Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gothic: To Fulfill A Strange Human Need?

Psychologically, the Gothic novel serves cathartic purposes and a fundamental human need, what Virginia Woolf called "the strange human need of feeling afraid".

In the dead of the night, I shiver violently at blood-curling renditions of vampire folktales, I sometimes even let out a gasp of terror when I re-read Stoker's Dracula or another R. L. Stine novel, finding my palms clammy and my body covered in cold sweat.

So why do people torture themselves like this? Why are they so willing to be turned into traumatized yet addicted consumers of fear?

I believe in humanity's inner fascination with the grotesque and the frightening, inexplicable, overwhelming aspects of the universe and the human soul.

As a New York Times article "Embracing Fear as Fun To Practice for Reality; Why People Like to Terrify Themselves" by David Blum tells us, in real life, human beings are packaged in the flimsiest of packages, threatened by real and sometimes horrifying dangers. But the narrative form puts those fears into a manageable series of events. It gives us a way of thinking rationally about our fears.

As long as whatever that is happening in the books isn't happening to us, we feel safe and want to experience the terror and thrill without actual repercussions

However, I think it is worth wondering: with the volume and intensity of scary stories and movies and arranged experiences growing so rapidly, is it getter harder to satisfy the craving for fear?

Perhaps. That is why many modern readers find Gothic literature not very scary but instead rather conservative and refined. 

However, I do beg to differ. To me, Gothic classics such as Stoker's Dracula never fail to scare me despite the long sentences and elaborate descriptions. Stoker, I believe, mastered the arts of scaring and writing perfectly. His demonstration of humanity's division between a finite, physical identity and the often terrifying, bizarre forces of the infinite never can be attained by any modern writer, even if said writer was his great grand-nephew. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Gothic On the Stage: The Phantom of the Opera

Softly, deftly, music shall caress you
hear it, feel it, secretly possess you
Open up your mind, let your fantasies unwind
In this darkness that you know you cannot fight
The darkness of the music of the night


When the curtains went up, I sat there in bated breath, ready to be dazzled by the grand spectacle of The Phantom of the Opera. And when the curtains went down with an abrupt finality, my friend and I broke down crying. 

For me, this was my second time watching The Phantom of the Opera, the first time in 2007 when I was only nine. But ever since then, I have loved the Phantom-- the triumphant, misunderstood genius and poor, twisted creature-- with a burning passion. I adored his voice, his aura of enigma, his mask, his tragic past, his brilliance in music, his obsession with Christine and the eventual sacrifice of his love that both redeems and destroys him. 

Perhaps, because I only just recently read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, I was particularly mindful of the various Gothic elements that jumped out at me throughout the entire duration of the musical. 

The Phantom himself is the embodiment of the mystic and the mysterious. His presence in Christine's life represents a blurring of the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural, and his unsettling flair for singing about sensual themes that challenges the social conventions then is in truth, I believe, an outlet for the condemned and repressed darkness of the human mind. 

Christine's absolute haplessness and helplessness when surrendering to the Phantom's music is another favorite motif in Gothic literature, that of the poor damsel being exploited by a sinister identity. 

Labyrinths, dark corridors, winding staircases, graveyards, dungeons, crypts, demonic fires, death and failing candles... All these stock motifs of the Gothic novel were alive and in action in the opera. 

But, to me, what liberates the Phantom from his antagonistic position and glorifies him, is the beautiful and heartbreaking music and lyrics of his songs. The ultimate victim in this musical, in my opinion, is neither Christine nor any of the opera house members who died, but the Phantom himself.

His demise salvages him but destroys his music and therefore robs him of his most precious love-- the love of music which had originally sustained him.     

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Young Adult Gothic Literature

I should mark the beginning of my official foray into Gothic literature with a book review of a Young Adult Gothic novel.


Something Strange and Deadly

Author: Susan Dennard


The year is 1876, and there’s something strange and deadly loose in Philadelphia…

Eleanor Fitt has a lot to worry about. Her brother has gone missing, her family has fallen on hard times, and her mother is determined to marry her off to any rich young man who walks by. But this is nothing compared to what she’s just read in the newspaper—

The Dead are rising in Philadelphia.

And then, in a frightening attack, a zombie delivers a letter to Eleanor… from her brother.

Whoever is controlling the Dead army has taken her brother as well. If Eleanor is going to find him, she’ll have to venture into the lab of the notorious Spirit-Hunters, who protect the city from supernatural forces. But as Eleanor spends more time with the Spirit-Hunters, including their maddeningly stubborn yet handsome inventor, Daniel, the situation becomes dire. And now, not only is her reputation on the line, but her very life may hang in the balance.

