Ecology, Place, and the Metaphysics of Horror Fiction

Brad Tabas

Brad Tabas

While lesser examples of the genre use stock scenarios like haunted houses, misty graveyards, and god-forsaken rock outcroppings, most of the finest pieces of horror writing explore the expression of place in highly specific and deeply innovative ways. Sometimes this engagement with place, as in the work of China Tom Miéville, involves the invention of new and weird topographies, while for other writers, the places described are known regions and even seemingly familiar locales.

For Howard Phillips Lovecraft, it was the New England landscape, with its “vast and gloomy virgin forests in whose perpetual twilight all terrors might well lurk” (Lovecraft 1973, 60-61) that gave birth to Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne (and surely also to Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself.) Jeff VanderMeer, one of the contemporary writers that I turn to at a later juncture, openly admits the importance of the Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, Portugal as well as the Saint Mark’s wildlife refuge in Florida as sources of inspiration. Nor is the expression of place in weird fiction restricted to a banal or artless preoccupation with describing places or alluding to hackneyed topoi (as the Gothic is sometimes accused of doing with its haunted castles and misty moors).

Indeed, the most strikingly original aspect of the best weird fiction’s expression of place is the ways in which it deforms or veers (in Nicholas Royle’s finely nuanced sense of the term) our ordinary and often careless ways of talking about the environment into a novel and arresting literary expressions.

Strangely enough, though, ecologically engaged critics have barely cast an eye towards this kind of writing. Tom Lynch, Cheryll Glotfelty, and Karla Armbruster’s recent ‘The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place’, devotes no chapter to horror writing and many to nature writing and regional literature. The same is true of Rob Friedman and Karen E. Waldron’s ‘Towards a Literary Ecology: Places and Spaces in American Literature’.

Surely the excuse for this oversight would somehow involve the notion of the natural and some form of insistence that horror does not deal with the natural but rather with the supernatural, as it is of nature and naturalism that the editors of these volumes speak when they explain the general literary strategies at work in the texts covered in their volumes. But as we will see, this overlooks and misunderstands the functioning of explorations of place in horror. Another possible justification for ignoring horror might involve the claim that all horror is set in generic locations, or perhaps it might suggest that it is preoccupied with ghosts and figments of the imagination as opposed to the depths of cosmic reality. But both of these objections, as we shall see, are quite shallow, quickly remedied and responded to via the reading of the highest examples of weird writing.

Doubtless, this disregard for the weird tradition also results from a somewhat blinkered conception of ecological criticism, one perhaps tied too closely to the idea of seeing literature as a means of transmitting information, and too married to the idea that evocations of place in literature ought to amount to a kind of cartography or landscape painting. But as we will see in what follows, weird literature can help us to develop an utterly different, if not less important, critical conception of the role of literature as prompting us to think deeply about the reality of the places that we inhabit.

One problem with dismissing supernatural horror for its lack of “naturalism” derives from a lack of appreciation on the part of naturalist writers and critics for the thoroughgoing idealism of their position. Naturalist writers and critics that confound realism and naturalism consistently confuse what Timothy Bloxam Morton might call the natural and the Natural. The natural we might take to mean the reality beyond our minds, the things of the world in their relation with one another. The Natural, on the other hand, we might take to refer to this “outside” as it appears to reflecting subjects via the mediation of our cultural, scientific, and linguistic representations. As Timothy Bloxam Morton has extensively argued in his ‘Ecology Without Nature’, one of the major weaknesses of ecological writing and in particular the critical literature on this writing has been its tendency to confound nature and Nature by engaging in what he calls “eco-mimesis” (Morton 2009, 81), essentially the confusion of representations of things with the things themselves; Immanuel Kant described this as “transcendental realism” (Kant B 518).

The point is not that there is there is no ultimate autonomous reality outside of our heads, but rather that the ideas and representations that we have about this reality, what we call “nature,” are not identical with the real, and in taking them to be identical we precisely occult the real and so miss out on a deeper and perhaps more satisfying form of realism. In other words, the nature that we think, and think that we see, is a deformed version of the real, transformed by complex perceptual and cognitive processes. As Graham Harman has somewhat paradoxically put it: “nature is not natural and can never be naturalized” (Harman 2005, 251). A deeper realism, then, is not to be accomplished by focusing on what we call nature, but may paradoxically be achieved by lifting our gaze above or beyond nature to the real. Weirdly enough, this meta-natural realism, not in its reality but in its expression, often seems to evoke what we call the supernatural, if indeed we understand this word to designate something that stands opposed to, or beyond, the Natural.

