Thursday, 26 May 2011

Review: Tales From the Asylum: A Steampunk Compilation (The Last Line, 2010)

Tales From the Asylum is a collection of steampunk short stories, published by small press The Last Line in 2010. I came across the book at the 2010 Bram Stoker Film Festival, where the publishers had a stall. I was intrigued by the overall concept of the book (and more on that below), but also by what the publishers (and one of the authors) told me about the book's conception. The writers involved in the project are all steampunks themselves, and wanted to write a book that reflected what they termed the 'grassroots' of steampunk. Unlike many recent anthologies, which they felt were produced by writers 'trying out a new genre', this collection is intended as a journey into the world of the 'true' steampunk.

Although this is a short story collection, it is not simply an anthology of genre fiction. The stories are linked together by a framing narrative. The 'Asylum' of the title is a crumbling, and somewhat mysterious, mental facility, and the frame story follows Arkwright - a warden of sorts - as he visits the cells of the last ten inmates. Each individual story narrates the circumstances and histories of these 'cases', who, as the blurb on the back states, "can never be released". In between stories, the narration returns to Arkwright, and gives some unsettling hints about the real purpose of the asylum. Arkwright himself appears in one of the stories, deepening the connection between the warden, his charges, and the institution to which they all belong.

The stories included cover a range of sinister material - from vampires and vampire hunters to the malevolent force of nature that is the ocean. The collection begins with Rich Blackett's 'Stargazer', which narrates the story of an airship rigger through a series of transcribed interviews. Andrea Burnett's 'Voices from the Past' offers (somewhat fraudulent) mediums, and Karl Burnett's 'The Toothless Jaw' is a classic Victorian tale of a haunted locket and its effects on all those who come into contact with it. Locations are varied - from the fishing village of L.M. Cooke's 'The Call of the Deep' to the moon (in Herr Doktor's 'Sea of Tranquillity'), and characters range from a would-be vampire hunter (in Matt Adams' 'Blood Hunt') to a rather unsettlingly jovial fellow in Ian Crichton's 'Ghost Ship'.

One of the real strengths of the collection lies not in what the narratives say, but rather in what they don't say. My personal favourite out of the eleven narratives is Arkwright's 'The Hollow Man'. Unlike the other stories, this piece is not framed as the 'history' of a particular inmate. Nor does it begin with any introduction or situation. "Scream!" it begins, and then "I hung in a void, no knowledge of where I was." The lack of any real explanation creates a wonderfully unsettling piece of macabre horror, heightened by the references in the framing narrative to a place where "nothing human had ever passed" and a cell with a bricked-up door.

Similarly, the true purpose and history of the asylum is left, in part, to the reader's imagination. Though there are threads of a story - in the frame story and in some of the pieces themselves - and various references to sinister government forces and committees (including a familiar gentleman whose brother lives in Baker Street), this is handled with some subtlety and opacity.

While I did enjoy all the stories in this collection, I do have a couple of criticisms. The first is that there are quite few issues with editing (spelling and punctuation particularly). However, since I know that the publishers are aware of these, it seems somewhat churlish to dwell on them.

The second issue I have is more to do with my own tastes. While the book is written by steampunks - and having met some of them, I can certainly vouch for this - I'd question just how 'steampunk' some of the stories actually are. Personally, I prefer steampunk fiction that imagines a future world, based on Victorian technology (or some version of this), but not definitively set in this period. While the stories in this collection employ many of the tropes of steampunk - airships, brass rockets and automata all feature - they are quite clearly grounded in the nineteenth-century. Indeed, in the first story, the date of "1898" is given explicitly. Only one of the stories (Rich Blackett's 'Ring of Silence') hints at the more 'fantastical' technology associated with steampunk fiction, with the bodily modifications of Nell Fenton suggesting a sort of future version of Victorian technology.

As such, it might be better to class this collection as 'Victoriana' rather than steampunk per se. Indeed, several of the stories owe a debt to the nineteenth-century writers that are credited as the forerunners of the steampunk genre (H.G. Wells and Jules Verne) or to writers of 'classic' speculative fiction (M.R. James and Edgar Allen Poe) rather than to more recent literary creations. This is not to say that the stories aren't effective, but that they might be better described as tales of the Victorian uncanny.

Nevertheless, there is a real exhuberance and enthusiasm to the collection, which makes it a compelling read. Each writer has put their own stamp on their story, while the framing device gives a pace and movement to the overall narrative. It is fitting that the reader is asked to "follow in Arkwright's footsteps", as this is an apt description of the experience of reading the book. We move from one tale to the next as though following the path the warden takes through the asylum. The end result is something more than a series of stories simply linked by theme.

Overall, I recommend Tales From the Asylum: a book to have at hand for those days where you just fancy a bit of Victorian creepiness.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Can Zombies Be Gothic?

Two things have inspired tonight's post. Firstly, I have just returned from an international conference on the Gothic in Warsaw. Secondly, I read Rachel Caine's Kiss of Death - the eighth Morganville Vampires book - today. I'm a huge fan of the Morganville books, and my paper at the Warsaw conference was on YA vampire fiction, so I was very interested to see the change in direction the eighth book took. I'll give a brief summary (spoiler warning) first, and the reasoning behind this post should become a bit clearer.

