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‘Twas a dark and stormy night

Devendra Varma laughed 25 years ago when David McNeil – the young professor assigned to take over Varma’s Gothic novel and romantic poetry classes during Varma’s upcoming sabbatical – asked to see his syllabus.

“When the wind blows and the leaves whirl around the clock tower, I teach Ode to the West Wind. When the snow comes I teach Mount Blanc or Frankenstein. I deal in the spiritual world, Dr. McNeil. There are no syllabi,” the Gothic literature expert told him.

Varma, who was a professor at Dalhousie between 1963 and 1991, passed away in 1994. He was 71. Today, his legacy is honoured at Dal by the annual Varma Prize and accompanying Varma Readings.

Three cash prizes of $500, $150 and $100 are awarded to winners of a creative writing contest in Gothic literature. The winning entries as well as honourable mentions are read by the authors at the event.

“It gets students engaged,” says McNeil, from his book-filled office in the upper reaches of the McCain.

“It also keeps Professor Varma’s image alive, his reputation alive. From my point of view, that’s wonderful.”

Professor Varma’s image, as McNeil describes it in a tribute he gave for Varma last year, is that of a man with deep spirituality, intense passion for his work and great appreciation for the romance and mystery of the world. He lived in a round house because – to quote McNeil – there were “no corners for the vampires to hide in.”

He is even featured in the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology as well as compiling modern editions of over 200 Gothic novels. He also made several trips to Transylvania in pure gothic fashion.

“He was quite a flamboyant person,” says McNeil. “He had a real theatrical presence in the classroom and his students really responded.” McNeil speaks admiringly, and almost reverently, about the late professor. You can see his fond memories in his smile, and hear them in his warm tone of voice.

“The prize is supported by William Blakeney,” he says, one of Devendra’s students. “He was so entertained, educated, and moved by Devendra that he established this prize.”

The criteria for the prizes are simple: you have to be an English student, write a piece of literature no longer than 250 words, and make sure your piece is gothic in nature.

“Gothic literature to me is very psychological,” says Bruce Greenfield, who is chairing the English department’s prizes committee this year. “It explores people’s fears, and their illicit desires.”

Greenfield doesn’t feel the recent fascination with Gothic literature and television show is something that is unique or more pronounced within our modern culture; on the contrary, “it’s been very popular for three centuries at least.”

Because of this popularity, the Varma Prize is one of the more sought-after writing awards in Dal’s English Department, receiving upwards of 50 entries per year.

The award, says Greenfield, serves not only to recognize students’ achievement but also as “a reminder that the arts originate with creative individuals.”

“An English department studies creative writing,” Greenfield adds. “I think it’s possible in an English department to forget that the poems and stories and plays that we study were written by actual people who were once the age of our students.”

McNeil recalls in his tribute a cold November day when he encountered Varma on campus.
A group of crows were making a ruckus in one of those tall trees near the Hicks Building,” he writes.

“(Varma) looked up and then glanced over at me and said, ‘And I suppose you think those crows are just crows.’”

Some of us might think the stories submitted for the prize in Varma’s memory are just stories, or the wine that’s served at the readings is just wine. But rumour has it (and David McNeil has it) William Blakeney’s been sending in special vampire wine over the past couple of years. On the day before Halloween, maybe a little taste of the supernatural is just what you need.

The Varma Readings take place Friday, Oct. 30, at The Grawood from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Costumes are welcome and refreshments will be served.


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