The best recent science fiction and horror – A roundup from The Guardian

Just to keep your reading list growing, here’s a round-up from The Guardian on the latest and greatest publications in science fiction and horror.

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Gothic Blooms: The Dark Sunflower


Following my post on Bloody and Monstrous Flowers. I thought I would picture my gothic sunflower. I have grown black tulips in the past but this is much more beautiful and surprising. I have commented on flowers that are thought of as monstrous in my book. These often include artificial hybrids, double blooms, freakish colours and out of season flowering. There is no denying that there is also a terrible beauty to be found in such luxuriants and this black/purple sunflower is  stunning….darkness made visible.

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Wolf Alice Late at the Library


There is a Late at the Library Fairy Tale and Wonderland Event at the BL on 21st November which looks really magical. You can see a performance of Wolf Alice and take part in some scarily dark adventures through mirrors and looking glasses when Alice and her mirror image Alice explore their darker sides in a funny and gently disturbing piece by acclaimed performance artists Cocoloco. Poetic and just a little naughty. Adjoa Andoh peforms Wolf-Alice, the brilliantly gothic, twisted short story by Angela Carter with live illustrations by Gabi Froden. I really want to go to this….

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Bloody and Monstrous Flowers: These Tulips Should Be Behind Bars


There has been a lot of discussion about Poppies recently in relation to remembrance. I was outed as a botanist by a  journalist in The Independent  at the OGOM Company of Wolves conference because of my earlier work Botany, Sexuality and women’s writing, 1760-1830, from Modest Shoot to Forward Plant and I do still have a contract with Reaktion for a book on the Secret Life of the Tulip. Though I can’t imagine completing this any time soon, I do get asked what unites the different strands of my research (vampirism, botany, etc.). Well this poem for one! There is a connection to the wreathes of poppies as the tulips become ‘red sinkers’,  around the neck.   I’ve always been fascinated by the dark and bloody  imagery of these tulips. They are ‘excitable’, vampiric, tongued and monstrous, they eat up the ‘oxygen’ and they ‘should be behind bars like dangerous animals’. There is something of the medical or body gothic here too that I like so much in the work of Tracy Fahey.

The poet is a patient in a sanatorium ‘swabbed’ clean of her ‘loving associations’ and attended by nurses and anesthetists. In a nightmare vision of drowning, ‘bright needles’ and recovery, the unwanted ‘too red’ tulips speak to the redness of the body’s wounds. Open mouthed and vivid, they turn to gaze on the faceless, shadowy woman they obliterate.  I have been thinking about this poem recently in relation to our Books of Blood project (which is going to have a poetry strand). I wanted to post it in celebration of that and of gothic flowers everywhere. I find it remarkable, scared and bare, the word play (‘stupid pupil’), the uncompromising darkness (‘I didn’t want any flowers’), the wilful loss of self (‘I have no face’), there are no words for how good a poet Plath is. I guarantee you will never see tulips in the same way again.

‘Tulips’ (Sylvia Plath)
The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.


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The Cinematic History of Fake Blood

Claret, the red stuff, gore, ichor, life fluid, strawberry jam, protesters free-bleeding at the gates of parliament. It seems like blood is everywhere. Pertinent given the conversations that I have been having with Sam regarding the Books of Blood project on which she is currently working.

Later this year, I’m hoping to catch the Blood exhibition at the London Jewish Museum. Whilst at the Globe (where I moonlight), the season has ended and I am watching the red stains fade from the stage. Spilt by countless tragic heroes and malignant villains, these remains tell the story of what has been. In 2014, so many arteries were opened during Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus that the production got the reputation for leaving them fainting in the aisles. The sight of blood and the opening of the body has an intense affect on the viewer.

Of course making convincing blood is a lot harder than you might think. And to prove this the people at have made ‘The Cinematic History of Fake Blood’, a video that gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to mixing up believable blood. It’s not for the faint of heart.

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Gothic Doubling and the Double, Gothically by Katherine Bowers

Over on the Facebook site, Bill has shared this very interesting article about the Double as a Gothic trope. Written by Katherine Bowers, ‘Gothic Doubling and the Double, Gothically’ looks at Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double (1846) and how it has been reproduced and, as it were, doubled in films.

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ITV This Morning: Frankenstein

Here’s some footage from ITV This Morning’s ‘History of Horror’ on Frankenstein with Charlie Higson, yours truly, Prof. William Hughes and Sir Chris Frayling. I seem to be the only one in the studio and they already had their narrative in place but it was nice to be asked.

