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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An Interview with Professor William Hughes

The blog admin interviewed Professor William Hughes. Professor Hughes is a professor of Gothic Studies at Bath Spa University, editor of the Gothic Studies journal, and the co-president of the International Gothic Association. He has many books published on Dracula, including ‘Dracula: A Reader’s Guide’. Being published soon is his book ‘That Devil’s Trick: Hypnotism in Victorian Popular Culture’ and was this week published in Victoriographies which his article ‘Kipling and Gothic Masculinity‘.

ImageQ: Are there any overlaps with Chapbooks, Penny Dreadfuls and the consumption of the Gothic?
Yes! There are big overlaps. The best way to find them is to look at Franz Potter’s book Exhuming the Trade. It clearly shows the overlap of the working classes reading Penny Dreadfuls and the upper-class reading more well-received library books, and how the genre generally was encompassing all. Really, the themes of both types of book are similar because they both address the boredom that everyone felt. The Napoleonic War didn’t affect Britain, and there was no invasion or revolution to be seen. All the British had was fear. They were denied the chance to have adventures, and thus turned to reading to assuage that boredom.

Q: So despite popular belief, you’re saying that the Gothic was not the mark of the working class?
The Gothic transcends class, but admitting to liking it marks you. The working class could freely admit to enjoying reading the Gothic because they were allowed to like popular culture. The middle class and above were not so free because ti was unbecoming. The exception, of course, was those above the gentry class, who were rich enough to like what they wanted without question, or people like Bryon or Shelley who had a radical anti-Enlightenment persona. If anything, it was more divided by gender than by class. Despite men reading and writing the Gothic, it’s most closely associated with women, particularly young women. Men were even known to adopt female pseudonyms so that they wouldn’t be associated with the genre.

Q: Young women are often said to define culture. Is that why the Gothic is so often dismissed?
It’s easy to dismiss something if you publicly and psychologically associate it with young women. Look at Jane Austen. It is a prejudice that still exists in contemporary culture. The suggestion was that anything written by and consumed by women is devoid of any notion of socio-politics. By belittling its intellectual appeal, you can dismiss it. So, yes.

Q: Of course, I have to ask you about Dracula. What single feature about the novel makes it a timeless classic in your opinion?
Fear—Dracula is a repository of fear. It cannot be confined to one issue; it is crafted from the raw element of fear. It is a zeitgeist novel which crystallises the fears of its time: the rise of feminism, the theological collapse and the degeneration of society to name a few. There are countless books dedicated to plotting just one of these fears and social anxieties. By killing the vampire in the end, Stoker manages to re-establish the scientific, Christian and masculine as the prime way of life and it calms our fear. Ultimately though, we still lose Lucy. It shows that, yes, this is the way things are supposed to be, but we can still be defeated, and it is shown when we lose one of our own who could really be any of us.

Q: And is fear what makes the vampire a timeless character?
The vampire is the perfect vessel for taboo; not in the Freudian sense of taboo, but on a more social level. It’s all about the vampire’s relation to the body. There are multiple significant meanings of the blood. It is representative of sexuality, race etc. It is the reality of the symbolic function that makes the vampire impressive. All those meanings are made immediate with being made intimate with the body. This can be a sexual sense in the manner of a Poppy Z Brite novel, or in the traditional sense of a vampiric attack. Vampires are physiological beings that allow issues of meaning to become issues of the body.

Q: What do you think of the romanticising of vampires through authors like Anne Rice?
Anne Rice is certainly a landmark, though she is not alone in her attempts to romanticise the vampire figure. She almost succeeds in giving the vampire a voice, but doesn’t quite manage it. Interview with the Vampire is a hardly an interview. I actually think The Vampire Lestat is a more successful and better written story when it comes to the vampire voice. Still, The Vampire Chronicles shows in characters like Armand there is something feral behind the collected man. Inside every man, there is an urge to destroy the beautiful. Armand is the closest these characters have to answers, and he is never there to be asked. Rice has some interesting characters well worth study. Take Gabrielle, Lestat’s mother and fledgling—she abandons her own child, but only when she becomes the child. She has much to learn, as all the fledgling do, and she chooses not to learn from her son. She leaves a lost Dora the Explorer and returns as Lara Croft. She is a mercenary, and a woman of immense power. Rice was not alone in this movement to romanticise the vampire, but she was a populariser. New Orleans at the time was once again becoming a place to visit, and more impressively she found an agent who would plug her. Pieces of supernatural fiction at the time were rarely advertised, but Interview with the Vampire was. It became a huge thing, and the vampire has since been linked to this suave, seductive figure of Tom Cruise in ruffles.

