Books of Blood at the Being Human Festival 23rd November

All humans ‘are books of blood — wherever you open us, we’re re[a]d’ (Clive Barker)

‘Books of Blood’ , a creative offshoot of Open Graves, Open Minds, project will be launched at the Being Human Festival via a gruesome ‘Show and Tell’ workshop at the Old Operating Theatre on Thursday 23rd November.1.30-3.30.

‘Books of Blood’ is a Gothic-inspired project and touring exhibition curated by Dr Sam George (University of Hertfordshire), Dr John Rimmer (Bishop Grossteste University), and Dr Tracy Fahey (Limerick Institute of Technology). It invites audiences to consider the body as a ‘book of blood’ that can be ‘re(a)d’, following the horror writer Clive Barker. We are interested in the representation of the presence of blood in our culture, in the importance of the material substance of life itself. A number of themes are addressed such as circulation, transfusion, donation, vampirism, blood as gift, blood ritual, blood and the body politic, blood as ink, blue blood, bad blood and blood disease (especially diabetes and haemophilia). We seek to introduce audiences (and medics) to the unsettled and uncanny nature of blood disease and to encourage them to think about the Gothic as a valid way of figuring issues of disease and infection.

To find out more see Sam’s Books of Blood Blog Post on the Being Human Festival site. In this post Dr Sam George discusses the ‘Books of Blood’ project which aims to change our perceptions, and fear, of blood. By exploring its representation in the past, this Being Human event questions how we think about blood in the present.

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Redeeming the Wolf: OGOM at the Being Human Festival 2017

Thanks to all the lovely people who joined us on a rainy Saturday for ‘Redeeming the Wolf’. People came down from as far afield as Durham, Scotland and even Spain. I spoke to many new people who were interested in the work we are doing on the project including writers, wolf enthusiasts, PhD students and local residents who were up for a different Saturday afternoon experience. We got this lovely endorsement from our Spanish delegate below:

I am Nerea Unda and I am writing to congratulate you all for the fantastic work you are doing on behalf of the wolf and other arts such as Literature. I think that with this project you are attracting people from very different backgrounds to share their experiences.

The wolf cakes were back!

And whilst we did have some technical problems on the day the spirit of the wolf drove us on! The talks (Prof. Garry Marvin on lupophobia and re-wilding, Kaja on monstrous werewolves, myself on children raised by wolves and Bill on beauties and beasts) complimented each other really well and each gave a different yet related perspective on the history, representation and future of the UK wolf. Kaja did fantastically well as commentator and Chair with her characteristic drive and panache. There were some brilliant questions from the floor too in the debate, these were astute and thought provoking, and Garry excelled in explaining the problems involved in the wolf’s re-introduction whilst also seeking atonement for the wrongs humans have done to wolves.

We came up with the three word challenge above to capture the impact on the day – and below are some more of the fantastic results. These will be taken to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust and displayed for visitors to see:

These make me very happy indeed!! I think we can claim that the wolf was well and truly redeemed. How wonderful!

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Redeeming Beauties and Beasts, Wolves and Humans

Kaja and Sam have made me feel guilty, so I’ll just give an account of what I’ll be talking about at the Being Human: Redeeming the Wolf event.

I’ll be following up some of the themes that Sam and Kaja have talked about but—I must confess—I’m being something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing here. For I’ll be talking more about redeeming the human more than redeeming the wolf. Kaja has talked about the antiquity of stories of transformation into wolf, of their diversity, and of how the actual wolf may have been suppressed by understanding these stories as parables of what it is to be human. Sam likewise has tried to redeem the wolf by looking at accounts of wild children nursed into humanity by benevolent wolves.

I begin by talking about storytelling itself. Being human is very much about telling stories. It’s what differentiates us from beasts. Stories posit a future; they point towards a goal. They are one way we work out among ourselves what our values and aspirations are. And, among other things, they allow us to understand the relations between humanity and wilderness, and what we have lost or found in our emergence out of animality.

One exemplary story in this respect is, of course, ‘Red Riding Hood’, a fairy tale which also has the werewolf motif latent within it. Here, the wolf can figure as the bestial side of humanity; importantly, sexuality is at play here as much as the violence and cunning that other wolf narratives depict. This is brought out in the multifarious variations on the tale since the classic versions of Grimm and Perrault—in Angela Carter’s wolf tales, for instance, or in numerous more frivolous retellings in popular culture.

