In light of the current COVID 19 pandemic, I wanted to interview Dr. Kelly McGuire, a professor and chair of the Women and Gender Studies Department at Trent University who has taught courses on epidemic and outbreak narratives and who researches medical history among her many research interests. 

Interviewer: Derek Newman-Stille

 

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kelly McGuire: I am a faculty member of English and Gender & Women’s Studies at Trent, where I specialize in eighteenth-century literature with a focus on medical history, although my teaching reflects my varied interests in popular culture, social justice, and feminism. I am currently working on how the eighteenth-century practice of inoculation (and the care labour surrounding it) was imagined in the literature of the time (so I’m paying particular attention to the discussions around immunity and the development of a vaccine in relation to COVID-19).

 


Spec Can: What got you interested in reading pandemic and other viral narratives?

Kelly McGuire: I am really interested in how these narratives give us access to the world of epidemiologists, virologists, and scientists affiliated with organizations like the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the WHO (Wold Health Organization). They also read on some level as detective fiction (with the scientists tasked with “solving” the mystery of the virus, which in its own way has the status of a character – usually framed as a demonic enemy even though viruses exist only to replicate themselves). The centrality of the body in these narratives also interests me, as all of those nasty things we generally avoid talking about assume centre stage.

 

Spec Can: What got you interested in researching and teaching pandemic and viral narratives?

Kelly McGuire: A strange constellation of interests, beginning in an academic sense with my dissertation on suicide, which brought me into contact with the strange new world of public health as it emerged in the eighteenth century. I became very interested in how historically literature helped to imagine infection, and over time came to integrate my interest in popular fiction into this particular focus.

 

Spec Can: What are some characteristics of pandemic narratives in fiction? 

Kelly McGuire: Priscilla Wald (Contagious, 2008) does an excellent job of tracing these characteristics in contemporary fiction and film, while I see some of these tropes being established much earlier in works like Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which is a fictionalized telling of the 1665 Great Plague of London. So I’m not necessarily dealing with pandemic narratives so much as works that deal with outbreaks and epidemics.

Often we see a first-person narrator in these stories who is positioned to give us a first-hand and more intimate account of the epidemic as it unfolds. These narrators are by necessity characterized by a somewhat morbid and perverse curiosity, which propels them through empty streets and gives us access to eerie scenes and unusual behaviours that arise in times of quarantine. Another character that figures in many of these narratives is the healthy carrier or super spreader who becomes the chief vector of disease and is almost invariably scapegoated as a result (I’ll talk more about ethnic scapegoating below).  The extermination of cats and dogs in urban centres is a recurring feature of these works, unfortunately, as is the flight from the city (always aligned with corruption and disease at the best of times) to the country.

In a narrative sense, the outbreak has its own kind of rhythm, generating confusion and panic as it slowly but inexorably begins to register in the consciousness of the people. We see the same kind of denial and slowness to act that has marked our experience of the pandemic, and a proliferation of rumour and quackery, as well as superstition (as epidemics to this day are read as an expression of God’s wrath).

It’s also interesting how the representations of “emptiness” that characterize depictions of urban plague scenes often give way to crowded, carnivalesque scenes of carefree behaviour. In his discussion of how the plague city represents authority’s ideal of the disciplinary society, Foucault relates how the experience of quarantine is met with both order and disorder, and this is certainly a recurring feature of outbreak narratives. But the general trend in these stories is towards fragmentation and the fraying of the social bonds that hold us together.

These can also be profoundly existential narratives, giving us access on some level to the ways in which humans confront their mortality, and contain a good many psychological insights about how we deal with trauma and the breakdown of our social order.

Spec Can: Why do you think people are interested in pandemic narratives?

Kelly McGuire: Some people (like Ernest Gilman) would argue that we are on some level haunted in a traumatic sense by a kind of shared memory of the plague, which lives on as a result in the popular imagination. This shared memory arguably informs the iconic appearance and behaviour of zombies, often thought to be inspired by early modern bubonic plague victims whose lymphatic swellings caused them to raise their arms and shuffle with their heads tilted at unusual angles).

These narratives remind us of our vulnerability, our porosity, our dependency on one another and, just like works of horror, function as a kind of release valve, confronting us with these fears in part to allow us to contain them. Ultimately, the kind of barriers and borders that the illness overcomes are redrawn at the end of these narratives, which are reassuring in their portraits of resilience (although in their rejoicing, survivors almost invariably forget the promises and vows they had made to live better lives and return to their old ways).

