Somewhat later than planned, here is the promised blog on the Generation Dead lecture and seminar on Marcus Sedgwick’s My Swordhand is Singing (2006). The suggested secondary reading for this lecture/ seminar was Sedgwick’s essay on the process of writing this novel. Sedgwick discusses how he had to ‘unlearn’ the vampire and chose to travel to Romania in order to learn more about the folklore of the undead. In many way, Sedgwick is the anti-Stoker, attempting to undo the misappropriation of Eastern European folklore. Unlike Sedgwick, Stoker never visited Transylvania. As part of this undoing, Sedgwick chose not to call his undead monsters ‘vampire’ instead referring to them as ‘revenants’ or ‘hostages’ because the term ‘vampire’ is now highly coloured by popular culture images. During the seminar, I asked students what was important about naming the monster. Drawing on sociology, one student pointed out that labelling the monster identifies it. Furthermore, applying a label, assumes a certain amount of knowledge about the creature being labelled, and differentiates ‘Us’ (the people labelling) from ‘Them’ (the labelled monster). By changing the label and not using the term ‘vampire’, Sedgwick creates a sense of ambivalence as the reader is no longer clear of the rules that apply to this creature.
At the end of the lecture, I asked students what struck them most about the differences between this novel and Twilight, the text we had read the previous week. The most pressing concern was that the vampire was truly monstrous and disgusting. It was noted that more recent depictions of vampires allow you to forget that they are re-animated corpses. Instead, they are beautiful – often more beautiful than human characters. One of the key themes in Sedgwick’s text is the acceptance of death as part of life. In the novel, the grotesque corpses coming back to prey on their family members suggest an inability to mourn properly. The death of the loved one is not accepted and so they haunt the living in a very real way by becoming revenants. Sedgwick’s ‘vampires’ embody our inability to accept the reality of death and end with the death of the revenants. Whereas Meyer’s vampires promise the gift/ curse of eternal life, or deathlessness.
In all the seminars for this module, the question is always posed: “Is this YA Gothic?” The responses from the students was very interesting. Two key ideas came out regarding the content of the text. Firstly, the setting is rural Romania in the early seventeenth century which means that the text has no contemporary trappings. Most of the other texts on the course purposely embed modern technology and pop culture references into the narrative in order to reflect the day-to-day life of their adolescent audience. In comparison, Sedgwick’s novel feels timeless and the isolation of the rural community in the middle of the forest gives the narrative a fairy tale feel, which is also reflected in his understated and lyrical writing-style. A number of the students commented that the text felt more like it was YA fantasy rather than YA Gothic.
The issue of romance was also raised in regards to YA Gothic as a genre. There is very little romance in My Swordhand is Singing and, as was pointed out in the seminar, the elements of romance do not drive the narrative as is often the case in YA Gothic. Rather the action is based around the vampire-slaying storyline. This lack of romance made some students question whether the text was YA Gothic in the ‘traditional’ sense. Moreover, the revenant/ vampires were not cast as the objects of desire rather they were the objects of fear and disgust. This challenged other YA Gothic narratives in which the ‘monster’ is usually also the lover. While some of the students saw the lack of sexual content as a sign that the text was possibly for younger readers, others said that they had been genuinely scared when reading it and felt that it was too scary for children.
In relation to the presentation of the Gothic Other or the outsider within the novel, Sedgwick’s text differs from the other YA Gothic narratives on the course. As mentioned above, the monster is not redeemed. Instead the themes pertaining to the outsider are explored through the treatment of human characters. Peter and his father, Tomas, live just on the outskirts of the community and, despite their integral role as woodcutters, they are only tolerated by the villagers because, having not been born in the village, they are perceived as outsiders. To make this alienation clearer, they literally live on an island – although this also serves another function. The arrival of gypsies brings another group of people that are treated as outsiders. What was noted in the seminars is that outsider-ness was a sliding scale. The gypsies are more ‘other’ than Tomas and Peter which is demonstrated through their skin tone. Sofia, the gypsy girl, is darker than Peter, who is darker than Agnes, a local girl from the village. Yet, as the novel makes clear, outsiders are partially accepted as long as parameters are maintained. Peter and Tomas live slightly away from the village and the gypsies return to their camp outside the community once they have traded and entertained the villagers. Once a difficult situation arises, the arrival of the revenants, anyone who is perceived as being different or an outsider is treated with caution and suspicion.
However, as the students commented, the novel complicates the role of the outsider in two ways. Sofia tries to protect and work with Peter. When the other gypsies discover this, she is punished for engaging with people who are not from her group. Thus the construction of otherness is two-fold. More pertinently, at the end of the novel, the cruel matriarch of the village is discovered to have been a revenant for some time. She has been a double-agent, preventing a full investigation into the extent of the revenant problem. Indeed, all the revenants are the villagers rather than those perceived as outsiders – who are actually the saviours and monster-hunters. My Swordhand is Singing presents a situation in which true evil is at the heart of the community, a community which is fearful, isolated, and small-minded.
Marcus does not like the YA tag and he would be the first to say he does not write YA fiction, only fiction. It would be interesting to look at some of his interviews where he discusses this with the class perhaps Kaja. There is romance here but it is understated and not paranormal. What this novel has is an authentic folklore and scrupulous research – it acts as a kind of anti-Twilight and shows British fiction moving in a different direction. Marcus’s essay in the ‘Open Graves, Open Minds’ book lays bare his thoughts re: vampirism in early European accounts and he really captures the flavour of this whilst never using the word vampire, preferring instead the more ambiguous ‘hostages'(which shows they are not without sympathy). This is a brilliant novel.