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.”

ASLE 2017 Roundtable

Today, my usual co-conspirator (Bridgitte Barclay of Aurora University) and I got our acceptance for ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. The conference will be held in Detroit this June and centers on the theme of Rust/Resistance. I am so excited to be going again! ASLE is my scholarly home, where I find the most interesting connections, meet the coolest people, and come away the most excited about new possibilities for scholarship and teaching.

Our roundtable is called “Resistant Discourses and Strategies of Recovery: Exploring Gender and Environment in Science Fiction.” Aside from Bridgitte and myself, it will feature Carter Soles (The College at Brockport, SUNY), Michelle Yates (Columbia College), Stina Attebery (University of California, Riverside), and Tyler Harper (New York University). It will include papers on sf texts ranging from the 1950s to the last year or two, including 1950s creature features (like The Wasp Woman), Soylent Green, WALL-E, the Mad Max franchise, Upstream Color, WALL-E, Her, Ex Machina, and – our lone novel – Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.

Our paper titles given an even better sense of the roundtable’s specific topics and theoretical concerns:

  1. “Remixing Reproduction: Queer Intimacy and the Ecology of Sound in Upstream Color” – Stina Attebery
  2. “Saving Eden: Masculinity, Civilization, and Environmental Nostalgia in Soylent Green and WALL-E” – Michelle Yates
  3. “Mad Max: Beyond Petroleum?” – Carter Soles
  4. “‘Either you’re mine or you’re not mine’: Controlling Gender, Nature, and Technology in Her and Ex Machina” – me (Christy Tidwell)
  5. “(En)gendering Nature in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312” – Tyler Harper
  6. “Camp Resistance: Animal Avatars and Gender Exaggeration in 1950s Creature Features” – Bridgitte Barclay

I’m a particular fan of Carter’s paper title. I agonized over my own, on the other hand, and still don’t love it. Someday I’ll develop a knack for title-writing, I hope.

This should be a fun and productive conversation about gender, environment, and resistance across a range of sf texts. Any readers who may be at ASLE this year should come see us!

Books of 2016

It’s time for the yearly reading list! Those of you who have seen my yearly reading lists in the past will note that the list for 2016 is a lot shorter than it usually is. Being pregnant (that first trimester really knocked me out) and then having a newborn plus buying a house, moving over the summer, and nesting left a lot less time for reading. At any rate, here’s my list, complete with star ratings (on a 1-5 scale; 5 star ratings in bold) and some other miscellaneous stats, and with a couple of best-of lists at the end:


  1. Luis Alberto Urrea, The Water Museum (2015) – 4 stars
  2. Christopher J. Yates, Black Chalk (2013) – 3 stars
  3. Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance (2015) – 3 stars
  4. Naomi Novik, Uprooted (2015) – 4 stars
  5. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy (2015) – 4 stars
  6. Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (1958) – 4 stars


  1. Myra J. Hird, Sex, Gender and Science (2004) – 4 stars
  2. Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (2015) – 4 stars
  3. Han Kang, The Vegetarian [trans. Deborah Smith] (2007; 2016) – 4 stars
  4. Lincoln Michel, Upright Beasts (2015) – 3 stars
  5. Andrea Gibson, Pansy (2015) – 5 stars
  6. China Miéville, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories (2015) – 4 stars


  1. Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen (2016) – 5 stars
  2. Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country (2016) – 4 stars
  3. Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (2015) – 5 stars
  4. Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015) – 4 stars


  1. Dale Spender, Man Made Language (1980) – 4 stars
  2. Pat Schmatz, Lizard Radio (2015) – 4 stars
  3. Lila Bowen, Wake of Vultures (2015) – 4 stars
  4. Carola Dibbell, The Only Ones (2015) – 4 stars
  5. Lyndsay Faye, Jane Steele (2016) – 5 stars
  6. Erika Hayasaki, The Death Class: A True Story about Life (2014) – 3 stars
  7. Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning (2015) – 5 stars
  8. Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (2016) – 4 stars
  9. Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015) – 4 stars
  10. Ann Neumann, The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America (2016) – 3 stars
  11. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (2001) – 4 stars
  12. Mary-Louise Parker, Dear Mr. You (2015) – 4 stars
  13. David Hughes, The Pillbox (2015) – 3 stars
  14. Kurtis J. Wiebe (ill. Roc Upchurch), Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery (2014) – 3 stars
  15. Kaitlyn Greenidge, We Love You, Charlie Freeman (2016) – 4 stars


