Posted October 6, 2022 by Xavier Aldana Reyes
My First Encounters with Gothic, or How I Became a Horror Researcher
This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, given I have ended up writing about some truly gruesome texts in my adult life, but I was quite squeamish as a child.
Horror was not a genre favoured by my parents, and I even had a recurring nightmare that signals how vigilant of anything remotely scary I once was. I’d be sitting in front of a TV set playing a film with a witch in it – perhaps Anne de Chantraine, from the Atmosfear games – so I’d close my eyes to avoid the spectacle, but my eyelids would offer no protection… They were see-through! I even had to have a serious chat with my dad about purchasing Say Cheese and Die! (in its 1996 Spanish translation) because he was worried it would keep me awake at night. Everyone at school was reading R. L. Stine, so I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. The Goosebumps books were safe, though, as they were really horror-inflected suspense stories and hardly anyone ever died in them. But at some point, for some reason, I outgrew them and wanted to try something ‘stronger’. It was around this time I graduated to Stephen King. His The Green Mile was originally serialised, so that each of its six parts could be purchased separately from local kiosks. The novel horrified me, but it also comforted me and made me cry. I fell in love with King, who introduced to a number of staples of US horror fiction and their adaptations. Many of his books stayed with me (Carrie, Misery, The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, The Dead Zone, Pet Sematary, Two and Four Past Midnight and so many more), but the one that affected me the most was, without a doubt, It. I couldn’t shake off the thought of Pennywise the clown, this juggernaut of all childhood fears, and when I eventually watched the 1990 mini-series adapted from it, Tim Curry’s amazing performance terrified me. In fact, little else has ever scared me as much as the iconic Georgie gutter scene. The amount of times I must have looked under the bed, terrified that a globed hand would be quietly waiting for me to expose a vulnerable limb!
Around the same time, and through a close childhood friend who was one of my gateways to horror fiction, I discovered other authors with whom I became utterly obsessed. Clive Barker’s Books of Blood was the most visceral thing I had read up until that point and remains one of my favourite collections of short stories. John Farris’ unique meandering style and eclectic topics captivated me. His novels Fiends, All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By and Son of the Endless Night had been published in beautiful Spanish editions that I feverishly tracked down in the Mercat de Sant Antoni, which once a month turned into a second-hand book market. And Poppy Z. Brite’s unique queer lens opened my eyes to the power of representation. Reading Lost Souls and Exquisite Corpse, I realised that queer sensibilities could find a fertile place in what could sometimes feel like a straight boys club. A schoolteacher also introduced me to H. P. Lovecraft, and thus sparked my fascination with cosmic horror. When, much later, I eventually edited an anthology of Lovecraft’s tales for the British Library, I took special delight in dedicating the book to him. Before the days when you could find everything on Wikipedia, I also relied a lot for recommendations on specialised bookshops – a favourite was Librería Gigamesh, still standing in the heart of Barcelona – but my literature teachers always proved invaluable sources of inspiration. A particular influence was Dr Sara Martín Alegre, who taught me during my BA studies, and whose knowledge of genre fiction was and continues to be encyclopaedic. It was during my time at UAB that I also discovered writers like Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, Daphne du Maurier and Iain Banks, among many others. These authors solidified my interest in Anglophone literature and made me decide I wanted to study it in the original.
It was also through another teacher that I came to learn about the Gothic as a concept (the Gothic romance) and as a critical tool (through which to read all manner of dark cultural manifestations). Prof Adriana Craciun’s ‘Gothic Bodies, Foreign Bodies’ unit, which I took at Birkbeck College in London, was a real eye-opener. I was introduced to Matthew Lewis’s The Monk and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, among others texts, and the unit helped me completely rethink classics like Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Suddenly, everything made sense. All my interests, which had gradually but steadily shifted from a reluctance to an embrace of the scary and the grisly, solidified under this label that harkened back to at least 1764 and acted as connective tissue for all the texts I had been reading and watching since my early teens. The English and American literary and filmic traditions are quite unique in that many of their classics belong to the horror and fantastic genres, so it is perhaps inevitable that I gravitated towards literature written in English. In my academic life, I have tried to apply my learning to the Spanish tradition, which has not been internationally recognised as a significant Gothic force despite producing many brilliant fantastic and horrific texts.
During my MA studies, which included a thesis on the contemporary Gothic, I read Catherine Spooner’s work. Her Contemporary Gothic, in particular, convinced me that I wanted to pursue further study on how the Gothic mode has persisted in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. My PhD developed in a slightly different direction, however, as around that time Hostel and Saw had changed the landscape of horror again. Moved by their visceral scenarios, which in some cases gave me nightmares for the first time in years, I decided to embrace my anxieties and write about them. Why did this new graphic turn affect me so much? What was the connection between the film and viewer’s bodies? And how did the ethical intermingle with the representational? I ended up writing a thesis primarily on film and theatre – the grand guignol French tradition – but the project was driven by the same questions I had been asking myself since I started reading horror: why do we find things scary? What are my personal limits and what social or biological primers affect them? These very same questions also animated my subsequent books Body Gothic and Horror Film and Affect. In fact, you could say that my academic career is still partly shaped by those initial points of contact with the descendants of the Gothic literary tradition. In many ways, recent research on the aesthetics of Gothic Cinema is still responding to similar questions about affect and aesthetics.
Having said all this, it’s sobering to realise I have never tried writing about Stephen King’s It. I keep telling myself it’s because the occasion just hasn’t arisen yet, but perhaps it’s really a deep-seated self-preservation mechanism. In any case, I’m very grateful there isn’t enough room for pesky clowns under my bed!