Spectral Visions–Demon Lovers: Embracing the Monster in Paranormal Romance, Sunderland, 30 Oct


On Thursday 30th October, the illustrious Dr Bill Hughes is coming to Sunderland to speak at the Spectral Visions Halloween Bash. The time and location is to be confirmed, but you are all invited to join us!

Dr Hughes will be speaking on Demon Lovers, the Byronic hero and paranormal romance.

This is his synopsis.

More details to follow!

Originally posted on Open Graves, Open Minds:

A synopsis of my forthcoming talk for the University of Sunderland’s Spectral Visions group; more details to follow soon:

The Twilight phenomenon has made us aware of a new kind of story about monsters. In these narratives the protagonist, instead of fleeing from it in terror or hunting it down, embraces the monster. Twilight was not the first of these tales (nor the best) and sparkly vampires are not the only demonic lovers. But despite a long history of monstrous couplings in literature, myth, and folklore, a distinct contemporary genre has emerged, called variously paranormal romance, dark romance, Gothic romance, or dark fantasy (though the definitions are imprecise and shift in reference).

The best known incarnation of this present-day demon lover is the sympathetic vampire, who was probably the first of these paranormal paramours to emerge from the shadows. But werewolves, angels, demons, fairies, trolls, cyborgs, and even the unlikely…

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Spectral Visions: The Collection – A Launch Party Review

On Friday 26th September, the Spectral Visions team celebrated the launch of Spectral Visions: The Collection. We hosted a party at The Canny Space, the nickname of the Holy Trinity Church in Sunderland. The Canny Space is an 18th Century church, one of the oldest buildings in East Sunderland, and it proved to be the perfect place to hold our soiree.

We began the evening with a talk from Professor John Strachan, associate dean at Bath Spa University. Professor Strachan spoke on Gothic Wearside and its cultural importance. For example, the oldest surviving Bible is made from the hide of Sunderland cows. He then read from The Codex. Professor Strachan is not only an esteemed academic, but he is a talented author. His is one of the contributions to the anthology, and he read to us some of his own poetry. Amongst the poems was a joint-endeavour from Professor Strachan and Dr Alison Younger of the University of Sunderland. Entitled ’12 Ways to Offend a So-Called Lady on a Golf Course’, it proved to be an audience favourite.

We also received a talk from Dr Mike Pearce, also of the University of Sunderland. He talked to us on the cultural impact of the word “canny” and how its uses are all-purpose and unique. It was an interesting talk, especially for those of the audience who had traveled in, and we thank Dr Pearce for his participation in the night.

There was music during the intermission from David Newton and Sam Lord, who performed at Glastonbury this year. They were fantastic, and a delight to listen to.

Left to right: Sam Lord and David Newton play for the audience.

Left to right: Sam Lord and David Newton play for the audience.

After the intermission, we had some of our contributors read their pieces. Pieces read included:

  • Returning by John Strachan
  • Momento Mori by Colin Younger
  • Weaving the Wyrd by Alison Younger
  • Last Call by Elizabeth Hazlett
  • Welcome to the Hell Hole by Lindsay Bingham
  • Laura by Michelle McCabe
  • Green by Kirstie Groom
  • Crimson Blade by Mike Adamson
  • The Kiss of the Vampire by Steve Willis
  • The Journeyman by Lee Mitchell

All these pieces and more are available to purchase in Spectral Visions: The Collection. The anthology was on sale at the launch, but we sold out quickly. It is still available to purchase on Amazon. There was a chance for the contributors to sign the anthologies, a chance that many took advantage of.

Left to right: Michelle McCabe and Elizabeth Hazlett, signing their pieces.

Left to right: Michelle McCabe and Elizabeth Hazlett, signing their pieces.

There will be a review of the anthology to follow this post, but the reaction on the night was review enough for us. People loved Spectral Visions: The Collection. There are stories and poems to make me laugh, cry and gasp in horror. Every piece is as strong as the one before it, and it is a consistently enjoyable read.

We would like to take a moment to thank some people. Steve Watts, for hosting the evening; Colin Younger for editing the collection and agreeing to read for us; Dr Alison Younger for helping organise the event and reading for us; Professor John Strachan for talking to us and reading his pieces; Dr Mike Pearce for his talk; David Newton and Sam Lord for their music; the student and Canny Space volunteers who organised the night; and to all the contributors, readers and buyers who supported the launch of the anthology. Thank you all for your continued support.

Pictured: Our editor Colin Younger, reading his piece Momento Mori

Pictured: Our editor Colin Younger, reading his piece Momento Mori

Our next anthology will be titled Spectral Visions: Grim Fairy Tales. Details on how to submit your work for consideration of publishing will be available soon, but we do hope you will submit your fairy tales and poetry.

