When I reviewed the Cool Courses SU English Dept is offering next semester, I was almost sad that I will be graduating Stevenson next month and missing out on so many great topics classes in Fall 2014. Dr. Gerald Majer’s course “Victorian Horrors” especially appeals to me, since not only am I a huge fan of the horror genre generally, but also because I’ve spoken with Dr. Majer about that genre on many occasions. So, naturally, I wanted to interview him on the subject for the Department’s website. What follows are portions of our conversation, but first, here’s the course description that caught my attention:
VICTORIAN HORRORS – Fall 2014
Instructor: Gerald Majer
ENG 340-01 (4:30 p.m. – 5:45 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays)
“Accusatory ghosts and seductive vampires. Bloody Sweeney Todd and yours truly, Jack the Ripper. East End London with its labyrinthine alleys, its gaslights and its swirling fogs. From primal ocean depths, the tentacled giant squid; from primal mental depths, the tangled thought-skein named the unconscious. ‘The horror!’ as Conrad’s Kurtz infamously iterated, giving word to a Victorian sense of shock at the spectacle of excessive, unruly forces welling up from old histories, from new outposts of science and Empire, and from hidden recesses of the human psyche itself.
Yet we might argue, as Michel Foucault did in his account of modern sexuality, that the Victorians were not so much afraid of horrors as dedicated to their cultivation and production. Readings include texts by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Vernon Lee, Arthur Machen, and H.G. Wells, as well as Victorian horrors living on in 2000s Steampunk and Neo-Victorian fictions (From Hell; The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). This course asks why, in an age that so greatly prided itself on reason and progress, there was at the same time a cultural obsession with spectacles of the shocking, the ghostly, and the ghastly.”
How cool does that sound? I had to ask him a few additional questions about the course:
M: Horror tends to be an overlooked genre in academia. What do you see as its merits?
Dr. Majer: Well, I like to remember that horror extends across genres, appearing at those points in any text where feelings of abhorrence and revulsion are uppermost. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, say, the horrors of slavery. Or from another direction, the horrors of crime and violence depicted in a Dickens novel or a postmodern fiction like Roberto Bolano’s 2666.
Horror involves a supercharging of affect, feeling running high. And so horror marks very fundamental cultural investments, or shifts in such investments. What’s sacred in a given culture is being affirmed, being challenged, or both. This is one way horror emerges from the Gothic genre, which is often about questioning traditional privilege and hierarchies via highly-charged scenarios of imprisonment and violence. So a primary interest with horror is the way horror exposes the seams, the points of pressure, in a given historical-cultural context.
When we move to horror itself as genre or sub-genre things get especially interesting since the text is from the start pitched to such fundamental issues even though it may appear as purely thrills and entertainment. I find it interesting that horror as a distinct literary genre does not exist until around 1800, that is, the start of the Modern age, which is an age of criticism and of questioning tradition. Is horror a peculiarly modern device, so to speak, for testing, probing, and critiquing social values? A tool for investigating what we consider sacred?
M: What in particular is interesting about Victorian horror? In comparison with more contemporary tales of horror, how does it hold up?
After the Romantics, it is the Victorians who create horror as we know it today. It’s a rich history of Gothic-genre mixing and remixing. We tend to associate the Victorians with prissy primness, but Victorian horrors trended to the bloody and violent and the graphic. A huge phenom was the Penny Dreadful, cheap-paper books with stories about heinous crimes. Another bestseller was ghost stories, often involving dreadful violence and murder. London itself was imagined as a city of horror, rife with street mobs and late-night stalkers, criminal cults and Satanic dabblers in blood and magic.
One great thing about Victorian horror is the clarity of the historical-cultural issues. The Victorians were in all kinds of turmoil about politics and government, economic justice and injustice, women’s rights and feminism, and hugely uneasy and unsettled given the accelerated rate of social and technological change they were living through. Like us after the millennium, they were in many ways freaked out, horror an unspoken keyword for how they often felt. Looking back, we can see pretty clearly the historical-cultural factors that made for that sense of horror, granting of course that clarity doesn’t mean oversimplification. Maybe the looking back can allow us to see our own situation more clearly too.
M: Discuss one take in particular that you think will intrigue readers most.
Dr. Majer: Well, an embarrassment of riches, because the literary production of the period was tremendous. Ghost stories are a literary form cultivated to a fine art in the Victorian age, especially by woman writers from Mary Gaskell to Vernon Lee. And I especially like the proto-Lovecraft stories of the remarkable Arthur Machen that appeared in the 1890s and are true modern-horror classics. Madness as a scary means of dis-empowering women in Collins’s Woman in White, bioscientific meddling with the human itself in H.G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau— great stuff, so it’s tough to narrow down to one. But I’ll say of them all the Ripper is a case that inevitably fascinates because of the range of issues it engages and its enduring popularity and cultural resonance, as evidenced in recent graphic novels/films like From Hell and postmodern fiction like Iain Sinclair’s White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings. Social violence, especially in terms of gender, and attendant issues of social class, ethnicity, and biopolitics. And a defining case for the psychology and meanings of the modern serial killer. There’s a lot there, all of it interesting, disturbing, and provocative because it so obviously connects to where we are today, a century and some years later, looking at similar issues.
Have you looked into this course for your schedule? It’s sure to be killer.