House, loaded with snacks, pondering the discussion questions I could ask, I was distinctly aware of how different I was when I first entered the group as a 1st-year student. From a busy course-loaded student to a post-coursework almost PhD candidate, I had changed a lot. In the critical parlance of some recent scholars, reviving this reading group made me come face to face with a previous self.
It is fitting (and perhaps ironic) that this experience of the self is very Gothic. Characters in Gothic tales are usually haunted by their past selves in some way, and struggle to reconcile it to the present or future self (sometimes they are broken in the effort). The Picture of Dorian Gray is a clear, more literal example of this theory: the portrait psychologically haunts Dorian with his past criminal self/ves. Whether they feature paintings, ghosts, or haunted houses, Gothic texts make us consider how we deal with our past selves and how they meet (or crash into) the present.
Take one of the stories we discussed at our first group meeting as another example. We read some short stories by the American writer Ambrose Bierce, and one text that we kept circling back to was “Chickamaugha” (1889). The story details the journey of a little boy through the woods. He begins by playing war, gets lost, and follows horribly wounded Confederate soldiers back to his now-burned plantation home. The graphic, bloody description of the soldiers (one is missing his jaw) and the dead parents (mom’s brains are bubbling and oozing out of her skull) grab your attention (and we did discuss them at length).
But what fascinated us more was the way that this story was a kind of American haunting: the little boy is not haunted by his own past or another version of himself specifically, but the reader is haunted by the ghosts of war. The gruesome realism forces the reader to consider how such a nightmare can be temporally reconciled with the present moment. Contemporary and modern readers question how they as individuals and as part of a cultural identity relate to historical selves that we would rather not discuss.
Even though it doesn’t feature any castles or incest like many European Gothic tales, Bierce’s work still engages with the concept of haunting, one that makes this genre so exciting and terrifying to read. And you can be sure our little reading group will eagerly devour these tales every month, in spite of any potential hauntings that may occur.
If you are interested in joining our group of daring readers, shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).