Sunday, 12 December 2010

Beautiful, Strong, Broken Women

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that tonight I watched Buffy s5 ep12 ('The Body') for the first time in ages. In case you can't recall, this is the episode where Buffy finds her mother's dead body on the couch and has to deal with the immediate aftermath. The episode is wonderfully played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, and beautifully directed. There is no soundtrack, and each of the central characters plays out the most attractive facet of their character. As I said on Twitter, I'll only get behind a Buffy reboot if they can pull off something as beautiful as that episode.

Sarah Michelle Gellar's performance as the amazingly strong, yet perfectly vulnerable, Buffy got me thinking about femininity. And the way in which women are forced to juggle 'surviving' with 'being beautiful' and 'being good'. This is something I've had to deal with in my own life - as an apparently 'confident' and 'successful' woman - and I'm going to give you a run-down of women that have given me strength. Don't get me wrong... I find strength in so many women (from Emmeline Pankhurst to my bestest mate K), but these are the beautiful, strong, broken women who speak to my experience.

I would love to hear who your beautiful, broken icons are...

5. Buffy. This time last year, my dad found out he had cancer. During the time of his treatment, I got dumped and had to deal with my younger brother's 'issues' with his relationship to our dad. Of course, there are a lot of background issues, and my brother is only 16 months younger than me, but up until now his whole experience with death has revolved around my protecting him from it (mine hasn't - as my job from being 16 entails I've had to go to a lot of colleagues' funerals). Our (me and my bro) first bereavement was three days before my 8th birthday - I understood, he (aged 6) didn't - and our next was on his 13th birthday, and I've spent a lot of time making sure his birthday doesn't remind him of Grandma's death (he doesn't actually remember that Granny died around my birthday, but I'd rather he didn't remember our first bereavement). When the next death happened (when I was 17, he was 15), I had to be the one to break it to him. I might not be a slayer, but I am a big sister - and a child of a cancer patient -which is why Buffy is the first on my list of beautiful women. I can't show the whole episode, and you really do need the whole soundtrack-less thing to get the picture, but you'll get it from this:




4. Stacey Slater in Eastenders. Bipolar rape victim who wasn't totally sure what consent might mean when she was ill. (And the older, wiser me will say, hun, you can't consent if you're having an episode. And yes - I am bipolar. And yes - I am a rape victim.) Found one good man... and he died for her 'crime'. Beautifully, beautifully portrayed by Lacey Turner:



3. Tina Turner. This should be considered a clarion call to all of us who have suffered domestic abuse. And trust me, I know whereof I speak (My ex - hit me, hit his son, hit the cat). When they hit us, when they make us feel small, when they rape us, we should remember:




2. Blanche Dubois. A double one here. The character is a (possibly) mentally ill rape victim; the actress is a perfect, fragile, violent, broken harridan. No-one wanted to help Blanche or Vivien, because they were too much like hard work. I'm mentally ill (which should have been apparent throughout this post), and I've been forced to accept all NHS treatments short of sectioning. Blanche took it like this (I didn't... and Vivien Leigh didn't either...):



1. Judy Garland. I left her to last, because this says it all. For me, she is the beautiful, strong, broken woman par excellence. This is one of the most painful videos I've ever seen. Look into her eyes. You will see her soul... and mine:

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Review: Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Raised by Wolves (Quercus, 2010)


Raised by Wolves, published by Quercus in 2010, is a YA urban fantasy novel, which tells the story of Bronwyn (otherwise known as Bryn), a girl raised by a werewolf pack. When she was four years old, a lone "Rabid" werewolf - the "Big, Bad Wolf" - attacked and killed Bryn's family. She only escaped by hiding in a cupboard until the Stone River Pack arrive to kill the lone wolf and save the girl's life. Bryn is then taken into the pack by powerful alpha Callum, who "Marks" her and raises her. When human woman Ali arrives - searching for her sister who has run off with a werewolf - she is given Bryn as a surrogate daughter, despite being only a few years older. This semi-stable family set-up continues until Bryn is seventeen, when the arrival of newly-converted "Were" Chase causes Bryn to question everything she thinks she knows about the pack and her place within it.

Barnes' werewolves are of a recognizable type: presented as a sort of cohabitation of human and wolf within one 'shifting' bodyt; 'born' not 'made' (on the whole); subject to the strict regulation of a hierarchical pack structure; and telepathic via a "Pack bond", a shared consciousness that links all members of a particular pack. The societal organization of the pack is utterly patriarchal, reliant on obedience to the alpha male. Bryn is doubly subject to this patriarchy; as a woman, but also a human, she has ostensibly little power to rebel against the rigorous and controlling influence of alpha Callum. The novel begins with Callum chastizing Bryn for three transgressions: she has 'borrowed' a motorbike from a classmate [What is it with YA heroines and secret motorbikes??]; her Algebra marks are low; she hasn't fully complied with her curfew. These circumstances may be reasonably familiar to readers of YA fiction. However, on eof the strengths of Raised by Wolves is that Barnes extends this marginalized, powerless situation of the heroine to a wider presentation of women within the werewolf world.

It is made clear throughout the book that there are very few female werewolves. This is presented as a fluke of werewolf biology: "Something about the chemistry involved in werewolf conception made it impossible for girl embryos to survive the first trimester, unless they were half of a set of twins and had a brother to mask their presence in the womb." This 'scientific fact' has a series of deep repercussions for the female characters in the novel. It makes female werewolves very rare: Bryn's foster-sister Kaitlin and close friend Lake are unusual, and thus highly prized members of the pack. As werewolves are 'born' and not 'made', the only way to breed 'purebred' werewolves is for these females to mate with male members of the pack. Their relative scarcity means that they are the focus of an undercurrent of sexual violence and coercion. In the later chapters of the novel, Bryn becomes aware of this when Lake - a rebellious tomboy of breeding age - hides in the mountains when a group of alphas visit her home. As Lake's father explains: "Some Weres, especially the dominant ones, get real funny around females, and Lake's not a kid anymore." Not only is the fifteen-year-old Lake now at risk of the "real funny" behaviour of dominant males, she may also be subject to "bartering" by her own alpha. Bryn comes to a realization that her friend - and, evenutally, her younger sister - will be seen as "commodities" by Callum.

One of the ways alphas exert power over each other is through the size of their pack. The more members to a pack, the more power the alpha has. As there is no way - apparently - of converting humans into werewolves, breeding is an important concern for the pack. The rareness of female werewolves results in most werewolves taking human wives. Barnes is fairly stark in her portrayal of these women - they are little more than breeding machines, and maternal mortality rates are ridiculously high. At one point, the narrator Bryn comments on mass, unmarked graves of female women who have died giving birth to werewolf children. The cumulative effect of this focus on reproduction, mating and mortality is to create a world in which to be female is to be inferior, fragile and vulnerable to patriarchal violence and control. Barnes sustains this throughout her novel, adding to the tension and precariousness of Bryn's situation.

Nevertheless, Bryn is not the sort of heroine who will simply compel with such monolithic societal controls. As Lake's father comments, she is "scrappy". The characterization of Bryn, and her determination to rebel against and subvert the world in which she lives, is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. Bryn is adept at finding loopholes in pack rule, and discovers a number of skills and attributes that allow her to fight back against the injustices she has faced. (And I will say no more on these, as they are integral to the development of the plot.) Moreover, Bryn configures an alternative society, at odds with the traditional pack, made up of the marginalized, the disenfranchised and the powerless. This social group includes Chase (the werewolf convert who 'shouldn't' exist), Lake and Bryn's close friend Devon - "the world's only metrosexual werewolf". This group - also incorporating Bryn's strong and principled foster-mother Ali and adorable wolf-cub Kaitlin - is likable and sympathetic. The reader sides with them easily against the rigid and brutal pack patriarchy.

Although, as I have said, Barnes' werewolves are of a reasonably familiar type, the author plays around with the usual formula. For example, the "Pack bond" shared by the werewolves can also be enjoyed by humans who have been "Marked". Bryn and Ali have the opportunity to share in this bond, but choose to close off their minds to it. This leads to some consideration by Bryn about what exactly separates humans from "Weres". Though she realizes that she is not actually a werewolf, Bryn doesn't feel or act fully human either. Snarling in anger and revelling in the unrestrained physical freedom of "running with the Pack", Bryn seems to be part-werewolf, despite the impossibility of this. This all raises an interesting question: is it nature or nurture that makes a werewolf?

