Tag Archives: Charles Brockden Brown

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.

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

Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly, and the American Gothic Forest

Charles Brockden Brown is often cited as America’s first Gothic novelist, but frequently, James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne are credited with taking the Gothic out of European castles and placing it in the American forest. The truth is that Brown deserves that credit as well in his finest Gothic novel, Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, published in 1799.

I recently read Edgar Huntly for the first time and was surprised to find that I thought it was the best of Brown’s novels. I had read Ormond years ago and found it very dull, but being a fan of the Gothic and literary history, I went on to read Arthur Mervyn, which had some fabulously suspenseful scenes, and Wieland, which is known for its use of ventriloquism, though I found it a bit slow. But I think Brown truly wrote his masterpiece in Edgar Huntly for several reasons, most importantly, that it maintains the level of suspense throughout.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) wrote all seven of his novels in the short period of 1798-1801.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) wrote all seven of his novels in the short period of 1798-1801.

I won’t give a full plot outline, but just hit on a few high points. The novel begins with the title character grieving the death of his friend Waldegrave, who was murdered, but the murderer remains unknown. Brown uses the manuscript technique, in this case in the form of a letter, to have Huntly describe the events of the novel to Waldegrave’s sister, Mary, who is also Huntly’s love interest. A collection of papers belonging to Waldegrave is also in Huntly’s possession, which eventually go missing, hence more manuscript usages.

Huntly soon observes a servant who lives nearby, Clithero, sleepwalking and digging in the ground to hide something, making him suspect Clithero is Waldegrave’s murderer and sleepwalking due to a guilty conscience. Huntly learns from Clithero’s fellow servant and bedfellow that he has overheard Clithero uttering guilt-ridden speeches in his sleep. Finally, Huntly confronts Clithero and from him hears his full story of despair and guilt and crime and how he fled Ireland to come to America. The story is part of the stories within stories Gothic technique and provides plenty of Gothic themes, including social mobility that suggests transgression, gambling, and illegitimate children, not all Clithero’s crimes but those of his mistress’ brother, whom he eventually kills, thus staining his hands with blood. I’ll leave all the details for interested readers to discover, but it turns out Clithero is not the murderer of Waldegrave. What Clithero is, however, is a Gothic Wanderer figure, one who believes he has also killed his mistress, and who feels incredible guilt and is in exile for it. Huntly refers to Clithero as a “wanderer” and Brown does an amazing thing in showing Huntly willing to forgive Clithero when he still thinks him Waldegrave’s murderer, saying he will befriend and help heal him once he hears his confession. This desire to redeem the Gothic wanderer is rare in early Gothic works and more of a Victorian theme. Whether or not Clithero is worthy of redemption will be seen at the novel’s end.

After telling Huntly his story, Clithero flees into the woods in despair. Huntly searches for him and finds him perched high up on a rock but Huntly cannot reach the summit and returns home. Soon after, Huntly finds himself in a strange cave and believes himself to have been abducted. The novel’s suspense really skyrockets at this point as Huntly makes his way out of the cave and has to get past savages as well as rescue a white girl who is their captive. From that point, Huntly goes through a series of adventures in the forest that result in some truly suspenseful scenes as he constantly fears death at the Indians’ hands. The novel, of course, is racist in its attitude toward Native Americans, but that doesn’t eliminate the very real fear that a white man would have felt in this situation, and it does make the forest truly Gothic in atmosphere.

I’ll leave it up to readers to discover how the plot turns out and who murdered Waldegrave. There are several twists and turns, though Huntly’s time in the forest fleeing from the Indians takes up a good half of the novel, and at times, I thought perhaps Brown had almost forgotten about the plot concerning Clithero and Waldegrave, but they are brought back in the end and all explanations made.

The book is not perfect, but it is probably the best Gothic work before Poe and Hawthorne. (I don’t think Cooper, despite the suspense of his stories, really qualifies as Gothic since he doesn’t rely on typical Gothic themes like manuscripts, the supernatural, transgression, etc.) Brown writes more realistic Gothic fiction, not using the supernatural, but all the other elements are present in his work. The novel’s faults include the sleepwalking—both Clithero and Huntly turn out to be sleepwalkers, which seems unbelievable to me; I have yet to know anyone who actually sleepwalks in my life. The other fault that makes Brown tiresome at times is the sheer wordiness of his writing. He continually repeats himself and lets Huntly think through the same matters multiple times. One phrase that I found completely laughable was when Huntly said, “by a common apparatus, that lay beside my bed, I could instantly produce a light. The light was produced.” Why couldn’t Huntly have just said, “I lit a candle”? Despite these faults, there is suspense up to the last moment, even when the wordiness gets in the way.

Anyone who loves Gothic fiction and loves Poe and Hawthorne would find Edgar Huntly the best novel to read as an introduction to Charles Brockden Brown. The American Gothic tradition owes a huge debt to him.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and the upcoming novel Arthur’s Legacy, The Children of Arthur: Book One. You can visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels