Sunday, 31 October 2010

Review: Fred Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic (Manchester University Press, 2008)

In 1996, Fred Botting published the influential textbook, Gothic. It's likely that anyone who has studied Gothic literature at university level since then will be familiar with this work, as it is a staple of reading lists and bibliographies. Limits of Horror is the second book on the Gothic that Botting has written since 1996 (the first being Gothic Romanced), and it revisits the territory of his earlier work with a sharply critical and theoretical eye.

"Horror is not what it used to be," states the inside cover of the hardback edition. And this is a fitting introduction to Botting's argument. Considering material spanning over 200 years, all of which could arguably be labelled 'Gothic', Botting charts the development of the meanings of horror and monsters. Considering literature, film and computer games, Limits of Horror offers a theory of cultural production that expands current understandings of genre, horror and 'Gothic'.

Botting's argument explores the relationship between the Gothic, modernity and technology, drawing on Freudian and post-Freudian ideas of the uncanny, the pleasure principle and the death drive. Limits of Horror also considers Gothic texts as products of capitalist societal structures, arguing that as we move into what many have described as 'late capitalism', with the forces of supply and demand becoming wholly inverted, the meanings we ascribe to monsters and horror change. Botting denies any ahistorical or universal sense of 'horror', asserting: "Light and dark, good and evil, knowledge and mystery, self and monster, are paired productions of the same cultural systems rather than natural or universal characteristics."

Chapter 1 is entitled "Daddy's Dead", and considers how the patriarchal figure of prohibition, so integral to early Gothic, has been killed off by late capitalist cultural production. Botting suggests that "[h]uman creativity and agency, along with paternal metaphors, are replaced by a mechanical system in which questions of meaning and agency matter less and less." He goes on to consider how the proliferation of contemporary monsters is "bound up with recent developments of technoscience and the consumer economy", arguing that the removal of the "paternal metaphors" removes much of the transgressive horror from today's monsters. Transgressive energy, without limitations and prohibitions, therefore, becomes the "norm". Chapter 2, "Tech Noir", continues this analysis to explore the close relationship between consumerism, horror and technology. Botting explores theoretical ideas of play, and its "aneconomic" wastefulness, and how we might apply these ideas to a study of computer games. The argument returns to the question of proliferation: "Games, like fictional narrative, are not, it seems, neatly contained, but spill over, with ambivalent effect, introducing a disruptive heterogeneity into the social sphere." The concept of the uncanny is pivotal to Botting's argument in this chapter, as he suggests the mechanisms of fiction and reading - as well as horror itself - are revealed as mechanical and dependent on the breaching of boundaries and the engendering of identifications. Ultimately, this chapter returns to the question of late capitalism; monsters are no longer something that threaten us from without. Indeed, in a world driven by consumption and unbridled desire, we are the monsters: "There is little difference it seems between figures on the screen and figures twitching in front of it, puppets, zombies, mutants, vampires, automata."

The third chapter in the book is entitled "Dark Bodies", and begins with an analysis of the extreme bodily mutilations of performance artist Orlan. Botting considers the anxieties, shocks and revulsion caused by Orlan's art. However, he returns to the question of repetition and identification to suggest that monsters are now "banal, unsurprising, ubiquitous, visible and overlooked at the same time". What Botting terms "Gothic affect" has been emptied out of horror, and images are produced wholesale and repeated ad nauseam. The fourth and final chapter, "Beyond the Gothic Principle" is by far the most theoretical of the book. Here, Botting explores Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" and concept of the 'death drive" in relation to horror and the Gothic. This chapter includes an exploration of the sublime, the importance of the 'past' to Gothic texts, and ideas of loss and recovery. The book ends on a bleak note, positing a notion of machinic desire which "is driven by a headless and immanent drive - 'synthanatos' - an artificial death drive (as if the drive were ever natural)".

As with Gothic, the strengths of Limits of Horror lie in Botting's incisive theorizing of genre, horror and the monstrous. Psychoanalytic and cultural theories, along with Deleuzian philosophy and ideas of the post-human, combine to give a consistent and thorough exegesis of contemporary and classic Gothic. For an introduction to such concepts, I would recommend Gothic rather than Limits of Horror, as some prior knowledge of Botting's approach to the genre is advisable. However, the latter book moves current discussions on and is highly recommended for anyone researching or reading Gothic/horror texts to any depth.

Of course, the book is not without its problems. As is sometimes the case with Botting's work, theory often overshadows textual analysis. Botting's considerations of Candyman, Reservoir Dogs and Orlan's performance art are detailed and probing, but there are other examples which are treated with somewhat less rigour. Chapter 4 has almost no textual examples, exploring instead the theories of Freud, Lacan, Zizek and others. Moreover, some of the examples chosen by Botting seem a little dated. While the Marxist analysis of Pac Man is certainly entertaining, it did little to address the complexity of desires at play in contemporary gaming. Additionally, I suspect that the chapters in the book began life as stand-alone articles, as there is some overlap and repetition. The same quotes appear in more than one chapter, and some analyses also reappear. This is somewhat unsettling, and adds a kind of uncanny quality to Botting's argument. It does not detract from the overall quality of the book, but leaves the reader with a feeling of 'didn't I read this before?' - which, as I say, fits well with Botting's thesis.

Limits of Horror is an invaluable book for students and readers of horror and the Gothic. It continues Botting's insightful theorizing of genre and culture. It is a fascinating read, which challenges understandings of the relationships between modernity, technology and the monstrous. While it may often privilege theory over textual analysis, Botting's model can be applied to, and used to elucidate, numerous cultural productions and developments. A word of warning, though, Limits of Horror has little optimism about it, but then, perhaps, there is little about late capitalism to be optimistic about: "Game over and over again."

Jura Challenges Writers to Compose Short Story in 1984 Minutes

Like writing? Like whisky? Then you might be interested in this...