Caine's young adult vampire series is set in the Texas town of Morganville. The series follows the adventures of Claire Danvers, who is a 16/17-year-old student at Texas Prairie University. After being bullied in her college dorm, Claire takes up residence at the Glass House with a group of slightly older teens. It is here that she learns the truth about Morganville - it is run by vampires, who 'protect' (own) the humans and demand 'taxes' (blood) from them. The series continues with Claire negotiating the town's rules, forming alliances with the 'old' vampires, working for the somewhat crazy vampire Myrnin and getting into a relationship with human teen Shane. As I argued in my paper at the Warsaw conference, the series draws on a number of tropes of the Gothic - particularly the invocation of an imagined past, with its concomitant morality and societal regulation.

Kiss of Death, however, offers something different. When new-vampire and aspiring musician Michael Glass (one of Claire's housemates) is offered the chance to record a demo CD in Dallas, the protagonists are given passes to leave Morganville. They have not travelled far before they arrive in the town of Durram. Here, they enter a diner replete with threatening "redneck" locals (who take an immediate dislike to the group of friends), stay at an abandoned motel (run by a shotgun-toting old lady) and are arrested by the town's sheriff on trumped up charges. They eventually escape, and arrive at Blacke - an even more deserted backwater town under siege from a group of 'vampires' that are suffering from a vampire 'disease' that had previously been eradicated in Morganville. (Claire and Myrnin's work to find a cure for this disease is the subject of the earlier books in the series.)

Even before the 'sick' vampires are described, horror-canny readers will notice that the tropes being utilized here are not those of vampire fiction, but those of the horror (specifically zombie) film. Sure enough, when the first of the Blacke vampires makes an appearance, it is clear that this is not the same sort of creature as has featured in the previous Morganville books: the most important difference, perhaps, is that he smells of death. Another Blacke vampire is described thus: "a shuffling, twisted old man with crazy eyes and drifting white hair". As these undead creatures approach, the heroes take a course of action that should be obvious to anyone familiar with zombie films - they run into a room, slam the door against the creatures and barricade themselves in. Near the end of the book, there is an acknowledgement that the teens have, indeed, been fighting a "vampire zombie army".

The departure that this book takes has prompted me to question: what exactly is the difference between a vampire and a zombie? And if we can say that vampire fiction belongs to the Gothic, can we say the same about zombie narratives? If zombies aren't Gothic, why are they not? What is that sets them apart from the Gothic sensibility?

In folkloric terms, the differentiation between the two types of undead is blurred, but in contemporary cinema, literature and art, there is a world of difference. Somewhere along the way, our revenants diverged. Though there is a huge amount of interesting material on folk beliefs in vampires and zombies, I'm not going to talk about that today. My interest is in popular culture, so I'm purely focusing on recent film, TV and literary representations in this post.

To start with, I'll offer a quick definition of the Gothic - though this is by no means absolutely definitive and I'm aware that I'm hurrying over some key points here. I agree with Catherine Spooner, who suggests (in Contemporary Gothic) that one of the clearest definitions of Gothic is to be found in Chris Baldick's introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales: Gothic texts should encompass "a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space". Spooner elaborates on Baldick's definition by adding, "the dead rise from the grave or lay their cold hands upon the shoulders of the living".

Vampires and zombies are both forms of revenants - they are the walking dead (or undead) - and frequently "lay their cold hands upon the shoulders of the living". Moreover, they share a predilection for anthropophagic eating habits, feasting on the blood and brains of their victims. Being the walking dead, the two creatures occupy a liminal space between life and death, transgressing the boundaries and breaking taboos. This cannibalism and transgression seems to point directly to the Gothic, a genre (or perhaps, more accurately, mode) that often explores and revels in such liminality. It is not, therefore, here that the difference between the two creatures can be found.

It's worth also considering the question of the 'uncanny', a concept which is deeply connected to the Gothic. In the introduction to his The Uncanny, Nicholas Royle describes the concept thus: "it is a peculiar commingling of the familiar and unfamiliar", adding that it can take the form of "something strange and unfamiliar unexpectedly arising in a familiar context". The walking dead are a good example of this. The faces of these entities are familiar (indeed, they are often the 'family' of the human protagonists in zombie and vampire fiction), but the fact that dead do not stay buried, do not behave as they did when living, is 'unfamiliar'.

Theoretically, then, there is nothing to preclude zombies from the Gothic. They are liminal, taboo-breaking, uncanny creatures. And yet, contemporary representations of zombies are seldom read as 'Gothic'. I'd like, then, to suggest a few reasons why this might be.

1. Gothic Aesthetic

However we might theorize the Gothic, it must be noted that the mode is characterized by a certain aesthetic. When I did a quick Twitter poll this evening, people were quick to suggest that zombies cannot be considered Gothic because they are not "beautiful" enough. A brief survey of recent pop culture representations should be enough to reveal the difference between presentations of the vampire (pale, sparkly and Byronic) and presentations of the zombie (grey, flaky and shambolic). The fact that a zombie decays, while a vampire does not is perhaps of paramount importance here: grotesque and repugnant bodies stand in sharp opposition to the Gothic aesthetic.

