Getting Into the Gothic: Peddling Erotica to Pre-Teens

As I was waiting for the Northern Line in Elephant and Castle I saw an advert for The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013, punctuation my own), another spawn of the Twilight saga (2005-8). Set in high school, the latter is a literary series-turned-film franchise about a human-beast romance. Set in a generic American high school, it invokes the popular “fantastical versus the everyday” theme. The main characters are Bella, a high school human, and Edward, a fellow student and hundred year old vampire. It is one of the best-ever-selling series in the UK, having shifted 8 million copies in print alone since its release in 2005 to 2012. Unfortunately, I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about – having read the first novel in the series to satisfy my curiosity – and have deep reservations about the role of the series in literary and film culture as a whole.

The prevalence and popularity of the Gothic nowadays really surprises me. I remember when it was the province of outcasts and alternatives. As a teenager I became enamoured with the literary Gothic, though it is probably incarnated most memorably for my generation as trench coat-wearing, eye-liner loving goths in secondary school, quite often with suspect personal hygiene. Although I was extremely unfashionable, I did not adopt it as a social identity, being inexplicably averse to trends and cliques of any kind; individual to the end. I was drawn to its deviant style and departure from mainstream culture, always one to desire to be different, and it never occurred to me to be interested in N*Sync or whatever other girls liked.

Intellectually I was fascinated by the romance, darkness, and excitement of this hidden world. Fantastical elements are woven into the fabric of the storyline, emotions intensely heightened and a number of the characters bestowed with unusually alluring beauty. This is not to say that any of them are in possession of the kind of bland universal attraction that Bella from Twilight is apparently bestowed with, inducing all men to fall at her feet whilst stubbornly having eyes only for a pallid centurion domestic abuser. True Gothic beauty is somewhat ethereal, sometimes striking, and a gentle backdrop rather than unavoidably tacked on to every page.

Of course, the Gothic genre originally stems from post-Romantic realist novels like The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764) and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794) which were most certainly not very beautiful. They were wild and full of strange and disturbing happenings, and developed into many icons of modern popular culture. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) – the doctor, not the monster – is ubiquitous as the ultimate experiment-gone-awry, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the sinister, aristocratic inhabitant of a mouldering Transylvanian castle, haunts many on a dark night.

As all genres that are living now have evolved over time rather than stagnating and dying, twentieth-century incarnations have included films such as Sleepy Hollow (1999) and From Hell (2001), both starring the indefatigable Johnny Depp, anything by Tim Burton, and the book series Mervyn Peak’s Gormenghast (1946-59) and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (1976-99). Rice’s novels are a particularly stirring example of the modern (especially vampire) Gothic genre, populated by bisexual creatures of the night suffering from existential crises. Really do check out Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in the film version of Interview with a Vampire for a foray into strangely titillating nineties vampire horror. Sadly, in her later years Rice renounced these early novels in favour of a new-found devotion to Catholicism, distancing herself from the erotic horror and debauchery of these charming vampires (no, I’m not kidding).

In contrast to Rice’s aversion to the seedier aspects of literature, one modern subset of the Gothic has branched off into the disturbing quagmire of the horror genre. For reasons that are best explained by someone else, like in the Gothic, a focus on dark and disturbing themes, lust and supernatural happenings have also been absorbed into horror cinema and literature, but the latter is much less romantically inclined, in favour of brutality, beasts and breasts. I have no problem with this; horror, whilst often a bit slow and predictable for my tastes – though this is by no means exclusive to this particular genre – has its unique merits and influence.

And yet, I do have a serious problem with the Gothic – vampires in particular – being appropriated by one unnamed author (Stephenie Meyer). Now it seems that the undead have been appropriated by mainstream mass culture and become synonymous with the Gothic, stripping the genre of its multifarious facets and appeal. Offerings like True Blood (2008-), The Vampire Diaries (2009-) and Twilight are a testament to this assertion. While in possession of an extremely prominent and interesting background that is unusually devolved into popular history, vampires are not to be confused with the genre as a whole. Ghosts, demons, werewolves and homunculi are just a few of the other beings that populate the rich and varied Gothic genre.

Not only have vampires been elevated to deified  status in modern culture by Twilight – though I must clarify, mainly among girls and up-to-middle-aged women – but female insipidity, mildly abusive teenage flings and cheekbones that would cut butter seem to be nearly all that is left of a formerly fearsome and powerful predator. I found both Edward, and Bella in particular, rather insipid, and couldn’t believe that the former sparkled in the sun. He and his brethren can walk around perfectly well in daylight, so the crucially defining feature of vampires has vanished, and they are such in name only.