The genius of horror and the supernatural precisely lies in its refusal to accept the Natural as ultimate or identical with reality. The very condition of possibility for supernatural horror is the acknowledgement of a gap between the real and the Natural or naturalized. Weird fiction (a term that I will here use as synonymous with horror, after the habit established by Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Sunand Tryambak Joshi) is weird or veered precisely as an expression of fidelity towards the real as that which demands a veering of, or deformation of, the natural towards what Jeff VanderMeer might call weird naturalism.1

Supernatural horror, in other words, should be of interest to ecologists precisely because it is realist, but not Naturalist. The realism of this type keeps eco-critics focused on things-in-themselves and not upon mere representations of those things. This demands a great deal of critical rigour, but it also yields a heightened attentiveness to both the text and the world that surrounds us, for few will deny that their senses have ever achieved such knife-edge sharpness as they do in moments when they confront the terrifying and unknown. Indeed, a higher awareness of this kind yields a very deep ecology, an ecology that is not merely aware of the interconnection of objects that are not human, but also of the strangeness and otherness of these objects and the places that their intermeshing generates.

As Tom Sparrow’s object-oriented re-reading of Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics has suggested, attention to otherness orients us towards the opening of an authentically ethical relationship to our environments, since the otherness that we are attending to echoes the strangeness of other human beings that we normally attribute to their recognition demanding capacity for spontaneous, and moral, actions. Therefore we are forced to see the world around us as radically independent of our own will and designs.

Aside from allowing us to develop an ethical approach towards thinking about the otherness of places and objects, developing a mode of ecocriticism adequate to dealing with weird writing allows for the elaboration of critical and not dogmatic forms of eco-critical practice, since it is the gap between the real and the natural that opens the space for a criticism that does more than envisioning literature simply as a sweetened means for delivering the dry truths of scientific discoveries, but rather as an art that alludes to an all-important yet obscure reality to which we must learn to attend.

It is clear that the kind of realism at work in horror fiction is of a special kind that has little to do with what would ordinarily be called realism in literature. Borrowing a term from Graham Harman (2012), I call the realism of horror weird realism. Weird realism involves the insistence that there is a reality outside and beyond the senses, while at the same time claiming that this reality can, in the occult and incomprehensible ways, interfere with and challenge our reality, altering it and transforming it in sometimes inscrutable, contingent, or weirdly super-Natural ways. In weird realism, the object outside experience does exist, and it exists wholly independently of our experience or even our logic.

As Jeff VanderMeer, for instance, explains, with reference to his weird naturalism, we live on “an alien planet filled with incredibly sophisticated organisms that we only partially understand […] our so-called smart-phones and other advanced technology is incredibly dull and primitive next to the diversity and intensity of other life on Earth”. (VanderMeer 2014) Yet if we cannot, and do not, fully understand these sophisticated organisms, they can nevertheless affect or influence that experience and logic in ways that do not wholly make sense to us. Thus the real, while never fully present to our minds or our senses, appears to us as dark, weird, veered, or uncanny. Reckoning with the fact that reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, however, sometimes means accepting that the actual can be confounded with the delusions of an unhealthy mind.

As a literary strategy, this weirdness in part expresses itself in the supernatural, which is, of course, that which is veered or “off” with respect to what counts as the normal or natural. But it can also articulate itself in various rhetorical strategies aimed at either expressing the outside or repressing the almost automatic mechanisms of naturalization that interpose themselves between places and their representations. Very often, then, weird descriptions of place are indeed written about writing, their target being as much the critique of the forgetting of the real in naïve naturalism as it is the expression of reality in any straightforward sense. The product of these weird expressions of a place is not knowledge, as in the case of science or naturalistic writing, but rather an attunement, a straining after or intensified awareness of the presence of others that also relate, beyond our perceptions and cognitions, amongst themselves, and so form places. We might say that this is an awareness, and not a knowledge, of the weird reality of ecosystems.

It would be unnecessary to cultivate our awareness of these weird realms if reality itself did not possess this structure. Yet one of the most salient facts about life in what Paul Crutzen and a growing mass of social scientists, historians, and literary critics call the Anthropocene is precisely our growing awareness of the gap between the cosmos as it appears to us and its depths.2 It would be unnecessary to cultivate our awareness of these weird realms if reality itself did not possess this structure. Yet one of the most salient facts about life in what Paul Crutzen and a growing mass of social scientists, historians, and literary critics call the Anthropocene is precisely our growing awareness of the gap between the cosmos as it appears to us and its depths. We are all aware that the spring of 2014 was incredibly snowy to residents of the northeastern United States of America, and yet it was also the same period in which the American Academy of Sciences confirmed that the climate had already warmed by two degrees. We are all — I hope — disturbed by the fact that the juicy red tomato that we buy at the store is actually filled with carcinogenic pesticides.

We know, thanks to work of cognitive scientists like Andrew Clark, that our perceived world is a reduction of the total background to a few selected signs, a world that differs in degree but not in kind from the famously reduced world of the tick described by Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll. We should not feel that nothing happens to the world when we turn on our cars, though we often do forget that this simple and seemly inconsequential act is responsible for adding invisible CO2 particles into our atmosphere. These are all, admittedly, gaps that are glimpsed between the Nature of science and the Nature of the lifeworld of ordinary perception, but they do remind us of the horrifying uncanniness of the cosmos, and the complicity of our ordinary ways of perceiving in the perpetuation of our collective ecocide. In sum, the fracturing of our world supports the weird realist speculation that there is more to the world than is dreamt of in our (naturalist) philosophy.

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