second round game
(10) the chameleons, “swamp thing”
(2) joy division, “dead souls”
and will play in the sweet 16
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 13.
allison dushane on “dead souls”
Following the release of their debut album Unknown Pleasures in 1979, Joy Division performed a live set featuring "Transmission" and "She's Lost Control" on BBC Television's "youth program" Something Else.
In discussion preceding the performance, the radio and television personality Tony Wilson remarks on the qualities that distinguished the relatively unknown band from acts currently in heavy radio rotation:
There are records that are better than the dross that is around, but they don't get played because they are slightly unsettling, for the simple reason that they come from somewhere slightly deeper in the soul than the level of a pure hit factory...this lot are...using melody and rhythm in a hypnotic way, which is what makes a hit single. But because it's unsettling, and slightly sinister and gothic, it won't be played, which seems a shame.
Unknown Pleasures failed to chart, and the release of the non-album seven-inch single "Transmission" also failed to elicit the popular radio airplay that Wilson had hoped for (despite the song's refrain: "Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio"). Nevertheless, Joy Division continued to release music in a manner befitting the punk ethos of their independent label, Factory Records. "Dead Souls" was released alongside "Atmosphere" in March 1980 on Licht und Blindheit, an EP limited to a mail-order run of 1,578 copies.
Someone take these dreams away
That point me to another day
A duel of personalities
That stretch all true realities
That keep calling me
The distinguishing feature of the gothic, despite the variety of subgenres that lay claim to it, is its capacity to unsettle: its tendency to question the boundaries of genre and propriety, the way that it plays with the line between harmony and dissonance, life and death, past and future, joy and sorrow, Licht und Blindheit (light and blindness). The opening instrumental of "Dead Souls," which takes up almost half of the running time, is exemplary of the "hypnotic" blend of harmony and dissonance, the familiar and the unfamiliar, that makes up Joy Division's signature sound. That sound was crafted by keyboardist and guitarist Bernard Sumner, drummer Stephen Morris, and bassist Peter Hook; in his memoir, Unknown Pleasures, Hook attributes his contribution to that sound sound to playing the bass high, remarking that the this technique is "also why I make so many bum notes. I'm renowned for them." The mythos of Joy Division, however, is primarily built up around its lead singer Ian Curtis, who suffered from epilepsy and depression, and whose death by suicide brought out new layers of significance to his already dark lyrics. In his essay on Gothic literature and aesthetics, Sigmund Freud explores what he calls the "The Uncanny," or, "that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar." In other words, the things that frighten us tend to lead back to something within ourselves that we tried to ignore, but which will always return. "Dead Souls" begins with plea for release from "dreams" of an ongoing drama, "duel of personalities" that replays itself over time and space, invoking the idea of human nature as divided by the fears, anxieties, and unfulfilled desires we bury within ourselves.
Where figures from the past stand tall
And mocking voices ring the halls
Imperialistic house of prayer
Conquistadors who took their share
That keep calling me
Ian Curtis was a lifelong student of art, philosophy and literature. The band, originally known as Warsaw, changed its name after Curtis read the novella House of Dolls, which relates the experience of Jewish women who were kept in "Joy Divisions" as sexual slaves for Nazi soldiers. Many of Joy Division's track titles are references to literary works, including "Dead Souls," which is named after a 19th century novel by Nikolai Gogol that satirizes Russian social policy. The "mocking voices" of the "Imperialistic house of prayer" and the "Conquistadors who took their share" that appear in "Dead Souls" gesture towards the British Gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, which were often set in past in order to critique the political and religious ideologies that continue to oppress the present. For example, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, usually regarded as the first Gothic novel, was set in the time of the Crusades. A series of supernatural events, including a giant helmet that crushes a groom on his wedding day and a portrait that appears to come to life, reveals how systematic political and religious corruption infiltrates family structures and individual lives. In "Dead Souls," as in the Gothic literary tradition, the uncanny not only operates at the individual level, but also surfaces as a reflection on the atrocities of human history, linking the political atmosphere to the personal psyche. The members of Joy Division came of age in a decaying industrial center, Manchester, under the rising authoritarian influence of Thatcherism. "Dead Souls" conveys a sense of the despair that comes with trying to make sense of one's own life in the context of overwhelming historical forces. It is fitting, then, that "Dead Souls" resurfaces on the soundtrack of the 1994 film The Crow, a revenge tale set in a crumbling city mired in corruption. The industrial style of Nine Inch Nails and the vocal stylings of Trent Reznor coat that despair with rage.