The virginal maiden or swooning damsel, once a side character overshadowed by the swashbuckling male protagonist and his band of followers who sought to kill the beast, has now taken centre stage and also taken the beast for herself. Is this a triumph for feminism, female appropriation of the male canon, if you will? No, it is patriarchal Mormon doctrine swaddled in the guise of the American publishing and cinema cash cow. The ever-billowing pre-teen market needs constant fodder to feed its eager pre-pubescent audience. When I was young, my sisters and I were happy watching clean-cut programs like Sabrina (1996-2003), Lizzie Maguire (2001-4) and, of course, the irreplaceable Pokémon (1997-) with little if any focus on sexual attraction. While dark romance was once the province of awkward teenagers pining for love, now it has regressed to the level of childish fantasy and adults who simply won’t grow up.

All of this sounds quite grand and I don’t mean to portray Twilight and its ilk as anything other than drivel. I also see no need to distinguish between any of the other offerings like The Vampire Diaries. No, I bring up Twilight simply to illustrate how alternative cultural forms like the Gothic genre can be appropriated by the mainstream machine, chewed up and spit out as a quivering remnant of its former self. Its aesthetic integrity is diluted by the fact of universal appeal to the masses. Nothing is sacrosanct if it can make money for the media moguls. Admittedly the TV series True Blood did manage to suitably capture some of the savagery and bestiality that the Gothic – and vampires – are so well-known for, but then True Blood is obviously aimed at an older audience. Twilight is repugnant for its target market of children, though there are admittedly many cases of adult obsession with the dreary couple.

Mainstream “inspiration” from other genres is very common, and another contemporary example would be the endless wave of comic book/superhero adaptations that have swept the Hollywood film industry. I have absolutely no problem with this sheer entertainment and loved Thor (2011), The Avengers (2012) and The Amazing Spiderman (2012) in particular. In the case of Twilight and it’s clan, however, it’s a case of mainstream appropriation of subcultural forms of artistic expression meets the distribution of age-inappropriate material to pre-teens for economic gain by the industry. A weakened society and a loss of traditional moral signposts has been the result of more relaxed American attitudes to explicit sexual content filtering through into once stiff-lipped British culture. It is revealing that Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James (2011), the UK’s top best-selling book, began as Twilight fanfiction. The popularity of this sado-masochistic-erotic novel is staggering and shows no signs of slowing, but it is thankfully not aimed at children. Though it would be unthinkably totalitarian to restrict access to Meyer’s book and immediately make it twice as popular, the author must certainly be laughing all the way to an empty grave, as she struggles to stuff her many dollars in her pocket along with a well-thumbed Mormon prayer book.

Technological Revolution: An Uncertain Future

I received several comments responding to my blog post, Technological Revolution, refuting my admittedly generalised assertion that technology should be “embraced wholeheartedly”. I agree with this point, because there are many drawbacks to technology, not least due to human fallibility and propensity to foolishness. I retract my unequivocal statement as it is incorrect. It could be argued that we are not always as wary of technology as we should be, hence my oversight. I was sign-posted to a very interesting article in the New York Times on the subject written by Jonathan Franzen, originally a lecture, which everyone should read.

Limiting my argument strictly to the relationship between technology and the written word, however, the idea of online self-publication is both astounding and disturbing. Everyone must have their corner of the digital universe in which to have their say, adding to the torrent of information, opinions and sometimes lies populating the internet. I am not exempting myself from the slew, merely reflecting upon my own integration into a peculiar and sometimes unsettling aspect of modernity.
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In some ways, however, these advancements have led to the democratisation of the written word and this is largely positive for humankind. Almost everyone in the Western world has access to the internet and all that goes with it. Gone are the days when the clergy could control all access to print material. The bible was written in Latin rather than plain English so only scholarly men could harvest its power. There was a time when only the wealthy could afford to buy books, right up until the pioneering release of cheap publications by Penguin’s Allen Lane in the early twenty first century. Now, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can keep a blog, comment on a huge variety of other platforms and even publish a book themselves.

In fact, the prevalence of print itself is slowly fading into the history books. The environmental campaigns to halt the voracious destruction of trees combined with the fast-paced nature of modern communication suggests that soon the humble book or journal will be no more. This has sped up the pace of knowledge and interred a transience to informative authority, as now most things can be instantly and continually updated.