Jura malt whisky is reviving the Jura Lodge as a writer's retreat for one weekend only with a riveting offer for the UK's creative writing community.

Jura is offering one budding author the chance to stay at the island's exclusive Jura Lodge and compose a short story based on the island. There is one catch! Writers will only have 1984 minutes to compose their story, in keeping with the name of the George Orwell masterpiece which was penned on the island more than 60 years ago.

To win the competition, writers are being asked to submit the first 300 words of their proposed short story. There are only two criteria. First, the narrative of the short story must take place on the island itself. Second, the story should have a link to one of the many myths and legends about Jura.

For thousands of years, good fortune and mystery has enriched this tiny island, from the creation of its dominating scenery to the rumours of witches, prophecies and the graves of the Knights Templar. The rich bank of stories can be found here.

One lucky winner will have a chance to soak up the sounds, sights and flavour of Jura before setting to work in the Jura Lodge. The winner will then have 1984 minutes in which to complete a short story. The finished product will be published on Jura's website as part of a compendium of short stories, essays and poetry as a follow-up to the Spirit of Jura.

Jura distillery manager Willie Cochrane said:

"Jura has a long established literary tradition, so we thought it was about time to revive that tradition. This competition will offer one amateur author the chance to soak up the atmosphere of this great island before applying their inspiration to a short story. There's no shortage of material for our lucky winner on an island which is rich with myths and legends steeped in history."

The short story competition follows in the footsteps of the Jura distillery's partnership with the Scottish Book Trust. In 2006, the two partners established the Jura Malt Whisky Writers' Retreat programme, offering writers space, peace and time in a truly inspirational setting, amid the luxury of the Distillery Lodge. Several leading authors, essayists and poets participated in the programme, including Will Self, Liz Lochhead, Kathleen Jamie, Romesh Gunesekara, John Burnside, Philip Gourevitch and Swetha Prakash. The resulting works were published in a book, the Spirit of Jura, which went on sale last year.

Entry Details

Budding authors should send their entries to Isle of Jura by Friday 31st December 2010. Entrants must register as a Diurach on the Isle of Jura website to enter the competition and submit their Diurach number along with their entry for the purposes of verification.

Shaping Narratives


17th Annual Postgraduate Medieval Studies Conference
25-26th February, 2011
Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Bristol, UK

Master Class with Professor Karen Pratt, King's College London
'How useful is the concept of genre for the study of medieval romance?
The strange case of Gautier d'Arras's Eracle'

The University of Bristol hosts the longest-running international medieval postgraduate conference in the UK. Each year we offer medievalists the opportunity to present their research, discuss ideas, and foster links bridging disciplinary and geographical boundaries. In 2011 the conference will be in its 17th year, and we are inviting proposals for papers from postgraduates and early career scholars on the theme of 'Shaping Narratives'.

Our conception of the Middle Ages is shaped by the narratives we uncover in the rich range of medieval cultural artefacts that survive (or have failed to survive) to the present day. Narratives - both medieval and modern - can be shaped by religious, political or didactic ideas, by questions of identity, or by constructions of authorship and creation. This interdisciplinary conference will consider the use of narrative in the formation and interpretation of the textual, visual, musical and material cultures of the Middle Ages.

Topics may include but are not limited to:
  • The notion of medieval authors/creators
  • Medieval readers and listeners: interpretation, orality and performance
  • Material and visual narratives
  • Critical interpretations of the past: narrative and genre theory in both contemporary and medieval scholarly discourse
  • Biography, life stories and exempla
  • Narrative through music and lyric
  • Hiding and suppressing political and religious narratives
  • Narratives in manuscript culture: discerning textual communities from miscellanies and compilations

Papers must be no more than 20 minutes long.

Abstracts of 250-300 words should be sent by email (by preference) to Johnny McFadyen.

Johnny McFadyen, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Bristol, Graduate School of Arts and Humanities, 7 Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1TB, UK.

Deadline for receipt of abstracts: 10th December, 2011
Registration deadline: 21st January, 2011

For further information please visit our website.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Futures of Feminism

New Directions in Feminist, Women's & Gender Studies

Annual FWSA Conference, 5-7 July 2011, Brunel University

Since the final decade of the twentieth century, discussions about and within feminism have often focused on feminism's place and relevance in today's Western societies and on the conceptualisations of the relationships between different strands and waves of the movement. This conference seeks to redress the focus on internal and generational divisions by exploring potential feminist futures and investigating new directions in feminist, gender and women's studies across activism, theory and practice in a range of disciplines and through a variety of social and cultural phenomena. As such, the event aims to address both where feminism is going as well as where it has not yet been, including areas of enquiry which have been neglected or ignored in past decades and approaches which conceptualise or help to shape potential feminist futures. We welcome paper and panel proposals from a range of disciplines across the sciences, arts and humanities. Topics may include, but are by no means limited to:
  • New directions and developments in feminist, women's, gender and queer studies
  • Post and third-wave feminisms' roles in the future of feminism
  • The impacts of new forms of (transnational) activism and the 'global'
  • Critical pedagogy and feminist futures
  • Feminist historiography and its influences on feminisms' futures
  • Feminist developments and futures in literature, popular culture, the media and on screen.

Please email 250 word proposals for 20 minute presentations or 750 word panel proposals to the conference organisers Dr. Jessica Cox and Nadine Muller by 1st April 2011, and feel free to send any queries you may have regarding this event to the same address.

For more information about the FWSA, including current competitions, joining information and contact details, please click here.

Nadine Muller
Department of English
University of Hull
Cottingham Road

Feminist and Women's Studies Association UK & Ireland (FWSA)

Postgraduate Contemporary Women's Network (PG CWWN)

Monday, 25 October 2010

Charity Milton Marathon at the University of Manchester

On Friday December 10th 2010, students and staff in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester will be reading Milton's Paradise Lost to raise money for the RNIB. The event is being organized by PhD student Liam Haydon, along with Dr. Jerome de Groot, a University of Manchester lecturer and Liam's PhD supervisor.