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A Spectral Visions Launch Party

The Gothic is an ever-changing and popular genre which is still contributed to even now. Authors like Darren Shan and L.E Turner contribute to the genre with their children’s and urban fantasy stories, and the genre has continued evolving. Now there is a new anthology of Gothic fiction available to fans.

Spectral Visions: The Collection is an anthology of original Gothic pieces written by students, academics and authors alike. The collection was edited by the University of Sunderland’s head of English and Creative Writing, Colin Younger. Spectral Visions: The Collection is now on sale on Amazon. Boasting a range of poetry and prose from all kinds of creative talent, Spectral Visions: The Collection promises to be a must-have anthology for anyone interested in the creative side of the Gothic.

Edited by Colin Younger; Cover by David Newton

Edited by Colin Younger; Cover by David Newton

We will be featuring a review of the collection on the blog very soon, but it is a worthy investment for anyone who wants to be entertained by tales of murder, mysticism and macabre. There is prose and poetry in abundance from academics and enthusiasts alike. The anthology also features a foreword from Professor William Hughes, who says the collection:

“[S]its squarely – and honourably – within the great tradition of Gothic anthologising.”

To celebrate the launch, Spectral Visions is hosting a party on Friday 26th January at The Canny Space in Sunderland. The Canny Space is the new cultural heritage site in Sunderland, converting the Holy Trinity church in to a centre for performance and learning, and is not far from Sunderland City Centre.

We would like to extend an invitation to you, our readers. The launch party begins at 6pm, and we will be having live performances from the contributors, entertainment and drinks on sale. Come along and meet fellow Gothic fans and be inspired to write your own Gothic fiction.

Dress to impress, and we hope to see you there!

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With me, you will behold terrible wonders; a review of Penny Dreadful

As part of our Contemporary Media and the Gothic series, one of our students has reviewed the Sky Atlantic series, Penny Dreadful.

There is some thing within us all.

That is what was blazoned across the character posters for Penny Dreadful, and the mantra of the show. Penny Dreadful is the latest horror-drama to take the world by storm. Critics are impressed, but cult followings are already claiming it to be the greatest show to grace the airs in a long time. This echoes to a past that Penny Dreadful tries and succeeds to reinterpret for television. To understand why Penny Dreadful is such a gripping watch, one must first understand why it is such a fitting retelling. This post aims to both review Penny Dreadful and to critically evaluate it as an adaptation of both story and genre.

Penny Dreadful takes its name from the weekly pieces of fiction that were published in the 19th Century. They were so-called penny dreadfuls as they cost only a penny to purchase, and contained sensationalised melodrama that was often of macabre and Gothic roots. These works eventually penetrated public consciousness, and they were read by many. As they grew in popularity, many stories became infamous, and characters that they created still exist today. It was in A String of Pearls: A Romance that the character of Sweeney Todd was introduced, and before the suave and sophisticated figure of Dracula there was Varney the Vampire, a maybe-vampire maybe-human character that span for 220 chapters.

Penny dreadfuls were not novels, and not constrained by the same laws and codes as the writings of the upper-classes were. Penny dreadfuls were violent, crude and over-the-top in their plots and characters. Though its primary demographic was the working-class male (as detailed in Louis James’ 1963 book Fiction for the working man 1830–50), they were read by many. They transcended class and gender, and in fact were vastly popular amongst the female readership. Many middle-class writers would don a pseudonym so that they might also publish in the books. You can read a more detailed account of how the penny dreadful grew in popularity in our interview with Professor William Hughes.

The setting for Penny Dreadful is Victorian London, the scene of many famous Gothic works. It draws upon the era with great panache, referencing both real life crime stories and places. In episode 2, Séance, Sir Malcom Murray offers his assistance in the Ripper case. The Ripper is obviously Jack the Ripper, a real criminal who murdered at least six prostitutes in Whitechapel from 1887. The Ripper was such a huge figure to the Victorian readers that it inspired many pieces of work and conspiracies. Many public figures were accused, including Prince Albert and Richard Mansfield, who played both Jekyll and Hyde in a production of the show in London. The series also draws upon real geography, in this case a theatre. In Episode 3, Resurrection, Caliban is given a job in the Grand Guignol. Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was a Parisian theatre that opened in 1897, which specialised in shows of horror. In later years, its name became synonymous with grotesque shows of fear and repulsion. Though the theatre is based in London in the show, it is a loving homage that buffs of the genre will love. Both these, accompanied by smaller interwoven references, accommodate for an authentic Victorian world that houses the fictitious. In the same world which hosts monsters and clairvoyants, characters make reference to Darwinian theories like survival of the fittest.