Spec Can: How do pandemic narratives relate to social fears and anxieties that are not necessarily about viruses?

Kelly McGuire: These narratives are always about xenophobia and the fear of the other on some level. We tend to align an idea of the self with health and associate disease with an idea of the “other” (other ethnicities, other countries). Many outbreak narratives like Albert Camus’s La Peste and Philip Roth’s Nemesis (which deals with an outbreak of polio in 1944 New Jersey), can be read on some levels as metaphors for the Holocaust or anti-Semitism more generally, and in this sense invoke ways in which Jewish peoples have been scapegoated historically (in times of plague in particular). These works often reflect anxieties around immigration, and, in more recent times, around globalization (see the film Contagion from 2011 for an example). In the 1990s, Africa was the target of a good many of these narratives, whereas Asia has been the focus since SARS.

 

Spec Can: How are viral narratives related to ideas of borders and border policing?

Kelly McGuire: My students and I always talk about how Western thought has encouraged us to see ourselves as bodies with clearly defined boundaries in keeping with the idea of the “sovereign self” and the ethos of individualism that pervades North American culture in particular. Viral narratives disrupt this idea of the “bounded body” by reminding us how we act on one another constantly and imperceptibly. What these narratives do (again, this is a central thesis of Priscilla Wald’s book), is render visible not only our movements through space but also our multiple and varied points of contact with one another.

In a geopolitical sense, these stories also expose the idea of the national border as a mere construct that viruses certainly do not respect and, on the contrary, traverse at will. In that way they reveal as illusory all of these arbitrary lines we draw to mark off territory we occupy as settlers from other areas.

Spec Can: How might the Coronavirus pandemic change the way that fictional pandemics are presented?

Kelly McGuire: That is a really good question! So far we have manifested much of the same behaviour and tendencies we see in a lot of outbreak narratives, but inevitably the role of social media in overcoming isolation and perhaps even facilitating the conditions so vital to the containment of infection will be an important addition to the kinds of stories we tell about epidemics. The language of “flattening” or “planking” the curve and the emphasis on collective responsibility is even more pronounced than that which we find in most stories of this genre, and I suspect this will become entrenched in the popular vocabulary of pandemic writing, as will the language of social or physical distancing. It is fascinating to me how quickly we have embraced these terms and have come to read historical events like the Spanish Flu of 1918/1919 through these practices. The direct experience of having lived through a pandemic and in some cases lost loved ones, or dealt with hardship and privation in varying ways, will shape how these stories are told in the future. Perhaps we’ll tell them through a more intimate lens, and one marked by mourning, (rather than by the ghastly intrigue of following a disease event that has spiralled beyond our control). Most outbreak narratives talk about the “leveling” effects of illness, but, as many people have remarked, this pandemic has exacerbated the structural inequalities within our society and disproportionately affects groups that are already marginalized: people with disabilities, people of colour, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ people, and women. One desirable outcome would be that these experiences will be highlighted more in subsequent narratives that will move significantly beyond some of the tropes and characteristics I’ve discussed above.

 

Spec Can: Many pandemic narratives (especially zombie narratives) tend to present the image of a society that becomes hyper individualistic and libertarian in focus. How might characteristics of the current Coronavirus pandemic shift this image? Or will it shift that image?

Kelly McGuire: I think in many pandemic narratives we actually see both tendencies.  Most of these works represent the individualistic drive to self-preservation that manifests itself in hoarding tendencies or the refusal to sacrifice our comfort or pleasure to safeguard the vulnerable. But these stories also commonly trace the emergence of a kind of ethos of collectivity as contagion in some ways helps foster a sense of community. At the end of these stories, the inevitable triumph (often scientific in contemporary works) over the disease in itself is also imagined as a triumph of the human spirit. I see these same patterns being reproduced as this event unfolds. But my hope is that ultimately a more collectivist mentality and concern with social equality will prevail that will in turn allow us to confront other pressing concerns (like the climate crisis) that remain to be addressed when all this is over.

 

—-

Dr. Kelly McGuire is an associate professor in the department of English Literature and the current chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Trent University. Her research interests include Eighteenth-century literature and cultural history; medical history; plague writing and public health; biothrillers and biopunk; disease and national character; women’s writing; and sermon literature.

