Showing posts with label uncanny. Show all posts
Showing posts with label uncanny. Show all posts

Friday, 5 July 2013

Giveaway: Two Books from MUP

The good people at Hic Dragones are giving away two titles from Manchester University Press. International entry welcome. Enter via the Rafflecopter widget below.

Fred Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic
Horror isn’t what it used to be. Nor are its Gothic avatars. The meaning of monsters, vampires and ghosts has changed significantly over the last two hundred years, as have the mechanisms (from fiction to fantasmagoria, film and video games) through which they are produced and consumed. Limits of horror, moving from gothic to cybergothic, through technological modernity and across a range of literary, cinematic and popular cultural texts, critically examines these changes and the questions they pose for understanding contemporary culture and subjectivity. Re-examining key concepts such as the uncanny, the sublime, terror, shock and abjection in terms of their bodily and technological implications, this book advances current critical and theoretical debates on Gothic horror to propose a new theory of cultural production based on an extensive discussion of Freud’s idea of the death drive. Limits of Horror will appeal to students and academics in Literature, Film, Media and Cultural Studies and Cultural Theory.

Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny
This study is of the uncanny; an important concept for contemporary thinking and debate across a range of disciplines and discourses, including literature, film, architecture, cultural studies, philosophy, psychoanalysis and queer theory. Much of this importance can be traced back to Freud's essay of 1919, "The Uncanny" (Das Unheimliche). Where he was perhaps the first to foreground the distinctive nature of the uncanny as a feeling of something not simply weird or mysterious but, more specifically, as something strangely familiar. As a concept and a feeling, however, the uncanny has a complex history going back to at least the Enlightenment. Royle offers a detailed historical account of the emergence of the uncanny, together with a series of close readings of different aspects of the topic. Following a major introductory historical and critical overview, there are chapters on the death drive, deja-vu, "silence, solitude and darkness", the fear of being buried alive, doubles, ghosts, cannibalism, telepathy and madness, as well as more "applied" readings concerned, for example, with teaching, politics, film and religion.

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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)