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An Interview with Graham Holderness, University of Hertfordshire | Voices

By September 28, 2015 No Comments

Graham Holderness is the author of Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare Vampire Hunter (Top Hat Books, 2015). In addition to Black and Deep Desires, Graham has also authored Re-writing Jesus: Christ in Twentieth-Century Fiction and Film (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), Tales from Shakespeare: Creative Collisions (Oxford University Press, 2014), The Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (Arden, 2013),  Textual Shakespeare: Writing the Word (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004), Visual Shakespeare: Essays in Film and Television (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2002), Cultural Shakespeare: Essays in the Shakespeare Myth (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2002), The Prince of Denmark (University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001), and Shakespeare: The Histories (Palgrave MacMillian, 2000).

Tell us about the book.

Black and Deep Desires: William Shakespeare Vampire Hunter is a historical fantasy that combines the conventions of the historical novel, the psychological mystery, and the supernatural thriller. Drawing on the three dramatic kinds, it has elements of comedy and tragedy as well as history. It is a story of the Gunpowder Plot, a study of the relations between art and terrorism, and a tale of the vampire.

At the centre of the novel sits the figure of William Shakespeare, who sometimes resembles the Shakespeare of history and biography, but more often exists as a postmodern author-effect, a product of his own work. This is not the man who walked the streets of Stratford and London, but like the Leonardo of the TV series Da Vinci’s Demons, the man he ought to have been, if his life were symptomatic of his plays and poems, rather than the other way round. Initially Shakespeare joins the Gunpowder Plot, and is indeed its architect, providing from his bold and reckless imagination the apocalyptic scheme of blowing up parliament. When the Plot is discovered, William is arrested, and held in the Tower. For a while he maintains silence, but then has a vision of Hell, in which the shade of Dante shows him a new tenth circle, built for terrorists, in which the torments replicate the atrocities terrorists actually practice on their hostages and victims. (The connection with Dante is evidenced from Claudio’s vision of Hell in Measure for Measure). William experiences a change of heart, and confesses the Plot to Robert Cecil. Cecil spares Shakespeare, but keeps him in the Tower, since he wants him to write a play about the plot (Macbeth). The plotters are executed, including Fawkes, who nevertheless manages to cheat death on the scaffold, by means that become apparent.  

As the threat of the Powder Plot recedes, a new plague begins to afflict London with sudden and inexplicable deaths. Doctor and astrologer Simon Forman is called in by the authorities to investigate it, and recruits Shakespeare as his assistant. Forman pursues various explanations of the epidemic – as a plague, or a sexually-transmitted disease – and eventually realizes that the deaths are in fact from the bite of the vampire. The aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot is an epidemic of vampire terror. They bring in a clergyman to exorcise the demons, but discover that Protestant Christianity has no power over them. They slaughter most of the vampires themselves, using holy relics confiscated from the Catholic Church, and kept in a secret store under Lambeth Palace. The one they believe to be the last vampire, The Countess, escapes.

Forman decides to call in Father Henry Garnett, Superior of the Jesuits in England, who is under arrest in the Tower for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. Using the liturgy and symbolism of traditional Catholic ritual, Garnett successfully exorcises the Countess, and they are able to kill her. But she has bitten Garnett, who therefore insists on being executed in the customary manner – disembowelled, heart ripped out, head struck from body – so that the curse of the vampire may be lifted from him.

While performing Hamlet at the Globe, Shakespeare is surprised to discover that Fawkes is still surviving as a vampire, when he rises from the stage trap-door in place of the Ghost. He has been dwelling under the stage, like the Phantom of the Opera, continuing to plot his revenge. Fawkes informs Shakespeare that he intends to launch one final attack against the King, this time a suicide mission. He plans to pilot a flying machine, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘ornithopter’, into the tower of St Pauls, with explosives strapped around him, with the aim of collapsing the tower onto the King and Court below. As a vampire, he will be able to ignite himself, simply by removing his cloak. The vampire is a natural suicide bomber. Here the book draws the closest parallel between the 17th century regicides and the Al-Qaida terrorists of 9/11. Shakespeare and Forman foil Fawkes’s plot by setting fire to the theatre with a cannon (the actual burning down of the Globe in 1613 is brought forward by 7 years). Guy Fawkes is finally incinerated on the bonfire of the burning Globe. Thus in its denouement, the novel brings together terrorism, theatre and historical tradition in one fantasy resolution.

