Review of ‘Reflected Shadows: Folklore and the Gothic’, 15th-17th April 2016

On 15th-17th April, I attended ‘Reflected Shadows: Folklore and the Gothic’ at Kingston University. This conference, dedicated as the name suggests to folklore and the Gothic, was jointly organised by The Folklore Society and Kingston University. The conference opened with The Folklore Society Presidential Address by James H. Grayson. The topic of this keynote was Korean folklore and the manner in which it had been preserved. I know little about this area but the ideas that came from this plenary reverberated through the conference more widely. Specifically the notions of why we return to folklore and its relationship to cultures perceived to be under threat reappeared throughout the other papers. I was particularly taken with how contemporary cultures adapt or appropriate folklore in order to create cultural narratives.

After tea, coffee and sugary snacks (academia continues to eschew dietary fads), I attended the ‘Folk Narrative and the Gothic’ panel. This was opened by Ruth Heholt whose paper considered the work of Catherine Crowe and her place within parapsychology and the collection of ghost stories. Though wary of some of Crowe’s methods and tendency to universalise the supernatural, Heholt’s argument placed Crowe as one of the earliest proponents for formal investigation of the supernatural. Moreover, Crowe was shown to be critical of the claims of objectivity made by science and consciously aware of the gendering of scientific studies versus oral traditions. Heholt reclaimed Crowe’s vision of folklore as the voice of the underprivileged.

Nadia Van der Westhuizen’s paper was on doppelgangers, mirrors and Tanith Lee’s White as Snow (2000). I have only read one of Lee’s novels which I thoroughly enjoyed so I entirely agree with Van der Westhuizen’s comment that she has been woefully ignored by the academy. The paper was an excellent exploration of the mirror trope in Lee’s novel and caught the deeply uncanny quality of the doppelganger. The next paper in this panel was on the subject of the sin eater. This figure, a person who is paid to eat the sins of a dead person by consuming food whilst sat next to the corpse, has been associated with Welsh folklore but there is limited evidence for its existence. Instead, it appears to have been read onto Welsh cultural practices and is an example of how folklore can be created through the misappropriation of ‘other’ cultures. Given by Juliette Wood, this paper encapsulated some of the recurring themes throughout the conference.

The next day started with a panel on ‘Vampires, Mirrors and The Witch of Prague’ which featured Martina Bartlett on the subject of Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), Tina Rath on theatrical adaptations of Polidori’s vampiric novella and John Callow talking about Francis Marion Crawford’s The Witch of Prague (1885). What was noticeable in these panels was how the speakers sought to reclaim authors who have not become part of canon. As with many Gothic writers, they had been ignored for more ‘respectable’ writers. This is certainly something that I have found difficult to defend as someone who studies werewolves – especially werewolves in contemporary Gothic/ horror texts. Therefore I was pleased to note that Rath commented that ever since Lord Ruthven entered the theatre, he had been happily ‘sparkling’ in the moonlight. Fey vampires are not simply to be denigrated.

The third session that I attended was dedicated to Folk Horror and folklore. Unfortunately I have not seen, or read, a great deal of Folk Horror but this panel certainly whet my appetite. Gunnella Thorgeirsdottir spoke about the Icelandic tradition of the Yule Lads and their representation in recent horror films. The Yule Lads are traditionally the children of trolls and throughout time they have moved from malign and threatening figures to becoming tricksters. The next paper was dedicated to Hammer’s use of Folk Horror in The Witches (1966). Paul Cowdell explained how Folk Horror requires a sense of place and the action unfolds in a fully realised space, once which is often influenced by real-life historical occurrences. Folk Horror narratives are often based on the belief put forward notably by James Frazer in The Golden Bough (1890) that the primitive has survived in the modern world. Whilst the universalisation of folklore has been critiqued, it has influenced the modern religions of Wicca and Paganism which pertain to keeping alive ancient traditions. Cowdell showed how The Witches critiques and subverts this idea whilst apparently conforming to this model of Folk Horror.

I found this idea particularly interesting as it shows the overlap between schools of thought in literary studies (which I am most familiar with) and narratives themselves. One of my contentions in my thesis has been that the universalisation of the werewolf as an ancient figure that appears in every culture has often mistaken fictional narrative with historical fact. Whilst Victorian werewolves may appear to be based on folklore, it is important to ascertain what the sources of this folklore are. Often they are misreading of cultural practices or simply come from unreliable sources. Whilst Gothic writers may strive to create authenticity within their texts it is important not to mistake this for real-world verisimilitude. Mikel Koven’s paper expanding this idea further as he was speaking about the role of the antiquarian in Folk Horror. The antiquarian acts as an authority figure within Folk Horror narratives in order to authenticate the subject matter. Perhaps more confusingly as Folk Horror is so directly tied to history and geography, it can be hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. Indeed one of the aims of Folk Horror, and often Gothic texts, is to convince the reader that what is happening in the narrative is fact.

