We live in a time of remixes. Arguably, we live in a time that is itself a remix. Culture, history and politics all seem to repeat themselves, changed only slightly from one iteration to the next, with increasing rapidity. Whether it’s blockbuster movie sagas or wars in the Middle East, everything seems unpleasantly familiar.
Nor is horror excluded from this process of remixing. The genre has always been heavily indebted to remakes and sequels which often recycle the established formula more than they add to it. Even works which try to add something new still rely heavily on the old; the Scream series of films, for example, made the ironic sampling of known genre motifs, even of previous films in the series. Part of its raison d’etre and movements like the current interest in folk horror act to remix elements from a past which is itself a remix of an earlier past.
Increasingly, as theories such as hauntology would have us believe, the way in which we live culturally is more accurately a form of undeath; parts of older, long-dead movements and artefacts are resurrected into strange amalgamations of mismatched components.
Timely then that Megen de Bruin-Molé should release Gothic Remixed and investigate the nature, and implications, of what she refers to as “Frankenfictions”.
The phrase Frankenfiction immediately, and intentionally, not only summons up Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but also all of the unnaturally hybridised concepts such as Frankenfoods, Frankenscience and Frankenpets that are held up as examples of when human interference in the natural order of things has gone too far. It implies something unnatural, improper and de Bruin-Molé offers what she calls a “broad” definition of Frankenfiction as “a hybrid genre at the intersection of adaptation and remix, which both disciplines consider to be peripheral and ‘monstrous’”. More specifically, for the purposes of her argument, de Bruin-Molé focuses on the insertion of “fantastical monsters into classic literature and popular historical contexts”. This consists of an examination of texts from varied media such as the literary mash-up of Jane Austen and George Romero that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s monstrous “menagerie” and the more overtly gothic investigation of monstrosity in a world full of monsters that is provided by Penny Dreadful. Other texts, and a number of works from artists who either modify or appropriate gothic and (neo)Victorian visual media into new forms, are also touched on throughout the book.
Initially, this feels a bit like an excited fan explaining the intricacies of their favourite books and TV shows, but quickly something much more interesting emerges as de Bruin-Molé develops her argument. The intersectional nature of Frankenfictions – their liminal quality of being neither fully one thing nor the other – allows them to be used to analyse both how the original author(s) developed their own works but also the ways in which those works are (re)constructed by future Frankensteins. Equally, it allows us to analyse how we regard those works in comparison to their peers and to their progenitors.
As de Bruin-Molé steps through the concepts of remix, adaptation and appropriation a work like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, moves from what could be considered a cynical cash-in of out-of-copyright material not far removed from outright plagiarism to something which “offered a surprisingly nuanced exploration of the border between monster and monster hunter, hinted at the continuities between Jane Austen’s culture and our own, and successfully combined a literary classic with lowbrow pulp horror”. Is the book a satire of mindless nostalgia – a comment on the zombie-like horde of adaptations that authors like Austen accrue – or is it a camp parody that, by revelling in extremes, re-evaluates and re-habilitates the source material? Can it be both simultaneously? Can it be even more?
From here de Bruin-Molé moves from the tensions between insincere irony and sincere camp to a discussion of what it is to be authentic and, indeed, what it is to be an author. With its pastiche of Boy’s Own stylistic elements and phrasing, not to say its wholesale theft of characters from across fiction, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is easily considered an inauthentic work; it brazenly masquerades as something it is not. Yet the story it tells, through the use of that very inauthenticity, is itself authentic and apparently heartfelt. By creating an inauthentic, synthetic Frankenfiction, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill are able to offer “a compelling narrative of how a group with few commonalities and conflicting interests can be mobilised to combat the seemingly overwhelming forces of imperialism and colonialism”.
Authenticity is also tied up with the idea of the author, a Romantic concept which was “at its height when Shelley published Frankenstein”. Then-new concepts such as copyright also supported the idea of the singular author and the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, de Bruin-Molé reveals, argued for authors to have “perpetual copyright” over their work. Even the post-modern “death of the author”, as proposed by Roland Barthes, implies not that the author is inconsequential but that it is a death worth mourning. Ironically, the death of the author effectively removes the possibility of new authors, a move which maintains the status quo and leaves cultural capital “simply dominated by the same, largely homogenous collectives of people”. These collectives are, inevitably, “white, middle class and male”. Frankenfictions, on the other hand, do not erase the original author – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is explicitly credited to both Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith – but allow that authorship to be critiqued and revised without ever destroying the original work.
I found Gothic Remixed hugely thought-provoking and enlightening, with de Bruin-Molé’s obvious enthusiasm for both the works cited as case studies and the concepts she talks about shining through. Her writing is cogent and engaging and maintains a sense of authority whilst admitting, when needed, that certain areas of her theory are yet to be developed. The book is very much an academic text, however, and there is some reiteration of ideas and intentions which, while necessary to form a persistent argument, may be considered repetitive by non-academic readers. More prosaically, the book’s eye-watering cost might have allowed for such a niche work to be published – and, in hardback with a suitably gothic mashed-up design of spooks and spectres from cover artist Eleanor Rose, it has been published beautifully – but it puts ownership beyond the pockets of many general readers. This is a great shame.
However, these are caveats, not even criticisms, on the form of the work and not the content. Gothic Remixed comes highly recommended not just for those interested specifically in the world of Frankenfiction but anyone who wants to look at authenticity, author privilege and how the present deals (or fails to deal) with the injustices of the past. For horror students specifically, the use of the gothic as a self-aware mode is highly interesting and there is much here on using juxtaposition and comparison to develop a sense of alienation – the eerie process through which the familiar is made strange – that is very useful. Additionally, I find it hugely welcome that de Bruin-Molé’s uses works which could initially be seen as populist and derivative to reveal an area of robust academic study.
With Gothic Remixed de Bruin-Molé has clearly outlined how, as she states in her conclusion, the Frankenfictions she dissects “force us to reckon with our past judgements, actions, and creations, making us responsible for what happens next and calling us to choose how we will respond. Like [Victor Frankenstein’s Creature], Frankenfictions carelessly destroy the things we hold dear, daring us to reply. Like the creature, they illuminate new opportunities and ways of looking at the world, echoing through history and fiction long after it has ceased to speak”.
Gothic Remixed by Megen de Bruin-Molé is published by Bloomsbury Academic. Buy the book.