Written by: Rebekah Edwards
Images by: Robyn Yeh
Dr. Elizabeth Richmond-Garza undeniably has one of the most atmospheric offices at the University of Texas at Austin. Painted a deep shade of plum and adorned with a variety of entertaining knickknacks, including several Oscar Wilde action figures and a vampiric nutcracker, her fascination with the Gothic is abundantly clear. Teaching a class this semester entitled “Vampires and Dandies,” her expertise on the complicated social conditions surrounding the Gothic literary movement, specifically its struggle with obtaining legitimacy in academic communities, is unparalleled.
What interests you most about Gothic lit? What prompted you to start researching and teaching it?
Richmond-Garza: I could make a joke and say my mother was a medievalist, so I spent a lot of my childhood in graveyards in Europe. And actually that’s true, so of course I have this really affectionate association. She’s also from New Orleans, which is probably the most Gothic city in the United States. [The Gothic] just feels like home to me.
But what got me interested in it was when I was in finishing school and beginning to be an undergrad in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was a lot of Gothic around. A real revival. Back in the day, there was Bela Lugosi… and then it just was everywhere. Not just Anne Rice but in the music scene, the fashion scene with Alexander McQueen, and so forth. Because I was doing cultural and literary studies in comparative literature, thinking especially about 19th century, I noticed this echo of the Gothic, and it occurred to me very clearly that it actually was political and ideological, that it was about anxieties. It was a nominally conservative form about the past and about rules, often defined by religious codes and extremely hierarchical social codes. And writers in this idiom regularly used it to explore identity politics and questions of imperialism and colonialism. So, I got very interested in it as a serious academic inquiry as well. It began as fun and familiar and funny in certain ways. But I realized that it was doing some really interesting work in my life and in my lifetime and that it could be a lens through which to view contemporary culture.
What are your favorite Gothic works to teach and why?
RG: I really do like teaching some of the very experimental ones, some of the Romantic writers. I would actually put someone like Oscar Wilde with The Picture of Dorian Gray or certainly his Salome, which is an experimental play, in that category. Wilde’s one of the most effective practitioners. The most admired late-18th century prose writer in Russia writes a superior vampire story called “The Island of Bornhom” by Nikolay Karamzin. No one would question that that was important. The other side that I’m equally interested in is one tick away from popular fiction.
No question, the text that teaches the best is Dracula. It’s such a strange novel, and yet it’s incredibly engaging. It’s in this weird style. It’s very flamboyant in terms of purple-prose descriptions of things. Because Stoker was a theatre manager and not a college-educated, would-be intellectual, he expresses more directly the anxieties and prejudices of his time. He provides a very different kind of lens into Victorian preoccupations. Someone like Henry James with Turn of the Screw –– he’s very literary, very philosophical. So a lot of those interesting cultural contents get buried beneath the surface. You don’t see them without really looking for them. With someone like Stoker, it’s right there –– all of the sexism, all of the racism, all the homophobia. And xenophobia, especially in Dracula. I’d say Dracula is the easy answer for the more popular things. Although it’s kind of considered legit literature now. It wasn’t when I was a student at all. Oscar Wilde was marginal actually. He was not quite a real writer.
Then, I spend a lot of time and am very interested in [Arthur] Conan Doyle and in detective stories, which regularly have a horror component, if not a Gothic one. There is actually a Sherlock Holmes story that’s about a vampire, or a suspected vampire. It’s called “The Last Vampire” or “The Sussex Vampire.” It’s about a Brazilian woman who moves into the suburbs of London, about her family, and something happening in her house. Conan Doyle, I would say, is even one tick more popular culture because his short stories were published in magazines. They are not even novels.
On the literary side, Wilde is the one, with The Picture of Dorian Gray, that I like most for teaching Gothic and horror. Dracula, in the middle, as definitely literary but quite embedded in popular culture and very appealing. And then, the Conan Doyle stories are wonderful.
How do you feel about the recent vampire and supernatural pop culture craze? Why do you think we, in general, are so fascinated with the supernatural?
RG: Whether it’s zombies or werewolves or vampires, they’re all back again! I think it’s a huge anxiety about there being people who are not like us in our midst. And most of these, whether it’s The Walking Dead or the mixtures of vampires and werewolves that you get in the Twilight series, most of these texts are very preoccupied with the visibility and invisibility of difference –– can we know who they are, are they among us?
There’s a… what in Victorian time would have been called “reverse colonization,” the idea of people coming from wherever Britain had been dominant or from somewhere “Other” and moving into London. There was a great deal of immigration, which was a big driver of the Gothic in London in the 1870s and 1880s especially. This fear of “the Other,” and it could be in terms of gender and sexuality as well, often is racialized. Also, metaphors and magical processes of contamination and infection and so forth in the 19th century tended to be about a predictable list of diseases like consumption, tuberculosis, porphyria, syphilis. In the vampire craze of the ‘90s, which is the Anne Rice vintage for America, it was very heavily and very explicitly connected to AIDS, which sometimes tapped into questions of race but certainly gender and very much sexuality.