I was born the year that Joy Division released their first EP and made their television debut and was not yet two years old at the time of Ian Curtis' suicide. In third grade, I had a babysitter who let me stay up with her to watch 120 Minutes on MTV, which, over the years, would introduce me to Goth staples like Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Depeche Mode, and Bauhaus as well as other "alternative" genres. Because I was hypnotized by the video for "True Faith," she gave me a copy of New Order's Substance 1987 on cassette tape. I played that tape over and over on my Walkman while I went to sleep at night, at the playground at recess, and whenever I could sneak it in class, until it snapped; when I was unsuccessful at taping it back together, I convinced my parents to by another copy. My favorite song on the album, which remains my favorite song today, was "Ceremony." In contrast to the signature driving synth of dance tracks like "Bizzare Love Triangle" and "Blue Monday," it had an air of melancholy underscored by the subtly haunting opening line: "This is why events unnerve me." It wasn't until 1994, when I was debating the merits of various songs on the soundtrack to The Crow with a friend in the university-adjacent record shop, that an employee informed me that "Dead Souls" was originally recorded by a band called Joy Division. Seeing the blank look on my face, he directed me to a copy of Closer and informed me that if I liked Joy Division, I might also like New Order, and everything came full circle. It wasn't until much later that I would fully immerse myself in back catalogue of Joy Division, but when I did, it was if all of the other music I had absorbed during those late nights watching 120 minutes had a common ancestor, a shared DNA. After listing to the original recordings of "Ceremony," one of which was made only four days before Ian Curtis' death, I could see how New Order had transformed the song into something slightly more melodic and slightly less dissonant—but somehow even more haunting, given the context—by Bernard Sumner's vocal delivery and the re-rendering of the instrumental track.
Calling me, calling me
Calling me, calling me
They keep calling me
Keep on calling me
They keep calling me
They keep calling me
Joy Division—particularly "Dead Souls"—is Goth stripped down to its essence. I have never been very Goth in appearance. I was introverted and awkward in elementary school (see author photo below) and became a cheerleader with a tendency towards grunge fashion in high school. However, the music called to me at a young age and stayed with me through the years, particularly as a graduate student immersed in Romanticism and now as a professor trying coerce students into seeing value in examining the cultures of the past. The thing about Goth music that keeps calling its fans, generation after generation, isn't exclusive to the aesthetic trappings of the subculture—the hair, the makeup, the clothes, the gloomy club atmospheres¾or the tropes that an outside observer would most readily label Goth—graveyards, flies, vengeful angels, vampires, succubi. The thing that keeps calling us is the expression of the often unacknowledged, unsettling, and slightly sinister aspects of ordinary human existence that reveal themselves to us in terrifying forms.
Allison Dushane lives in Texas, where she teaches literature, herds cats, and listens to too many true crime podcasts. She has published articles about William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Erasmus Darwin, and environmental aesthetics.
BERRY GRASS ON “SWAMP THING”
I mean, he isn’t called Marsh Thing. Too gentle for what was originally a 1970s horror comic about a man dying in a laboratory explosion & chemically bonding with plants, becoming a chlorophyllic, existential facsimile of a human. So is Fen Thing, and even Bog Thing sounds silly. What is it about the wetland word swamp that holds our collective darknesses? Swamps are essentially just flooded forests but we’ve imbued them with our fears, as if everything that we aren’t—or everything we’re afraid that we actually are—lurks beneath, waiting to consume us. What makes it scary to acknowledge one’s reflection in the muck and the murk?
In the seminal trading card game, Magic: the Gathering, most cards feature italicized text found at the bottom of the card that conveys character or symbolism or story about the card itself. This is called flavor text. For example, the flavor text to the Magic card “Mind Sludge,” which makes an opponent discard cards from their hand, reads as follows: When you get into the swamp, the swamp gets into you.
Ambiguity is the hallmark of the goth aphorism. After nearly 5 minutes of delicate atmospheric construction—jangly guitars and propulsive drums and synthesizer keys held down making an eerie wind—the mood breaks and the melody sounds triumphant and the bass grooves with glee. It is at this point, the song winding down, that Mark Burgess, singer & bassist for The Chameleons, cries out over and over, “Now the storm has come...or is it just another shower?” The two being, apparently, not the same kind of rainfall. The Storm, then, capital S, must be for Burgess something rare, something important. Unraveled still by the looping twang of guitar strings, I can’t quite tell if the Storm is the nourishing kind, the prayed-for kind, or if it’s the Big One, the inevitable threat, The End.
In Magic: the Gathering you can’t escape the swamp. The most commonly played card in Magic are Basic Land cards, which generate the in-game currency, called mana, that players use to play creatures and sorceries and enchantments. The Basic Land card that generates black mana is called Swamp. Calling upon the swamps, extracting their resources, allows you to cast spells that embody (according to the developers of the game) “Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, & Paranoia.” Black mana’s creatures tend to be the undead or demons. Its spells evoke plague, vampirism, zombification, Faustian bargains, necromancy.
We’re all thinking it here: President Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp.” He was referring to Washington D.C., both the city and the political climate there. For the GOP, which is as close to a political embodiment of the values of black mana as can be, this slogan means that to drain the swamp would be to siphon out the mud and dreck of civil liberties protections & financial regulations to leave a useable crater to be filled back in with defense contractors and oil lobbyists and christofascists. You know, sturdier stuff. Ironically, when Democrat majority leader Nancy Pelosi was campaigning in 2006, she also used the slogan “drain the swamp,” and for her then the Wall Street tycoons and health insurers and roadblocks to campaign finance reform so beloved by Trump were the aspects of D.C. that needed removal. It’s often said that Washington D.C. was itself built on a swamp—not metaphorically, but on literal swampland. People point to the nearby mashlands of Maryland, and the fact that D.C.’s summer humidity is chokingly intense, but it’s an urban legend. The town was built on dry riverbed & woodland hills. Swamp somehow makes space for our collective ideas of rot. But far from decaying, the foundations of the city, much like the ideas of white supremacy and settler colonialism that make up the foundations of the American project, have been stable this whole time.
I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. When your mom has a cancer recurrence, when her cancer cells are metastasizing throughout her upper body, every ache, every sneeze, every skipped meal might mean the Big One is finally here. A routine trip to the doctor because of a lingering cough might mean the last hospital admission she ever has, might mean, like a sudden, violent downpour, the thing you couldn’t see it coming even if you knew it was always coming.
A comprehensive review of 189 wetland studies cited in the academic journal Marine and Freshwater Research found that the Earth has lost 54-57% of its total wetland area compared to pre-industrial totals, almost entirely owing to human drainage projects.
You tell me what the common thread is here. I had a childhood where, in assorted parts, I spent time obsessing over: Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” series; walking around graveyards; trying to accrue as many extra lives in video games that I could; heavy metal bands; playing as the Necromancer class in “Diablo II”; the concept of séances & actually trying to perform them; Magic: the Gathering decks that brought creatures back from the dead; a band I was in that I named “Phoenix Down,” after the item in the Final Fantasy series of role playing games that gives a character the infamous revivifying qualities of the eponymous firebird; my favorite professional wrestler, who has always been The Undertaker—a supernatural lord of the dead, who began as a zombie gravedigger controlled by a mortician with an occult urn, who was killed, literally buried [un-]alive multiple times, who always came back from out the dirt months later with increasing consciousness & independence & preternatural power over light and electricity, who always came back to compete at WrestleMania to defend his undefeated streak of victories, who always came back.
The closest thing to a conventional chorus in The Chameleons’ song, “Swamp Thing,” contains, in part, the lyrics: “Look around, look around./All around you walls are tumbling down./Stop staring at the ground.” I spend more days than I’d like to admit doing nothing. My depression and my executive dysfunction tag-teaming me into missing deadlines, not returning emails, underpreparing for work. It takes hours some days just to leave the bed in the morning. I skip meals simply because putting my body into motion is too daunting. I am not special in my struggle, I know. Many people feel the frustration of illness interfering with their capability or ambition. Feel like they are wasting time. My mental health is at its poorest after I read about how little time we all probably have left. Every week is a new report that ecological collapse is happening faster than even aggressive climate models were projecting. Every week we learn how fast the coral is acidifying, how drastically in decline is the world’s insect population, what year within the next twenty or ten that millions upon millions of people will be displaced from their coastal homes and become climate refugees, holding out a desperate hope that they will not be killed at the border of a neighboring country even as, right now in the year I am writing this, the world is already obsessing over the ideas of nationalism and border control and citizenry and ownership and hoarding resources and the world is already forgetting about the concept of mercy. Humanity has only a Hail Mary pass of a chance to keep global warming levels right under 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures (above which point the rate of warming is thought to increase exponentially in a way that we won’t be able to prevent), and it’s going to require a global rejection of capitalist models of resource and labor distribution as soon as possible. The bleakest climate models tell us that it’s already too late. I sit around, failing to write, failing to think, failing to do the dishes, trying to process that this is the best my life is ever going to be. That I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. It feels like this.
