These reports were written by Sophie Clarke, who graduated from BCU with a First in English last year, and who is soon to commence an MA in English Literature.
On Saturday 2nd May, I was lucky enough to be invited to ‘Gothic in Birmingham’, an interdisciplinary convention and exhibition organised by Birmingham City University lecturer, Serena Trowbridge. The event comprised of a gallery of artwork and several talks that took place in Birmingham Central Library. The event was an immense success, and proved to be an interesting and informative day.
Throughout the day, there were two panels running simultaneously. I was able to attend nine panels, all of which discussed the various manifestations of Gothic, including literature, architecture and dress.
Sanserif – the Face of the Grotesque and the Gothic – David Osbaldestin
David began his talk by defining the difference between Gothic typeface (script implemented in the Guttenberg Bible and characterised by exaggerated cursive stroke and black letter) and Sanserif, an unassuming typeface (compared to the flamboyant strokes of the Gothic) influenced by early British grotesque printing types. Ironically, despite the influence of Gothic typefaces in many parts of the world, Sanserif script was most often used in book typography, and thus usurped Gothic typefaces to become the de-facto font of choice for Gothic pieces. Despite this wide use of Sanserif script, twentieth-century typographic classification and the utilisation of traditional Gothic typefaces on the front covers of books reinforced the general misconception of Gothic typefaces. The Sanserif typeface also gained popularity in the world of advertising, and by the mid-nineteenth century, new Sanserif typefaces were being created, and were widely used by jobbing printers. Given its affinity with the values of certain movements, such as Industrialism and Romanticism, the Gothic Sanserif typography acts, as David so concisely puts it, as a ‘moral compass’, which is ‘simple, bold and uncomplicated.’ I, personally, found the talk rather refreshing and untypical of the genre. Often, this display of the Gothic is overlooked (perhaps because contemporary fonts are housed on computer software – technology which is worlds apart from the dungeons and castles of traditional Gothic lore!) and it was interesting to discover the origin and influence of what became one of the most prominent tools of advertising.
Contemporary Gothic: Poems by Gregory Leadbetter
The next session was conducted by Dr Gregory Leadbetter, in which he read a selection of his own poetry, and discussed the circumstances and imaginary workings surrounding each one. Greg defines Gothic as being irrevocably intertwined with the Romantic, both of which are marked by an obsession with superstition and its influence on ‘the wilderness of life’ and ‘the wilderness of imagination’. He discussed the idea of our living in a ‘second Gothic’, in which contemporary poets attempt to revive and reinvent poetry based on the philosophy of these elder poets. Greg’s poetry follows this tradition accordingly, and is peppered with powerful imagery centred on the uncanny, superstition and myth, amongst other themes. Much of his poetry was influenced by personal incidents, and this helped inject a realistic element into otherwise sublime pieces. It was fantastic to hear a contemporary take on Gothic, as I’m sure so many are of the belief that Gothic poetry is an art confined to past centuries. The reading proved that Gothic literature is very much still a part of the contemporary sphere, and belongs to the beautiful as well as the haunting.
Narratives of Dress: A Beautiful Life, A Beautiful Death – Louise Chapman
Naturally, I was quite intrigued by this next session. What red-blooded woman doesn’t like a good dress (and a nineteenth-century one at that!) This talk focused on the possibility of dress (and clothing in general) acting as a narrative separate from the corporeal being. The dress that Louise presented is part of an archive that contains 170 items from the eighteenth century, and was a beautiful example, made more so by its very apparent deterioration marks. Similar to other traditional Gothic tropes, clothing becomes almost animate because of its exposure to social and cultural changes – over time, it becomes a vivid narrative, aided by the tears and stains that hint at the mysterious life that once wore it. At the end of the talk I had an opportunity to examine this particular dress up close. It was a strange experience which raised many questions: what kind of woman had worn this dress? And what trauma had caused the back to become so shredded? Such questions make it a compelling narrative that demands further exploration.
New Gothic Writing: Charlotte Newman, Abigail Cooper, Joanna Packwood and Bex Price.
This session featured readings by several BCU students, and was a session that I feel was particularly valuable, as it gave greater insight into the complexities of writing Gothic, as well as displaying how the Gothic can be translated through different mediums of writing and performance. I asked two participants, Charlotte Newman and Bex Price, how they felt their work contributed to the contemporary world of Gothic:
Charlotte Newman: ‘The Restorer’ (Prose) and ‘Red Wolf’ (Poem):
‘’The Restorer’ was placed within the contemporary setting of Birmingham, which is surrounded by Gothic features. At night, these daunting buildings are more stark and alluring. I wanted to place my story in an enclosed environment, within safe walls, but surrounded by silent images, hence the location of the Museum and Art Gallery. The form of Gothic I chose to illuminate was the psychological torment and madness within one’s mind that was escalated by the anxiety of the Man’s folly when he smudged the painting in restoration. The quick decision to use his own blood to temper the folly shows the transitive darkness within four walls. The poem ‘Red Wolf’ is an alternate perspective on a Jack-The-Ripper type tale. It describes a woman being followed by a stranger, and the rising awareness of her surroundings creates a psychological tension. That tension is not necessarily detrimental or the fault of the woman, rather, the anxiety can produce heroic qualities and independence, to fight back against the ‘stranger who lingers’– a whatever or whoever that may be.’
