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Gothic Literature Represents An Engagement English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1830 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The literature of the gothic has been around for hundreds of years and has always been popular, with the ‘Shilling Shockers’ and the ‘Penny Dreadful’. Gothic literature has always been around however recently there has been a sudden new interest in them and they have shot to the top of the best seller list again. Elements of the gothic novel have been appearing in popular culture and a new genre of “teen vampires” has emerged as a result. However, ‘Gothic has never been solely a literary phenomenon.’ (Spooner, p. 195) Writes Catherine Spooner;

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The notion that “‘Gothic” has always been more that literature is an interesting one. It shows just how important it is as a genre. Having an impact of popular culture affirms your position and this is exactly what has happened to Gothic literature. The advantage of this constant reference in popular culture is the amount of inter-textual references that are available. These classic gothic texts are constantly being bought up in popular culture allowing a fresh generation of readers to discover them.

One of the post popular pieces of gothic literature is Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The plot is simple, yet is reproduced over and over again for new audiences and in new formats. This gothic novel is a good example of how a text can engage in both popular culture and ‘literary writing’. The plot has seamlessly been adapted for both stage and screen, and the novel itself is, in a sense, an adaptation of a collection of episodic tales from a monthly publication. Sweeney Todd started life as a serial publication without a name in Edward Lloyd’s The People’s Periodical and Family Library. After it’s success it was adapted, to the version that we recognise today and was known as The String of Pearls: A Romance. The constant re-inventing of the story hints at just how successful it was when originally published, the desire to reinvent the plot line over and over shows just how popular it was. Edward Lloyd’s papers eventually went to establish itself ‘as the informal centre of the ‘penny blood’ publishing industry’. (Mack, p. ix). The creation of the ‘penny blood’ demonstrates the popular culture at the time. There was a thirst for this style of gothic writing and good editors, such as Lloyd recognised this demand and were able to offer such products. Publications such as ‘penny blood’, ‘Shilling Shocker’ and ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ were created as a result of the general publics demand for gothic literature. Texts like Sweeney Todd changed the way publishing happened.

Advances in technology also meant that texts, such as Sweeney Todd were able to be distributed quicker. In the introduction to Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Robert Mack writes;

Long-term technological progress (including the arrival of the new steam-powered printing press, the abolition of the stamp tax on newspapers, and the development of cheaper forms of paper made from Spanish esparto grass) had all worked in the publisher’s favour. Lloyd’s earliest productions were printed in the form of monthly ‘chapbooks’ or smaller pamphlets of anywhere from twenty-four to thirty-six pages. They typically sold for sixpence each.

(Mack, p. ix)

The advances in technology could only have been made possible by demand from the consumer market. The publics thirst for tales such as Sweeney Todd demonstrates what an impact literature can have on popular culture. The novel itself is one that is constantly being reprinted and analysed by scholars. The name Sweeney Todd is one that is instantly recognisable and is known to many, most of which have never read the novel.

The name Sweeney Todd has had such an impact on popular culture it is now listed in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slag with the definition;

Sweeney noun Also Sweeny. Brit (A member of) a police flying squad. 1936-. N. LUCAS By the way, don’t bother to call the Sweeny (1967). [Short for Sweeney Todd, rhyming slang for ‘flying squad’; from the name of a London barber who murdered his customers, the central character of a play by George Dibdin Pitt (1799-1855).]

(Ayto & Simpson, 2005)

The plot has also had numerous rewritings for both stage and screen, most famously the 2007 Tim Burton production, Sweeney Todd: The Demon barber of Fleet Street. This latest reincarnation featured both the story line from the original text along with songs from a previous musical adaptation. The amalgamation of the two again proved how literature of the gothic can show a fusion of popular culture and literary. The film was realised at a point where the musical was becoming in vogue again, thus allowing a greater audience to experience the plot line. ‘Since he first entered the public scene in the mid-nineteenth century,’ writes Mack, ‘his exploits have chilled and fascinated readers and audiences all the world over. Whether in print, on the stage, or in films, the name of Sweeney Todd has become so ubiquitous that it has entered the English dictionary.’ (Mack, p. vii). The important point Mack is making is that whatever medium is available, the story of Sweeney Todd has been able to be adapted to fit in with popular culture at the time.