On to the characters. The show follows in a similar vein to Alan Moore’s comic series A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which began its monthly publication in 1999, and earned itself a movie deal and subsequent theatrical release in 2003. Just as A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collected characters of Victorian notoriety for its cast, Penny Dreadful does the same. It is an ensemble show, utilising characters of public domain like Dorian Gray (from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray), Abraham Van Helsing and Mina Harker (from Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and Victor Frankenstein and his monster (from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). The characters interact with original cast members, like Sir Malcolm, and are brought together by a common goal: to rescue the abducted Mina and to stop the monsters which captured her.

Amongst the new characters is Vanessa Ives, a childhood friend of Mina’s and a clairvoyant. She is played by Eva Green, Vanessa is proving to be a fan-favourite, choosing not to play the role of an Angel of the House, but instead defying the conventions of the women in literature and actively participating in the hunt for her friend. Vanessa is intelligent, sharp-witted and swift in her actions. She had a stint in an asylum, a common theme in the penny dreadfuls, and she fully embraces her darker side when she discovers her mother’s adultery. She is the one who leads them to Mina, and is the character who goes through the most brutal experiences. She is possessed, she is attacked, she is brutalised; Vanessa survives all of this, making her one of the strongest characters in the show.

It is through Vanessa that we explore the question that is at the crux of the series: do we truly wish to be normal? Vanessa is given the chance to become normal through an exorcism that will rid her of her psychic abilities. Likewise, Dr Frankenstein is presented with the chance to destroy Caliban and put the mistakes he’s made behind him. Instead, he chooses to create another monster, hoping this one will be better-suited for the life they lead. The something inside us all is what the show focusses on, exploring the realms of the monstrous that could afflict us all. All the characters go through heartbreak and must sacrifice something in the end, whether it is the tangible, the incorporeal or their humanity. The monsters are given the chance to lament and express their stories. As Caliban says:

The monster is not in my face, but in my soul

The shows pays loving attention to the characters they borrow. Dorian Gray is a charismatic and charming bisexual, seen in his character portraits being caressed by a snake. He is dangerous and alluring, and both Vanessa and Ethan fall victim to his demonic charms. He is sexual, he is reckless and he is canonically as Wilde described him in his book. Likewise, Victor Frankenstein still fails to see that he is the cause of these creations and the monstrous things they do. He enables them, and when Caliban starts to kill those who become close to Dr Frankenstein, his response is simply to murder and make Caliban a mate. In chapter 5 of Frankenstein, the way Dr Frankenstein describes building his monster is matter-of-fact and clinical. It is easy to forget that he stitching together corpses when he describes it as his “work”. He is a cold and at times maniacal scientist, and Penny Dreadful highlights this constantly through his flippant approach to the murderous creature he has fathered.

The show sets a stunning backdrop with its Dickensian fog and costuming. The characters look authentically divine, and the use of Irish towns and cities to emulate a Victorian London provides a historical anchoring to the scenery. Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde were both Irishmen, and this is the landscape that helped to craft Dorian Gray, Mina and Van Helsing. The characters look the part of Victorian and composed, and that makes the scenes of horror that much more disturbing.

A scene worthy of mention for its sheer uncomfortable fearsomeness is when Vanessa is trembling as she prays, speaking in fast Latin chants. Suddenly a candlestick falls, and we discover an upside-down cross with thousands of spiders swarming from it. It’s unnerving to watch her praying, but the sudden onslaught of creatures and the hellish symbolism is terrifying. It is not the scene of blood and murder that the show so liberally provides us with, but is a subtler kind of horror that is just as frightening to watch. Or perhaps that is just arachnophobia speaking.

At times though, the show forgets that it has the visual medium to account for while it is in literary mode. In one particularly promising scene, Dr Frankenstein asphyxiates Brona so that he may use her corpse to provide Caliban with a bride. The scene is brutal but accompanied by a long and at times unnecessary monologue. This is of course typical to Victorian fiction, and a mirror to how Dr Frankenstein acts within his book. It is easy to lose sight of the doctor’s monstrous nature in text alone and it is effective without the visual accompaniment, but with the image on-screen of a dying prostitute it loses some of its effect and instead because the hammiest melodrama. Melodrama was the name of the game in penny dreadfuls, and this is an accurate portrayal of a scene as it might be in text. It is a good scene, though it can be dull if melodrama doesn’t interest you. Likewise, the revelation that Ethan was a werewolf was brilliant, though not enough time was spent on his transformation. It could have been gruesome and gory, with lingering shots of twisted muscles, broken bones and the maddened howls of a beast. Instead the sudden scene change to a full moon instead leaves the audience disappointed.