Raised by Wolves is an enjoyable and gripping YA fantasy. Believable characters and a well-handled and suspenseful plot make for a great read. While the basic premise of the book (and its werewolf world) may seem like well-trodden territory, Barnes' handling of these ideas is original and fresh. The writing bears favourable comparison with other bestselling examples of YA fantasy - and, indeed, is an instance of the genre at its best. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

CFP: Revenge - Probing the Boundaries

16th July 2011 - Monday 19th July 2011
Mansfield College, Oxford, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

Revenge, so we are told, is a dish best served cold: a ‘sweet’ wreaking of vengeance on those who have – either in reality or in our minds – slighted, wronged or in some way ‘injured’ us and who are now ‘enjoying’ their just deserts by an avenging angel (or angels) on the great day of reckoning. This inter- and multi-disciplinary research and publications project seeks to explore the multi-layered ideas and actions of vengeance or revenge. The project aims to explore the nature of revenge, its relationship with issues of justice, and its manifestation in the actions of individuals, groups, communities and nations. The project will also consider the history of revenge, its ‘legitimacy’, the‘scale’ of vengeful actions and whether revenge has (or should have) ‘limits’. Representations of revenge in film, literature, tv, theatre and radio will be analysed; cultural ‘traditions’ of retaliation and revenge will be considered. And the role of mercy, forgiveness and pardon will be assessed.

Papers will consider the following indicative themes:
  • the nature of reveng
  • vengeance in history
  • revenge cross-culturally
  • the role of revenge
  • is there any proper and improper time for revenge? Can an act of revenge be carried across generations?
  • revenge, vengeance, retaliation: to avenge
  • justice and revenge; redressing the balance, just desert
  • betrayal, humiliation, shame, resentment and revenge
  • revenge and the individual; revenge and the group; revenge and the nation
  • revenge in literature and the arts
  • revenge in music
  • revenge in tv, film, radio and theatre: the nemesis
  • relationship between revenge and mercy, forgiveness, pardon
  • revenge case-studies: individual and collective

Papers on any other topic related to the theme will also be considered. The Steering Group particularly welcomes the submission of pre-formed panel proposals. Papers will also be considered on any related theme.

300 word abstracts should be submitted by Friday 14th January 2011. If an abstract is accepted for the conference, a full draft paper shouldbe submitted by Friday 27th May 2011.

Abstracts should be submitted simultaneously to both Organising Chairs; abstracts may be in Word, WordPerfect, or RTF formats with the following information and in this order: a) author(s), b) affiliation, c) email address, d) title of abstract, e) body of abstract

E-mails should be entitled: REV2 Abstract Submission.

Please use plain text (Times Roman 12) and abstain from using footnotes and any special formatting, characters or emphasis (such asbold, italics or underline).

We acknowledge receipt and answer to all paper proposals submitted. If you do not receive a reply from us in a week you should assume we did not receive your proposal; it might be lost in cyberspace! We suggest, then, to look for an alternative electronic route or resend.

Joint Organising Chairs:

Karolina Wigura
Institute of Sociology,
Warsaw University,
Warsaw,
Poland

Rob Fisher
Network Founder and Leader
Inter-Disciplinary.Net
Freeland,
Oxfordshire,
United Kingdom

The conference is part of the Probing the Boundaries programme of research projects. It aims to bring together people from different areas and interests to share ideas and explore various discussions which are innovative and exciting. All papers accepted for and presented at this conference will be eligible for publication in an ISBN eBook. Selected papers may be invited for development for publication in a themed hard copy volume(s).

For further details about the project please click here.

For further details about the conference please click here.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Vampires, Memeplexes and McFly

This is not one of my planned blog posts - I have some interesting things lined up to say on Shakira and on medieval research at the University of Manchester - but it came to me, and I feel compelled. Apart from being a scholar of medieval literature and contemporary popular culture, apart from being an aspiring novelist and a published poet, I am also a massive McFly fan. And I make no apologies for that.

When I heard that McFly were releasing a video featuring vampires (for the 2010 single 'Party Girl'), I was interested on two levels. One: I adore McFly. And two: I have a scholarly interest in vampires, monsters and all things strange. Given the preponderence of abstinent and sympathetic vampires in literature (and I mean here, in all literature - I am of the school of thought that sees Dracula as a break in tradition, not the tradition itself), I expected this band to appeal to the Twilight generation. I thought I would see tragic, struggling vamps, forcing themselves to endure blood pangs with a romantic fortitude. (I mean, I love McFly, but I still expected them to tap in to mainstream tastes.)

However, this is the video:



Some really interesting things occur to me in watching this video, and I think the theory of memes and memeplexes is useful here. A meme is a piece of information, which survives and flourishes through transmission, replication and mutation. The idea of the the meme was originally posited by Richard Dawkins in 1976 - before he went all fundamentalist athesist - and was understood as the cornerstone of human intelligence. Call it 'understanding', 'intelligence' or 'consciousness', it's all down to 'memes'. Furthermore, memes evolve in much the same way as genes do... they pass on through endless repetition and replication; a mutation occurs; the mutated version is then relicated. (Although, unlike genes, memes do not need a mutation to be 'beneficial' in order for the mutation to survive.) A memeplex is a complex group of memes, which exists in much the same way. Within the memeplex are a wide variety of memes, all or some of which are necessary for the overall concept to be understood. Thus, the 'vampire memeplex' is a complex 'grab bag' of ideas that exists (in some combination or another) for the concept of the 'vampire' to be understood. We might include in this aversion to garlic, aversion to sunlight, heightened sexuality, heightened sense of morality/immorality, aversion to silver, affiliations to the Victorian era, etc.

The idea of the 'memeplex' overlaps, to some extent, with the idea of 'mythos'. Additionally, issues of intertextuality are equally difficult to separate from 'memeplex'. This overlapping and intercrossing is evident in watching the McFly video. As the video starts, we see red letters on a black background, and a cross serving as the letter 't' in 'party'. This draws on both colour associations and intertextual reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The font of the wording should also be familiar to any pop culture vampire afficianados.

Following this, we have a series of visual referents for the vampire genre: black birds circling, a single star, a tortured male face. At 00.15 in the video, you will also notice a clear visual depiction of an eclipse (referencing Stephenie Meyer's book/movie of the same name). Next, we see a gargoyle - evidence of the use of gothic architecture in almost all vampire fiction.

The image which follows signals a diversion from the more common pop culture 'abstinent male vampire' memes. A large, red-lipped, fanged, and undoubtedly female mouth fills the screen. The mouth reminds me of Barbara Creed's association of the vampiric mouth with the mythical 'vagina dentata', and this reminds us that the focus of the song is a 'Party Girl'. The lyrics, and much of the rest of the video, concentrate on the idea of dangerous and seductive femininity. We see Harry engaging in seedy sex in a dark room, being infected and singing 'fangs out' on stage. We also have an image (at 1.30 in the video) of 'Dracula's brides' attacking the male protagonist. Words flash up on the screen to remind us of this feminine monstrousness: 'doomed', 'kill', 'kiss', 'sinks her teeth in'.

Nevertheless, there is much more to this video than simply a rehashing of the monstrousness of female sexuality. Consider, for example, the fact that the main female vamp is originally presented (at 1.03 in the video) as an apparent victim of sexual assault. Her appearance as a killer (1.17) is shadowed by the earlier image of her victimhood. Additionally, the video makes explicit reference to ideas of uncontrollable and dangerous testosterone: see 1.18 as an instance. At 1.54, there is an image of a very gentle and feminine female face, followed immediately by a further image of the 'macho' male lifting weights. Polaroid photographs suggest pornographic treatment of women. And, towards the end of the video, we see blood dripping slowly down a very phallic guitar, before the McFly boys break into another riff.

In this way, the Party Girl video presents images of out-of-control feminine sexuality/monstrosity, while always undermining them with the violence of patriarchal masculinity. This is further underlined by the ambiguity of the lyrics: "I love this little party girl/ yeah/ she likes to dance all by herself". Is this the story of the fetishization of an infantilized female? Or the empowerment of the female through monstrosity?

The McFly video plays around with pop culture references. Among them are a vamp-dusting in the style of Buffy and (my favourite) Breaking Dawn-esque flying feathers (1.33 onwards). This demonstrates the overlapping of 'memeplex' - the ideas that create our concept of 'vampire' - and intertextuality. However, what is also of interest is the apparently easy crossover between the vampire memeplex and that of the werewolf. At 1.47, Harry stands illuminated by a full moon, in the grips of an apparently painful transformation (sans shirt). At 2.43, Danny is heard to say 'Dougie - don't go into the woods!': surely, this is more reminiscent of werewolf films than vampire films?

So, what do we make of these conflicting referents in the McFly video? It could be argued that the team behind the video are simply cashing in on a slew of visual referents to mainstream pop culture texts. Nevertheless, I would suggest that this video, in fact, reveals how use of a 'grab bag' mythos - or memeplex - along with a 'postmodern' sense of intertextuality, creates twenty-first-century cultural products. All contemporary vampiric texts have one eye backwards and one eye sideways... McFly are simply utilizing this to encourage downloads. The complexity of the references in this particular video, along with the ambiguity of the lyrics, is one of the main reasons why I am not ashamed to describe myself as a McFly Fangirl and Proud. I love pop culture in all its bizarre forms and complexities.

