James Machin on Weird Fiction

Weird fiction is a slippery term for a slippery category of writing. It is most closely associated with H. P. Lovecraft, and Weird Tales magazine during its 1920s/30s heyday. The delirious mixture of Gothic horror, science fiction, and fantasy to be found within the cheaply-manufactured pages of Weird Tales gave the term traction as a catch-all for writing that belonged to any of those genres, slipped between them, or bodged them together into strange new combinations. This version of weird fiction—as a marker for genre hybridity or impurity—was the one subsequently redeployed at the turn of the millennium as ‘New Weird’ and applied to the restless genre-bending experimentalism of writers like M. John Harrison and China Miéville.

With his ‘old weird’, Lovecraft certainly paved the way for this ‘New Weird’: as a convinced atheist, he had no time for ghosts, werewolves, and vampires; spooks which, regardless of the thrills provided along the way, ultimately only confirm a reassuring Judeo-Christian worldview of the ultimate conquest of evil by divine beneficence. In his most celebrated stories, Lovecraft dispensed with the supernatural altogether and replaced it with science-fictional antagonists: alien lifeforms that are utterly incomprehensible and as indifferent to the futile narcissism of the human species as the cold vacuum of the sidereal space.

However, this understanding of weird fiction does not really reflect Lovecraft’s own application of the term. In his canon-forming 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft clearly conceives of the weird as a mode, rather than a genre. It is a register of writing that engages primarily with the horrific, but rather than a horror inspired by gore or violence (revulsion), it is a horror precipitated by existential crisis; it manifests itself in an “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” and the revelation of “outer, unknown forces” pressing at the threshold of the quotidian. The Welsh writer Arthur Machen, a key influence on Lovecraft, complained that in his own work he “translated awe, or awfulness, into evil”, but this belies the potency of his writing’s weird ambiguity: weird fiction, as Miéville has argued, can be seen as just such a “radicalized sublime backwash”. According to this version of weird fiction, it primarily concerns itself with destabilizing revelations of the adumbral numinous.

Regardless of its specific meaning (if it has one) and various applications, why does the term weird fiction continue to have such traction? Well, for one thing, it is useful. Continue reading

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Public Lecture: 5 February 2019, Anne White on Polish Migration

Professor Anne White from University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) will be visiting City Campus on Tuesday 5th February 2019, 6 p.m.-8 p.m.  MK045 to deliver a public lecture, ‘The impact of migration on Poland: EU Mobilitiy and Social Change’. The lecture is free, no tickets are required, and all are welcome.

Conventional wisdom and scholarship on migration tend to see the impact of migration on sending countries in terms of loss. Contemporary scholars focus more helpfully on how migration creates ties between specific countries. Because the impact of migration on sending countries is usually studied in connection with development policy, researchers devote most of their attention rather narrowly to the collective impact of so-called diasporas. A more comprehensive and non-normative analysis may take as its starting point existing social trends in countries of origin, and explore how they may be reinforced or counteracted by migration-related influences. It’s usually assumed that migration impact – in the sense of improved housing and standards of living – happens mostly in the lives of rural and small-town labour migrants and their families. Social change in the sense of changing habits, attitudes and lifestyles happens most visibly among educated people in big cities. However, it would be false to assume that these are two separate processes. Migration blends with other globalisation and Europeanisation influences to shape the lives of individuals in Warsaw and Wrocław, just as in Polish small towns and villages.

About the Speaker: Professor Anne White researches social change in Poland; and Polish migration. Her most recent book, co-authored with I. Grabowska, P. Kaczmarczyk and K. Slany, is The Impact of Migration on Poland: EU Mobility and Social Change (UCL Press, 2018: free pdf) and she has published monographs on, among other topics, declining regime control over citizens’ leisure time in Poland, Hungary and the USSR (1953-87); social movements under Gorbachev; and small-town Russia in the 1990s (with particular focus on livelihood strategies and identities. She also runs the Polish Migration Website.

