Panel 4.1 Haunted Buildings

 

Kevin Corstorphine, University of Hull, UK, “‘Sometimes on earth a cruel shift takes place. Time splits’: Jack Cady’s The Well

In his introduction to Cady’s 1981 novel The Well, Tom Piccirilli comments on the author’s awareness ‘of how the earth itself can often be heavily laden with the ghosts of the past.’ This theme runs deeply through folklore, but has specific resonance to the American Gothic, described by Leslie Fiedler as the point where the utopian American Dream meets the realisation that ‘evil did not remain with the world that had been left behind’ (Love and Death in the American Novel). In Cady’s novel a highway surveyor, John Tracker, returns to his childhood home to establish that it is empty and that he can have it demolished. The house itself is full of traps, designed for the Devil as much as for people. The Tracker family have lived in ‘a world of evangelism and dogma’: a world which John Tracker has escaped. The novel, a supernatural horror story, dramatises this tension between the past and modernity as he negotiates the layers of history built up through his ancestral line. Like Nathanial Hawthorne, Cady shows a keen awareness of how the weight of the past bears upon the present. This paper will relate the novel to its American contexts with specific reference to a real-life inspiration; the Winchester Mystery House in California. Haunted by the vengeful ghosts of Native Americans killed by her husband’s patented rifle (‘the gun that won the West), the widowed Sarah Winchester used her vast fortune to continually build upon her mansion, adding sprawling maze-like corridors and staircases that went nowhere, in an attempt to trick the spirits she had communicated with in séances. The Well explores the layers of history that have brought the present into being, while commenting on its own cultural contexts, which will be explored here. The paper will also explore the unique ways in which the house is presented in terms of fantastical space. This will be contextualised alongside other ‘haunted’ house narratives contemporary with the novel, such as Kubrick’s uncanny presentation of space in The Shining (1980), and argue that its construction anticipates later, ‘postmodern’, versions of the genre such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000).

 

Bionote: Dr Kevin Corstorphine is lecturer in English at the University of Hull and holds a PhD entitled Space and Fear in Contemporary American Horror Fiction. His research interests are in the Gothic, the reception of science in literature, American Literature, ecology, and theories of spatiality. He has published chapters and articles on Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and Stephen King. He is currently working on the spaces and places of Gothic fiction and the popular imagination, and is writing a book on Haunted Houses in fiction and culture.

 

Nicola Bowring, University of Nottingham, UK, “Village of Fools to City of Madness and Vice: Reading Gotham”

In the early 1800s, Washington Irving visited the County of Nottinghamshire, taking back across the Atlantic tales of haunted abbeys, ancient houses, and of the ‘Mad Men of Gotham’, medieval folk tales relating to one of the County’s villages. Later he would attach the name of this village to a concept of New York City in his literary magazine, Salmagundi, from whence it would find its way into the DC Universe and the home of one of its most famous fantasy heroes, Batman.

This paper traces the movement of literal place into literary space, investigating what happens when a place name becomes symbolic, synonymous with a concept, here madness; when it migrates both geographically and temporally into different forms of literature through what it signifies. Here a rural location becomes transposed across cultures to the definitively urban, the metropolitan. We might simply see the ‘fantasy’ construct of Gotham as an imaginary version of a ‘real’ New York City, yet conversely ‘Gotham’ is related to a real location, whilst ‘New York City’ is deeply engaged in forms of fantasy, and the two concepts become intertwined.

Gotham began in the DC Universe as the name of an asylum outside the city, before encompassing the city itself, and this paper also traces the development of a concept of madness, partly through Foucault, as something at once both excluded and integral to civilisation and to the self. Whilst madness in folklore is related in some respects to vice, it is often equally so to forms of wisdom and of resistance. DC’s Gotham as imaginary cityscape takes inspiration from rural folklore and mythology in what madness is, how it functions. These traces which follow through from folk tale to contemporary urban myth through location demonstrate how these spaces are thus both haunted and enriched by the mythical, symbolic concepts which feed into them.

 

Bionote: Nicola Bowring is currently employed by the Universities of Nottingham, Leicester and Lincoln as a University Tutor, having completed her PhD on the Gothic in 2013. Her current research interests lie in Communication in the Gothic, and in the Gothic and Space and Place through building, text and spatiality.