This clip from the BBC's Being Human (Series 3, Episode 3) illustrates this perfectly. Here, the regular characters (one vampire, two werewolves and a ghost) encounter a zombie. Note the difference between the vampire Mitchell (physically very much the 'Byronic' type) and the zombie Sasha:

While the Gothic does not preclude the grotesque per se, there is something about the repulsiveness of the zombie body that stands at odds with the dominant romantic understanding of the genre. Furthermore, as the clip from Being Human attests, the decaying and putrifying body of the zombie lends itself to humour as often as horror, which again distances it from the overall aesthetic of the Gothic.

2. Rationality and Madness

The origins of the Gothic are closely intertwined with the Enlightenment, and with ideas of rationality and reason. Often in 'classic' or 'High' Gothic texts, we see the rational and enlightened world pitted against the forces of an irrational and benighted past (usually medieval and Catholic). By the time we reach the end of the 19th-century, we see this conflict reach possibly its most fully-developed form; in Bram Stoker's Dracula, the modern heroes battle against the ancient count with the aid of education, medical knowledge, typewriters and train timetables.

It goes without saying, I think, that zombies are not rational creatures; however, they are not strictly irrational either - at least not by the standards used in the Gothic. They do not adhere to 'older' ways of thinking; they do not think at all. The unrelenting mindlessness of the zombie sets it apart from both the traditional villain and the traditional hero of Gothic fiction.

Vampires, of course, do 'lose their minds'. Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a case in point, as is Rachel Caine's Myrnin. They are also prone to a certain type of melancholy, characterized by excessive guilt and self-reflection. Without wanting to open too many cans of worms, Stephenie Meyer's Edward Cullen might be considered as an example of this melancholic vampire.

And now the caveat: some texts do present beautiful or melancholy zombies. Some do allow for an exploration of the irrationality and passion of the zombie. And, conversely, one need only look to F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu for an example of a vampire who does not fit the model suggested above. This brings me to my third, and perhaps most important, distinction between the vampire and the zombie.

3. Place and Time

If we look again at Baldick's theorization of the Gothic, we see that it is characterized by "inheritance in time" and "enclosure in space", and it is in this that the zombie most clearly defies the generic conventions, and the vampire most clearly confirms them. Even a grotesque, irrational creature like Murnau's Count Orlok has a fundamental presence in 'time' and 'place'. His very name implies "inheritance in time", and the staging of the film in the Count's castle evokes the Gothic "enclosure in space". It is the combination of these that creates the claustrophobic terror of Murnau's film.

The zombie does not have this sense of inheritance. While vampires are creatures imbued to their very core with the past, zombies belong wholly in the present. Usually devoid of memory (note that in the Being Human clip, the otherwise fairly coherent Sasha has no memory of her own death), and with few (if any) links to their human lives, zombies exist in a temporal vacuum. That is not to say that the zombie is not a product of its time - this has been demonstrated by a number of scholars working on horror fiction - but rather that the individual zombie should be read as a creature devoid of past or future.

Additionally, though the embattled opponents of the zombie often find themselves 'enclosed' in space, the zombie itself has no connection to a particular locality. Unlike other revenants, zombies do not haunt a specific place. They may attack a house, a mall, a pub or a diner, but these attacks are based on the proximity of human victims, rather than a pre-existing individualized connection to the location itself. In the majority of pop culture representations, zombies roam - this itinerant nature is a distinct contrast to the vampire's Gothic enclosure in a particular building or town.

As noted above, the Gothic is closely connected to the notion of the uncanny. In turn, the uncanny is aligned with the Freudian concept of the unheimlich (literally, the 'unhomely'). The unheimlich suggests foreignness, strangeness and the alien, but also relies on a comprehension of its inverse: the heimlich (the homely or familiar). Zombies explode these categorizations in their denial of the 'home'. In zombie narratives, spaces are consistently repurposed and distinctions between the 'home' and 'not home' are collapsed as territories are continually refigured.

The two ideas go hand-in-hand. It is in the zombie's denial of the past that the rejection of the concept of 'home' is seen most clearly. How can a creature that exists solely in the present be said to 'haunt' anything? And, as the Gothic frequently situates inheritance and past in a particular locality, the rejection of an individual place implies a concomitant rejection of time. If the Gothic requires a particular utilization of time and place, how can we describe something as 'Gothic' if it is based in a rejection of both concepts?

There are, of course, exceptions that prove every rule. There are also far more facets and implications to both the 'Gothic' and 'zombies' than I have had time to consider tonight. So rather than offer any definite conclusion to this post, I'd like to throw it open to discussion... do you agree? Have I missed something? Can you offer any examples of 'Gothic zombies'?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Baldick, Chris (ed.), The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Caine, Rachel, Kiss of Death (London: Allison & Busby, 2010)

Royle, Nicholas, The Uncanny (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)

Spooner, Catherine, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion Books, 2006)