This week, I caught up with Liam to find out a bit more about the event.

Alpha Female: So, tell me more about the Milton reading...

Liam Haydon: We'll be attempting to read the entirety of Paradise Lost aloud over a single day. We've currently got somewhere around 25 volunteers, which is a great response, and the reading will go on continuously for around 10 hours. Location is still to be finally confirmed, but it's looking like the Poetry Centre [in the Samuel Alexander building, University of Manchester].

AF: And when will it all be taking place?

LH: The event will take place on the 10th December, which is the day after Milton's 402nd birthday. It's the day after so we could do it on a Friday.

AF: This is a charity event - so which charity are you supporting?

LH: We'll be supporting the RNIB. Milton composed almost the entire poem after he went blind at around the age of 44 (and there are a number of references to that within the text itself), so as well as being a very worthy cause, it seemed especially appropriate.

AF: How much money are you hoping to raise?

LH: We've set an initial target of £500, though we're already a good way towards that, so we'd hope to raise even more.

AF: How did you come up with the idea for a continuous reading?

LH: Er... actually it originated in a drunken conversation I had with a friend of mine in a karaoke bar over the summer!

AF: A karaoke bar?!

LH: We were joking around that we could offer some poetry instead of singing, and he mentioned that he'd been reading Milton out loud when trying to get a handle on the poem. From that, I started a reading group, in which we read a book a week aloud and then discuss it - the fun people seemed to be having with the poetry prompted Jerome to suggest the whole day reading.

AF: So what made you made you decide on Paradise Lost?

LH: My PhD thesis actually focuses on Milton (and epic poetry as a genre, really) - a choice made slightly on impulse, having discovered him in my third year as an undergrad and just falling in love with the music of his poetry. For the reading group, it quickly became apparent that people either felt the same way, but weren't as familiar with the critical background as they would like, or he was one of those poets that people feel they ought to be more familiar with, but it seems like a lot of effort. Paradise Lost is an ideal place to start on both those counts - it's naturally broken into manageable pieces, has plenty of controversy and debate to get your teeth into, and, of course, can be enjoyed immensely just as a piece of literature.

AF: Paradise Lost is certainly a well-loved and well-studied piece of work. How would you account for our continuing fascination with this text?

LH: Well, I'm biased here, naturally, but I'd argue that it's the finest work of literature in English (possibly any language).

AF: A bold claim! Go on...

LH: Certainly Milton has a technical command of syntax and rhythm that few other writers possess (maybe Keats?), and the sense is drawn out so brilliantly that you can hardly help reading on - and, in fact, that presents a constant challenge, demanding much more engagement from the reader than other texts do, and making unpicking the double meanings, puns and contradictions a fantastically rewarding experience. So the poetry itself is attractive before you delve in and get to the issues that the poem raises.

AF: So how do you feel about the issues Paradise Lost raises? Do you think these have any relevance for a modern audience?

LH: Plenty of those issues, and the debates the poem has generated, are still relevant and pressing today: tyranny and liberty; obedience and free will; language and multiculturalism; the nature, follies, and redemptive power of love; humanity's quest for knowledge, and the limits we should place on that quest. And that's not even to bring in the issues like a free press, or terrorism, raised elsewhere in Milton's work, or the religious controversies Paradise Lost raises, both within orthodox Christianity and the long dissenting tradition - hence Blake's famous quote about Milton being 'of the devil's party' (an obligatory mention in any Milton discussion!).

AF: I've got to say, you're making a pretty convincing argument! But then, I've been a huge fan of Milton's poetry since I studied Comus at A-Level and then Paradise Lost as an undergrad. The reading sounds like it's going to be a fantastic event - can anyone attend?

LH: Yes, of course, we'd be delighted to have as much of an audience as possible, both to enjoy Milton and to raise money for an excellent charity. There'll be some further publicity nearer the event confirming the start and end times, and the venue, but people are welcome to come and listen, whether it's just to one book or to the whole poem.

AF: So are there any other ways people can support this event?

LH: Well, if you're around Manchester in December, it'd be great to have people either in the audience or, even better, to volunteer to read some of the poem. Alternatively, people can show support through our JustGiving webpage.

AF: Thanks Liam! It's going to be a great day - and I'll see you there!

The Charity Milton Marathon (in aid of the RNIB) will take place at the University of Manchester on Friday December 10th 2010. To donate, please visit the event's JustGiving webpage. Further information on the reading will be posted on the University of Manchester EAS blog, and on this site. Alternatively, contact Liam Haydon or me (Alpha Female) for more info.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Call for Submissions: The Monster Book For Girls

Here's a call for submissions from Terry Grimwood that I know will be of interest to a lot of writers out there...

While helping a friend clear out her parents' effects, recently, I stumbled on a tatty old pre-war tome called "The Monster Book For Girls". It was adorned with pictures of jolly school lasses wielding hockey sticks and was full of "thrilling adventure stories for girls". I loved the title so much I've stolen it for a new Exaggerated Press anthology.

First it is not a book for teenagers or children.

What I'm looking for are stories and poetry inspired by the title, whatever (within the realms of decency, the title does, I'm afraid lend itself to a bit of nudge-nudge, wink-wink- sordidness) springs to mind and kick-starts the creative engine.

It doesn't even have to be of the horror/fantastical genre. What is a monster anyway? Slipstream, thriller, non-genre, romance, a mixture of genres would be interesting, whatever floats your (and my, of course) boat. Think, what are the monsters that haunt the women of today?

Be warned; I don't want (or like) teenage vampires, vampire angst or zombies or any other over their sell-by-date beasts. High-ish fantasy might be okay as long as it is original and features no grumpy dwarves or ethereal elves. Please don't hurt children or gratuitously torture women (or men come to that).

