Spiders & Flies: The Gothic Monsters of Sci-Fi Horror

“Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes, then shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket”

W.H. Auden

You may believe that Alien is a science fiction film. After all it’s set in space, in a space ship, with all the hypersleep pods and computer terminals and rumbling star-drives you might want and is set in some distant (but not too distant) future where humanity feels comfortable travelling the gulfs between stars. It is, perhaps most pressingly, called Alien.

You may believe that Alien is a science fiction film and it’s not, on the face of it, an absurd position to hold. It’s not wrong. It’s just not quite right.

Alien is not a science fiction film because, despite all the sci-fi furniture it’s decorated with, the narrative of the film is not overly interested in the speculative concerns about the impact of technology and science that lie at the heart of science fiction. Alien is not interested in, say, how those hypersleep pods and interstellar distances change the humans who interact with them, simply because it doesn’t change them. The cast of Alien are workers at the end of their shift, commuting home in a slightly larger vehicle than we might be used to.

What Alien concerns itself with is what happens to a small group of travellers when, drawn by a duplicitous summons, they stray from the well-trodden path towards a distant castle. What would happen, Alien asks, if these travellers unwittingly awakened the ancient, evil thing that lurks in this mist-haunted place? What happens when that thing, mesmeric and terrifying, begins to feed on them and, eventually, uses their flesh to make more of its kind?

When we consider the film’s plot like this it quickly becomes clear that Alien is not sci-fi. Alien is Gothic horror and, when it comes to that, a very specific form of Gothic horror.

Alien is a vampire film.

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The Universe is a Haunted House: The Gothic Origins of Sci-Fi Horror

“There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.”

Ian McEwan: ‘Who’s going to write the algorithm for the little white lie?

With his dismissive opinion of science fiction – writing, it’s implied, that’s full of fun and gadgets but which is ultimately ignorant of more important concerns – Ian McEwan not only set the genre internet alight but also added himself to a long list of authors and critics who’ve blithely dismissed genre fiction as little more than children playing with toys while the adults look on indulgently. If only someone proper came along to write it properly, McEwan mutters. Someone proper, the implication is stark, like him.

Ironically, however, it’s often not the fiction being criticised that’s vapid and repetitive but those very criticisms themselves. The same voices mouthing the same words, time and time again throughout history. Only the time machine of internet archives is needed to listen to them:

We need scarcely say, that these volumes have neither principle, object, nor moral; the horror which abounds in them is too grotesque and bizarre ever to approach near the sublime, and when we did not hurry over the pages in disgust, we sometimes paused to laugh outright: and yet we suspect, that the diseased and wandering imagination, which has stepped out of all legitimate bounds to frame these disjointed combinations and unnatural adventures, might be disciplined into something better.

Anonymous review in The British Critic, New Series, Vol. 9, April 1818, pp. 432-8

This astonishingly sneering, scornful review was written over two hundred years before Ian McEwan’s comments but it’s easy to see the same dismissal of the source material.

What, then, is this scorn being directed at? Nothing less than that masterpiece of Romantic Gothic horror and, according to the likes of Brian Aldiss, progenitor of the science fiction genre that Ian McEwan dismisses as little more than so many pairs of anti-gravity boots: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Bernie Wrightson, 1983
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The Return – The Literary Resurrection of R Murray Gilchrist

I gave a brief talk on the the work that went into I Am Stone, the collection of R Murray Gilchrist’s weird fiction that I edited for the British Library, as part of the recent Romancing the Gothic Day of Creation (which took place on the 25th September). I really enjoyed this chance to talk about the path that led me to stumbling over Gilchrist’s work and then to being part of such an excellent series of books.

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow

The word inauguration has its roots in the Roman augury, the rituals of divination used before major undertakings to divine the best way to ensure a favourable outcome. The act of augury is undertaken by an augur, sometimes known as an auspex (from which we derive the modern word auspicious). In the illustration below the augur wields their lituus, a wand used to direct the augury.

Perhaps the most famous augur – ex avibus – uses both the flight and song of birds to divine the future. This is why birds are released even today during major events and celebrations. Other augurs existed, however: the presence of thunder and lightning (ex caelo); the distribution and consumption of food (ex tripudiis); the actions of certain animals like dogs and wolves (ex quadrupedibus); the manifestation of “ominous events” (ex diris).

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St Walpurga and the Night of the Witches

February 25th marks the death, in either AD777 or 779, of St Walpurga. Born in Devon, the young Walpurga was entrusted by her father – St Richard the Pilgrim – to the nuns of Wimborne Abbey when he set out on pilgrimage to Rome. Unfortunately, Richard died in Lucca and never reached Rome but Walpurga’s years of training under Wimborne’s abbess left her in good standing; she was accomplished enough in her letters to write the vita of her brother, St Winibald (Walpurga’s family was undoubtedly a holy one), and because of this she is sometimes referred to as England’s first female author. She is often depicted holding a book, as in the painting below.

Santa Walpurgis (The Master of Meßkirch, c. 1535–40)

Walpurga spent many years travelling Europe and evangelising until she settled down to become abbess of the double monastery of Heidenheim and Hahnenkamm, in the south of modern Germany. She is the patron of many German towns and is also invoked by sailors and those beset by storms.

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Dicing With Death – How D&D Learned to Love the Gothic

This talk on how Gothic theory can be used to subvert and develop play within Dungeons & Dragons was presented on 19/07/20 as part of the Romancing The Gothic series of lectures, organised by Dr Sam Hirst. My first lecture on Gothic D&D, focusing specifically on Ravenloft, was presented as part of the Gaming the Gothic conference and can be found here.

I Am Stone – R Murray Gilchrist and the Gothic Weird

This talk on the weird fiction of Sheffield-born author R Murray Gilchrist was presented on 08/11/20 as part of the Romancing The Gothic series of lectures, organised by Dr Sam Hirst. My lecture on Gilchrist from the Tales of Terror conference can be found here.

Godflesh: Flowers (1994)

This short piece was written in response to a call from the editors of Zero Tolerance, who I was writing for at the time. They were looking for short pieces that covered a musical moment; something that wasn’t just a favourite piece of music but which developed our understanding and appreciation of sound as a concept This was mine.

Taking musical inspiration from the anger and dead-eyed despair of late eighties inner-city life as much as from bands like Swans and Killing Joke, Godflesh crashed onto the scene like a wrecking ball through a council high-rise. My introduction to the band came in the form of the 1994 single Merciless, a monstrous slab of bass and guitar feedback with anguished vocals soaring over everything. Yet it’s not the title track that is my Godflesh “moment”, it’s the b-side remix Flowers. Arcing from submarine sonar-pings to juddering, monotone guitars and back again it’s almost so minimal as to be non-existent yet it embodies the inhuman menace that is Godflesh at their best.

Not One Word Wasted: A short introduction to even shorter fiction

On the 12th September, 2020, I was asked to run a workshop about micro-fiction for Dr Sam Hirst’s Romancing The Gothic series of webinars and lectures. I thought it would be useful to condense some of the ideas I presented into a blog post, mainly so I would remember them.

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