Bex Price: ‘The Break’ (Poem) and ‘In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritis Sancti’ (Prose):
‘They are built around the tropes of Gothic, to create a sense of displacement and unease, particularly ‘The Break’, which is disjointed with a rushed feeling – the words themselves are not as important as the pace and rhythm. ‘In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti’ questions religion – as is common in today’s society – and is therefore a reflection of peoples fear, and is represented retrospectively (set during the Industrial Revolution)’
Medieval Architecture and the Gothic Revival – Christian Frost
This talk concentrated on the advent of the Gothic revival in architecture, and the ethical and cultural consequences of its immense transition from medieval ideals. Christian began by highlighting the different attitudes to the past that emerged in the late eighteenth century. History began to be viewed as individual epochs of time, rather than a continuous stream of events. Architecture was naturally influenced by this view, and became focused on constructing concepts of art through archaeology, enriching the present with reference to an idealized past. This formed a modern and unique architectural style – namely, the creation of the picturesque and representation of nature through construction. One such revolutionary construction was James Gibbs’ ‘Temple of Liberty’, named as such because of its belief in the freedom of the lands ancestors, including Germanic tribes and Goths. As such, the Gothic became associated with the notion of freedom and movement, promoting the idea that individuals are more likely to flourish in an urban setting. The Gothic revival was not only concerned with aesthetic appeal, but promoted a ‘just, ethical society’, creating buildings that benefited the populace – e.g: replacing church spires with chimneys. Emphasis was placed on industrialisation and progression, with the belief that architecture could change society, and effect the mental state of individuals in a positive way. Christian’s talk was accompanied by a slideshow of examples, and it really motivated me to investigate Gothic architecture further, and its complex relationship with medieval ideals.
Copy Gothic: Experiments in Contemporary Gothic – Alessandro Columbano
Alessandro’s talk continued to focus on the Gothic revival, but concentrated more on the technological evolution of printing, and the effect of combining medieval ideals with the Victorian hunger for progression. One of the most innovative qualities of advanced manufacturing was its ability to disseminate information to the wider populace, through various machines and equipment. The Guttenberg Bible, as the first mechanically printed bible in the west, became one of the first of its kind to do just this. This type of technology proved to not only be a commercial success, but a striking marker of human progression, as it boosted ecclesiastical popularity by creating an autodidactic order of the priesthood. This need for religious and intellectual progression was reflected in public institutions that promoted this technology – The John Rylands library, which houses one of the few remaining copies of the Guttenberg bible was designed in the Gothic tradition, and combined ‘monastic qualities’ with technological innovations, such as electric lighting and ventilation, which created an atmosphere suitable for scholarly activity.
Although the John Ryland’s library served its purpose originally, it has undergone several iterations, and much of its space, including the reading room, is no longer in use. Thus, one may question how genuine technology and new interventions can be if original activities no longer occur. Alessandro concludes that, despite technology seeming to lose track of its original source (particularly in the evolution of printing), innovation is necessary to compete in new, contemporary societies.
Gothic and Victorian Sensation Fiction – Anne-Marie Beller
Anne-Marie’s talk focused on Victorian Sensation fiction, a branch of controversial literature popularised in the 1860s by authors such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Harnessing many themes of the Gothic, Victorian sensation fiction sought to create a narrative portraying domestic victimization, transforming the decayed buildings which imprison the heroine into demonic versions of the home. Domesticity becomes a warped and insecure domain, harbouring secrecy, transgression and madness. Despite its popularity with the average reader, Victorian Sensation Fiction garnered much criticism, and was accused of infecting middle class idealism with the immorality of low-class fiction. As many Sensation novels typically focused on secrecy in middle-class settings, some suggested that such fictions represented a critical reflection of middle class proprieties and implicated respected members of the ‘higher orders’ in venal dealings and immoral practice. Anne-Marie’s talk offered a vital glimpse into the impact Gothic literature had on society, and proved it could be a very influential factor.
Gothic for Children: The Case of The Graveyard Book – Sarah Wood
Many of the talks thus far have kept the Gothic firmly in the adult sphere – in this talk, Sarah broaches the delicate subject of Gothic for children. Disturbingly, children have often been used in literature as an uncanny Gothic device, from Henry James’ ‘Turn of the Screw’ to contemporary examples such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Despite some elements of the Gothic being easily associated with children’s literature, many, including sadism and pain, are rather more culturally unacceptable, and this inevitably highlights the ambiguous nature Gothic has with children’s literature. The infiltration of the Gothic in children’s literature acts as a usurper to the innocent child vision idolised by Enlightenment figures; John Locke argued that children came into the world as ‘blank slates’, and it was the parent’s responsibility to imbue them with reason. He cautioned against the influence of an ‘unbridled imagination’, predicting that exposure to terrifying and fantastical ideas would detrimentally alter the impressionable mould of the child, which would inevitably ensure a predisposition toward irrational behaviour and responses. As such, ‘culturally improved forms of children’s literature become everything the Gothic is not.’ Other figures, however, such as Rousseau, believe the child should be allowed to explore the untarnished world of innocence, and be kept separate from the synthetic world of adulthood. In the twenty-first century, the figures typically associated with victimization and blame become distorted as the innocence of children becomes questionable. Although children are often still exploited by adults, it is necessary for weary consideration to be given to how ‘complicit they are in their own exploitation.’ The Graveyard Book reflects this anxiety, as the child of the novel – who is paradoxically both the victim and perpetrator – is preyed upon by an ‘other’ adult. This, along with other contemporary Gothic children’s literature, feeds on our feelings of unease concerning our attitude towards children, forcing the reader to consider the prospect of shattered innocence and behavioural instability. Could this lurid revelation be the modern day monster that we truly fear?
