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A Review of the Essay Collection “Gothic and Racism” Edited by Cristina Artenie

Gothic and Racism is a collection of essays about how Gothic literature reflects racist ideas and uses ideas about race to create the horror central to it as a genre. This collection, published in 2015 by Universitas Press, is edited by Cristina Artenie. I have previously reviewed Artenie’s book Dracula Invades England (2015) at this blog. When Artenie saw my blog post, she was kind enough to contact me and send me copies of her three other books. This blog post is about the first of those books. Future blog posts will be made about her other two books Dracula: A Study of Editorial Practices (2016) and Dracula: The Postcolonial Edition (2016).

Gothic and Racism is composed of a very diverse group of essays about the Gothic. While my interest in the Gothic is primarily eighteenth and nineteenth century novels, the collection includes essays on modern novels, films, a television series, and a Gothic memorial in India. While some of these essays interested me more than others, I found them all informative and insightful. My only real criticism is that some are written in too academic a language for my taste. Not wishing to write in that style is one of the reasons I left academia. I have never understood why someone would utilize a large word when they could use a small one. Consequently, some were easier to read than others, but the patient reader will find all of them of value.

Since I will not discuss all the essays here in detail, it is fair to provide a complete list of them so topics that may not interest me as much but would interest others can be brought to people’s attention. Besides Artenie’s introduction, there are ten essays altogether:

  1. “Gothic Horror and Racial Infection in Bram Stoker’s Dracula” by Avishek Parui
  2. “Abramovitch’s The Mare: Russian Imperialism and the Yiddish Gothic Novel” by Meital Orr
  3. “Strange Gods, Monstrous Aliens, and the Ignoble Savage: Revealing and Obscuring Xenophobia in H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’” by Joanna Wilson
  4. “The Appropriation of the Gothic in Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries” by Jessica Birch
  5. “Bigger Faustus: The Purpose of Diabolism in Richard Wright’s Native Son” by Mark Henderson
  6. “Women of Colour in Queer(ed) Space: Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees” by Monalesia Earle
  7. “Return of the Repressed Slaveholding Past in Three Horror Films: Chloe, Love Is Calling You (1934), Poor Pretty Eddie (1975) and White Dog (1982)” by Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns, Mariana Zárate, and Patricia Vazquez
  8. “A House Divided: Porous Borders in American Horror Story: Murder House (Fox TV, 2011)” by Lance Hanson
  9. “Forever Beyond the Forest: Dracula and the Neo-Victorian Editors” by Cristina Artenie
  10. “Mutiny Memorial: Imperial Gothic in Victorian Delhi” by Ipshita Nath and Anubhav Pradhan

To discuss each essay would be tedious and ruin the experience for readers of reading the book for themselves, but I will point out some of the interesting highlights of some of the essays.

In the introduction, Artenie begins with a discussion of how the Gothic is racist in its treatment of people from other cultures and nations. It uses “othering” of people from other cultures as a way to turn them into monsters or at least objects of terror. She argues that while the tendency to “other” people is now acknowledged and fully explored in postcolonial literature, it has been largely overlooked in Gothic studies. For example, editors of Dracula have completely ignored how the novel turns the people of Transylvania, Romania, and Eastern Europe into the Other to create an atmosphere of horror in the novel.

I found Meital Orr’s essay on Abramovitch’s The Mare particularly interesting since I had never heard of the novel. Orr discusses how oppression of the Jews in Russia led to Abramovictch’s novel. The novel really turns Western European Gothic literature’s treatment of Jewish people on its head. In most Gothic novels, the Jews are racial stereotypes or symbolic of the Wandering Jew, as in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795). Orr discusses how Melmoth the Wanderer influenced Russian literature, particularly Doestoevski and Abramovitch. In The Mare, however, Abramovitch makes the anti-Semite the Gothic devil figure. Abramovitch thereby pioneered the Yiddish Gothic novel, using racism itself as the true source of Gothic horror. I am looking forward to reading The Mare at a future date to learn more about how Abramovitch used the Gothic’s own tropes to turn it against itself.

I have to admit I have never read any of H. P. Lovecraft, which seems like a serious void in my reading of the Gothic, but I did find Joanna Wilson’s essay on “The Call of Cthulha” very interesting. I was especially interested, however, in the theme of racial degeneration in some of Lovecraft’s other works, including “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921) in which the title character commits suicide upon discovering his great-great grandmother was a white ape. This interests me since Lovecraft was writing about the same time Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing his Tarzan novels and Caspak series—in the latter, characters evolve from ape to human within one lifetime. Of course, Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is also relevant here.

Several of the essays analyzed how the African-American experience is treated in the Gothic. Mark Henderson’s essay on Richard Wright’s Native Son was interesting because he sees the novel as a continuation of the “negative Romanticism” of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. Wright plays on white people’s fear of black people by turning the main character Bigger into a type of Frankenstein monster who has been created by the whites—he becomes the monster they fear because they create him. Jessica Birch’s essay discussing Charlaine Harris’ Southern vampire mysteries points out that American Gothic is often perceived as specific to a particular region. Birch cites Toni Morrison’s statement that American Gothic is haunted by race. I found this viewpoint interesting because when I think of American Gothic, I think of Poe and Hawthorne primarily and do not feel that is true in them. Hawthorne’s Gothic comes out a Puritan mindset of guilt. Poe’s horror often has European settings and I don’t remember any characters of other races in it, though there may be. However, I also think of Charles Brockden Brown and James Fenimore Cooper who preceded Poe and Hawthorne. Brown’s Edgar Huntly and Cooper’s novels to a lesser extent rely on Native Americans to be the sources of horror for the main characters. However, today, American Gothic horror instead relies a great deal on the horrors and repercussions of slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans. How the horrors of slavery continue to affect America is wonderfully explored in this book’s essay “Return of the Repressed Slaveholding Past in Three Horror Films: Chloe, Love Is Calling You (1934), Poor Pretty Eddie (1975) and White Dog (1938). The first film is racist in itself while the other two films explore the legacy of slavery and racism. However, these legacies are not limited to the United States. Monalesia Earle’s essay in this book discusses Ann Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, a novel set in Nova Scotia that explores black, female, and queer issues.

