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Tag Archives: Advanced Studies in England

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I arrived last weekend in Bath, England, where I am teaching “Writing Bath: Historical, Contemporary, Speculative Fiction,” a creative writing course focused on the multi-genre possibilities of place. Thank you, Advanced Studies in England, for flying me over and lodging me in a 19th century house two blocks from the wonderfully creepy Bath Abbey (the stone angels scaling its sides belong in a Doctor Who episode).

Bath’s most beloved author is Jane Austen, but Mary Shelley ought to be a strong second. She finished Frankenstein while lodging across the courtyard from that same Abbey. Austen’s house is a few blocks north, but she moved out well before the scandal-laden Shelleys moved in. Yet there’s no Mary Shelley tour, no building plaque–only in part because the building is gone, absorbed into the expanding Pump Room of the Roman Baths. The ASE director seemed a little chagrined, but added, “It’s not really a Frankenstein town though is it?”

My class is tracing both Jane’s and Mary’s literal and literary footsteps. The oddball pairing is especially fun for a superhero buff, since the superhero is its own sutured corpse of a genre. Austen was sketching a version of hypochondriac Clark Kent (more on that next week) while Shelley was penning literature’s first monstrous ubermensch. It would take later writers to weld the opposing impulses, love and horror, into a single cape-flapping creature, but Bath provided the embryonic fluid.

As any self-respecting goth can tell you, the nineteen-year-old Miss Godwin (she and the still inconveniently married Percy Shelley had been an item for a couple of years already) stayed the summer of 1816 at Lord Byron’s Swiss lair. This was The Summer That Never Was, the summer England and New England weathered historic snow and a veil of sulfuric fog from Mount Tombora in Indonesia the year before. In Switzerland, they were telling ghost stories, among other activities.

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John Polidori, Byron’s much maligned traveling companion/physician, was the first of the class to publish his ghostly tale. He also gets credit for the first dual identity supervillain, the Byron-inspired aristocrat-vampire, Lord Ruthven. Vampyre: A Tale was a hit in English bookstores, and not just because everyone thought Byron wrote it. Byron, having suffered a bout of creative impotence that summer, put out Manfred instead. His Faustian super-wizard is neither exotically foreign nor ancient, so a prototype for later Doctors Fate and Strange—only with an autobiographical hankering for his sister, the reason Byron fled to the Alps in the first place. Both Tchaikovsky and Schumann wrote music for the three act poem, as did schoolboy Friedrich Nietzsche, who called the renegade sorcerer übermenschlich (supermanlike).

I don’t know if Nietzsche read Frankenstein too, but he should have, since Mary Shelley is first novelist to depict a race of eugenically superior supermen he calls for in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  The name of her Faustian mad scientist usually conjuror images a flat-headed Boris Karloff with those c. 1931 electric bolts bulging from his neck. Movie buffs might tack on a corpse-sutured Christopher Lee or, more regrettably, Robert De Niro, but the Shelley original sports no stitches or jigsawed body parts. The guy is a god. Early stage productions draped him in Greek togas, his dark locks aswirl. Sure, his skin is transparent yellow and his face is a fit of twitching muscles, but his “limbs were in proportion” (a big turn-on for early 19th century readers) and the doctor “had selected his features as beautiful.”

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Shelley doesn’t call him a superman because the word wasn’t in circulation yet. Nietzsche borrowed “unbermenschen” from Goethe, who’d coined it for the mad alchemist hero of his own verse play Faust a few years earlier. English translators went with “superhuman” or “demigod,” until George Bernard Shaw gave us the name destined for a cape and tights—though he had Faust’s alter ego, Don Juan, in mind.

After returning to England, Percy’s destitute wife Harriet found herself conveniently drowned in London’s Hyde Park, allowing her adulterous husband to marry his teen mistress around the time he impregnated her again. (Presumably the six-month-old William was present for but not an active participant in the Swiss storytelling adventure.) Jane Austen started work on her last novel the same winter, before stopping in March due to an illness that confined her to bed the following month. Mrs. Shelley finished gestating her first novel in May. Austen died in July at the age of forty-one. Clara Shelley was born in September, six months before Frankenstein was delivered to bookstores. It was a hit, and not just because everyone thought Percy wrote it.

