By Jonathan Newell, A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937: Disgust, Metaphysics and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2020. 272 pages) ISBN 9781786835451

Jonathan Newell’s A Century of Weird Fiction is not for the squeamish. It explores the connection between disgust and metaphysics in the stories of five authors: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft. In a clever homage to his subject,Newell’s writing is peppered with creative diction and analogies that reflect the topic—in other words, there’s no shortage of “putrefaction and necrotic slime, the horrific, undifferentiated sludge of decay” (p.2). The text itself explores much of the slippage between the human and nonhuman in weird fiction and continually questions any fixed identity or self—whether it be monstrous or alien or undead. Additionally, in this era of the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, Newell doesn’t sidestep the problematic racism or sexism prevalent in more than one of his featured authors; in fact, he incorporates it into his analysis.

            Newell’s introduction attempts to define the weird, making a distinction between the weird and the Gothic: “I imagine the weird as a tumour of sorts growing out of the gothic—composed of the same tissue but unfamiliar, alien and yet not-entirely-so, at once part of its progenitor and curiously foreign to it” (p.3). The philosophies Newell applies to the weird frequently stem from speculative realism and ecocriticism, showing the fallacy of anthropocentricism: the idea that the world, or even the cosmos, is meant solely for human beings. While Newell applies theories by both current and long deceased (or decaying) scholars, his earnest and enthusiastic engagement with their ideas causes the reader feel as though Immanuel Kant and China Miéville are discussing their beliefs in the immediate present, perhaps this is the result of so much metaphysical debate. Furthermore, Newell effectively reveals the importance of disgust in his introduction: “Weird fiction exploits disgust’s connection to impurity, the threat of dissolution and the porousness of the body to imagine new worlds beyond the boundaries of the human and the self” (p.13). The link between humans and the universe is repeatedly transgressed in weird fiction by disgust, something that can be simultaneously corporeal and cosmic.

            The first section, “The Putrescent Principle: Edgar Allan Poe,” considers “the link between the disgusting and the metaphysical in Poe’s writing in relation to the philosophy of Schelling” (p.26). Newell applies Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s theory of the Absolute to a trilogy of dying ladies from Poe’s cadaverous canon: “Morella” (1835), “Ligeia” (1838), and Madeline from “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). Newell illustrates the destabilizing effect of disgust as a result of Poe’s descriptions of these women which stand “in contrast to conventional nineteenth century representations of the consumptive female body” (p.39). Morella is an “entropic vampire cannibalizing her own daughter” (p.41); Ligeia is similarly parasitic; Madeline reveals “the revolting link between organic and inorganic… a monist ontology in which the line between living beings and non-living beings is smudged” (p.49). All the imagery of decay and putrescence that permeates Poe’s fiction, this “smudging” of his leading ladies, show that death is always present in life.

In the second chapter, “Ecstasies of Slime: Arthur Machen,” Newell focuses on Welsh writer, Machen, whose lifetime interest in mesmerism and spiritualism is mirrored in his fiction which abounds with metaphysical truths exposed by the repulsive and grotesque. For Newell, Machen illustrates “a pivot away from the contents of the human mind towards the non-human world in all its horror and wonder” (p.58). Utilizing The Great God Pan (1890) to demonstrate how Machen argued against scientific material in his work in favour of the esoteric, Newell shows that, like Poe, the disgust is manifested through women. For Machen, Helen is a “parasitic femme fatale” (p.72), at once repulsive and attractive, with her death inextricably linked to the occult. In addition, Newell analyses two stories within the novel The Three Imposters (1895): “The Novel of the Black Seal” and “The Novel of the White Powder” for scholars interested in the disgust created by hybrid bodies.

