By Elizabeth Parker, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. 308 pages). Hardcover ISBN 978-3-030-35153-3 eBook ISBN 978-3-030-35154-0
Elizabeth Parker’s exploration of the ecoGothic, channelled through the case study of the Gothic forest, is an enchanting and unnerving foray into the woods. The Forest and the EcoGothic is essential reading for any scholar working with the ‘flavoured mode’ (p. 33) of the ecoGothic, as Parker unravels arguments pertaining to ecophobia and Gothic Nature. She positions the forest as an archetypal symbol of horror, elevating it to attain the potency of the bricks and mortar of the haunted house, the labyrinth castle and the insidious metropolis in this ecocentric consideration of Gothic setting, no longer backgrounded but turned active agent and lair of multitudinous monsters. Gothic terror, for Parker, is critical to the key concept of re-enchantment, in her goal to ‘remythologise this environment and imbue it with a new sense of life’ (p. 145) and challenge us to ‘reconsider the unthinking objectification of Nature’ (p. 133). I read Parker’s intention to connect re-enchantment and the Gothic as a rebuttal to critical arguments which state that in focussing on ecophobic representations of the natural world, we are perpetuating ideas of a vengeful or hostile nature, and thus accentuating the so-called human/nature divide. In The Forest and the EcoGothic, Parker convincingly offers the alternative argument: the study of ecophobia and Gothic Nature has the potential to inspire positive thinking about the relationship between humankind and nature.
From the outset, the style and outline of the book are shaped with precision, not least through the ‘Seven Theses’ for ‘why we fear the forest’ (p. 47). Parker emulates the successful method of thesis-building employed by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Dawn Keetley to outline the fear factor of the forest: ‘1. The forest is against civilisation; 2. The forest is associated with the past. 3. The forest is a landscape of trial. 4. The forest is a setting in which we are lost. 5. The forest is a consuming threat. 6. The forest is a site of the human unconscious. 7. The forest is an antichristian space’ (p. 47). Encompassing a variety of ways that the human imagination perceives this element of nature – the forest – in Gothic terms, the Seven Theses draw upon biology, anthropology, psychology and history to establish credence. Parker rationalises her selection of texts by harnessing current environmental discourse and debate (pp. 3-4). Reading lists or ‘watchlists’ will no doubt expand significantly after encountering The Forest and the EcoGothic – the texts used to illuminate the book’s argument are as diverse as The Man Whom the Trees Loved (Algernon Blackwood, 1912), Twin Peaks (Mark Frost and David Lynch, 1990-1991), The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter, 1979), The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981), The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, 2008), Uprooted (Naomi Novik, 2015), Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009), The VVitch (Robert Eggers, 2015), Mythago Wood (Robert Holdstock, 1984), The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011), The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012), The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004), and The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, 2009). This list is by no means comprehensive, as the breadth of Parker’s research is both impressive and indicative of the potential of ecoGothic analysis.
Although the book ostensibly focusses on more recent texts, Arthur Machen’s ‘awful secret’ of the forest is invoked repeatedly to provide Parker with fuel for her research question (p. 3, from The Great God Pan, 1890). Branching out from Machen, Parker pivotally asks, what is ‘the degree to which the Gothic forest can ever be truly distinct from human influence’ (p. 9)? The answer, ultimately, is that ‘the true darkness of the woods stems, in fact, from us’ as ‘the “terrifying wilderness” is of course a human construct’ (p. 274). The woods are only Gothic when conceived in the dark undergrowth of the human imagination, and thus a key concern of The Forest and the EcoGothic is how and why we use fiction to present a Gothicised nature. To reach an understanding of Gothic Nature, Parker gives clarity to complicated theories and concepts which are peppered throughout her prose: see, for example, the Chthulucene (p. 77, Donna Haraway); theurgy (pp. 81-2, Algernon Blackwood); trans-corporeality (pp. 31-2, Stacy Alaimo); heritage noire (p. 50, p. 165, Sally J. Morgan); monstrous geography (pp. 143-45, Chet van Duzer); beast feminism (p. 196, Catherine Orenstein) and Deep Ecology (p. 27, Chris Manes).