I make a slight detour to consider another classic fairy tale, one which lies at the roots of the research I’ve been doing on the genre of paranormal romance: ‘Beauty and the Beast’. The Beast here is not a wolf, and he’s not described as lupine in the original story; different illustrators portray him in different ways, often leonine. Iona and Peter Opie claim that ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is ‘The most symbolic of the fairy tales after Cinderella, and the most intellectually satisfying’. Perhaps the tale lends itself more easily to allegory than most; you have the polarised qualities of hero and heroine; the abstraction of a spiritual quality, ‘Beauty’, set against the earthiness of ‘Beast’. There are hundreds of variations, adaptations, and reworkings of the basic story alone. But the theme of human and monstrous lovers also lies behind the recently emerged genre of paranormal romance.

The most familiar example of paranormal romance must be Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling Twilight (2005). A collision or mating of genres has taken place, and this is important for those interested in the forms of storytelling and how kinds of writing emerge and mutate. This new literary form has many of the trappings of Gothic, but the plot is subordinated to the movement towards amatory consummation of romantic fiction; the setting tends to be contemporary; it seems to assume a female readership; and, crucially, it centres on love affairs between humans and supernatural creatures.

But werewolf romances are almost as popular as vampires. Each species of monster lends itself to different domains of enquiry. The shapeshifter, especially the werewolf, is particularly suited as an instrument for exploring the boundaries of humanity and animality, culture and nature. (Kaja has talked about this, and highlighted how the lupine has become suppressed in favour of the human.)

Many contemporary werewolf romances feature the obligatory ‘post-feminist’ feisty female protagonist—she has to be there to conform to the expectations of the romance genre and its largely female audience. Yet contradictions emerge: you have this independent woman but these books also show how, as werewolves, driven by animal instincts, the heroines submit both to pack hierarchy and to the dominant alpha male. The stories allow them to be fierce and strong, and enjoy uninhibited sex—but they tie them to inescapable biological forces at the same time.

And there’s the wolf pack. Werewolves here are seen as social but again that social life is determined inescapably by biology. Aggression and hierarchies of both class and gender are seen as inevitable.

Thus many contemporary werewolf romances not only make wolves look bad, they denigrate humans, too, by binding them to ideas of animality that are fixed and essentialist. Yet it’s only through stories that we can acknowledge our humanity and transcend those ideas of fixedness. I finish by looking at one Young Adult paranormal romance that bucks the trend—Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series.

Stiefvater overall asserts the distinctively human powers of language, of individual identity, and free will as her characters find their voice and define their projects. The final verdict is that only the possibility of return to humanity makes animality bearable. Yet, even so, this very subtle and fine work allows room for the wolf. Stiefvater represents a humanity uniquely emancipated through language and creates drama out of the Othering of wildness, and yet she suggests that being human rests upon that evanescent animality, hinting at the redemption of both human and wolf.

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What 3 Words Best Describe the Wolf?

Following Kaja’s post on reclaiming the werewolf I wanted to say that I am speaking on the myth of wolf children or children raised by wolves at the OGOM event on Saturday 18th. These stories allow for a benevolent, humanised and nurturing wolf that is inconsistent with the big bad wolf of fairy tale. The theme is lost and found. If we can embrace these alternative stories we can redeem the wolf, allow it to return to our forests, subvert the fairy tale that we have all grown up with, and create a new narrative for the 21st century. We’ve planned a number of activities to gauge the audience’s perception of the wolf such as our 3 word challenge below (3 words to describe the wolf on arrival and then again after our talks, screening and public debate)

And the OGOM wolf cakes are back.

It’s super exciting. Thirty tickets remain which can be snapped up via the Being Human website here

Do come down to see if the wolf can be redeemed (and reintroduced in the future in the UK). It’s going to be the stuff of myth! Join us too on Twitter #redeemthewolf

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Redeeming the Wolf / Reclaiming the (Were)Wolf

As I am sure you are aware, it’s only three days until our Being Human event, ‘Redeeming the Wolf: A Story of Persecution, Loss and Rediscover’. There’s still time to book if you wish to learn more about wolves. I wrote a blog about the event for the Being Human website which you can read here. However, in this post, I wanted to go into a bit more detail about what I will be talking about on the day – without giving away too much.