One big question which hangs over Sweeney Todd however is the identity of the title character. For some time there has been question over whether this character actually existed or was in fact just fictitious. Peter Haining claims that ‘Sweeney Todd had existed and that his life and crimes were more intriguing, more curious, and, if anything, more gruesome than had previously been suspected.’ (Haining, p. 4). Part of this is due to the writing style of the text. The unidentified author has written the text in such a way that it is convincing. In 1892 the story was republished under the name Sweeney Todd the Barber of Fleet Street. A Thrilling Story of Old City of London. Founded on Facts. (Mack, p. xxxiii) The title suggests that many people still believed that the character of Sweeney Todd was based on fact and that he did actually exist, with the murders taking place in Fleet Street, London. Whilst this is a twist that you would like to accommodate, the question as to why there was not more of an investigation at the time hangs heavily above. The lack of an author has forced Sweeney Todd to become some what of an urban legend. The first description of Sweeney Todd is so precise it is easy to mistake it for a police description;

The barber himself was a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth, and such hung hands and feet, that he was, in his way quite a natural curiosity; and, what was more wonderful considering his trade, there never was seen such a head of hair as Sweeney Todd’s.

(Mack, p. 4)

It is useful to remember that at this period in time, newspapers were starting latch on to the idea of ‘crime journalism’, reporting crimes. The Illustrated Police News featured reports and illustrations on murders and crimes within London; it was first published in 1864, some time after the initial release of Sweeney Todd however highlights the general publics hunger for these types of stories. As a result of this it could be argued that Sweeney Todd is partly responsible for the rise of the sensational press – the constant hunt for criminals, the publishing of murders, and hopefully the catching of many criminals.

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The reinvention of the character and constant re-telling of the tale clearly shows just how important Sweeney Todd is as a gothic novel. The text is a good example of how a genre can encourage literary writings to move forward. As a result of this Sweeney Todd has constantly found itself in popular culture. Sweeney Todd isn’t the only gothic text to feature heavily in popular culture. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula to this day still features heavily in popular culture. It has been classed as several different genres, from horror fiction to vampire tales; however its roots lie firmly in the gothic genre.

In recent years the market has been flooded with new vampire stories, from The Twilight Saga (2005) to Blue Moon (1998). Our televisions have also been swamped with hit shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003). Even the silver screen has been filled with adaptations of this new take on vampire literature. Whilst Vampires have been involved in literature since the early eighteenth century, the genre really took off in the late nineteenth century with Carmilla (1872) and eventually Dracula. Similarly to Sweeny Todd, Dracula has been adapted numerous times over the years. From stage productions, to films, television shows and even comic books. The most common adaptation of Dracula is film, with the website ‘Dracula Info’ suggesting twenty seven films in which Dracula appears. (Dracula Movies By Year). The popularity of the character of Dracula in popular culture is something that is much written about. The most well know is Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). The German vampire horror film is based on Stoker’s novel however due to copyright issues, character names were changed as Murnau did not hold the rights. The successful film adaptation is an example of gothic literatures engagement with popular culture whist at the same time introducing literature to this new and exciting medium, film. Murnau’s adaptation is an example of the gothic genre moving literary writing on and not allowing it to remain static, the ever evolving form is what has kept literature at the forefront.

Ken Gelder claims that ‘film is an animating medium, bringing images to life in an otherwise darkened room, in a simulation of the night – a feature to which horror films in particular often speak directly’. (Gelder, p. 87) Murnau does just that, he is able to bring images to life. Although the lead character is know as Count Orlok (Murnau), rather than ‘Count Dracula’ (Stoker) those that have read Dracula are able to see that this is him. Murnau brings the character off the page and into the latest form of popular culture, the cinema.

When reading Dracula it is important to take into account the cultural changed that are happening at the time. Stephen D. Arata claims that;

In the case of Dracula, the context includes the decline of Britain as a world power at the close of the nineteenth century; or rather, the way the perception of that decline was articulated by contemporary writers.

(Arata, p. 120)

The themes and


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