Q: Werewolves are so often linked to the vampire. Even Anne Rice has started a new series that follows a wolf. Why do you think they are so often associated?
Werewolves are a recent rival of the vampire. In the 21st Century, we have a trio of boogeymen that are so often interlinked: the werewolf, the vampire and the zombie. In the past, this rivalry between werewolf and vampire did not exist, whereas we now cast them as opposites. This is because there is now an intimacy between humans and vampires which was not previously explored. The vampire is now the lover, the friend or neighbourhood staple. They have been domesticated, and the werewolf has not. In a sense, the werewolf represents what vampires once were; they are feral, dark and untameable, creatures on the night that will stalk, kill and should be feared. The dichotomy between werewolves and vampires is a recent phenomenon because it couldn’t exist when both were creatures to be despised.

Q: Are we at risk of domesticating our werewolves?
Yes we are, and the risk comes from serialising. Serialising is good for the author and fan, but it poses a problem. These serial novels that take stock characters like the werewolf eventually create an elaborate mythology which separates it from real life. Older stories are frightening because they aren’t distinguishable from our reality. With the serialised novel, it moves away from the importance of fiction and the narrative and instead moves towards the importance of the rules of the narrative. I am a fan of these fanzines, where enthusiasts exchange thoughts and theories on in-world rules. There are good for the serial novel, but are they good for the Gothic? Probably not.

Q: Again, this must be asked. What do you think of Twilight?
Honestly, I haven’t read it. I have heard of it though, and seen parts of the cinematic releases. I think as a narrative, Twilight is interesting. It is valid, it is innovative, and it is fun. But it something I will never write on. It’s not of my time. That lies to the new literary critics, and it is certainly something worth studying if they choose to.

Q: What is your favourite piece of Gothic literature?
I suppose the cliché is for me to say Dracula. I’m not sure. The most terrifying piece I can think of is Gaston Leroux’s A Terrible Tale. It’s an apt name, a tale about cannibalism and men with no limbs. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to read something gruesome. He is usually linked to The Phantom of the Opera, but A Terrible Tale for me is the best of his stories.

Q: Jekyll or Hyde?
Hyde without a question. The ID is more interesting than the Ego. I’ve debated many hours with colleagues over whether Jekyll represents the Ego or Superego, but the conclusion is always that Jekyll is a beastly and superior character.

Q: Werewolves or vampires?
Vampires! Always. Vampires are far more sexy is a velvet jacket, and their sexuality is what makes them appealing. Werewolves in velvet look more like Alison’s dogs.


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Ragbone, by James Hogg

I pull my cart through the streets
unnoticed by those who pass by
as I collect the unwanted detritus
from the households that would shun the invisible.

Beneath the rags and neglected trappings of society,
are the bones of the unwary
and those who have strayed too far.

The walk may be long but the night is mine;
as I see her I watch beneath her window,
as she stands in the candlelight
…..I wait.

Soon she must placate the world
self absorbed and filled with grandiose ego
as she takes to the streets
to attend society’s crystalline ideal of immortality.

I know full well that she must pass my place of solitude,
with most expedient efficiency,
I will fall upon her and extol myself.

Ragbone is a poem written by James Hogg, a graduate of the University of Sunderland. He has remained actively involved in the Spectral Visions community.

There is so much disaffection in her being,
for I have remained disquiet too long,
silenced by her belligerence,
in favour of the moral ground.

I shall chew her fingers to the bone
and make music of her screams,
as I make use of a rag, to stifle
and end any notion of quixotic nature.

Now the good that was within
is now gone truly forever
for it is easy for those with highbrow means,
to overlook the good, in place of the bad
and place the villain within sight.

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An Interview with Dr Alison Younger

The blog admin interviewed Dr Alison Younger. Dr Younger is a literature lecturer at the University of Sunderland. Her specialties are in the Medieval, Gothic, monstrosity and the discourse of the gentleman in the 19th century. In that past year, she has had various articles published, on topics like Burke and Hare, body-snatching and R. L Stevenson.


