Author Archives: Lancaster Gothic

Teens tell their own Gothic stories: review of Dare You?

Dare You? A Gothic Anthology by Gifted Young Writers

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

Dare You

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.

Read my fellow Beyond Twilight editor Chloe Buckley’s review of Dare You? on The Gothic Imagination.

What do 16-18 year old readers think of Gothic fiction?

By Catherine Spooner

At the Beyond Twilight: Young Adult Gothic Fiction event we ran on 27 September 2013, we invited participants to fill in a questionnaire about what they thought about Young Adult Gothic Fiction. Twenty-two attendees took up this invitation, too few to represent a scientific sample, but their answers made interesting reading nevertheless – offering a quick snapshot of what some contemporary readers, aged between 16 and 18, think about Gothic.

Students and teachers from Maghull School at Beyond Twilight, 27 Sept 2013.

Students and teachers from Maghull School at Beyond Twilight, 27 Sept 2013.

What is Gothic?

Readers were asked how they would define Gothic fiction. The most common association they had was with ‘dark’ or ‘darkness’ – eight out of twenty-two readers used this word. Six readers also used the word ‘horror’ – although sometimes to explain that Gothic is not straight horror, but mixed with something else. It’s ‘a combination of horror and romance, which Horace Walpole said was his combination of, as he deemed it, fanciful medieval romance and the strict realism of the 18th century’, said one particularly well-read respondent. My favourite comment, however, identified Gothic as ‘A decaying world of absolute consuming passion and recklessness. Characters should disturb the reader in every sense.’

Gothic enjoyment

When asked what they enjoyed about Gothic fiction, seven readers identified the fact that it was in some way surprising or different to the norm. ‘I like the imagination behind Gothic novels as they are so different to normal books,’ said one. Other features commented on were a sense of mystery and the potential to disturb. The idea that Gothic fiction affects the reader’s emotions in a particularly powerful way recurred in several responses. One reader liked ‘the fact that whether the characters we find completely ridiculous or completely endearing, we are, or should be, somewhat haunted by them.’ Another stated, ‘I love Gothic fiction and the idea that after reading a page of someone else’s work my mind is provoked, and I am left disturbed and scared. That is strangely exciting!’

Favourite Gothic novels

Despite the supposed backlash, Twilight evidently retains huge popularity. Six readers identified it as their favourite Gothic novel, with a further vote for New Moon. The Brontës prove perennially popular, however, with four mentions of Jane Eyre and five of Wuthering Heights. ‘I am completely in love with the book. The story completely devastated me and haunted my thoughts for a long time after I read it… and probably forever will’, one reader declared of Emily Brontë’s classic. We were pleased to note that two of our featured authors, Marcus Sedgwick and Chris Priestley, got a mention too!

Gothic’s current popularity

What is fuelling the current trend for Gothic fiction in children’s and young adult publishing? Five readers blamed the influence of Twilight. But others sought reasons in the nature of the teenage experience. ‘Teens are moody!’ explained one reader. Another considered Gothic is popular ‘because it makes young adult readers feel part of a mysterious, exciting culture.’ Other answers were particularly eloquent. One thought that ‘During the crucial teenage years, many teenagers are exploring their individuality and learning about the secrets of the world our childhood has been shielded from. The Gothic genre provokes teenagers explore their world, and their own minds, further.’ Another suggested that, ‘Young adults, or teens, need a place to escape to. We are in this limbo sort of age when we have more freedom than we ever had, but are still slightly confined by our parents. Through Gothic fiction we can lose ourselves in the characters’ torments and reckless acts and still feel like we have rebelled, through the book, when we have done nothing at all! I once heard that “hell is a teenage girl.” That will always stick with me and interest me.’

Tell us what YOU think!

Do you agree with our respondents? We’d love to hear your comments on any of these questions!

Speakers at Beyond Twilight. L-R: Celia Rees, Paula Morris, Chloe Buckley, Catherine Spooner, Chris Priestley, Marcus Sedgwick, Sarah Singleton.

Speakers at Beyond Twilight. L-R: Celia Rees, Paula Morris, Chloe Buckley, Catherine Spooner, Chris Priestley, Marcus Sedgwick, Sarah Singleton.

Gove and the Gothic: why are the Tories so troubled by Twilight?

By Catherine Spooner

Last week I was invited to contribute to Lancaster University’s official blog – so I took on Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s recent comments on Twilight. If you’d like to read what I had to say, you can find the blog at:


Introducing Beyond Twilight: there’s more to teenage Gothic fiction than sparkly vampires

By Catherine Spooner

Twilight-coverWhen it comes to Young Adult Gothic fiction, Twilight gets all the press. Stephenie Meyer’s teen saga of heroine Bella’s love triangle with vampire Edward and werewolf Jacob is not only a massive commercial success, with a film franchise and spin-off merchandising, but provokes impassioned discussion amongst vampire fans, feminists, educationalists – even Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has weighed in to the debate.

I began thinking about Twilight as part of my current research project, a book entitled Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic – due out from Bloomsbury in 2014. I thought that Gothic had changed its sensibilities in the last decade or so, and one of the factors in this change was the boom is children’s and young adult Gothic publishing led by Twilight. But I was unprepared for the diversity and complexity of what I found. It became clear to me that Twilight was only a very small part of the picture, and that many of the other Young Adult Gothic novels being published were much more complex and sophisticated in their embrace of the Gothic literary tradition.

Mister CreecherI was supported in this discovery by PhD student Chloe Buckley, who is currently researching Gothic series fiction for the 9-12 age group – which often merges into the category for older readers. Chloe kept on bringing new authors to my attention – and providing fascinating new angles on many of them. In the course of our discussions, we fantasised about how great it would be to bring several of these authors together in a room and talk about Gothic with them – and so Beyond Twilight was born.

SovaypbBeyond Twilight: Young Adult Gothic Fiction, a symposium bringing together readers, writers and scholars, takes place at Lancaster University on 27 September 2013. We will be joined by some of our favourite Young Adult Gothic authors, who have produced, in our opinion, some of the most exciting recent novels in the genre. Chris Priestley’s Mister Creecher is a fiendishly clever mash-up of Frankenstein and Oliver Twist that plays wicked games with its supposedly innocent reader. Celia Rees’s Sovay takes the historical subtext of the original Gothic novel, the French Revolution, and makes it the text – with a highwayman heroine to boot. Marcus Sedgwick’s My Swordhand is Singing strips the my_swordhand_is_singingvampire myth back to its folktale origins, renewing the vampire’s radical, terrifying otherness. Sarah Singleton’s Century echoes numerous classic Gothic novels, playing with the reader’s expectations before offering something ingeniously new. Paula Morris’s Ruined uses the ghost story to explore the legacy of slavery and racial tension in post-Katrina New Orleans, the ‘ruined’ city of the title. These books may not be as commercially successful, or as controversial, as Twilight, but we think they are equally (if not more) worth talking about.

CenturyNow Chloe and I have started on this project, we don’t want to leave it there: there is just so much still to explore! This blog will provide an ongoing forum for discussion of Young Adult Gothic fiction. In the future, we hope to extend the project through further publications and events, and we will post news of them here. We also plan to post YA Gothic fiction related other news, interviews, articles and reviews. We are very keen for this conversation to extend more widely to include readers of these novels – so we warmly invite you to comment on our posts and tell us what you think!