The novel’s principal action consists of a psychological study of terrorism. Shakespeare becomes involved in the Gunpowder Plot out of personal and cultural sympathy with the Plotters (his actual connections with Catholicism are detailed and explored). But his motivation here consists largely of the instinctive empathy, or what Jean Baudrillard called ‘complicity’, between terror and the apocalyptic imagination. Initially it seems to him possible to remake the world anew, in the same way as he can create a new world in art. The novel treats the traditional Catholic culture of early modern England with respect and affection. But the novel goes on to show that the terrorism of the Gunpowder Plot was as much a perversion of Catholic belief, as fundamentalist terrorism is a perversion of Islam. The end can never justify the mean, when the means involve the slaughter of innocents. Shakespeare is brought to realization of this truth in his vision of Hell. When the seed of the Gunpowder Plot blossoms into a plague of vampires, the real inhuman atrocity of terrorism is revealed, and Shakespeare is recruited into the battle against it. The real deep structure of Catholic belief shows its true colours when its spiritual resources are mined to oppose terror and violence with peace and love. In this way what starts out as a historical novel, becomes a much deeper and riskier penetration into the spiritual and psychological maelstrom of terror.

Why, after years of scholarly criticism, have you turned to creative writing as a means of exploring Shakespeare?

I began, as a child, with creative writing, poems and stories and short plays. I remember writing an ‘Ode to a Worm, Cut in Half by a Spade’, channelling Robert Burns, and a Miltonic dramatization of Lord of the Flies, neither of which, unfortunately, survived. Literary training and professional obligation require different ways of writing about the kind of writing I always wanted to emulate. I was always aware of the ironies entailed in keeping creative and critical writing about creative writing in two parallel universes, and occasionally tried to bridge them, e.g. by writing an analysis of a Philip Larkin poem in the form of a dramatized seminar (‘Reading “Deceptions”: a Dramatic Conversation’, Critical Survey, 1.2 [1989], 122-9).

As a Marxist and cultural materialist critic (neither of which I can claim to be any more) I spent most of my time writing at the furthest remove from creative practice, trying to make critical discourse as scientific, philosophical and theoretical as it can get. All this fell apart in the 1990s, a story told impersonally in Nine Lives of William Shakespeare (Bloomsbury, 2011), 21-3, and personally in ‘“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”’, Shakespeare and I, eds. Papadopolou and McKenzie (Bloomsbury 2012). Thereafter I did much more creative writing (a novel The Prince of Denmark, a poetry collection Craeft: poems from the Anglo-Saxon), and started to merge creative and critical practices, most notably in the (as far as I can tell) totally unread Textual Shakespeare: Writing and the Word (2003). Here’s an extract from a talk about that book:

Textual Shakespeare opens with an attempt to resolve what still remains an intractable paradox: is literature something made by an originating act of imagination, created; or is it something produced by subsequent acts of reading and appropriation, constructed? Both invoke major theories of literary production; both entail different practical approaches to the interpretation of texts. What I try to argue in the book is that both are true and indispensable: that writing is made, imagined, created, and yet re-made, appropriated, constructed. The initial act of making creates something that lends itself to re-making; and all subsequent acts of re-making pay homage to that originating creative act, even when they seem to be completely reconstructing the original, and stretching the limits of iterability to extremes. The processes of remaking the text are shared in common between textual study, editing, critical interpretation, indeed all our various ‘reading’ practices … ‘A real reader’, says Helene Cixous, ‘is a writer’. (p. 14)

It seemed to me that in composing this argument, it was impossible not to enter a creative response, a creative commentary, into or alongside the critical arguments. There were different ways of doing this: by trying to write a critical language with aesthetic properties, making the true beautiful; by looking at the creativity implicit in critical readings by other critics, often buried beneath the surface; and by mining works of fiction, poetry, drama, that in some way could be seen to parallel the critical arguments.

