EN420: Gothic Tradition

Last night, after work, I drove over to Berlin, to Wonder Cards and Comics, where I was able to indulge in a bit of a pastime that I haven’t kept up on: comic books. In particular, I picked up a trio of Hellboy one-shots: In the Chapel of Moloch, The Bride of Hell and Hellboy In Mexico. Hellboy’s been a longtime favorite of mine. It’s not a book that I read obsessively, but when I begin thinking that I need to get back into comics, it’s the one series that I make sure to catch up on. It doesn’t help that I met Mike Mingola a couple of weeks ago at Boston Comic Con.

Reading through the comics that I picked up yesterday, I was reminded of one of the college courses that I consider one of my best, more formative and interesting while in college: EN 420, Gothic Tradition. Taught my F. Brett Cox, Gothic Tradition was a class that I never intended to take, but proved to be one of the few courses that I draw upon, years after I’ve taken it. The course’s content, looking at the literary history and themes behind one of the earlier roots of the modern speculative fiction genre, provided a heavy basis for my understanding of what I’ve come to read an enjoy.

The course was a surprise to me, because while in college, I had desperately hoped to get into a similar class on Science Fiction literature, which had filled up. A friend of mine had taken the last slot (and ultimately dropped the course a week in), and when the next semester came up, Dr. Cox began to teach Gothic Tradition, the next class in his rotation. While I’m still somewhat annoyed that I never got into the course, I’m ultimately very thankful to have taken it. Over the course of the seminar, it rapidly became my favorite, looking at a wide range of works, from John Keat’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but also up to more modern works of horror, such as the works of H.P. Lovecraft and William Falkner, up to Stephen King. It’s a class that I wish that at times, I wish that I could take again, or more similar classes in literature theory.

Mainly, the course helped to instill an appreciation for not only the story, but the history and events that lead to different stories, and in a very real sense, helped to define my interests in the science fiction genre and history together, something that I frequently read and write about. Taken in that context, I largely see Gothic literature as a precursor to the modern day science fiction and fantasy genres, with supernatural or speculative elements ingrained into a story, helping to form a larger basis for fiction in general, and sparking the imagination. To quote one of the branding exercises of the then SciFi channel, Imagination Lives. This is one of the fundamental points of entertainment, where imagination spurs on entertainment, and as such, makes the speculative fiction genre one of the strongest in terms of literary value, variety and following.

Picking up my Hellboy comics yesterday afternoon, I was struck once again at the elegance and mix of genres within the comic. Of the three, my favorite was In the Chapel of Moloch, which sees the titular character, Hellboy, in Southern Portugal, helping a man who has lost track of a partner in an abandoned Church, now inhabited by a demon, who takes control of the artist inside, helping to inspire him, but sapping his life away. The comic is a rich blend of pulp, gothic and horror literature, complete with some fantastic artwork, and a story that draws upon a number of different sources. As such, Hellboy is a pointed reminder, (as well as several other recent things, such as Anias Mitchell’s Hadestown and Josh Ritter’s So Runs The World Away) at the influences of works written three hundred years ago. It goes to show that there is still a fascination with the unknown, the macabre, decay and fragility of mankind in all that we create.

The history and background of the genres is something that is extremely interesting, and the study of it, and the underlying literary theory helps to provide a good look at the present day, showing how the modern works of science fiction and fantasy have been influenced and formed. As I’ve learned, art is formed in the context of its surroundings, and in this instance, literature is no different, with the past shaping the present environment. In addition to a better understanding of what we read, watch and consume, it’s also a good way to read some truely outstanding, fantastic and interesting stories.

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