And in case you think that the vampiric context of this latest video is simply a cash-in on recent pop culture trends, have a look at the video for McFly's 2007 single 'Transylvania'. I know I've admitted I'm a fangirl - but even the most anti-McFly amongst you will be hard-pressed not to love such a beautifully absurist mash-up of vampire memeplex, WWI imagery, fin-de-siecle extravagance, cross-dressing, Nosferatu and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' reference. And it begins with a sample for Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor'. Enjoy...




And here's a lovely presentation of zombie imagery with reference to the 'Thriller' vid (and a nice little intertextual reference to the film that gave the band their name - released the very year guitarist/vocalist Tom Fletcher was born):


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Call for Submissions: Steampink Anthology

Library of Fantasy presents

Steampink: Queered Visions of Steampunk

Edited and compiled by Bill Tucker and Tonia Brown

Searching for steampunk stories that have a queered twist. The stories should have at least one glbt main character and/or theme.

Word count is 3-7k.

Rich text format please.

Indent paragraphs 1 tab.

Single spaced.

Use italics - do not underline.

No page numbers/headers.

Place your name, address, telephone number, email and the approximate word count on the title page please.

Payment is 1 cent per word and 1 contributor copy.

Please email submissions to this address (click for link).

Last day to submit submissions is March 15, 2011.

Click here for further details.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Light of my life... fire of my loins... My Comment on Twilight

In the past ten days, I have worked my way through Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. Although I have been tweeting my immediate reactions to the books, I felt that a lengthier review was in order. This post is intended to address my main misgivings with the series. I think my approach should be fairly self-explanatory.

Quotations are taken from Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955; Penguin Books, 1995) and Stephanie Meyer, Twilight (Atom, 2006); Eclipse (Atom, 2007); Breaking Dawn (Atom, 2008)

Light of my life... fire of my loins...

"While my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body's every plea. One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly optimistic. Taboos strangulated me." (Lolita, p. 18)

"He started to pull away - that was his automatic response whenever he decided things had gone too far, his reflex reaction whenever he most wanted to keep going. Edward had spent most of his life rejecting any kind of physical gratification. I knew it was terrifying to him trying to change those habits now." (Breaking Dawn, p. 23)

"He had the utmost respect for ordinary children, with their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances would he have interfered with the innocence of a child, if there was the least risk of a row. But how his heart beat when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon child..." (Lolita, pp. 19-20)

"'Quil... imprinted... with a two-year-old?' I was finally able to ask.
[...]
'You're making judgments,' he accused. 'I can see it on your face.'
'Sorry,' I muttered. 'But it sounds really creepy.'
'It's not like that; you've got it all wrong,' Jacob defended his friend, suddenly vehement. 'I've seen what it's like, through his eyes. There's nothing romantic about it all, not for Quil, not now. [...] When you see her, suddenly it's not the earth holding you anymore. She does. And nothing matters more than her. And you would do anything for her, be anything for her...'" (Eclipse, p. 156)

"Let me repeat with quiet force: I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanour. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject's displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal. And this was my case. Well did I know, alas, that I could obtain at the snap of my fingers any adult female I chose; in fact, it had become quite a habit with me of not being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap." (Lolita, p. 25)

"'That's Edward. He's gorgeous, of course, but don't waste your time. He doesn't date. Apparently none of the girls here are good-looking enough for him.'" (Twilight, p. 19)

"When he sat next to me in class, as far away from me as the table would allow, he seemed totally unaware of my presence." (Twilight, p. 59)

"I find it most difficult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition... the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty..." (Lolita, p. 39)

"I could see that now - how the universe swirled around this one point. I'd never seen the symmetry of the universe before, but now it was plain.
The gravity of the earth no longer tied me to the place where I stood.
It was the baby girl in the blonde vampire's arms that held me now." (Breaking Dawn, p. 331)

"I shall probably have another breakdown if I stay any longer in this house, under the strain of this intolerable temptation, by the side of my darling - my darling - my life and my bride." (Lolita, p. 47)

"'Why are you doing this to me?' he said through his teeth, his tone suddenly angry. 'Isn't it hard enough without all of this?' He grabbed a handful of lace that was ruffled on my thigh. For a moment, I thought he was going to rip it from the seam. Then his hand relaxed. 'It doesn't matter. I won't make any deals with you.'" (Breaking Dawn, p. 93)

"By this time I was in a state of excitement bordering on insanity; but I also had the cunning of the insane. Sitting there, on the sofa, I managed to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her guileless limbs. It was no easy matter to divert the little maiden's attention while I performed the obscure adjustments necessary for the success of the trick." (Lolita, p. 58)

"His hand curved around my elbow, moving slowly down my arm, across my ribs and over my waist, tracing along my hip and down my leg, around my knee. He paused there, his hand curling around my calf. He pulled my leg up suddenly, hitching it around his hip.
I stopped breathing." (Eclipse, p. 165)

"In my self-made seraglio, I was a radiant and robust Turk, deliberately, in the full consciousness of his freedom, postponing the moment of actually enjoying the youngest and frailest of his slaves." (Lolita, p. 60)

"'Getting married is a stretch for me. I'm not giving in unless I get something in return.'
He leaned down to whisper in my ear. 'No,' he murmured silkily. 'It's not possible now. Later, when you're less breakable. Be patient, Bella.'
[...] He was too beautiful. What was the word he'd used just now? Unbearable - that was it. His beauty was too much to bear...
[...] 'I'm not saying no,' he reassured me. 'I'm just saying not tonight.'" (Eclipse, p. 399)


"The word 'forever' referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood." (p. 65)

"I laughed breathlessly when his urgent kiss interrupted my efforts again.
[...] 'Damn it,' he growled, kissing hungrily down the edge of my jaw.
'We have plenty of time to work on it,' I reminded him.
'Forever and forever and forever,' he murmured." (Breaking Dawn, p. 699)

"Then she crept into my waiting arms, radiant, relaxed, caressing me with her tender, mysterious, impure, indifferent, twilight eyes - for all the world, like the cheapest of cheap cuties. For this is what nymphets imitate - while we moan and die." (Lolita, p. 120)

"... so tonight I pulled out one of the scarier pieces as I got ready in the panelled bathroom. It was black, lacy, and embarrassing to look at even when it wasn't on. I was careful not to look in the mirror before I went back to the bathroom. I didn't want to lose my nerve.
I had the satisfaction of watching his eyes pop open wide for just a second before he controlled his expression.
[...] I couldn't tell if he was moved by the tears trembling in my voice, or if he was unprepared to deal with the suddenness of my attack, or if his need was simply as unbearable in that moment as my own. But whatever the reason, he pulled my lips back to his, surrendering with a groan." (Breaking Dawn, pp. 92; 98)

"I was still firmly resolved to pursue my policy of sparing her purity by operating only in the stealth of night, only upon a completely anaesthetized little nude." (Lolita, p. 124)

"I still didn't turn around. 'How often do you come here?'
'I come here almost every night.'
I whirled, stunned. 'Why?'
'You're interesting when you sleep.' He spoke matter-of-factly." (Twilight, p. 256)

"This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning. Whether or not the realization of a lifelong dream had surpassed all expectations, it had, in a sense, overshot its mark - and plunged into a nightmare. I had been careless, stupid, and ignoble." (Lolita, p. 140)

"His eyes tightened. 'How badly are you hurt, Bella? The truth - don't try to downplay it.'
[...] 'Why would you jump to that conclusion? I've never been better than I am now.'
His eyes closed. 'Stop that.'
'Stop what?'
'Stop acting like I'm not a monster for having agreed to this.'
[...] Under the dusting of feathers, large purplish bruises were beginning to blossom across the pale skin of my arm. My eyes followed the trail they made up to my shoulder, and then down across my ribs. I pulled my hand free to poke at a discoloration on my left forearm, watching it fade where I touched and then reappear. It throbbed a little.
So lightly that he barely touching me, Edward placed his hand against the bruises on my arm, one at a time, matching his long fingers to the patterns.
[...] 'I'm... so sorry, Bella,' he whispered while I stared at the bruises. 'I knew better than this. I should not have -' He made a low, revolted sound in the back of his throat. 'I am more sorry that I can tell you.'" (Breaking Dawn, pp. 80-82)

"Presently, making a sizzling sound with her lips, she started complaining of pains, said she could not sit, said I had torn something inside her." (Lolita, p. 141)

"I took a deep breath. I was feeling more of the soreness now, but it wasn't that bad. Sort of like the day after lifting weights." (Breaking Dawn, p. 83)

