CFP: Edited Collection on Ecohorror (with updated deadline)

In recent years, there has been increasing attention within both ecocriticism and horror studies to the intersections between the two fields. The country/city split and the civilized person’s fear of the wilderness and rural spaces, key issues for ecocritics, also loom large over the horror genre.

Screenshot of house from Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Furthermore, there are entire horror subgenres dedicated to the revenge of wild nature and its denizens upon humanity. As Rust and Soles write, ecohorror studies “assumes that environmental disruption is haunting humanity’s relationship to the non-human world” as well as that ecohorror in some form can be found in all texts grappling with ecocritical matters (509-10).

Giant spider crossing a desert road. Image from Them! (1954)

Them! (1954)

There have been some critical examinations of this intersection – e.g., Ecogothic, edited by Andrew Smith and William Hughes (2013); an ecohorror special cluster in ISLE, edited by Stephen A. Rust and Carter Soles (2014); Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen by Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann (2016); and Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film, edited by Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga (2017) – but we feel that it is time for a fuller examination of ecohorror as a genre. To that end, we invite submissions of approximately 6000-7000 words to be included in the first edited collection devoted exclusively to ecohorror. Because our interest is in the genre as a whole, there is no limit on time period or medium; we want this collection to explore the range of ecohorror texts and ideas.

Chapters may consider the following:

  • How is human violence against the natural world represented in such texts? Or, vice-versa, how is violence against humanity by the natural world represented? What effect does this violence have on the relationship between human and nonhuman?
  • How do ecohorror texts blur human/nonhuman distinctions in order to generate fear, horror, or dread?
  • What fears of, about, or for nature are expressed in ecohorror? How do these expressions of fear influence environmental rhetoric and/or action more broadly?
  • How are ecohorror texts and tropes used to promote ecological awareness or represent ecological crises?

Submit completed chapters to Christy Tidwell ( and Carter Soles ( by July 6, 2018. We are requesting submissions of completed chapter drafts (6000-7000 words) to be considered for this project rather than abstracts. Please feel free to reach out with questions and/or ideas before submitting a completed chapter, however; we would be happy to provide feedback or guidance.

Poster for Frogs (1972). Shows a frog with a human hand in its mouth. Text: A terrifying story of times to come when Nature strikes back!

Frogs (1972)

Shirley Jackson & Biography

I don’t often read biographies. I only have 12 books on my Goodreads shelf labelled “biography” that I’ve actually read, and a couple of those might be stretching the definition a bit (e.g., Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, which includes biographical sketches as part of a more autobiographical project). Looking over the short list of biographies I’ve actually completed, it appears I’m primarily drawn to biographies of women, including the following: Rachel Carson, Judith Merril, George Eliot, James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), Rosa Luxemburg, Octavia E. Butler, and Shirley Jackson. The list also includes Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, which is a collection of short, illustrated biographical sketches of female scientists throughout history. There are only three books on the list that are about men (and here I want to mention Philippe Girard’s Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life, which I listened to on a long car ride and would highly recommend).

I’m not sure what it is that has me reading mostly biographies of women. It’s not a conscious choice to focus on women. Some of this focus certainly grows out of my scholarly interests; my dissertation was about feminist science fiction and feminist science, after all. Rachel Carson, Judith Merril, James Tiptree, Jr., and Octavia E. Butler are all relevant to that work. But my dissertation didn’t focus on any of these women and didn’t require biographical research anyway.

Certainly there’s also an element of admiration in my choices. All of these are biographies of women whose work I value: Rachel Carson’s scientific work as well as her writing about science; James Tiptree, Jr.’s brilliant and disturbing fiction, much of it reflecting on gender and sex; Judith Merril’s writing and editorial work and the way she helped shape science fiction as a genre; Octavia Butler’s revelations of power in her fiction (I especially love Dawn); Rosa Luxemburg’s fight for freedom and justice. And so on.

Another unfortunate pattern, however, seems to be that the biographies I have enjoyed most (is enjoyed the right word? perhaps not) are those of women who have led somewhat painful, constrained lives: Rachel Carson, James Tiptree, Jr., Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson.

This pattern seems especially to be highlighted by Ruth Franklin’s recent biography of Shirley Jackson (Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, 2016), which I just finished reading. Franklin emphasizes Jackson’s always strained relationship with her mother, her feeling of never fitting in anyplace, the hurtful ways her husband (scholar Stanley Hyman) treated her, frequently lukewarm responses to her fiction with a couple of significant exceptions, the tension she felt between her life as wife and mother and her life as writer, her late-in-life agoraphobia and serious anxiety, and her early death. Despite some real success as a writer and what seem like largely positive relationships with her children, Jackson’s life is marked by pain, anxiety, and a sense of her lack of freedom.

Reading her fiction with this in mind is illuminating. For instance, her work frequently circles around the supernatural. She typically stops short of relying on the supernatural as an explanation, but it is always a possibility, and it was something she studied for years.

Witchcraft, whether she practiced it or simply studied it, was important to Jackson for what it symbolized: female strength and potency. The witchcraft chronicles she treasured–written by male historians, often men of the church, who sought to demonstrate that witches presented a serious threat to Christian morality–are stories of powerful women: women who defy social norms, women who get what they desire, women who can channel the power of the devil himself. (261)

Shirley Jackson didn’t identify herself as a feminist, but she certainly fits into a feminist tradition. And Franklin points out how her observations about her own life, as well as her fiction, presage Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Like many women of the time, Jackson felt she had little to no control over her own life, little to no say in what was possible. Witchcraft, even as a thought experiment, allowed a window out of that world of control.

