Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Stories, Spectres, Screens

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Stories, Spectres, Screens

Article excerpt

Abstract. The ghost story plots an occluded continuity between modernist and postmodernist forms of short fiction, its movement displaying, within dominant literary traditions, the defamiliarising effects associated with the uncanny: in modernism, it can ally itself with the upsetting of realist models, with subjective interruptions, fragmentary and ephemeral effects, with manifestations of consciousness dis- and re-embodied and a growing sense of insubstantiality; in postmodernism it is more intimately bound up with a pervasive experience of a "general uncanny", of a mediatised absorption into a life of images and screens. Tracing this movement, from the "phantasmagoreality" of Poe's short fiction to Angela Carter's playful accounts of Poe, sexuality, spectrality and cinema, this essay works through the very different engagements of Virginia Woolf and May Sinclair with the effects of writing, haunting and the uncanny.

Keywords: masquerade, unfamiliarisation, phantasmagoreality, Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, May Sinclair

"The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe" offers, in short story form, a fantastically plausible psychobiography of a writer central to the development of the modern short story. Angela Carter's text entwines details of Poe' s life and fiction to offer a literary and cultural background that is also a critical, psychoanalytic interpretation of his particular pathologies (his drinking and sexual object-choice notably) and the predilection for a certain gothic mood in his work. The story centres on his actress mother: she is the determining influence on young Edgar. He is born and brought up in a peripatetic environment of plays and performance, of greasepaint, costumes, stage-sets, mirrors, make-up, lights and shadows. The environment is one of surfaces, impermanence and quick changes; mother is a matter of many faces, many forms, many characters. What is more, she dies while Edgar is very young. Poe's melancholy alcoholism has its - fictional - origins here, his sense of a loss that he cannot overcome, of a darkness that possesses him, especially in his later move: he is never at home in the cold democratic light of the north where, unlike the south, there are no shadows, no places to hide, except, perhaps, at the bottom of a glass.

For Carter's Poe, then, life starts amid theatrical artifice and gloom. A lived sense of the uncanny is forged in his early years. Embracing animism and death, infantile fear and desire, the uncanny is graphically inscribed. Mother presides in her absence, locus of primary narcissism and site of the prohibition that produces separate identity and an awareness of mortality; as an actress, she is wellversed in bringing dead things alive, in animating words, roles and costumes, a surface of projection and automatic enamoration. Yet mysterious, too, elusive in her many reflections: beneath the theatricality of the masquerade another image appears in her mirror, a "death's head" ("Cabinet E. A. Poe" 265). She dresses as Ophelia for her final curtain. Her hearse, drawn by black-plumed horses, calls up, for her son, the "spectral horseman" (265), precocious phantasmagoria of death.

Elizabeth Poe's legacy to her son is itemised by Carter: a thirst that can never be quenched; a loss that cannot be healed; a mirror mother whose image changes constantly, metamorphosing according to set and scene. Her beauty is untouchable, fleeting, almost only surface, a creature born of reflection:

Mama turns round to show how she has changed into the lovely lady he glimpsed in the mirror.

'Don't touch me, you'll mess me.'

And vanishes into a susurration of taffeta. ("Cabinet E. A. Poe" 266)

Outfits whisper, barely a breath, in the slicing/separation of mother and son, a ghost mother even before her demise. Another gift from the mirror: a premature sense of mortality. And another - an awareness of life elsewhere, on stage, in costume, on the screen: "Edgar knew the somebody elses she so frequently became lived in her dressing-table mirror and were not constrained by the physical laws that made her body rot" ("Cabinet E. …

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