Standing on the Outside: The Outsider in Modern Gothic – Steve Cotterill
The final talk discusses the socio-cultural evolution of the Gothic in recent years, in particular focusing upon the ‘third gothic revival’ of the 1970s. Steve argues that this saw a fracture in the genre along two interlacing – though rather different – lines, between traditional Gothic and the Gothic subculture that emerged from it. Literature of the subculture was infused with traditional Gothic tropes but differed in some important respects from mainstream Gothic; although the outsider remains a focus, there are significant differences in the nuances that shape their role in the novel. Just as British gothic in the early nineteenth century displayed a disdain of the European over the American, and the Aristocratic over the bourgeoisie, reflecting the decline of the Ancient Regime and the rise of the middle classes to political and civil hegemony, modern Gothic reflects the changing attitudes of wider society. White, straight males are no longer the focus, other figures, namely females, homosexuals and trans-genders occupy the protagonists position. The outsider in traditional gothic is perhaps most epitomised in the novel Dracula – all of the typical Gothic tropes including fear, racism and xenophobia are fully displayed as a sinister and sensual eastern Count wreaks havoc in a Britain pushing towards modernity. The protagonists of modern Gothic are less innocent and females are worldly wise and strong. Character’s sexuality in the modern Gothic represents an interesting element to reveal the reflection of societal change inherent in the progressive cultural shift since the traditional days of the genre. As Steve says, heterosexuality is still common in modern Gothic, though it’s portrayed as just one in a plethora of possible preferences.
As I hope this report has shown, the Gothic is a genre characterised by chimeric qualities, unrivalled in its ability to accommodate new cultural expectations and modify itself to influence a variety of mediums. Gothic in Birmingham proved to be a catalyst in projecting Gothic into the contemporary sphere; the diversity of panels and exhibition helped emphasise that the Gothic need not be a deviant topic, but a mode of thought and expression that continues to influence many aspects of our lives.
At Gothic Day on May 2nd, I asked two volunteers to write reports of the talks they heard. Here are the reports of talks which Keiran Hennion, a second-year English and Creative Writing student at BCU, heard.
‘Taming the Shrew: Contemporary Art on Gothic’ – Grace Williams
Grace Williams began her presentation by referring to gothic terminology, including the ‘Horrific’, ‘Sexual’, ‘death’ and the ‘supernatural’. She then discussed the work of famous artists and how said work is potentially gothic in nature. She discussed Henry Fuselli’s ‘The Nightmare’ and offered an interesting analysis on how the picture could relate to ideas of female sexuality. There was also analysis of taxidermy as art, more specifically the works of Polly Morgan and Tessa Farmer, which highlighted possibilities of life after death through art. Williams finished by analysing pieces of her own work, which looked at the idea of a disappearing woman through Victorian Contraptions.
‘The Gothic in Outer Space: Building Castles in the Sky’ – Tom Knowles
Tom Knowles’ presentation looked at the cinema of science fiction and related the genre of sci-fi to the gothic. Discussing space ships within science fiction, he suggested that they are vast star bound constructs that act as a plot device, as the ships take the passengers on journeys, usually to mobile cities and stations. He offered analysis on how the spaceship can be likened to the gothic castle in the way that it paradoxically acts as both a prison and a sanctuary to its passengers. He also references how the claustrophobia of the space ship echoes the idea of the female gothic, whilst the idea of exploration using the ship echoes ideas of the male gothic.
‘Coming Out as Werewolf’ – Lisa Metherell
Lisa Metherell’s presentation discussed the supernatural figure of the ‘Werewolf’ and how it relates to gothic themes and ideas, such as the transgression of social and sexual norms. She discussed the idea of racial mixing and how the fear of that is presented through the ideas of blood being involved in the transformation of the ‘Werewolf’. She also discussed contemporary depictions of Werewolves, including Lupin from Harry Potter, where she suggests werewolves are sympathised with if that are neutered, i.e. controlled. She also showed a clip from ‘Being Human’ which showed the Werewolf of the show coming out to his parents as a Werewolf and likened it to the act of coming out as gay, portraying the idea of the werewolf as not normative.
‘Music and Monsters: Revisiting the Gothic in television’s Hemlock Grove’ – Steve Halfyard
Steve Halfyard discussed the role of music in the gothic, and emphasised the use of music in the gothic in relation to the female characters of Hemlock Grove’. She began by highlighting the trajectory of some female characters in gothic novels. She claimed there was a ‘Conservative Trajectory’ whereby the female characters move away from their vampire lovers, and pointed out that examples of this included Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood. The second trajectory was the ‘Transformative Trajectory’ whereby the woman becomes a vampire. Examples of this included The Vampire Diaries and Twilight. She then focussed on Shelley, Olivia and Christina, the central female characters of Hemlock Grove. In relation to music, she claimed that the music which acts as the theme for the character of Olivia has a combination of major and minor cords which emphasises that whilst she looks innocent on the outside, a monster sleeps inside of her. The character Shelley, a character brought from the dead has more of a light and cheerful music that the other females, which contrast her rather off putting monster-like appearance. Christina who acts as a female fetale has music which gradually builds to a more menacing tone when she is around.
‘The Gothic Turn in Contemporary Poetry’ – Derek Littlewood
Derek Littlewood discussed ‘Terror’ by Toby Martinez de las Rivas and particularly fouccsed on the gothic theme of ‘the sublime’. He quoted the latin quote ‘through fire, nature is reborn’ which suggested that fire is purifying. He connected this to the ideas of spiritual and psychological gothic.
‘Putting the black into blackberry jam: The Gothic Valley WI’ – Madeleine Pearce
Madeleine Pearce gave a presentation on the Gothic Valley Women’s Institute. She first informed the audience that a women’s institues was a place that offers educational opportunities and skills, and then focussed on the gothic valley WI as a new wave women’s institute which brings people together based on interests and subcultures. The gothic valley WI enjoys gothic music festivals and baking and crafting.