"I want to protect you, dear, from all the horrors that happen to little girls in coal sheds and alley ways, and, alas, comme vous le savez trop bien, ma gentille, in the blueberry woods during the bluest of summers. Through thick and thin I will stay your guardian, and if you are good, I hope a court may legalize that guardianship before long." (Lolita, p. 149)

"'It's going to sound cruel, I suppose. But I've come too close to losing you in the past. I know what it feels like to think I have. I am not going to tolerate anything dangerous. [...] No werewolves.'
'I'm not going along with that. I have to see Jacob.'
'Then I'll have to stop you.'" (Eclipse, pp. 29-30)

"'I don't need any fanfare. You won't have to tell anyone or make any changes. We'll go to Vegas - you can wear old jeans and we'll go to the chapel with the drive-through window. I just want to make it official - that you belong to me and no one else.'" (Eclipse, p. 404)

"... with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force de l'age..." (Lolita, p. 174)

"'Because you're the one who told me this. Do you remember? You said we belonged in each other's lives, right? That we were family. You said that was how you and I were supposed to be. So... now we are. It's what you wanted.'
[...] 'You think you'll be part of my family as my son-in-law!' I screeched.
[...] 'Do you remember how much you wanted me around three days ago? How hard it was to be apart from each other? That's gone now for you, isn't it? [...] That was her,' he told me. 'From the very beginning. We had to be together, even then.'" (Breaking Dawn, pp. 415-16)

"First the old ogre drew up a list under 'absolutely forbidden' and another under 'reluctantly allowed'... She might visit a candy bar with her girl friends, and there giggle-chat with occasional young males, while I waited in the car at a discreet distance..." (Lolita, p. 186)

"The Quileute school was already out for the summer, so he told me to come over as early as I could. I was pleased to have an option besides being babysat. There was a tiny bit more dignity in spending the day with Jacob.
Some of that dignity was lost when Edward insisted again on delivering me to the border line like a child being exchanged by custodial guardians.
[...] He laughed again, but suddenly stopped when we turned the last bend and saw the red car waiting. He frowned in concentration, and then, as he parked the car, he sighed." (Eclipse, pp. 282-83)

"On playgrounds and beaches, my sullen and stealthy eye, against my will, still sought out the flash of a nymphet's limbs, the sly tokens of Lolita's handmaids and rosegirls." (Lolita, p. 257)

"I kept going north, and it got more and more crowded. Eventually, I found a big park full of kids and families and skateboards and bikes and kites and picnics. [...] I walked around for what felt like hours. Long enough that the sun changed sides in the sky. I stared into the face of every girl who passed anywhere near me, making myself really look, noticing who was pretty and who had blue eyes and who looked good in braces and who had way too much make-up on. I tried to find something interesting about each face, so that I would know for sure that I'd really tried. [...] As time went on, I started noticing all the wrong things. Bella things. This one's hair was the same colour. This one's eyes were sort of shaped the same. This one's cheekbones cut across her face in just the same way." (Breaking Dawn, pp. 304-305)

"She was frankly and hugely pregnant. Her head looked smaller (only two seconds had passed really, but let me give them as much wooden duration as life can stand), and her pale-freckled cheeks were hollowed, and her bare shins and arms had lost all their tan, so that the little hairs showed. She wore a brown, sleeveless cotton dress and sloppy felt slippers." (Lolita, p. 269)

"Bella's body was swollen, her torso ballooning out in a strange, sick way. It strained against the faded grey sweatshirt that was way too big for her shoulders and arms. The rest of her seemed thinner, like the big bulge had grown out of what it had sucked from her. It took me a second to realize what the deformed part was - I didn't understand until she folded her hands tenderly around her bloated stomach, one above and one below. Like she was cradling it.
I saw it then, but I couldn't believe it. I'd seen her just a month ago. There was no way she could be pregnant. Not that pregnant." (Breaking Dawn, p. 160)

"'You chump,' she said, smiling sweetly at me. 'You revolting creature. I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you've done to me. I ought to call the police and tell them you raped me. Oh, you dirty, dirty old man." (Lolita, p. 141)

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

On Werewolves, Witchhunts and Cooks Source Magazine

Many of you may already be familiar with the story of Pernette Gandillon, as it is recounted in both Sabine Baring-Gould's The Book of Were-Wolves and Henri Boguet's Discours des Sorciers (Baring-Gould, in fact, draws his version of the tale from Boguet's earlier work). However, for those of you who are not, I will give a brief overview.

Pernette Gandillon was a young woman who lived in the Jura Mountains in the late-sixteenth century. As Baring-Gould and Boguet recount, Pernette was prone to running around the countryside on all fours, and apparently believed that she was a wolf. In 1598, she is reported to have attacked two young children, as a result of her "sudden passion for blood". When the male child, a four-year-old, attempted to defend himself and his sister, Pernette tore at his throat and fatally wounded him. When this was discovered, the people of the village tore Pernette to pieces in "rage and horror".

Following the lynching of Pernette, other members of the Gandillon family were rounded up for trial on charges of witchcraft. Pierre and Georges were alleged to have led children to the witches' sabbath, transformed themselves into wolves and attacked local animals. Antoinnette confessed to having had sexual congress with the devil at the sabbath. All three confessed, were found guilty and were hanged and burned.

While by no means isolated, the story of the Gandillon family is an interesting illustration of the complexities of werewolf belief in the sixteenth century. Note, for example, the connection between lycanthropy and devil worship, and the insistence on an unnatural bloodlust in the transformed wolf. Baring-Gould also reports that Pierre and Georges behaved like "maniacs" while imprisoned, and labels Pernette's "transformation" as an ostensibly misguided "belief she was a wolf". This suggests a link between madness and werewolfism.

The Gandillon story also tells us something about sixteenth-century justice and punishment for werewolves. Pernette is dealt with by mob justice - there is no question in any reports that she committed the murder, and she is never brought to trial. Her execution - or, more accurately, lynching - is a gruesome (and, one suspects, public) dismemberment brought about by "rage and horror", rather than by a desire to see justice done. It is interesting to consider, here, whether or not we believe Pernette to be as guilty as did the vigilante mob of executioners. If, indeed, she was a werewolf, do we feel the punishment met the crime? Was she mentally unstable? Was her crime due to "diminished responsibility"? How much evidence did the mob actually have to confirm her guilt?

Baring-Gould is rather coy on the subject of the other Gandillons' confessions, simply stating that they "readily admitted" to various charges. Our knowledge of sixteenth-century techniques of extracting confessions from heretics and witches may lead us to question how "readily" the Gandillons gave forth their stories. We may also wonder why the Gandillon family were arrested "directly after" the lynching of Pernette. Were they tainted by association? Was Pernette's crime too hideous to be an isolated instance? Do we, enlightened twenty-first-century readers that we are, really believe that the Gandillon family were guilty?

Fast forward to November 2010...

As I'm sure many of you will be aware, a social media storm erupted on Thursday 17 November. Food blogger Monica Gaudio blogged that an article she had posted on her blog had been printed (without permission or remuneration) in the now-infamous Cooks Source Magazine. For the sake of my eyes and yours, I will limit the hyperlinks in this post to the above (which links to the Guardian's analysis of the controversy). A simple Google search for 'Cooks Source Magazine' will let you fill in any blanks.

Gaudio not only blogged about the infringement of her copyright, but also published the condescending response she had received from Cooks Source's editor, Judith Griggs. Griggs' response revealed an arrogant disregard for Gaudio's intellectual property rights, and a distinct lack of understanding as to the role and function of the internet in the publishing industry. Other bloggers linked to Gaudio's piece, and the story began to be circulated via Twitter. The first tweet I received about the story appeared to be a cautionary tale to warn bloggers of potential danger. However, events soon started to move in a different direction.

Filled with "rage and horror" at Cooks Source's crime, and disgusted by Griggs' unapologetic attitude, social media users embarked upon what has been described by some as "frontier justice". The Cooks Source Facebook page was inundated with hostile, insulting and threatening messages. Fake Twitter and Facebook accounts were set up for the magazine, and for Griggs herself - who was, by now, the scapegoat being led to slaughter. As the mob grew, the phone number and address of Cooks Source magazine was circulated to literally thousands of people. People screamed across cyberspace for an end to Griggs' career and financial security - as well as for worse.

Directly after the figurative lynching of Griggs, people's attention turned to the advertisers who had paid for promotion in Cooks Source magazine. Many of these were small businesses, who received thousands of email - many angry and abusive - and phone calls which disrupted their working day. One company reported being told that "when you lie down with dogs, you're bound to get fleas". No advertiser publicly stood by the magazine. All "readily admitted" that they had paid for advertising in a publication that was beyond reproach, and accepted that they would not do so again.