In summary, Penny Dreadful delivers exactly what the title promises. The characters are entered in to a world of melodrama and gore, with small amounts of plot being used in a heavily character-centred arc. The fun of the show comes not from the search for Mina and the vampire master, but the interaction of characters and the development of back-story and relationships. The original characters do not overshadow the characters we are familiar with, but they do not fade in to obscurity. The new characters are archetypes of the genre: Ethan is the hero found in American tales, Sir Malcolm is an African explorer as many of the imperialistic penny dreadful tales had, and Vanessa is the madwoman/psychic, though a very contemporary character by comparison to the others. All of the characters are fantastical, and this is the appeal of the show. It does exactly what a penny dreadful story would do, and it is delivered to us in the same tantalising manner; a weekly dose of story that has us hooked and ready for the next one.

Penny Dreadful was renewed for a second season in June 2014. We can expect more of the same from our new favourite show; blood, gore, and careful attention to the literary roots that inspired this drama. Personally, we can’t wait.

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A Quick Word with Darren Shan

The blog admin managed to catch a quick word with Darren Shan when he was in Newcastle, and got to talk about the most Gothic and horrific of his series, The Demonata. Book one of the series, Lord Loss (2005) was a global success and in 2006 it won the Redbridge Teenage Book award. It was also shortlisted for four other awards.

Darren Shan, a pseudonym adopted by Darren O’Shaughnessy, is the author of many Young Adult horror books. He has authored two children’s series, and is currently writing the third. His most famous series is the Darren Shan saga, a 12-book series about vampires. The film rights to the series were purchased by Harper, and in 2009 Cirque du Freak was premiered.

When asked about his inspiration for the Lord Loss, Shan had this to say:

“I actually wrote Lord Loss many years ago as a stand-alone book. You’ll like it; there are werewolves in it. Lord Loss is a werewolf and there are more to come. But I had the idea of the poem that starts the book off. I was a poet when I was younger, and it just stuck with me all these years. Lord Loss. I remembered it and I had to write it. And this is what it became. The Demonata. I enjoyed writing it.”

Shan’s books are noted for being dark and gruesome, especially for literature aimed at young people. By the second chapter of Lord Loss, our hero has walked in to find his entire family massacred, their disembodied corpses left for him to find. It leads him to the brink of madness, all caused by the demon Lord Loss.

Critics claim that Lord Loss is “is not a book for young readers or anyone with a weak stomach” (Young Post UK). Shan would disagree, intentionally publishing under his children’s fiction nom-de-plume instead of his adult name, Darren Dash. Violence and grisly subject matter aside, its core demographic is teenagers and horror fans. It is Gothicism in its most mainstream of incarnations, dealing with monsters, madness and transgressions of not only genre conventions but in subject matter—murder for children.

When asked if he preferred vampires or werewolves, both creatures he has used in his series, Shan had this to say:

“Vampires! They’re the most human of all the monsters. Werewolves and zombies are scary, but they’re all about the chase. Chasing you, killing you. That works, but it gets a bit boring after a while. It’s why I made sure my zombies could speak. I don’t want them groaning and boring. Vampires are the most human, they walk among us. They’re clever. Vampires, to me, are the best monsters.”

Shan speaks not as an academic but as a writer, shedding a new source of light on the idea of the monster. He does not study the monster, but rather uses the monster in his craft. It is a reminder to us that the way writers adapt monsters from their traditional roots is done in the interests of maintaining a narrative.

Of course, the admin couldn’t resist meeting him without getting him to sign a book.

The eighth book in the Zom-B series was released in the UK last week: Zom-B Clans. The Zom-B series follows B, a teenage girl in a world after a zombie outbreak. The series is receiving critical acclaim worldwide. A new book is released every three months, with the last book due to be published in summer next year.

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The Supernatural Psychology of Edgar Allan Poe

Andrew Hall is a first year English Education student at the University of Sunderland. His interests include American literature and the supernatural. See more in our student profiles.

Edgar Allan Poe was a pioneer of the American Romantic movement, his Gothic interests likely stemming from studying European literature during the period of his childhood spent in England, and he can be shown to have used the supernatural in his works in ways unique from his contemporaries. As Poe claimed himself:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were – I have not seen
As others saw – I could not bring
My passions from a common spring (Poe 2003:ix)

which may indicate his acknowledgement of the effect the hardship he endured had on his Weltanschauung, but equally it professes his difference from other Nineteenth Century writers. ‘While Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman are concerned with what America ought to be, Poe [...] indicated what America actually was’ (Halliburton 1973:14). This essay will delineate some of the ways Poe used the supernatural tale, and his motivations thereto.