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Review of Gothic Manchester’s ‘What Lies Beneath’


There was a deep irony to my journey north for ‘‘What Lies Beneath’, the symposium to mark the Gothic Manchester Festival because what lay beneath the venue was a very big part of my youth – The Cornerhouse. Cornerhouse was founded by the Greater Manchester Visual Arts Trust in 1985. It specialised in contemporary arts and was a champion for independent film which it showcased over its three screens.When it closed after thirty years I had not imagined that it would one day become part of MMU!! Growing up in North Manchester, Cornerhouse was about as cosmopolitan as it got in the eighties. I can still remember the thrill of first encountering the arty bookshop and bar (the only place in Manchester where you could pick up a copy of the New York Review of Books). Friends from my teens would go on to exhibit there as contemporary artists and Cornerhouse publishing invested in Misdirect Movies, a book I contributed to in 2013. I was sad to see its demise and to view it as one of the forgotten attractions of Manchester (along with Belle Vue and Meng and Eckers).


‘What Lies Beneath’ was quite unsettling as a concept for me therefore. I’m sure the current MMU staff were open to the irony, even if they did not perhaps have a deep connection to the history of the building they had occupied.

Now an interloper on the Northern Gothic scene; I travelled to the conference via a 6 a.m. train from St Albans, accompanied by my dissertation student Daisy. I was keen to meet up with old friends, Sue Chaplin and Bill Hughes go back to my MA studies in Manchester and I would have the chance to talk to Tracy Fahey (having spoken with her about the ‘Books of Blood’ project) and Lorna Piatti-Farnell of GANZA fame who was visiting from NZ. I was looking forward to seeing Xavier, the bright star of Gothic MMU, too. We met at the first OGOM conference in 2010 when he was still a student of Catherine Spooner’s (she is a now a good friend and contributor to OGOM).

The papers for the symposium were richly diverse, a heady mix of dark romance (Bill Hughes), holy ghosts (Simon Marsden), gothic food (Lorna Piatti-Farnell), Lovecraft (Jon Greenaway), The Rocky Horror Show (Sarah Cleary), going underground (Anna Powell) and sickness and death (Tracy Fahey, Claire Nally, Siobhan Maguire-Broad). Sadly I missed the last panel on ‘The Weird’ (Sarah Winter, Richard Gough Thomas, Morag Rose) which also looked very pertinent.

The stand out papers (apart from Bill’s entertaining foray into gothic romance and Lorna’s kitchen kitsch) were by Claire Nally and Tracy Fahey. Their presentations opened up new areas of inquiry for me,  combining imagination and rigour. Tracy works at the interface between fine art, medicine and the gothic and her paper ‘Unveiling Occluded Patient Narratives’ looked into the liminal landscapes of chronic illness. I learned a lot from this, how embroidery could represent rage and not contentment, and how ‘host’ could have a multiplicity of meanings when used by cancer patients. That wounds when showcased can evoke the holy saints and tie in to a wider theme of sinning and that silent patient narratives can shout, refusing to whisper in the presence of the many witnesses to their pain. I was genuinely stirred up by this material and wanted to know more about what fine art could bring to gothic studies.

Claire Nally’s chilling exploration of Crossbones (‘Graveyard Writing, Memory and Submerged Sites of Mourning’) focussed on the final resting place of Victorian fallen women, and was darkly engaging and genuinely unsettling. Such forgotten child/women are the gothic doubles of the Victorian angels in the house. Nally disinterred history and questioned the meaning of gothic tourism. The secret histories of the women who lay there made me think of An Inspector Calls (because we are all implicated in such deaths) and  Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. In this novel the young Anne Catherick is a physical resource for many a Victorian patriarch and lies in another woman’s grave, whilst Laura, whose name is inscribed on it, is imprisoned in an institution (Anne is in fact the impoverished illegitimate daughter of Laura’s father). The darkness of Nally’s paper made visible the violent and unspoken history of such women.

‘What Lie’s Beneath’ came to mean a lot on this trip, a symbol of the dark history of Victorian women, occluded patient narratives, desire beneath the darkness, and my own misspent youth, buried forever in the vaults of the forgotten Cornerhouse.

Thanks to Cornerhouse which opened my eyes and to Gothic MMU – the dark phoenix to rise from its ashes….my mind is blown.


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Black Dogs and Hell Hounds

Ted Hughes described this time of year as ‘The month of the drowned dog’ in his evocative poem ‘November’ where after long rain ‘the land  was sodden as the bed of an ancient lake/ Treed with iron and was bird less’. With the darkening days and inevitable rain November also brings with it ‘the black dog’ (the name Churchill famously gave to his depression). The actual legend of the Black dog or ‘Barghest’ is very intriguing. The spectral black dog is found in many parts of England. There are many Black Dog Lanes up and down the county. As a rule the Black Dog is described as about as big as a calf, shaggy and with burning, fiery eyes. It is sometimes called Capelthwaite, Padfoot or Shag in the North and it is generally death to touch or strike it. There is an interesting article on the Black Dog in vol 59 of Folklore published by Folklore Society  and it also gets a mention in Katharine Briggs, Fairies in Tradition and Literature (which is an excellent source for most things fay).