The idea of the origins of folklore, the Gothic and monsters was taken up again in the plenary session by Professor Fred Botting. His lecture was on the history of zombies and folklore. At the opening he acknowledged that he had wanted to distance himself on ‘discovering’ the origins of the zombie. In part this was due to the assumptions that are made both about folklore and the Gothic. Folklore is considered to be an oral tradition that predates the Enlightenment whereas the Gothic is based around the ‘authentic’ written text and is negatively associated with the Enlightenment. Botting’s paper very subtly attempted to critique the unquestioning assumption that zombies are creatures of real Haitian folklore. He drew attention to the fact that the history of the zombie is itself a narrative. As a narrative it can be used to authenticate zombies but it also potentially appropriates and misinterprets non-Western beliefs in the same way as the film White Zombies (1932) bastardised the notion of voodoo. To read the zombie only as a metaphor for slavery in Western texts can diminish the horror of slavery itself and glosses over the subtleties of Haitian folklore in speaking back and revolting against the oppressive regime.

I was speaking after lunch on the subject of werewolves, folklore and pulp fiction. On my panel I was joined by Catherine Pugh who spoke on the subject of black dogs. I was particularly enamoured by her talk because, being a fellow yellow-belly, she mentioned the preponderance of black dogs in Lincolnshire. She entwined themes of mental illness, folklore and human/animal relationships to give a multifocal view of the black dog. The final panel of the day was on the Devil and the Gothic. The first paper given by Diana Coles considered representations of the Devil in folk tales especially in the Middle Ages. The figure of the Devil is entwined with folk representations which have filled out the sparse comments about this entity in the Bible. What became clear is that the Devil always has hooves and is fond of entrapping people by appearing as a beautiful young man. Women are apparently more successful at outwitting the Devil. The next paper by Deidre Nuttall considered Devil Lore in the Republic of Ireland. She looked at stories about the appearance of the Devil and how these have been associated with Protestants as well as the effects that this has had into the twentieth century.

The final day started with a panel that was designed for me: ‘Teen Gothic Literature and Film’. This panel featured Carys Crossen talking about the importance of place and folklore in Alan Garner’s novels (which I have not read but have just ordered into my local library); Auba Llompart Pons on Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl series; and Kristine Moruzi and Michelle Smith talking about vampires and witches in teen school fiction. All three papers were excellent and led to very interesting discussions about how we define a text as Gothic (and not just containing Gothic furnishings), the importance of parody in Gothic literature, and the heteronormative quality of YA Gothic. This was certainly the panel were I felt as though I had interesting ideas to add to the discussion. (And it’s given me plenty to discuss with Sam in regards to her Generation Dead module).

The conference was rounded up with a final panel on the European Gothic. Opening the panel was Jen Baker talking about the representation of dead children in Victorian literature in comparison to their folkloric counterparts. I had previously discussed the importance or lack thereof of finding origin stories for monsters and it was clear that Baker had been very precise in her connection between the Gothic and folklore – only using that which was most pertinent or could be clearly linked to the literary incarnations of dead children. Following Baker’s paper there were two slightly frustrating talks: frustrating because they were talking about very interesting texts that had not been translated into English yet. Firstly Camilla Schroeder talked about the use of E.T.A Hoffman’s The Sandman (1816) in a contemporary German novel, Die Geisterseher (1995) by Kai Meyer. This particular example of Meyer’s work features the Sandman and the Brothers Grimm and has not been translated. Rosie Taylor’s paper was on Scandinavian Gothic and in particular Sweden’s first work of vampire fiction, Victor Rydberg’s Vampyren (1848). Rydberg’s novel is an adaptation of Polidori’s The Vampyre which reflects Swedish fears about Scandinavian national identity. Again, this novel has not been translated. I left this panel a little frustrated but also considering taking my research post-PhD in the direction of Scandinavian Gothic.

After lunch and the closing remarks, a group of us made our way to Strawberry Hill, the home and Gothic confection of Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto (1764) and progenitor of the Gothic in English literature. It seemed fitting that we should make use of the proximity of the house at this conference. I have visited before but it is worth at least two visits. Indeed, since I last saw the house, a great deal more work had been done. The highlight was discovering a rail of costumes which, excited academics that we were, we immediately donned and began posturing. (There are photos – though hopefully they won’t see the light of day). I returned home exhausted but inspired having thoroughly enjoyed myself. The other delegates were gracious towards those who were not experts in folklore (I look to myself for this) and very engaging and encouraging. What was particularly noticeable at this conference was how quickly the questions became discussions, and very fruitful discussions indeed. There were no awkward silences and those questioning the panellists were polite and constructive. Moreover, the comments about historicising folklore and questioning its validity reverberated with my own ideas about faux-folklore in werewolf texts.  I look forward to the next conference organised by The Folklore Society and hope to find a reason why I can attend.

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1 Response to Review of ‘Reflected Shadows: Folklore and the Gothic’, 15th-17th April 2016

  1. William the Bloody says:

    Great review, Kaja–comprehensive and sounds fascinating. I really wanted to do something on Dark Faeries in YA paranormal romance but didn’t make the deadline.
    Let me know what you think of the fabulous Alan Garner–I’m tempted to reread The Owl Service for the millionth time!

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