Andrew Smith and William Hughes (eds), Ecogothic

Ecogothic (International Gothic Series), Andrew Smith and William Hughes (eds), (Manchester: Manchester University Press, reprinted 2016) 216 pp. £44.55 Hb. £19.19 Kindle. ISBN: 1526106892.

Ecogothic’s claim that it is the “first study of how the Gothic engages with ecocritical ideas” is an ambitious but well-founded one. Published first in 2013, it has since been followed by such texts as Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature edited by Dawn Keetley and Matthew Wynn Sivils, The Creeping Terror: An Ecogothic Examination of the Haunted Houses, Women, and Plants by Summer M. DuPree and 'That Awful Secret of the Wood': The Forest and the EcoGothic by Elizabeth Parker, all published in 2017. It can therefore be safely read as the foremost text for anyone studying Ecogothic. Overall, the book provides an engaging first attempt at navigating readers through the relationship between Gothic and Ecocriticism. Particularly laudable is its desire to acknowledge not only English and North American texts, but also what Andrew Smith and William Hughes refer to as “global” literature in the form of Sharae Dechard’s current and original reading of Toyko Cancelled (4). However, having only one chapter acknowledging this “global” angle is disappointing; the collection begins with four chapters exploring the British tradition, followed by two on the Canadian and five on the American, and finally ending with Deckard’s chapter on Global Ecogothic. More than just this one chapter, which analyses Toyko Cancelled through the lens of its storytelling influences (Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights), would have added weight to its place in the collection. Having said this, Smith and Hughes should be commended for admitting that this volume only “begins a debate” on the global geopolitical context of the Ecogothic (5).

One of Ecogothic’s main strengths is its ability to move seamlessly between a huge range of texts – eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and even twenty-first century fiction and film. While to some extent the selection is structured chronologically it is refreshing to have a volume structured geographically, highlighting especially differences between North American and Western Gothic. Though the papers have clearly been assembled thoughtfully in terms of where they sit geographically, it was disappointing to find few internal links between essays. Each essay has its own trajectory in responding to the term “ecogothic”, which, while making an interesting read, has its drawbacks when trying to read the collection as a whole. Aside from minor references to each other’s work (as seen in Alanna F. Bondar’s reference to David Punter in Chapter 6 and Kevin Corstorphine’s allusion to Tom J. Hillard in Chapter 9), readers need to work hard to construe links between the chapters.

Smith and Hughes outline exactly what is meant by “eco-” in their comprehensive introduction – a useful addition to this “first study” of Ecogothic. It is a definition that is based on historicising the idea of ecology with regards to respecting earth and a scepticism of capitalism. They make clear that although this is a historical view of ecology, the study of Ecogothic is more necessary now than it ever has been considering our current environmental crisis. To revisit the Gothic is to see what it has to say about these new environmental themes. Whilst co-writing the introduction, both Hughes and Smith also contribute chapters. Hughes’s comes at Chapter 5, where, through an analysis of The Wicker Man (1973), he both reinforces and critiques the connection to a modern ecocriticism by suggesting that the British Lion B movie balances “material science and imaginative spirituality”, and anticipates many current ecocritical concerns (67). In the second half of the collection Andrew Smith’s essay continues Tom J. Hillard’s move from the Canadian to the American Gothic tradition, and gives a comprehensive overview of three American “road” texts (132). Smith uses Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse to examine American Gothic journeys through the unnatural, manmade construction: the road. This offers a novel way into the theme of ecology by using an artificial construction as the centre of the essay. Again, his chapter foregrounds the importance of considering the Ecogothic as something connected to humankind’s destruction as well as interaction with the natural world, arguing finally that “the frontier, a type of liminal space like the road, needs to become inhabited by a model of the family which serves as the blueprint for the possibility of social and environmental renewal” (134). 

This thread, the connection between society and the environment, does indeed appear in many of the essays. Lisa Kröger begins the volume with an exploration of the nature versus civilisation binary that is so important in understanding ecocriticism. Catherine Lanone continues by examining narratives depicting the lost Franklin expedition and representation of the “monstrous Arctic”, covering a large range of examples from different authors (30). To contrast, David Punter’s chapter focuses solely on Algernon Blackwood, and peculiarly begins with the suggestion that Blackwood may not have been a Gothic writer at all, raising questions as to the benefit of including such an author in this collection. Following in Lanone’s footsteps, Alanna F. Bondar uses eight different writers to discuss Canadian literature in Chapter 6. She suggests that the difference between American and Canadian literature is the replacement of the “pastoral” with stories of “disaster and survival” owing to Canada’s unique harsh wilderness (72). Shoshannah Ganz explores Margaret Atwood’s fiction and, after analysing the way in which Atwood’s oeuvre creates monsters and acknowledges the history of the monster, suggests that Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood “are at the inception of a nascent mutation of the Gothic, what I term the Canadian ecoGothic” (87). By adapting the stock Gothic character, the monster, Atwood adapts them into a new setting of a world in an environmental crisis. Kevin Corstorphine’s chapter gives an overview of the American Gothic and then focuses on Ambrose Bierce, who gives a “nostalgic yet fearful response to the wilderness frontier at the heart of American Gothic” (120). Emily Carr’s assertion of an ecofeminist perspective follows on well from Ganz’s chapter on Atwood, even turning to Canadian poet Sina Queyras for “advice” before turning to The Changeling (162). Tom J. Hillard’s chapter on Blair Witch and Susan J. Tyburski’s on the monstrous in American cinema provide excellent variety to an already expansive collection.

Lanone encompasses the takeaway point of the collection by stating that “ecogothic narratives turn to the ghosts of the past in order to shock capitalist logic into changing while there still may be time” (28). Although this cannot be mapped onto every text, the connection between the past and the present, as well as that between humans and nature, is the key to why Ecogothic contributes something interesting to both Gothic criticism and eco-theory. Although the overall argument is shaped by a very clear western Gothic influence, the collection provides a broad and diverse introduction to what the field of Ecogothic has to offer.

Layla Hendow, University of Hull