Review of Franz J. Potter’s Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers 1797-1830

Franz J. Potter’s Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers, 1797—1830 is both an immense utility for students of gothic literature and a meta-analysis into the shaping of gothic studies more broadly. Potter’s book also serves to re-center the presence of class within the gothic studies context. 

The text also functions as something of a Ghost of Christmas Future for media studies writ large. There are reasons we hardly recall the shape of chapbooks and similar reasons are why future students of the gothic may just write these same words about the media we enjoy today. 

Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers is a storehouse of information on this forgotten gothic format. The text catalogs titles, authors, and publishers alongside their respective histories. 

Potter’s text is an act of remembering. It pieces together the shards of gothic memory and attempts to reintegrate missing sections of our own histories into the current field of study. 

The focalized nature of this book is, of course, most beneficial for anyone interested in either the market for gothic chapbooks or the texts themselves. However, the limits of this book reach far beyond its chosen media. 

The gothic chapbook is, as Potter’s book foregrounds, “historically overlooked or marginalized.” Chapbooks weren’t discarded as part of some natural evolution of gothic media, but as a byproduct of their position within class hierarchies. 

The problem extends to more contemporary media as well as early gothic texts. Gothic and horror studies in cinema, likewise, over focalizes titles made by massive corporations, titles reified by hegemonic taste makers, and accepted canons rather than exploring chapbook equivalents like b-horror. 

Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers blends this archival work with meta-analysis on the general course gothic studies has taken. In a field dominated by unanalyzed hierarchies, as are so many, it’s easy to see why early gothic scholarship viewed bluebooks as “lucrative trade, not art.” 

Potter’s text also focusses in on the artists and publishers that kept bluebooks circulating. Among them, Sarah Wilkinson stands out. A working mother and writer, her story feels much more present than over 200 years of time should allow. 

Wilkinson commented on her position as a writer saying: “Authorship is so precarious a way of life that I have long since become disgusted with it and wish to be fully employed.” Though I do not dream of labor, I do share the dream of stability. 

Any working academic, writer, or artist in 2022 is going to feel that quote hitting like an early steam train barreling down the tracks. I see so many artists, writers, and educators barely scraping by and I see Sarah Wilkinson’s story amongst ours. 

Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers is not just about our past, but our future. 

The book ends with a tone of proper gothic melancholia. “The gothic pamphlet, once found in most circulating libraries throughout the United Kingdom and America, eventually disappeared from the shelves and was soon forgotten.” 

Game studies faces the mounting crisis of abandonware, film studies is beset by streaming services and studios arbitrarily deciding which titles live and die, no sub-field of the gothic is free from the memory-devouring jaws of market forces. 

Gothic Chapbooks, Bluebooks and Shilling Shockers is as much about the collective past of gothic studies as it is about our future. We either work now to keep media alive, or future gothic scholars will have to delve the crypts of our tattered age to reconstruct the art that tells our stories. 

Review of Isabella van Elferen’s Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny

Isabella van Elferen’s Gothic Music: The Sound of the Uncanny does what my favorite academic texts accomplish: provides sufficient ground for future arguments without foreclosing on those horizons. 

As Gothic Music suggests, sound is haunting and ghosts are only with us as long as they wish. Why shouldn’t we listen to those ill voices on the wind?  

Gothic Music is not merely a commentary on those cultural nodes that express gothic by way of music, but a theorization of the gothic as it inherently weaves into our human interaction with sound. 

The very act of hearing is out of time. Music and sound outlive their origins and each bar that reaches out ears is a messenger of something already no longer with us. It’s not that some sounds are gothic, but that all sound is haunted by its very nature. 

The text builds a foundation in common gothic spaces. Gothic music, movies, and even gothic gaming are all covered. However, the soundscapes of each of these subjects will one day need their own, full exploration using gothic music as a framework.

Case studies from pop music, video games, television and cinema act as movements in the symphony of this text. In particular, sections on diegetic sound, the works of David Lynch, and the intersections of musicology and the ludic nature of games stand out.  

Gothic Music leaves the door open for future work. The focus on Gothic-as-genre leaves us poised to go beyond those boundaries. The notable absence of a politically engaged readings leaves us ready to take this toolkit to the contested grounds of politics and critical theories. 

There is a consistent, and completely appropriate invocation of Derrida, but we could take this a step further and hear the chorus Gothic Music alongside the sonic Spectres of Marx. 