Length: 5,000 words max, but I will negotiate if absolutely necessary. Submission deadline: 27th February 2011.

Submit as an RTF attachment to Monster Books for Girls.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

"There's nothing wrong with having to... comb your face!"

Here's another odd little nugget of female lycanthropy. Season 1, Episode 9 of Johnny Bravo includes 'A Wolf in Chick's Clothing':

As you will no doubt have noticed, the storyline here shares features with Wizards of Waverly Place's 'Beware Wolf' episode. A hapless male decides to look for a date in the personal ads (though in the newspaper, rather than the internet). He contacts a woman who seems perfect; he meets her and is besotted; she turns into a werewolf. Again, the scenario is played for laughs, and the male character ends up escaping the werewolf and swearing off dating for good. In addition to this, both children's programmes feature strikingly harmless-looking lycanthropes - creatures that are more likely enthusiastic puppies than maneating beasts.

However, 'A Wolf in Chick's Clothing' raises some interesting issues for me, particularly when I consider the character of 'Fluffy' (in human form). Though all the characters in Johnny Bravo are stylized to some degree, Fluffy seems to be rather inhuman in appearance. Her body and dress is reminiscent of Daphne from Scooby Doo, but her face is oddly featureless and sharp. She is a vampish seductress with a sultry voice, and when she appears in Johnny's imagination, there is a hint of menace to her approach. Finally, shortly before her final transformation into 'Melvin', Fluffy is able to swing the musclebound Johnny around with ease and eventually lifts him off his feet.

In contrast to her human form, Fluffy as a wolf seems sweet and innocent. Her face is expressive, breaking out into a big grin and showing genuine joy at the prospective of frozen tofu and free ice-cream. She cries at the thought of being considered hideous by others. Despite the sharp teeth (which are only shown at one point in the cartoon), it is very hard to see what is so terrifying about this werewolf. She certainly doesn't show any predilection for attacking humans - although she reacts angrily to the waiter's suggestion that she might like a 'doggie bag'. The change in Fluffy appears to make her 'fluffier'.

Johnny himself is not frightened by the werewolf. He is happy to endure their date on the promise of her returning to human form at dawn. He appears somewhat repulsed by the wolf form, offering her breath mints and asking her to cover her face before they go to a restaurant. I would suggest that this werewolf is more grotesque than frightening. This is underlined by the final gag: after enduring Fluffy's nighttime wolf form, Johnny is frustrated in his attempts at getting a kiss when she transforms into something even worse - a small bald man named Melvin, who wears ill-fitting underwear and collects stamps. At this transformation, Johnny finally runs away.

In his analysis of same-sex relationships in cartoons, Jeffrey P. Dennis suggests that this episode of Johnny Bravo shows that 'in his [Johnny's] universe, men's bodies are by definition disgusting'.* While it is true that the most 'disgusting' thing Johnny has to deal with here is the figure of Melvin and his stamp collection, I would suggest that this cartoon also sends a clear message about female sexuality. A vampish seductress, we are led to believe, is never what she seems. There is a grotesque side to feminine charm - note the subtle, but clear, references to a female body hair and bodily functions, for example.

This episode of Johnny Bravo is not a hugely significant text in the female werewolf canon. Nevertheless, I think it is an interesting little piece, as it demonstrates an aspect of the she-wolf that is present in many other representations. It is not the slobbering wolf, here, but the attractive woman who is dangerous. It is the sexy human form that is deceptive, and thus poses the greatest risk to the male hero. Johnny, like Alex in Wizards of Waverly Place, learns his lesson at the end of the episode, and swears to stay away from women from now on. He decides to 'take up something safer... like shark wrestling!'

This episode of Johnny Bravo carries a message that can be found in countless other films, TV shows and novels:

Female werewolves are not dangerous because they're werewolves - they're dangerous because they're female.

* Jeffrey P. Dennis, 'Queertoons: The Dynamics of Same-Sex Desire in the Animated Cartoon', Soundscapes, vol. 6 (June 2003).

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Review: Naomi Clark, Silver Kiss (QueeredFiction, 2010)

Naomi Clark's novel, Silver Kiss, is an urban fantasy set in a world where humans and werewolves live side by side. The narrator is Ayla Hammond, a werewolf who lives with her human girlfriend Shannon. Ayla has recently returned home (with Shannon), after years of self-imposed exile from her pack. Shannon works as a private detective and is asked to investigate the disappearance of a teen werewolf named Molly Brady. This investigation, and the consequences of what Ayla and Shannon uncover, forms the main plot of Clark's novel. However, other issues - such as Ayla's reintegration into her family/pack, and Shannon's lack of ease with this homecoming - also surface over the course of the narrative.

Clark's work weaves together elements of various genres, which is not an easy feat. She does this well, though the novel's heart belongs to urban fantasy. In-keeping with this generic context, Clark creates an alternative 'reality' in which werewolves are integrated into human society. The establishent of this world is done with subtlety; 'reality' is conveyed through character and action, and Clark avoids using lengthy exposition. For example, early on in the story, the reader is given a glimpse of the television news Ayla is watching: "Then the final headline went past: Teen werewolf still missing in Yorkshire." This matter-of-fact way of presenting the 'alternate reality' of Silver Kiss adds depth to the fantasy. The reader is immersed in the world without constants breaks to have things explained. This is, of course, due to the fact that the story is told through the first person narration of Ayla herself. Exposition would seem somewhat odd from a character who is living the reality! Notable exceptions to this are Clark's explanations of how the police force and hospitals have adapted to accommodate and make use of werewolves. Nevertheless, both of these (appropriately brief) clarifications are necessary to the plot.

