Ecogothic by Andrew Smith and William Hughes
Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013. 198 pages.
Authors Andrew Smith and William Hughes assert that their Ecogothic is “the first volume to explore the Gothic theories of ecocriticsm” (1). As it turns out, they are right about that; I would have welcomed this book when I was writing my own dissertation, “The EcoGothic: Pastoral Ideologies and the Gendered Gothic Landscape,” back in 2008. This new volume brings together a variety of voices examining literature and film from England, Canada, America, and India and attempting a connection between the literary gothic and ecocriticsm.
In their introduction, Smith and Hughes trace the ecogothic back to Romanticism, though one of their authors, Tom J. Hillard, manages to convincingly trace the ecogothic back further to the late seventeenth century, and one might even argue that the Graveyard Poets, who predate the Romantics, also provide examples of the ecogothic. Certainly, the roots of the ecogothic are dependent on the definition, which seems to vary widely in this anthology. Some of the authors base their definition on the primary texts, calling the texts themselves ecogothic, whereas others reach for an ecogothic approach so that it is not necessarily the primary text that is ecogothic but the critical framework through which they view the literature and films. The essays that more effectively convey their argument make use of the former approach.
Ecogothic begins exactly where one might imagine, with a treatment of Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis, the big three of the traditional gothic. Lisa Kröger applies Jonathan Bate’s critical framework from Romantic Ecology (1991), the idea that humans can better live in the material world if they are first in harmony with nature. Kröger points out that the gothic heroine finds solace in nature, whereas the evil characters would rather stay inside the constructed landscape, or in the case of these novels, the crumbling castle. Kröger claims that like the Graveyard Poets, Radcliffe inserts the divine into nature, so that without nature, there is no God. Kröger contrasts this with the way Lewis treats nature and argues [End Page 131] that “Gothic ecology” suggests that humans need to learn to live with nature, and if they don’t, it is nature that comes out as victorious in the end (Kröger, 26). While Kröger’s argument is reasonable enough, she misses an opportunity to discuss how when the innocent (read: good) virginal character enters nature—the space she so loves—it never loves her back; in fact, when the heroine enters the natural world in these early novels, the situation becomes gothic, showing, as Christina Rossetti famously says in “The Goblin Market,” that twilight is not good for maidens—the pastoral glen becomes the gothic nightmare for young women.
Catherine Lanone’s “Monsters on the Ice and Global Warming” connects Margaret Atwood’s fiction, which she calls ecogothic, back to both the arctic explorer John Franklin and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as providing an investigation of the allusion to Franklin in Dan Simmons’s The Terror (2007). Complementing this essay are the two chapters on the Canadian ecogothic by Allana F. Bondar and Shoshannah Ganz. Bondar explores the Canadian psyche in terms of a collective view of nature, analyzing the ecogothic of both Canada’s vast and wild landscape and the country’s colonial past. Bondar clearly defines her terms, calling ecogothic texts those that attempt to “expose how these manifestations of the uncanny have been unfairly propagated within the culturally defined labyrinths of racism, sexism, speciesism and fear of the marked and/or sexualized body” (74). Bondar creates a more complicated theoretical framework for her discussion of the Canadian ecogothic than Shoshannah Ganz’s. The focus of Ganz’s discussion is on Margaret Atwood’s gothic fiction as a way to “critique environmental destruction and advocate restoration” (87).
When the collection moves on to American literature, the editors have managed once again to choose essays that seem to be in dialog with one another; Tom J. Hillard’s “From Salem Witch to Blair Witch” leads logically to Kevin Corstorphine’s “The Blank Darkness Outside,” where Corstorphine offers an ecocritical reading of the work of Ambrose Bierce. Hillard questions why the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project hit such a deep cultural nerve; to do so, Hillard digs into the roots of Puritan America and its deep distrust, and fear, of the natural world. Hillard weaves together the gothic and the landscape by claiming that for the Puritans, the New World—because it was largely unknown—functioned as a gothic landscape. According to Hillard, it is this fear of the unknown, inherited from our Puritan forefathers, that has led to our desire to control or eliminate these fears through environmental destruction such as deforestation. Hillard skillfully references this ideology to explain why The Blair Witch Project was such a sensation. As it turns out, the film relates to—for better or for worse—the audience’s atavistic roots. Corstorphine extends a similar argument pertaining to the American gothic [End Page 132] wilderness, and our “nostalgic yet fearful response,” to nature in the horror tales of Ambrose Bierce (120).
