I have now been to enough conferences in my research area to start recognising people so that conferences become not only a place to proffer your work to other academics (flinching slightly when it gets to questions) but also to meet up and renew friendships. Some of the most interesting debates happen in the times between the panels, at lunch and over post-conference drinks. In this way, ‘Locating Fantastika’ felt (cue Gothic music) a little like an uncanny return given the number of people I recognised from the ‘SF/ Fantasy Now’ conference. This was slightly exacerbated by the design of Lancaster University’s campus which would make M.C. Escher marvel. I was also able to put a lot of names to faces and meet some of the people who will be presenting at the upcoming ‘Company of Wolves’ conference.
What really struck me at ‘Locating Fantastika’ was the overall quality of the papers. At most conferences there are normally a few bad papers or speakers who run over time (my pet peeve). At ‘Locating Fantastika’, the papers I attended were well researched, interesting, and ran to time which meant that there was plenty of opportunity for questions. I was lucky enough to be speaking in the first panel with three other incredibly interesting papers. Audrey Taylor’s paper on the ‘Pastoral and Fantasy: A Place in Time?’ moved from theorising of pastoral as a nostalgic mode to consider it as a transformative power. She suggested that the pastoral is also model for looking forward to a way of living that is not anti-city or anti-progress but a middle-ground for the relationship between humans and the countryside.
Polly Atkin looked at “Fantastic Grasmere” and how British nature could, and has, been made fantastic. She looked at representations of Grasmere as a mythological space in Romantic literature as well as Paul Magrs’ 2008 Dr. Who audiobook The Zygon Who Fell to Earth. This SF text echoed certain fantastic tropes which could be seen in the earlier literature and showed how familiar spaces are made uncanny through the intrusion of fantastical elements. An idea picked up in the next paper by Judith Eckenhoff which considered the supernatural elements in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here the fantastical elements are the fey spirits which inhabit the landscapes of the text. Eckenhoff considered how this presentation of the supernatural supported and challenged the relationship between humans and nature. The ideas in these papers about the fantastic intruding into humanity’s version of reality and the personification of the supernatural fed into my paper ‘Hunting the Last Werewolf: Ecology, Fantastika, and the Wilderness of the Imagination’ which looked at Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf trilogy. The questions afterwards were edifying and gave me plenty to think about regarding amendments and edits to my thesis.
The next panel was ‘Landscapes in Fixidity and Flux’; it features Christina Scholz discussing the British landscape made weird in the work of M. John Harrison, and Karen Graham’s work on the fantastical land of Oz in its many incarnations. The two papers, for me, summed up the tension that defined the entire conference. Locating fantastika can mean finding the elements of the fantastic which seep into our reality and make it uncanny or strange; alternatively, it is the ‘other’ fantastic world which we can entire either by means of a portal within a text or by using the text as a portal itself into the reader’s imagination. Thus, for example, Oz is continually remade both on a macro level through the many reinterpretations and texts it inhabits but also on a micro level through the engagement of each reader/ viewer.
The idea of locating the fantastic in our own world was picked up again by Ruth Heholt in her key note which offered Cornwall as an ‘Othered’ space in the British Isles. Both its location, on the fringe of the England, and its natural landscape full of rich folklore make it a space that has been seen as marvellous and threatening – a weak spot through which ‘foreign’ monsters can invade. Her paper made me consider what other areas of Britain we make ‘other’ and if there are any defining features which make this possible – I got as far as the presence of a perceived wilderness but then I am hung up on the wilderness at the moment.
How we enter, demarcate, and protect against fantastic spaces was the subject matter of the next panel, ‘Tangible Boundaries’. The papers covered the importance of doorways, Hadrian’s Wall and bedrooms as pathways into the unknown. I was particularly interested in the discussions of re-imaginings of Hadrian’s Wall in Corinna Joerres paper. It clarified for me something about this border – it is not actually British made though it may be British-maintained. Hadrian’s Wall is an intrusion into the landscape created by a foreign invader which has become naturalised. In the texts Joerres discussed, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, there is a desire to both maintain this boundary as an unchangeable divide but also an acknowledgement of its crudeness in attempting to split a country in half.
In the next panel, ‘Haunted Buildings’, I discovered that Gotham City draws some of its roots from the village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire and its reputed history of madness. Washington Irving visited Gotham and returned to America with these folktales about the ‘Mad Men of Gotham’. The transatlantic translation of ghost, folklore and the Gothic and the definition of American Gothic was taken up by Kevin Corstorphine in his paper on Jack Cady’s The Well. Here the haunted landscape was translated into the haunting house.
I’ll be quite honest and say the next morning’s panels I missed on account of back problems. (Having had two conferences quite close together my back was giving up and I gave a lot of thought to the ceiling of my hotel room that morning). But then I was back to chair the panel ‘Monsters in Transition’. Jen Aggleton’s paper on reader response and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls was very moving and considered the importance of illustration in how we engage with a text. Both Alan Gregory and Keith Scott’s papers were amusing and engaging. Like Aggleton’s, they considered the importance of imagination and the creation of other ‘worlds’ in which monsters and our fantasies can exist. The downside of their papers was that I now have yet more books I desperately want to get my hands on despite having an infinite reading list.
Philippa Semper’s key note considered the past as a ‘fantastical country’. She explored how historical fiction and fantasy has created the past as an Otherworld and how we have come to understand historical tropes as separate from their historical veracity. These markers of an historical past have become a-historical markers as they move from existing in history to existing in fantasy. In the next panel, Douglas Leatherland made this relationship between humanity’s understanding of the world throughout history and fantastical Otherworld. By looking at maps in Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Le Guin’s Earthsea it is clear how much these authors have been influenced by past ideas about the shape and limitations of the landscape. These maps show the difference between the known and the unknown – often featuring ‘unfinished’ sections. Chris Pak’s paper on terraforming suggested that humanity’s drive to ‘know’ and map the lands will continue into outer space. Pak’s paper showed a clear parallel between the presentation of entrepreneurship and capitalism in terraforming other planets and the ecological disasters to be found on earth.
In the last panel I attended, the most notable paper for me was Catherine Spooner’s paper on Only Lovers Left Alive. It looked back to discussions that Sam and I had during our brief sojourn to Romania for ‘Where’s the Place of Dracula’. What had become abundantly clear throughout the discussions regarding Stoker’s Dracula and the Gothicising of Romania was that the vampire, as we understand it in Western popular culture, is ostensibly British. Jonathan Harker is the British gentleman who goes to Romania and brings the vampire back with him – an interesting sort of souvenir. Yet his vampiric gaze as a tourist in Romania suggests that Dracula is just an extension of his own Imperialistic desires. Spooner’s paper explored how Adam and Eve as British vampires abroad enact their own ‘othering’ upon the places they inhabit as ‘dark tourists’. They are the legacy of Harker and have become the dislocated monster who can never go home. Like vampiric expats, they still maintain an element of imperialism as a way of protecting themselves and their notional British identity.
As my wordy and lengthy review suggests, this was a fruitful and engaging conference. I am looking forward to the next Fantastika conference, ‘Global Fantastika’ next year as I am sure it will be equally exciting. Now, I just need to write my abstract …