What becomes apparent, however, is that this accepted integration of humans and werewolves is a vulnerable status quo. Hints appear early on of a more troubled relationship between the species. Ayla works at a tattoo parlour - a common trope of urban fantasy, and often a place of refuge and safety for 'other' beings - but her colleague Kaye isn't "keen on lesbians or werewolves". Kaye's hostility towards Ayla speaks of a prejudice based on a long shared human/werewolf history: "When I was a kid, my brother used to tell me that you guys hunted humans down at Lupercali... you'd steal little kids and chase them through the woods on full moons." Ayla responds to this by offering a lycanthropic point of view: "My granddad used to tell me that human hunters went after us on full moons."

The uneasy relationship between humans and wolves becomes more and more threatening as the novel progresses, and is an important aspect of the central plot. By the brutal final confrontation, Ayla has become lost in a more "primitive" understanding of human/wolf dynamics: "For as long as there had been forests and prey to stalk them in, man and wolves had been enemies." Drawing on the generic conventions of detective fiction and thriller, as well as those of fantasy, Silver Kiss has Ayla and Shannon drawn into a dangerous circle of drugs, violence and anti-werewolf hate crime. Although the women are gay, many of the difficulties they face are due to Ayla's species, rather than her sexuality. Affiliations with the "Pack" are also a source of tension for a number of characters.

Clark's werewolves are a familiar type. Born, rather than made, the lycanthropes of Silver Kiss lives in packs that resemble extended family structures, but which are maintained with hierarchical structures and codes of conduct. Thus, we are told, there "was no law against abortion in the Pack, same as there was no law against homosexuality. But there was an unspoken, acknowledged rule that it was not done." Wolves who do not follow these acknowledged rules risk being outcast. Other wolves, like Ayla, may choose to sever their own ties with the pack and become a "lone wolf". This type of self-imposed banishment entails the danger of becoming "feral". In addition to rigid pack structures, Clark's werewolves are also influenced by the (feminized) moon, although they are able to transform at will; they are also quick to heal and adversely affected by wolfsbane. As in most fantasy fiction, the metamorphosis into wolf form is presented as easy, near-painless and swift. It is something to be desirec, as being a wolf brings with it freedom, harmony with nature, and beauty. There is also no break in consciousness between the human and the wolf: memories and rationality are not changed with the shapeshift occurs.

Though the werewolves in Silver Kiss are of a recognizable variety, Clark does offer some exploration of the darker side of these lycanthropic identities. The questions of savagery, brutality and wildness are never far below the surface. In the opening chapters of the book, we are introduced to the "Lupercali", a werewolf festival celebrating pack loyalties and the coming-of-age of cubs. This is first presented as a cultural and social experience, one which cubs learn about in "Lupine Studies" at school. However, within just over a page, we see a female wolf approaching with a sacrificed lamb: "Its throat had been recently cut and the lamb still smelled warm, its blood perfuming the air." Ayla acknowledges this inherent violence of the werewolf, but is at pains to relegate this to a dark vision of the "Middle Ages". Nonetheless, it surfaces in Silver Kiss, culminating in the degeneration of many of the wolves into creatures controlled by their "bloodlust".

Clark juxtaposes the wildness and brutality of wolves with the violence inherent in human beings. The "Alpha Human" group that terrorizes and attacks werewolves is a sinister organization that carries out acts of 'inhuman' cruelty - such as the murder and subsequent skinning of Ayla's young cousin. At the climax of the novel, both werewolves and humans are prey to their "bloodlust" (a word which Clark repeats to emphasize this parity). While feral wolves pose a distinct threat, so too do feral humans.

While the fantasy world of Silver Kiss is certainly interesting, what really made this book for me was Clark's characterization of Ayla and Shannon. Ultimately, the two women are likeable and easy to relate to. Their relationship is strong and convincing, and, despite the (insidious and overt) homophobia they face and the fact that they are different species, Ayla and Shannon seem well-matched and grounded. As the events of the novel unfold and put a strain on the women's relationship, the reader is able to identify with both sides of the wolf/human divide growing between them. One of the reasons I found Silver Kiss compelling is that I genuinely cared and wanted to find out what happened to the protagonists.

So, to conclude, Silver Kiss belongs to a specific genre - one that is not everyone's cup of tea. But for fans of urban fantasy - or those who just like any well-written werewolf stories - it is strongly recommended. Clark's writing is tight and well-paced, and her narrative is enjoyable. The final plot reveal is shocking, and I found myself sincerely hoping that Ayla and Shannon would get through it together. Overall, Silver Kiss is a welcome addition to my werewolf library.

Silver Kiss was published in 2010 by QueeredFiction. It is available to buy direct from the publisher or on Amazon.

QueeredFiction is an independent small press publisher, specializing in LGBT genre fiction. For more information about their publications and forthcoming titles, visit their website by clicking here.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

De Montfort Vampire Conference - Schedule and Registration now available

Last month I posted details of the Vegetarians, VILFs and Fangbangers Conference at De Montfort University, to be held on 24th November 2010.

The conference schedule is now available, and you can register online for the event. Click here for more details.

The programme looks amazing, and there are a lot of papers to choose from. The day begins with a plenary address from Nickianne Moody (Liverpool John Moores University), on 'Interview with the Postfeminist: Researching the Paranormal Romance'. My own paper is entitled 'What's the Difference Between a Vampire and a Fairy': Supernatural Lovers in Young Adult Urban Fantasy'.

Hope to see some of you there!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

2nd Global Conference: Experiencing Prison

Thursday 19th May - Saturday 21st May 2011

Warsaw, Poland

Call for Papers

This inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary conference marks the continuation of a project dedicated to the study of the experience of imprisonment.

Imprisonment has become the dominant form of punishment in most societies across the world. It may occur prior to trial, or as a result of sentencing by a properly constituted court. Imprisonment without trial or due process occurs in various forms in most societies across the world, mostly sanctioned by the state itself, sometimes used as a political strategy by military, ideological, political or religious groups within a state, or by groups desirous of becoming a state.