While no-one (thankfully) was physically torn to pieces in this case, one is left pondering the similarities between the sixteenth-century lynching of Pernette Gandillon and the "frontier justice" administered to Judith Griggs.

At no point in the past week has anyone questioned Griggs' guilt. We know she was guilty of copyright infringement - we saw the email - just as those Jura villagers saw the child's body. Both Gandillon and Griggs committed crimes recognized and punishable by recourse to contemporaneous legal channels, and yet were dealt with outside of official channels. Both cases enabled further accusations to be levelled against those associated with the original 'monster', and resulted in further coerced 'confessions'. The punishments of both women seem somehow out of proportion to the crimes committed. It is possible that Pernette was, in fact, being punished for being 'different' (perhaps, mentally ill), while Judith Griggs was undoubtedly being punished more for her lack of knowledge of the how the internet works that for her initial plagiarism - consider the scorn poured upon Cooks Source when they claimed their Facebook page had been "hacked", when, in truth, it had simply been bombarded with comments. Pernette Gandillon and Judith Griggs were not, by the standards of their day and the environment in which they operated, 'one of us'.

Some internet users are very aware of the comparison to be made between early modern witchhunts and the Cooks Source Magazine debacle. Some have spoken of "pitchforks and burning torches", others directly referring to "witchhunts" and "lynchings". The Cooks Source Facebook page has become a repository of other 'humorous' charges levelled at the magazine and, more specifically, its editor. One ironic poster claims "Cooks Source magazine has commerce with the devil." Wasn't that what Antoinnette Gandillon was burned for?

Nevertheless, the majority of posters seem somewhat less aware. Their messages are crude, designed to cause cruel laughter and provoke further response. Those involved do not appear to be directly affected or concerned by Griggs' crime - in fact, many have ceased making any reference to it whatsoever. The initial transgression of the accused is no longer the issue, the point is to keep waving the pitchforks until you have someone to burn.

One wonders how the Jura villagers felt after the dismemberment of Pernette Gandillon. Were they relieved to have dispatched such a great threat? Were they fearful that such a thing might happen again? Or were they exhilarated in the wake of their "driveby justice"? There must be something quite compelling in the idea of being part of a mob baying for justice - after all, five centuries on, people are still pretty quick to pick up their pitchforks and lift up the torches. Reading the relish with which bloggers and online journalists have described the fate of Cooks Source Magazine, it would seem that people enjoy a virtual lynching. All that "rage and horror" has not gone away, it's just gone online.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Review: Hassan Blasim, 'The Truck to Berlin' (Comma Press, 2009)


In 2009, Comma Press published a collection of short stories by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright. The collection, entitled The Madman of Freedom Square, features a series of surreal and hyperreal stories inspired by the Iraq war, and by the West's troubled relationship with Iraq. The stories span over two decades and explore paranoia, exile, human trafficking, the refugee experience, as well as many other issues. The collection is uncomprising, sometimes shocking, unnerving and challenging.

As a Mancunian writer, I am (naturally) a big fan of Comma Press. For those of us who live in Manchester, Comma represents a real home-grown success story. For those that don't, Comma is a champion of the short story form - unusual in today's publishing world. Until earlier this year, I was more familiar with Comma's anthologies, particularly their excellent horror output (The New Uncanny and Phobic). In the course of organizing the She-Wolf conference, Comma editor Ra Page recommended that I take a look at The Madman of Freedom Square, and especially the story entitled 'The Truck to Berlin'. This was my first real experience of Comma's works in translation, and I was very impressed.

'The Truck to Berlin' is a story of people smuggling. Specifically, it relates a tale of young men being transported from 35 Iraqi men who pay to be transported from Istanbul to Berlin. The men each pay $4000 for a journey in a closed truck by the pious smuggler Haj Ibrahim ("the best and most honest smuggler in all Turkey"). It is, above all else, a story of desperation. The Berlin story is framed by a narrator's own attempts to save enough money to pay "those who smuggle the human cattle of the East to the farms of the West"; before beginning the story of the ill-fated truck, he relates a previous incident in which a group of Afghan men were deceived into parting with money only to be loaded onto a truck, driven around the city in darkness, and left in a public garden in Istanbul to be arrested.

That the truck will not reach Berlin is made abundantly clear in the opening sentence: "... if I were destined to write it again, I would record only the cries of terror which rang out at the time and the other mysterious noises that accompanied the massacre." I won't go in to too much detail about the circumstances of this "massacre", although it will most likely to be clear given the usual content of this blog. However, this story does not hinge on a shock reveal or a supernatural terror. It is a carefully crafted piece of uncertainty, paranoia and dread. Blasim's writing (translated from the Arabic by Wright) is a perfectly-pitched blend of real and fantastic horrors. In fact, distinguishing the 'real' from the 'fantastic' is not even possible. For example, in describing his own exile, the narrator states: "... I was on the run from the hell of the years of economic sanctions, not out of fear of hunger or of Saddam Hussein. In fact I was on the run from myself and from other monsters."

So, what is responsible for the "massacre" on the truck to Berlin? Though it may seem obvious, given the usual subject matter of this blog, the story gives no concrete answer. The whole story is presented thirdhand. The Serbian police officer who finds the truck is not listened to; the story comes into the hands of "Ali the Afghan" who is "a treasure trove of smuggling stories", and relates it to our narrator; we are told the story dispassionately, but by one who appears to believe.

Are we expected to believe the implied explanation of what occured on the truck? Perhaps the more important question is can we believe it? Given the context of the story, I would argue that we can. The Madman of Freedom Square introduces us to a sometimes hallucinatory, sometimes nightmarish, world where extremes of violence and terror are all too real. At the beginning of 'The Truck to Berlin', the narrator outlines this hyperreality: "... in my view the world is very fragile, frightening and inhumane. All it needs is a little shake for its hideous nature and its primeval fangs to emerge."

As many critics have noted (including Fred Botting, whose Limits of Horror was the last book reviewed on this blog), today's fiction often presents us with sympathetic monsters: werewolves and vampires have become the 'norm', rather than the aberration. Horror and fantasy have long been mediums through which we explore our humanity and its limits. 'The Truck to Berlin' is a different type of horror. Here the reader is challenged to confront the limits of our inhumanity. In Blasim's work, those "primeval fangs" that are so often part of something recognizable, comforting, attractive even, are detached from romance and Gothic sensibilities and resituated in a "frightening and inhumane" world that is, nevertheless, all too real.

For more information about The Madman of Freedom Square, please visit the Comma Press website.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Review: Fred Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic (Manchester University Press, 2008)


In 1996, Fred Botting published the influential textbook, Gothic. It's likely that anyone who has studied Gothic literature at university level since then will be familiar with this work, as it is a staple of reading lists and bibliographies. Limits of Horror is the second book on the Gothic that Botting has written since 1996 (the first being Gothic Romanced), and it revisits the territory of his earlier work with a sharply critical and theoretical eye.

"Horror is not what it used to be," states the inside cover of the hardback edition. And this is a fitting introduction to Botting's argument. Considering material spanning over 200 years, all of which could arguably be labelled 'Gothic', Botting charts the development of the meanings of horror and monsters. Considering literature, film and computer games, Limits of Horror offers a theory of cultural production that expands current understandings of genre, horror and 'Gothic'.

Botting's argument explores the relationship between the Gothic, modernity and technology, drawing on Freudian and post-Freudian ideas of the uncanny, the pleasure principle and the death drive. Limits of Horror also considers Gothic texts as products of capitalist societal structures, arguing that as we move into what many have described as 'late capitalism', with the forces of supply and demand becoming wholly inverted, the meanings we ascribe to monsters and horror change. Botting denies any ahistorical or universal sense of 'horror', asserting: "Light and dark, good and evil, knowledge and mystery, self and monster, are paired productions of the same cultural systems rather than natural or universal characteristics."

Chapter 1 is entitled "Daddy's Dead", and considers how the patriarchal figure of prohibition, so integral to early Gothic, has been killed off by late capitalist cultural production. Botting suggests that "[h]uman creativity and agency, along with paternal metaphors, are replaced by a mechanical system in which questions of meaning and agency matter less and less." He goes on to consider how the proliferation of contemporary monsters is "bound up with recent developments of technoscience and the consumer economy", arguing that the removal of the "paternal metaphors" removes much of the transgressive horror from today's monsters. Transgressive energy, without limitations and prohibitions, therefore, becomes the "norm". Chapter 2, "Tech Noir", continues this analysis to explore the close relationship between consumerism, horror and technology. Botting explores theoretical ideas of play, and its "aneconomic" wastefulness, and how we might apply these ideas to a study of computer games. The argument returns to the question of proliferation: "Games, like fictional narrative, are not, it seems, neatly contained, but spill over, with ambivalent effect, introducing a disruptive heterogeneity into the social sphere." The concept of the uncanny is pivotal to Botting's argument in this chapter, as he suggests the mechanisms of fiction and reading - as well as horror itself - are revealed as mechanical and dependent on the breaching of boundaries and the engendering of identifications. Ultimately, this chapter returns to the question of late capitalism; monsters are no longer something that threaten us from without. Indeed, in a world driven by consumption and unbridled desire, we are the monsters: "There is little difference it seems between figures on the screen and figures twitching in front of it, puppets, zombies, mutants, vampires, automata."