The thing about swamps is that we pour into them what we fear will harm us. The thing about swamps is that so does the Earth. Swamps and other wetlands take in atmospheric carbon, sink it deep within themselves. Swamps remove carbon from the air and turn it into plant tissue, which in turn collects & stores more carbon. Swamps act as a buffer for storm surge and rising water levels. If we could increase the total amount of wetlands on Earth, restore or refresh or repair them, we could dramatically fight back against the carbon crisis while helping mitigate some of the damage that we’ve already caused to our climate. It’s a cruel truth: that what we’re scared of, be it socialism or swamps or decolonial solidarity, is what will actually save us.
I’ve been trying get this essay to come together not by draining its excess but by addition, by flooding the page with associations. It’s gotten messier and messier as it has resisted saying the thing I’ve been trying not to say. I’ve barely written about my mom’s death because I’ve felt that some things deserve to be privately held. But what you feel is good for you is not always good for the art, so I think I need to show you what I’ve kept submerged so far.
Before she died, my mom had signed a Do Not Resuscitate form that was [arguably] violated by workers at the hospital she eventually passed away in. I’ll refrain from specific names so as not to get bogged down in a legal complication (I didn’t even intend to use a wetland pun there, but so hazardous & inscrutable is the justice system that it’s cliché to compare it to dark depths). They revived her body, keeping it alive on life support. It was midnight by the time I flew in & made my way to the hospital, right in time to see the nurse attempt to see if my mom still had active brain activity. It’s called an apnea test—turning off the respirator, flooding the lungs with pure oxygen, and seeing how the gasses in the blood respond. Ten eternal minutes went by with no change, then, quite suddenly, seemingly as if in response to my voice—“I’m here, your daughter Berry is here,” I said; the very first time I referred to myself as my mom’s daughter -- my mom’s arms raised themselves up for the first time in two days and her hands moved towards her face. In the part of me where I thought hope was the most radiant I thought she was trying to communicate. I thought through my presence alone I was bringing her back, but to place your hope in Black Magic is by design a selfish hope. What actually was happening was an autonomous response, her hands trying to pull the breathing tube from out of her throat. It was not a conscious movement. There was no indication of brain activity when her arms raised up for what would be the last time. In 14 hours from that point, my brother and I would decide, easily, to remove our mom from life support & she would pass, her brain at peace if negation can be said to be a kind of peace, into waters uncertain. It was an easy decision to make. She signed that DNR form because she had no interest in being kept, technically, alive by a machine. No desire to live as a scientific shell. To have put my hope into the impossibility of her mental consciousness returning to her would have been actually, I think, hopelessness. The difference between my mom and Swamp Thing is that Swamp Thing had to deal personally with the existential crisis of being alive but no longer human. With my mom, that same existential crisis instead belonged to me, my brother, everyone in her life.
I think what I’m feeling here is that I need to learn how to hope unselfishly. Hoping to be saved, that it will all work out, is selfish, like waiting around for the inevitable storm, when what is required is action. Unselfish hope is active. It’s working for and with other people. It’s collective action against Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, Paranoia. I think hope is about not staring at the ground. I think it’s about overcoming fear.
From the flavor text to the Magic: the Gathering card, “Tendrils of Corruption”:
“Even swamps need sustenance. We will give it to them, and in turn, they will sustain us.” —Ezrith, druid of the Dark Hours
Berry Grass has lived in rural Missouri, Tuscaloosa, and Philadelphia. She is the author of Hall of Waters (2019, The Operating System). Her essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Territory, Barrelhouse, and Sonora Review, among other publications. Her favorite bit of Goth street cred is that in high school she convinced her mom to let her paint her bedroom walls black.