Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth: The Gothic Anthropocene, a Review

“damn good coffee never comes for free.”

— Timothy Morton and Rune Graulund

My opening quote is from Chapter 12 of Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth: The Gothic Anthropocene, edited by Justin D. Edwards, Rune Graulund, and Johan Höglund and just released by University of Minnesota Press. It references the situation we currently are coming to accept as a fact. All human activity has an effect on this planet and our climate, and that effect is usually a detrimental if not devastating one. Even the production of our coffee has had significant impact on the environment, both the harvesting and the packaging of it.

This blog post will review Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth and highlight some of the essays that discuss Gothic works that use environmental-related themes. The term Anthropocene in the subtitle refers to the time on this planet when humans have had the greatest impact on the earth, and Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth discusses that impact in all its severity, showing how Gothic our world and our lives have become as a result not just of the Industrial or Technology Revolutions but from our very earliest efforts to cultivate the earth and our misguided belief that we are its masters.

It is impossible for me to do complete justice to this book in a review, but I will say that the sixteen essays included in it are all illuminating, thoughtful, and interesting. I cannot discuss them all, but I enjoyed every single one and I appreciated that they are mostly free of academic jargon, though I did have to look up a few words, but mostly due to my own ignorance about climate change and the other environmental topics this book concerns itself with. I was glad to become better educated about them. The book is divided into four sections titled Anthropocene, Plantationocene (focused on agriculture), Capitalocene (referencing capitalism), and Chthulucene (referencing Lovecraft’s famous creation). The titles reflect the book’s larger discussion about the appropriateness or ineptness of the term Anthropocene to describe adequately the period of human impact on the earth.

As a student primarily of eighteenth and nineteenth century Gothic literature, I was not familiar with many of the works discussed, several of them being TV shows, films, and books from the last few decades, but the essays made me want to view or read most of them. Some of the better known works discussed include the recent Jurassic Park films, Jaws, and the TV series Twin Peaks. More classic works discussed are the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland. While climate change and man’s detrimental effects upon the earth are themes more frequently treated in late twentieth and early twenty-first century works, I appreciated looking back to these classic texts to show how these concerns were already treated in earlier works. Lisa M. Vetere’s essay “Horrors of the Horticultural” was probably the most interesting article to me because it discussed how the landscaping of the estate in Brown’s Wieland allows for the Gothic plot, primarily the biloquism/ventriloquism to take place that causes the horrors in the novel. I had never considered that aspect of the novel, but Vetere provides plenty of support from the text to convince me. At the same time, she discusses the consequences of landscaping at large, including the damage done by the tons of weedkiller people use every year to create unnatural, manicured lawns in their efforts to control nature.

Lovecraft is known for his works about prehistoric creatures who threaten mankind’s place on the planet, but Rune Graulund’s essay “Lovecraft vs. Vandermeer” shows how Lovecraft’s themes are being reworked in modern works like Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014) without the inherent racism Lovecraft uses and to show the earth does not inherently belong to humans. This concept of human dominance and their questionable right to the earth is discussed in numerous other essays. Fred Botting in “Monstrocene” discusses how humans need to come to terms with a multispecies concept on this planet and that we are all dependent upon one another for survival. I was left wondering if other species are as dependent upon us as we are upon them. I suspect not. Gothic re-imaginings of life after human extinction were also explored in various essays, including works in which humans become something other than human, as if to be anything other than human should be a cause for horror. Perhaps the opposite is true.

Texts that also seem to promote human ascendancy and even white male superiority are explored, such as the film The Meg in which strong, handsome white men destroy the giant sharks that threaten humanity. In “De-extinction” Michael Fuchs gives us another take on threatening animals by discussing how in the Jurassic Park films creatures are made de-extinct, and he reveals that this is no longer science fiction but becoming possible. However, as the Jurassic Park films warn, we cannot always control the consequences of our actions. Furthermore, reintroducing a species that was extinct could lead to the extinction of another species, so any efforts to try to manipulate nature can backfire on us.

Some of the essays were simply illuminating for me in relation to climate change and eco-friendly issues. In “Beyond the Slaughterhouse,” Justin D. Edwards discusses zombies and vampires as metaphors for our own meat-eating practices and how the Gothic asks how and what we can eat to be less destructive. I was stunned to learn one-third of the planet is given over to feeding the animals we eat and one-third of cereal is used for animal grain, making one wonder why humans could not just eat the cereal rather than the animals. Edwards adds that we try to gloss over our violence toward animals by redefining them so that we don’t eat cows but beef and we don’t eat pigs but pork.

Another essay I found fascinating was Laura Kremmel’s “Rot and Recycle: Gothic Eco-burial” which talked about sanitary issues with graveyards in the nineteenth century and how the formaldehyde and other chemicals we use for embalming today are not healthy for the earth. She goes on to explore eco-friendly burials, including the role mushrooms can play in it and how actor Luke Perry was buried in a mushroom suit. Timothy Clark’s “Overpopulation” made me realize that overpopulation is often misconstrued as a problem, and while I was stunned to realize the world human population has more than doubled in my lifetime, I also appreciated Clark’s point that population growth, which is greater in the southern hemisphere, is not so much the problem as the pollution growth caused by the less densely populated northern hemisphere. Rebecca Duncan’s “Gothic in the Capitalocene” reveals that the world economy is really dependent upon the world’s ecology. The two cannot be separated from each other going forward.