  1. Seanan McGuire, Every Heart a Doorway (2016) – 4 stars
  2. Jessica Chiarella, And Again (2016) – 4 stars
  3. Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Blades (2016) – 5 stars
  4. Lydia Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven (2016) – 3 stars
  5. Joe Hill, The Fireman (2016) – 3 stars
  6. Stephen O’Connor, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings (2016) – 5 stars
  7. Manuel Gonzales, The Regional Office Is Under Attack (2016) – 3 stars


  1. Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (2016) – 4 stars
  2. Negin Farsad, How to Make White People Laugh (2016) – 2 stars
  3. Louise Erdrich, LaRose (2016) – 4 stars
  4. Malka Ann Older, Infomocracy (2016) – 4 stars
  5. Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (2011) – 4 stars
  6. Michelangelo Signorile, It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality (2015) – 4 stars
  7. Jessica Valenti, Sex Object: A Memoir (2016) – 4 stars
  8. Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone (2016) – 4 stars
  9. Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016) – 4 stars
  10. Jesse Walker, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (2012) – 3 stars
  11. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton: The Revolution (2016) – 5 stars
  12. Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography (1987; 1999) – 4 stars
  13. Robert Aickman, The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) – 3 stars


  1. Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (1974) – 3 stars
  2. James Herbert, The Rats (1974) – 2 stars
  3. Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines (2016) – 4 stars
  4. Mychal Denzel Smith, Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (2016) – 5 stars
  5. Paul Tremblay, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (2016) – 3 stars
  6. G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962) – 4 stars
  7. Ezekiel Boone, The Hatching (2016) – 3 stars
  8. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) – 4 stars
  9. Ross Macdonald, The Way Some People Die (1951) – 4 stars
  10. Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen (2015) – 3 stars
  11. Kelly Sue DeConnick, Bitch Planet #6 (2015) – 4 stars
  12. Kelly Sue DeConnick, Bitch Planet #7 (2016) – 5 stars
  13. Kelly Sue DeConnick, Bitch Planet #8 (2016) – 4 stars
  14. Christina Crosby, A Body, Undone: Living on After Great Pain (2016) – 4 stars
  15. Karrie Jacobs and Steven Heller, Angry Graphics: Protest Posters of the Reagan/Bush Era (1992) – 4 stars


  1. Nicole Seymour, Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (2013) – 4 stars
  2. Karel Čapek (trans. David Wyllie), War with the Newts (1936) – 5 stars
  3. Karel Čapek, The Absolute at Large (1920) – 3 stars
  4. Sarah Arnold, Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood (2013) – 2 stars
  5. Sue Short, Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage (2007) – 3 stars
  6. Julie Wosk, My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves (2015) – 3 stars
  7. Alejandro Zambra (trans. Megan McDowell), Multiple Choice (2014) – 3 stars
  8. Ellen Datlow (ed.), The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eight (2016) – 4 stars
  9. Ashley Dawson, Extinction: A Radical History (2016) – 4 stars
  10. Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014) – 5 stars
  11. Sarah Pinborough, The Language of Dying (2009) – 4 stars
  12. Chuck Wendig, Invasive (2016) – 3 stars
  13. China Miéville (ill. Mateus Santolouco, Riccardo Burchielli, and David Lapham), Dial H, Vol. 1: Into You (2012) – 4 stars
  14. Maria Stoian, Take It as a Compliment (2015) – 4 stars
  15. Stephen Graham Jones, Mongrels (2016) – 5 stars
  16. China Miéville (ill. David Lapham and Alberto Ponticelli), Dial H, Vol. 2: Exchange (2012) – 4 stars
  17. Jesmyn Ward (ed.), The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (2016) – 4 stars
  18. China Miéville, This Census-Taker (2016) – 3 stars


  1. Herman Koch, Dear Mr. M (2014) – 3 stars
  2. Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History (2016) – 4 stars
  3. Chuck Klosterman, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) (2013) – 2 stars
  4. Megan Abbott, Bury Me Deep (2009) – 4 stars
  5. Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) – 4 stars
  6. Blake Crouch, Dark Matter (2016) – 4 stars


