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Week 7: Gothic Fiction and Vampirism

Lecture and Exercises by Dr Liz Giuffre

Readings (on e-reserve):


Du Coudray, Chantal Bourgault. "Upright citizens on all fours: Nineteenth-century
identity and the image of the werewolf" Nineteenth-Century Contexts , 24:1 , 2002 , 1-16
Stoker, Bram. "Jonathan Harker's journal" in Dracula, Ellmann, Maud , 2008c , 14-26

Gothic fiction can be tied back to at least the mid 1700s,1 but for our purposes well look at
the gothic as a theme and focus on a particular relationship between the natural and unnatural
worlds; between known and unknown life forms in unknown places.
Importantly, this is also set in a place that is somehow also unknown.
As Jerrard Hogle argued in his overview of the gothic in western culture,
A gothic tale usually takes place (or at least some of the time) in an antiquated or
seemingly antiquated placebe it a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey, a vast prison, a
subterranean crypt, a graveyard, a primeval frontier or island, a large old house or
theatre, an aging city or urban underworld, a decaying storehouse, factory, laboratory,
public building within this space, or combination of spaces, are hidden secrets of
the past (sometimes recent past) that haunt the characters, physiologically, physically
or otherwise at the main time of the story.
These hauntings can take many forms, but they frequently assume features of
ghosts, specters or monsters (mixing features from different realms of being, often life
and death) that rise from within the antiquated space (Hogle, 2002: 2).
This idea of the centrality of a haunted place, but also of a thing to do the haunting, is a very
basic, but also fundamental part, of Gothic Fiction.
And these are the things we can all already associate with gothic fiction (and other scary
genres)- haunted houses, deserted graveyards, tormented spirits, lost souls and so on.
In this lecture Ill explore the history and effect of some of these haunt-ers and their places of
hunting, focusing particularly on one of the most iconic pieces of gothic writing, Mary
Shelleys Frankenstein.2

See, for example, the chronology for gothic fiction at the beginning of The Cambridge Companion to Gothic
Fiction (Hogle, Jerrard ed 2002), pgs xvii-xxv.
2
The book was originally called Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, however for this lecture Ill use
the more shorter title, simply Frankenstein.

The history of Frankenstein


As a piece of writing, as well as a tale of caution for those who play with creating life,
Shelleys monster and the context of its creation (a lonely, mad scientist alone in his lab) has
brought the gothic out of its time period and kept it current, perhaps even drawing us towards
science fiction and beyond.
It has spawned many copycats and remakes (in various media including print, on screen, on
stage and on radio and television). Frankenstein has also inspired many spoofs and mixed
genre retellings, like Mel Brooks gothic/comedy Young Frankenstein (1974), and Richard
OBriens gothic/musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
While all of these retellings take license when adapting the original (in Rocky Horror, the
Doctor is Frank n Furter rather than Frankenstein), the two key factors of gothic fiction
remain (if not played with); the relationship between the location and its effect; and the
relationship between the creator and the monster as made in this location.

Images: Left, Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle as the Doctor and Creature in Young Frankenstein,
http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1505591552/tt0072431; Right, Tim Curry and Peter Hinwood as the Doctor and
the Creature in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, http://www.imdb.com/media/rm3882400512/tt0073629.

The original novel was published in 1818 by a very young Shelley, and it was variously
revised and revisited by Shelley herself, as well as other writers associated with her
(including her famous writer husband Percy Bysshe Shelley).
Shelley was just 21 when it was published, and given the book was originally published
anonymously, many assumed that the depth and darkness of the writing and its subject could
have only come from a male author (perhaps Percy).
However Mary Shelley had a huge amount of life experience by that time, including having
lived with several male partners, becoming pregnant and losing her children (with one
conceived, born and dying all as she wrote the book).