Whitby, the setting of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula is often linked to this mythical dog (and of course Dracula arrives in Whitby in the form of a dog or wolf). In a fun twist an app has been launched exploring the black dog legend to coincide with the 125th anniversary of Stoker’s visit to Whitby. It takes visitors on a tour of places linked to the mythical dog  (a six-mile walk along the Cleveland Trail from Kettleness to Whitby – so not for the faint hearted)


By coincidence there also appeared this month a well researched BBC feature on The Terrifying Story of the Hell Hound


Black dog, drowned dog, phantom dog, dog eat dog. Does anyone remember Dogtanian the canine musketeer? Just the tune of this animation alone is guaranteed to chase away the black dog or what Kaja has called the Post Hallowe’en Blues……absolutely dogtastic!!!

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Wilderness, National Parks and Hybrid Wolves

My good friend Karen Graham (who I met at the inaugural OGOM conference) sent me this very interesting article, ‘Coydogs and Lynxcats and Pizzlies, Oh My’. Though the title is a little ridiculous, it is an interesting look at science’s attitude towards hybridity in animals and how taxonomy has created and maintained, what are sometimes false, categories. This desire to label and separate species reflects the desire to reinforce boundaries. In relation to wolves and their ability to breed with dogs, I think the fear and hatred towards wolf-dogs is caused by the mingling of the wild and the domestic. During my current research I have read a number of articles about the re-introduction of wolves in southern France and rural Norway. Despite being on the other side of the Atlantic, similar themes occur. Wolf-dogs are considered tainted by both proponents of wolf re-introduction and those who are against it.

For those who support the arrival of the wolves, wolf-dogs represent a dilution of the ‘pure’ essence of wilderness that the wolf represents. For those who are against the arrival of wolves, the wolf-dog shows the ease with which wolves can invade domestic spaces. There is a recurring narrative that wolves have been re-introduced by nefarious ecological groups and that these wolves are not ‘natural’. The evidence for this is often that they do not show the correct amount of fear towards humans and have been seen in areas of human habitation: they are not wolf-like enough to be real wolves. From the point of view of my research, this is particularly powerful as it acts a counter-narrative to the fear of werewolves. Rather than fearing that man is becoming more wolf-like, there is a fear that wolves are becoming more domesticated and losing their connection to the wild. Indeed, some anti-wolf activists consider the wolf to be symbolic of urban ecologists who have lost touch with the reality of rural existence.

What intrigues me, however, is that on both sides of the argument regarding the re-introduction of wolves certain descriptive words are used time and again. Wolves are ‘pure’, ‘wild’, and related to the ‘wilderness’. Those who support the return of the wolf see it as way that we can regain a lost innocence of the landscape and return to a time before mankind spoiled the wilderness. The re-emergence of the wolf is a symbol that the damage we have done to the natural world is not irredeemable. Conversely, those who are unhappy with the re-introduction of the wolf consider the areas where they are returning to be rural areas rather than ‘wilderness’ areas since the wilderness can only exist where there has been no human contact. The wolves are a threat to historical human practices specifically those around farming and wolf populations should be moved further away to a nebulous space of wilderness. In both cases, the wolf is not the issue rather it is what the wolf symbolises and what it tells us about the human notion of the ‘wilderness’ that is being debated.

These concerns are explored in the BBC series, ‘Unnatural Histories’, specifically the episode on the creation of the Yellowstone National Park. At one point, one of the academics interviewed states that he wishes the word ‘wilderness’ had never been created as he sees it as incredibly pernicious. I think what he is expressing is the ongoing battle in understanding the relationship between humanity and the natural world. What seems to recur in my studies regarding wolves, werewolves, and the wilderness is that whether the wolf-as-symbol-for-wilderness is invoked for positive or negative, there is a tendency to frame this within terms of absolute separation. The wilderness stands in direct opposition to human civilisation and humans stand opposite the wolf regarding it, to quote John Berger’s ‘Why Look at Animals’ (1980), across an ‘abyss of non-comprehension’. Hybridity of experience and the possibility that humans have a place in the wilderness without leading to its destruction are eschewed in favour of binary opposition. What this means is that the werewolf is a powerful figure to consider this division and motion to what the monstrous werewolf has to tell us about the enmity between wolves and mankind.

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