In chapter three, “Horrible Enchantments: Algernon Blackwood,” Newell continues his exploration of the non-human world in weird fiction by utilizing Blackwood’s concept of Nature, which is at once more spiritual and earthier—that is, the primordial mother earth. Newell applies Michael Marder’s concept of the “vegetal soul” to Blackwood’s “The Willows” (1907), coining the wonderful phrase, “arboreal horror” (p.121). In “The Willows,” hierarchical structures from humans to animals to plants are completely broken down. In this chapter, the use of disgust via smell, perhaps our most primal sense, is investigated in Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” (1910), where Newell believes the “Wendigo is something altogether more cosmic and unfathomable than a cheaply appropriated indigenous phantom” (p.113). As engaging and convincing as Newell’s argument is regarding Blackwood’s breakdown of hierarchical structures of human and non-human, it’s hard to accept the breakdown when Blackwood considered the “red man” a savage. According to Newell, “Blackwood’s racialised language can appear dated and problematic to modern readers: in several stories, including ‘The Wendigo’, he employs terms such as ‘red Indian’ and consistently associates indigenous characters with animality” (p. 113). When a writer such as Blackwood simultaneously judges the culture as inferior that he is also literarily lifting from, it becomes hard for readers, especially those reading and writing in contemporary indigenous horror, to look past the racism and cultural appropriation to appreciate the merits of Blackwood’s story. In other words, disgust does not simply arise from the text or diction in this case but from real-life discomfort with the outdated language and real-life danger from those who still hold those racism beliefs as indigenous peoples all over the world, but especially in America, are targeted disproportionately for violent crime.  

The fourth chapter, “Disgusting Powers: William Hope Hodgson,” investigates a lesser known author whose haunting seascapes and hybrid creatures are just as disturbing as any of Poe’s dying ladies or Blackwood’s sentient willows. Newell claims that Hodgson’s “monstrous mould, demonic weeds and horrific swine-things create an aesthetic shock of disgust which conveys a fundamental revelation: that human beings are neither transcendental objects nor mere objects among objects but rather porous beings drawn into a pulsating universe of human and non-human agents” (p.133). The most effective example of this breakdown occurs in Hodgson’s “The Voice of the Night” (1907), where a fungal infestation colonises the bodies of a shipwrecked couple, John and his fiancée. The disgust arises not simply from the fungus itself but fiancée’s desire, eventually sated, to consume the fungus. Once again, the fungus, like the willows, destabilizes hierarchies within Nature and what it means to be human.

The final chapter is reserved for H.P. Lovecraft, whose fame as both a racist and creator of weird creatures is peaking with HBO’s new series Lovecraft Country (Misha Green, 2020). In “Daemonology of Unplumbed Space,” Newell does not ignore or minimize Lovecraft’s beliefs on eugenics or miscegenation; he writes, “I do think it is possible to read Lovecraft’s texts ‘against the grain,’ as it were—to see the ways that the metaphysical ideas evoked by Lovecraft’s writing can be mobilised to undermine the hatred that he espoused” (p.192). This divorcing of the writer from his work likewise occurs with Blackwood’s appropriation of indigenous myth in “The Wendigo,” yet it’s intriguing to think that arguments against the respective authors’ racism might appear within their own racist work. In any case, Newell wishes to explore the metaphysics in Lovecraft’s fiction in relation to Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, with which Lovecraft was familiar. Newell finds Lovecraft’s work “profoundly sceptical of human importance or agency” which he relates to Schopenhauer’s “disturbing concept of the will to live” (p.168). Using “The Rats in the Walls” (1924) as a primary example, Newell reveals how cannibalism for Lovecraft breaks down distinctions “between human and animal and between individual human bodies” (p.176).

Overall, Newell’s concept of weird fiction, though he selects authors from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, is steeped in the now, especially ecocriticism, continually illuminating how weird fiction collapses faulty anthropocentric hierarchies in our universe. It is clear that Newell is a fan who deeply admires the works of these authors, but he is also a  scholar aware of the  racism expressed by some of his chosen authors. In the end, he walks the tightrope, shakily but without a spill, showing that weird fiction, in its way, has always been a balance of problematic beliefs about ourselves and a perceived other—whether the other is an alien from Mars or a Wendigo or fungi: “Weird fiction confronts us with a depiction of reality not just stranger than we might have expected but with a subject – or what remains of a subject – intertwined with forces and beings that seem utterly other. It reveals us as riddled with the alien” (p. 201-02).

Review by Shannon Scott


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s