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Professor Sebastian Groes on Information Overload, the Brain and Evolution (Part II)

Part I: Can your head ever be full?

Part II: Can we retrain our brains too?

In the digital age our brains process an incredible amount of information. This causes concern. We suffer from fatigue and sleeplessness, and from new diseases such as infostress and data addiction. We’re all becoming information rich and knowledge poor. But, though information overload can be dangerous, it might also trigger new steps in our evolution.

Multitasking, a hip skill in the 1980s, has been derided recently, for instance by Theo Compernolle’s BrainChains (2015). We are told that we work much more efficiently if we focus on one task at a time. A related concept is ‘chunking’. This is the ability to hold a multiplicity of sets of abstract data in one’s memory and retrieve it as meaningful information. The average person is able to hold 7 pieces of information in their mind.  This is probably because the brain itself is a multitasker. Neurons participate in more than one set of activity, so that the brain processes work in parallel to one another. In Bruce Hood’s words: ‘Our brains really do multitask using the same hardware.’  But this hardware is not limitless, and can get tired, as we saw in the first part of this blog.

Can we train the brain to work on more than 7 pieces of information? Can we teach the brain to work faster? Can we make our brain adapt to more and more demanding situations?

Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2014) has something to say about these questions. The novel chronicles the transformation of the twenty-something Mae Holland after she is employed by a Google-like internet company, the Circle. The Circle creates a closed system of communications in which everything is known, from the weather condition to the location of children. This is supposed to re-order the world democratically, though it also sees the demise of privacy and individualism.

Holland learns to chunk when she is handling various sets of information on several computer screens. She pushes the limits of her brain, which brain adapts, bringing her performance to superhuman levels.

Eggers’ dystopia presents this as harmful development. As working on more than one stream of information is extremely demanding on the mind, this inhibits Holland’s long-term memory. Soon she forgets her family, friends and the world beyond the Circle. Holland transforms from a modest young woman who cares about her struggling family into a cold, overambitious corporate monster who rejects love and family. She becomes hyper-rational, but sacrifices her humanity. Continue reading

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Research Seminar, 5 December 2018: Jessica George on H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Fiction

Jessica George (Independent scholar) will be presenting her paper, ‘”[T]hey were men!”: H.  P. Lovecraft, Anthropocentrism, and the Alien’, at 5.00 p.m. on Wednesday, 5 December 2018, followed by an expert response from James Machin (Royal College of Art). The event will take place in the University of Wolverhampton’s George Wallis Building, MK 204.

Recent criticism on weird fiction has emphasised the ways in which the weird decentres the human and reveals the inadequacy of human methods of understanding. The weird may not be able to present an entirely inhuman worldview, but it undercuts anthropocentrism, approaching what Eugene Thacker calls the ‘world-without-us’, the vision of a world defined by the absence of humanity. Such approaches yield productive readings, but have often tended to elide the extent to which weird fiction engages obsessively with the nature and status of humanity itself, confronting and reinscribing both the species anxiety that emerged in the wake of the widespread acceptance of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century, and attitudes to race and species deeply imbued with Euro-American imperialism. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), the best-known exponent of weird fiction,  deals at length with anxieties around human origins and the potential future of the human species, and this talk will use this text to explore how the weird tale can simultaneously undermine anthropocentrism and retrench hierarchical conceptions of human superiority.

About the Speakers
Jessica George received her PhD from Cardiff University and is now a writer and academic, specialising in Weird fiction, literature and science in the long 19th century, Gothic authorship and fandom, and Welsh writing in English.


Jame Machin received his PhD from Birkbeck, University of London, and is now Visiting Lecturer at the Royal College of Art. He is the author of Weird Fiction in Britain 1880-1939 (Palgrave 2018), the first study of the emergence of  ‘weird fiction’ from Victorian supernatural literature, and is editor of the forthcoming anthology, Faunus: The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen (MIT Press 2019).



