Review: Ecogothic

Ecogothic

Eds. Andrew Smith & William Hughes, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013. 224 pages) ISBN 978-0-7190-8657-1

Given that concerns about Climate Change and Global Warming loom large once more in the final decade of the original UN targets, this volume of thirteen essays from international academics in which nature and the environment in the Gothic are reassessed, should be no surprise.

As Smith and Hughes point out in their introduction, while the Gothic uses nature and landscape as a space of crisis in which socio-political anxieties can be presented and traditional world-views can be challenged, this volume explores changing representations of wilderness and landscape through current ecocritical thinking in an attempt to reinvigorate debates around gender and national identities in response to increasing globalization.

Lisa Kroger contemplates the role of the castle, abbey and forest in Radcliffe, concluding the forest is portrayed as a neutral space, being neither ‘Church-dominated’ nor the seat of ‘aristocratic power’ (p.16).  Truth is uncovered in the forest, setting a precedent for outdoor spaces as areas of ‘solace, renewal, protection’ (p.17).  Lewis’ The Monk, however, challenges Radcliffe’s Edenic view of nature, advancing a Gothic ecology by subverting the Abbey Garden as ‘the setting for the most lurid and sexual events’ contravening the garden as ‘a place of familial bliss’ and confirming the allusion to a perverse Garden of Eden. (p.23).

Catherine Lanone’s environmentalist view of Gothic fiction’s arctic landscapes draws a teleological conclusion around global warming that suggests modern society is still blind to the consequences of civilization on the environment. Frankensteinian motifs, the harshness of the landscape and indigenous myth are combined and reworked as a metaphor for ‘the late twentieth-century’s perverse relationship with the environment’ that ‘resonate with the cultural anxieties of our time’ (p.32).

In a similar lifting the veil of human egotistical blindness, David Punter considers how, influenced by late Victorian and Edwardian mysticism, death for Algernon Blackwood’s protagonists is about entering a spirit realm through nature to appreciate the non-human/Other identity.  Yet this is not necessarily a perceptive non-anthropocentric view, but rather, a vehicle for a ‘questioning of assumptions about human supremacy’ and attempts to engage us in an appreciation of other lives (p.55).

William Hughes brings a fresh ecocritical analysis of nature in The Wicker Man to the table.  Focusing on the depictions of paganism, Hughes determines that the islanders’ crop production (in all its forms) belies a dependence on corporate commercialism (humans outside nature) and that the rituals are Victorian interpretations that veil scientific progress rather than indigenous ‘folk tradition motivated … by the earth or the seasons’ (pp.62-63).  The ‘utopian vision’ is ‘far from Green’, Hughes concludes, but is ‘an experiment in social engineering and social control’ as well as capitalist ‘modified plant ecology’ (p.68).

In their respective chapters, Alanna F. Bondar and Shoshannah Ganz expand on interpretations of ‘Canadian ecoGothic’ as revised Post-colonial Gothic representations of wilderness that are no longer gender-inflected ‘other’. Bondar demonstrates how the Canadian novel uses environmental consciousness to decentre traditional binary logics of ‘other’ previously encoded in nature and the female body towards ‘a more gender-inclusive direction’ (p.75). This challenges readers to rethink the monstrous other in establishing our human identity through social constructs without precluding our place in nature. Similarly, Ganz highlights Margaret Atwood’s use of monstrous humanoids in opposition to a minority surviving human race in her apocalyptic novels to question who the true monsters are, as a gender-neutral Canadian ecoGothic that engages with debates towards ‘building an ecologically sustainable community for the future’ (p.101).

Tom J. Hillard considers the influence of the Puritan settlers’ ‘deep-seated phobia’ of nature and the wilderness in The Blair Witch Project.  By tracing the movie’s link through witchcraft to how Puritan fear of the monstrous-self manifested in the location of the woods, Hillard concludes the inability to locate what is haunting the forest and tormenting the filmmakers compels the viewer to project their own internalised fears onto the landscape, reminding us that ‘we are generally still a little afraid of the woods’ but that the terrors within them are ‘extensions of our own anxieties’ (p.116).

Kevin Corstorphine takes a closer look at representations of wilderness as a key convention of American Gothic that juxtaposes indigenous culture with Eurocentric perspectives on civilisation. Post-frontier gothic sees a shift in interpretations of wilderness and nature to a generalised environmentalism, suggesting that rising ecological concerns and an understanding of our place within nature sees the wilderness reconfigured as a romantic notion linking Native American culture to the pastoral ideal within American literature.

Andrew Smith takes a closer look at ‘post-environmental apocalyptic narratives’ of American Gothic by considering the liminal space of the road to examine the relationship between self and the environment.  Smith argues that the ‘[p]astoral in an American context has particular associations with a notion of the wilderness and the frontier’; distinct Gothic terrain that is ‘uninhabitable’, but which link ‘the frontier, the sublime and ecological disaster’ to the image of the road as a ‘Gothic space in which identities are lost and recomposed’ (pp.136, 140, 143).

Exploring nature as monstrous in post-9/11 apocalyptic movies, Susan J. Tyburski considers the ‘eco-horrors’ of a vengeful and malevolent planet, outlining how these natural disaster eco-monsters reflect our growing eco-anxiety, whilst the apocalyptic narratives re-affirm the American patriotic cultural constructs of the ideal nuclear family and love of country as key to the continuance of humanity.

Emily Carr attempts to develop an American ecofeminist Gothic in her reading of a lesser-known text by Joy Williams from an era (1978) she claims was conformist in its feminism. Carr asserts that an ecofeminist reading of Williams’ Gothicised protagonist encourages a challenge to anthropocentric assumptions that allow us to reconsider cultural constructs of ‘othering’.

Sharae Deckard concludes this volume with a consideration of how ‘monstrous transformations of human bodies into vegetable matter’ contribute to a ‘global ecoGothic’ through a Gothic reading of capitalist world-ecology that underlines neoliberalist attempts at commodification of nature and environmental concerns.

While these essays certainly pave the way towards developing an eco-Gothic, there is a predominantly American and Post-colonial Gothic slant to these studies, perhaps unsurprisingly given that landscape and wilderness are already key conventions.  In doing so, these essays suggest an ecocritical perspective within the Gothic could broaden existing and contemporary debates, however, the establishment of an ecoGothic framework is only tentatively proposed. Disappointingly, there is little mention of key indicators for a ‘dark or Gothic ecology’ but rather contains a series of essays that either employ an ecocritical lens to revisit standard Gothic tropes, or a Gothic lens in re-examining motifs of landscape and wilderness. This ecocritic perspective will, therefore, certainly be of interest to scholars of American and/or Post-colonial Gothic, but also provides an excellent introduction for those wishing to re-explore other Gothic motifs through an ecocritical lens. As a platform for the development of a distinct ecoGothic theoretical framework, this volume certainly provides some tantalizing ideas, but equally, it invites further academic study surrounding ‘dark ecology’ as a convention to explore contemporary socio-political anxieties.

Review by Teresa Fitzpatrick

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