August 18, 2009

English class focuses on apocalyptic literature

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The end is near -- and the semester hasn’t even started yet!

Pinckney Benedict’s course in apocalyptic literature at Southern Illinois University Carbondale explores the stories that describe the end of the world, and invites students to write their own versions.

Benedict, a professor of creative writing in the Department of English, introduced the course -- listed in Banner as ENGL 351: Forms of Fiction -- at SIUC in 2006. The “Forms” class is, by definition, a combination of literature and creative writing. Benedict found the format a good fit for studying and creating stories on the apocalyptic theme.

“I’ve long been fascinated by the literature of the apocalypse, from the Utnapishtim section of the Epic of Gilgamesh through the Old Testament flood story up to modern-day films, music and video games,” he said, noting that the “Forms” class gave him the opportunity to put it together with a writing class.

Why a class focused on the end of the world, or the end of the world as we, or the characters in the story, know it? Remember the Y2K panic? That’s part of it.

“Every age, so far as I can determine, and every culture, has been fascinated with depictions of its own ending, and has created compelling art from the images of its own destruction,” Benedict said. “In decadent cultures, like our own, I think this fascination with destruction becomes an obsession and even a kind of wish-fulfillment.”

The course incorporates a wide range of literature, and includes other forms of storytelling, including music, movies and even video games. Students can expect to contribute their own writing as well, either critically or creatively, Benedict said.

Benedict, a multiple Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Award winner, co-founder of the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop and co-editor of the poetry and fiction anthology “Surreal South,” quite naturally has his own creative say on the subject. His apocalyptic story, “The Beginnings of Sorrow,” appears as a reprint in “The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, vol. 20,” edited by Stephen Jones and expected this fall from Running Press Books. The story first appeared in the journal “Sonora Review.” The story is set on a small farm in southern Appalachia, and, as Benedict describes it, “is about the end of the world -- which embodies itself first in a talking dog.”

While the class is serious and the workload consistent with an upper-division undergraduate course, students can reasonably expect to have fun, given Benedict’s not-entirely-gloom-and-doom perspective of worldwide calamity.

“I think it’s entirely possible that we’re being prepared somehow through these narratives for a coming global disaster,” he said. “My money is on the zombies, but there’s an excellent case to be made for the rise of robots as well. The excellent and always instructive Will Smith has starred in successful movies on both subjects. With him as my example, I intend not only to survive the apocalypse but to thrive.”

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