Q: What is Spectral Visions to you?
A: Good question! It’s very difficult to define exactly what Spectral Visions is. It’s like Heraclitus’s river: constantly moving and changing so that it’s never the same thing twice. It’s a celebration of the spectral: that is the liminal, the in-between, that which lies between death and life, being and nothingness, the ghostly and the gothic. In short, it’s an ever-changing Gothic phantasmagoria which allows us to research and discuss questions that continue to preoccupy us, such as ‘why do we need monsters’? Why are we fascinated by ghosts and serial killers? The fact that it is central to the A’ level curriculum suggests that these questions continue to fascinate at all levels. It isn’t just a conference, or a symposium, it’s a real collaboration between staff and students which allows us to showcase the excellent work our students are doing, and engage with these knotty questions that underpin Gothic texts. It’s research-led, of course; our research and, also student research. As you know, you visionaries have been doing great things. We have bloggers and writers, (such as you and Chloe) taking the Gothic flame out into the world beyond the university. It’s a kind of magic (if you’ll pardon the cliché). We want bring that magic to take delegates at Spectral Visions – to take them into the heart of darkness and help to illuminate the enigmas that lie at its core. Most importantly we want people to enjoy their trip and to come out of the other side of it edified and inspired to learn more. In sum, it’s a mirror of the Gothic itself: excessive, theatrical celebration of ‘Otherness’ which is designed to delight and teach. Does this answer your question?

Q: Absolutely. So what is it exactly about the Gothic which inspires you?
A: The Gothic employs a rhetoric of radical excess. It’s subversive and challenging, uncannily romantic and enigmatic. It interrogates the boundaries of the self and society as a whole. It takes us into the unconscious, where desire, alienation and sexuality are formed. As Catherine Spooner rightly says: ‘In contemporary Western culture, the Gothic lurks in all sorts of unexpected corners. Like a malevolent virus, Gothic narratives have escaped the confines of literature and spread across disciplinary boundaries to infect all kinds of media, from fashion and advertising to the way contemporary events are constructed in mass culture’ . It’s really all things to all people. It’s expansive, imaginative and sublime, and it allows us to wrestle with our own inner demons. We’re all drawn to the fantastic, the folkloric and the phantasmagoric. We love to peek into the abyss from the safety of our own armchair and explore the sensational and supernatural. Gothic allows us to do this. What fascinates me in particular about the Gothic is the way in which it allows us to view debates about highbrow and lowbrow culture through a critical lens. Gothic has historically been as popular with the masses (whoever they may be) as it was distasteful to the critical elite, (belletrists have repeated labelled it ‘trash’ since its generic Blue book beginnings). Without a doubt it has been excessively commercialised, hyped, mass-marketed and niche-marketed. As Spooner rightly says, ‘Gothic sells’. The question of why this might be must give us pause to think. It brings us back to the question of the longevity and popularity of Gothic as a protean, near Kaleidoscopic genre and we’re back to the start of our Gothic maze. So, for me I think it’s the subversive, playful element of Gothic that inspires. It’s a ludic funhouse which can be navigated using any critical theory, and yet, there is always something new to say about it. It’s a literature of paradoxes and otherness; as trivial and ‘pulp’ as it is profound, and, latterly, canonical but it’s unerring in its power to provoke. This is a fraction of what I find inspirational and exciting about Gothic. I could say more, but then I’d have to kill you. Joke!