Some biographers of Shelley, and readers of Frankenstein, have argued that this horrific and
unimaginable personal experience sparked the young female writers dark approach to the
creation of life and its consequences in the book.
At its most basic, Frankenstein is the story of the relationship between a scientist (Victor
Frankenstein) and his laboratory (the classic gothic antiquated place). And, of course it is
then of course about the creature that the scientist creates while in this place, and the
consequences of this creature that is both alive and dead, manufactured in a lab from pieces
of other bodies rather than conceived by a man and woman.
The question of what life is, and who gets to control it, is raised as the creature gains its own
sense of perception (notably, it becomes lonely and aware of its position as an outsider).
Further, the question of science and its limits is also raised, and the scientists ability to create
life does not necessarily make him equipped to deal with the consequences with creating life
in this way.
Frankenstein may be able to play god, but is he equipped to deal with the role?
And what of the monster?
It was hideous given that it was made of dead flesh, but was that its fault? How should treat
something be treated that has no say in its creation?
Monster Mash: the role of Monsters in Gothic fiction
Chantal Du Coudray isolates the key aspect of gothic fiction in this weeks reading. Writing
about the history of the warewolf specifically, but gothic fiction generally, she argues the
importance of the monster in this genre, arguing that they serve to draw attention to
insecurities and fears about otherness in society generally.
Specifically, Du Coudray writes,
confusion about gender, and about other corporeal signifiers of identity such as race and class, found
its quintessential expression in the Gothic literature of the nineteenth century. Gothic narratives
condensed myriad anxieties about identity into the bodies of monsters. (2002: 2)

The focus on the role of monsters in gothic fiction is useful as it helps us understand why
these appear during this time. Du Coudray continues, with reference to the role of the
warewolf, the representation of the werewolf came to be implicated in nineteenth-century
processes of identity formation (ibid).
However, these monsters can also be seen to have continued beyond the gothic, with
contemporary warewolves like X-Mens Wolverine (both as a comic and a film) also being
used to appeal to, and comment on, contemporary audiences and their concerns about
different types of identities and relative defections.
For example, are the mutants actually faulty, or perhaps are they merely examples of
different types of humanity (can their powers be likened to talents, perhaps)?

For Shelley, the creation of the live creature by Victor Frankenstein was at once magic and
horrific, the result of a rapidly emerging body of scientific knowledge and practice. While
these breakthroughs allowed some lives to be prolonged, and others to be saved, they also
changed how life was considered up until then (think about how simple infections could once
be fatal).
Thus, as Shelley tells the story of a scientist who wants to not only cheat nature by
overcoming illness, but by overcoming death and creating life in a laboratory, she articulates
a fear about life and death, and good and evil, that was associated with scientific discovery
during the time of writing (and arguably one that remains- which is why the story continues
to interest new readers).
Shelley uses the basic elements of gothic fiction, place and the creature that emerges from it,
in the story of Frankenstein first bringing life to his creature, specifically. As well, she
articulates a mixture of triumph and tragedy as the book presents the doctors reactions to his
creation.
I have included quite a long, but very famous section of the original below where this
moment of life begins, and Frankenstein reacts. It is notable for its clarity, simplicity and
descriptiveness.
This passage comes just from the beginning of chapter five;
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety
that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a
spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain
pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the
half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a
convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such
infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his
features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and
arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these
luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same
colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black
lips.
The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard
for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had
deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but
now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my
heart.3

The passage above shows the mixture of pleasure and pain in the gothic novel- and the lines
between good and bad begin to blur.

Shelleys original has been variously reproduced and is no longer in copyright, now widely available. The
quotes taken for this lecture come from the reproduction of the work as part of The Project Gutenberg,
specifically http://www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm, last accessed 12/5/12. However, I do recommend
buying a copy of the book in print if you can much more pleasant to read than on screen- and many versions
also have great accompanying essays and studies to help contextualise the work further.