  1. Sady Doyle, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (2016) – 4 stars
  2. Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (2015) – 3 stars
  3. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World Is Forest (1976) – 4 stars
  4. Marjorie Liu (ill. Sana Takeda), Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening (2016) – 4 stars
  5. Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me (2016) – 5 stars
  6. Nick Mamatas, I Am Providence (2016) – 3 stars
  7. Richard Littler, Discovering Scarfolk (2014) – 5 stars
  8. David Almond, Skellig (1998) – 5 stars
  9. Tom Gauld, Mooncop (2016) – 3 stars
  10. Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag, Strong Female Protagonist: Book One (2014) – 5 stars


  1. Iain Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2016) – 2 stars
  2. Walter Mosley, Folding the Red into the Black: Developing a Viable Untopia for Human Survival in the 21st Century (2016) – 4 stars
  3. Brian K. Vaughan (ill. Fiona Staples), Saga, Volume 1 (2012) – 4 stars


  1. Marc Lamont Hill, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond (2016) – 5 stars
  2. Belle Boggs, The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood (2016) – 4 stars
  3. Dina Rose, It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating (2014) – 4 stars
  4. Caitlin Moran, Moranifesto (2016) – 4 stars
  5. Ta-Nehisi Coates (ill. Brian Stelfreeze), Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1 (2016) – 3 stars
  6. Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (eds.), The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales (2016) – 4 stars
  7. Michael Ian Black, Navel Gazing: True Tales of Bodies, Mostly Mine (But Also My Mom’s, Which I Know Sounds Weird) (2016) – 4 stars
  8. Eric Fair, Consequence: A Memoir (2016) – 5 stars
  9. Nat Turner and Thomas Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831) – 3 stars

Total number of books – 112
Total number of pages (as calculated by Goodreads) – 31,160

Gender of authors:
Male – 61
Female – 55

Fiction in total – 67
Speculative fiction (SF/F/Horror) – 50
Nonfiction in total – 45
Poetry – 2
Scholarly nonfiction – 9
Graphic novels / comics / art – 16

Decade of original composition/publication:
2010s – 92 [probably the vast majority of this number came from 2016]
2000s – 5
1990s – 2
1980s – 3
1970s – 3
1960s – 1
1950s – 2
1930s – 1
1920s – 1
1830s – 1

I clearly need to diversify here. Next year I’ll try to read outside of new releases and contemporary books a bit more.

5 stars – 19
4 stars – 60
3 stars – 28
2 stars – 5
1 star – 0

Top Ten

I gave 19 books 5 stars; this list is a winnowing down from there (listed in no particular order).

  1. Andrea Gibson, Pansy (2015) – This book of poetry may be the best thing I read this last year. I read it twice all the way through this year. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
  2. Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (2015) – Lots of great history of how autism has been treated and diagnosed with a compelling argument for greater acceptance of neurodiversity in the present and future.
  3. Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me (2016) – I always love Megan Abbott. She essentially has two emphases in her writing – noir and girlhood. This is one that really delves into the darker side of girlhood and, in this case, motherhood as well. (One of her noir books is featured on the next list.)
  4. Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning (2015) – A beautiful and devastating graphic memoir by a father whose daughter died suddenly at age two (a rarer version of SIDS). It’s hard to recommend because it hurt so much to read. Even thinking about it makes me weepy.
  5. Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Blades (2016) – Gorgeous and smart fantasy. This is a followup to Bennett’s City of Stairs (2014), which I also highly recommend.
  6. Richard Littler, Discovering Scarfolk (2014) – This is just odd. And funny. It is ostensibly a guidebook to a place called Scarfolk, a weird little (fictional) place in England. It’s less about narrative and more about place and lots of cool images and graphic design. Well worth reading for those images alone. It grew out of a blog, so you can check out some of the art and concept there.
  7. Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014) – Just good, solid science fiction. I’m looking forward to reading Chambers’ next.
  8. Marc Lamont Hill, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond (2016) – Well-written coverage of recent instances of racism, classism, and oppression. It’s depressing at times, but ultimately hopeful.
  9. Eric Fair, Consequence (2016) – I just read this one, but I think it’ll stick with me. It’s a memoir from a man who joined the military for all the best, most idealistic reasons and wound up torturing people in Iraq. It reveals a great deal about what that life is like, but mostly it’s about what led him there and about his life afterward, how he tries to (and largely fails to) deal with the consequences of those actions. It’s depressing as shit.
  10. Karel Čapek (trans. David Wyllie), War with the Newts (1936) – This is a bit of early 20th century European science fiction. It’s weird. I like it for that weirdness.

Looking Back, Other Favorites

These are books that I didn’t give five stars to, but I really can’t remember why in most cases. These books may not have been five star reads for me at the time, but they have stuck with me (in positive ways) or look better in hindsight, so I wanted to mention them, too.

