Apocalyptic and the Gothic Aftermath Through Victorian Times

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

Javier Aguirresarobe, cinematographer for director John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel ‘The Road’, wisely resisted the lure, the spectacular allure, of computer-generated imagery (CGI), choosing instead to compose his grim and ashen vision of the ruined world with clippings from the redolent imagery of our own.

He filmed the disaster landscapes of America, settings ruined by strip mining and by volcanic eruptions, and spliced found footage of Hurricane Katrina and the terror attacks of 9/11 into the scenery of the post-nuclear wasteland through which the characters in the film wander (Nasson 2009).

The clips blend in seamlessly; they are not explicitly marked as “documentary.” Consequently, Aguirresarobe’s technique rather stealthily places the spectator in the awkward position of being confronted with “genuine” instances of America ablaze, in the rubble, drowned, washed away, up in smoke, in the midst of a fictional rendition of apocalyptic aftermath.

Watching Hillcoat’s film, unknowingly, we witness the end of the world not as spectacle, not as an event to come, not as big bang, but rather as the variegated whimperings of the quotidian, as the overvalued currency of current events.

Apocalypse is not doomsday, it is just the everyday. The apocalypse has already happened, it is happening all about us, even as we gaze upon it, more or less unruffled.

The repertoire of widely available stock images of the end of the world is extensive: Fukushima, Haiti, global warming; the economic collapse of 2008, the riots of ungovernable Greece, skyrocketing unemployment; the civil wars in Syria, Egypt, Pakistan; the endless wars on Islam.

The end of America: Governor Walker’s Wisconsin, the demolition of the middle class, tea baggery ascendant; the obedient civil disobedience of the 99 percent; the Rapture, the fracking, the Gulf oil spill; New Orleans submerged; Detroit, Rochester, Buffalo, all the industrial urban centers desolate, even the suburbs, many of them, left to ruin. Clearly, the end is at hand. Clearly, the end has passed us by. Apocalypse is now seen not as impending but in the rear-view mirror of our culture.

Such catastrophes are commonplace. If the images of them are not everywhere digitally enhanced they are everywhere circulated and digitally saturate the collective consciousness of our mediasphere; they are the banal eschatology of the twenty-first-century, the traces of the tread of a waning, thinning American empire, ubiquitous, harum-scarum in retreat.

They are stitched into our well-being; as Naomi Klein argues in ‘The Shock Doctrine’, catastrophe is the neoliberal stitching of our shrinking pockets of well-being. Markets fatten on ruin. The visualization of ruin provides a warm Gothic shiver.

And our culture? For a long time now, we have relished the end. Since the late nineteenth-century, such originators of speculative fiction as H.G. Wells in England or J.H. Rosny in France, witnessing their peers in the grip of both racial and technological dread and attuned to the ways in which imperial expansion and massive immigration “globalized” conflict and hurled largely but socially, culturally, and politically distinct populations into the midst of others, had an easy time conjuring up the catastrophic potential of rapid, extensive, and worldwide modernization.

Victorian culture is often lampooned for its obstinate, reckless progressivism, its racist insistence on the benignity of Western culture, but there is apocalyptic Gothic aplenty to be found in its cultural artefacts. It is perhaps a short easy step from the apocalyptic imagination of Wells’s 1898 ‘The War of the Worlds’ to the gruesomely Gothic depiction of trench life and death in World War I.

With the notable exceptions of H.P. Lovecraft and Ambrose Bierce, early writers of what would come some decades later to be labeled “science fiction” did not typically deploy clichéd Gothic idioms in their work: a time-travelling pod, a spaceship, a submarine is not a decaying mansion; an alien or primitive or subhuman race is not the Catholic clergy or the ruined aristocracy. But the Gothic delights in excess, grotesquerie, scorns the moral, and the energizing tension between rationalist impulses and the indulgence of morbidity, of perversion, marks the admixture of Gothic and apocalyptic science fiction.

Mary Shelley’s 1826 fantasy of a world depopulated, ‘The Last Man’ , is an important link between the great age of British Gothic fiction in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-centuries and the emergence of Victorian science fiction, and such subsequent horror classics as Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1886) betray the fraternity of science fiction and horror genres.

‘Neuromancer’, William Gibson’s cyberpunk and deeply Gothic classic of 1984, explicitly references this shared genealogy in its depiction of “Villa Straylight,” a haunted mansion lifted straight out of such classic Gothic fiction as ‘The Castle of Otranto’ or ‘The Monk’ but set aboard the orbiting artificial resort of Freeside.