‘The Relevance of Ruskin: Towards a New Gothic Architecture’ – Luke Nagle
Luke Nagle discussed the work of Ruskin and how it had an influence on many people, including Ghandi, Proust and Clement Atlee. He referenced to Ruskin’s disdain that poverty was coexisting with ostentation and that Ruskin was moist concerned with physical labour and the idea that men were being turned into physical drones. He also claimed that Ruskin saw beauty in neglected buildings and that he admired practical buildings rather than façade.
On Friday 12th June, Birmingham City University will be hosting the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar on Victorian Gothic. It’s free to attend and you can see the programme below.
Friday 12th June 2015, Birmingham City University, Parkside Building, 5 Cardigan Street, Birmingham B4 7BD, Room P349
Tea/coffee will be provided but you will need to bring lunch or buy it from one of the University outlets. The event is free of charge but please register your attendance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
10.30a.m. Coffee/Tea and Welcome
11.00 PLENARY: Professor Christian Frost (BCU), ‘Architecture, the Gothic Revival and the Printing Press’
12.00 PANEL 1: Victorian Gothic Past and Present
‘Thomas Anstey Guthrie’s Gothic Voices’ (Peter Merchant, Canterbury Christ Church University)
‘Reimagining Gothic Horror: Neo-Victorianism in television in ‘Dracula’ and ‘Penny Dreadful’ (Anactoria Clarke, The Open University in the North West)
‘Gothic Masculinities in Mary Braddon’s The Fatal Three’ (Anne-Marie Beller, Loughborough University)
2.10 PANEL 2: Gothic Childhoods
‘Dolly Keeps a Secret: Exploring the Gothic suggestion of the Victorian play-thing in Literature’ (Charlotte Newman, Birmingham City University)
‘Dead in the Cold: Gothic in the margins of Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song’ (Serena Trowbridge, Birmingham City University)
3.00 Tea break
3.20 Discussion with BCU undergraduates, moderated by Rebecca Styler (University of Lincoln): ‘What is ‘Gothic’ and how useful is the category in interdisciplinary Victorian studies?’ Topics for discussion include:
Feel free to stay for a drink at a nearby bar at the end of the day.
Those old ghostly intuitions that have tied sinew and soul together for millennia had taken over… making me feel uncomfortable in bright sunlight, uneasy on the wrong side of a ridge.” – Helen McDonald, H is for Hawk
I left Perry Barr promptly at 1pm. The sun dappled the damp pavement, strewn with trampled leaves and cakes of fusty cardboard. There were two sodden shoes beyond a hatched fence. They were not a pair. I boarded the 11 bus, swinging from its slimy bars, salt and vinegar stinging my nostrils. The sputtering engine shook the backseat. Someone offered a lady in a pink hat a tissue in the sticky silence following her sneeze. The bus passed the Stop ‘n’ Drive and the flat, headless trees. I admired the fissured railway bridge, peeling teal and amber. Having never heard a train rattle this narrow flyover, I perceive it with a calm dilution. Struck by the high spoke fence, lancing the sky, I watched its parade of lines disappear to expose the canal. The Tame winds fast, the willow overhangs this stretch, and the scrub hid a long wire in the water. Discreet inlets seem to stem directly from giant grey boxes behind the willow, with bright signs ‘Summerdale Truck Bodies’ and ‘Thomas’s Vehicle Solutions’. Moss darkened the bus stop below, cloaking the frame, reaching to the fence. From the foot of Brookvale Road, nearing Marsh Hill, pylons line the wasteland. I gazed at the giant steel legs until the shadow of the M6 consumed the bus. Emerging, the sudden noon sunlight left dizzy white shapes over my view of Tameside Drive. Perpendicular to the hulking columns of the M6 lies the red brick wall of The Ridgeway, reaching to the hillcrest. Beyond the obeliscal columns of the motorway and an abandoned shopping trolley, there is a gabled gate. The obscured entrance, walled in ahead of a small timber framed house, sits at the foot of The Ridgeway, shielded in murky shade. I sat quite bemused, fidgeting with the packet of oat biscuits in my left pocket. The 11 approached the next stop, groaning to a halt beneath a yew tree. I felt immediately compelled to disembark. I longed to chase The Ridgeway wall to its dank, brambled foot. I longed to push the soft pine of the gate.
Stumbling from the bus in a flustered haze, I was surprised by the depth of the dense leaves and peat on the desolate pavement. A buttery sycamore leaf tickled my ankle. I looked back at the bus as it pulled, rasping, away. A pale, blank expression was warped by the glass, reflecting the face of a stranger. A thin, wet worm clung to the shining plastic toe of my plimsoll. It was quiet. The wall of the cemetery was taller than I had anticipated, climbing with the trees. It took some time for me to reach the gate. Rows of windows twitched in the houses opposite. A dustbin bag rolled over, crackling with broken glass. I was careful not to slip in the mulch and litter that was deeply set along the ground, umber humus staining my shoes. As I turned the corner at the foot of the hill, at the M6’s columns, I stuck closely to the brick to avoid slurry puddles.