As the doctor looks at his creation with relative disgust rather than pride, we are left to ask if
all creators view their creations in this way (and what is the consequence of this)?
In real life, a parent who is disgusted by their child is considered a monster themselves, and
the crime of neglect looked upon by society as an act of horror itself.
Frankensteins initial reaction to the live creature becomes more fierce as the creature
moves beyond mere animation and begins to explore its world. It asks questions, it compares
itself to others, and it begins to feel isolated. So the creature makes demands of its creator,
insisting that a companion be made to cure this terrible loneliness.
While Frankenstein originally agrees, he then fears the creature will breed, and the denial of
this request prompts the creature to extreme violence. Frankenstein is charged for the murder
the creature committed, and it nearly destroys him.
As we continue through the violence continues, with both Frankenstein and the creature
variously killed, however the question is left- who was most at fault? Who and what was
most scary?
Was this creature born an innocent, just as all children should be, and rebelling because of
neglect? Or was it really something that was horrific from the start?
Should nature ever be tampered with to this degree?
Was Frankenstein ever equipped to deal with a child in this way?
And this type of child?
This delimma about the consequences of tampering with nature is one that remains with us
today in various forms- from questions about the environment to fertility to disease
treatment- when can, and should, we use science to improve nature? And when we do, what
will the consequences be?
Of course Shelleys work is fiction, and while its often been offered as a piece of fiction that
questions morality, in the end it remains fiction rather than an instruction.
The flaw is arguably not with all of humanity and their want to improve nature, but instead
just asks us to question our motivations when we do. Indeed, the doctor feels sympathy and
empathy for his child despite not actually feeling love.
We need to ask, however, if Frankenstein himself had come from different circumstances
(perhaps not so lonely himself), would the outcome have been different?
From creatures to vampires and beyond...
While vampires have become the monster of choice in recent gothic writings (Twilight or
True Blood, anyone?), these too can be tied back to the dynamics and original questions
raised by Shelleys Frankenstein.

Firstly, Victor Frankenstein uses the term vampire (a reference not to the Transylvanian
blood sucker necessarily, but to a sense of the horrific, the creature that is both alive and dead
at once), and secondly, this renewed interest in exploring this idea of the line between
acceptable and not, the line between alive and dead, is curious.
Why, in the early 21st century, are we interested in these ideas again? And are they still
having the same thrilling, and terrifying effect, as these earlier gothic fiction pieces?
Quality of the writing aside (and you can argue amongst yourselves about whether Twilight is
great or a bloodsucker itself), the renewed interest can be tied to the social context of its
creation and reception. Interestingly, with these contemporary stories the monsters arent
necessarily something to fear, but they are the objects of intense interest from the female
protagonists.
While some commentators worry about this attraction, particularly in terms of the relative
passiveness of the young female as she is drawn to these male characters, perhaps another
twist has happened here and the representation of the other here can be read in another way.
As Catherine Strong explained in a newspaper commentary on the series.
At the end of the day, the thing that a lot of people seem to overlook about Twilight
is that it is openly and blatantly a fantasy series. The main male character is a
vampire. The other male lead is a werewolf. The message that teenage girls could
easily be taking away from these books is that the perfect man and the perfect love
story exist in the same place as vampires and werewolves - in the realm of myths
only.
It says a lot about the fundamental mistrust that we have for our youth, and for young
girls in particular, that we think that they will read these tales about supernatural
beings and treat them as though they are guidebooks to life and love (Strong, 2011,
accessed 5/5/12, http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/in-girls-wemust-trust-against-vampires-20100704-zvqs.html#ixzz1ujpgXXav)
Conclusions: The gothic as it has evolved
All genres change over time, spauning new offshoots, subgenres and mixtures. But with the
gothic, has so much changed that this form is now unrecognisable? Is gothic fiction, as it
focuses on the creature and the place it is created, now something else? Is it horror? Is it
fantasy? Is it science fiction?

Exercise:
Find one of the various reworkings of Frankenstein and examine it in terms of genre- do
you think it is still best described as gothic, or is it best categorised in another way?