CfP: Penny Dreadful, Gothic Reimagining and Neo-Victorianism in Modern Television

2000x2667_nmc5h5It’s been less than a year since Penny Dreadful ended dramatically in its third season, but this week brings the announcement of a collection of academic essays dedicated to the show. Edited by Manchester Metropolitan University‘s Jon Greenaway and Stephanie Reid, the collection looks to explore the show’s Gothic and Victorian heritage, as well as its contemporary contexts.

If you’re working on Penny Dreadful, do consider submitting an abstract to Penny Dreadful: Gothic Reimagining and Neo-Victorianism in Modern Television. The deadline is 15 May. Click here to download a Word version of the CfP. Text version follows:


Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) has become one of the most critically well-regarded shows of the post-millennial Gothic television revival, drawing explicitly on classic tropes, texts and characters throughout its three-season run. However, despite the show’s critical success and cult following, a substantive academic examination of the show has yet to be undertaken.

This edited collection seeks to address the current lack within Gothic studies scholarship, and situate Penny Dreadful as a key contemporary Gothic television text. This collection will seek to trace the link between the continued expansion of Gothic television, alongside the popular engagement with Neo-Victorianism. In addition, the collection seeks to examine notions around the aesthetic importance of contemporary Gothic that become particularly prominent against the narrative re-imaginings that occur within Penny Dreadful. This collection explores exactly where Gothic resides within this reflexive, hybridized and intertextual work; in the bodies, the stories, the history, the styling, or somewhere else entirely?

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Possible contributions could include, but are no means limited to the following:

  • Gothic adaptation and/or appropriation?
  • Pastiche and parody and Gothic aesthetics
  • ‘Global Gothic’ in the sense of its commercialisation
  • Neo-Victorianism (styling, politics, economics); as well as explorations of the impact of ‘historicizing’ Gothic
  • Representation of gender within the text, specifically female monstrosity
  • The Post/Colonial context, as well racialized characterisation and presentation
  • The reworking/restyling of monsters in contemporary Gothic
  • Consideration of a ‘Romance’ aesthetic and how this alters conceptions of ‘Gothic’ texts and the influence of ‘romantic’ themes/styles in contemporary Gothic

What the proposal should include:

An extended abstract of 500 words (for a 6,000-word chapter) including a proposed chapter title, a clear theoretical approach and reference to some relevant sources.

Please also provide your contact information, institutional affiliation, and a short biography.

Abstracts should be sent as a word document attachment to j.greenaway@mmu.ac.uk or stephanie.m.reid@stu.mmu.ac.uk by no later than May 15th 2017 with the subject line, “Penny Dreadful Abstract Submission.”

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Cultural Afterlives of Frankenstein

0467-lego-8804-frankenstein-monster2The following post was originally delivered as part of a Cardiff BookTalk screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). After watching the film, three academics (including myself) delivered short presentations on the story’s cultural contexts. A report of the event will be available shortly, but you can find the contents of my presentation reproduced below, with some minor modifications and corrections.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) the creature has the following to say about human communication:

I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it. (Chapter 12, paragraph 9)

Here the creature identifies communication (in this case, speech) as a stimulant that, when used correctly, produces human emotion – a ‘godlike science’ much like the one Victor Frankenstein used to give him life.

Fittingly, it was Mary Shelley’s communication of emotion nearly 200 years ago that provided the spark of life for the Frankenstein myth, which is still very much with us. She didn’t immortalise Frankenstein alone, however. Other texts, in other media and over many decades, have contributed to the legend and remade it along the way.

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)Rather than tracing all of these adaptations and revisions, which is a formidable task even for Wikipedia, instead I want to address one question:

What does it take to make a text immortal?

In his 1987 reception history of Mary Shelley’s novel, Chris Baldick suggests that all books (and Frankenstein in particular) have this potential:

Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. […Shelley’s] novel manages to achieve a double feat of self-referentiality, both its composition and its subsequent cultural status miming the central moments of its own story. Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole, and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley’s textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (p. 30)

For Baldick, then, something about the novel itself encourages textual resurrection and transformation. This by itself is not enough, of course. In an article about the cultural success of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield suggest that ‘the key to cultural survival of a text is to adapt it to a changing audience; the key to cultural growth of a reputation is to expand it beyond the text’s native reach’ (p. 432).