Published 24 July 2012.


IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. 

So begins Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. And hereby, unfolds a tale of glitzy tea parties, handsome eligible bachelors and misunderstood love. 

Add some steampunk and the Dead to this classic and "voilĂ !", you get the novel-- Something Strange and Deadly. And the result is something deadly to the heart.

Deadly because you will fall head over heels in love with it, in love with its setting, its characters and its plot.

Eleanor of the Philadelphia Fitts is a faded member of the high society. Her single-parent family is struggling to make ends meet and her mother is as eager as the legendary Mrs Bennet to marry her off to the rich and handsome Clarence who is of good status.

Yet, Eleanor only meets her real Mr Darcy when she is forced face-to-face with the Spirit-Hunters after her brother, Elijah, goes missing. With the Dead rising from all around Philadelphia, Eleanor has to split her waking hours between squeezing into corsets while attending operas and working with the Spirit-Hunters to prevent the Dead population from spiralling out of control. At the same time, there is also the puzzling mystery of who is the Necromancer behind the hungry dead and the family mystery that seems to tie in closely with the deaths of high society members. 

The plot grows thicker and thicker and we are swept up in a whirlwind of adventure and of course, romance. Our Byronic hero appears in the form of the sandy-haired Daniel Sheridan and no one can describe Byronic heroes better than famous historian Lord Macaulay-- he is proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection. With such a character, the romance in this novel goes up by a notch. Slowly and deliciously, the two stubborn characters (Eleanor and Daniel) start falling for each other. But, Susan Dennard makes it impossible to forget their romance with an open-ended closure, not satisfying enough, yet still full of hopeful promises.

As for the identity of the necromancer, Dennard executes a thin thread that runs consistently throughout the whole novel. The whodunnit had me making wild guesses at every turn and kept me constantly delighted.     

Ultimately, I just want to say that each and every element in the novel, be it adventure, romance or mystery, is just truly exceptional. I will fall in love with the mystery in this novel all by itself. But, having a gorgeous romance and a blood-pumping adventure doesn't hurt as well!

It seems almost impossible to have steampunk alongside with zombies and to have it take place in the 1800s, but Susan Dennard has achieved it all in one go. That is why you shall have to read the book simply if not for any other reason than to see how she does it. 

And trust me, she does it gloriously and brilliantly.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Gatsby: Glorious & Misunderstood

My main Literature task for this June holidays is to work on my A. Lit SIA thesis paper.

And I chose to include The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in my analysis of the American Dream, squeezing it into the thousand-word limit simply because I am hopelessly in love with this novel. So much that I strongly advocated for the protagonist of our Herstory task to be Daisy Buchanan, a shallow but interesting woman.

Normally after intensely studying a text, I tend to tire of it. However, after deconstructing Gatsby layer by layer and reading countless of online journals and analyses (including Sparknotes!), I am all the more in love with it.

Today, I'm here to talk about the cover, which I didn't like at first. But, after reading the story in its entirety, I am beyond impressed by the artist's construal. I went to search him up and turns out, there was little known about him, the Spanish artist Francis Cugat.

This cover encapsulates the essence of the novel perfectly. The tale takes place in the gaudy, luxurious Roaring Twenties, but the fate of Jay Gatsby is cruel and sad. The cover, evocative of the sad demise of Gatsby and the surreal excess of the era, is a timeless interpretation of the  story. 

When I was surfing the net in search of explanations regarding the cover, I chanced upon a remarkable article on the eyes on the cover by Charles Scribner III. Quoting Scribner, 

"Cugat’s rendition is not illustrative, but symbolic, even iconic: the sad, hypnotic, heavily outlined eyes of a woman beam like headlights through a cobalt night sky. Their irises are transfigured into reclining female nudes. From one of the eyes streams a green luminescent tear; brightly rouged lips complete the sensual triangle."

Cugat had designed the cover before Fitzgerald completed his book and Fitzgerald actually maintained that he had “written it (the cover) into” the book. I would think this probably refers to the symbolic billboard eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg.

I'd be eagerly anticipating the covers that the publishers have in store for us in the newer editions of Gatsby to come. 

With the 2013 film adaptation in theaters, some recent printings of the book have abandoned the classic cover in favor of one that ties in more closely with the film, with Leondardo DiCaprio plastered over the cover. Scribner himself has expressed that he likes the cover, ”I confess to liking the Leonardo DiCaprio cover, too (the new movie tie-in). I would not be ashamed to be seen reading it on the subway, but then I’m a Gemini.” 

Well, so am I. And Leonardo DiCaprio is hot.

