Friday, July 19, 2013

Reading in the Shade

by Jean Roberta

Lately, I’ve been immersed in two books: The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez (Firebrand Books, 1991) and Where Thy Dark Eye Glances: Queering Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Steve Berman (Lethe Press, 2013).

I actually read The Gilda Stories when it was hot off the press and I was running a little one-person book-ordering service as a spinoff of the collectively-run alternative bookstore where I worked for awhile on a government grant. Jewelle Gomez’ vampire novel attracted a lot of attention in certain circles because it is about lesbian vampires “of color” who are not treated as freaks. Au contraire. The novel begins during the American Civil War, and Gomez’ vampires are appalled by the cruelty of the world. They make a point of taking only as much blood as they need while reading their victims’ minds, then giving the foolish mortals what they need in exchange for a little of their life-force. The vintage photo on the book-cover shows a gentle-looking African-American woman who is identified as the author’s great-aunt in Boston, circa 1900. At a conference in 2001, I met Jewelle Gomez and asked her if she thought her ancestor would mind being associated with vampires. Gomez said no, and I think she was right. Her vampires aren’t sparkly, but neither are they offensive.

The reason I am rereading this book is because I got an exciting email addressed to “Dear vampire scholar.” (I’m actually mortal, though easily sunburned.) Apparently I am now a “vampire scholar” because of my essay in a forthcoming book, now titled The Vampire Goes to College, an anthology of articles on teaching vampire literature at a post-secondary level.

The new email invited me to submit something for a new vampire anthology which will be interdisciplinary and focused on vampires “of color,” or vampires in a context of racial politics. I plan to send in a proposal for an essay on three vampire novels that deal with slavery and resistance to it: Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (in which the narrator feels overwhelmed with guilt for becoming a supernatural predator in Louisiana in 1791, but not for enjoying the wealth produced by the slaves who work his plantation), Every Dark Desire by Fiona Zedde (an erotic novel in which the oldest and strongest of a “clan” of Jamaican lesbian vampires was “turned” in the 1600s while living in the hills as a refugee from slavery) and The Gilda Stories, in which the best resistance to oppression is shown to be superhuman strength and benevolent mind-rape (greedy, dishonest, racist and sexist mortals are given some new ideas). If my proposal is accepted, I will have until January 2014 to write the essay.

Where Thy Dark Eye Glances was a free gift from Lethe Press. It is a marvelous re-imagining of Poe’s gothic poems and stories, in which same-sex attraction is combined with Poe’s themes: the uncanny appearance of a doppelganger, the dire warning of a raven who croaks “Nevermore!” to a heartbroken lover, the grisly revenge of a dwarf jester on his aristocratic tormenters, the perception of a murderer, presumed “mad,” that his victim’s heart is still beating. The book is divided into three sections: “Poe the Man” (in which the known facts of Poe’s life are the framework for “what-if” stories), “Poe’s Writing” (the longest section) and “Reading Poe” (contemporary stories in which Poe’s work is a major influence on lonely, socially-marginalized characters).

This is a surprisingly varied group of stories that are so well-written and atmospheric that they are all likely to haunt the reader (groan – I couldn’t resist). Several of these stories provide satisfying explanations for elements that are obscure or mysterious in Poe. (“Telltale,” Clare London’s take on “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is a good example; in this version, the murder makes perfect sense and so does the murderer’s fruitless remorse.) “A Portrait in India Ink by Harry Clarke” by Alex Jeffers is actually based on a visual illustration of Poe’s story “Morella,” and the illustration is reproduced with Jeffers’ story, which takes place in Ireland in 1968.

I almost wish I had asked whether I could submit my own lesbian Poe-inspired story, “Down Below” (based on “The Cask of Amontillado,” but in my story, the “victim” is temporarily bound in a cellar, not permanently walled into a crypt) even though it was published twice. In any case, my story is probably too obvious a sex fantasy to fit in with the stories in this book, which are respectful, multi-faceted explorations of Poe’s life and work.

As in other good anthologies, every story deserves to be mentioned, but few readers seem likely to read a review that is almost as long as the work under discussion. I’ll have to ponder this dilemma before writing a more thoughtful review of the Poe anthology.

Maybe a veiled, mysterious Muse will appear in my dreams to give me advice on my two writing projects. I can imagine her leading me down a dark corridor with only a smoking candle for light. Inspiration so often comes from the shadows.


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8 comments:

  1. Congratulations on being invited to contribute to this anthology. I'd certainly be honored to be addressed as a scholar on any topic. Being a "vampire scholar" has a factor of cool to which I could never aspire!

    I remember the call for the Poe book. I was tempted, but the call very clearly suggested that erotica would not be welcome, as I remember.

    Sounds like it is worth a read.

    I'm curious to know how you teach vampires as a literary theme. But then maybe I should get a copy of The Vampire Goes to College when it appears.

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    1. Lisabet, now that you mention it, I remember the call-for-submissions for the Poe book and the clause about no erotica. Actually, there is plenty of sensuality & references to "perverse" (by Victorian standards) sex in the anthology, but it prob. wouldn't qualify as erotica per se. It is labelled "queer dark fantasy." Re how I teach vampires, I could send you some

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  2. i love the idea of the Poe adaptations. that book is going on my wish list . what a fascinating life you have led, Jean. i have a friend who teaches horror at the University of Ottawa & is the editor of a horror magazine. i'm going to let him know about the Vampire Goes to College. fascinating stuff. thanks for the great post!

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  3. Gah. My reply just disappeared. This computer seems to have a mind of its own (or is haunted).

    Anyway, thanks to both of you for your comments. I wouldn't mind sending some of my teaching material (lists of discussion questions, essay topics, informational handouts) to anyone who wants to know how I teach vampire literature. It has the great advantage of being something university-age young adults tend to read for pleasure, so I don't hav to feel as if I'm forcing them to eat liver and spinach for their own good. :)

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    1. sorry about your rebellious computer :( i think that would be so fantastic if you shared your vamp lit pedagogy. i would be happy to pass on your info to my pal Sean, who teaches horror at U of O. he's been teaching for about ten years or so, i believe.

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  4. How cool Jean- you sure get intriguing projects and draw such a productive life from your interests. It all gets easier when you get to enjoy what you are accomplishing.

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  5. Thanks for the comments, all. My material on teaching vampire literature wouldn't fit in with upcoming topics here, so anyone who wants a privte email from me (besides Amanda and Lisabet) can ask me.

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