Q: The late Victorian period brought a surge of popular Gothic fiction. What is it about that period or those works that made the Gothic so popular?
A: I came to late Victorian Gothic by quite a circuitous route – through the back door from the first Gothic Revival, so to speak. I’d been researching the way in which William Burke and William Hare, two run-of-the-mill murderers for their time) came to be represented as murderous, monstrous cause célèbres. This led me up two research alleys which would eventually direct me to the late Victorian period. The first was the idea of the Gothic as symptomatic of social anxieties within a given time or epoch (Marxist, materialist, cultural and New Historicist critics would tend to foreground these ideas). The second was a reintroduction to the works of the wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson via his ‘crawler’ The Body Snatcher. What became very clear is that there was what Foucault would describe as an epistemic shift between the late Georgian and the late Victorian period. Burke and Hare had monstrous resonance because of profound social fears of the Anatomist’s table and what happens to the body after death (the same, of course can be said of Shelley’s Frankenstein). Gothic responds to, and allows us to confront unsettling cultural changes and beliefs such as these. Of course it evolves and changes as these ‘fears’ for want of a better word, evolve and change. Gothic fiction has always been preoccupied with the taboo, the transgressive and the terrifying, and these taboos, transgressions and terrors changed in the course of the nineteenth century. As Maggie Kilgour suggests, the ‘Romantic Gothic’ emerged as ‘the rebellion of the imagination against the tyranny of reason’. Gothic is a narrative of the ineffable or unutterable; filled with gaps, uncertainty and hesitations. In the sense of aesthetic developments it was also associated with the heightened emotional sensitivity (in the sense of madness, paranoia and melancholy) displayed by its characters. Often the cause of this sublime sensitivity is found to be buried in the past – in family secrets and ghosts that will not remain in their graves. As such it really speaks of the mature art of the High Romantics and shares their preoccupations: Antiquarianism; Revolution; Enlightenment reason set against the tyranny and barbarity of Medieval (and therefore Feudal) times; egalitarianism and the debate over the privileges of the aristocratic few set against the rights (or lack of them) of the many. Fear of the mob stampedes through the supernaturally sublime landscapes of Romantic Gothic, and while this fear of the proletarian crowds is still evident in Late Victorian Gothic, its post Darwinian monsters slink and hide in the doorways of urban rookeries and lurk like detritus in the cess pools which were urban criminal quarters. They carry the visible stigmata of the ‘criminal type’ or racial other. Worse, they have the fatal beauty of the femme fatale! We’re not so far removed from Victorian sensibilities as we might suspect. We still look for scapegoats in times of imminent disaster. To sum up, though, and to answer your questions (by a most circuitous route) I’d say that the Late Victorian period was a time of great cultural ferment which saw the Dusk of Nations; the birth of the New Woman and the popularisation of ‘faux’ sciences such as phrenology and physiognomy (and a growing interest in the psychological theories of Freud and Jung). Add to this a growing belief in Criminality, Social Darwinism and Degeneration theory. Mix in the development of theories of Atavism, devolution into barbarism and the horrors of social definition and throw them into the melting pot of febrile young minds in revolt against the status quo (Stoker, Stevenson and Wilde are classic examples of this). You have a perfect recipe for Gothic. Devour it! You might also want to read Patrick Brantlinger who is an acknowledged expert in this field.

Q: One of your areas of study is the discourse of the gentleman. How does that play in to Gothic literature? Are there any character which you think are a good study in to the gentleman?
A: When David Punter describes the gothic hero as having a “twisted nature…full of unnatural lusts and passions [but] suffer[ing] the torments of the damned while committing his nefarious deeds” it seems like a fair description of what has come to be known as ‘the Byronic Hero’ doesn’t it? And, Byron was certainly a powerful force in the creation of Gothic gentlemen villains, but The elements of the Byronic hero existed before Byron in Romantic hero tradition which was nearly a half-century old when the bold Lord appeared in literary circles. I could speak for hours on the self-fashioning of Regency gentlemen and their louche and riotous behaviours (simmering under a veneer of extreme mannerliness and societal rituals). I’ll stick to the Gothic today though. The Gothic ‘gentleman’ hero is an enigma, noble and attractive in appearance, brooding, taciturn, melancholic, dark, defiant, destructive and self-damned, invariably manly (in a square-jawed type of way), usually gentlemanly, and with the Titanic properties of Milton’s Satan. Heathcliff would epitomise this type of hero, or would he? Is he ever a ‘gentleman’ or does he just put on the trappings of a gentleman? The latter, I think. And again, much as we love Heathcliff, he’s not a prototype. He’s almost an exact double of Hugh Lawlor, the protagonist of the anonymous “The Bridegroom of Barna,” which Blackwood’s Magazine printed anonymously in 1840. With the Romantic gentleman villain we expect a certain amount of dash and swagger, a bravura physicality and a certain physical prowess. By the late Victorian era this translates into the idea of ‘Muscular Christianity’, based in part on the fact that the notion of manliness (for a variety of reasons such as gender, class, sexuality) was becoming more beleaguered and under attack, and ‘gentlemanliness’ becomes, more than ever a role that is play. Count Dracula attempts to play this role but he simply cannot carry it off. More interesting to me is the way in which Dr Jekyll attempts to present himself to a community of fellow gentlemen as sans reproche, and, to retain the respect of his fellow men he creates Hyde as a low alter-ego who is everything that the gentleman is not. Yet, as Stephen Arata suggests of Hyde, ‘his vices are clearly of a monied gentleman’. Arata argues further that the ‘prime horror’ of Jekyll and Hyde is ‘not that the professional man is transformed into an atavistic criminal, but that the atavist learns to pass as a gentleman’ . This, for me is one of the most interesting parts of the novel.