Poe attempted to Americanise Gothic literature; the ‘ruined castles and abbeys [of] European tradition were inappropriate to the new world of North America’ (Botting 1996:114) so instead he set his tales in the uncanny regions of his protagonists’ psyches. For example, in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, the reader becomes aware that the supernatural element is imagined by the narrator. Poe creates an unreliable narrator by highlighting his delusions about the old man’s eye and his irrational denial, ‘why will you say that I am mad?’ (Poe 2003:228) being a polemical entreaty typically reserved for those who are indeed crazed. His understanding of the old man’s fear (‘I knew it was the groan of mortal terror’ (ibid:229)) shows him luxuriating in cruelty, and his obsession with the sound of the ticking watch and beating heart is indicative of psychosis.

Poe blurs the lines between the supernatural and psychological in tales such as ‘Berenice’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. In ‘The Masque’, the revellers find the mummer’s costume ‘untenanted by any tangible form’ (ibid:210), which causes readers to wonder whether he was indeed a spectre or a shared hallucination of their collective subconscious. In ‘Berenice’, the narrator has ‘no definite comprehension’ (Poe 1993:196) of his mutilation of the eponymous antagonist. This implies Freudian traumatic memory repression, but the extracted teeth may symbolise vampiric reanimation which alternatively suggests a supernatural cause for his amnesia.

Poe arguably achieves the synthesis of psychology and the supernatural most effectively in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, where the supernatural elements, such as Madeline’s apparent telekinesis, appear real as they are related by a reliable first person narrator. However, Roderick’s song ‘The Haunted Palace’ (Poe 2003:99-100) alludes to mental deterioration and the psychological effects of isolation. The image of a head is clear: the ‘Banners yellow’ (l.9) are the hair; the eyes are ‘two luminous windows’ (l.18); the teeth and lips are ‘pearl and ruby’ (l.25); and stanzas V-VI describe how seclusion and sadness (‘evil things, in robes of sorrow’- l.33) adversely affect the mind within (‘the monarch’s high estate’ – l.34). The ‘troop of Echoes’ (l.29) becomes a ‘discordant melody’ (l.44), meaning harmonious thought becomes cacophonous madness. Here, Poe has successfully used the supernatural to represent the psychological. Furthermore, the narrator explains that the house is synonymous with the family and therefore with Roderick himself, thereby transforming its collapse into a symbol of Roderick’s own demise. More than being a well executed literary feature, this serves to make the setting relevant to an American audience, who may not have inferred terror from the Gothic house and its surrounding landscape, too distanced from their cultural experience, had it stood as setting alone.

Another way Poe used the supernatural to ‘satisfy a public which craved his gory and macabre stories’ (Mina 2013) was by addressing common contemporary neuroses. Victorian scientists were beginning to contradict the Bible and its reassuring notions of an afterlife; death was made terrifying by the indiscriminate spread of fatal disease (ibid). Medical understanding was not advanced enough to explain the symptoms of lingering illnesses which could be mistaken for death, such as the shallow breathing of tuberculosis (ibid), and the fear of being buried alive was shared by many. Poe exploited this fear many times in his work, for example: ‘a disfigured body enshrouded, yet still breathing’ (Poe 1993:196) and ‘We have put her living in the tomb!’ (Poe 2003:108).
Poe heightens the fear of disease for readers by highlighting its inevitability and the futility of trying to avoid it in tales like ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. Prince Prospero and the thousand revellers fall victim to the Red Death despite closing themselves off from it. The Red Death alludes to the ‘red plague’ that Caliban wishes on Prospero in The Tempest (an allusion rendered plain by the protagonist’s no doubt deliberately assigned moniker). Similar to Prospero teaching Caliban language having the negative effect of teaching him how to curse, the Prince encloses the revellers with the good intention of avoiding disease with the paradoxical effect that, once inside, it can spread amongst them more quickly. The Red Death is a fictional disease but sounds eerily familiar to readers, enhancing the text’s ability to evoke terror; that it holds ‘illimitable dominion over all’ (Poe 2003:211) suggests that the castle’s inhabitants, by attempting to avoid death, risk supernaturally paying the Faustian price for their conceited efforts.

