Studying the literature of horror
Derik Vanderford Staff Writer
COLUMBIA — A Union native designed — and is currently teaching — an English 101 class devoted entirely to the horror genre.
Trey Lawson — son of local educators Ralph and Janet Lawson — is following in his parents footsteps as he begins a teaching career. Lawson is into his third year of teaching and his second year of doctoral studies in English-Renaissance drama at the University of South Carolina. Once he completes his Ph.D., Lawson hopes his credentials will allow him to work in both literature and film studies.
In both literature and film studies, Lawson is partial to one genre in particular — horror. As an undergraduate student, Lawson’s Honors thesis was on social commentary in 1970s horror films, and he continued to write about horror as a graduate student.
“I think horror is useful in part because it has been popular for so long,” Lawson said. “Other genres seem to come in cycles, like Westerns, but horror — maybe because it’s so linked to an emotional response — has been able to reinvent itself to keep up with the times.”
Lawson has been a fan of horror in some fashion for as long as he can remember.
“I guess if I had to peg down my love of the horror genre, a lot of it comes from my father,” he said. “We used to watch old monster movies like Dracula and Frankenstein together when they would come on TV, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Actually, one of my earliest memories is running around backstage at the high school while my dad was directing Dracula.”
Lawson designed and proposed a special horror-themed section of English 101 — open to the university’s Capstone Scholars — which he is currently teaching.
“I love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe — both of which I taught at the beginning of this class,” Lawson said. “I also enjoy Stephen King — my favorite of his is his vampire novel, ‘Salem’s Lot’ — however, the novel of his that I chose for this class was ‘Carrie.’”
Lawson said the class just hit the midpoint of the semester, and the entire second half will be spent discussing Dracula. Students will study the original novel by Bram Stoker in its historical and cultural context, and later, they will compare the novel with its many adaptations.
Although that class structure had been planned from the beginning, Lawson received a perfectly timed email about a week before classes started. He learned that Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew — Dacre Stoker — was available to give lectures on Stoker and Dracula. Dacre Stoker is a representative of the Bram Stoker Estate, and he gives presentations worldwide. He also co-wrote a sequel to “Dracula” called “Dracula: The Un-Dead,” and he is co-writer of a stage adaptation of “Dracula.” Earlier this week, Stoker visited Lawson’s class.
“It was really perfect for this point in the class, as I think my students now have a lot of material to use as a springboard when they work on their own historical/cultural analysis papers,” Lawson said.
Stoker shed light on little known biographical and historical background of “Dracula,” showing slides with copies of Bram Stoker’s handwritten notes, which showed his process for creating certain characters as well as some of the historical inspirations for characters and events.
Lawson said Stoker read the class a translation of the preface to the first Icelandic edition of “Dracula,” which was the first non-English version to be printed.
“This preface — written by Stoker — actually makes the claim that he is reporting true events; frames him more as an editor or reporter than an author; and references contemporary events such as Jack the Ripper,” Lawson said. “It was like the Victorian version of the horror movies that begin with ‘based on a true story,’ which was really fascinating. It raises all sorts of questions about whether that was supposed to be in the English version as well, or if an editor or publisher omitted it.”
Lawson said students seemed to really enjoy Stoker’s presentation, as they had good questions at the end which he took as a good sign.
“I’m just thrilled that we were able to make the timing and scheduling work out,” Lawson said. “It was already a special section because of the theme, but Mr. Stoker’s presentation helped make this class, I hope, something unique and memorable for my students. It’s already a highlight of my time as an instructor.”
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