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Olfactory Fictions: Smell, Culture and Literature in Modernity

The University of Wolverhampton’s Centre for Transnational and Transcultural Research and The Memory Network present a public talk by Professor Sebastian Groes from the School of Humanities, 14 November 2018, 5.30-6.30 pm, Wolverhampton Art Museum. All are welcome. To book a place for this free event, click here.

The human nose sticks out through a hole in paper isolated

“We live in a sanitised culture whereby the drive for hygiene – including the masking of smells and the artificial scenting of spaces and bodies – results in a loss of smell awareness.

“This is worrying: our relationship to ourselves, other people and the world depends on our sense of smell. Recent science has shown that there is a strong relationship between olfaction and depression.

“Writer Italo Calvino warned against the loss of smell: ‘the noseless man of the future’ will lose emotions and have a reduced ability to make sense of life altogether. Olfactory Fictions offers literature as a critical perspective on the ways in which our changing sense of smell impacts on human experience and behaviour.”


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Professor Sebastian Groes on Information Overload, the Brain and Evolution

Part I: Can your head ever be full?

In the digital age our brains process an incredible amount of information. This causes concern. We suffer from fatigue and sleeplessness, and from new diseases such as infostress and data addiction. We’re all becoming information rich and knowledge poor. But, though information overload can be dangerous, it might also trigger new steps in our evolution.

Teju Cole’s Open City (2012): ‘He motioned to his head. In fact, I’m full.’

In the digital age we contend with an incredible amount of information. Many of us, especially in the wealthy west, engage in many forms of communication: we get up and go to sleep reading and writing emails, and we’re never not plugged into social media. The nature of labour has also shifted from physical activity to brainy stuff. People worry about cognitive overstimulation. We suffer from fatigue and sleeplessness, and from new diseases such as infostress and data addiction. We’re distracted and unable to make rational decisions, fear social exclusion and identity loss. Our memory is detrimentally affected because our brain no longer has the time to properly soak up information. As quantity on triumphs over quality, we are all becoming increasingly information rich and knowledge poor.

In his book Future Shock (1970), Alvin Toffler argues that our rationality and our ability to make decisions are undermined by overload: ‘When the individual is plunged into a fast and irregularly changing situation, or a novelty-loaded context, however, his predictive accuracy plummets. He can no longer make the reasonably correct assessments on which rational behaviour is dependent.’

Information overload is nothing new. Ann Blair’s study of 16th- and 17th-century scholarship, Too Much To Know (2011) and Katherine E. Ellison’s work on the 18th-century society suggest that ‘[e]very age has been an information age’. In The Victorian Internet (1998), Tom Standage shows that in the nineteenth century the telegraph and the stock ticker drove people insane. In Little Dorrit (1855-57), Dickens made fun of the growing bureaucracy of England’s imperial project with the Circumlocution Office.

The problem is that our brains are basically still the same as those of Stone Age people living 10, 000 years ago. There is a huge mismatch between the tasks that we want to do, and the brain’s limited capacity.

Continue reading

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Research Seminar: Extremities and Obsessions in Nineteenth-Century Literature, 24 Sept. 2018

We welcome ERASMUS exchange staff, Professor Ludmilla Kostova and Dr Yarmila Daskalova, University of Sts Cyril and Methodius, Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria, to Wolverhampton, and invite all to a research seminar on ‘Extremities and Obsessions in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Monday, 24 September 2018, 14.00 – 16.00, Arena Theatre Seminar Room.

Dr Daskalova will contribute a paper on Haunting Romanticisms: Day-Dreaming and Obsessive Imagery in the Works of Edgar Allen Poe and Peyo Yavorov, followed by Professor Kostova’s “A dainty morsel for the executioner”: Terrorism and Femininity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Popular Fiction.

All are welcome.

About the Speakers:

Ludmilla K. Kostova is Professor of British literature and cultural studies at St. Cyril and St. Methodius University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria. She has published on eighteenth-century, romantic and modern British literature and as well as on travel writing and representations of intercultural encounters. Her books include Tales of the Periphery: the Balkans in Nineteenth-Century British Writing (St. Cyril and St. Methodius University Press, 1997) and Travel Writing and Ethics. Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2013).