Lance Hanson’s essay on American Horror Story: Murder House made me convinced I never want to watch the TV show as being too violent and over the top for me. However, his essay is interesting because of what it says about American Gothic. He quotes Teresa Goddu’s Gothic America: “the [American] gothic tells of the historical horrors that make national identity possible yet must be repressed in order to sustain it,” and then he shows how the TV show reflects this truth. He also quotes a review of the show by James Donaghy in The Guardian which reflects what for me is the problem with most horror films and TV shows today: “It fails miserably to differentiate between paying homage to horror and throwing every single horror trope into a blender and pouring the results over our heads.” I feel there is no true sincerity in horror film today, which makes many of them more disgusting or laughable than truly scary or worth watching. An example is Sleepy Hollow (1999), starring Johnny Depp, which begins with a powerful Gothic atmosphere but by the end of the movie becomes camp, which completely ruined the film for me.

I found Nath and Pradhan’s article on the Mutiny Memorial in New Delhi a rather surprising essay to include in a collection focused mostly on books and film. However, the authors make a good case for discussing why this memorial to British and Indian soldiers who died in an 1857 mutiny against British rule has a Gothic design. The authors discuss other Gothic buildings of the time period including the Palace of Westminster (the parliament building) and the Albert Memorial as examples of how Gothic architecture came to be equated with Englishness and the English national identity. Consequently, a Gothic monument in India was a way to express English dominance of India.

My primary interest in this book, of course, was the two essays on Dracula. Avishek Parui’s essay “Gothic Horror and Racial Infection in Bram Stoker’s Dracula” builds a lot on previous scholarship about race in Dracula and the concept that Count Dracula and his vampirism reflect a fear of Eastern European immigration to England. Parui expands on the idea by talking about how the British and French at the time had pseudo-scientific fears of degeneration and biological regression. Anthropologists of the time promoted racial inferiority beliefs in the possibility of evolutionary reversal to a lesser race, which they feared could occur through racial mixing. Of particular interest was how women with masculine features were seen as degenerate, excessively erotic, and lacking in maternal feeling. This for me explains a lot about the way more outspoken women in British literature and cross-dressing women are treated in eighteenth and nineteenth century novels. See my previous posts on this topic on Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1802), Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1754) and Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1809). In Dracula, Lucy reflects this kind of mannish woman in her remark that she would like to marry all three of her suitors. This makes her a deviant, monopolistic woman, and consequently, degenerate and more likely to fall into Dracula’s power.

Finally, Cristina Artenie’s essay on editorial practices in Dracula was the one I really read the book for. This essay is likely an earlier or shorter version of the book that followed it, Dracula: A Study of Editorial Practices, which I intend to review in full at this blog later, so I won’t go into great detail on it, but Artenie makes an incredible case for just how much foolishness has gone into Dracula studies. She references five major annotated editions of Dracula and a few minor ones. She notes that while the novel only has seven chapters in total set in Romania/Transylvania, they are the most heavily annotated. Unfortunately, the annotations often rely on quoting Stoker’s notes rather than his actual sources. They also rely on inaccurate sources that were written by people from outside Romania/Transylvania. Worst of all, they often rely on quoting one another rather than getting to the bottom of sources. The result is a continual repetition of misinformation. The editors also often reference their own travels through Romania on “Dracula tours” and their conversations with people they met in Romania, many of whom are not Romanian. Furthermore, they focus on looking for similarities in the Romanian landscape and historical places to affirm similarities with the novel rather than focusing on the differences from the text. They also love to rely on foreign sources about Vlad Tepes and even exaggerate them to make them more grotesque, ignoring Romanian sources that report how much Tepes’ opponents slandered him. Worst of all, they fail in their annotations to distinguish between what is fiction/fantasy and what is reality in Dracula when it comes to depictions of Romania. As I previously stated in my review of Artenie’s Dracula Invades England, her revelation about these issues that reflect a preconceived if unintentional racism toward the Romanian people in the novel and by its editors is groundbreaking in Dracula scholarship because it increases our understanding of the novel and its cultural influence, which has included making Dracula the first thing that comes to mind when Romania is mentioned. For more on this topic, see also my blog post about my own recent visit to Romania. I admit to being guilty of exactly what Artenie is complaining about—going to Romania to search for Dracula connections as if Romania were some sort of Gothic Disneyland. It is not, and frankly, I came away disappointed by the lack of Dracula atmosphere in the country, despite efforts by the tourism industry, but I found so much that is wonderful about Romania that I hope to return some day. I left Romania feeling what an injustice has been done to it by Stoker’s novel, and then I discovered Artenie’s work and was thrilled to know at least one Romanian is fighting to dispel these myths and the rampant racism that has resulted.

Gothic and Racism is well worth reading, and I highly recommend it to all interested in Gothic studies. I hope the contributors all continue to make their voices heard in revealing the role racism has played in Gothic fiction, and by extension, helping to heal much of our Gothic historical past.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

 

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