Madness was another contemporary concern and a frequent theme in Poe’s works. The previously discussed unreliable narrator of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, employed similarly in ‘The Black Cat’, has the unsettling effect of making the reader feel as if they are conversing with a madman. A popular and inveterate notion in the critical Zeitgeist was that Poe embodied many of his characters’ traits and was therefore mad himself. There is evidence to support this: ‘for what disease is like Alcohol!’ (ibid:272) may be a declaration of contrition for Poe’s own drinking, and he often seems to be describing his own family situation in his characters’ (‘I, and my cousin, and her mother’ (ibid:195), ‘Berenice and I were cousins’ (ibid:190)), but to deduce that his tales are autobiographical is a false syllogism. If Poe was as mad as some of his characters, he would not have had the mental or literary faculties to recognise them as such or portray them so effectively. Buranelli claims that Poe had to ‘escape [...] practical life on occasion or else go mad’ (1977:22), and he must have shared some of the public’s fears hitherto discussed, so perhaps Poe included fragments of himself in his writing as a form of anaesthesia for his own neuroses.

One of Poe’s biggest fears was female abandonment. Through either death or estrangement, he lost almost every woman in his life, and his creation of ‘some of the most distinctive female characters in fiction’ (Mina 2013) can be seen as attempts to reanimate those lost women. The first of these women was Poe’s mother Elizabeth, an actor who died when Poe was two years old. As an infant, Poe would have seen his mother ‘die’ on stage many times, perhaps therefore never fully understanding or accepting her death and subconsciously expecting her to return. This underlying conflict, and the loss of other women throughout his lifetime, may be what led Poe to claim that the death of a beautiful woman was the most poetical subject in ‘The Poetic Principle’ (Poe 2003:449-63). Of course, Poe’s aesthetic ideology here is flawed; beauty is subjective, and one wonders whether the death of an ugly woman, or a man, or a child of any outward appearance, would not be equally as tragic or melancholic. Nonetheless, the demise and resurrection of women blessed, or cursed, with a comely countenance is a recurring motif throughout much of Poe’s work.

In ‘Eleonora’, the reanimated female is comforting and forgiving (‘thou art absolved’ (ibid:200)), rather than vengeful or malevolent as in some of Poe’s earlier work. Eleonora’s fictional death is a bitterly ironic, haunting pre-echo of Virginia’s condition. Poe’s young wife contracted tuberculosis soon after ‘Eleonora’ was published (Galloway: 2003:xlii) and she suffered undulating health for five years before her death, repeatedly declining and recovering in a bitter parody of the women in Poe’s fictional oeuvre. During this period, Poe ‘became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity’ (ibid:xliv) but also finally achieved literary acclaim with the publication of ‘The Raven’ (Mina 2013). Full of allusion to Virginia’s illness (ibid), there is more bitter irony in that his greatest achievement came from his worst pain, and Poe, in high demand for public readings (ibid), may have felt guilt at having to leave her for long periods to pursue his career.

Poe may have felt responsible for the loss of other women in his life too, as it seems those he did not lose to death, he lost because of his own actions. He lost his friend Frances Osgood through public flirtation (for example, see ‘A Valentine’ (Poe 2003:41), a complicated acrostic poem dedicated to Osgood) which led to salacious rumours of infidelity, the scandal of which Virginia blamed for hastening her death, and Sarah Whitman ended their engagement because he failed to stop drinking (Mina 2013). In the poetry composed near the end of his life, Poe presents speakers who seem resigned to solitude and death. In ‘For Annie’, the speaker expresses disdain for ‘the fever called ‘Living’’ (Poe 2003:37), and ‘Annabel Lee’s speaker resigns himself to ‘lie down [...] / In her tomb’ (ibid:43). In a final twist of bitter irony, ‘Annabel Lee’ was published on 9th October, 1849, the day Poe died.

Poe, then, used the supernatural tale to address and explore social anxieties regarding madness, disease and death in a psychological reinterpretation of Gothic literature, and to attempt to reconcile his own neuroses about female abandonment and guilt. Reflecting on the points discussed in this essay, one has to conclude that Poe did this effectively in short fiction and poetry that helped define American Romanticism and which still resonates with readers today.



Primary Sources
Poe, E.A. ‘Berenice’ (1835), ‘Morella’ (1835), in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1993) ed. by Graham Clarke. London: Everyman.
Poe, E.A. ‘Eleonora’ (1842), ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843), ‘The Black Cat’ (1843), ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1845), ‘The Oval Portrait’ (1845), ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1845), ‘The Raven’ (1845), ‘A Valentine’ (1846), ‘For Annie’ (1849), ‘Annabel Lee’ (1849), in The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings (2003) ed. by David Galloway. London: Penguin.