As demonstrated by their choice of authors, the actual content of the stories matters less for the immortality of a text than the cultural processes that take over once they are written. Shakespeare’s melodrama is worlds away from Austen’s understated comedy of manners, and Shelley’s serious, somber work again differs dramatically from Shakespeare and Austen. There is no exact formula for writing an immortal story. Instead (for Troost and Greenfield), it takes three forces: fictionalisation of the author, adaptation, and travesty. So. both author and text need to come alive in fiction as well as in history, and new audiences need to feel free to use the author’s name and work in ways they were probably never meant to be used. Only then does a text enter the realm of myth.

RothwellMaryShelleyIconic images and ‘little personal stories’ are key ingredients in bringing the author to life (p. 442). We’ve got an iconic image, painted by Richard Rothwell in the mid nineteenth century, and we have the story of Frankenstein’s inception at Villa Diodat, by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. This is the story that is most often revisited when Shelley makes an appearance in fiction. While Mary Shelley herself hasn’t quite reached the same level of fictionalisation as Shakespeare or Austen, she has made cameos in a number of films and television shows – usually works of genre fiction (fantasy, horror, sci-fi).

In a 1997 episode of Highlander: The Series, Duncan MacLeod visits Lord Byron and the Shelleys, inspiring Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. In the 10th season of the TV show Supernatural, which aired just last year, the Stynes are an ancient family of magic practitioners, who had to change their surname from Frankenstein after Mary Shelley wrote about them. In the 1990 film Frankenstein, Unbound (based on a 1973 novel of the same name), a scientist travels back in time to meet Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, as well as Mary Shelley herself (played by Bridget Fonda). In a 2006 episode of the children’s animated series Time Warp Trio, Frankenstein’s creature becomes real and shows up in the main character’s apartment, necessitating a trip back to 1816 Switzerland to bring him face to face with his creator – Mary Shelley.

Fictionalisation of the author? Check. What about adaptation, then? As Troost and Greenfield write:

Works of literature prosper not through simple reproductions but through re-interpretations, quotations and transformations […] Megastardom for a writer comes only by being adapted to interest an audience far beyond the natural one. (p. 431, 438)

Shelley’s other work has received minimal attention from adaptors, but her best-known novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, absolutely fits this category. Its most iconic adaptation, the 1931 film version directed by James Whale, has also spawned countless adaptations, references, and reimaginings.

Again, it would be futile to try and take you through more than a small sampling of these adaptations, but as it’s always more effective to show than to tell, I’ve put together a brief montage:

The last clip in this montage is from an episode of Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, a show that ran from 2010 to 2012 on the Adult Swim network. In the show, fictional and historical characters seek help at Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory, which is accessible through a series of space-time portals. The scene, in which Frankenstein’s creature and Adolf Hitler have a beer together at the local pub, is one great example of the unexpected ways in which Frankenstein’s creature can be read.

The show could also easily be considered a case of what Troost and Greenfield call travesty – extreme adaptations that stretch our definition of the term. While some may even appear to attack the text they are adapting, Troost and Greenfield argue that they too are vital to a text’s immortality: ‘travesties are themselves markers of high reputation and respond to textual transformations that have already occurred’, and ‘transformations that play against the forms and reputations of the works actually promote them while mocking them’ (p. 439).

In the case of Frankenstein, we have examples of the story stretching far beyond what we would traditionally call adaptation. The text is embedded in our very language. Think of Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat, the Frankenfish, Frankenfoods or Frankenstorms. My current research is on Frankenfiction. All of these references carry the text far beyond its natural habitat, to new audiences and new meanings.

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Without all three of these elements – adaptation, travesty, and fictionalization – our relationship to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be quite different, 200 years on. In the end, as Baldick argues: ‘That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings which follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth’ (p. 4).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and James Whale’s Frankenstein, and Kenneth Branaugh’s Frankenstein, and Pemberley Digital’s Frankenstein are all Frankenstein. Every time we read or watch them, we recreate Frankenstein as well.