The third chapter in the book is entitled "Dark Bodies", and begins with an analysis of the extreme bodily mutilations of performance artist Orlan. Botting considers the anxieties, shocks and revulsion caused by Orlan's art. However, he returns to the question of repetition and identification to suggest that monsters are now "banal, unsurprising, ubiquitous, visible and overlooked at the same time". What Botting terms "Gothic affect" has been emptied out of horror, and images are produced wholesale and repeated ad nauseam. The fourth and final chapter, "Beyond the Gothic Principle" is by far the most theoretical of the book. Here, Botting explores Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" and concept of the 'death drive" in relation to horror and the Gothic. This chapter includes an exploration of the sublime, the importance of the 'past' to Gothic texts, and ideas of loss and recovery. The book ends on a bleak note, positing a notion of machinic desire which "is driven by a headless and immanent drive - 'synthanatos' - an artificial death drive (as if the drive were ever natural)".

As with Gothic, the strengths of Limits of Horror lie in Botting's incisive theorizing of genre, horror and the monstrous. Psychoanalytic and cultural theories, along with Deleuzian philosophy and ideas of the post-human, combine to give a consistent and thorough exegesis of contemporary and classic Gothic. For an introduction to such concepts, I would recommend Gothic rather than Limits of Horror, as some prior knowledge of Botting's approach to the genre is advisable. However, the latter book moves current discussions on and is highly recommended for anyone researching or reading Gothic/horror texts to any depth.

Of course, the book is not without its problems. As is sometimes the case with Botting's work, theory often overshadows textual analysis. Botting's considerations of Candyman, Reservoir Dogs and Orlan's performance art are detailed and probing, but there are other examples which are treated with somewhat less rigour. Chapter 4 has almost no textual examples, exploring instead the theories of Freud, Lacan, Zizek and others. Moreover, some of the examples chosen by Botting seem a little dated. While the Marxist analysis of Pac Man is certainly entertaining, it did little to address the complexity of desires at play in contemporary gaming. Additionally, I suspect that the chapters in the book began life as stand-alone articles, as there is some overlap and repetition. The same quotes appear in more than one chapter, and some analyses also reappear. This is somewhat unsettling, and adds a kind of uncanny quality to Botting's argument. It does not detract from the overall quality of the book, but leaves the reader with a feeling of 'didn't I read this before?' - which, as I say, fits well with Botting's thesis.

Limits of Horror is an invaluable book for students and readers of horror and the Gothic. It continues Botting's insightful theorizing of genre and culture. It is a fascinating read, which challenges understandings of the relationships between modernity, technology and the monstrous. While it may often privilege theory over textual analysis, Botting's model can be applied to, and used to elucidate, numerous cultural productions and developments. A word of warning, though, Limits of Horror has little optimism about it, but then, perhaps, there is little about late capitalism to be optimistic about: "Game over and over again."

Jura Challenges Writers to Compose Short Story in 1984 Minutes

Like writing? Like whisky? Then you might be interested in this...

Jura malt whisky is reviving the Jura Lodge as a writer's retreat for one weekend only with a riveting offer for the UK's creative writing community.

Jura is offering one budding author the chance to stay at the island's exclusive Jura Lodge and compose a short story based on the island. There is one catch! Writers will only have 1984 minutes to compose their story, in keeping with the name of the George Orwell masterpiece which was penned on the island more than 60 years ago.

To win the competition, writers are being asked to submit the first 300 words of their proposed short story. There are only two criteria. First, the narrative of the short story must take place on the island itself. Second, the story should have a link to one of the many myths and legends about Jura.

For thousands of years, good fortune and mystery has enriched this tiny island, from the creation of its dominating scenery to the rumours of witches, prophecies and the graves of the Knights Templar. The rich bank of stories can be found here.

One lucky winner will have a chance to soak up the sounds, sights and flavour of Jura before setting to work in the Jura Lodge. The winner will then have 1984 minutes in which to complete a short story. The finished product will be published on Jura's website as part of a compendium of short stories, essays and poetry as a follow-up to the Spirit of Jura.

Jura distillery manager Willie Cochrane said:

"Jura has a long established literary tradition, so we thought it was about time to revive that tradition. This competition will offer one amateur author the chance to soak up the atmosphere of this great island before applying their inspiration to a short story. There's no shortage of material for our lucky winner on an island which is rich with myths and legends steeped in history."

The short story competition follows in the footsteps of the Jura distillery's partnership with the Scottish Book Trust. In 2006, the two partners established the Jura Malt Whisky Writers' Retreat programme, offering writers space, peace and time in a truly inspirational setting, amid the luxury of the Distillery Lodge. Several leading authors, essayists and poets participated in the programme, including Will Self, Liz Lochhead, Kathleen Jamie, Romesh Gunesekara, John Burnside, Philip Gourevitch and Swetha Prakash. The resulting works were published in a book, the Spirit of Jura, which went on sale last year.

Entry Details

Budding authors should send their entries to Isle of Jura by Friday 31st December 2010. Entrants must register as a Diurach on the Isle of Jura website to enter the competition and submit their Diurach number along with their entry for the purposes of verification.

Shaping Narratives

CALL FOR PAPERS

17th Annual Postgraduate Medieval Studies Conference
25-26th February, 2011
Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Bristol, UK

Master Class with Professor Karen Pratt, King's College London
'How useful is the concept of genre for the study of medieval romance?
The strange case of Gautier d'Arras's Eracle'

The University of Bristol hosts the longest-running international medieval postgraduate conference in the UK. Each year we offer medievalists the opportunity to present their research, discuss ideas, and foster links bridging disciplinary and geographical boundaries. In 2011 the conference will be in its 17th year, and we are inviting proposals for papers from postgraduates and early career scholars on the theme of 'Shaping Narratives'.

Our conception of the Middle Ages is shaped by the narratives we uncover in the rich range of medieval cultural artefacts that survive (or have failed to survive) to the present day. Narratives - both medieval and modern - can be shaped by religious, political or didactic ideas, by questions of identity, or by constructions of authorship and creation. This interdisciplinary conference will consider the use of narrative in the formation and interpretation of the textual, visual, musical and material cultures of the Middle Ages.

Topics may include but are not limited to:
  • The notion of medieval authors/creators
  • Medieval readers and listeners: interpretation, orality and performance
  • Material and visual narratives
  • Critical interpretations of the past: narrative and genre theory in both contemporary and medieval scholarly discourse
  • Biography, life stories and exempla
  • Narrative through music and lyric
  • Hiding and suppressing political and religious narratives
  • Narratives in manuscript culture: discerning textual communities from miscellanies and compilations

Papers must be no more than 20 minutes long.

Abstracts of 250-300 words should be sent by email (by preference) to Johnny McFadyen.

Johnny McFadyen, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Bristol, Graduate School of Arts and Humanities, 7 Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1TB, UK.

Deadline for receipt of abstracts: 10th December, 2011
Registration deadline: 21st January, 2011

For further information please visit our website.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Futures of Feminism

New Directions in Feminist, Women's & Gender Studies

Annual FWSA Conference, 5-7 July 2011, Brunel University

Since the final decade of the twentieth century, discussions about and within feminism have often focused on feminism's place and relevance in today's Western societies and on the conceptualisations of the relationships between different strands and waves of the movement. This conference seeks to redress the focus on internal and generational divisions by exploring potential feminist futures and investigating new directions in feminist, gender and women's studies across activism, theory and practice in a range of disciplines and through a variety of social and cultural phenomena. As such, the event aims to address both where feminism is going as well as where it has not yet been, including areas of enquiry which have been neglected or ignored in past decades and approaches which conceptualise or help to shape potential feminist futures. We welcome paper and panel proposals from a range of disciplines across the sciences, arts and humanities. Topics may include, but are by no means limited to:
  • New directions and developments in feminist, women's, gender and queer studies
  • Post and third-wave feminisms' roles in the future of feminism
  • The impacts of new forms of (transnational) activism and the 'global'
  • Critical pedagogy and feminist futures
  • Feminist historiography and its influences on feminisms' futures
  • Feminist developments and futures in literature, popular culture, the media and on screen.