Good links:

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Weeping Woman: Giving Voice to A Painting

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” -Pablo Picasso

Weeping Woman, Pablo Picasso (1937)

Even my hat mocks me
on the inside of my grief –
My twisted mouth
and gnashing teeth,
my fingers fat and clumsy
as if they were still wearing
those gloves –
the bloodstained ones you keep.
What has happened
to the pupils
of my eyes, Picasso?
Why do I deserve
such deformity?
What am I now
if not a cross between
a clown and a broken
piece of crockery?
- Part II, Grace Nichols

We only read parts of this poem in class but it really tugged at my heartstrings. The interlocking parts of the poem seem to take us through the various layers of the woman's consciousness. The tone ranges from sardonic to self-deprecating, as colorful as the various colors used in the poem's symbolisms. 
Like the Guardian article which praised Nichols' distinctly 'cubist' attempt to reclaim one of Picasso's muses as her own woman, I admire this poem for its frank tone and how it actually manages to give deeper insight to a painting which might not even have had such depth in the first place. 
The demanding voice of the woman in her journey of self-reclamation is beautifully touching, as she requests with unending determination, "Picasso, I want my face back/the unbroken geography of it." 
The voice is powerful and resonates in me. Definitely one of my favorite poems in Lit class so far!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Film Noir: Crime, German Expressionism & Femme Fatales

There was one Lit Talk session which was particularly interesting.

Mr Lim, our Philosophy teacher, presented on his favorite philosophy book while Ms Leuar presented on Film Noir, which captivated my attention completely. 

Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography. Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression, which is another topic I'll be studying in Advanced History.

Nightlife is an aspect of city life that has always fascinated me. Quoting from my World Scholars' Cup Special Area resource in 2012, "It is fitting that electricity, the invention that gave rise to modern nightlife, also helped five rise to cinema, and to its depictions of night in city." That brings me to film noir, a genre which unfolds in dark city settings. As critic Roger Ebert put it, they are full of

"locations that reek of the night, of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places, of apartment buildings with high turnover rate, of taxi drivers and bartenders who have seen it all."

Film noirs portrayed an urban landscape of ruthless individualism and stories of characters who lived in crowded places but led lonely lives.

Ms Leuar told us about the origins of film noir in German expressionist filmmakers such as Fritz Lang.

And that was when a picture of a sultry woman dressed in a sexy skin-tight outfit complete with a cigarette and stiletto came onto the screen in the Heritage Gallery-- the infamous and timeless icon of a femme fatale.

I have an fascinating thought that I'd like to share: doesn't film noir seem like the modern-day interpretation of the Gothic genre? Both have gory undertones with thrilling stories and similar motifs of darkness, loneliness and death (in certain cases). 

Since I'll be studying Gothic literature in Term 3 with Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, perhaps I can make more connections then. 

Here's an interesting article I found, I will put the link down in case I want to go back to it in the future:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Because Titanic Is More Than Just A Tragedy

I've been plagued by all the romantic possibilities surrounding Titanic, which ought to be just a tragedy, after watching James Cameron's film of the same name (because how can you ever forget Jack?). 

Strangely enough, I've never considered looking into more interpretations of this oceanic disaster until the lesson when we first did a compare & contrast study on Hardy's Convergence of The Twain (which I like very very much) and Mahon's After the Titanic

Since I didn't manage to attempt a comparative essay on these two poems, let me jot down my thoughts here. 

I absolutely adore the way Hardy portraying the tragedy as one of the whole mankind, focusing on the scale, whilst Mahon chose to show the depth of the tragedy by illustrating it as the tragedy of the person. 

Convergence is narrated by an omniscient observer who takes on a slightly critical tone, seeing past the personal sufferings of the people aboard the Titanic the night it sunk, instead, rebuking the Titanic for it being a fruit of humanity's propensity to indulge in excessive luxury and the ultimate display of human vainglory. I liked the thread of a higher power being at work, referred to as the "Spinner of the Years", almost reminiscent of one of my favorite idioms: Man plans & God laughs. I don't feel sorrowful over the Titanic's sad demise by the end of the poem, but rather I am oddly comforted by how the demise was probably preordained and could not have been stopped anyway. 

The collision between the pride of men and the power of nature "jars two hemispheres", so monumental that perhaps it cracked the complacency of the civilized world. This offers a rebuke stronger than Mahon's sympathetic portrayal, maybe a warning to humans "not to be so proud". 

In comparison, After the Titanic seems more personal and much less unique in perspective. 

However, to be frank, I might be biased since I am an ardent supporter of Romanticism and Hardy's poem is right up my alley! A shout-out here to William Wordsworth whom Hardy was inspired by :)