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)

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.

rosemarys-baby-3 sick

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!

LGBTQ Literature poster legal 4

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

Teaching Horror Literature & Film: Beginnings

My upper-level horror literature & film course is off to a good start! I plan on posting something every week to document our progress through the course, since this is my first time teaching it and since I am very excited about this class. (Probably, most future posts about the course will be shorter since they’ll be covering a week at a time, however.)

The first two weeks were dedicated to beginnings: the beginnings of the class (discussing definitions, expectations, assignments, etc.) and the beginnings of the genre.

Day 1: We had to spend a little time talking about the syllabus, but I tried to get through that as quickly as possible so we could start discussing horror immediately. I went over my expectations and talked about how excited I am about the course and had them get in groups for a few minutes to find answers to some basic questions in the syllabus. This ensures they at least see some of the most important points and also gets them talking to each other right away. Since so much of the course is discussion and groupwork, this is important.

I primed them for our discussion about the genre a bit by projecting a quote from H. P. Lovecraft on the screen before class began (this quote is also at the beginning of the syllabus; it comes from “The Call of Cthulhu”):

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I began our discussion of the genre by asking them to list things they associate with the horror genre. In other words, I asked, what elements do you expect from a horror story (whether a novel, film, video game, or something else)? We generated a long list on the board that included items such as gore, jump scares, monsters, and the final girl (there were many, many other good suggestions, but I didn’t record the list, so I don’t remember what they were now). Working from this list, we tried to develop a definition for horror, and the three central ideas we landed on and will work with throughout the semester are the following:

  • Horror includes the threat of death and/or madness.
  • Horror includes or is about the violation of our expectations or social norms.
  • Horror includes the emotions of fear, dead, and/or anxiety.

To conclude the first day, I had them complete a quick survey online to get a sense of their familiarity with and expectations of the genre, and then we watched a couple of short films together – See You Soon (a 14 second horror film) and Hell No – and discussed how these short films fit our definitions and what they reveal about the genre.

Day 2: I began playing music before class. I do this all semester; sometimes it’s relevant music and sometimes it’s not. I started this class off with some Nick Cave, which wasn’t directly relevant to the day’s work, but seemed generally appropriate.

I didn’t assign any reading for the second day so that we could do a little more general work and because there’s typically still some adding and dropping going on at this point. Instead, I gave a brief lecture at the beginning of the class period about the Gothic novel and its role as a source for modern horror.

walpoleFollowing this, I had them work in groups to discuss significant 19th century works and their influence: FrankensteinDracula, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Two groups worked on each novel and had some overlapping and some differing questions. All groups were asked to list the major themes and ideas of their assigned novel (I assumed that everyone would have some general, basic knowledge of these stories, even if they hadn’t read the originals) and identify some iconic visuals associated with their assigned story. Some groups were then asked to look at film adaptations of their novel; others were asked to look at all other types of adaptations. Their job was to look for patterns in these adaptations and then, finally, consider where they can see the novels’ influence today.


This group project took a good chunk of time so they could discuss and research and then discuss some more, but we still had time to hear from each group and look at some examples together. I showed them examples like Blackenstein and Blacula, which no groups came up with on their own; I also brought up a couple of adaptations of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde that I enjoy and that they didn’t mention, like the musical and the BBC show from a few years ago. Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter got perhaps the strongest reaction, however.

Day 3: This was the first day with assigned readings. I assigned “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe and “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft. Most of the course’s content is mid-20th century and later, but Poe and Lovecraft are clearly huge influences on the genre that I want to be sure students have some familiarity with. This also turned out to be the perfect day to introduce some tools for analyzing literary style, since both of these authors have distinctive styles and since their style can be a barrier for modern readers. We discussed their use of first person (in all three stories), the emphasis on the narrators’ storytelling itself, the distance placed between the action and the reader, and the vocabulary and language itself.