Secondary Sources
Botting, F. (1996). Gothic: the New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge.
Buranelli, V. (1977). Egdar Allan Poe, 2nd edn. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing.
Feidelson, C. Jr. (1981). Symbolism and American Literature, Midway reprint. Chicago: University of Chigaco Press.
Halliburton, D. (1973). Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Lee, A.R. (1987). Edgar Allan Poe: The Design of Order. London: Vision Press.
Maxwell, D.E.S. (1963). American Fiction: The Intellectual Background. New York: Columbia University Press.
Mina, D. (2013). Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women. Television Program, dir. Louise Lockwood. BBC Scotland: broadcast 3rd October, 2013 (BBC 4).
Regan, R. (1967). Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
Rogers, D. (1966). Monarch Notes: Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales. New York: Macmillan.
Rosenheim, S. and Rachman, S. (1995). The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Shakespeare, W. (2006). The Tempest, Oxford School Shakespeare 2nd edn, ed. by Roma Gill. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Walker, I.M. (1986). Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge.

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White Fell and the Criminal Woman: The Donna Deliquente in The Were-Wolf

In the 19th century, the society of the time was experiencing a number of rapid changes: urbanisation was beginning to take effect, parts of the country were living in poverty, and the female rights movement was truly underway. The old way of life was disappearing, threatened by the challenges of new technologies and new ways of living. These anxieties led to at least a perceived increase in crime rates, and an interest in the criminal. It was during this time that Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) founded the practice of criminal anthropology. He used his knowledge as a physician and psychiatrist to plot what he believed to be the defining features of the criminal body and mind in accordance to the practice of physiognomy. This particular practice was of interest to the 19th century person, as the rise of eugenics was prominent at the time with some of the greatest minds in the world subscribing to the idea. His works were influential, and though written in his mother tongue of Italian, his theories became globally known, are even quoted in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Lombroso’s works were translated in to English from 1895, including his work on the criminal that this post will address. The primary assumption of this blog post is that not only Clemence Housman, but her readership was aware of his theories and the school of thought that surrounded it.

Lombroso wrote on three kinds of women who formed the title of one of his books: La donna delinquente, la prostitute e la donna normale. Translated, it means The Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Woman. Lombroso fails to define the true difference between the criminal woman and a prostitute, thus many of his ideas like homosexuality in the prostitute overlap.  His definition of prostitution includes not only selling one’s body, but engaging in sex outside of marriage.

Just as with men, the criminal woman is lower on the evolutionary scale, and thus more atavistic than her law-abiding counterpart. Women differ from men through their degenerative physical “secondary sex characteristics” (Lombroso, 2004: 52) and substandard psychological development. Degeneration is what links the criminal to the monster; it is the primal side of the criminal that makes them monstrous to behold.

It was Lombroso’s belief that women of all calibres were naturally inferior to men, proven by a series of factors he discusses. Women have an innate “instinct of lying” (ibid: 64), something he attributes to their lesser developed brains which keep them at a state of infantilism. It is because of this lesser development that women have “unstable personalities” (ibid: 78).

The criminal woman is “sexually abnormal” (ibid: 114), in that she is virile and her desires may manifest in “perversion” (ibid: 171). Lombroso’s example of perversion is the perceived increase of homosexual urges amongst criminals. This is attributed to “an atavistic tendency to return to a stage of hermaphroditism” (ibid: 178), and is expressed in a preference for masculine dress and “avoiding female work” (ibid.). Though more commonly linked to the prostitute figure of his studies, he emphasises the importance of environmental factors by specifying that said homosexuality can be exacerbated in places where women spend a lot of time together, and a woman’s lower developmental skills makes this reversion to hermaphroditism more likely. A woman without her femininity is to Lombroso a “true monster” (ibid. 174).

In 1896, Clemence Housman penned her best known piece of written work The Were-Wolf. Considered the “classic werewolf tale of the late nineteenth century” (Frost, 2003: 81), The Were-Wolf tells the tale of Christian, the only one in the village that sees the beautiful White Fell as the she-wolf that is killing the villagers. The story goes that there are three knocks on the door, each time followed by a voice: the first time a child, the second time an old person and the third time an old man. Finally, the door is opened to reveal White Fell. White Fell is a beautiful and enchanting woman, who instantly wins the heart of Sweyn. The only one to see White Fell as a monster is Sweyn’s twin brother Christian, but no one believes him. Soon two of the villagers die, and to stop Sweyn being the next death Christian sacrifices himself to kill White Fell, who in her final moments is revealed to Sweyn as a great white wolf.

The Were-Wolf is one of the few werewolf stories of the time to include a female werewolf as a primary antagonist. This is a reflection of Housman’s life at the time, as both she and her brother Laurence were “active in a number of suffrage organisations” (Holton, 2002: 142). Their home became a centre for banner-making for the organisations, and Housman was even arrested on occasions for the cause. White Fell is in this way an amalgamation of her suffrage beliefs; she is strong, she is powerful, she is beautiful, and she is contrary to most of Lombroso’s theories on degenerate women. Though Lombroso did not write his theories with monsters in mind, White Fell is a murderer and thus a criminal. She premeditates her attacks, thus making her a viable case study for the theory.