Percy, like Byron, didn’t conceive much during the Summer That Wasn’t. His “Ozymandias” (yes, an Alan Moore influence) appeared between Clara and Frankenstein, but he eventually one-ups Byron with his four act poem Prometheus Unbound. I’m waiting to see what my students will add to that speculative canon. Mary began her novel in June too, not quite two hundred years ago, but close enough. 

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I visited Bath, England during spring break of my senior year in college. That was over a quarter century ago, so my memories are “historical” rather than “contemporary.” They may even shade into “speculative” since memory warps with each recollection, transforming real locations into alternate realities. I’ll be able to gauge the extent of my idiosyncratic warping when I return to Bath next June. I’m teaching a creative writing class for Advanced Studies in England, a study abroad program for U.S. college students.

My course is “Writing Bath: Historical, Contemporary, Speculative Fiction,” but I considered calling it “Right Here, Only More So.” There’s a Laurie Anderson song (also from a quarter century ago) that opens with the line: “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now . . . only much, much better.” And there’s an even older truism about science fiction: “The future is now, only more so.” That’s a particularly good definition of speculative fiction, and combined with Anderson’s spin on place, it sums up my approach to fiction writing.

I open my introductory course (the one I teach in Virginia, not England) with an observation exercise: list sensory details. Since we’re sitting in a classroom, the results usually include the ticking of a clock, the scent of chalk, the glow of fluorescent bulbs, the press of a chair back against your spine. If you dig a little deeper, those details get much, much better: the conch-shell murmur of AC vents, the convergence of shadows as a pen tip touches paper, the pendulum sway of an earring.

Any location can yield unlimited details. And though a classroom in rural Virginia is as good a place as any to dig down, imagine if the classroom is in Bath, England. Those are Roman ruins under the sensory top soil. So after exploring the contemporary, I’ll send my students off in time machines to land anywhere they like in the two thousand years of Bath history. And when they get back, we’ll spin the controls in the opposite direction and speculate about the city’s diverging futures.

Although historical fiction and science fiction seem like opposites—one’s in the past, the other the future—they’re both not in the present, and so, unlike contemporary fiction that borrows from immediate reality, they are alternate worlds that have to be imaginatively constructed. Contemporary fiction is an imaginatively constructed alternate world too, but you get to cheat a bit because readers will do more of the setting work by filling in familiar details themselves. But the past and future require more authorial effort.

The past of historical fiction isn’t the past. It’s an invented past. What are Roman sandals made of? How do they lace up? Where do they chafe? I have no idea. But my students will also take a course called The Romans in Britain, and combine that with contemporary interpolation (ie, it hurts to walk on a blister), and suddenly first-century Bath will be within strolling distance. The Triumph of Georgian Bath will give them enough architectural know-how to conjure other moments of history into equally concrete existence.

Speculative fiction at first seems comparatively boundless. History books are filled with verifiable events, while the future is unwritten. But the future is made of the same stuff as any historical story: the present, only more so. What does a hovercraft sound like when it’s landing? I have no idea. But I can pluck details from my world—the whir of my half-clogged lawn mower—because the mundane really is much much better for building something non-existent. And if you do your building in Bath, England, your range of the mundanely contemporary is also sunk deep in the paradoxically here-but-not-here historical. Three worlds, one place.

I get no points for creativity though. Michael Cunningham approached New York the same way for his 2005 novel Specimen Days.

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The first section explores the gothic past of the Industrial Revolution, culminating in the Triangle Waist Factory fire of 1911. The second is a contemporary police procedural plotted around a suicide bomber in the wake of 9/11. And the final part leaps into New York’s distant future of androids and lizard-like aliens. Deepening the interconnections of the three-in-one setting, manifestations of the same three characters appear in each version of New York, weaving a larger plot through the whole of the novel.

You can try this yourself at home. Any home. Everyplace in the world contains a world of plots just under its surface, and its pasts and futures are disguises for its own Right Now. Cunningham could have written Specimen Days in my hometown of Lexington, Va. But I’m glad he didn’t. I’m also glad my class and I will be digging into Bath, England for our inspiration. I hope to find a ghost of my twenty-year-old self wandering the Roman ruins.

And if you’re attending Washington and Lee, or one of the ASE’s other affiliate or participating colleges, you might consider meeting the ghosts of Bath past, present, and future with us. More on that here.

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