Stephanie Gallon 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 he published this week in Victoriographies with his article ‘Kipling and Gothic Masculinity‘.
Q: 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.