My section is on the relationship between the depiction of wolves in popular culture and the monstrosity of werewolves. It is based upon my PhD research. Although, since it is being condensed into a 10 minute talk, it’s actually about the central question: When it comes to werewolves, w(h)ere’s the wolf? (I’m inordinately proud of that pun). Early on in my research, I found myself searching for the elusive original content that would make my thesis sing. I spent three months reading and making notes on the key texts which look at werewolves and two things became apparent to me. Firstly, most of the texts which looked at werewolves start with locating the Ur-werewolf. They concentrated on historical accounts of man-into-wolf transformations or folklore, attempting to discover the ‘root’ of the werewolf myth. Werewolf literature was generally ignored and when it was mentioned it tended to be very early texts. Contemporary werewolves did not get much coverage. If I could sum this up it would be that we accept vampires as literary monsters, zombies as screen monsters but the werewolf is atavistic, a creature of ancient folklore.

If I’m honest, I think this is partially academic snobbery. In order to prove that a figure from popular culture is worthy of study, it seems to be imperative that it has an ancient lineage. If you can argue that the first werewolf was Enkidu from ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’, considered to be the earliest surviving example of literature, then it lends your research a certain gravitas and historicity. From then on, it’s just a matter of joining the dots every time someone turns into a wolf in a text suggesting there is a clear progression from Enkidu to Scott McCall from MTV’s Teen Wolf (2011-2017). I find this approach a little reductive. I also think it is partially shaped by faulty understanding of folklore. It is an attempt to suggest that all accounts of man-into-wolf transformations are intrinsically linked speaking to a greater truth. There is also the tendency, if you follow this approach, to appropriate stories, legends and folklore from different cultures, labelling all of them as werewolf narratives. It’s understandable: we want to find patterns. (I also have a theory that on some level, people who study werewolves are hoping that they will discover that their favourite monster actually does exist). I find it more useful not to search for universal monsters but universal themes. Werewolves, as we understand them in contemporary Western popular culture, may not have an ancient lineage. But human to animal transformations appear in many different times and places to very different effect. Man-into-wolf transformations are particularly prevalent. Clearly, there is something important about this dividing line between human and animal, and the wolf is an animal which tangles with this boundary in a variety of ways.

This leads me onto the next thing I noticed: we tend to come to werewolf from the point of the view of the human. Werewolves tell us about the beast within, about masculine violence, about female violence, about all of the worst traits of humanity. Werewolves remind us that at the core of human identity is a monstrous animal desperately trying to claw itself out. Of course, this is partially true – I have condensed a lot of werewolf criticism into two sentences here. But it is notable that even when we are looking at more sympathetic representations of werewolves, it tends to be read as a growing acceptance of human otherness rather than the animal Other. Equally, when wolves are mentioned positively in werewolf criticism, they tend to be used as vehicles for the redemption of victimised human identities rather than the wolf itself. Obviously, these critiques are engaging, well argued and very important additions to the study of werewolves. The purpose of literary criticism is to open up the text not ‘solve’ it with one reading. However, for my purposes, the anthropocentric nature of werewolf criticism means that the wolf, a living creature, an individual, tends to be ignored.

So what does that mean for the wolf, the other half of the werewolf? Well, if you want to find out about that, you’ll need to get a ticket to ‘Redeeming the Wolf: A Story of Persecution, Loss and Rediscovery’.

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Redeeming the Wolf at the Being Human Festival

There are about 25 free tickets left for this fab event bookable online at
Redeeming the wolf: A Story of Persecution, Loss and Rediscovery

If you can’t make it in person please join us on Twitter #redeemthewolf @OGOMProject Bring Grandma and get ready to wolf down those last free tickets!

Related BBC News Story: Red Riding Hood Hampers Wolf Debate Says Academic

Venue: ‘The Comet Room’, De Havilland, University of Hertfordshire, 2.00-5.15

Hope to see you there. The wolf cakes are back too!!!

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Daisy Butcher: OGOM Doctoral Student

I am just posting to say that OGOM has a new PhD student in Daisy Butcher. Some of you may have met Daisy at the Company of Wolves conference where she was one of our key helpers. She has since gone on to complete her MA (where she excelled in the vampire module) and begin her doctoral studies. Daisy is already a regular on the gothic conference circuit and was awarded best student paper at the Gothic Networking Day at the University of Sheffield (her very first conference paper). She recently presented at the University of Kent and at the Postgraduate conference at the University of Hertfordshire in October where she spoke on the female mummy. She is a big Buffy fan and has written on the notion of consent versus rape in vampire sexual liaisons in the series. Daisy’s doctoral research is on the vagina dentata myth and the monstrous mother in a number of literary and filmic manifestations and representations (monstrous plants, Krakens, mummies, vampires, dragons). Needless to say it is a very rich project. If you haven’t met Daisy yet she will be presenting at the OGOM/Supernatural Cities Urban Weird conference in April and you can read her short piece on Menopause and the Female Mummy’s Curse in the journal of Medical and Health Humanities. Daisy is supervised by myself and Dr Darren Elliot-Smith of queer horror fame. She will be blogging on the site about her research in the near future.