Later, Franklin’s discussion of The Haunting of Hill House includes a significant, telling detail about Jackson’s sense of the book and, potentially, about her sense of herself. At one point, Franklin observes that, in her notes, Jackson referred to a particular line as the “key line” of the novel. This line comes after Eleanor has been clutching Theodora’s hand in fear as she hears a child crying for help in the next room. When the lights go on, however, Theodora is not in bed with her but in the bed across the room: “Good God,” Eleanor says, “whose hand was I holding?” This line always gives me chills but I hadn’t considered it as central to the book in the way Jackson apparently did.

Franklin’s interpretation builds upon Jackson’s biography:

The people we hold by the hand are our intimates–parents, children, spouses. To discover oneself clinging to an unidentifiable hand and to ask “Whose hand was I holding?” is to recognize that we can never truly know those with whom we believe ourselves most familiar. One can sleep beside another person for twenty years, as Shirley had with Stanley [Hyman] by this point, and still feel that person to be at times a stranger–and not the “beautiful stranger” of her early story. The hand on the other side of the bed may well seem to belong to a demon. (414)

This is an intriguing reading that I will have to consider when I re-read the novel. Whether I find it convincing as a reading of this line or not, however, it is a compelling take on Shirley’s mindset and the feelings about her marriage she struggled with for many years.

Franklin’s biography – as in these two examples – provides potentially useful ways of reading Shirley Jackson’s work through her biography. The next instance raises questions about the limits of such readings, however.

Late in her life, when she became (temporarily) unable to leave her house, she found herself also unable to write. Franklin writes, tying Jackson’s anxiety to her relationship with Stanley, “It was an issue of control, she thought. How could she wrest control of her life, her mind, back from Stanley? And if she could, would her writing change?” (477). Jackson wrote in her diary at this time, “insecure, uncontrolled, i wrote of neuroses and fear and i think all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety.” Her books do all seem to wrestle with anxiety and fear, and this is the source of much of their power. Would she write such books if she were a happier woman? If the world made room for her to be who she needed to be? Likely not. But what other books might she have written instead? Her books gather force from her anxiety and fear, but to leave it there is to discount her talent and skill as a writer. I suspect that a less unhappy version of Shirley Jackson could still have been a brilliant writer, but she might have spoken to different concerns. Or perhaps she would still have reflected these fears, for they are not unique to her or to her situation as a woman in an unhappy marriage in the mid-20th century.

Some of Jackson’s commentary on her own writing from earlier in her life indicates the broader reach of her ideas:

In a publicity memo written for Farrar, Straus around the time The Road Through the Wall appeared–only a month before “The Lottery” was written, if the March date on the draft is accurate–Jackson mentioned her enduring fondness for eighteenth-century English novels because of their “preservation of and insistence on a pattern superimposed precariously on the chaos of human development.” She continued: “I think it is the combination of these two that forms the background of everything I write–the sense which I feel, of a human and not very rational order struggling inadequately to keep in check forces of great destruction, which may be the devil and may be intellectual enlightenment.” In all her writing, the recurrent theme was “an insistence on the uncontrolled, unobserved wickedness of human behavior.” (224)

I take this as a reminder that although her personal demons may have shaped her writing, these feelings and themes are not unique to her or to people with similar problems. In fact, this quote seems to sum up horror fiction in a nutshell: rationality attempts (and fails) to control that which is beyond rational, humanity attempts (and fails) to control itself or its “wickedness.”

Trump, Jackson, & Alternative Medicine

For a while now, people have made comparisons between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson. This New Republic piece covers some major similarities and this Atlantic piece considers such similarities as well as some significant differences between the two men. In my reading this evening, I discovered another intriguing cultural comparison, though.

I’ve been reading David Oshinsky’s Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital, and in Chapter 4, Oshinsky discusses the development of Bellevue as a teaching hospital and medical school. This history, which takes place in the early- to mid-19th century, includes a brief movement to include homeopathy in the hospital, as an alternative to purging and bleeding. This movement was stopped by a combination of the more traditional doctors’ desire to protect the hospital’s teaching reputation and a simultaneous move in their practice away from those bleeding and purging methods and toward other (non-homeopathic) methods.

Leonhart Fuchs, Calechutian Pepper, 1543 (Public Domain)

The connection between this history and the Trump/Jackson comparison arises with Samuel Thomson and his approach to medicine. Thomson, who has been called “the Father of American Herbalism,” was a self-taught doctor of the early 1800s. He believed that most ailments could be treated with local (as in North American) plants, his slogan was “Heat is Life; Cold is Death,” and his treatments involved spicy peppers and other plants. He also claimed that medicine should come from “experience, not reading.”

Oshinsky’s description of Thomson’s approach and its growth in popularity highlights the connections between Jackson’s time and where we find ourselves now:

“Thomsonianism” took root in the expanding democratic culture of Jacksonian America, with its suspicion of entrenched elites. Many state legislatures in this era abolished all restrictions on who could become a doctor or a lawyer in order to discourage “monopolies.” Thomson insisted that ordinary people, using common sense, could effectively heal themselves. His goal, he stressed, was “to make every man his own physician.”

The suspicion of entrenched elites and of government power sounds very much like the rhetoric coming from Trump’s corner. This suspicion doesn’t begin with Trump, of course, but has been growing for a while. And it doesn’t only play a role in national politics and elections; it also appears in the growing turn to homeopathy and the anti-vaxxer movement. What is more reflective of “suspicion of entrenched elites,” including suspicion of trained doctors and scientists, than a movement that says a parent knows better than the entire scientific and medical establishment about what’s in vaccines, what harm they might cause, and where diseases come from? “Every man his own physician” indeed.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like these contemporary movements will be as easy to stop as the homeopathic movement to gain a foothold at Bellevue was in the 1840s. And there will be – there already are – consequences for the brand of paranoid elitism that gives power to homeopathy, anti-vaxxers, and people like Donald Trump.