Slowly I Turned
From tales of apparitions to the nightmarish narrative of a madman, scholars unearth their favorite literary works of horror
Oct. 26, 2009
Halloween: The word itself evokes images of grinning jack-o-lanterns, costumed trick-or-treaters and otherworldly creatures drifting through the night.
In celebration of this spooky holiday, scholars throughout The University of Texas at Austin reveal their favorite spine-tingling tales of horror. Whether it’s apparitions roaming the English countryside, the nightmarish mind of a madman or the mad-capped antics of mischievous ghosts, these literary works are perfect for that one night of the year when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest.
Sleeping with the lights on this week? Don’t forget to check under the bed.
Tales of Unease
From comedic ghostly encounters to hair-raising forays into the unknown, Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, associate professor of English, gets in the Halloween spirit by reading classic tales about things that go bump in the night.
One of her favorite supernatural stories is Oscar Wilde’s light-hearted farce “The Canterville Ghost.”
Long before horror movie spoofs hit the silver screen, Wilde spoofed conventional plotlines and characters of gothic literature with a novella centered on a group of skeptical Americans who were oblivious to the rambunctious ghosts inhabiting their stately English manor.
“It’s a very funny story about desperate British aristocratic ghosts trying to scare these rational Americans and completely failing to do so,” says Richmond-Garza, who is also the director of the Program in Comparative Literature. “It’s a really funny story about the power of rich, reasonable Americans who are able to withstand whatever kinds of tricks these British ghosts are trying to play on them.”
Her popular courses “The Vampire in Imperial Culture” and “Art of the Uncanny” explore unsettling stories that evoke thoughts of mortality, madness, silence, solitude and darkness.
The epitome of the uncanny, she says is Henry James’ short story, “The Altar of the Dead.”
“It’s a haunting story about a man who lives by himself in the suburbs of London,” Richmond-Garza says. “As he starts to frequent a rundown church, he becomes enraptured by this mysterious woman dressed all in black who comes in to light a candle.”
But when it appears something is not quite right with the woman–when the familiar, ordinary world suddenly transcends into the realm of the unknown–that’s when the terror sets in, she says.
“It captures that creepy, bizarre, deadly feeling you can only get in a London suburb,” Richmond-Garza says, smiling. “My own caption for the story, ‘One day she will light a candle for you,’ is unsettling just in itself. You think you’re dealing with people who are alive and that you’re living in a modern, rational 20th century world–and suddenly the rules get shifted and everything changes–that’s the charm of it.”
Poe’s World of Nightmares
Best known as the father of mystery and as the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe had a disturbing style of writing that made him one of the most widely read authors of his time.
Almost 160 years after his death, Poe’s trademark horror stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” continue to induce nightmares among readers.
One story, in particular, according to Molly Schwartzburg, curator of British and American literature at the Harry Ransom Center, is his dark tale “The Black Cat.”
Narrated by a madman who repeatedly claims he’s sane, the story allows readers to creep inside the twisted mind of a maniacal murderer.
“Black cats represent, for the narrator, all the things he doesn’t want to admit about himself,” Schwartzburg says. “The cats become a focal point in which he locates all his own base urges. He can’t handle being faced with the truth, so he destroys the first cat. The second black cat, which is half real, half hallucination, is a beautiful example of the uncanny–the line between the real and the unreal, a point at which the narrator must finally come to terms with the edges of his reality.”
Also unsettling, she says, is the feeling readers get when they feel what it’s like to perform horrific acts. That moment of understanding induces an unshakable sense of uneasiness.
“This horrible, murderous, deranged, maniacal man tells you quite calmly the story of the evils he has committed.” Schwartzburg says. “This is where Poe’s genius comes through: his ability to lull the reader into empathizing with the narrator early on, only to realize quickly that she does not want to associate herself with this character at all. I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying than being faced by your own capacity for evil.”
What’s most disturbing, Schwartzburg says, is Poe’s ability to transport readers to the darker areas of the human psyche, and to the region that lies between the realms of reality and the supernatural.
“He’s such a brilliant storyteller that the reader becomes immersed in his tale. It feels very, very real,” Schwartzburg says. “That’s what ghost stories for Halloween are all about–putting yourself in a dark room lit by a flashlight or candles that make the ‘real’ world recede and this terrifying world come forward.”
The Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition “From Out that Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe,” which runs through Jan. 3, takes a closer look at Poe’s life and the influence of many of his works. It coincides with his 200th birthday this fall. It boasts special selections devoted to the author’s psyche and mysterious death as well as a host of artifacts that have rarely been on public display.