Q: You’re also interested in the idea of monstrosity and monster theory. What exactly is monster theory, and how does it apply to some of mainstream, classic monsters?
A: Jeffrey Cohen’s Monster Theory was a revelation to me. It answered a lot of the questions I’d been asking myself about ideological and institutional power structures and how they come to marginalise and Other anything which doesn’t conform to the norm. His suggestion that ‘the monster exits only to be read’ is really very profound. Reading the monster is a tremendously illuminating hermeneutic as it gives us direct access to the discourses that label any group (or being) ‘monstrous’. It tells us about their anxieties and fears, and so it holds up a mirror (reflective and distorting) on to the society from which they emerge. A topic which I know is close to your heart is that of the Late Victorian New Woman. Let’s take this group as a collective ‘glyph’ or symbol. How were they used to police social norms and support social hierarchies? How does an ethnological reading of them challenge the notion of what was considered human, feminine, and appropriate? Why would women’s empowerment and creative expression be considered, at best iconoclastic and at worst terrifying? We can take it for granted that these women were militant anarchic and subversive. They wanted to break down an ideology of separate spheres which relegated them to the position of scions of the house – domesticated and disempowered by a logic of domesticity and familism and entirely dependent on men for their existence. As women started to militate against these roles they began to appear in the press and in literature as monstrous, aberrant, and abject – the wantonly transgressive and deadly phallic woman. Why? Because ‘She’ represented an affront to patriarchy and was therefore depicted as either risible or deadly. Fred Botting suggests that: ‘The terrors and horrors of transgression in Gothic writing become a powerful means to reassert the values of society, virtue and propriety: transgression, by crossing the social and aesthetic limits, serves to reinforce or underline their value and necessity, restoring or defining limits’ In other words, the Gothic often allows transgression in order to contain it. Let’s return to our ideas on the New Woman and put Her in the context of Ryder Haggard’s ‘She’. Ayesha (She who must be obeyed) is a profoundly ambiguous character – a savage, dusty queen who is as desirable as she is fearful. She’s a femme fatale in the tradition of Homer’s Circe. Admittedly she doesn’t transform men into animals, but she degrades them to an animal-like state. Men are expected to crawl in her presence, the Englishmen, who refuse to do this, are given names like “the Baboon”, “the Lion” and “the Pig”. She combines feminine and masculine elements in one person and thus blurs the traditional Victorian distinction between the sexes. She can therefore be seen as a monstrous representation of the New Woman, which reflects particularly male anxieties of the time. Ayesha represents changing attitudes to and anxieties about sexuality: from the problems of heterosexual relations (including marriage and the family), to increasing sexual desire in women (changing social position of women), to increasing acknowledgement of the prevalence of sexual “perversions” like homosexuality, and promiscuity. She transgresses and so she has to be made safe, hence her punishment for her impurity and impiety and her eventual death at the end of the novel. There’s your ‘happy-ever-after ending for the Victorian gentleman. But as Cohen suggests, ‘the monster always returns’…there’s the rub.

Q: You ask the question of “who is the real monster” a lot. Please tell us why you think Mr Hyde is not the monster of his own tale.
A: Dare I say that Henry James over-simplified the text when he said that it is about the “difficulty of being good and the brutishness of being bad”? For a start we have to question what James means. What is good and bad to Henry James may be radically different to what constitutes goodness and badness to any or all of us. It’s all relative. The assumption, of course is repeatedly made that Hyde represents that which is bad, and Jekyll that which is good. Can we fit them so easily into a neat binarism? The narrative structure of the text doesn’t give any clear answers as it’s an unreliable assemblage of, often highly biased narratives and reports which give no clear-cut answers about the characters of Jekyll or Hyde. Let’s imagine for a moment that the novel is about hypocrisy, the importance of public image and bourgeois corruption among a homosocial community of Victorian male elites: how would we read Hyde then? Is he the monster, the victim of a monster, or something else altogether? The fact is, (if we can ascertain any facts about this text) that he is impossible to define or codify. It’s implied that he is ‘masculine’ in his ‘strange lusts’ (which we never really learn about), but he weeps ‘like a woman’. He’s depicted as the lower class social other: a troglodytic post-Darwinian outsider, and yet he’s really very cultured and able to mix in ‘polite society’ with ease. Like the narrative of the novel he’s ineffable and impossible to articulate. We don’t even know what he looks like! He’s described as both ‘a damned juggernaut’ and a ‘little man’. There’s really no name for what he is at all. Perhaps he’s what Nietzsche would describe as the ‘ubermensch’. Whatever he is, he exists in all of us; better to challenge his passion than deny his existence, because do what we will, he will escape!