  1. Naomi Novik, Uprooted (2015)
  2. Ann Leckie, Ancillary Mercy (2015)
  3. Jessica Valenti, Sex Object: A Memoir (2016)
  4. Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016)
  5. Bitch Planet
  6. Ellen Datlow (ed.), The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eight (2016)
  7. Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History (2016)
  8. Megan Abbott, Bury Me Deep (2009)
  9. Marjorie Liu (ill. Sana Takeda), Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening (2016)
  10. Caitlin Moran, Moranifesto (2016)


Rosemary’s Baby: Teaching Horror, Week 4

This week’s horror class explored religious horror. We read Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and watched Roman Polanski’s film adaptation (1968). This was the class’s first film assignment, kicking off a few weeks focusing mostly on film after the opening few weeks of written texts.

Rosemary's Baby poster

This week is the most reading-intensive portion of the class. I didn’t want to interrupt the structure I had set up for the first half of the course (one subgenre, theme, or topic per week) and Levin’s book is a pretty quick read, so I asked students to read the entire novel for Tuesday and then watch the movie before class on Thursday. Not everyone quite succeeded at finishing the book in time, but we still had good discussions on both days. If I teach this course again, I might change the timing on this and either spend a little more time on the novel so they can all finish reading on schedule or simply assign the movie and not the novel.

Assigning only the film version would remove some of this week’s function, however. The film is a very faithful adaptation, so my choice to assign both book and movie was not because students were going to get significantly different narratives out of them. Instead, I wanted to be able to compare the book and movie precisely because they are so similar. Their similarity makes this a good introduction to film adaptation and film analysis. In class today, for instance, because the film is so closely tied to the book, we used that similarity to help highlight the different techniques available to Levin and Polanski. How, for instance, can Polanski give viewers the same understanding of Rosemary as the book does? The book provides us with her thoughts, but the movie doesn’t; how, then, I asked my students, do we know what she’s thinking or feeling? And what tradeoffs are there when shifting from one medium to another? Identifying such techniques and the different effects they have on us, even when the story and its details are so similar, was quite productive.

We also looked closely at some specific scenes in class to identify what film techniques were being used and what effects they had. In particular, I wanted students to note the way the camera stays close to Rosemary, keeping us connected to her and giving us her perspective on the world. I also asked them to listen closely to the music in a few scenes (highlighting the lullaby theme, the theme associated with her physical pain, and the music in a chase scene late in the film) and to try to describe a) its emotional effect on us and b) what the music is doing to create that effect. I pushed them a little on this because I’ve found that although music is an incredibly influential element in film, most people don’t have the appropriate language to talk about how it works. Since this isn’t a music class, I’m not going to try to teach them actual music theory or terminology, but I do want them to listen for what kinds of instruments are used and to work on describing what the melody might be doing (rising, falling, staying static) or identifying how the music uses rhythm, volume, and even silence. We’ll keep working on this.

RosemarysBaby_071Pyxurz mrs castevetrosemary61 castevets

Aside from this kind of comparative work and close reading/listening, most of our discussion of the novel and film revolved primarily around two central ideas.

The first, which I asked the class to write about at the end of class on Tuesday, is about the role of belief in horror. Do we need to believe in the devil (or ghosts or whatever fantastic element a horror story includes) in order to be frightened by the story? Most students argued in their writing that we do not need to believe to be affected by the story, but that belief in the devil or other supernatural entities might add to the fear we experience. Empathy for the characters and suspension of disbelief allow us to connect with the story even when we don’t take it literally, they argued. A small minority in the class wrote that belief is necessary for the story’s effects to work, and I want to continue to explore the failures of horror – where it doesn’t succeed – throughout the semester, too.

The second idea was part of our discussions on both days and is connected to the first in some ways. If many audience members don’t believe in the devil or in the supernatural, what else makes Rosemary’s Baby work? I’m not scared by the devil in this film, but I am scared by the way Rosemary’s entire world works against her and removes all control of her own life. Her husband emotionally abuses her and sells her body and her baby for his own gain; her neighbors manipulate her, stalk her, and steal her baby; her doctor isolates her from her friends and other sources of information; and they all work together to make her helpless and childlike. They gaslight her about her weight loss, they lie to her about their motives, and they physically assault her when it’s time for her to give birth and then keep her drugged so she won’t find out the truth. All of this happened because she wanted a family and a happy home and was too nice and too willing to believe in others to see the threat that her new neighbors represented.