We welcome contributions about the experience of incarceration across the entire range of perspectives, including legal, criminological, historical, fictional, phenomenological, biographical and autobiographical. Contributions are welcomed from former prisoners, detainees, incarcerated asylum seekers, former prisoners of war, political prisoners or those detained because of nationalist, religious or other convictions. All genres and media will be considered, in order to examine the widest possible range of representations, past and contemporary, which communicate the experience and nature of imprisonment. Contributions will be welcomes from those who are involved with the delivery of incarceration, as well as those who seek to ameliorate incarceration by providing therapeutic drama, literacy, education, counselling, religious support and other services.

Papers will also be considered on any related theme. 300 word abstracts should be submitted by Friday 26th November 2010. If an abstract is accepted for the conference, a full draft paper should be submitted by Friday 1st April 2011.

300 word abstracts should be submitted simultaneously to both Organising Chairs; abstracts may be in Word, WordPerfect, or RTF formates with the following information and in this order:

a) author(s), b) affiliation, c) email address, d) title of abstract, e) body of abstract

Emails should be entitled: Prison Abstract Submission.

Please use plain text (Times Roman 12) and abstain from using footnotes and any special formatting, characters or emphasis (such as bold, italics or underline). We acknowledge receipt and answer to all paper proposals submitted. If you do not receive a reply from us in a week you should assume we did not receive your proposal; it might be lost in cyberspace! We suggest, then, to look for an alternative electronic route or resend.

Organising Chairs:

Diana Medlicott
Independent Scholar
London, United Kingdom

Rob Fisher
Network Founder and Leader
Freeland, Oxfordshire
United Kingdom

The conference is part of the Probing the Boundaries programme of research projects. It aims to bring together people from different areas and interests to share ideas and explore various discussions which are innovative and exciting. All papers accepted for and presented at the conference will be eligible for publication in an ISBN eBook. Selected papers may be developed for publication in a themed hard copy volume(s).

For further details about the project, please click here.

For further details about the conference, please click here.

2nd Global Conference: The Gothic - Exploring Critical Issues

Monday 16th May - Wednesday 18th May 2011

Warsaw, Poland

Call for Papers

This inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary project seeks to engage and explore the cultural significance and enduring narratives within the realm of the Gothic in culture at large. From its literary and historical roots to its (post)modern incarnations as a cultural subgenre present in popular fiction and film, this project seeks to explore the territories of the Gothic in all of its manifestations.

Suggested topics and themes include (but are not limited to):

  • Classic Gothic Literature and its resurgence
  • The Gothick
  • Gothic Culture(s) as a living experience/ethos
  • Gothic Media (Cinema, Television, Games, Graphic Novels, Role Playing)
  • Gothic Music
  • Misrepresenting the Gothic
  • Apocalyptic Narratives
  • Fashioning Bodies, Styles and Convention
  • Modern and Postmodern Paradigms (19th, 20th & 21st Century 'Gothics')
  • Gothic and Horror Narratives
  • Gothic as Horror or Horror as Gothic?
  • Popular Culture
  • Queer Gothic
  • Identity
  • Scapegoating/Derision/Condemnation of the Gothic in Culture
  • The Philosophy of 'Dark' Culture
  • Geographical Gothic
  • Gothic Space, Gothic Architecture
  • Gender and Sexualities
  • Contrasting the 'Emo' and the 'Goth'

The Steering Group particularly welcomes the submission of pre-formed panel proposals. Papers will also be considered on any related theme. 300 word abstracts should be submitted by Friday 26th November 2010. If an abstract is accepted for the conference, a full draft paper should be submitted by Friday 1st April 2011.

300 word abstracts should be submitted simultaneously to both Organising Chairs, abstracts may be in Word, WordPerfect, or RTF formates with the following information and in this order:

a) author(s), b) affiliation, c) email address, d) title of abstract, e) body of abstract

Emails should be entitled: Gothic2 Abstact Submission

Please use plain text (Times Roman 12) and abstain from using footnotes and any special formatting, characters or emphasis (such as bold, italics or underline). We acknowledge receipt and answer to all paper proposals submitted. If you do not receive a reply from us in a week you should assume we did not receive your proposal; it might be lost in cyberspace! We suggest, then, to look for an alternative electronic route or resend.

Organising Chairs:

Sorcha Ni Fhlainn
Hub Leader, Project Co-Leader, School of English, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

Stephen Morris
Hub Leader, Independent Scholar, New York, USA

Rob Fisher
Network Founder and Leader, Inter-Disciplinary.Net, Freeland, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

This conference is part of the Critical Issues programme of research projects. It aims to bring together people from different areas and interests to share ideas and explore various discussions which are innovative and exciting. All papers accepted for and presented at the conference will be eligible for publication in an ISBN eBook. Selected papers may be developed for publication in a themed hard copy volume(s).

For further details about the project please click here.

For further details about the conference please click here.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

3rd Global Conference: Evil, Women and the Feminine

Friday 13th May - Sunday 15th May 2011

Warsaw, Poland

Call for Papers

This inter-disciplinary conference seeks to examine issues surrounding the conjunction between evil and the feminine. In many cultures women have been long suspected as the source of sundry human miseries, however basic to society they may be. At the same time as ideals of purity and dedication to family have been exhalted and feminine beauty lauded, women have been viewed as embodying sinister forces of evil. Mistrusted as seductive and beguiling, women are also often thought of as vengeful, manipulative and even malevolent. In grappling with our understanding of what it is to be 'evil', the project aims to shine a spotlight on this dark area of the human condition and explore the possible sources of the fear and resentment of women.