 

Frozen Wooden With Steampunk Horror

Frozen Wooden with Steampunk Horror

 

A review of Kate Heartfield’s “The Seven O’Clock Man” in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction, edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille

img_0858-4

As much a horror tale as it is a steampunk story, Kate Heartfield’s “The Seven O’Clock Man” evokes the powerlessness of youth. Heartfield constructs a community where the late mayor had built a clock with a clockwork automaton in it who seeks out any children who are awake past 7 o’clock to turn them into wood. The mayor had viewed order and control to be central to his city, believing that the best means of exerting control was to create a persistent threat to the children of the community, punishing them for disobedience of community rules that are imposed on them. Like many communities that use fear as a means of securing power, the mayor made certain that any of the children who were turned to wood would become part of the clock, peaking through the clock’s doors when the clock struck the hour. The children held within the clock were frozen in horrified immobility, able to see the world, but controlled by the mechanisms of the clock, exhibiting the horror of absolute powerlessness.

 

As much as “Seven O’Clock Man” is a discourse on the powerlessness of childhood it is also a narrative about systems of colonial power. The mayor of the city was particularly interested in controlling aboriginal children, viewing them as a threat to the order of the city. He constructed the clock in order to force his notion of decorum onto the population of aboriginal children, symbolically representing the horrors visited upon aboriginal children in the residential school system where children were similarly taken away, locked up, and subject to threats and violence all in the attempt to force children to conform to colonial cultures. Most of the children frozen in the clock were Mohawk and the man who the mayor forced to wind the clock was also a man who came from a Mohawk family – Jacques. Jacques is forced to continue to wind the clock because his son has clockwork gears installed in him that wind down if the clock is not wound.

 

Heartfield brings attention to the depression and post-traumatic stress that comes from systemic colonial control and threats when Jacques’ wife Marie-Claire (a former slave) experiences regular depressive episodes, freezing in catatonia while her husband winds the clock. Her life of horrors shapes her ability to interact with her family and her frozen state mirrors the frozen state of the statues subject to the punishment of the figure in the clock.

 

Heartfield creates a sense of creeping horror with “The Seven O’Clock Man”, evoking the fear of being made powerlessness, subject to someone else’s will, and the emptiness that flows from being denied expression.

 

To find out more about Kate Heartfield’s work, visit her website at https://heartfieldfiction.com/

 

To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit Exile’s website at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html

 

 

And Dominik Parisien’s website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology

 

 

 

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 29: A Discussion of Vampires and Adaptation with Amy Jane Vosper

In this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio, I am joined in the studio by horror scholar Amy Jane Vosper as we discuss the figure of the vampire! Amy Jane and I examine the history of the vampire and how the vampire has changed, adapted, and modified itself in our mythology and fiction to express the issues, fears, and anxieties of various ages and cultures. We particularly look at that enigmatic figure Dracula and how Dracula has changed since Bram Stoker’s novel over time.

Because Amy Jane and I are both feminists, we examine the figure of Dracula’s Brides, characters who are relegated to the background, sexualised, and disempowered and we look at how these figures have changed to become empowered figures in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s brilliant short story “A Handful of Earth”.

You can listen to this episode of Speculating Canada on Trent Radio at the link below

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

To read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “A Handful of Earth”, go to http://expandedhorizons.net/magazine/?page_id=2442

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support. I would also like to thank Dwayne Collins for his consistent tech support and help with the intricacies of creating audio files.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Image of Amy Jane Vosper at Trent Radio

Image of Amy Jane Vosper at Trent Radio

In Darkest Memory Submerged

A Review of Nick Cutter’s The Deep (forthcoming January 2015, Gallery Books).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for The Deep courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada.

Cover photo for The Deep courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada.

There are unexplored places in our world, places of darkness, places of depth, places that are so hostile to human life that we can barely explore them. They are places whose contemplation itself inspires a reassessment of our fundamental understanding of our world. In The Deep, Nick Cutter asks what is submerged in that murky darkness where light can’t reach, what hidden, forgotten, lost, and suppressed things dwell in the pressures of the deep.