First is the belief that the female criminal, and thus the female monster, is of an unstable personality. White Fell shows little towards this, and is in fact bound by ritual. Though we predominantly see her through the eyes of Christian, her actions are meticulous and calm. She dotes upon the children who fall under her spell, and is kind to all she comes across. She disappears with regularity with the phases of the moon, as her lycanthropy would dictate. Even her reasons for her crimes are simple to consider; she requires food, and her prey is decided by the voices she casts at the door and those who receive her kisses. Rol, the child “kissed her one—twice” (Housman, 2004: 18), and he is the first to die. The first voice heard at the door is a child. The second to die is Trella the elder, who upon hearing White Fell sing “bent forward and kissed” (Housman, 2004: 42) her, and dies soon after that. The second voice heard at the door is of an old person. It is because of this stable ritual that Christian knows Sweyn will be the next to die, ergo White Fell is damned for not having the unstable personality that Lombroso claims she must have.

White Fell does lie in accordance to Lombroso’s study, as her nature as a werewolf dictates she do. This for Lombroso is a key attribute of any criminal woman. Housman still manages to subvert this characteristic however by purposefully avoiding the seven key reasons a woman lies: “weakness”, “menstruation”, “shame”, “sexual struggle”, “the desire to be interesting”, “suggestibility” and “the duties of maternity” (Lombroso, 2004: 78). White Fell has no children, nor is there any mention of menstruation within the narrative. Likewise, White Fell is stronger than most of the characters in the novella, thus cannot be described as weak or suggestible, and is sexually secure in the knowledge that Sweyn is besotted with her. Though she is considered interesting by the villages for her beauty and foreign ways, these are not lies she tells and are instead her own charm and stories. White Fell is not ashamed of who she is either; The Were-Wolf is not the tale of a reluctant werewolf, but of a creature of instinct who marks her prey and then devours them without remorse. Housman seemingly consciously avoids Lombroso’s classifications, and Lombroso forgets an important reason for a woman’s lies: safety. White Fell’s naturally lies, because the truth would certainly be her demise. Her supposed degeneration here makes her more human than any of her other traits.

White Fell is described in her initial description as wearing “half masculine and yet not unwomanly” (Housman, 2004: 15). The fact that her clothes are not feminine to Lombroso would be an indication of atavistic and possibly homosexual tendencies in White Fell, but it is quickly undermined by the fact that Sweyn doesn’t see her as unwomanly for it. There is also the juxtaposition of the “ivory-studded girdle” and the “axe” (ibid. 16) she carries with it. She is marked as beautiful, half-feminine and a hunter, with quick reflexes when she is attacked by the wolfhound. While her beauty makes her enchanting, it these abilities which make her irresistible to Sweyn. These masculine tendencies are not linked to homosexuality as she is seen only to show carnal interest in Sweyn. It is perceived as a romantic or sexual interest by the villagers, but to White Fell he is nothing more than prey.

The analysis of The Were-Wolf has shown that only does Lombroso’s theories not apply to White Fell, but they are constantly subverted. The effect is a formidable and dangerous antagonist, who easily bewitches those who view this phrenology as an indicator. White Fell does embody the anxieties of a society that feared the new roles that women were campaigning for, but she subverts many of the assumptions. When she is killed, it is not the slaying of a strong woman that is being represented, but a Christian allegory of one dying for the sake of his brother, and the creature that bewitches them being rightfully punished for her transgressions. Housman manages to show women as dangerous and more developed than what the thinking of the time gave them credit for. It was that line of thinking that much of the opposition used to deny women the rights that they wanted; they claimed that women were not developed enough to know what to do with the right to vote. White Fell should be more atavistic; she is a wolf in her truest form. But by being an intelligent, beautiful and primal woman, she completely subverts the theories that Lombroso was being lauded for, making her a character of the time and a revolutionary antagonist that only Housman and her political ideals could conceive of.


Frost, B.J. 2003. The Essential Guide to Werewolf Literature. London: University of Wisconsin Press.

Holton, S. 2002. Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women’s Suffrage Movement. London: Routledge

Housman, C. (ed. Shell, S). 2004. The Were-Wolf. [ebook] Available at: Project Gutenburg [Accessed 27 Feb. 2014]

Lombroso, C. (ed. Rafter, N.H and Gibson, M). 2004. Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Woman. Durham: Duke University Press.

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