Firstly, apologies for the delay in writing up this blog post on my second lecture for ‘Generation Dead’, ‘Gothic Romanced: Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, which took place last week. You can expect two blogs on ‘Generation Dead’ this week. This one will be the first and then I will writing about the third lecture, ‘The Elusive Vampire: Folklore and Marcus Sedgwick’s My Swordhand is Singing’ tomorrow. As the name suggests this lecture and seminar were dedicated to the role of romance within YA Gothic as well as the Gothic more generally. Using Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a precursor of the literary genre of YA Gothic and Twilight as a key YA Gothic text, this lecture considered to what extent romance was a driving force in all YA Gothic texts. Moreover, we considered how this related to adolescence more generally and its depiction within these texts, as well as the way that sexuality was both celebrated and condemned in regard to teenage supernatural love affairs.
I want to briefly to consider some of the key points of the lecture before moving on to the exercise that was undertaken in the seminars that followed. Following on from my discussion of Catherine Spooner’s comments in Contemporary Gothic (2006) that the Gothic has always had a link with the adolescent, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was interrogated as high-school Gothic. In this particular series, the natural and supernatural were elided to portray the heightened sensations associated with adolescence. In particular, the fear that sleeping with the guy you like will change him is represented in the vampire-with-a-soul Angel’s transformation into the soulless Angelus following Buffy losing her virginity to him. The addition of the supernatural to the mundanity of high school (or secondary school) can be read metaphorically.
Concerning Buffy’s relationship with Angel, the idea of sexuality and love as the means of either redeeming or damning an individual recurs throughout YA Gothic. Angel’s transformation can be read as punishing Buffy for having sex, or as a realistic interpretation of the dangers of navigating sex as a teenager. Thus Buffy recovers from this hurt and goes on to sacrifice Angel(us) for the good of the world. Twilight is less explicit in its presentation of sexuality (as one student commented in the seminar, reading this novel at 13 compared with 20 is a very different experience). Though Bella is clear that she desires Edward, his response is to ask that they wait until marriage and to continually stress the breakability of Bella’s fragile human body in comparison to his sparkling, hard-as-diamonds, vampiric physicality.
The indestructible quality of Meyer’s vampires is in direct comparison to how vampires bodies are presented in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Stacey Abbot argues, in Whedon’s series vampires ‘burn, they feel pain, they can be sick, they can be poisoned. The emphasis on the materiality of the vampire body is a means of disembedding the vampire from traditional folklore, literature and classic cinema such as Nosferatu and Dracula, which represented the vampire as an ethereal and transformative creature of superstition’ (Angel, 2009, p. 48). The first kiss between Angel and Buffy occurs after he has been hurt. Buffy rescues him and invites him into her home where he removes his shirt so that she can bandage his wound. This draws our attention not only to Angel’s torso but also to his vulnerability – he moves from a brooding man dressed in black to a fragile figure, which at this point the viewer still assumes is human. Alternatively, when Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, she is the one who is hurt, seeks sanctuary in Angel’s home, and once there he instructs her to uncover her skin so he can see where she is hurt. Though Buffy is typically shown as uninjured during her many fights with vampires and demons, as a precursor to sex, her vulnerability is visualised through the wound.
The male vampire’s body is also on show in Twilight. When Edward shows Bella that he sparkles in the sunlight, this section is portrayed as a striptease. He takes Bella to a beautiful meadow and then slowly removes his top, uncovering his skin to the sunlight and revealing that he ‘literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds’ (Twilight, 2007 reprint, p. 228), a girl’s best friend. Notably the love rivals to Angel and Edward, Spike and Jacob also barter their bodies and disrobe more regularly in comparison to the main love interests. This inverts the typical trope of the female body as the object to be viewed by the male subject. YA Gothic typically draws attention to the beauty of the supernatural object, which is usually male. They allow the illicit pleasure of voyeurism but, in regard to the depiction of sexuality, remain ‘safe’ by creating clear parameters of acceptable sexual relations – typically within the confines of a loving relationship adhering to the structures of romance.
In order to further explore the overlap between YA Gothic and romance, during the seminars, I gave the students the following extracts to look at in groups. I then gave them tasks related to these extracts which follow below.
‘Full moon! There it was, peeping over the tops of the lower firs that edged the park, and a silvery haze filled the terrace, the clumps of trees, the entire landscape as far as the eye could see, and the haze blurred softly into the distance like quivering waters.
I couldn’t resist. Something was calling me, urging me so strangely. I got dressed again and stepped into the garden.
I was drawn to the meadow, to her, my Goddess, my beloved.
The night was cool. I shivered. The air was heavy with the smells of flowers and woods. It was intoxicating.
What a celebration! What music all around. A nightingale sobbed. The stars glittered very faintly in the pale blue shimmer. The meadow shone smooth as a mirror, as the ice covering a pond.
Sublime and radiant was the statue of Venus.
Yet – what was that?
A huge, dark fur streamed from the marble shoulders of the Goddess down to the soles of her feet – I stood rigid, gaping at her, and again I was seized by that indescribably anxiety and I fled’.
