If the very name BEAUTYCALYPSE was not a dead giveaway of my preference for dystopian aesthetics and ideas, please welcome my Walpurgis Night guest with an Ecogothic soliloquy.
Adventurers, please welcome:
Our Special Guest today, the Berlin-based literary scholar, PR professional and translator Claire Dove is passionate about the written word.
In her spare time, she’s very likely to be found immersed in a book, with a cuppa tea in one hand (and sometimes also on Instagram).
By Claire Dove for BEAUTYCALYPSE.com
Think about it: What comes to your mind when hearing the word “Gothic”? Do visions of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, blood, fog, graveyards and old castles fill your head, or do you envision ethereal white-faced figures listening to gothic rock, wearing black clothing and lots and lots of black eye makeup? Or do visions of toxic waste, abject bodies and lifelike robots come to life in your imagination?
The Gothic is a notoriously slippery term, its terminological vagueness an essential part of the Gothic mode itself, which has been thriving for over 250 years on uncertainty, instability of identity and the uncanny ability to morph from one incarnation to another. One new sub-genre in particular, the Ecogothic, tackles our deepest fears surrounding nature, the animal and the human body, powerfully showing how nature is literally made strange by humans.
Instead of attempting one limiting definition, the following book and film recommendations will be your guide into the world of the Ecogothic – which is fast becoming the world we already live in.
What it means to be (post-)human:
“Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” (1818) and “Ex Machina” (2015)
Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel about a scientist who arrogantly and fatally creates a humanoid creature preempts our modern-day debate on human interference into nature and what it truly means to be human. This 200-year-old novel is more relevant than ever in light of modifications of genetic material of humans and plants which might irreversibly change what we understand to be “human” and “natural”. This obsession with what it means to be human is mirrored in the mushrooming TV and film adaptations obsessing over the topic of artificial intelligence.
A chillingly beautiful example is the science fiction psychological thriller “Ex Machina”, written and directed by Alex Garland. The film follows a programmer who is invited by his CEO to administer the Turing test to an intelligent humanoid robot, whom he falls in love with. In a Gothic setting – an ultra-modern mansion surrounded by menacing wilderness – we witness human hubris and a dazzling creation gone horribly wrong.
The film makes us question where our loyalties lie. By the time the film ends, we must ask ourselves: Do we want humanity to survive?
An (un)natural disaster:
“Salvage the Bones” (2011)
This novel by Jesmyn Ward centers on the days leading up to and following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as told through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch Batiste, a pregnant African American girl who lives with her father and brothers on a derelict property called ‘The Pit’ in the fictional but eloquently named Bois Sauvage (Wild Wood), Mississippi. The novel is not overtly Gothic, but page by page, the sense of oppression, doom and death grows stronger. Throughout the novel, a blurring of the (post-)human body, the animal and a degraded environment takes place until the reader reaches a horrific realisation: Hurricane Katrina was partly man-made, socially and ecologically. The storm as a Gothic spectre exposes the environment as one made deadly through humans themselves.
To consume or to be consumed?
“At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die” (2003)
A particularly chilling real-life Ecogothic report is brought to us by journalist Charlie LeDuff. In ‘At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die’, LeDuff takes the reader to a North Carolina meat factory, where he went undercover as one of the workers. He experiences first-hand the soul-shattering line of work which embodies elements of Gothic horror quite literally: constant violence, repetition, bloodiness, hacking away at slabs of meat in piecework, the eerie blurring of human and animal during the work process. The article describes how their environment destroys the physical and mental health of the workers, reducing them to a commodity, something to be consumed, like the meat itself. The hierarchical structure of the factory is deeply racist, African Americans and Mexicans doing the dirty work while Whites and Native Americans file paper, acting as overseers to the people working down below. The reader is forced to acknowledge not only the reality of racism and exploitation but also his/her complicity as a consumer in perpetuating such a degraded and degrading ecosystem which is highly noxious to both human and animal.
This is just a small excursion into the growing number of books, films, articles and TV shows revolving around the Ecogothic questions of humanity and nature which haunt our present times. As different as the above works are, they are united by their chilling message: That which we seek to repress always returns – our inhumanity, our toxic waste, the bodies we bury, our history.
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Further book suggestions:
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) and other short stories
Cormac McCarthy, “The Road” (2006)
Valerie Martin, “Property” (2003)
Simon Arnal et. al., “Les Revenants” (2012)
Bryan Burk et al., “Westworld” (2016)
Anders Thomas Jensen, “Men and Chicken” (2015)
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