Eds. Charlotte Cubitt, Sophie Heath, Tippi Wilson, Kyrill Potapov, Kiya Weekes
RPA Young Publishers, 2013
ISBN 10: 978-0-9576981-0-9
By Catherine Spooner
It’s easy for academics and critics to project a view of children and teenagers based on their presumed responses to their reading material. Fiction is often marketed ‘for 9-12s’ or ‘for young adults’. Implicitly, therefore, the publishing industry suggests there is a version of Gothic ‘for children’ or ‘for Young Adults’. This Gothic is one that adult writers imagine and construct – even as they imagine and construct their child readers. But what would fiction written by these young adults look like? How do teenagers construct their own Gothic?
Now it’s possible to find out. Dare You? is an anthology of Gothic short stories and poems written, edited and published by Year 8 students at Richmond Park Academy in London. Led by English teacher Kyrill Potapov, the 12- and 13-year-olds raised £1000 on Kickstarter to license an ISBN number and fund publication. Everything, down to Charli Eglinton’s evocative cover art and the initial marketing campaign, was done by the students themselves.
At 12 and 13, the students are already highly genre-literate. There are traces of expected texts here – echoes of Harry Potter in a series of tales themed around a magic book; smatterings of paranormal romance. Some of the imagery also recalls recent cinema and television – the richly evocative swirling black birds of Anya Whitman’s surreal ‘Crow’ evoke Snow White and the Huntsman as much as they do Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’. However, there are also clear traces of M. R. James, Robert Browning, Angela Carter and a wide spectrum of classic Gothic texts. The haunting concluding poem by Charli Eglinton, ‘Little Girl Lost’, with its child ghost wandering the moors, evokes Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as well as Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘The Old Nurse’s Tale’ (and, more indirectly, Nicholas Roeg’s film version of Don’t Look Now). Nevertheless Eglinton – like her fellow contributors – does not merely repeat these influences, but reworks them and shapes them to her own ends. Far from the passive recipients of genre convention, these are active readers and active writers.
Interestingly, although vampires and mad scientists do make appearances, Dracula and Frankenstein, those two cornerstone texts of the contemporary Gothic, are little in evidence. The imagery of the stories seems to derive from elsewhere. Alongside numerous stand-alone pieces, there are four sequences of linked narratives united by a shared title and themes, presumably provoked by a classroom exercise: a cursed book; a sinister crow; a werewolf; a mysterious child in a red coat. There is a great deal of enjoyment to be derived from tracing the ways in which the creative impulse plays out differently in different hands, while the repetition of names and phrases across several narratives creates an additional uncanny effect. One of the most striking conclusions the anthology suggests is that there is not just one Gothic: the styles, themes and approaches are exceptionally diverse, ranging from comedy to romance, epic fantasy to uncanny haunting, psychological mood pieces to outright horror – sometimes several within a single tale.
Many stories are notable for their experiments with voice, point of view and the unreliable narrator. Joeliza Campos tells her epic romance of loving and warring gods, ‘Love Created Us’, from the alternate perspectives of its central characters. The three striking tales that make up ‘A Fading Light’ feature protagonists who are unaware they are werewolves. Mary Beaty’s version in particular, in which the killer protagonist may be mad or may be a genuine werewolf, demonstrates exceptional control, maintaining the hesitation between rational and supernatural explanation even in the final line. Zara McKinlay’s clever, funny retelling of the Persephone myth strikes a different note, with Persephone a spoilt socialite straight out of Gossip Girl and lashings of deadpan wit: ‘What kind of hell was this? Oh yeah. The Greek underworld’.
Many of the writers have mastered the knack of the twist in the tail. There are some astonishing final lines. My favourite is Sophie Heath’s twisted fairy tale, ‘A Cruel Heart’, which delivers a sucker punch of an ending with a symbolic resonance strongly reminiscent of Angela Carter. Elsewhere Tippi Wilson’s ‘What To Play’ provides a more subtle revelation, the chilling truth of the situation emerging gradually from an apparently mundane scenario. Many of the stories, however, are marked by a judicious sense of timing and a notable emotional restraint. Images of body horror and psychological devastation are compressed into startlingly spare prose.
Clearly the writers here are still learning their trade. The stories have been printed with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors intact. Plot predominates over characterisation and dialogue can be clumsy. But the ambition of the authors is striking. These stories do not see themselves as ‘young adult Gothic’, they see themselves as Gothic. Their themes are those of adult writers and they aim for the same level of craft. The stories are never less than enjoyable, but at their very best, they offer a pleasurable frisson as effective as that of their adult peers.
The future of Gothic, it seems, is in good hands.