‘The moon gave a faint and uncertain light, for heavy vapours surrounded it, and, often rolling over the disk, left the scene below in total darkness. It was in one these moments of obscurity, that she observed a small and lambent flame, moving at some distance on the terrace. While she gazed, it disappeared, and, the moon again emerging from the lurid and heavy thunder clouds, she turned her attention to the heavens, where the vivid lightnings darted from cloud to cloud, and flashed silently on the woods below. She loved to catch, in momentary gleam, the gloomy landscape. Sometimes, a cloud opened its light upon a distant mountain, and, while the sudden splendour illumined all its recesses of rock and wood, the rest of the scene remained in deep shadow; at others, partial features of the castle were revealed by the glimpse – the antient arch leading to the east rampart, the turret above, or the fortifications beyond; and then, perhaps, the whole edifice with all its towers, its dark massy walls and pointed casements would appear, and vanish in an instant.
[Name], looking again upon the rampart, perceived the flame she had seen before; it moved onward; and, soon after, she thought she heard a footstep. The light appeared and disappeared frequently, while, as she watched, it glided under her casements, and, at the same instant, she was certain, that a footstep passed, but the darkness did not permit her to distinguish any object except the flame. It moved away, and then, by a gleam of lightning, she perceived some person on the terrace. All the anxieties of the preceding night returned. The person advanced, and the playing flame alternately appeared and vanished. [Name] wished to speak, to end her doubts, whether this figure were human or supernatural; but her courage failed as often as she attempted utterance, till the light moved again under the casement, and she faintly demanded, who passed.
“A friend,” replied a voice’.
‘“This is my world,” she explained to me as she sat in the small velvet chair before the open balcony, watching the long row of broughams stopping one by one before the hotel doors. “I must have it as I like,” she said, as if speaking to herself. And so it was as she liked, stunning wallpaper of rose and gold, an abundance of damask and velvet furniture, embroidered pillows and silk trappings for the fourposter bed. Dozens of roses appeared daily for the marble mantels and the inlaid tables, crowding the curtained alcove of her dressing room, reflected endlessly in tilted mirrors. And finally she crowded the high French windows with a veritable garden of camellia and fern. “I miss the flowers; more than anything else I miss flowers,” she mused. And sought after them even in the paintings which we bought from the shops and the galleries, magnificent canvases such as I’d never seen in [City] – from the classically executed lifelike bouquets, tempting you to reach for the petals that fell on a three-dimensional tablecloth, to a new and disturbing style in which the colors seemed to blaze with such intensity they destroyed the old lines, the old solidity, to make a vision like to those states when I’m nearest my delirium and flowers grow before my eyes and crackle like the flames of lamps. [City] flowed into these rooms.
I found myself at home there, again forsaking dreams of ethereal simplicity for what another’s gentle insistence had given me, because the air was sweet like the air of our courtyard in the [Road Name], and all was alive with a shocking profusion of gas light that rendered even the ornate lofty ceilings devoid of shadows. The light raced on the gilt curlicues, flickered in the baubles of the chandeliers. Darkness did not exist’.
‘“Are we related,” I used to ask; “what can you mean by all this? I remind you perhaps of some one whom you love; but you must not, I hate it; I don’t know you – I don’t know myself when you look so and talk so.”
She used to sigh at my vehemence, then turn away and drop my hand.
Respecting these very extraordinary manifestations I strove in vain to form any satisfactory theory – I could not refer them to affectation or trick. It was unmistakeably the momentary breaking out of suppressed instinct, and emotion. Was she, notwithstanding her mother’s volunteered denial, subject to brief visitation of insanity; or was there here a disguise and a romance? I had read old story books of such things. What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house, and sought to prosecute his suit in masquerade, with the assistance of a clever old adventuress? But there were many things against this hypothesis, highly interesting as it was to my vanity.
I could boast of no little attentions such as masculine gallantry delights to offer. Between these passionate moments there were long intervals of common-place, of gaiety, of brooding melancholy, during which, except that I detected her eyes so full of melancholy fire, following me, at times I might have been as nothing to her’.
‘The room spun in a gray swirl of confusion as the image of a man burst with startling clarity into my mind. He was in black, his features shadowed, silhouetted against the night, walking with long, tireless strides. The wind brushed against him as he moved through the woods, driven by a need I couldn’t begin to understand. I was pulled toward him, merged with him until I could feel the blood moving through his veins and the breath on his lips as he approached the town, stalking through the night with an arrogance that bespoke centuries of existence. Through his eyes I saw the lights of the town as they flickered through the pine boughs; when his breath quickened as he inhaled deeply to catch the scents of the town, so did mine. The images of his mind filled mine, thoughts of humans, warm and alive, their blood singing a sweet siren song he couldn’t resist. He leaped over a drainage ditch, moving swiftly and powerfully up a hill to the outskirts of town, muscles and sinews and tendons working with graceful efficiency. The scent of blood was strong in our nostrils now; the taste of it made our mouths water. I knew from our memory that the feel of it was like nothing I’d ever known, hot and sweet, flowing down my throat –’
‘“This is pretty – very pretty,” said [Name], looking around her as they were thus sitting together one day: “Every time I come into this shrubbery I am more struck with its growth and beauty. Three years ago, this was nothing but a rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field, never though to as anything or capable of becoming anything; and now it is converted into a walk, and it would be difficult to say whether most valuable as a convenience or an ornament; and perhaps in another three years we may be forgetting – almost forgetting what it was before. How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient – at others, so bewildered and so weak – and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! – We are to be sure a miracle every way – but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting, do seem peculiarly past finding out”’.