The gate swung open to reveal a sleeping Labrador, lackadaisically guarding the house. The timber was wearing grey, the beams dilapidated. The dog did not stir as I passed, despite the obtrusive crunch of the gravel path. Rows of fir trees border the graves, creating a circular route from the road. I strayed from the path, wandering through the firs across cushioned ground, the shaggy needles tickling my shoulders. The sun was masked by whipped white clouds, casting the graveyard in slanted light. A crusted silver birch was cut deeply with lenticels, the low rays highlighted its green relief. I re-joined the artificial trail of pebbles, the tiny stones clinging to the soles of my soggy feet. The birch concealed the first row of headstones, ‘Esther Fox’ , ‘Milligent Mary’. I was saddened and strangely fascinated by the beauty of their names. Leprose lichen has eaten into the stone, consuming the words in vivid yellow dust. A crow perched atop Esther’s grave, askance, wary.
An ink cap peered over the embankment by the wall, its shaggy flesh deliquescing to black. Running towards it, I was alarmed by the steep instability of the ground, and I slipped into the drop behind the trees. I was close to the wall now, using its solid height to stabilise myself as I progressed toward the mushroom. The peat of the leaves in this trench was adorned with artificial roses, disused watering cans and escaped cards of remembrance. I studied the slope and the ink cap, the soft soil shifting underfoot. There was a fir tree with a low cleft branch, whose rough limbs would be strong enough to hold me if I pulled myself out. I trudged past its reaching leaves. I felt curiously comfortable in the tenebrous rut. I followed a spectral compulsion, an ethereal drive to drag my fingertips along the wall, adhered to it.
Eventually, I reached the most easterly point of the cemetery, cramped awkwardly in the corner clogged with roots. I could not go on; my shoes were sucked into the mire with each cautious step. I stretched my legs, my calves tense and tremulous, to glance over the acclivity. A cluster of boletes had begun to rot, bruising a pale azure. I dug my hands into the loam of the knoll, clutching at buried roots, clambering the slope. I struggled at its peak, suddenly aware of the busy road once more; the wall muffled the traffic to an indistinguishable purr. As I moved toward the boletes, I noticed several fairy rings across the mournful sod. In the stream of warm light, the caps shone with viscidity. I bowed to squeeze the foam of their blue flesh between my muddied fingers.
I examined the ground close to the adjoining wall, assessing the variety of bracken and debris. A red ribbon and tea light foil shone out from the dun decline. There was a single, shining brown bottle here, its yellow label crinkled and peeling miserably. A little way ahead, a plastic chair was perched on a knot of roots. Its feet had sunk deeply in the leaf litter. I turned back to the chair as I passed, and searched for footprints. I cut a winding path across an unmarked strip of the cemetery, stopping to admire the modest milk caps and extravagant hordes of sulphur tufts. I walked head down, until my toes began to throb.
The sky seemed to ripen to pink prematurely. The light softened as I progressed, glinting in the windows of the subdued chapel. Here, the yews arch closer to the chapel walls, as though contributing to its architecture. Their thin branches make dull taps on the stone. I could see the line of pylons from here, arranged like pallbearers on the horizon. I circled the building, stroking the fractured bark of the yew, crushing its berries in the sparse grass. There are four heavy wooden doors to the chapel, none of which were open. As I tried the last door, I suddenly intuited its neglect and isolation. The stained windows let through no light, only glowed with occasional tones of navy and maroon. I wiped my soiled hands in damp, shaded blades, gazing up at the rough stonework.
Dusk was falling rapidly; an orange blush silhouetted the gravestones. Leaving the chapel behind, I walked towards a square of benches surrounding a mass of wilting pansies. Trinkets, stained soft toys and sun-bleached ornaments punctuated the flowerbed. Edging the disturbed ground of the plot, scabered stipes of parasols jostled together. Their pendant rings dropped, the caps fell upon one another in a sweet spoor. Feeling the silk of their gills, my hand was covered with treacle coloured dust. I sat on an engraved bench, dedicated to a man named George and his dog, Skip. I watched sundown ebb over the poplar, its fine leaves candescent. The path broadened here, reaching out in three unknown stretches. Soft churring and the crunch of pebbles broke the gloaming silence. A heavily loaded Land Rover rolled slowly between the gravestones, the engine humming with oscillation. A round-faced man with sunglasses smiled weakly from the driver’s window. He looked briefly at the mushrooms crowding my feet. I stood and walked away from the vehicle, breathing in the yew.
Stooping to pass under gnarled branches, I ambled back towards the caps, glancing at the lichen which fleeced every surface. Quite alone in one grassy area, an ancient headstone has been bleached and almost entirely consumed by new life. The carved letters are now pregnant holes, crawling with mites. The stone is stained with complex sheets of cells, lemon, emerald and bottle green. Reminded dreamily of iridescent scarabs, I left the stone to the thrips. The owl light was breaking in thick lines, cadmium cut through with cobalt. Opalescent pollution veiled the sky, skimming the clutching fingers of the trees. I walked an aimless line back to the wall. A single magpie cried through the air, its corvid rattle echoing “mag mag”. With a final caw, it beat the glossy indigo of its wings, soaring to join the murder in the copse.
Umbras stretched, the bark of the yews met the ground seamlessly. The grass thinned, revealing moist, rough soil. A tiny snail with a strong black streak through its shell clung to a mossy stump. Woodlice creaked through the flaked holes in the perforated bark. I was close to the wall again, teetering over the gradient. I had not acknowledged the crowd of trunks here, bordering the curved ridge. Beneath the pine trees, barely visible amongst the decaying needles and woody cones, there were three earth stars. Their coriaceous flesh was swollen; taupe bulbs lifted from the ground by mature, curling segments. Their pointed beaks were dark and alluring. With my toe, I nudged one of the pale sacs, which collapsed and immediately reinflated. The shot moved like squid ink in murky brine, lingering and spreading through the air its ochre bolt. Depressing another star, I watched as the smoke of spores evanesced. I coughed musty air.