We’re having another iteration and it has everything to do with preoccupations with “who are we?, is there an ‘us’ and a ‘them’?, are they visible to us?, will we somehow be infected, contaminated, or threatened by their presence?” The Walking Dead is a perfect case for that.
Obviously, Stephanie Meyers has been clear about the fact that she uses the vampire in order to model a particular idealized, conservative feminine behavior seen through Bella’s behavior, the creation of this super-safe gentlemanly character in Edward, and the conventional love triangle that is non-consummated. It’s quite clear from the novels and the films that it’s about [Meyer’s] relationship to her Mormon faith and her view of what a strong female character should be.
The ones that interest me contemporarily have a very different take on that. I tend to be more interested in things like Slade’s 30 Days of Night than in Twilight. The original version of Let the Right One In is one of the most interesting and most complicated vampire stories. Superficially, it’s not as dramatic and bold and yucky. Even the remake in the United States had to be made more “vampire-y.” The original Swedish one is very understated and is a complex representation using childhood as a slightly less self-conscious place to have conversations about understanding “the Other.” Obviously, everyone has noticed that it has to do with immigration in Scandinavia at the moment and the intense racializations that have resulted in, for example, the horrible shooting in Norway by that very dangerous, “whites-only” man a few years ago.
How does the academic circle generally perceive Gothic lit? Why is Gothic lit excluded so often from traditional academic literary canons? Why is it so often not taken seriously?
RG: It’s a genre that’s been mistrusted, especially in its prose variant, theatrical variants, and filmic versions as well. It’s always been disrespected as being sensational. There’s a privileging of the rational engagement from Aristotle onwards. Even if emotion is supposed to be part of how we interact with art and the world as human beings, Plato says “no emotion.” Aristotle says “balanced emotion.”
The other style that I work on, and the two often coexist in a text, is Orientalism, a fantastic, hallucinatory, Edward Said-style view of the East, which is very distorted. Both of those styles really emerge in the late-18th century. Shakespeare used it with Macbeth and Hamlet, so it’s there in the Renaissance. And then it’s demeaned, shutdown, and relegated to a quiet role for a lot of the late-17th and early-18th century with the real emphasis on rationalism and neo-classicism.
Everyone always says Horace Walpole, the prime minister, secretly wrote this weird, short novel called The Castle of Otranto without admitting who he was. People were completely enraptured by the intensity of the themes, the styles, and the descriptions. But because it was so sensational and had such an incredible, affective impact, people were uneasy about it. The first fellow to write one of these things in a big way in England didn’t even want to publicly admit to his authorship of it.
There’s a tendency to at least feminize the literal readership of it, if not the genre as well. You have this uneasiness about emotion, and then it gets mapped onto a gender inferiority bipolarity. There was this massive preoccupation in the early-19th century with young women getting themselves into “unacceptable” emotional states because they’re reading Gothic literature and novels. Jane Austen lampoons it in Northanger Abbey, for example. Yet, people keep writing it. In the first generation of Romantics, Coleridge wrote Gothic fiction. Second generation, Byron wrote a lot of it. Keats wrote a lot of it. It got repressed again in the early Victorian ‘30s and ‘40s. But then it came back because a group of writers, some of them following Baudelaire explicitly, wanted to access something different from purely post-Romantic Naturalism and Realism. There were Gothic things all the way through the 19th century, but it definitely had this boom early and at the end. By the end, you’ve got the height of the European empires and huge preoccupations about international stability. The women’s rights movement had begun with people like Wollstonecraft, which didn’t succeed, but it came back by the ‘80s and ‘90s.
These various sorts of challenges, if not actual threats, to a rational, masculine heteronormative, white order were really proliferating at the end of the 19th century in material culture. You get this strange effect of people capitalizing on that fearmongering. Women and malcontents and foreign people, those are the ones who’ll be into this stuff. Those silly young women who are overemotional and haven’t gotten properly married and set up to do their mature lives, those are the kind of people this is for.
What do you find most enjoyable about teaching Gothic lit? What can students gain from engaging with these texts?
RG: What’s most appealing about it is most people rather enjoy reading it. I’m convinced that’s one of the reasons it’s been discounted by the academy. It’s fundamentally engaging and people enjoy reading this stuff, and people do better work on the stuff they enjoy. Not everyone is mad keen on the Gothic, but most people at least find it diverting.
I think that it’s sufficiently varied. If you like working on Romantic poetry, pulp fiction, visual culture, whatever area or medium that you are interested in primarily, the Gothic can often be a really interesting way into it. Because it’s such a flamboyant style, it will often demonstrate things very boldly that allow you to see them than in a more understated or a more repressed text. It can be a very good way of creating methodologies because it’s so melodramatic and extreme. So, it’s fun and I think it really is actually useful.