Q: Certain character types seem timeless in the Gothic, i.e. the vampire or the werewolf. What is it about these creatures which allows them to have a place in a changing society?
A: I think they represent archetypal fears which exist in all cultures. The fact that they evolve and change, (often only in appearance – the archetype often remains) is a testament to the way in which societies evolve and change. We will always need monsters in the same way in which Jekyll needs Hyde. They are everything that we are not, and on these grounds they make us feel safe in who we think we are!

Q: What is your favourite Gothic piece of literature?
A: Am I limited to one? If I was forced to I’d say that Clemence Houseman’s ‘the Werewolf’ changed my life due to the gorgeous ‘cleanness’ of the writing style and the challenge to my preconceptions about werewolves. Reading it is like bathing in an Arctic stream. Beyond this, for terror I love William Maginn’s ‘The Man in the Bell’ (I’ll acknowledge Poe’s debt to him here). For satire and parody I love the works of Saki (such a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek writing style). For sheer cleverness I love ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ by James Hogg, and then, of course there are all of Stevenson’s Gothic texts which, for me are jewels in the gothic diadem. I also have a huge soft spot for Arthur Machen’s works (the Great God Pan is a must-read to any fan of Gothic). I’ve just looked at this list and my book choices indicate that I am well over one hundred years old, so I’ll had Thomas Harris to the list. His novels are well researched and suspenseful. Hannibal Lecter is a beautifully drawn protagonist, but of course a much older type of monster than his contemporary setting would have us believe. And there I go, back to the nineteenth century!

Q: Pick one: Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?
A: I’ll let you guess by giving you a riddle: he’s a rakish, voracious wicked child who becomes a caricature of all that is unsavoury to the bourgeois Victorian (male) mind. He’s the Shadow that we suppress at our peril. He’s anti-structure; anti-authority – the eternal Other who becomes a caricature of everything Victorian society chose to either fear or indulge in and ‘hide’ (pardon the pun). Given that there are no real verifiable facts in a ‘full confession’ that isn’t full or even a confession really, (it’s more of a justification), then he is what we make him, and that tells us a great deal about our own ideas and beliefs. He’s the abyss into which we’re afraid to stare lest we see our own faces staring back at us! Have you guessed?

Q: Werewolves or vampires?
A: Werewolves! I’m Team Jacob all the way. They are savage tricksters who, like Hyde epitomise the duality of humankind. They speak of the divided self, and yet they are the ultimate expression of the externalised scapegoat who must be removed from the community at large. In this they’re the ultimate irony; the perfect example of the abyss staring back in a distorted reflection that we will never, ever have to recognise as ourselves.

Dr Younger will be speaking at this year’s Spectral Visions conference on 26th June, hosted at the University of Sunderland St.Peter’s campus. To book your place, contact colin.younger@sunderland.ac.uk


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Project Shadow Case File: Patient 17, by Kieran Stott

Project Shadow Case File: Patient 17 is a short story written by Kieran Stott, a second year English and Creative Writing student. It was written especially for the blog.

‘Identify the colour of this block.’


‘Patient 17, can you repeat that?’


‘One more time.’

‘Black. Blackness is coming.’

‘Sorry, what did you say?’

‘The colour is green.’

The scientists stood in the observation room. Patient 17 remained still, his blues eyes transfixed by white plastered walls. His hands twitched, and occasionally he muttered incoherently. All the signs of a mad man, even the prophetic announcement sought to reassure the scientists he was insane. But after multiple brain scans and even using the Yale program to get deep inside the workings of his brain, there was no evidence of mental deterioration, just paranoia.

‘The man is sane Dr Stuart, but unstable. Rehabilitation is what is needed.’

‘What do you think he meant the blackness?’

‘Nothing, the man is mentally unstable but not fully insane.’

‘I don’t know. He sounded scared.’

‘Isolation does that to you, Dr Stuart.’