Yarmilla Daskalova is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Sts Cyril and Methodius, Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria. Her research areas include British, Irish, and American Studies; romanticism and post-romanticism; and comparative literature. Her publications include studies of Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and W. B. Yeats, often alongside Bulgarian novelists and poets, such as Emil Andreev, Svetlozar Igov, Marina Tsvetaeva, and P. K. Yavarov.

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Faculty of Arts Staff Research Conference, 2 July 2018

CTTR staff will be presenting their latest research at the Faculty of Arts Staff Research Conference on Monday, 2 July 2018, from 11-1pm (Room MC331), all staff and students welcome. Speakers include:

Dr Frank Wilson, ‘That Memorable Scene’: Visual and Literary Iconography of King Charles the First in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Literature’

Dr Nicola Allen, ‘Incendiary Politics: Writing the Suffragettes’

Dr Stephen Gregg, ‘Nasty Religion’

Dr Irina Moore, ‘Vilnius Memoryscape: “Razing” and Raising of Monuments, Collective Memory and National Identity’

Prof Sebastian Groes, ‘Memory in the Twenty-First Century’

Dr Benjamin Colbert, ‘British Women’s Travel Writing Database: an Exploration’

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Research Seminar: 24 April – Dr Annika Bautz on Walter Scott, Celebrity, and Stage Adaptation

Dr Annika Bautz, Plymouth University, will be speaking on ‘The “universal favourite”: Daniel Terry’s Guy Mannering; or, The Gipsey’s Prophecy (1816)’, Tuesday, 24 April 2018 14.00 – 15.30, Room MC232. All are welcome.

This paper explores the contemporary reception of the first adaptation of a Walter Scott novel for the stage, Daniel Terry’s Guy Mannering, or, The Gipsey’s Prophecy (1816). Many more people, from a much wider socio-economic background, would have seen Terry’s version between 1816 and 1724 than would have had access to the novel. Reviews of the play indicate that its popularity was enhanced by Scott’s extraordinary fame and status, and indeed, was judged by its closeness to the novel. Terry’s play paved the way for a rush of stage adaptations of Scott novels, and presents one of the many spin-offs that Scott’s works inspired and enabled. The play, in turn, contributed to shaping the reception of the more popular novelist of the early nineteenth century.

About the speaker:
Dr Annika Bautz is Head of the School of Humanities and Performing Arts at Plymouth University, where she specializes in Romantic and Victorian fiction, book history, and reception studies. Her books include Libraries, Books, and Collectors of Texts, 1600-1900 (2017) and The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott (2007).  She is currently working on adaptations and after-lives of Walter Scott’s works.

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Public Lecture: 17 April, Kate Lister on the History of C**t

‌‌Dr Kate Lister from Leeds Trinity University will be visiting City Campus on Tuesday 17th April 2018, 6 p.m.-7.30, MK045 to deliver a public lecture, ‘A Nasty Name for a Nasty Thing’: A History of C**t’. The lecture is free, no tickets are required, and all are welcome.

Walter Kirn called c**t ‘the A-bomb of the English language’, and he’s absolutely right (Kirn, 2005). In 2016, Ofcom (the regulator for UK communications) ranked swear words in order of offensive, and the C-Bomb came out on top. The British Board of Film Classification’s guidelines state that the word c**t can only be used frequently in films that are rated 18+. Feminists have long maintained an uneasy relationship with the word, unsure if it is empowering or demeaning.  But, how did we end up here? How did a word that signifies the vulva end up being ranked as one of the most offensive words in the English language? Join Kate Lister in an exploration of c**t and find out just how it ended up on the linguistic naughty step.

About the Speaker: Dr Kate Lister researches the history of sexuality and sex work. She owns and curates the online research project, Whores of Yore. She is a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, a columnist for The Independent and on the board of the international sex work research hub.




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