In the end, the story of Frankenstein has power because we give it power, by using it over and over again. If you love Frankenstein, then – whether we’re talking about the novel or the film or some other version – the best thing you can do to ensure it lives on for another 200 years is to keep watching it, keep reading it, and keep re-writing it. Keep re-stitching it into something new. And while you’re at it, add a few anachronous bolts (or gears) for good measure.

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References

Baldick, Chris, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987)
Troost, Linda, and Sayre Greenfield, ‘“Strange Mutations”: Shakespeare, Austen and Cultural Success’, Shakespeare, 6 (2010), 431–45

Review: Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016)

11452529_oriNOTE: This review contains minor spoilers for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), and Lionsgate’s Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). Proceed at your own risk.

Last week I finally made it to see Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, the film adaptation of a historical monster mashup that I’ve written a lot about, Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009). The venue? A Utopolis cinema in Almere, the Netherlands, complete with Dutch subtitles (about which I could probably write a whole separate blog post).

Having arrived rather late to the party, I already knew from various critical and word-of-mouth reviews that I shouldn’t expect too much from this adaptation. The problem that most critics seemed to have was that the film lacks a clear creative vision. This is a complaint I can agree with. Pride + Prejudice + Zombies simply tries to be too many things at once – horror, romance, comedy – without seemingly mastering any of these genres. Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin was wrong in predicting that the film would ‘probably get its money’ regardless, however. It’s pretty much officially a box office flop.

94274The acting was competent overall, though not particularly stellar considering the long line of actors who have played these roles. Sam Riley, though smouldering, is no Colin Firth, and while (for me) Lily James definitely tops Kiera Knightly in the list of best Elizabeth Bennets, her character isn’t really done much justice in this particular adaptation. (Of course, few can beat the wonderful Ashley Clements in my books, of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) Matt Smith is the one shining exception to the general mediocrity of the performances in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, and his portrayal of Mr. Collins (‘Parson Collins) may be my favourite version of the character to date. Mrs. Bennet (played by Sally Phillips) also deserves a mention.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. The wardrobe and music were both consistently excellent, and did a brilliant job of negotiating the genre shifts between horror and costume drama. Likewise, the pop-up introduction to the zombie apocalypse that forms the film’s title sequence is wonderfully atmospheric, seamlessly blending Regency and horror aesthetics. In terms of the film itself, there were some nice visual touches and translations from page to screen. For example, the scene in which the Bennet sisters are introduced has them polishing guns rather than reading or sewing, which is passed off more subtly (and thus humorously) on screen than it ever could be on the page. A scene where Lizzy deftly plucks corpse flies from the air, kung-fu style, to the bemusement of Mr. Darcy also stands out as particularly, absurdly entertaining, as does a later scene where she and Darcy engage in both verbal and physical sparring.

Queue the obligatory 'suiting up' scenes.
Cue the obligatory ‘suiting up’ scenes.

Only the last of these scenes is actually to be found in Seth Grahame-Smith’s literary mashup, which brings me to another interesting point about this adaptation: it’s not actually particularly faithful to the novel it’s allegedly based on. The film version of Pride + Prejudice + Zombies features many entirely new subplots and character arcs. Sometimes this is clearly to meet the needs of a cinematic narrative, as opposed to a prose one (the final, climactic action sequence springs to mind here). Sometimes, however, the reasons for these changes are less obvious, and in a few cases simply baffling. This of course raises the question of the extent to which it is really an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or actually just another zombie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

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A shot from of the eerily out-of-place horror scenes in the film.

This seems like a good moment to raise one of the points I found particularly problematic about Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. Namely, and it’s worth noting that Wired disagrees with me here, it may be the only Pride and Prejudice retelling I have ever seen in which Elizabeth Bennet is not really the hero. Instead, from the opening scene to the final camera pan, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies seems set on establishing Mr. Darcy as its action star. The story begins with him, he is given most of the good fight scenes, and the central conflict is between him and Wickham (Jack Huston), who is the film’s central antagonist (besides the zombie horde). This seems like a very odd choice considering the recent spate of financially and critically successful Hollywood films starring female action heroes (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens spring instantly to mind). Lizzie Bennet was practically gift-wrapped, by both Austen and Grahame-Smith, as a spiritual continuation of this trend.

