Dracula. Annabel Lee. The Haunting of Hill House. Darker, more macabre works like these don’t fall under the classic canon of literature taught in an average high school English class. At Ursuline Academy of Dallas, seniors have embraced such works of Gothic literature as part of a newly implemented – and aptly named – Reading in the Dark course.

Jessica Bailey, Kyle Lee and Corby Baxter all teach sections of the English literature class, collaborating on its creation and refining curriculum for its debut during this school year. Bailey, a sophomore and senior English teacher and sophomore grade dean, dreamed of the class following the English department’s rethinking of senior courses, where it opened up ideas to teachers to propose for a senior class.

“When (Jessica) presented this at our department meeting, I thought to myself this is very much a class that I would want to take and want to teach,” says Lee, a creative writing teacher in his second year at Ursuline.

READING LIST

NOVELS/MAJOR WORKS 

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I am Legend by Richard Matheson

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, or

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, or

White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

 SHORT STORIES

“The Outsider” by H.P. Lovecraft

“The Invisible Girl” by Mary Shelley

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe

POETRY

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

“The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe

“The Vampyre” by John Stagg

“The Giaour” by Lord Byron

“Bisclavret” by Marie de France

“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning

A selection of pieces by R.L. McCallum

 Bailey thought about what she wished she’d been able to read in school, combining that with her love of true crime, thrillers and dark, edgy fiction. Reading in the Dark was one of four chosen courses to be offered this year— thanks in part to the amount of interest it garnered from students.

“I think it’s super important for students to have choice and be able to choose classes based on their interests. I think you get automatically more buy-in with that,” Bailey says. “A lot of them say it doesn’t really feel like work and that it’s fun to do their reading because it’s what they’d like to be reading anyway. That’s kind of where (the class) came from, the idea of ‘we’re going to read this stuff in school that you don’t ever think that you’re allowed to read in school.’”

The course’s reading list is an eclectic mixture of classic, old horror like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and poetry and short stories from Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, alongside more contemporary works like Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Through the curriculum, the trio aimed to expose students to a variety of voices and incorporate authors of color, a somewhat challenging task given authors in the Victorian period. They each had at least one novel they thought had some importance to the genre and was worth exploring. For Lee, it was Richard Matheson’s I am Legend; for Bailey, it was Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and for Baxter it was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

For them, exploring the genre is about more than an affinity for all things spooky.

“Anything that has an associated genre with it, like horror or science fiction or fantasy, is kind of disregarded because it has a reputation of being something commercial,” Lee says, “and if it has commercial value it’s thought to not necessarily have literary value. There’s more to these genres than what pop culture says they are. It’s nice to demonstrate that these texts do have value and are popular for a reason.”

Within the realm of Gothic literature, the range of texts and sub-genres is vast— horror, detective fiction, gothic romance and science fiction a few among them. So far, Bailey says they’ve sought to explore core themes found in the genre and the many sub-genres that have evolved from its foundation, as well as investigate its impact on modern culture, digging deeper into topics like: What questions about humanity do these genres explore? Why are people drawn to the macabre? Why do people like being scared? What social taboos are exposed through these characters and stories? 

“I approach the Gothic through the idea of an ‘aesthetic of terror’ and that it’s a genre that makes it pleasurable to be afraid,” Baxter says. “It allows us insight into what terrifies us as a way to get us to think about who we are.”

In the remainder of the course, students will take those ideas and craft their own examples of Gothic literature through creative writing projects like writing their own ghost stories and an independent study where students will delve deeper into a topic of their choosing within the larger umbrella of the Gothic, be it a particular genre/sub-genre, character study, etc., both within literature and in other media such as podcasts, TV and film for a greater multimedia analysis, Bailey says.

Whether the macabre and morbid pique your interest or not, Baxter argues that the course’s focus on the genre transcends the genre itself.

“All literature helps us understand ourselves collectively and individually,” he says.

“Literature is often looking at historical movements and trends, and Gothic literature, because it shows up in so many different eras and so many different decades, gives us a lot of insight into both what defines literature and the way that history kind of speaks back to itself. A ghost story is always this kind of moment where the past and present conflict— the present is sort of taking in and building on the past— and I think Gothic literature kind of feels like that.”


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