As much as The Deep is about the deep ocean and the strange, haunting landscape beneath the waves, it is also about other things suppressed, the mindscapes that we deny, submerge, and work to forget. The Deep begins with a disease that has spread across our world, the ‘Gets, a disease that causes us to forget, to lose our memories and identity in waves of illness. The population tries to hold on to normalcy and rituals as a way to feel normal, but nothing has ever been normal and Cutter’s exploration of humanity’s desire to forget about the ‘Gets reflects the suppression we enact in everyday life, refusing to ask the questions that we don’t or can’t have answers for.

Luke’s own existence is shaped by the interplay of suppression of memories and the simultaneous draw that those memories represent. Having lost his son, a mystery that was never solved, he lives in a place of absented presence, coping both with the possibility that his son may be somewhere in the world and the awareness that he is likely gone. Luke’s family life has always been shaped by a desire to forget – from the abuse and torment he faced at the hands of his mother, to his coping with the likelihood that his brother, a scientist, is likely sociopathic, with no capacity for guilt, sympathy, or emotional connection.

When Luke is called to a deep sea research station where his brother is conducting experiments on a life form that could cure the ‘Gets, he is forced to submerge both into the watery darkness of the deep ocean and simultaneously into the depths of his own memory, imagination, horrors, and fears… and to confront those fears that he has suppressed but that nevertheless have shaped his awareness of the world around him. The deep sea station itself and the research team are shaped by a dualistic desire to discover and a desire to suppress. The research team has ceased communicating with the surface world, ceased filing psych reports that were deemed necessary for ensuring their psychological health in the depths of a foreign and forbidding terrain. Yet, they are obsessed with the notion of discovery, of uncovering secrets that the universe has veiled in layers of sea water, darkness, and geological history. Scientific curiosity has met science’s suppression of likelihoods that are impossible for science to grasp. Luke’s brother Clay seeks to understand the odd and unusual but can’t comprehend it as this new substance at the sea floor called ambrosia consistently slips from his grasp, opening new possibilities as he systemically closes them out of his belief that they are impossible.

Cover photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada

Cover photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada

When Luke arrives at the station, he is physically confronted with the sea pressure of the ocean depths, the darkness that prevails, and the unimaginable foreignness of the sea floor, which contains creatures so odd that they slip from our understanding of life on this planet. These physical sensations are paired with the psychological as he faces the pressures of the unknowable, the darkness of buried and suppressed memories and the haunted things that have shaped his imagination, and the sense of the unfamiliar that enters his mind at the moment of entry into the station. Luke is forced to confront the threat that curiosity and the desire to know represent… particularly when knowing itself can be a trap for mind and body.

To discover more about the work of Nick Cutter, visit his website at http://www.craigdavidson.net/

To discover more about The Deep, visit Simon & Schuster’s website at http://books.simonandschuster.ca/The-Deep/Nick-Cutter/9781501101519

“Walking through your fear makes you stronger. It makes you able to walk through other fears. It gives you courage. It gives you faith that there are bigger powers in the world than you fear. When you walk through fear, you… become a bigger power than the fear. It is its own medicine in the end.”

-Richard Wagamese – Him Standing (Raven Books, 2013)

Quote – Walking Through Fear Makes You Stronger

“As a writer, I spend hours alone with the blinds drawn against the sun, inhabiting other people’s lives. Any reader who has ever lost themselves in a well-written tale of terror on a stormy night will understand what I mean when i say that I sometimes wonder if we don’t bring the stories back into the world with us by reading them alone; whether or not they stay contained. A board creaks in an upstairs room even though you know you’re alone in the house. A tapping on the glass has to be a branch tortured by the wind. A sign in the shadows of the far recesses of the next room has to be a draft. The slumped figure drifting just out of your line of sight is a shadow cast by the candles. You’re alone, reading.”

Michael Rowe – Introduction: In Praise of Queer Fear in Queer Fear (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000)

Quote – Inhabiting Other People’s Lives

“Solitude can be a good thing sometimes, when you require quiet time to catch up on your thoughts and sort them, like sugar being sifted through a sieve. There’s a difference between solitude and being lonely though. The first one depicts self-sufficiency as you set out along your own path without company. The other denotes a variety of emotions, all of them bordering on insecurity, pain, unease, perhaps even fear.”

-Lorena Foreman and Carol Weekes – The Lonely Place (Canadian Tales of the Fantastic)

Quote – Solitude Versus Loneliness