I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.
I wish THIS scene had actually been in the film.

Likewise, the Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Lena Headey) barely gets any action in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies. In Grahame-Smith’s novel (if it’s even fair to compare the two texts, considering how different they actually are), she gets an epic, fighting showdown with Elizabeth, but in the film Elizabeth fights one of de Bourgh’s goons instead, while the older woman looks on. The movie is full of big talk about women ‘trained for battle, not cooking,’ but in the end it simply fails to convincingly sell me this narrative. Lizzie Bennet may have been front and centre on the film’s posters, but somehow she fails to achieve the same level of agency in the film itself.

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The film ultimately had far too few of these moments.

The class politics in Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, however, are arguably much better developed in the film than they are in Grahame-Smith’s book, though even here there were a few missed opportunities. In the novel the link between the zombie plague and the lower classes is quite subtle. More so, certainly, than it is in Quirk Books’ follow-up novel  Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009). Two plotlines – the one that focuses on a besieged London, and the one involving George Wickham’s Christian zombie ‘aristocrats’ – seem specifically designed to call into question the way the upper-class characters deal with their lower-class countrymen, most of whom are now zombies (the film doesn’t bother with the book’s dainty use of the term ‘unmentionables’).

George Wickham, hero of the people.
George Wickham, hero of the people.

A scene in which Wickham comes to Lady de Bourgh for money to continue his zombie rehabilitation project at St. Lazarus Church is especially interesting in this regard, framing the rich as cold, uncaring individuals who would much rather just kill the poor than relinquish a single cent – even if it might mean saving England. Wickham’s obsession with money and charity completely makes sense in this context. If it weren’t for a certain deus ex machina (zombina?) near the end of the film, I would have been inclined to champion him as the film’s real hero. In any case, Darcy and Elizabeth don’t come off looking very good in the area of zombie class politics.

Overall, then Pride + Prejudice + Zombies is a flawed film in which a lengthy, troubled production process really shows in the finished product. It’s not the film I would have made, but it still has its moments. It’s just a pity there weren’t many, many more of them.

Now Reading: In Frankenstein’s Shadow by Chris Baldick

71tTOwC912LFor a bit of inspiration, this past week I’ve been (re)reading In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-century Writing, by Chris Baldick. I picked up my copy secondhand for a song at Troutmark Books, in Cardiff’s Castle Arcade, paged through it on the way home, then left it virtually untouched on my ‘to-read’ bookshelf for the next six months. Fortunately, since the Frankenstein myth plays a relatively large role in my current chapters, I now have the chance to delve back in.

Whether it’s due to the subject matter or the skill of the author, Frankenstein’s Shadow hasn’t aged much since it was first published back in 1987 (frighteningly enough, the same year I was born). Baldick’s monograph is not only useful because of how it deconstructs and re-historicises the Frankenstein myth. In many ways, it actually provides a template for all modern myth — particularly the mythologising of the literary canon. It’s a book about monsters, adaptation, and the self-construction of a cultural imaginary.

In the book’s introduction, Baldick describes the difference between a myth and a literary text:

A literary text will usually, since the advent of printing, be fixed in its form but may be complex and multivocal in its meaning. A myth, on the other hand, is open to all kinds of adaptation and elaboration, but it will preserve at the same time a basic stability of meaning. (p. 2)

In other words, in order for a literary text (or, by extension, any work of art) to become truly ‘immortal’ (or undead?), and to be thoroughly adaptable in the public sphere, it must first be mythologised to some degree. We need to be familiar enough with it on a collective level to play around with its basic plot points, structures, and themes in a meaningful way.

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Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein (1974).