Please email 250 word proposals for 20 minute presentations or 750 word panel proposals to the conference organisers Dr. Jessica Cox and Nadine Muller by 1st April 2011, and feel free to send any queries you may have regarding this event to the same address.

For more information about the FWSA, including current competitions, joining information and contact details, please click here.

Nadine Muller
Department of English
University of Hull
Cottingham Road
Hull
HU6 7RX

Feminist and Women's Studies Association UK & Ireland (FWSA)

Postgraduate Contemporary Women's Network (PG CWWN)

Monday, 25 October 2010

Charity Milton Marathon at the University of Manchester

On Friday December 10th 2010, students and staff in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester will be reading Milton's Paradise Lost to raise money for the RNIB. The event is being organized by PhD student Liam Haydon, along with Dr. Jerome de Groot, a University of Manchester lecturer and Liam's PhD supervisor.

This week, I caught up with Liam to find out a bit more about the event.

Alpha Female: So, tell me more about the Milton reading...

Liam Haydon: We'll be attempting to read the entirety of Paradise Lost aloud over a single day. We've currently got somewhere around 25 volunteers, which is a great response, and the reading will go on continuously for around 10 hours. Location is still to be finally confirmed, but it's looking like the Poetry Centre [in the Samuel Alexander building, University of Manchester].

AF: And when will it all be taking place?

LH: The event will take place on the 10th December, which is the day after Milton's 402nd birthday. It's the day after so we could do it on a Friday.

AF: This is a charity event - so which charity are you supporting?

LH: We'll be supporting the RNIB. Milton composed almost the entire poem after he went blind at around the age of 44 (and there are a number of references to that within the text itself), so as well as being a very worthy cause, it seemed especially appropriate.

AF: How much money are you hoping to raise?

LH: We've set an initial target of £500, though we're already a good way towards that, so we'd hope to raise even more.

AF: How did you come up with the idea for a continuous reading?

LH: Er... actually it originated in a drunken conversation I had with a friend of mine in a karaoke bar over the summer!

AF: A karaoke bar?!

LH: We were joking around that we could offer some poetry instead of singing, and he mentioned that he'd been reading Milton out loud when trying to get a handle on the poem. From that, I started a reading group, in which we read a book a week aloud and then discuss it - the fun people seemed to be having with the poetry prompted Jerome to suggest the whole day reading.

AF: So what made you made you decide on Paradise Lost?

LH: My PhD thesis actually focuses on Milton (and epic poetry as a genre, really) - a choice made slightly on impulse, having discovered him in my third year as an undergrad and just falling in love with the music of his poetry. For the reading group, it quickly became apparent that people either felt the same way, but weren't as familiar with the critical background as they would like, or he was one of those poets that people feel they ought to be more familiar with, but it seems like a lot of effort. Paradise Lost is an ideal place to start on both those counts - it's naturally broken into manageable pieces, has plenty of controversy and debate to get your teeth into, and, of course, can be enjoyed immensely just as a piece of literature.

AF: Paradise Lost is certainly a well-loved and well-studied piece of work. How would you account for our continuing fascination with this text?

LH: Well, I'm biased here, naturally, but I'd argue that it's the finest work of literature in English (possibly any language).

AF: A bold claim! Go on...

LH: Certainly Milton has a technical command of syntax and rhythm that few other writers possess (maybe Keats?), and the sense is drawn out so brilliantly that you can hardly help reading on - and, in fact, that presents a constant challenge, demanding much more engagement from the reader than other texts do, and making unpicking the double meanings, puns and contradictions a fantastically rewarding experience. So the poetry itself is attractive before you delve in and get to the issues that the poem raises.

AF: So how do you feel about the issues Paradise Lost raises? Do you think these have any relevance for a modern audience?

LH: Plenty of those issues, and the debates the poem has generated, are still relevant and pressing today: tyranny and liberty; obedience and free will; language and multiculturalism; the nature, follies, and redemptive power of love; humanity's quest for knowledge, and the limits we should place on that quest. And that's not even to bring in the issues like a free press, or terrorism, raised elsewhere in Milton's work, or the religious controversies Paradise Lost raises, both within orthodox Christianity and the long dissenting tradition - hence Blake's famous quote about Milton being 'of the devil's party' (an obligatory mention in any Milton discussion!).

AF: I've got to say, you're making a pretty convincing argument! But then, I've been a huge fan of Milton's poetry since I studied Comus at A-Level and then Paradise Lost as an undergrad. The reading sounds like it's going to be a fantastic event - can anyone attend?

LH: Yes, of course, we'd be delighted to have as much of an audience as possible, both to enjoy Milton and to raise money for an excellent charity. There'll be some further publicity nearer the event confirming the start and end times, and the venue, but people are welcome to come and listen, whether it's just to one book or to the whole poem.

AF: So are there any other ways people can support this event?

LH: Well, if you're around Manchester in December, it'd be great to have people either in the audience or, even better, to volunteer to read some of the poem. Alternatively, people can show support through our JustGiving webpage.

AF: Thanks Liam! It's going to be a great day - and I'll see you there!

The Charity Milton Marathon (in aid of the RNIB) will take place at the University of Manchester on Friday December 10th 2010. To donate, please visit the event's JustGiving webpage. Further information on the reading will be posted on the University of Manchester EAS blog, and on this site. Alternatively, contact Liam Haydon or me (Alpha Female) for more info.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Call for Submissions: The Monster Book For Girls

Here's a call for submissions from Terry Grimwood that I know will be of interest to a lot of writers out there...


While helping a friend clear out her parents' effects, recently, I stumbled on a tatty old pre-war tome called "The Monster Book For Girls". It was adorned with pictures of jolly school lasses wielding hockey sticks and was full of "thrilling adventure stories for girls". I loved the title so much I've stolen it for a new Exaggerated Press anthology.

First it is not a book for teenagers or children.

What I'm looking for are stories and poetry inspired by the title, whatever (within the realms of decency, the title does, I'm afraid lend itself to a bit of nudge-nudge, wink-wink- sordidness) springs to mind and kick-starts the creative engine.

It doesn't even have to be of the horror/fantastical genre. What is a monster anyway? Slipstream, thriller, non-genre, romance, a mixture of genres would be interesting, whatever floats your (and my, of course) boat. Think, what are the monsters that haunt the women of today?

Be warned; I don't want (or like) teenage vampires, vampire angst or zombies or any other over their sell-by-date beasts. High-ish fantasy might be okay as long as it is original and features no grumpy dwarves or ethereal elves. Please don't hurt children or gratuitously torture women (or men come to that).

Length: 5,000 words max, but I will negotiate if absolutely necessary. Submission deadline: 27th February 2011.

Submit as an RTF attachment to Monster Books for Girls.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

"There's nothing wrong with having to... comb your face!"

Here's another odd little nugget of female lycanthropy. Season 1, Episode 9 of Johnny Bravo includes 'A Wolf in Chick's Clothing':



As you will no doubt have noticed, the storyline here shares features with Wizards of Waverly Place's 'Beware Wolf' episode. A hapless male decides to look for a date in the personal ads (though in the newspaper, rather than the internet). He contacts a woman who seems perfect; he meets her and is besotted; she turns into a werewolf. Again, the scenario is played for laughs, and the male character ends up escaping the werewolf and swearing off dating for good. In addition to this, both children's programmes feature strikingly harmless-looking lycanthropes - creatures that are more likely enthusiastic puppies than maneating beasts.

However, 'A Wolf in Chick's Clothing' raises some interesting issues for me, particularly when I consider the character of 'Fluffy' (in human form). Though all the characters in Johnny Bravo are stylized to some degree, Fluffy seems to be rather inhuman in appearance. Her body and dress is reminiscent of Daphne from Scooby Doo, but her face is oddly featureless and sharp. She is a vampish seductress with a sultry voice, and when she appears in Johnny's imagination, there is a hint of menace to her approach. Finally, shortly before her final transformation into 'Melvin', Fluffy is able to swing the musclebound Johnny around with ease and eventually lifts him off his feet.

In contrast to her human form, Fluffy as a wolf seems sweet and innocent. Her face is expressive, breaking out into a big grin and showing genuine joy at the prospective of frozen tofu and free ice-cream. She cries at the thought of being considered hideous by others. Despite the sharp teeth (which are only shown at one point in the cartoon), it is very hard to see what is so terrifying about this werewolf. She certainly doesn't show any predilection for attacking humans - although she reacts angrily to the waiter's suggestion that she might like a 'doggie bag'. The change in Fluffy appears to make her 'fluffier'.

