Article: Exploring the Ecological Weird, Part 2

  • 03/11/2017
Its that time of the year in the West, with shorter days and gloomier weather, when our imaginations might be darker as we pass from summer harvest to the start of winter. It seems an appropriate season to continue with this short series. In Part 1, I put forth some philosophy behind the ecological weirddrawing broadly from Brad Tabass study in Miranda, Dark Places: Ecology, Place, and the Metaphysics of Horror Fiction, where he pointed out:

The alien nature of objects can relate to any object, though this series focuses on natural objects, noting ecology as a system of natural objects that we are connected with deeply but which also strongly represents the mysterious other in the context of imaginative and deep fiction. Weird fiction can be a neat lens through which to observe the natural world, with that gaze above.

While the first part of the series served as an introduction, Part 2 examines earlier works in the field. Because the final part of the series will deal with the Anthropocene, this section covers a lot of ground, from the early 20th century to around 1970. See my notes at the end of the article for more on the rationale behind this time-frame. Though the amount of earlier weird literature is large, Ill try to hit some of the works that strongly remark on the natural world. By no means, however, is this section anything but a sample. For more information about the history of this fiction, see The Weird: An Introduction at Weird Fiction Review.

The following is a sample of earlier stories that dive into the ecological weird, giving us a sense of wild unease. Of nightmares and dreams. Of disquiet. Maybe a sense of awe or fear or respect for nature in all its power, beauty, and horror.

I cuddled up one night in bed, the Pacific wind and rain howling outsidethe perfect settingwith my small bedside lamp and warm brown blanket, and read this novella in one setting. In The Willows, two men are on a canoe trip down the Danube, and, at one of the islands in what is now the Dunajsk luhy Protected Landscape Area, in Slovakia, they stop to camp. What follows is a preternatural sequence of events that defies logic and hastens through with little explanation.

While whatever is happening around the men exists on the border of the explainable and the non-explainable (whispers, strange light figures escaping from the willows into the heavens at night, and so on), a palpable fear that the two seasoned river canoers experience is very real, and, being rational people, they wonder if they are hallucinating or so scared that their imaginations are running wild. The main character tells himself that if he states out loud his fears to his companion, simply described as the Swede, that the fears will then manifest as real.

The two find the corpse of a peasant, and they wonder if it is a sacrifice to the island, and further fright sets in. It is of their utmost concern that they get off this island and back to the river, but they are also trapped because of flooding. As the nature around them takes on its own will, as if it has a conscience, their unrest deepens.

This short story relies on landscape, the willows themselves becoming preternatural or perhaps supernatural. Environment is key, but it really represents the unknown, perhaps a statement on humans versus nature. In Chicago Now, Melissa Baron states:

Despite the obvious focus on the natural world, according to the article (requires payment) Walking with the Goat-God: Gothic Ecology in Algernon Blackwoods Pans Garden: A Volume of Nature Stories, by Michelle Poland:

Note that the graphic novel The Willows is published in October 2017.

In this story, which I read last summer, a sense of mystery fell around me, feeling almost physicallike the omnipresent weight of the granite-colored Vancouver sky we see in days of rain on end. As with a couple other stories mentioned here, the characters are traveling on a boat, a common trope that serves as a way to enter another realm. The vehicle is transient, the road is abstract (water), and the journey uncertain, leading to the supernatural. George, the narrator, and his friend Will, are traveling somewhere in the North Pacific, their exact location unknown. Its night-time, and a voice from the sea begins talking to them, the voice identifying itself as only an old man. His claim for approach is that he is hungry and so is she.