Well done for all your achievements Daisy. I’m excited to see how your project develops. I am sure you have got it all wrapped up (mummy pun intended)!

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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Lynx?

Feeling angered about the wanton destruction of Lillith the Lynx – what does this scenario teach us about re-wilding debates and about being human? Last call for tickets for the Being Human Festival. We can’t bring back Lillith but we can ask questions and seek atonement.

Join us 18th November, ‘The Comet Room’, De Havilland, University of Hertfordshire, 2.00-5.15 to redeem the wolf, subvert the fairy tale we have all grown up with and creative a new narrative for the 21st century. Book online for free tickets:

Redeeming the wolf: A Story of Persecution, Loss and Rediscovery

If you can’t make it in person you can join in on Twitter #redeemthewolf
Bring Grandma and wolf down those last free tickets!

Related News Story: Red Riding Hood Hampers Wolf Debate Says Academic
Lillith: Escaped Lynx is Killed over Growing Concerns for Public Safety

What are you waiting for!!

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Automaton Reads My Vampire Research on Youtube

Amused to find my article for The Conversation ‘How Long Have We Believed in Vampires?’ read by an automaton on Youtube but there is no acknowledgement, nothing to say I wrote it tch!! Well I did! An ironic case of vampirism in action – in a parasitical relationship to the original!

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The Franck Crucifix: A Case of Family Folklore

Last week, I was up (across?) in Worcestershire helping my parents move into their new home. Alongside the mammoth amount of unpacking, there was a chance to wander around the local community. Like many British towns, we found our fair share of wonderful haunted and Gothic places from the ancient abbey on a hill to the Spirit House, a witchcraft shop plagued by a poltergeist. But in this post, I want to concentrate on a more personal story.

As we were unpacking we came across this crucifix, an object we’d inherited from my father’s house. None of my family are religious, however, this crucifix has a very special story. On discovering it amongst the boxes my mum asked me whether I knew its story. I dutifully parroted that this was the crucifix that had jumped off the wall, landing face down a metre away from the wall on which it hung, whilst my dad and his sisters were using a Ouija board. And this is why I have always been told by my dad, my 6’3″, leather-clad, motorbike-riding, power-tool-using dad, that I must never do a Ouija board. This story has been told to my sister and me multiple times throughout the years. It has become folklore within our family. And as far as I am aware, neither my sister or I have ever used a Ouija board.

 

Crucifix aside, there is another darker element to this little story which I find far more sinister. During one session with the Ouija board, my dad’s sisters asked the board for the name of a local murderer. A young woman, Leslie Whittle, has been kidnapped and her body had been found some time later in a drainage shaft of a local reservoir. The Ouija board offered a name, Donald Neilson, a local thief who was known by the moniker the Black Panther due to the black balaclava he wore. Having been given this name, it was placed in a sealed envelope on the mantelpiece only to be opened once the police had convicted someone of the murder. A few months later, a man was accused and found guilty of the crime. The envelope was opened and the names matched. Of course, the envelope could have been tampered with but, built into this sliver of folklore, there are multiple reasons for why this can’t be the case according to my dad. Again, I’ve still never used a Ouija board. It doesn’t matter how much I tell myself that it’s circumstantial evidence, high spirits of teenagers, I just can’t stop the shiver running through me whenever I think about this story.

Last Thursday, I tweeted a picture of this crucifix as family folklore. Family Folklore is recognised as a branch of folklore – understandably since folklore and its transmission over time connects to ideas of identity, social cohesion, and being one of the folk, whether that is within your immediate family or your larger community. As we move from one place to another we carry our family folklore like a talisman but we also become embedded into the stories and tales of our new community. Retelling our personal folklore strengthens it. One day my sister or I will inherit this crucifix and tell the story to our children. And who knows, maybe they’ll never use a Ouija board either.

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