And many fictions of the late-nineteenth-century set the putative end of the world directly in their sights. The military technology to accomplish mass destruction was increasingly available or easily envisioned; if industrialization did not supply the means for destroying the earth, writers could turn to time-honored divine weapons of mass destruction: the biblical plagues, famines, the floods of the ‘Books of Genesis’ or ‘Revelation’; Leonardo da Vinci’s deluge; the black or red deaths of medieval eschatology. More importantly, sans divine wrath, revolutionary politics and scientific eugenics provided a ready-made ideological rationale for the end of the world.

By the fin de siècle, writers of the apocalypse had an array of both wills and ways near at hand. Accordingly, and depending on the political stance of the writer, the end of the world might be envisioned as a good or a bad thing.

Dystopias, utopias abound, many disposable potboilers, many penned by now-canonical writers: Edward Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward’ (1887); William Morris’s ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890), which responded critically to Bellamy’s statist, hyper-rationalized, and industrialized vision of the future; Jack London’s ‘The Scarlet Plague’ (1912); Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist utopia, ‘Herland’ (1915).

Such apocalyptic fictions tended, then, to be either dire warnings, of a typically (but not exclusively) conservative cast, or revolutionary, wherein the cataclysmic end of the world as we know it was envisioned, ultimately, as a painful but necessary step in securing the transition to a radically transformed and more just, rational, and beneficent new world order.

Sometimes, as with Jack London’s ‘The Iron Heel’ (1908), it was hard to tell if one was reading a reactionary or a revolutionary text: class struggle mutates into racial warfare. The transition charted by London, from working-class hero to fascist race-hero, from revolutionary righteousness into the mass extermination of those deemed unworthy to share in the blessings of the new society, of course, is part of the sad and mysterious history of the twentieth-century, a history itself cast more in the Gothic than the Enlightenment mode, and seemingly affecting both rightist and leftist ideologies.

At any rate, late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century apocalyptic writing is almost everywhere occasioned by and infected with racial dread, mobilized by the fear of a racial contamination, infection, and possible vanquishing, of “Western” civilization.

According to Mike Davis , who in his study of disaster and politics in Los Angeles, Ecology of Fear , provides an exhaustive cataloguing and trenchant reading of early disaster literature and the subsequent films that delight in destroying the City of Angels, “the abiding hysteria of Los Angeles disaster fiction, and perhaps of all disaster fiction — the urge to strike out and destroy, to wipe out an entire city and untold tens of thousands of its inhabitants — is rooted in racial anxiety” (1998: 281).

Davis’s case is exhaustively documented and entirely convincing. From Victorian times to the present, Davis asserts, “white fear of the dark race lies at the heart of such visions” (281). In book after book, film after film, fantasy after fantasy, the yellow peril/Chinese/Japanese/Asiatic communists/alien hordes arrive to wipe out Anglo-America. This pattern develops, but it does not change, Davis argues, noting that after 1970, with the rise of a non-Anglo majority in Los Angeles County, representations of the city itself change.

No longer is Los Angeles depicted as an endangered home; rather, in films from ‘Earthquake’ (1974) to ‘Independence Day’ (1996), the city itself has become alien, “and its destruction affords an illicit pleasure not always visible in previous annihilations” (283).

Further, Davis asserts, the racial anxiety generated under the antagonistic conditions of modern urban space, which manifests itself in fantasies of mass annihilation, taps into and evolves from a distinctly New World predicament that has shaped the national literary tradition: “If Los Angeles’ fictional disasters, then, in some sense track national discontents as well as local histories, they also mobilize deep-seated cultural predispositions. It is probably no accident that the first American best-seller, way back in 1662, was Michael Wigglesworth’s poem ‘The Day of Doom’.

Literary historians have long asserted the constitutive role of the apocalyptic temper in the American imagination” (354–355). And so they have. Self-consciously Gothic since its beginnings (Charles Brockden Brown; Washington Irving), American writing turns out to be unrelentingly apocalyptic as well. Douglas Robinson, for example, in his important study, points out that “the very idea of America in history is apocalyptic, arising as it did out of the historicizing of apocalyptic hopes in the Protestant Reformation” (1985: xi).

In his survey, Robinson points out that apocalypse is “commonplace” in American writing — “so fundamental to American writing as to be virtually ubiquitous” (xi) — and demonstrates how writers have been so often concerned with self-reflexive questions of judgment, emphasizing the centrality of Edgar Allan Poe, our most Gothic and, Robinson asserts, apocalyptic writer.

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