Papers, reports, work-in-progress and workshops are invited on issues related to the to the following themes:

  • Evil Women and Feminine Evil
  • Representing and Misrepresenting the Female
  • Motherhood; Monstrous Motherhood
  • Monstrous Births and Infanticide
  • Matriarchy/Matricide
  • Devious Sexuality and Feminine Perversions
  • Women and the Abject
  • Menstruation, Castration
  • Fears and Myths: Feminine Blood
  • Anthropological Perspectives
  • Historical Perspectives
  • The Evil Women in Literature
  • Psychoanalytic perspectives: "Vagina Dentata" etc
  • Sexualizing the Female or Evil Objectification
  • Jezebel, Delilah, Lilith, Harpies and the Femme Fatale
  • The Bitch
  • Women and Power
  • Beauty as threatening or evil
  • Portrayals of Evil Women
  • Fantasy
  • Mythology
  • Vampires, Witches and Sirens
  • Case Studies

The Steering Group particularly welcomes the submission of pre-formed panel proposals. Papers will also be considered on any related theme. 300 word abstracts should be submitted by Friday 26th November 2010. If an abstract is accepted for the conference, a full draft paper should be submitted by Friday 1st April 2011.

300 word abstracts should be submitted simultaneously to both Organising Chairs; abstracts may be in Word, WordPerfect, or RTF formats with the following information and in this order:

a) author(s), b) affiliation, c) email address, d) title of abstract, e) body of abstract.

Emails should be entitled: EWF3 Abstract Submission.

Please use plain text (Times Roman 12) and abstain from using footnotes and any special formatting, characters or emphasis (such as bold, italics or underline). We acknowledge receipt and answer to all paper proposals submitted. If you do not receive a reply from us in a week you should assume we did not receive your proposal; it might be lost in cyberspace! We suggest, then, to look for an alternative electronic route or resend.

Organising Chairs:

Sorcha Ni Fhlainn
Hub Leader, Project Co-Leader, School of English, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

Stephen Morris
Hub Leader, Independent Scholar, New York, USA

Rob Fisher
Network Founder and Leader, Inter-Disciplinary.Net, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

The conference is part of the At the Interface programme of research projects. It aims to bring together people from different areas and interests to share ideas and explore various discusssions which are innovative and exciting. All papers accepted for and presented at the conference will be eligible for publication in an ISBN eBook. Selected papers may be developed for publication in a themed hard copy volume(s).

For further details about the project, please click here.

For further details about the conference, please click here.

Poetry Collection and Launch: After All Tomorrow's After Parties

A good friend of mine, Michael Wilson, has asked me to mention his upcoming collection of poetry - After All Tomorrow's After Parties - which is being launched this Monday (4th October) in Manchester.

My book launch will be on Monday October 4th. I'll be reading from my first book "After All Tomorrows After Parties" brought out by Knives Forks and Spoons Press as well as a selection of other poems. I'll also be performing a number of poems using sign language to promote disability awareness, create a second narrative and meddle with the 4th wall. It promises to be a top evening of poetry with sets from the cream of Manchester poetry: the nationally renowned names of Gerry Potter, Tony Walsh and John G Hall and sweet acoustic jazz from Rob Plow and Steve Brady that sounds like music to fall in love to. It all takes place at the lovely Fuel Bar Cafe in Withington M20 4AN. It starts 8pm until 11pm and it's a free event.

The book will be available from October 4th from the Knives Forks and Spoons Press website, and Amazon or ordered from any bookshop in the UK or available from myself at various gigs in the North West and beyond.

I've found my home in Manchester and have been performing poetry for over five years now and guest slots at various events for about four years. Material comes from the tried and trusty subjects of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' dole but also extends to politics and mental health. I'm interested in raising awareness of disability so learned sign language and have been successful in slams, getting to the BBC Radio Four National Slam Final last year, as well as the Cheltenham National Slam Final the last two years running. I also combine poetry with art using lost property umbrellas to write my poetry onto in interesting designs, usually leaving them in city centres for people to find but also having them exhibited in Contact Theatre this year. Finally I am also part of the Islington Mill Art Academy, a self run, self organised art education group, which explores alternatives in art education, which this book is being brought out in association with.

The book as well as being brought out in association with the Art Academy is also being brought out in memory of a close friend of mine who died ten years ago, just as I was finishing my university degree. I thought it was important to keep his memory alive and this is my small part in this. This book has been given the blessing of the family.

And here's a sample of the poetry to be found in After All Tomorrow's After Parties:

An Ode to Autumn

Deep down in yourself
Deep down in your coat
The autumn falls before your eyes
Smoke perspires from car exhausts
And the street sounds silent in your head
Watching the traffic find its way,
from safe inside the hem of a hood
The unlit cigarette burns a hole in your hand
As you take the world in,
A stage set street at a time

Your thoughts are wrapped up in pretty paper
Round numbers and letters and how they fit their clothing
In the wooliness of your mind
You had to train yourself to doublething
A single line when added to
Creates a picture you can just make out
In the dark horse sky
A sky that maps this world
All true invention pushed underfoot
The leaves
And all the deadness of past summer
Crushed underfoot

You hear a beating memory in your head
That from your past autumn never means you harm
The curled blur of street lights
Match the fuzziness in your logic
Walks with you
An elegant procession of thoughts that play to beat the band
A foresight that this winter won't bite too hard
Cause it knows its own mortality
A backlit sight that summer leaves a mark or two on your skin,
but won't do what it's told, it won't change your life,
this time around.

You walk
Back to your home the rest of the world in front
The street smells of everything and nothing at once
While the moon makes its once sightly appearance
A smile like benevolent stupidity
A smile like a patriarch not a sister
A father for you to figure out your thoughts
And for this moment your happiness won't get away
The day comes back to you
In the soft grip of night
That Autumn holds its lover lightly
As it lets the summer leave you
Feeds you and clothes you in your own colours
The halfway secret shine of Autumn is held in the single change of a skin

Copyright 2010, Michael Wilson

Friday, 1 October 2010

Review: Tom Fletcher, The Leaping (Quercus, 2010)

Published by Quercus in 2010, Tom Fletcher's The Leaping tells the story of Jack and Francis, two university graduates who work in a call centre in Manchester. Fletcher's debut novel has already attracted a great deal of praise - and was nominated for The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize.