She turns out to be the mans fiance. They had escaped a sinking ship called the Albatross by making a raft and sailing to a nearby lagoon, where they saw a sunken ship covered with a fungus-like growth. This growth is unstoppable. I found it interesting that similar themes have taken place in fiction: Stephen Kings Grey Matter, John Brosnans The Fungus, Brian Lumleys Fruiting Bodies, and Jeff VanderMeers stories, of which the Los Angeles Times said:

A Voice in the Night has a surreal and potent ending, which I will not spoil here. According to an article in O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies, in autumn 2013, We Who Had Been Human, Became?: Some Dark Ecological Thoughts on William Hope Hodgsons The Voice in the Night, by Anthony Camara [PDF]:

For those who are into lost places, this story might intrigue you. A fan of The Lost Horizonor overall of the idea of Shangri-LaThe Lost City of Z, and the television show Lost, I find all of these stories rich with tension and wildness. They create such longing and suspense and fashion new myths for places that might be lost, but might not ever have been. But we want to believe that such places once existed, or do exist, for this belief gives us hope that the mystical and beautiful is possible. That maybe our ancestors even took part in helping to create such a place. And to construct such fantastical places means the ability to co-inhabit with the wild, in harmony, despite dangers and inconvenience. Italian author Luigi Ugolini was born in 1891, and grew up when interest in the wild South American jungles was high among explorers and when audiences were hungry for science fiction stories. Along with that, too, was the desire to understand science, and thus finding more about the properties of nature existing in not just known natural places but unknown ones.

The story is about a man named Benito Olivares whose work leads him into the Amazon jungle, where he comes across a plant that defies the norm. The plant resembles a man and pricks him with a thorn, after which Benito becomes ill, which leads to a transformation. Weird Fiction Review states about the author:

The review goes on to quote two passages from the story, which I think bring to light the botanical writing, rich with ecological prose, if not rife with tones of sexuality and religion:

And later, he describes a simple vine thus:

According to A Short Story Guide about Nature and the Environment:

This story has the theme of deluge, and ironically I read it during a Vancouver rainstorm that battered the sky with as much strangeness as what is written in this story. This story has so much ecological and brilliant wordplay that it made me feel like I was on some other realm while reading it. Theres something primal, yet also apocalyptic. The Weird Fiction Review has the story online, and near the beginning were immediately dangled above a monstrous pit:

The narrator is a guy on his couch looking out at a ruined city through a curtain of fissured rain. He then decides to explore the city, looking for peoplefor life. He cannot help but note the sky and how luminous yet catastrophic the light is, some kind of monstrous error of nature and a twilight that is a luminous orgasm at a crisis. The only life he sees are cattle silently charging toward the gates of sunset. Bars and churches are empty. No signs of lamplight shine from residences. The first life he thinks he sees is really a fallen statue of Jesus Christ. In time, he observes the decrepit nature of a church, and even though it stands like a shadow of its former glory, it has been so eroded, the narrator thinks that even an archeologist wouldnt touch it for fear it might collapse. This statement on organized religion isnt lost on the reader. As he enters the church, he realizes that either it has sunk into the ground or the church has risen above its walls. I was reminded a lot of the tower/tunnel in Jeff VanderMeers Annihilation, for the church is a tower, but the narrator feels like he is descending as he walks through it. He enters a labyrinth of corridors wherein threatening, phosphorescent statues seem to light the way but ambush him. The following passage reveals a trope for apocalyptic weird fiction:

Charnel grounds are places where the putrefaction of usually human bodies happens naturally, decomposing on the ground rather than in a burial container. Though perhaps an organic way of dying without ritual, charnel grounds are tied to Indo-Tibetan traditions. In fiction, the trope can also symbolize a gone world, such as in an apocalyptic setting, where there is no time to bury anyone. It may also exemplify, in ecologically oriented fiction overall, a world whose wilderness has disappeared. Enter a haunted world where memory and regret mourn what was. In A Twilight, around the decomposing bodies in the church, the narrator views a purple flame, and later he thinks God has thrown him a rope, which he grabs. At that time:

The dead come alive and walk forward like shades and sing. The narrator flees the church, only to see herds of cattle encircling the church. The whole story is trippy and symbolic.