This agential and active engagement with the material conditions of our world is an overripe celerity of potential for the frameworks in Gothic Music. The mournful and melancholic labor songs of the early American labor movement, present and contemporary Irish folk tunes, and the inherent political dimensions of gothic sound are left uninterrupted by this text. 

They are sonic spirits left interred. Ghosts that wail and are yet, at least by gothicists, unheard. 

Isabella van Elferen’s Gothic Music still stands a decade later as both a critically useful gothic toolkit and a vital text for any gothicist listening into the whispers of the damned.

These sonic specters emerge at all intersections of human activity. Even their present-absence in silence connotes a gothic soundscape for which Gothic Music provides us ample tools to invoke, conjure, and commune. 

Music is never just. Isabella van Elferen’s text carries out of the academic confines of medium and includes dance as a substrate for an analysis of the audible gothic.  

Let the spirit of this text pass into your gothic repertoire. Our ghosts have been speaking with us for as long as we could listen, what else has gone unheard and denied when we turn away from the sounds of the dead? 

Reflections on the Two Living Humans I’ve Seen in an Equal Number of Months at Sea

The watching of Logistics is a lonely practice. It’s an 857 hour movie that’s mostly just a locked down shot of part of a boat, so naturally not many people want to come over for movie night. Logistics is also nearly entirely devoid of people. It took almost 350 hours to spot my first person in a sea of shifting shipping containers. 

Then there’s covid. As this container ship sails, so do we all through waves of lockdowns, variants, and a tidal uncertainty. Seeing other people at all has felt like ships passing in the night. This has made, at least for me, every encounter a personal contact—including strangers on a screen. 

The first persons to pop up in Logistics are all only ever implied. There are cars that presumably have drivers, cranes and forklifts that must have operators, and unseen hands who load and unload these products once they reach their destinations. Logistics is a film driven by the living ghosts that it pushes outside the frame. 

Occasionally, a body will aparate and accrete a physical form. The first of these solid ghosts was one of our implied presences. 

There are countless lifts and cranes in Logistics. From our vantage point, they scurry about like automata; fully embodied of their own agency. One such lift was not a life of its own, but a device operated by a human person. 

This, to the best of my viewership, is the first person to appear in Logistics. This crane operator slides back and forth with the crane. Occasionally looking about—perhaps to ensure the accuracy of their work—but also oblivious of the recording. This moment in the crane operator’s life ebbs and flows to the tide of labor. 

The next, and perhaps last, person to appear in this film is a ship hand. This constitutes the only jump scare in the 857 hour runtime of Logistics. Some water splashes on the window that houses our camera and then, without warning, someone steps in front of the camera. 

They either do not see the camera or, like our crane operator, they do not care. Their sudden appearance is a system shock. Hundreds of hours of sea and visual silence is broken by a ship hand doing their duties and washing down the ship. 

Interestingly, and we’ll get to this next week, but this ship hand should get a cinematography or effects credit on Logistics. Their spraying of water onto the window that houses our camera constitutes the only in-frame effect seen in the entire runtime. Water distorts the sea as it drips down the lens. Singular droplets overtaking literal oceans. 

I don’t know the names of these workers. I don’t know where they hail from, what languages they speak, or what life circumstances pulled them into working these jobs that chanced them onto this ship. This is simultaneously incredibly intimate, bordering on voyeuristic, and an abject encounter with alienation. 

Logistics situates all things as shipping infrastructure. Everything is in service to the movement of this pedometer from Bao’an to Stockholm. Even the people, present, implied, ghosts, are accessories in the transit of an electronic accessory. 

These workers will never know the odd impact they’ve had in my life. The accidental solidarity that our asynchronous encounter inspires in me, but so goes many of the encounters that touch our lives. 

Even though the enormity of despair that is Logistics, we can touch hope. In passing glances, songs passed down through time, tales of battles won and lost, we spark potentialities across seas of water, time, and despair. 

Hold fast the helm, we shall see this sailing through. 

—Cinecartographer Darrow 

Logistics Entry II: Daddy, What’s a Train?

Daddy, What’s a train? Is it something I can ride?

Does it carry lots of grown up folks and little kids inside

Is it bigger than our house? – oh, how can I explain

When my little boy asks me, “Daddy, what’s a train?”

-Utah Philips, “Daddy, What’s a Train?”

The second day of Logistics was a train ride through the Swedish countryside. We roll past small towns, industrial areas, fields and hills. It’s straddling space between a cut shot from Tarkovsky’s Stalker and a real-time train hopping video on YouTube. However, this is one of the most notably truncated areas of the film—and that absence invites discourse. 