As Fred Botting states in “Monstrocene,” humans are a major geological force on this planet, so we have to come to terms with the damage we are doing. All the essays in Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth make that point vividly clear, and I felt a good balance was achieved in them between highlighting the dangers of climate change and the current crisis the human race is facing as well as in the analysis of how these topics are treated by a variety of novels, films, and television series.

Frankly, though the book is 344 pages, I was left wanting more. Most of the authors focused on more recent works, but given my own area of expertise in the Gothic, I would have appreciated more of an overview of the literary history of texts that discuss these themes. That said, that I am able to name several classics that are relevant to the discussion shows how the book made me conscious of works one might not at first associate with environmental issues. Fred Botting discusses Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) which I have written about myself. It features a disease that wipes out the human race in the year 2100, as well as signs of nature, such as the sea, also acting against mankind. The Last Man was largely ignored by critics until the last few decades. Another work that deserves mention, though few people know it is also titled The Last Man, or Le Dernier Homme (1805) by French author Cousin de Grandeville. It is also set in the future and depicts a dying human race. Crop failure, sterility, and wild weather are all elements of this novel as the forces of nature try to stop humans from reproducing. I also think about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne’s adventure novels in which Captain Nemo explores the depths where creatures that men may not know lurk. Furthermore, Captain Nemo, in the 1961 film of The Mysterious Island, though not the book, experiments in food growth to try to help resolve the earth’s food shortage issues.

That there are not more essays on earlier works of literature is not a shortcoming of Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth but rather a testament to how it has made me go back and start to rethink about texts I already know, and how I will pay more attention to environmental issues in books and films going forward. And such references are everywhere in literature and film from pollution to mining to fishing and a variety of other activities that are spread across human history and permeate fiction, Gothic or otherwise.

Finally, I appreciate how the authors of Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth discuss how the realist novel is inept in trying to capture these concerns because climate change issues are not something easily depicted in a novel that focuses on the daily life of humans; rather to reflect the wide-ranging and long-term effects of environmental issues, the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and the Gothic are needed. No longer are critics ignoring these genres as if they were the ugly stepsisters of literature. Rather, they are being revealed to hold and be capable of conveying deep truths about the human condition and a future that may exist if we do nothing to try to prevent further climate change. At the same time, I take to heart Fred Botting’s remark that to see the future solely as horrible is to be unimaginative. Just because the future will be different from our present does not mean it is cause for horror.

In 2015, Disney released the film Tomorrowland, which got little positive attention from critics, though I feel it deserves greater recognition. It provided nostalgia about a time in mid-twentieth century America when the future was depicted in a positive manner as an age of wonders—think of Tomorrowland at Disneyland and The Jetsons. When did this viewpoint change? Well, even in the mid-twentieth century, we had no end of sci-fi and horror films about Godzilla, King Kong, and scientific experiments gone wrong all of which threatened humanity, so positive and negative views of the future have always coexisted, but in recent years, the trend has been almost completely negative. A better future is possible for us but we must heed the warnings of these Gothic works, and those from the scientific community.

Personally, Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth made me think much harder about my own personal impact on the earth, from mowing and watering my lawn to going through a drive-thru for coffee so one more plastic cup lid needs to be recycled. Even sitting in the drive-thru—fast food is rarely fast anymore given the worker shortage today—is polluting the earth as my car spits out fumes. And I get tired of fast food restaurants giving me plastic silverware I never use. I will start asking them ahead of time not to give me plastic. Opportunities to change exist everywhere if we look for and act upon them. No one really wants a Gothic future. Life is Gothic enough as it is. I hope readers will heed the Gothic’s message as highlighted in this book. It comes like Jacob Marley to ask us to reform before it is too late. I thank the authors of Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth for highlighting the Gothic’s dire message.

Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth is available from the University of Minnesota Press:

https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/dark-scenes-from-damaged-earth

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur historical fantasy series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

4 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Contemporary Gothic Novels, Gothic/Horror Films, Literary Criticism, Mary Shelley

4 responses to “Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth: The Gothic Anthropocene, a Review

  1. Your opening quote immediately made me think of Twin Peaks, so it was nice (and unsurprising) to find that Twin Peaks is one of the shows mentioned in this book. I hadn’t really thought of the land development/logging plotline in Twin Peaks as much more than that – a plot line. But it is telling how much of Gothic literature is dependent on the landscape/environment in a positive or negative way, and any changes to that (whether manmade or natural) have critical implications to the stories and people involved.

    This sounds like a really interesting book. Great review!

  2. ellenandjim

    Fine interesting review. Like you, Tyler, my knowledge is of earlier and literary gothic more than recent books and very recent movies. I thought the idea Bottig discusses that even if the human race goes extinct, that does not mean “all is lost” is one most people could not accept.

    Another aspect of this is people want to be able to use the earth to satisfy their needs and desires but don’t want the earth to change in ways that is detrimental to us. We — our fates — are constantly our criteria.

    These terms are not familiar outside academia and most people are unaware of how much the present earth is the product of human interaction with it.

    Last that realism is a genre that resists dealing with these issues adequately.

    • Thanks for reading, Ellen. It was a very interesting book even though some of the terms were a bit too academic. Yes, we act like climate change means we must save the planet but really we are just trying to save ourselves. I think the planet will take care of itself over time.

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