Im including this short story (Jackson also wrote the memorable story The Lottery and the novel The Haunting of Hill House) because the premise is city people taking a trip to a country cottage. They need to get away from their normal urban home. This sentiment is common; I think we all get it. Leaving the city and journeying to the country offers reprieve. In James A. Schaefers book of environmental essays, The Two Houses of Okios, a book I published at Moon Willow Press in 2015, the author states:

In The Summer People, the Allisons retreat to their summer cottage in New York Statethe cottage is on a lake, and it has no electricity, heat, or indoor plumbing. Unlike in previous summers, now the Allisons are retired, so this summer they decide to stay past Labor Day. But this year, things go wrong. A dead car. A delivery of kerosene that doesnt happen. A letter from a son that sounds off. And an incoming storm. While these things could just be coincidental happenings, on ominous tone prevails. Because nobody ever stays past Labor Day, even though Mr. Allison tells his wife, We might as well enjoy the country as long as possible. You could read this story as social satire or horror. Though not deeply ecological in nature, there is a strong sense that being closer to nature is soothing, and does one ever want to return to anything else? The following passage comes from the story:

With all that seems baleful about staying at the lake, away from the hot city, the story ends with the couple experiencing a loud storm outside. And other noises. And they wait. The entire story is based upon suspicion, away from the familiar confines of home. I think this may be another statement on the uncanny nature of nature.

The novella starts normally enough, with a hungover 18-year-old guy agreeing to join a ship crew. A storm and lack of food and water results in some pretty horrible conditions, including cannibalism and death among the other crew mates. The teen becomes friends with the cook, also a long-time sailor, and they survive only to reach a different realm of some kind. The stars are different, and the land they reach is red and hellish. They think that reaching the big mountain in the distance, and seeing whats on the other side, is their only salvation. Yet, pure horror happens on their trek, including carnal plants, bowing trees, a river that opens up to sink them, small villages and other areas where things and people have vitrified, and so on. The basis of the story seems to be a poetic telling of nature in the very raw. Seen through the lens of Earth people, the new land defies much logic but simply has different species and laws of physics. The novel is not gloomy insofar as the friendship between the cook and the teenager; courage and loyalty leads them together up the mountain, even if their fate is not life. I find the raw and weird in nature worth investigating through the page-flipping and suspenseful poetics of fiction. I like what It All Began: The Story Imperial wrote:

These stories delve into the ecological weird, whether its haunted willows and a strange river, the open sea and fungi, botany and a green vegetable man, apocalyptic rain and charnel grounds, a cottage retreat on a lake, or an eerie realm with genuflecting trees and predatory flowers. These examples of earlier weird fiction tap into ecology to raise our awarenessand the hair on our armsof the wild power of the world around us. The stories are diverse, rooted in subjects ranging from Gothic chaos ecology to the defiance of naturalistic classification to the questioning of religious and cultural rituals to surrealismthemes that are rooted in the ecological weird.

[1] Taylor, A. F., F. E. Kuo, and W. C. Sullivan. 2001. Coping with add: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior 33:54-77.

[2] Faber Taylor, A., and F. E. Kuo. 2009. Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park. Journal of Attention Disorders 12:402-409.

[3] Fuller, R. A., K. N. Irvine, P. Devine-Wright, P. H. Warren, and K. J. Gaston. 2007. Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biology Letters 3:390-394.

Notes: Part 3 will focus on contemporary weird fiction authors, the time-frame coinciding with modern acceptance of global warmingat least in this series. While new weird fiction, according to Wikipedia, began in the 1990s, this series focuses on the ecological weird, so well start a little earlier in the sense of weird fiction that may advocate, even subtly, for nature. Human-caused global warming became accepted in the 1970s within the scientific community. And authors such as Arthur Herzog and Ursula K. Le Guin were among the pioneers of writers dealing with Anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The 1970s is also when the term eco-fiction came about. The literary world began to recognize natural history while connecting humanity with ecology. Eco-criticism was born as well. And John Stadlers Eco-fiction anthology was published, bringing academic ideas into the mainstream, with the anthologys short story authors including Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allen Poe, A.E. Coppard, James Agee, Robert M. Coates, Daphne du Maurier, Robley Wilson Jr., E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, H.H. Munro, J.G. Ballard, Steven Scharder, Isaac Asimov, and William Saroyan.

The featured image is licensed for use and (c) Can Stock Photo / AlfaOlga

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