Cthulhu Images

One of the regular assignments for this semester is that they each bring a notecard with a quote they found interesting and a discussion question to class every day that there is an assigned text, so I had them work with their questions and quotes in groups. They were given the following instructions and 20-25 minutes to work:

  1. Share your quotes and questions from your notecards.
  2. Discuss those quotes and questions.
  3. Choose a question to ask the rest of the class to discuss and a quote to share with the rest of the class (including some comments on why that quote is significant).
  4. Consider patterns and connections:
    1. How do today’s texts relate to one another? What do they have in common? How do they differ?
    2. How do today’s texts relate to our discussions in previous classes? Consider, for instance, our definitions of horror from the first day of class, the Gothic, and the three novels discussed last Thursday (FrankensteinDracula, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde). 
    3. How do today’s texts compare to your expectations of horror? In what ways do they pave the way for contemporary horror? How do they differ from your expectations and/or from contemporary horror?

We spent most of our time after their small group discussions discussing the connections they’d found between texts and ideas, but we also got to talk about a couple of their discussion questions.

I had shared Nnedi Okorafor’s blog post about winning the World Fantasy Award and being troubled by H. P. Lovecraft’s racism on D2L before this class meeting, so I made sure we talked briefly about how to deal with an author’s personal views at the end of class. Lovecraft was, of course, not only privately racist. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” there is some pretty overt racism, and I wanted to make sure students were aware of it and were able to sort out some way to deal with it. Most seemed to think it was something that could just be written off as representative of the time or that the author’s personal views could be kept completely separate from his/her work, but this is a complicated issue and it is definitely something I want to return to later in the semester. For instance, we will be watching Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in a couple of weeks, but he is an instance of an artist who does wonderful work but has a problematic (to say the least) personal life. I feel very conflicted about even teaching the movie because I don’t want to support Polanski. I can justify (to myself) teaching Lovecraft because he’s dead and cannot profit from our reading his work, but living artists are a different story.

Pre-class music was The Mountain Goats’ “Lovecraft in Brooklyn.” Given the day’s reading, I couldn’t possibly have played anything else:

Woke up afraid of my own shadow, I mean, like genuinely afraid.
Headed for the pawnshop to buy myself a switchblade.
Someday something’s coming from way out beyond the stars
To kill us while we stand here, it’ll store our brains in mason jars.

And then the girl behind the counter,
She asks me how I feel today.
I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn.

Day 4: We looked at some pre-Code horror comics and discussed the Comics Code Authority. I scanned some comics stories and cover art from Jim Trombetta’s The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read! as well as a few passages from Trombetta’s commentary on the comics and their historical context. I also played a brief slideshow with additional images from the 1950s and 1970s before class began and as I made some announcements.

Trombetta - horror comics images2Trombetta - horror comics images3

For this day, I wanted to have a more free-form discussion and make use of the students’ discussion questions, so I took up their notecards at the beginning of the class and shuffled through them as we talked, choosing questions pretty randomly at first and more deliberately later, to avoid repetition. We spent a lot of time discussing the reaction against the comics as representative of the time period and contemporary fears of Communism. We put the CCA in the larger context of the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthy’s Senate hearings; we also discussed the reaction against the comics as an instance of a fairly normal reaction by an older generation against the entertainment of a younger generation (they connected it to more contemporary arguments against video games, for instance). We returned to elements of style, too, discussing the recurring use of the second person in the narratives provided. Some are fully in second person and some just end with a sudden turn to the reader and a challenge to “Look carefully — scrutinize your neighbors, the people on the streets! Are they what they seem to be — or are they monsters? Perhaps, if you watch, there is still time to save the world from enslavement by the monsters about you!!” (“Dungeon of Doom!”, Chamber of Chills no. 6, March 1952). Finally, I made sure we looked at the visual style of the art itself and noted some of the sexual imagery in the cover art.

Trombetta - phallic Trombetta - vaginal

Thoughts: So far, I feel really good about the class. Students have been engaged and ready to discuss. They have been asking great questions and keeping up with the reading (as far as I can tell, at any rate). Although the beginning has been a bit rushed – getting through definitions, the Gothic, Frankenstein, DraculaDr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Poe, Lovecraft, and horror comics all in four days means that some of that is not very in-depth – I think it gives us a good set of foundational ideas and references to work with as we move forward.

Next week: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.