Each chapter of critical and theoretical discussion concludes with an anecdote, or an example of creative writing that rehearses critical issues, supplemented by a poem or translation, or some other example of creative practice. A chapter on Shakespeare bibliography (Ch. 2), which concludes that we need to understand literary text as both Platonic idea and material object, is illustrated with an Anglo-Saxon riddle about how books are made, how an irreducibly material process produces a sacred object. (p. 56)  A chapter on materialist criticism (Ch. 3) ends up talking about Gary Taylor’s imprudent use, in the Oxford Shakespeare, of a phrase from Pinter’s The Homecoming; and concludes with a translation of Catullus’s politically-incorrect Carmen 63. (p. 85) A chapter on the Bad Quartos (Ch. 4) closes with a discussion of what Derrida calls the universal ‘principle of contamination’, which is that however isolated, texts are always infringed by traces of the manifold influences that impinge upon them. I illustrate this with a passage on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s manuscript of poems, buried with his wife Lizzie, and later exhumed, and reflect on what that incident might tell us about the relations between body and text, love and death. (pp. 110-112) The MS can be seen in Jerome McGann’s Rossetti website, with a gaping hole in it, caused by the autolysis of Lizzie’s corpse, the ‘textual traces’ she left in the work. Then a further comment is inserted by a translation of the famous Old English riddle on the ‘bookworm’: the worm that destroys language by destroying its material substance; and the worm that destroys the source of language, the human body, after death. (p. 113) How does literature survive such destruction, except by reproduction that means alteration? What survives human existence after the destruction of death?

Textual Shakespeare is an unusual book, an idiosyncrasy that perhaps accounts for the fact it is the only one of my books never, to my knowledge, to have been reviewed anywhere. It mingles criticism and creativity together in a promiscuously hybrid discourse. Its arguments operate, as do the creative works it studies, as much by metaphor as by logical argument. And it penetrates into areas where criticism normally dares not go, deep into the subjectivity of the critic and editor. It proposes, in short, a new and fundamentally re-orientated relationship between criticism and creativity. And I am waiting, like a man who long ago dropped a stone into a well, and is still listening for the splash, to hear the sound of an impact.

So Black and Deep Desires is not a departure, but a continuing exploration of the manifest but very difficult relations between critical and creative writing.

In your 2014 book, Tales from Shakespeare: Creative Collisions , you argue that “we need to observe Shakespeare colliding with objects that are not Shakespeare, where both are driven by forces that can appear to be random but in their mutual impact generate an observable and meaningful pattern” (18).  Two related questions arise from this proposal: why vampires? And what, if anything, can we observe about Shakespeare (or ourselves) from Black and Deep Desires?

Black and Deep Desires begins, in historical novel style, with the hatching of the Gunpowder Plot, and follows that narrative line through to the digging of the tunnel beneath the Parliament House, the smuggling of the powder into the vault, and the ultimate arrest and execution of the conspirators. But by means of allusion and metaphor, I have drawn analogies between the different dimensions of the novel. The Catholics are forced to exist in a metaphorical underground, symbolised by the hiding-places and priests-holes built into 16th century catholic houses: they are sleepers, dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, barely living, undead. This subterranean culture is compared by Shakespeare to the space under the stage in the Elizabethan theatre, from which ghosts and demons emerge to haunt the living. These liminal spaces are worlds beyond history, experiential and imaginative realms open for population by the supernatural. It is Shakespeare’s idea that the conspirators should embrace this subterranean identity, and plot to strike at their enemy from below, by occupying the vault below the Palace of Westminster, and using it to stage a colossal explosion. The language subsequently used to describe and define the Gunpowder Plot was of course precisely such a language of hell, diabolism, the demonic – Fawkes became ‘the Devil of the vault’ – and I’ve freely draws on this vocabulary of terror. The tunnel excavated beneath the Parliament House is an extension of the Catholics’ descent into an oppositional underground. The historical character of Nicholas Owen, dwarf, Jesuit lay-brother and carpenter, who in the novel assist the plotters in the construction of their mine, connects the underworld of buried Catholic piety both with the architecture of Shakespeare’s theatre, and the Gunpowder Plot (Owen was arrested for complicity, tortured and died in captivity). When the plotters meet an irresistible obstacle (as they in reality did) in the form of a massive wall, Guy Fawkes goes abroad to seek help, and brings home creatures that naturally inhabit this underground darkness – vampires. The Catholic terrorist and the vampire occupy a common world, and the poet is possessed by an unconfessable complicity with both.