Clouds swallowed the remains of the day, crowding the depleting sun. The final rays cast branched shadows over my legs. I sprang into a trot across the needled ground. Twilight came. In the sudden blue light, I struggled to find the boletes, relying on their inky hue to for orientation. The turf sank softly underfoot, viridian dissolving into darkness. A mist of rain swept from the north, lacquering my cheeks as I strode beside the pitchy shadow of the wall. I heard the shift of pebbles, catching their glint in the moon rays as they slipped from their loose foundation. I checked the reflective face of my watch, tentatively turning it to the eager, swelling moon. The hands had stopped at 1.26pm. I strained my eyes to catch the fine metal tremble over the minutes, listening to the stirring within. In the cool lunar glow, bats spattered the evening. Their tiny chirps clicked from tree to tree. I craned to trace their chatter, searching for fleeting wings. Following the artificial shingle trail, I saw the glistening path led towards a curtained light back at the timber framed house. Floundering in the creeping night, my soles ached with the pressure of stones. The trees washed into one another, an indistinct mass of branches, clacking in the faltering wind.
sharp the corner to Gipsy Lane
where whispers catch
hushed nooks between yew
drags a stick along the ridgeway
her feet deeply set
in cider leaves
~ Jo Packwood
I was still wearing my black funeral dress when Celine first came, looking as pale and as forlorn as I remembered. I had been washing dishes in the kitchen and had reached out for a towel to dry them. Something about the monotony was soothing, my body becoming numb at the repetitive motion; it made me feel better to mourn in a silent daze than to scream and cry, like waiting for the cork of a bottle to pop and explode. As I turned, she stood before me; the plate slipped through my fingers and fell onto the ground with a loud smash. Trembling, I took a step back, my mouth gaping while I tried not to react to the coldness she looked at me with.
“Celine…?” I gasped.
Her blonde hair was limp around her shoulders, greasy and unkempt in a way I had never seen. The light and lustre she was acquainted with was gone, along with the shine that filled her bright blue eyes; a feral glint had replaced it, making me shiver as I gazed at her. Her clothes were ragged and worn, falling off her body to expose the marred flesh beneath. It was the worst I had ever seen her. Celine never allowed even a hair out of place, she was always so put together; I always felt insignificant standing beside her as she whispered the latest gossip into my ear, or gushed about her ‘oh so loving’ boyfriend while she trailed behind him in a manner that I could only compare to a lovesick puppy, it was both sweet, and sickening. It made me ill to think so poorly of her.
That Monday had gone horribly wrong for her, in more ways than one.
She still had the cuts and bruises from what had happened only that Monday; the blood almost looked fresh, dripping from the slice to her forehead, and the bruises had darkened to painful puce, scattered over her bare arms and around the lower half of her legs. Hit by a car on the way home from school, an accident because she was looking at me and not the road, she didn’t see the car until she was on top of it. Bloody and broken in the middle of the road, I wasn’t sure who screamed the loudest, me or her. Celine looked just the same as she did after the accident, the last time I saw her. The back of my hand rubbed my cheek, suddenly sore from the slap she had given me that day; the first time she had raised a hand to me. It felt so long ago, even though it hadn’t even been a week. I didn’t know why she was here. Her very presence scared me, which was something I had never felt before, not when it came to her. I only started seeing what she was capable of only that week, since she was so good at bottling things up. Celine certainly let it all out before her presence today.
I probably was as much a mess as she was; my eyes red and raw with the tears I had spilled with the other mourners at the funeral, and my face was flushed from the kiss that Seth had been stolen from under the cemetery’s willow tree, my lips were bitten and swollen with blood. It was a shock when he had approached me when the funeral goers had begun to thin out, I’d always liked him, but I never expressed anything more than friendly since he was Celine’s boyfriend, although that had begun to sour around the time of her accident. It might have been what she was shouting about… I never was able to make sense of what she said when she went off on a rampage.
It was a blur how it happened. We were talking, he said something, and then he kissed me like I was the one he cared about, not Celine…
It had been wrong, and it shouldn’t have happened, but I couldn’t say no. I ran away before he said another word. It was the only thing I could do, to not betray my best friend any more than I already had. He was Celine’s, he would always be Celine’s, and he had kissed me. I didn’t understand why, but it only made me feel even worse because of what happened at the beginning of the week. Our last conversation could only be described as a one-sided shouting match, since it was all on her part; my ears were still ringing from her screams… She still hasn’t stopped screaming…
“What are you doing here? How are you here?” I asked, rubbing my arms to get rid of the erupting shivers.
She shook her head, ignored me.
“You took everything from me… My love, my life, everything was mine… And you took it from me!”
Her hands sprung out and wrapped around my throat, squeezing the breath out of my body. I grappled her wrists to pull them away from me, but she wouldn’t relent.
“Let me go… I took nothing from you… It was only an accident…” I gasped.
Spots danced in front of my eyes when her grip finally loosened. Celine wrenched her hands away as if I had burned her. I wheezed, trying to get the air back into my lungs, my insides screaming in pain. Her eyes were flames before me, and I feared that they would consume everything in their path; a trembling white finger pointed at me.
“It should have been you.” She said, an icy air filling the room and making my blood run cold. “That car should have hit you.”
Something inside of me snapped. She couldn’t blame me for her own mistake. She was the one who walked into the middle of the road. She was the one who started the argument, who shouted and screamed and slapped me in the face. If she had just looked, she wouldn’t be…
“It’s your own fault, Celine. I didn’t do anything. You did this to yourself, and you paid the price.”
Celine snarled at me.