To say fanged bloodsuckers and flesh-eating werewolves have become cultural phenomena is an understatement. Over the past few years, these attractive modern-day monsters have continued to inspire romance, drama and adventure. But despite the rising popularity of the ubiquitous vampire love sagas, Tom Garza’s favorite vampire tales inspire fear, dread and anxiety.
To get in the Halloween spirit, Garza, distinguished associate professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies, reads A.K. Tolstoy’s “The Family of the Vurdalak.” Unlike the vampires of the HBO series “True Blood,” who drink bottled synthetic blood and coexist with the land of the living, the predators in this dark Slavic tale take their sustenance in gruesome ways and victimize the vulnerable by trapping them in remote villages.
“It takes everything from the old days when vampires and werewolves were similar creatures and they lived together in villages,” says Garza, who is also the director of the Texas Language Center. “The idea was that when each individual was infected, it would spread until the entire community would become infected. So the story is a really creepy one about a traveler who stumbles upon this village that’s full of blood drinkers and flesh eaters.”
The vulnerable feeling of being trapped in the midst of monstrous predators, Garza says, is truly frightening.
“Some of the most unbearable scenarios in horror are when you are stuck and to know that your circumstance is now dictated to you by the fact that you can’t get away,” Garza says. “The feeling of being walled in by darkness in a closed community with no one to turn to for help is deeply disturbing.”
After visiting the Transylvanian ruins of Castle Dracula in 1989 as a Foreign Service language supervisor, Garza was intrigued by the history of Vlad Tepes, on whom the Dracula story is based. After that, he created the semiannual course “Vampire in Slavic Cultures.” During the week of Halloween, he treats his students, faculty and staff to a special event “An Afternoon of Slavic Vampires,” where they dress in costume and read excerpts from their favorite Slavic vampire tales.
When we think of dark and spooky tales for Halloween, the name Shakespeare isn’t always the first thing to come to mind. However, according to Douglas Bruster, professor of English, ghosts and the supernatural are a big part of the Bard’s works.
Bruster’s selection for Halloween reading is William Shakespeare’s ghostly themed tragedy, “Hamlet.”
Considered by many literary scholars to be the greatest play ever written, “Hamlet” delivers a bevy of spooky elements: darkness, the beckoning ghost of the slain king, and an obsessed prince driven to the brink of madness to avenge his ghostly father’s death.
“‘Hamlet’” is filled with unsettling elements such as death, family tragedy and mental anguish.” Bruster says. “These are some of the most distressing things that could happen to a human being. Hamlet’s existential perspective on life can also evoke a sense of uneasiness.”
Conjuring deeper questions about the past and the consequences it has on the future, the play has left readers and playgoers feeling uneasy for centuries, Bruster notes.
“Ghosts are like literature itself, you can read so much into them,” Bruster says. “They are a kind of dream screen for us to project our fears and fantasies upon. The obvious thing to say about ghosts is they represent a time before us, and they make solid the claim the past has upon us. They remind us where we came from, and that we are not always free of the past.”
Stories of terrifying monsters, ghastly murders and talking corpses are sure to induce goose bumps. But to Josh Gunn, assistant professor of communication studies, the most unnerving stories are the ones that allow readers to fill in the blanks with their own personal fears.
Two of Gunn’s favorite tales of mystery and imagination are Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”
Arguably the most ambiguous and disturbing ghost stories ever written, both gothic novels leave readers to decide whether the characters are taunted by supernatural forces or if their minds are rapidly slipping into delirium.
“These books leave readers wondering: is it the independent material manifestation of a spirit or something else from another dimension?” Gunn says. “Or is the haunting all in the head of the person who’s being haunted? By the end you’re not really sure, which I think is a much more horrifying way to approach a ghost story than to actually assert the fact of the material existence of a ghost.”
Both books, incorporated in Gunn’s graduate student seminar course “Idiom of Haunting,” illustrate the American ideology of women characters in gothic fiction.
“A lot of these American ghost stories are wrapped around the idiom of women left to themselves,” Gunn says. “Of course, the ideological undercurrent in that is that a man is needed to keep them sane.”
Students enrolled in the course recently visited Austin’s Driskill Hotel, which some say just may be haunted. They toured the dark corners of its elegant rooms and listened to stories of the resident haunts. In hopes of making contact with the hotel’s most infamous ghost, known as the “Houston Bride,” the group conducted a midnight séance. The disembodied apparition, who allegedly shot herself after being jilted by her lover, is reputed to roam the halls carrying bags and packages.
“The field trip is a fun way for the class to bond through a common experience and to talk about at the first day of class,” Gunn says. “The idiom haunting does not completely rely on language of representation, but also on body and affect, how our bodies feel during these situations. That haunted feeling is always a big part of what we talk about in class and while we’re reading the literature.”