Johnny himself is not frightened by the werewolf. He is happy to endure their date on the promise of her returning to human form at dawn. He appears somewhat repulsed by the wolf form, offering her breath mints and asking her to cover her face before they go to a restaurant. I would suggest that this werewolf is more grotesque than frightening. This is underlined by the final gag: after enduring Fluffy's nighttime wolf form, Johnny is frustrated in his attempts at getting a kiss when she transforms into something even worse - a small bald man named Melvin, who wears ill-fitting underwear and collects stamps. At this transformation, Johnny finally runs away.

In his analysis of same-sex relationships in cartoons, Jeffrey P. Dennis suggests that this episode of Johnny Bravo shows that 'in his [Johnny's] universe, men's bodies are by definition disgusting'.* While it is true that the most 'disgusting' thing Johnny has to deal with here is the figure of Melvin and his stamp collection, I would suggest that this cartoon also sends a clear message about female sexuality. A vampish seductress, we are led to believe, is never what she seems. There is a grotesque side to feminine charm - note the subtle, but clear, references to a female body hair and bodily functions, for example.

This episode of Johnny Bravo is not a hugely significant text in the female werewolf canon. Nevertheless, I think it is an interesting little piece, as it demonstrates an aspect of the she-wolf that is present in many other representations. It is not the slobbering wolf, here, but the attractive woman who is dangerous. It is the sexy human form that is deceptive, and thus poses the greatest risk to the male hero. Johnny, like Alex in Wizards of Waverly Place, learns his lesson at the end of the episode, and swears to stay away from women from now on. He decides to 'take up something safer... like shark wrestling!'

This episode of Johnny Bravo carries a message that can be found in countless other films, TV shows and novels:

Female werewolves are not dangerous because they're werewolves - they're dangerous because they're female.



* Jeffrey P. Dennis, 'Queertoons: The Dynamics of Same-Sex Desire in the Animated Cartoon', Soundscapes, vol. 6 (June 2003).

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Review: Naomi Clark, Silver Kiss (QueeredFiction, 2010)



Naomi Clark's novel, Silver Kiss, is an urban fantasy set in a world where humans and werewolves live side by side. The narrator is Ayla Hammond, a werewolf who lives with her human girlfriend Shannon. Ayla has recently returned home (with Shannon), after years of self-imposed exile from her pack. Shannon works as a private detective and is asked to investigate the disappearance of a teen werewolf named Molly Brady. This investigation, and the consequences of what Ayla and Shannon uncover, forms the main plot of Clark's novel. However, other issues - such as Ayla's reintegration into her family/pack, and Shannon's lack of ease with this homecoming - also surface over the course of the narrative.

Clark's work weaves together elements of various genres, which is not an easy feat. She does this well, though the novel's heart belongs to urban fantasy. In-keeping with this generic context, Clark creates an alternative 'reality' in which werewolves are integrated into human society. The establishent of this world is done with subtlety; 'reality' is conveyed through character and action, and Clark avoids using lengthy exposition. For example, early on in the story, the reader is given a glimpse of the television news Ayla is watching: "Then the final headline went past: Teen werewolf still missing in Yorkshire." This matter-of-fact way of presenting the 'alternate reality' of Silver Kiss adds depth to the fantasy. The reader is immersed in the world without constants breaks to have things explained. This is, of course, due to the fact that the story is told through the first person narration of Ayla herself. Exposition would seem somewhat odd from a character who is living the reality! Notable exceptions to this are Clark's explanations of how the police force and hospitals have adapted to accommodate and make use of werewolves. Nevertheless, both of these (appropriately brief) clarifications are necessary to the plot.

What becomes apparent, however, is that this accepted integration of humans and werewolves is a vulnerable status quo. Hints appear early on of a more troubled relationship between the species. Ayla works at a tattoo parlour - a common trope of urban fantasy, and often a place of refuge and safety for 'other' beings - but her colleague Kaye isn't "keen on lesbians or werewolves". Kaye's hostility towards Ayla speaks of a prejudice based on a long shared human/werewolf history: "When I was a kid, my brother used to tell me that you guys hunted humans down at Lupercali... you'd steal little kids and chase them through the woods on full moons." Ayla responds to this by offering a lycanthropic point of view: "My granddad used to tell me that human hunters went after us on full moons."

The uneasy relationship between humans and wolves becomes more and more threatening as the novel progresses, and is an important aspect of the central plot. By the brutal final confrontation, Ayla has become lost in a more "primitive" understanding of human/wolf dynamics: "For as long as there had been forests and prey to stalk them in, man and wolves had been enemies." Drawing on the generic conventions of detective fiction and thriller, as well as those of fantasy, Silver Kiss has Ayla and Shannon drawn into a dangerous circle of drugs, violence and anti-werewolf hate crime. Although the women are gay, many of the difficulties they face are due to Ayla's species, rather than her sexuality. Affiliations with the "Pack" are also a source of tension for a number of characters.

Clark's werewolves are a familiar type. Born, rather than made, the lycanthropes of Silver Kiss lives in packs that resemble extended family structures, but which are maintained with hierarchical structures and codes of conduct. Thus, we are told, there "was no law against abortion in the Pack, same as there was no law against homosexuality. But there was an unspoken, acknowledged rule that it was not done." Wolves who do not follow these acknowledged rules risk being outcast. Other wolves, like Ayla, may choose to sever their own ties with the pack and become a "lone wolf". This type of self-imposed banishment entails the danger of becoming "feral". In addition to rigid pack structures, Clark's werewolves are also influenced by the (feminized) moon, although they are able to transform at will; they are also quick to heal and adversely affected by wolfsbane. As in most fantasy fiction, the metamorphosis into wolf form is presented as easy, near-painless and swift. It is something to be desirec, as being a wolf brings with it freedom, harmony with nature, and beauty. There is also no break in consciousness between the human and the wolf: memories and rationality are not changed with the shapeshift occurs.

Though the werewolves in Silver Kiss are of a recognizable variety, Clark does offer some exploration of the darker side of these lycanthropic identities. The questions of savagery, brutality and wildness are never far below the surface. In the opening chapters of the book, we are introduced to the "Lupercali", a werewolf festival celebrating pack loyalties and the coming-of-age of cubs. This is first presented as a cultural and social experience, one which cubs learn about in "Lupine Studies" at school. However, within just over a page, we see a female wolf approaching with a sacrificed lamb: "Its throat had been recently cut and the lamb still smelled warm, its blood perfuming the air." Ayla acknowledges this inherent violence of the werewolf, but is at pains to relegate this to a dark vision of the "Middle Ages". Nonetheless, it surfaces in Silver Kiss, culminating in the degeneration of many of the wolves into creatures controlled by their "bloodlust".

Clark juxtaposes the wildness and brutality of wolves with the violence inherent in human beings. The "Alpha Human" group that terrorizes and attacks werewolves is a sinister organization that carries out acts of 'inhuman' cruelty - such as the murder and subsequent skinning of Ayla's young cousin. At the climax of the novel, both werewolves and humans are prey to their "bloodlust" (a word which Clark repeats to emphasize this parity). While feral wolves pose a distinct threat, so too do feral humans.

While the fantasy world of Silver Kiss is certainly interesting, what really made this book for me was Clark's characterization of Ayla and Shannon. Ultimately, the two women are likeable and easy to relate to. Their relationship is strong and convincing, and, despite the (insidious and overt) homophobia they face and the fact that they are different species, Ayla and Shannon seem well-matched and grounded. As the events of the novel unfold and put a strain on the women's relationship, the reader is able to identify with both sides of the wolf/human divide growing between them. One of the reasons I found Silver Kiss compelling is that I genuinely cared and wanted to find out what happened to the protagonists.

So, to conclude, Silver Kiss belongs to a specific genre - one that is not everyone's cup of tea. But for fans of urban fantasy - or those who just like any well-written werewolf stories - it is strongly recommended. Clark's writing is tight and well-paced, and her narrative is enjoyable. The final plot reveal is shocking, and I found myself sincerely hoping that Ayla and Shannon would get through it together. Overall, Silver Kiss is a welcome addition to my werewolf library.

Silver Kiss was published in 2010 by QueeredFiction. It is available to buy direct from the publisher or on Amazon.

QueeredFiction is an independent small press publisher, specializing in LGBT genre fiction. For more information about their publications and forthcoming titles, visit their website by clicking here.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

De Montfort Vampire Conference - Schedule and Registration now available

Last month I posted details of the Vegetarians, VILFs and Fangbangers Conference at De Montfort University, to be held on 24th November 2010.

The conference schedule is now available, and you can register online for the event. Click here for more details.

The programme looks amazing, and there are a lot of papers to choose from. The day begins with a plenary address from Nickianne Moody (Liverpool John Moores University), on 'Interview with the Postfeminist: Researching the Paranormal Romance'. My own paper is entitled 'What's the Difference Between a Vampire and a Fairy': Supernatural Lovers in Young Adult Urban Fantasy'.

Hope to see some of you there!