Travelling as far as Transylvania, Fawkes finds himself in the castle of Count Dracula (the vampire formerly known as Vlad the Impaler, died 1476), who sells him a team of miners capable of excavating the tunnel. The novel continually draws parallels between the Catholic nobility in England and the vampire aristocracy of Eastern Europe. Dracula is engaged in long-term planning to colonise England, expecting to be ready by about 1890, when Bram Stoker will take up the story. Fawkes does not realize that in fact the miners are vampires. Alongside the Undead, transported to England in their coffins, is a stowaway, Dracula’s vampire wife Ilona, who disappears when they reach England. The vampires complete the tunnel. Unknown to the other conspirators, Fawkes becomes a vampire, a fact he hides by wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Meanwhile Ilona, as ‘The Countess’, starts up business as a prostitute, and becomes Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’. He falls in love with her, and she refrains from killing him as long as he brings her poems, as in the Arabian Nights. The macabre and necrophiliac poetry of the Dark Lady sonnets is used to connect Shakespeare’s own poetic experience with his deathly love for the vampire. Then she vanishes, and he re-joins the Gunpowder Plot.

The novel’s opening and conclusion show Shakespeare rehearsing Macbeth at Hampton Court for Robert Cecil’s approval. But the play in its initial form is a story of vampires and regicide.  Macbeth is tempted not by three witches, but by three vampires. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth become vampires. Shakespeare has chosen to stage the history of the Gunpowder Plot not through Catholic terrorism, but in terms of vampire bloodlust. The poetry of the play answers as readily to the fantasy context as it does to the historical one. Cecil refuses to approve the play, and instructs Shakespeare to replace the vampires with witches in order to produce the more familiar Macbeth of history.

Since the subject of the story is a poet, the novel makes extensive use of poetic and dramatic language, citing and recontextualising Shakespeare’s own words, or extrapolating new poetic meanings from them. In a series of fantasy explorations of the historical ‘might-have-been’, the novel provides non-factual but imaginatively convincing sources for some of Shakespeare’s work, including Measure for Measure, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. Other literary and artistic referents also supply contexts for the action of the novel: Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Inferno; Bram Stokers’ Dracula, and its film adaptation by Frances Ford Coppola; Peter William Blatty’s The Exorcist; Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’, and so on. Literature is not background here, or secondary source, but part of the rich tapestry of the author’s imagination, and the medium in which the characters are brought to their impossible vitality. Such writing makes no secret of its aesthetic character. You are not, it tells the reader, looking into a ‘real world’, but exploring the dark recesses and labyrinthine corridors of fiction.

Do you consider yourself to be a Shakespeare fan? Is that a different identity to a Shakespeare critic?

There’s a paradox here. Shakespeare criticism is puritanically serious, responsible, committed. At the same time there’s nothing unusual about Shakespeare fanship, defined as aficion or enthusiasm, in academia. It is pervasive, and its lingua franca is that very Bardolotry that theory has sought to critique. Hence it tends to remain passive, and shrinks from the cross-over into ‘fan labour’, fanzines and fan-writing. It will be interesting to see how much of the work we see showcased at the World Shakespeare Congress in 2016 – under the title of ‘Creating and Re-Creating Shakespeare’ – will risk genuine personal creativity, rather than playing safe by continuing to talk about creativity in others.

To boldly go. I’m a fan not only of Shakespeare but of all the other writers, artists and film-makers who are imitated in Black and Deep Desires – Antony Burgess, Bram Stoker, Homer, Dante, William Peter Blatty, Tennyson, Millais, Francis Ford Coppola, Werner Herzog – etc. etc. The need to understand the work of these creative practitioners via criticism and theory is inseparable from the enthusiasm that provokes me to emulate and imitate them. Their creativity generates ideas and insights that criticism can examine; and my creativity can inject those ideas and insights back into the creative process. It’s what you might call a circulation of creative energy. And fortunately for all of us, it has no discernible end, and no conceivable limits.

Author Louise Geddes

Louise Geddes is an Assistant Professor of English at Adelphi University. Her work on Shakespearean appropriations has been published in Shakespeare Bulletin, MRDiE, Upstart and ILS. Her book on the history of Pyramus and Thisbe is forthcoming; her current research explores British adaptations of Jacobean drama during the Thatcher years.

More posts by Louise Geddes

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