Watching Prano Bailey-Bond’s film Censor is a jarring exploration of memory, loss, and the Deleuzoguattarian fascist that lives in each of our heads. It’s also a subtle exploration of our relationship to failing transit infrastructure. The protagonist, Enid, spends much of her screen time anxiously passing through underground light rail stations. 

Transit is often a site of horror in film. Midnight Meat Train, Train to Busan, Christine, Titane, we could do this all day. If you think of transit in a horror movie, it always leads to uncertainty—never utopia. 

Even the car ride at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre serves as a vehicle for horror. We manage to escape Leatherface, but, now knowing “who will survive,” we never know “what will be left of them?” Sally still lives in a world that has the potential for creating Leatherfaces and, from that, there is no escape. 

Transit is a site of collective anxiety. We are made anxious by both our sense of being caught in the gears and by the knowledge that freedom is so close. Our access to transportation is mediated by a larger position within a society designed for specific types of transit. Being forced to rely on increasingly degrading public transit infrastructure is the exact type of personal and social anxiety that summons the gothic. 

Each freight conveyance is a reminder that a Zune gets effectively free travel across the world, but this movement is largely inaccessible to—essentially—everyone along the path of said Zune. The workers mining raw materials, handling the shipping, selling Zunes in shops are all geographically stuck as a function of capitals movement.

All trains are ghost trains—their cargo is our lost futures. In this ghost train transit, we see the potential for utopian movement, but we can not access it.

Utah Philip’s song “Daddy, What’s a Train?” Was written decades ago, but the core message has only gotten more and more resonant. Logistics forces a re-integration of the presence of the vehicular technology of transit, but underscores our absence from it. These vehicles exist only to move Zunes from place to place—the presence of people is incidental. 

Hauntology is often summed down to the mere presence of ghosts, but that loses a depth to this conversation. We are those ghosts. We are in a process of becoming the ghosts of our own lost futures. Our absence from the mechanical systems of transit in Logistics is a haunting by absence.  

“Daddy, What’s a Train?” Speculates a future moment when children have no material connection to transit by rail, but by the age of this song, we have already been those children. Our memories have been shaped by a chain of events stretching several decades from the moment of that song to today. The central question of Utah’s song doesn’t lose relevance, but instead gains an increased hauntological weight.

This leaves us hauling a gothic potential. Everything is brutally, horribly possible. The same potentiality that creates our near-total absence of freedom of movement carries within itself the seed of the great revelry that is that movement’s return. There is the potential of a moment where ghost trains, and their spectral riders, roar into time-gnawed stations delayed, but finally back on track.

Ghosts are moments, potentials. Every act of memory is a necromancy. Our transit through Logistics dredges these haunted moments from rail to wave. 

—Cinecartographer Darrow 

45 DAYS AT SEA AT HOME

I’ve been watching this container ship drift about the sea for 45 days. Nearly all day, every day, this film plays in front of me. While eating, while writing, while watching other films, Logistics has become the Chief Mate of my visual landscape. Each and every morning I make my coffee and embark on a nautical journey of watching a ship that, visually, is completely still. 

From our perspective, the ship never moves. The world shifts and swirls around it, cargo is shuffled about, but the ship itself is the single fixed point of references in a melting world. We are not a viewer along for the ride, we are the ship. 

It’s the cultivation of a kind of organic machine consciousness. A meditative approach to thinking as a hive of steel, fiberglass, and plywood. Marathoning the world’s longest movie requires the film critic’s equivalent of a machine ontology. 

In order to watch this entire film by my fixed deadline of April 30th, 2022, I must watch at least 9 hours each day. No matter how busy work gets, regardless of my social life, as long as the boat sails, so must I. The container ship and I are companions displaced by time and experience. 

My mind to your mind. My thoughts to your thoughts. We meld with the container ship. The ideological solvent of this mostly still container ship clears the eyes and becomes a new humor in the blood. It’s stillness compensated for by my reaction. 

This encountering of a ship at sea is a flat plane of ideology, emotion, and legacy. A history of ghost ships, maritime mythology, and perennial Evergiven jokes weigh you down into a sea of interpretation. There is water rising up, slowly, past your ankles, to the level of your eyes and then back and downward to the soul. 

This ship-being surrenders no meaning, no cargo, to a discursive sea. When it docks, we have only to exchange the weight of time for insight—so long as there is labor enough to withstand the task. 

Go on then, hide your meaning, boat. I am ever with you and will have it. It is your last cargo to unburden. The dock approaches. 

-Cinecartographer, Darrow