‘I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed about to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer – nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super-sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited – waited with beating heart’.
As you can see, I did not choose particularly long extracts (there was only 50 minutes for the seminar) but I did choose extracts that had a similar feel and repetition of language. I also redacted any names of people or places that might give away from which text these extracts came. I asked the students to do three things:
- Put them in date order.
- Suggest a genre for each extract. (I had mentioned that all of these extracts were either Gothic or romance, or both).
- Choose which extract was most reminiscent of Twilight and explain why.
The aim of the exercise was to hone close reading skills but also draw attention to how we construct genre, and what markers for this can be found in the text itself. I’ll discuss some of the ideas that were raised without giving away the answers which can be found at the end of this blog. In regards to Task 1, putting the readings in date order, this was quite difficult to do. Students commented that often more recent Gothic, both YA and adult, texts will draw on old-fashioned language to invoke a sense of past and history. This is particularly noticeable when a vampire is talking, for example. As they read through the examples, the students tried to find ‘slips’ in language or references to modern ideas/ technology/ culture that would give away the date. In general it was agreed that Extract 5 was the most modern piece of writing but in regards to the others the results were very varied.
Moving on to Task 2, this proved to be the most difficult. (Perhaps due to me not explaining clearly enough). This task followed on from the first lecture, which you can read about here, and exploring the difficulties of trying to define YA Gothic. Starting with the discussion of the role of romance in YA Gothic texts which was covered in the lecture, the students considered whether defining a text as YA Gothic makes the assumption that it is also YA Gothic romance, with a stress on the ‘romance’ aspect. Trying to discern the differences between the extracts above in terms of genre was difficult (and I’d purposely made it so) but, as the students showed, often there are overlaps between genre. Moreover, aspects of different genres intertwine. Some of the students were quick to comment on the type of language that was used: richly descriptive terminology and the use of the sublime invoked a sense of the Gothic. In the second seminar session, students commented on the use of sensual language in YA Gothic, often concentrating on description of the beauty of the love interest (returning us to the idea of how the vampire’s body is portrayed). However, it was agreed that sometimes this use of language was not always successful and could feel a little forced. The heightened emotion used in Extract 1, Extract 4 and Extract 5 suggested romance – and adolescent angst. It was also notable that many students saw Extract 1 as supernatural romance. The description of the full moon and fur suggested that the ‘Goddess’ of the piece was actually a werewolf, and the reaction of the protagonist to seeing their Goddess – caught between desire and fear – seemed to confirm this. There was a brilliant inventiveness used by students to talk about the different genres; I think my favourite genre was ‘Hard Gothic’ which could well be the title of my first novel.
Task 3 produced the most standardised results. The top picks were Extract 2, Extract 5 and Extract 7. Extract 2 was chosen because of its description of the natural world and the use of the sublime, which suggested the setting of Forks in Twilight surrounded by gloomy forests. During the lecture I had described how Angel introduces himself to Buffy as a ‘friend’ but not necessarily her friend (‘Angel’, S1: Ep7). This was echoed in the final section of Extract 2 which students acknowledged. Both Extract 5 and 7 were clearly about vampires, and the highly emotive psychic connection between the vampire and the subject of the text in Extract 5 seemed to suggest a more contemporary interpretation of the vampire myth. Extract 7’s use of delayed gratification brought to mind the drawn-out courtship of Bella and Edward. The tension between desire and fear brought about by the vampire lover echoed Meyer’s presentation of the danger that Edward poses to Bella. Equally, and thinking about Sara Wasson and Sarah Artt’s chapter, ‘The Twilight Saga and the pleasures of spectatorship: the broken and the shining body’, in the Open Graves, Open Minds book, Extract 7 reads as a moment frozen in time – a moment just before the kiss, the bite, the consummation of the relationship – drawing out the sensations of excited anticipation.
This exercise raised some very pertinent points about the use of language within YA Gothic and how this relates to the construction of genre. It also showed that YA Gothic, whilst a relatively new genre, is not without clear antecedents. Rather than being an abomination to the Gothic, YA Gothic builds upon is Gothic heritage but draws more heavily on the youth of its protagonists and contemporary ideas about adolescence.
And for any of you who played along, the sources for these extracts are below.
- Leopald von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs (1870) (London: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 16.
- Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 372-73.
- Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire (1976) (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 205.
- Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla (1872), in Three Vampire Tales, ed. by Anne Williams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), pp. 86-148 (p. 105).
- Kate MacAlister, A Girl’s Guide to Vampires (New York: Love Spell, 2003), pp. 43-44.
- Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814) (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 193.
- Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897), in Three Vampire Tales, ed. by Anne Williams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), pp. 149-460 (p. 182).