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Investigating the Unknown

Maria DeBlassie,

Course Description

This 300-level course examines the origins and significance of the occult detective, an archetype birthed from the Spiritualism movement and the parallel invention of detective fiction in the Victorian Era. This figure is frequently used in contemporary culture as a way to simultaneously contain or demystify the unknown and acknowledge its vastness. It seems like no small coincidence that the occult detective manifests himself (for he is an originally white male figure) in direct contrast to—or as a result of—Post-Enlightenment Era's emphasis on reason. What then, is the place or purpose of the paranormal in a Post-Enlightenment world? 

In this class we will explore this social tension—wanting to make the paranormal normal while at the same time seeking to make the mundane magical—as well as how this subgenre unmasks the dark side of social conventions, psychological oppression, and society's unrelenting desire to make the intangible tangible. Our investigation of the occult detective will go beyond the traditional literary lens. For example, we will examine the cultural significance of the occult detective's most recent manifestation in the form of monster-of-the-week TV shows, urban fantasy stories, and graphic novels and evaluate how these texts might alter or perpetuate the social and political work of the original stories. 

By adopting a multidisciplinary approach to this topic, we can likewise explore how various cultures engage with supernatural explorations, specifically how New Mexicans view the otherworldly as an inherent part of our lives. From our obsessive retellings of the legend of La Llorona to our fascination with La Calavera Catrina, to the overlapping cleansing rituals like Native American sage smudging and the Curandera's limpia, we are a land steeped in the unearthly.

Readings and Texts

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) 
Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's "Green Tea" (1869) 
H.G. Wells's "The Red Room" (1896) 
Kate Prichard and Major Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard's "The Story of Baelbrow" (1898) 
I.T. Mead and Robert Eustace's "The Dead Hand" (1902) 
Algernon Blackwood's "A Psychical Invasion" (1908) 
William Hope Hodgson's "The Gateway of the Monster" (1913) 
Freud’s “The Uncanny” (1919) 
Agatha Christie's “The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael" (1936) 
Jung’s “The Concept of the Collective Unconscious” (1936) 
Justin Gustanis’s “Deal Breaker” (2011) 
Simon R. Green’s “The Spirit of the Thing” (2011) 
Carrie Vaughn’s “Defining Shadows” (2011) 
Tanya Huff’s “See Me” (2011) 
Daniel Jose Older’s “Magdelena” (2012) 
Ann Lee Walter's Ghost Singer, Native Gothic Novel (1994) 
Hellblazer Original Sin, Graphic Novel (1994) 
La Llorona: Encounters with the Weeping Woman Anthology (2004)

Films and Other Course Materials

Art & Visual Culture: 
Selected Victorian Postmortem Photographs 
Selected Representations of La Calavera Catrina by local artists 
"Four Fates of the Soul" by Ecuadorian sculptor, Manuel Chili (1775) 
Curandera's Limpia (guest lecture) 

Thrilling Adventure Hour #1 Beyond Belief "Hell is the Loneliest Number
Television Episodes: 
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Episode TBA 
Supernatural, "Ghostfacers" (S3E13, 2008) 
Sleepy Hollow, “Pilot” (S1E1, 2013) 
iZombie, "Pilot" (S1E1, 2015)

Student Requirements

Students will be required to attend class regularly and be prepared for active participation and discussion of course texts. In addition to participation and readings, assignments include daily short in-class activities and exercises; a short oral presentation and guided discussion on a particular topic or reading for class; two 2-4 page analytical essays on given texts; a group presentation project; and one 5-8 page research paper on one or more of the course texts and/or tropes.

About the Instructor

Maria DeBlassie earned her B.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNM. She went on to earn both her M.A. and Ph.D. in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Literature from the University of Washington. She is currently full-time faculty at CNM and, when not teaching, is writing and blogging about everyday magic and mysticism. Her interests include the playful tension between high and low art, literature, and culture; contemporary romanticization of history; interdisciplinary and intercultural education; and things that go bump in the night.