Baldick spends much of the book discussing the history of Frankenstein’s publication and reception, always commenting back on how this impacts our understanding of what, in the most simplistic sense, is a completed, unchanging narrative. He offers, for example, an overview of the changes between Mary Shelley’s original (and anonymous) 1818 edition, and the 1831 edition that came to usurp it. The 1831 edition is still the one most reprints of the novel reproduce.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Baldick mainly sticks to nineteenth-century examples of the myth’s evolution, though he does also consider twentieth-century afterimages in, for example, the work of Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence. As he traces the course of the Frankenstein myth from 1818 through the rest of the nineteenth century, it becomes clear how the story takes on a life of its own. Baldick takes full advantage of this pun, even exploring the idea of the book as monster in Chapter 3 (‘The Monster Speaks’):

Books themselves behave monstrously towards their creators, running loose from authorial intention and turning to mock their begetters by displaying a vitality of their own. […] There is a sense in which all writing must do this, but with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the process goes much further. This novel manages to achieve a double feat of self-referentiality, both its composition and its subsequent cultural status miming the central moments of its own story. Like the monster it contains, the novel is assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole, and as a published work, it escapes Mary Shelley’s textual frame and acquires its independent life outside it, as a myth. (p. 30)

Perhaps because my current research is on the subject of monsters in remix culture, I was especially struck by Baldick’s description of the novel as ‘assembled from dead fragments to make a living whole’. How do we classify texts as living or dead? To what extent is this process of reanimation vital to art as a whole, and not just to the novel? These are not questions that Baldick really answers, but the simple fact that he highlights them places his discussion in a much different light than much contemporary literary criticism.

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LEGO Frankenstein.

A similar richness of thought and metaphor is present throughout the entire book. Another such observation, simple yet refreshingly thoughtful, is Baldick’s statement about the authority of those texts and readings that follow Shelley’s novel. For him, they are central to the creation and maintenance of the Frankenstein myth:

The point here is not to lament the corruption and distortion of an authentic literary original, nor to correct erroneous departures from the truth of a ‘real’ Frankenstein story. […] That series of adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings which follows upon Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth. (p. 4)

This is a claim Baldick certainly goes on to prove again and again throughout Frankenstein’s Shadow – that, far from being overshadowed by Shelley’s ‘original’ novel, these ‘adaptations, allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies, and plain misreadings’ are a core part of the story of Frankenstein. Shelley’s novel was already firmly in the shadow if its own myth by the end of the nineteenth century.

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Frankenstein’s Creature as imagined in Penny Dreadful (2014-present).

If you’re at all interested in the history of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the politics of monsters, or just classic horror more generally, I highly recommend this book. Much like Frankenstein itself, Frankenstein’s Shadow connects various circuits of thought in a way that sends off creative sparks long after you’ve stopped reading.

 

Happy Birthday Jane Austen!

Today marks the very first Jane Austen Day – which would also bepride-and-prejudice-and-zombies the author’s 239th birthday were she still alive. While a lot of websites have been celebrating by listing 30 tips from Jane Austen for a successful life (“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”) or the top 8 modern film adaptations of her work, I’d like to go with just a couple of adaptations hopefully off the beaten path of your normal Austen experience, based on her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice. Here, in no particular order, are some Austen suggestions:

1. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Graham-Smith (pictured above). This mashup of zombie horror and classic literature is surprisingly faithful to the original. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters also comes highly recommended. And who knows, you may find new and unexpected depths to your favourite Austen text – or, if you’re coming at it as a horror fan, you might discover just how hilarious Austen and her writing was.

71v6DClqyKL2. Jane Austen paper dolls, which also come in a specifically Pride and Prejudice variety. Now you can reenact classic Austen stories – and make up your own – in the safe (and private) context of your own home.

3. Anything by Pemberley Digital, but specifically their Lizzie Bennet Diaries YouTube series. This excellent adaptation of Austen’s novel brings Pride and Prejudice into the digital age, and with its bite-sized format it’s a great thing to turn to in your spare time (or in the train to work, which is where I watched most of it). You can watch the pilot episode below:

I’d love to read your Jane Austen suggestions. If you know of a strange adaptation or homage to Austen’s work, post it in the comments!