Generation Dead: Teaching the new High School Gothic

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‘All over the country’ (in the world of young adult fiction) ‘teenagers who die aren’t staying dead’ (blurb for Generation Dead). This module will interrogate the new high school Gothic, exploring the representation of the undead or living dead in dark or paranormal romance. Texts range from Daniel Waters’s Generation Dead and Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies to Twilight and the Gothic fairy tale.

The above is a synopsis of the course spec for my new module Generation Dead: YA Fiction and the Gothic, which finally got under way this week. There are two 2 hour workshops each week and around 50 students. My introductory session was structured around the following texts:

Workshop 1 YA Fiction and the Gothic: Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic, ‘Teen Demons’, pp. 87-123; Alison Waller, Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism, pp. 1-22; Simon Armitage, Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster.

I choose Spooner and Waller to introduce students to Gothic subculture and to ways of theorising adolescence, prior to looking at our first primary texts. Also, because I wanted to introduce the crucial concepts of ‘outsiderness’ and ‘otherness’ and to begin to interrogate the politics of difference more broadly.

In the new teen Gothic […] the outsider takes on a new and different role, […] a recurrent feature is sympathy for the monster: those conventionally represented as the ‘other’ are placed at the centre of the narrative and made a point of identification for the reader or viewer [in the new teen Gothic] the freaks and geeks are no longer pushed to the edges of the narrative but become the protagonists (Spooner, p. 103).

‘Adolescence is always ‘other’ to the more mature phase of adulthood, always perceived as liminal, in transition, and in constant growth towards the ultimate goal of maturity’ (Alison Waller, p.1).

As we progress through the texts, we’ll engage with the following approaches:

Contemporary Gothic/Urban Gothic/ High School Gothic
Subculture/Theorising Adolescence/Teen Culture
Difference/Otherness/Outsiderness
Intertextuality/appropriation (relationship to Gothic)
Genre Theory/Mixed Modes/Paranormal Romance
Theories of Folklore/The Gothic Fairy Tale
Animal/Human Boundaries/Eco Gothic
Faith/Free Will/Redemption/Retribution
Undeadness/Damnation/Existentialism

As it was the first session, I needed to talk about assessment. I had decided to ask students to write a critical introduction to one of the novels in the first part of the course, to give these writers some of the scholarly treatment they deserve but are never subject to. The idea, then, is that students will prepare a scholarly, critical introduction to a given text highlighting the issues addressed, bringing in theoretical approaches, posing research questions, and including a bibliography, and suggested further reading. @50%.

The students seemed to like this challenge but wanted reassurance as to the word count and they also wanted to see examples of the sort of contribution I had in mind. This will be tricky as this is the first time the course has run, so I have no previous coursework!! I will find some good critical intros to discuss with them, however. I’d be interested to hear any responses to this type of assessment.

We finished the session with a performance/reading of Simon Armitage’s The Killing of Sophie Lancaster. We wanted to engage with ‘difference’ as fully as possible and to give Sophie her voice back. Simon’s comments made this the perfect text for such beginnings:

‘It seemed to me that Sophie had been killed because she was different, and for no other reason, and as well as feeling angry and upset about it, I probably felt some underlying kinship with her, having grown up in a small northern community not unlike Bacup where to be different was to risk ridicule or aggression. Also, in images and photographs that begin to circulate, Sophie seemed so innocent, beautiful and vulnerable, yet she met with terrifying and almost unimaginable violence’.

Black Roses is unsettling and harrowing as a text but it allowed for further discussions around difference and issues arising from adults voicing teenagers. To end the session, I guided students towards ideas around ‘Broken Britain’ and mainstream culture’s attempts to minimise otherness, in Sophie’s case, whilst simultaneously demonising the ‘feral’ kids who had attacked her. I used ‘Gothic Charm School’ in the Open Graves, Open Minds book as it brilliantly captures the complexities of this position:

In Dick Hebdidge’s account of ideological incorporation of youth subcultures by main stream culture, he emphasizes how, over time, the media inevitably attempt to minimize their Otherness by returning them to the family, or by emphasising the Otherness of other kinds of unruly youth. It is not that surprising therefore that the press responses to Goth subsequent to Sophie Lancaster’s death follow this pattern with unnerving accuracy, particularly as it gave the right wing media a platform to pontificate on what would […] eventually become known as ‘Broken Britain’. What is more unexpected is the reaction to the murder from inside the subculture itself. In the weeks and months following Sophie’s death, Goths both within the UK and further afield, mounted a series of campaigns to promote awareness and tolerance of alternative lifestyle choices. Indirectly, these campaigns also sought to minimise the otherness of Goth , by demanding its recognition and protection by mainstream society (Open Graves, Open Minds, p.160).

Next Week: Zombies and the politics of difference
Daniel Waters, Generation Dead
Clive Bloom, ‘Day of the Dead’, THE, 24th June, 2010, pp. 38-41
Bill Hughes, ‘Legally Recognised Undead’: Essence, Difference, and Assimilation in Daniel Waters’s Generation Dead (from Open Graves, Open Minds, pp 245-63)

Follow our progress here and keep reading…….

About Lucy Northenra

Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire

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0 Responses to Generation Dead: Teaching the new High School Gothic

  1. firekrank says:

    This all sounds amazing. I was re-watching ‘Jawbreaker’ on Friday night as part of my 90s nostalgia kick and it struck me what a dark movie it was – and how Gothic the teenage experience can be. (Certainly I don’t recall being the most cheerful of teens).

    I think the assessment piece is incredibly useful – a nice change from the usual essay. Given the relative lack of secondary criticism on YA texts (especially those of a Gothic/ monstrous ilk), it will be a great way of encouraging original thought and approaches from the students. Also, it’s a good introduction to theory and its application.

  2. jamilajj says:

    Aaaw, I wish you were my teacher! I would love to learn about the novels/everything you were talking about in this post. Are there any documentaries you would recommend I watch? Or books to read? Really enjoyed this post 🙂

    • Hello, Thanks for the kind words. I would say read Dan Water’s Generation Dead series. Those books pretty much inspired the course. I will post some more about our reading over the weeks……so you can join in.

      • jamilajj says:

        Hi Lucy,
        Thank you very much! I’ll make a note of those books and add them to my to-read list. Oh wow, that would be really awesome – looking forward to your next posts then!

        Have a good day/night!

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