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Sometimes I feel like we all seem to be part of one collective hive, our minds plugged into a giant super-brain that stems back to Tim Berners-Lee’s conception of the internet itself. Almost as soon as you have a thought, you can be wondering about how to post it online. Rather than struggling to remember fun times with your family and friends, you can just scroll through a photo album on Facebook. Instead of identifying your own solution to a problem, you can Google the answer to the question in seconds (I’ve found branching out to other search engines hopelessly futile). We are always connected to the digital ether, whether through smart-phone, tablet, PC or, soon, accessories like eye-wear and watches.

I find it all astounding, partly due to the lack of quality control, but also from wondering just where all this information is kept, and what happens to the mounds of noughts and ones when their owners forget about them. Are they collected up by a digital version of a Henry Hoover, clearing up the internet for the next generation of bloggers and social networkers? Perhaps our petty thoughts and opinions might be appropriated by some governmental Big Brother for nefarious advertising mind-control. Does anyone really care? Apocalyptic destruction of all meaning in a Foucauldian dystopic universe is not really one of my worries, but I am interested in the alteration of collective consciousness that is rapidly taking hold.

Imagine being transported back to the time of the first novel ever published, for which there are many contenders but Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) being one of them, before the motor car, aeroplane or television set. It was completely unthinkable to have such swathes of written information. We’d struggle to comprehend the insidiousness of general ignorance, through lack of information and communication channels, but we are ill-prepared to deal with the consequences of what we have done.
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It makes me wonder what we will pass on to our children. Instead of a treasured collection of stories or poems, will we suggest a URL for them to visit for when they’re bored, reading softly to them before bedtime not from a book but an iPad? I also question why we sometimes still allow ourselves to remain so ignorant despite this wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. So often are we sitting glued to the latest offering of Buzzfeed rather than learning as much as we can in this brief blink of consciousness before we die. Will we retain the ability to discern the wheat from the chaff, or drown in a deluge of self-promoting blog posts, food photographs and emotional status updates? Is there even enough time for it all? Maybe Google can tell me.

Technological Revolution

Let me add my two pence to the slurry of thoughts on this age of digitisation. Sparked by an article in The Evening Standard about the dangers of drivers wearing Google Glass, I reflect again on the integration of technology into our lives.

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As I am but twenty-three, the year of my birth still managed to scrape into the eighties – the decade of bouffant mullets, the birth of indie rock and truly spectacular children’s television (Saved by the Bell, anyone?).

I still remember my Dad installing our first home computer, fairly late in the day when I was about seven years old in the mid-nineties (my boyfriend insists his household was far advanced by this stage). My sisters and I would spend hours on this Disney art program, creating swathes of 2D scenes containing Mickey and his friends.

There was no internet to speak of for a while, until we discovered my Dad’s work laptop on the kitchen counter, post-divorce. It used to connect via screechy dial-up, taking over a minute to open a portal to the world.

Of course, we had no appreciation of the gravity of such a thing. We just wanted to read Harry Potter fanfiction and generate pretty outfits on virtual dolls. I didn’t get into webchat, though, I was that antisocial as a child.

Nevertheless, technology slowly started to creep into our lives. I resisted the first smartphones for ages, clinging instead to a rather useless Blackberry that was only good for the emails I didn’t actually send. I was fairly quick to grasp Facebook but it took me ages to finally get on to Twitter. Now, I’m glued to my iPhone 4S (retro, I know). I download apps for everything, a concept I could literally not understand before I first bought this phone.

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My sister used to angrily insist (to deaf ears) that I buy an iPhone, especially after I moved to London and got lost every time I forayed out of the front door. Yet, I literally could not understand what a wondrous invention it was.

Now, I am communications officer for a health charity, and social media is completely central to my role. I have learned a lot since assuming this voluntary post, and one of the lessons is that technology must be wholeheartedly embraced.
It’s the way forward; the landscape of the world, if you will. Jobs become technology-based; and when the internet goes down at work, machinations tend to come to a standstill even if we all pretend to keep on working.

Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, WordPress, Blogger… How do you keep up with them all, is the question. The answer is I really don’t know, except you must retain a sense that you are engaging and learning, all the time. Though I’m still young and hardly out of the digital loop, sometimes it’s hard not to get scared of all the new things constantly being hurled at us.

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I know there are uncountable other web platforms that I haven’t mentioned, and will probably never even skim the surface of. But when I’m not at work, or sleeping, or socialising with real people, I will be exploring this phenomenon we call the technological revolution. I will be developing high blood pressure when I inevitably spill drinks on my keyboard, embarrass myself online or lose very important data in one fell swoop. And, one day far away, I will be telling my children off for spending too much time in front of the computer.