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Rosemary’s Baby as a story about the devil trying to bring about the death of God and the beginning of a new reign of Satan is okay; Rosemary’s Baby as a story about the abuse and control of young women’s lives and bodies is, on the other hand, powerful and wonderfully creepy.

Rosemary's Baby pain

Next week, our overarching theme will be race, and we’ll watch Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Candyman (1992).

Music for this week: On Tuesday, I played John Fullbright’s “Satan and St. Paul” for both a change in musical genre and the Satan reference; on Thursday, I played Kishi Bashi’s “I Am the Antichrist to You” for the antichrist reference. I’m not subtle.

LGBTQ Literature: Coming This Spring!

I will be teaching a one-hour course on LGBTQ literature this coming spring semester. Teaching a one-hour course feels a little odd, but I am excited about the class. I haven’t worked out all of the details yet, but at this point it looks like we will be reading Martin Sherman’s Bent, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues plus a variety of other short stories and poems as time permits.

Obviously, any course is going to fail to achieve complete coverage and this is even more true of a one-hour course. I had to pass on a major work like Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, for instance, because it was just too long to work out for a semester where we only meet once a week for an hour. Similarly, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which I love and teach often, had to be left out, not because it is too long (it reads really quickly) but because it is packed with references and connections that students need time and assistance to work through. We just don’t have that time.

Having said that, I think the three major texts I’ve chosen will work well and should lend themselves to some interesting discussions.

Now I just have to get people to sign up for the class!

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The Haunting of Hill House: Week 3 of Teaching Horror Lit & Film

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

This week’s horror course was devoted to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a novel that grows out of the Gothic tradition we’ve previously discussed and that influences later works such as Stephen King’s The Shining and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (books that, sadly, we do not have time to read this semester).

This week consisted of pretty straightforward literary discussion of the book. Our discussions for both days relied fairly heavily on student questions from their notecards. This group of students has so far brought good questions to class, so that worked well. Lots of students wanted to talk about whether Eleanor influenced Hill House (in addition to being influenced by it), whether she was actually possessed by the house or just insane, and the significance of Eleanor’s final moment of clarity (“Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”). There were also questions such as these, which we discussed as a class: When everyone is searching for Eleanor, how would the mood change if the perspective was from the group instead of just Eleanor? What do you think would have happened if they had not made Eleanor leave?

I also provided the class with a couple of questions to consider. For instance, I asked the class to consider how this novel fits (or doesn’t fit) into the horror genre. There was an interesting division of opinion on this. Quite a few argued that the novel is standard psychological horror and fits clearly within our definition of horror as something that is about the threat of death and/or madness; others, however, argued that this is not horror but instead a psychological drama. The latter group seemed to see Jackson’s novel as not quite horror because it lacked some of the conventions they are accustomed to in more recent horror and because it set up certain expectations with its Gothic trappings that it didn’t then fulfill. I found this interesting. I argued that the book is horror and that those Gothic trappings (the giant statue, the cold spot, the library, etc.) are not the point. Jackson, on the contrary, includes these elements to show that they are not what is truly frightening; what is truly frightening is what happens inside Eleanor’s mind.

Finally, the following two statements (made by Dr. Montague) are key to the book, I believe, but they are also potentially key to the horror genre more broadly. First:

…the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.

And, later:

Fear… is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishment of reasonable patterns.

Does our modern rationality make us more susceptible to these stories? Or does it make us less likely to be influenced by them because of our lack of belief in the supernatural? Must we willingly relinquish such rationality in order to be frightened by these stories?

Next week we will move on to religious horror with Rosemary’s Baby, and I want to see what the class thinks of these ideas as applied to this subgenre. If we do not believe in Satan, can we still be frightened by him or by stories about him?

Music for this week:

On Tuesday, I played Poe’s “Haunted,” both because it’s about a haunted house and because it’s linked to Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which I brought to class to show them. On Thursday, I played two short songs that are less obviously linked to the course material, but that felt relevant to me: The Unicorns’ “I Don’t Wanna Die” (which made me think of Eleanor’s end) and Laura Stevenson’s “Barnacles,” definitely a song I could see Eleanor singing.

Scrape these barnacles
I am utterly yours
take my lack of control
and swallow it whole
break my excuses to leave
over your boney knees and
free me
free me
free me
free me
I am utterly yours