Gothic goodies: Creative writing competition celebrates the macabre

- November 14, 2014

Varma prize winner Helen Pinsent. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Varma prize winner Helen Pinsent. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

“Rumour has it, he saw ghosts,” said Herman Varma of his father, Devendra Varma, this Halloween as the Department of English hosted its annual Varma celebration.

Herman was thrilled to see how Dalhousie continues to honour his father’s memory. Dr. Varma was a faculty member in the Dalhousie Department of English for 31 years, retiring in 1991. In his honour, William Blakeney, a student of Dr. Varma’s, established the Varma Prizes in Gothic Literature — a now much-loved annual tradition in which students pen their own tales of horror and the Gothic.

Dr. Varma had a similarly inspiring impact on David McNeil, the department’s current chair. In an amusing introduction to the afternoon’s festivities, which included readings by competitors and presentation of the prizes, Dr. McNeil told some stories of his time working with Dr. Varma.

Dr. McNeil was set to teach Dr. Varma’s class on Gothic literature and romanticism while the latter went on sabbatical. Upon requesting that Dr. Varma show him his previous syllabi for reference, he was told, according to the dramatic retelling: “When the wind blows and the leaves whirl around the clock tower, I teach Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. When the snows come, I teach Mont Blanc — or Frankenstein. I deal in the spiritual world, Dr. McNeil; there are no syllabi.”

“I took this last comment as a hint that I should leave,” Dr. McNeil told the rapt crowd, “which I did, thinking that I’d have to consult the Farmer’s Almanac if I wanted to plan the rest of the year.”

Halloween spirit was joyfully shared by all for the rest of the event. Many students and faculty members came in costume to enjoy the abundant Romanian wine and snacks, and one of the student writers, to the fright of all, arranged to have fake blood begin to drip from his mouth in the middle of his reading.

Creepy tales

In this year’s Varma competition, Helen Pinsent came in first place and received a $500 prize for her story, “Transaction.”

“It kind of started with the first line,” she says. “I knew I wanted it to be a really tight scope” — the contest has a 250-word limit — “so before I even know where the story was going to go, I had the line ‘I remember the ink blotted when I signed,’ and it just kind of flowed from there.”

Helen wore an impressive Poe-inspired cape, made to look like a raven’s feathered back, with the word “Nevermore” inscribed on it.

“I do really like Edgar Allan Poe and I had actually been reading a lot of Poe when I wrote ['Transaction'],” she says. “I wanted to get away from the gory end of Gothic and get a little bit more psychological. There’s so much more room there, I think, for good characterization and for a lot more creativity than if you just go straight gore.”

Lysle Hood came in second place ($150) with her story “Fragments,” and Mitchel Brinton came in third ($100) with his “Qu’Appele! – Who calls?” The runners-up were Karl Fritze for his “Forerunners” and Sage Beatson for her “Formaldehyde Kisses.”



By Helen Pinsent

I remember the ink blotted when I signed. I looked up into eyes no less dark than that already bleeding blotch, and said, “Then we have a bargain.” My love’s sickbed was at the end of the hall, and presumably my visitor had business elsewhere. The study was empty before the pen hit the carpet.

I had been careful. I would escape the cruel fate of banishing disease only to see it replaced by catastrophe. “A long life without sorrow.” Thus, she and I would live and die together, I knew.

I burst into her room, but no bright smile greeted me. No vibrant physique had replaced her frail frame. I felt betrayed; I would find that swindler and demand justice. Then, as I turned to leave, the light glinted off the sweat on my wife’s grey forehead. I noticed for the first time the intricate pattern in which her pale lips had cracked. Each movement she made triggered the symphonious creaking and popping of brittle bone. How could I leave now, when faced with the most captivating image I had ever seen? I watched her deterioration, utterly fascinated.

And I knew what I had done. It was no trick; I had received exact payment. In selling my soul I had sold my sorrow, and the Devil didn’t wait for death to claim his due. Long life would be mine, and sorrow has no home when one worships dissolution. I am as happy today as I have ever been.


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