The trouble with doing a PhD on the influence of a famous poet is that after a while you start seeing him everywhere. Though the scope of my project is confined to eighteenth-century literature, I’ve started spotting traces of John Milton’s Paradise Lost everywhere from Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man to Mrs Beaton’s Cookbook. He was particularly noticeable in the graphic novels I regularly borrow from the library and flip through to help me switch off after a hard day. So when I received a Call for Papers from a science-fiction and fantasy conference in Lancaster called Locating Fantastika, it seemed like a fine excuse to max out my library card with comic books and apply some of the highfalutin’ theories of poetic influence I’d been reading up on to a medium that often slips beneath the critical radar. Also, they seemed to have a good record at turning conference papers into journal articles, and it’s about time I’ve got one of those under my belt.
My paper ‘“I didn’t say it. Milton said it. And he was blind.” Paradise Lost in the comic book tradition’ was accepted, and one warm day in July I began my train journey with a light heart. After all, I had a four hour trip to a conference about science fiction and fantasy literature – dear me, what was I going to read on the train?
By the time I arrived in Lancaster I’d finished China Mieville’s The City and The City and was 100 pages into Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and still had time to explore the city before meeting the conference attendees for a canalside evening drink at The White Cross. They were easy to spot – the woman with the aquamarine hair was a giveaway, as were the scattered tattoos of tentacled Lovecraftian and Mievilleian horrors. I circulated and introduced myself, which meant that although my paper was headlining the first session of the following morning, I could look over the heads of my auditors and realise they weren’t all unfamiliar faces! It seemed to go pretty smoothly – I nipped next door for a paper on Fantastic Grasmere by Polly Atkin, a friend from a previous conference, then nipped back in to catch papers by Tim Jarvis and Chris Hussey. Tim incorporated a rather wonderful ‘found notebook’ frame to his paper, which added a splendidly Gothic note to a heavily theoretical paper on the representational praxis of weird fiction. I’d been braced for incoming questions, but Tim and Steve weathered most of the fire, though I got one really interesting one from the panel chair which made me conscious of several new directions in which to extend and develop my research.
I hesitated a little over which panel to go to next, but Stephen Curtis’ ‘Moon Kampf: The Rise of the Lunar Nazi in Speculative Fiction’ proved irresistible – especially since I’d already seen the so-bad-it’s-good Nazisploitation movie Iron Sky at an Astronomy Club Movie Night. Then lunch, wherein I strode out to a rather pleasant graveyard a little beyond the uni, complete with its own weeping angel – then back to Ruth Heholt’s paper ‘“Land of Myth and Magic”: West Barbary and the Hammer House of Cornish Horror’ which was a revel of post-colonial zombies and alarmingly Freudian lizard women, with a plethora of enjoyable clips for illustration.
I missed the next panel while I was running around in circles trying to work out where I’d dropped my wallet, but the day wound up well with Kevin Corstorphine on American haunted house stories, and Nicola Bowring’s fascinating paper on how Gotham developed from a small Nottinghamshire village of fools and madmen to the grim and gothic abode of the Batman.
The conference dinner offered the twin delights of good food and good conversation, and the next morning I arrived to hear two papers on Lewis Carrol – one by Francesca Arnarvas from York University, which I fondly remembered from my MA year, and another by Nina Lyon from my own Cardiff University, both of which upheld the honour of the school!
I panel-hopped in the next session, catching a post-imperial reading of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader courtesy of Aishwarya Subramanian before nipping over to the other panel for Alan Gregory’s paper on Joe Hill’s NOS4R2 and Keith Scott’s paper on Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels. Keith threw a few comments my way since I’d walked in with The Rhesus Chart, the fifth book in the series, beneath my arm, and managed to give me the giggles so badly I had to bite my lip.
The second plenary by Phillipa Semper filled my notebook with other books to read, and then the day wound up with a final panel with Douglas Leatherland, Catherine Spooner and Chris Pak, covering everything from mapping Middle Earth to Vampire Tourists to the terraforming of Mars. I had a few things left to do in town, so skipped the final roundtable, but managed to meet the stragglers in the pub for a pint before my train left. I was back in Cardiff before midnight – denn die Todten reiten schnell!
Locating Fantastika was a fantastic conference – I left brimful of ideas for turning my 4000 word paper into a 6000 word article, proud that my immersion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hadn’t blunted my knowledge of science fiction and fantasy, and inspired to attack the next chapter of my novel-in-progress. I am used to owning up to Poly-Olbion as a guilty distraction from the proper work of my thesis, and it felt so good to talk about it as a work that reflected and reacted to the themes of place and space that ran through the conference. It’s been an energising experience on a lot of levels – personal, creative, scholarly – and I’d like to thank everyone who played a part, not forgetting conference organiser Chuckie Patel, for playing Doctor Frankenstein to our collective Monsters!