Race and Gender in Early Horror and Science Fiction

Jeanine Webb
Jeanine Webb

Horror, it might be said, confronts us with the reality of the darkest reaches of our desires, taboos and human cruelties which underlie mass and popular culture or which linger at the farthest remote regions of the imagination.

At the same time, horror also creates critical distortion, and the best horror and weird fiction make terrible structural contradictions visible. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, for example (notorious in his life for his racist fears of contagion) also said (with unknowing irony, one imagines) that “From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.” Much of the best horror contains not just xenophobic terror at the Other, but empathy for the monster and the “monstrous,” the antihero, the existence of unsurety, for the victim or survivor who fights back against impossible odds. This list gathers work by early science fiction and horror writers, work spanning the first gothic horror and proto-science fiction texts in the eighteenth-century to the era just before the New Wave of science fiction writers begins in the 1950s and 1960s. I chose to construct the list with a particular attention to works which provide critical distortions of race, gender and other forms of structural inequality, where applicable.

This list is divided into thematic subgroupings, which I have often paired with a related film and critical text in order to provide one scholarly and one cultural lens through which to read the previous literary and cultural texts. I have also listed some further, or supplementary, texts on critical race theory, the posthuman, gender, queer theory, psychoanalytic theory and historical context in the final section of the list which I believe to be vital to the study of science fiction and horror. Though many of these texts are contemporary, they provide helpful and fresh critical framings for reading early horror and science fiction in our era. The list’s subgroupings outline basic thematic starting points for teaching, gathering primary and secondary sources to put them in conversation with each other.

The first section of the list, ‘Voyages to the Continents of the Other’, deals with speculative voyages of discovery, colonization or adventure to other worlds, previously unknown to the narrator(s) of their stories. Owing much to the genre of Romance going back to the Late Gothic, to the mythic and folk traditions, as well as to transatlantic epistolary novels and records of voyages of colonization and conquest, this genre foregrounds setting, culture and worldbuilding. I have included foundational texts (More, Swift), various critical and feminist utopias (Gilman, Cavendish), influential graphic visions (McKay), a popular novel of empire (Haggard) and dystopian cinematic voyages of discovery which end in horror. Fredric Jameson’s historical and materialist analysis of the structural and political bases for the “utopian wish,” or “desire” from ‘Archaeologies of the Future’ serves to provide one critical lens through which to read these texts, though Spivak, Fanon, Johns and José Muñoz provide further contextualization for the emergence of these raced narratives in critical feminist, postcolonial, queer contexts.

The section ‘Haunts, Vampyrs, Dark Lords and Immaterial Companions’ gathers early Gothic tales of hauntings, murder, erotic exsanguination and contagion. Victorian stories of the fallen woman’s Ur-mythos — the demonic, ever-renewing dark heroine — provide some historically significant depictions of the figure of the “mad woman,” the demoniac and the hypnagogic erotic in early horror. Jack Halberstam’s rereading of the monstrous other and the Gothic, Skin Shows, provides a critical framework. I include Edgar Allan Poe’s humorous story on a bet with the devil, his story of a Flying Dutchman-like ghost ship, Browning’s murderous Duke’s monologue and Byron’s poem written in the persona of a skull cup.

The ‘Terror and Sublimity of Scale and Space’ looks at early science fiction works and weird tales which take as their subject the enormity of the cosmic: whether cold void, source of environmental or planetary catastrophe (Wells), dwelling-place of the unknowable alien Other (Lovecraft), or source of uncontrollable, unexplainable telescopic passion (Hardy). Other writers look with wonder and horror at the scope of the microscopic biomes that exist on the other end of the scale — here I included working-class poet Mary Leapor’s poem that speaks of microorganisms as “whales that live but half a day,” and Robert Hooke’s illustrative Royal Society study Micrographia, which changed the popular imagination and science forever. These works are paired with Edmund Burke’s aesthetic treatise on ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful’ and Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès silent film journey to the moon and stars.

The next two sections, ‘Intimacy With Machines’ and ‘Reanimations’ and ‘Queer Monsters’ and Mad Scientists consider sci-fi and horror which focuses on otherworldly voices and non-human and human “monsters,” “reanimations” (like ‘Der Golem’, the avenging creation of the Rabbi in the famed film), the first queer aliens (Sturgeon), revolutionary and feminist witches (Lieber, Warner) and the way Enlightenment discourses and material practices have affected science fiction and horror and the way we think about sense and sensation since the eighteenth-century. I have included Elizabeth Young’s reading of black Frankenstein figures as a metaphor for racial hierarchy as well as a critique of racialized violence, Black Frankenstein. Val Lewton’s early zombie film, set in a small white town in which the statue in the centre of town turns out to be taken from a slave ship, is also included here. Zora Neale Hurston’s narrative study of actual Vodun practice serves to frame this popular depiction.

The final section looks at Post-Apocalypse and Critical Dystopias, at the eeriness of the enormity of bureaucracy (Kafka), at narratives about the nature of reality and the carceral (Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov’s novel, which he called “a violin in a void”), at an Afrofuturist reading of Ellison, and at a story which describes the post-plague collapse of formerly ossified empires (Shelley). This section delivers us back into our present, an era of economic collapse and looming environmental catastrophe, in which these subgenres of horror and science-fiction and their significant distortions are popular anew.

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