Parker’s reverence for the power of symbolism to induce monstrous re-enchantment is one of the core strengths of her writing. One such example is her ecofeminist analysis of plant ontology and the ‘imbrication of woman and forest’ in William Friedkin’s The Guardian (1990)(pp. 117 – 120).Parker reads the gruesome depiction of a tree that ingests human infants as a dark parody of ‘the state of pregnancy’ and an image of ‘Mother Nature who feeds on her own children’ (p. 119). She goes on to perceive that it ‘is also an intriguing inversion of some of our ideas about trans-corporeality: instead of the human form, which looks solely human, but on closer inspection is actually comprised of nonhuman forms, the tree looks wholly arboreal, but is in fact comprised of human infants’ (p. 119). Another standout example is a deconstruction of the symbolism of ‘the shimmer’ in Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) (pp. 158-63). For Parker, the petroleum veneer of the shimmer forming an expanding bubble over the (aptly named) Blackwater nature reserve ‘potentially provides a critique of the illusion that “Nature” can ever be neatly divided and sequestered from humankind’ as well as hinting at themes of anthropogenic pollution (pp. 159-160). It is suggested that the cancerous imagery recurring within the text signifies an end to human civilisation in this tale of ‘nonhuman conquest’ and rewilding (p. 160 and p. 162). These nuanced readings of texts for their symbolic meaning provide imaginative formulations that are the absolute highlight of the book.
Parker states early on that she will offer her own ‘definitions and parameters’ for the ecoGothic (p. 16). This is a welcome endeavour from the founder of Gothic Nature journal, a journal with a fundamental aim of engendering dialogue between ecohorror and ecoGothic definitions and debates. As such, helpfully and unsurprisingly, Parker spends a large portion of Chapter 2 ‘Theorising the Forest: Approaching a Dark Ecology’ providing an insightful commentary on the evolution of the ecoGothic. Parker’s own suggestion is that the ecoGothic is both a genre and a critical lens or framework (p. 275), and as such may best be defined as a ‘flavoured mode’ (p. 33). This proposed definition may not be concrete enough for some, but, it encapsulates the ways that the ecoGothic has been employed simultaneously as a means of shaping a genre and building a canon, and, as a theoretical stance through which to read literature and culture. While this may on the surface seem vague, Parker’s is an inclusive definition which allows for continued inquiry and development. It also works to shed light on the difference between ecohorror and the ecoGothic: for Parker, juxtaposing the two in close quarters allows us to contrast them effectively. The ecoGothic as a flavoured mode embraces both ‘ambivalence’ and ‘ecocentrism’ by allowing ‘for our thoroughly mixed feelings about the forest’ (p. 275), whereas, ecohorror is a genre bound historically and geographically, with ‘central human protagonists: the provocateurs and victims of Nature’s revenge’ (p. 35). EcoGothic is ‘transhistorical’ for Parker, unlike the ‘genre tied to the evolutions in environmentalism’ that is ecohorror (pp. 35-6). Reliant on a sense of atmosphere and emerging in texts across a wide range of genres, the ecoGothic is difficult to define but Parker’s contribution to fleshing it out feels justified through her myriad examples which foreground Gothic Nature and manifest with different levels of ecocentrism (p. 29 & p. 275).
Elizabeth Parker seems to be a scholar explicitly linking literature and the arts to climate change discourse, and in this way, hoping to promote positive engagement with nature and perhaps alleviative action. The connection here feels organic and admissible, as the current climate crisis is, like the Gothic forest, human-made. Parker’s argument for re-enchantment is robust; it is almost a Gothic reversal of the way that Thomas Carlyle conceived of ‘enchantment’ in Past and Present (1843): for Carlyle, enchantment was a negative kind of blind faith in materialism and the industrialisation responsible for the bad ‘condition of England’. For Parker, the word enchantment is reclaimed, as ‘re-enchantment’ is a re-visioning and magical way of seeing the natural world, combining old and new stories, the human and the nonhuman, which could help to resolve the current societal problem of climate change. Parker argues successfully that the Gothic is the most effective means of achieving the prioritisation of ‘mythos over logos’ in our minds eye, as ‘Fear, signiﬁcantly, supplants logos with mythos’ (p. 146 & p. 46). It is my impression that The Forest and the EcoGothic comes from an author who clearly loves the natural world as well as the Gothic, and has given great consideration to how the two merge: the ecoGothic, for Parker, should ‘be a means through which we can hope to think ecologically through ecophobia’ (p. 276). This is an author who clearly can see the wood for the trees.
Review by Jemma Stewart