“The price? I’m dead, you bitch! You watched them put me into the ground, crying with the rest of them as if you cared! It should have been you! They should have been burying you!”
Celine died because of her injuries. Internal bleeding, severe head trauma, snapped vertebrae; even if she had lived, she would have never walked again. She always said she wanted to leave a good-looking corpse.
“There’s nothing you can do now. Just move on and let everyone mourn you in peace.” I pleaded.
A dark look crossed her face, her eyes sinking back into her cracked skull.
“No… I’m going to make you pay. If I’m dead, I’m going to take you with me, one way or the other.”
She disappeared in the blink of an eye, as if she had never been there. I felt true terror when she said those words, because Celine always got what she wanted, whatever the cost. Whether her ghost would cost me my sanity, or she would drive me to my death, either way, I feared that I would soon be falling into a grave next to hers. I knelt down onto the floor, gathering the pieces of the broken plate with trembling hands and putting them in the bin. No use trying to fix something so broken… Celine sounded just the same.
Tears filled my eyes as I headed to the bathroom. I had this vain hope that I’d just imagined the whole thing, my subconscious mind telling me that I could have done something to save her, and my head was going against me by having her scream her accusations at me until I broke down and jumped into the ground alongside her.
When I looked in the mirror, I knew that it had happened. Around my neck were two red handprints, wrapped in a choking red chain at my throat.
Here is our final programme for event this Saturday, 2nd May! Looking forward to seeing you there.
Gothic Day, Saturday 2nd May 2015, Library of Birmingham
(Floor 4: HLS, Bookbox), 10.00 – 4.30
|HLS (60)||Bookbox (40)|
|10.00-10.25||‘Gothic Cultures’ (welcome and introduction), Serena Trowbridge|
|10.30-10.55||‘Taming the Shrew: Contemporary Art on Gothic’, Grace Williams (Chair: Bex Price)||‘Sanserif: the face of the grotesque and the gothic’, David Osbaldestin (Chair: Lucy Fraser)|
|11.00-11.25||‘The Gothic in Outer Space: Building Castles in the Sky’, Tom Knowles (Chair: Holly Cooper)||‘Contemporary Gothic: Poems by Gregory Leadbetter’ (Chair: Sophie Clarke)|
|12.00-12.25||‘Narratives of Dress – A Beautiful Life, a Beautiful Death’, Louise Chapman (Chair: Madeleine Pearce)||‘Coming Out as Werewolf’, Lisa Metherell (Chair: Grace Williams)|
|12.30-12.55||New Gothic Writing (Charlotte Newman, Abigail Cooper, Joanna Packwood, Bex Price) (Chair: Gregory Leadbetter)||‘Music and Monsters: revisiting the Gothic in television’s Hemlock Grove’, Steve Halfyard (Chair: Derek Littlewood)|
|14.00-14.25||‘The Gothic Turn in Contemporary Poetry’, Derek Littlewood (Chair: Charlotte Newman)||‘Medieval Architecture and the Gothic Revival’, Christian Frost (Chair: Tom Knowles)|
|14.30-14.55||‘Putting the black into blackberry jam: The Gothic Valley WI’, Madeleine Pearce (Chair: Serena Trowbridge)||‘Copy Gothic: Experiments in Contemporary Gothic’, Alessandro Columbano (Chair: Tom Knowles)|
|15.00-15.25||Gothic and Victorian Sensation Fiction, Anne-Marie Beller (Chair: Jessica Smith)||‘The Relevance of Ruskin: Towards a New Gothic Architecture’, Luke Nagle (Chair: Rebecca Lovell)|
|15.30-15.55||‘Gothic for Children: The Case of The Graveyard Book’, Sarah Wood (Chair: Keiran Hennion)||‘David Lynch: Bringing Horror Home’, Lucy Fraser (Chair: Jordan-Elliot Rainsford)|
|16.00-16.30||‘Standing on the Outside: The Outsider in Modern Gothic’, Steve Cotterill (Chair: Lesley Gabriel)||‘What is Gothic?’ discussion session (Students from the School of English) (Chair: Serena Trowbridge)|
|Adjourn to pub. All welcome.|
Please note: no refreshments are provided – bring your own, or visit the Library café.
Clang, Clang, Clang, Clang.
A man with stooped shoulders tossed a coin into the dry fountain and shuffled slowly towards the museum. The iron gates kept him at bay, and he knocked four times on the tough metal.
Clang, Clang, Clang, Clang.
The damp day had declined into a dark night. The city sweltered with the cold humidity, leaving a balmy texture upon the streets of crooked terrain made of cobblestones; the buildings, oppressive and ominous, stood tall and loomed over the few passerby’s in the evening’s nest. The city, dressed in sepia from the dull lamplights, dotted infrequently throughout the passage of the historic district, was quiet. The life of day went stark and lonely, as a festive balloon bobbed sadly with dwindling helium near the dry fountain.
This is Birmingham.
Clang, Clang, Clang, Clang.
The Man looked upward to reveal a partial glimpse of his face; a ruddy complexion, with a deep, clear piercing eye with soft whiskers protruding from his chin. He scratched his face and pulled his collar higher to shield himself from the misting wind.
Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang.
The balloon skidded down the way, abandoning the man awaiting entry.
The gate opened by a small stunted lady.
“You’re late,” she said.
The Man shuffled past her without a word, or look or expression.
“Have a good night.” The stunted lady locked him inside and briskly ran into the sepia descent into darkness.
Like a shadow, the Man roamed the corridors. Small echos of his shoes; leather, laced tightly, gave soft thuds on the marbled floor.