William Hughes’s “‘A Strange Kind of Evil” deals entirely with film and explores what he calls “false ecology” in the British film The Wicker Man, showing how the film at once anticipates ecological concerns while simultaneously deconstructing them. Susan J. Tyburski bases her essay “A Gothic Apocalypse: Encountering the Monstrous in American Cinema” on the ways “the monstrous” of apocalyptic films explore ecological fears. Her argument is sound, but I am not sure that the essay adequately addresses the gothic. In this piece, it is taken for granted that a postapocalyptic dystopia is necessarily gothic, but that is not always the case. Rather than clearly developing a definition of the ecogothic, Tyburski addresses nearly every other sort of eco-, including eco-horror, eco-monsters, eco-anxiety, and eco-therapy. In the end, Tyburski quotes Larry Fessenden, who says, “horror is not a genre. It’s a reality” (157). And while that may be true about horror, the gothic, by its very definition, dwells in a sort of un-reality, which provides further proof that horror and the gothic are not necessarily one and the same.
Another essay that does not seem to fit with the rest of the collection is Jim Crace’s “Locating the Self in the Post-Apocalypse.” Crace begins the essay by saying, “Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) might seem an unlikely contender as either Gothic or an ecocritical text” (134). And I couldn’t agree more, even after reading the essay. While David Punter’s “Algernon Blackwood” similarly doesn’t exactly address the gothic or ecology, Punter takes issue with the definitions of both in an interesting way, and the result is a coherent treatment of Blackwood, which turns out to be a pleasure to read.
One of the most problematic essays in the collection is Emily Carr’s “The Riddle Was the Angel in the House.” Carr treats the ecogothic as a critical practice or theoretical framework, asserting that the systems of domination that have created language must be deconstructed. She links this loosely to the ecogothic. One of the strengths of the essay is that Carr engages in the practice of deconstructing the usual expectations of a scholarly essay—in the spirit of Hélène Cixous, Carr interrupts herself with the use of parentheticals, she digresses, and she repeats nonsense statements such as “Three: there is no three to what I know” (160, 173). While I can appreciate what Carr is trying to do here, and the poet in me finds this sort of syntactical word-play fun, the result is a scattered essay that lacks clarity and focus. Carr also takes it for granted that Joy Williams’s The Changeling is a gothic text, when the novel is more anti-gothic than anything else. Because these anti-gothic elements are not addressed, Carr misses an opportunity.
But more problematic is that Carr replicates Dwight Garner’s entire New York Times article discussing the criticism and resurrection of Williams’s [End Page 133] The Changeling. Though Carr cites one of the quotations, she does not indicate that she has replicated the entire article within her essay. Carr does not give citations for the words “burned and buried” at the beginning of the discussion, nor for the Rick Moody counterargument that also comes directly from Garner’s New York Times article, showing that the material is not so much cited as lifted.
The last chapter in the collection, Sharae Deckard’s “Uncanny States,” is the most problematic of all because the convoluted writing style renders the essay unreadable. The aim of good scholarship should be to present complex ideas in a readable manner, which this essay fails to do. Although scholarship typically has a very small—and some would say esoteric and elite—audience, a reader who has a doctorate in the subject ought to be able to follow the arguments, but that was not the case for this reader. I was initially excited to see a discussion of the Indian writer Rana Dasgupta’ s fabulous Tokyo Cancelled, a frame narrative that is a modern take on The Arabian Nights, but I was deeply disappointed by the unreadability of the essay, a shortfall that should have been addressed by the editors.
Although the book is a little uneven in terms of the quality of the essays, on the whole, the collection is quite readable and accessible in an insightful, interesting, and enjoyable way. As this work shows, the definition of the ecogothic is still emerging: a slippery connection between the gothic and the earth’s ecological systems, a framework or lens from which to look at literature, the way in which the traditional gothic asserts an environmental ethic. No matter what definition you choose, Ecogothic is certain to spark inquiry, debate, and discussion, making it an important contribution to the field of both ecocriticsm and gothic studies.
SUZANNE ROBERTS is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 Outdoor Book Award) as well as four collections of poetry. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her dissertation, “The EcoGothic: Pastoral Ideologies in the Gendered Gothic Landscape,” is an ecofeminist study of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gothic. She currently teaches for the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College.