Patient 17 had forgot why he was here, but he felt a powerful unease that made the hairs on his back stand to attention. After visual analysis, physical testing would begin. He had not seen many return from the Vaults. He heard their anguish, pain and curses. It seemed it was everywhere, and he could only wonder what it was waiting for…


Day came; at least that is what they had told him. He had not seen the sun in years. He vaguely recalled its sparkling glow and warm radiance. It was all a distant memory. The door to his cell opened and he was dragged out by the guards. Dr Stuart shook his head in disgust.

‘Let me remind you, we do not condone the man handling of pris-patients.’

Prisoner? Is that what he was going to say? That thought teased him as they walked through silver lined halls. Eventually they reached a maintenance elevator that was the only known way down to the Vaults. Unlike the clean and sterile surroundings, this lift stood in contrast. The descent into darkness began slowly, all he could hear was the screeching and rattling mesh. It pounded his ears and in a futile attempt to drown it out he clasped his hands over them.

The elevator suddenly stopped, the doors opened and Patient 17 saw that the guards down here were heavily armed, with rifles and protective gear. The walls were also grey, suggesting that this place existed long before the asylum above. He noted the low light, and the dampness of the air. As they progressed forward no one spoke.

They soon reached what was the Shadow’s Den. Guards were stationed above on the gangway that also led into some kind of observation area. The doors slowly parted and in the brightly lit room he saw the dark cloaked figure. The room seemed brighter than needed to be. He could only just make out the tattered hood. The Shadow man stood in one of the corners staring at the wall.
‘Patient 17, proceed to the centre, directly beneath the bulb.’

He did as he was asked. The room was terribly cold, it made him shiver, and as the door locked behind him this was the moment he most feared. He tried to maintain calmness but he could feel sweat pouring down his face.

‘Testing in progress,’ announced Dr Stuart. Suddenly all light except that of the bulb above went out. It left him in the cold iron grip of darkness.

‘I advise you 17 to remain in the circle of light. It is the only thing keeping you alive.’ He remained still, just making out two pairs of eyes. Just staring at him.

‘Why have you come?’ said the deep voice.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Are you the sacrifice? They feed me. They feed me people.” The voice was circling him.

‘What are you?’

‘Like you. A prisoner. A laboratory experiment!’

‘You were – human?’


The bulb flickered, and died.

Darkness swallowed him whole, a black hole of eternal nothingness that clasped onto him and threatened to tear him apart. He heard muffled voices, muffled cries, and the intercom system say it was entering lockdown. He still could not forget the eyes, empty of all emotion. And now as it wrapped around him, he felt his idle mind be lulled, he could move, but where?


It was thick and weighed heavy on his shoulders, it whispered sweetly in his thoughts. It promised freedom. Fresh air. Sunlight.
Dreams long lost flooded back. He felt joy, and happiness. The Bright light was sudden, as the Shadow left him lying on cold hard floor with blaring alarms. The door was partly opened. The Robed man stood over him, with white skin and bony fingers. Too the patient’s surprise, the man knelt down.

‘I give you the one thing you desire most.’ Patient 17 who lay in a foetal position could barely move let alone answer. ‘It’s time to sleep now.’

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Disturbance, by Nicola Rooks

Disturbance is a poem written especially for this blog by Nicola Rooks, a second year English and Creative Writing student at the University of Sunderland.

My death was disturbed,
Loneliness into light.
My darkness was disturbed
by his delightful bite.

My death was disturbed,
Provoked by his presence.
My darkness was disturbed
by his odorous essence.

My death was disturbed,
Ravaged by beautiful fangs.
My darkness was disturbed
cursed cape around him hangs.

My death was disturbed,
Devoured by his lust.
My darkness was disturbed
my body brought back to dust.

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What is Spectral Visions? (And Why You Want To Come)

Originally posted on Aspiration and Might:

It seemed only fair that I should explain to you what Spectral Visions is before I begin bombarding you with updates from the planning. I hope to get you as excited for it as I am!

Spectral Visions is an annual Gothic conference hosted by the University of Sunderland’s English department. It’s designed for A-level students and their teachers, to provide revision and extra information for their exams. Every year, workshops are ran on the texts studied at A-level: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Bloody Chamber, The Canterbury Tales et al. It’s a completely free event, and easily one of the most fun things to be involved with.

I honestly believe Spectral Visions is one of the crowning achievements of the English department. On every level, it’s about getting involved and showing your passion. There is an unfortunate stereotype that English is dry and uninteresting, or boring and irrelevant. Literature doesn’t have…

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