The Restorer, tucked away solemnly in a small studio, attempted desperately to maintain the life within the paintings; the oil, the decaying canvas— a constant battle of preservation. Her eyes drooped during these long days where antiquity was her only companion. A day without artificial light was a hope, a dream. She heard soft thuds approaching, a friendly reminder that she was not alone. Her head peeked outside of the studio door that remained ajar during the evening hours when the museum was closed. The Man stopped and met her stare. In the silence between them he breathed in heavily, drinking in the stench of alcohol and pasty mud. The Restorer asked a favour, to look after her studio and the precious works that lay bleeding, while they slowly dried.
Watch them. Please.
He didn’t mind.
She stepped out for a cigarette.
He waited. He tapped his left shoe. He looked down the corridor, first to the north, then to the south. Nothing moved. A gentle hum murmured from the humidifiers that controlled the temperature of the museum. Nothing stirred. No mice or rats scrambled in these hallways. Nothing lived. And he liked nothing.
Ten minutes passed, quickly and without notice. The Pre-Raphaelite remnants hung with a haughty disposition of grandeur and myth, but at night, they spoke of nothing. The Rosetti’s, the Millais’s, the Hunt’s; silent. Another picture dead on the wall.
He waited longer. No signs of the the Restorer, no signs whatsoever. He slunk through the crack of the heavy wooden door and moved himself inside of the small studio. Four walls, no windows, and a tall, towering ceiling. One bright light spread the length of a dark yet humble painting titled, The Last Chapter. A restoration in progress. The lady reading by candlelight tried desperately to finish the novel before the candle extinguished. The Man was desperate for desperation.
In the corner of the studio, a finished project stood in a deep shadow. An earthly 17th Century piece of grand proportion boasted a setting of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph resting on a plain en route to Egypt. Their donkey, was illuminated. It was freshly painted in albino colours; the sacrifice of a holy ritual. The Man walked closer to it, the thuds of his steps softer with each closing movement. He placed his face right up to the red eyes of the donkey. He breathed in deep, the intoxicating fumes of the resin, pigment and solvents. His eyes fluttered, and enjoyed the gentle high.
His eyes, darker in the shadows, pressed upon the texture. It smudged the pristine paint of the donkey’s left thigh. He squinted, the blunder was noticeable. The Man shot up and scrambled to the table, the fumes and stenches of used colours and drying pigments scattered across his mind. All the open paint was dry, flaking and unusable.
A closing of a door rang resolutely down the hall. It was the Restorer on her return. A small tinkle of keys marked her journey back to the small studio. Each step let out a louder chime.
He looked at the painting, maybe he could leave it. She would never notice. Of course she would notice. Who wouldn’t notice. He picked up a scalpel and without blinking he dug the delicate knife into the web of his fingers. It bled. Slowly, but freely; the red urine of life. And there it was. A small dollop of red. He took a pallet and let the blood drip into a small reservoir. The discordant chime coming closer and closer and he shook with pressing time. He ripped out a lock of his hair, a small delicate wisp of brown held tight between his fingers. He dipped it into the coarse blood. It clung obediently. He slashed it onto the canvas, on the leg of the donkey. It dripped, as blood does. It looked like a real wound. And it was.
The chiming stopped. The door opened, the creak echoed high into the narrow ceiling.
She smelled of cigarette smoke, now stale in living memory. She stared.
The Man told the Restorer he admired her work. She nodded and held the door open for him.
He walked down to the Pre-Raphaelite corridor, and went straight to a particular painting. It was hung at the perfect height, the face of Dante Gabriel Rossetti staring straight into him. His eyes, cold and dead like his own. Clear with madness.
In the morning, the painting was returned to its designated spot in the gallery, where it still stands today, blood and all.
~ Charlotte Newman
A shame descends upon The Stranger
Who lingers, follows, obsessed with images
Of you— The darling creature that walks lonely
In the morning, afternoon and evening’s clutches.
The beauty that is ugly without an eye to behold her
Has stricken her face with storied blemishes.
The carnal desire of acquisition coldly
And calmly rises and bows as The Stranger watches
YOU. The Stranger shuffles behind in steps with ether;
Odorless matter. Consuming, blushing, with luscious flashes
Creep into the falling body, cursing all that is holy—
Now in the hands of silent ashes.
Still, be still, wait for nothing to appear,
The fate of your blue head darkens and clashes
With the warmth of the hands that feather
His heart— like death; Bound with stitches.
It is YOU to fear as an unearthly memory of the meager
Beauty; a devastated obsession. The suspended night finishes
With the weight of an inhaled hush— that slowly
tingles just before The Stranger’s light diminishes.
~ Charlotte Newman
Exhibition Launch | April 8 | 6pm – 8pm | Highlight Space, Level 3
Please join us for the exhibition launch event, kick starting a three week takeover of the Library of Birmingham, culminating in a day of Gothic related talks on May 2, 2015 from across BCU’s Art, Design, Media and English faculties. The event promises to be a fascinating and contemporary look at all things macabre and is a great opportunity to meet some of the artists and speakers.
Exhibiting artists include:
Jivan Astfalck, Sally Bailey, Rachel Colley, Alessandro Columbano, Gregory Dunn, Jodie Drinkwater, Joanna Fursman, Anneka French, Bruno Grilo, Ole Hagen, Hannah Honeywill, Shelley Hughes, Sevven Kucuk, Jo Longhurst, Amy Lunn, Paul Newman, Wendi Ann Titmus, Cathy Wade, Grace A Williams and Rafal Zar.
Event lead: Dr Serena Trowbridge, School of English
Curator: Grace A Williams, School of Art
With thanks to Bex Price, School of English