It's quite difficult to write a synopsis of the plot of The Leaping without giving too much away. So suffice to say, Jack meets a woman named Jennifer at work, and the two quickly form a relationship. Eager to escape the city, Jennifer buys a dilapidated house in the Lake District, and she and Jack move there. Horror (and genuinely frightening horror at that) ensues. Paralleling this is the story of Francis, who is obsessed by the danger and disease (particularly cancer) that he perceives as existing all around him. Francis is forced to address some of these issues when his dad is diagnosed with throat cancer. Francis's revulsion and fascination with the diseased and disintegrating human body is a driving force of his narrative, and contributes significantly to the awfulness of what happens.

I was first made aware of Fletcher's novel when I was contacted by writer and lecturer Nicholas Royle. Having heard about the She-Wolf conference, Royle wanted to recommend The Leaping, and I was duly sent a review copy. The tagline on the front of the paperback edition reads: "An ancient evil is waiting...", and the blurb on the back promises: "When the sky is blood-red, when the rivers freeze and snow lies upon the fells, it's time for the wolves to cross - time for the Leaping." Given this introduction, I was expecting a 'werewolf novel' - indeed, that was the reason it had been recommended to me in the first place - but I soon realized that this is far from an adequate assessment of Fletcher's novel.

Although the "ancient evil" is waiting for the protagonists in Cumbria, the first part of The Leaping is set in Manchester. Fletcher's portrayal of the city combines the familiar (for example, the characters drink in 'actual' Manchester bars) and the uncanny (such as the unsettling presentation of Jack's bosses in the call centre), creating a 'Manchester' that is just as terrifying as the Cumbrian setting of the second half of the novel. Indeed, Fletcher skillfully weaves 'urban horror' with 'horror at the urban' to make an unnerving cityscape. Consider this passage from early in the novel, which exemplifies the book's approach to modern life: "The Christmas lights were up but not yet turned on. Electricity meant we could work all kinds of shifts and stay out all night with our vision unimpaired, and it turned us into unnatural creatures, awake and ravenous all the time." Or this apt description of work in a faceless call centre: "The slimish scorn of the nation, dripping through earpieces and trickling into our open ears like warm, lumpy milk." It is from this horror that Jack and Jennifer attempt to escape by moving to the Lakes - only to run into something potentially worse. However, Fletcher's presentation of the two different settings leaves the reader to question whether the "ancient evil" of Fell House is really much worse that the "darkness of our own invention, all muggings, murders, rapes".

This 'urban horror' is compounded by Fletcher's careful characterization. Jack and Francis - the novel's two narrators - live in a student-house-like residence with other recent graduates, Graham, Taylor and Erin. The five met at university, completed their studies, and have since drifted into shift work at a call centre, regular drinking and a gradual loss of motivation and ambition. Fletcher's descriptions of student-esque life are evocative and identifiable, as well as grounded definitively in the early 21st century: "So if you drew a Venn diagram of all the things that we - the five of us - like, the area in which all our circles overlap would contain one thing: Mario Kart." Later on, as the five attempt to come up with a name (for something I shall not reveal), they run through a medley of pop culture, history and politics that reads like a who's who for today's twenty-somethings - beginning with Tim Burton, ending with Hitler, and including Gandhi, Kilroy, Homer, Brad, Spacey, Bush and Spongebob.

Though Fletcher's graduate cast are instantly recognizable - particularly for those who have lived through that transition from 'student' to 'real world' - they are not stereotypes or cliches. Each character is carefully and individually drawn. By doing this, Fletcher manages to pull of the difficult task of using multiple first person narrators. Alternate chapters are told from Jack's and Francis's perspective. I have read a number of books recently that employ this technique, and, in my opinion, Fletcher has mastered it. Unlike with some multiple-narrator novels, I did not find myself having to flick back to the beginning of the chapters to remind myself who was speaking. Jack and Francis have distinct voices, and I came to feel that I 'knew' each narrator well enough to tell the difference between their stories. And of course, the identification and empathy the reader feels for the central characters adds further layers to the horrific events that occur later in the novel.

One exception to this - and one of the few criticisms I have of the book - is the characterization of Jennifer, Jack's girlfriend. Jack is instantly besotted with the woman he describes throughout as "Morgana le Fay"; Francis also becomes fixated on her. As Jack and Francis utterly idealize and near-venerate Jennifer - and it should be remembered that Morgana has long been associated with goddesses and 'the Goddess' - it is hard to move beyond the young men's awe and see the woman behind it. The novel's other female character, Erin, is somewhat more fleshed out, and this is partly achieved by the novel's beginning with a prologue spoken in her voice. I would, nevertheless, like to have seen and known more of Jennifer.

I am aware that I have almost come to the end of this review without mentioning werewolves at all. And this is no accident. In many respects, it is a shame that Fletcher's book has been consistently categorized, marketed and reviewed as a 'werewolf book'. There is so much more to the novel than lycanthropy; as I have suggested, the book is as much an unsettling tale of modern life for today's burgeoning graduate class as it is a werewolf gorefest. The scope of the horror in The Leaping is carried through the precision and skill with which Fletcher uses language. The hallucinatory quality to his writing makes even the most mundane incident seem dangerous and sinister, while also making the more fantastic elements utterly believable.

Fletcher's werewolves are original, frightening and thought-provoking - and, indeed, I shall be exploring them more in future articles - and, for that reason, I recommend the novel to anyone interested in the werewolf mythos or lycanthropy. However, I would also recommend this book to people who are not particularly interested in werewolves, or who may be turned off by the idea of a novel about lycanthropy. It is an accomplished and stylish contemporary horror novel, and well worth a read.