A CENTURY OF WEIRD FICTION, 1832-1937: DISGUST, METAPHYSICS, AND THE AESTHETICS OF COSMIC HORROR by Jonathan Newell, Reviewed by Monika Elbert and Wendy Ryden

By Jonathan Newell
(Wales / Chicago, 2020) x + 241 pp.
Reviewed by Monika Elbert and Wendy Ryden on 2022-03-24.

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Jonathan Newell's treatment of weird fiction follows the recent trend to de-romanticize the Gothic and align it with pulp fiction. Beginning and ending with H.P. Lovecraft, Newell analyzes within this framework four comparable authors: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson.

Throughout the book Newell flirts with Kantian aesthetics and transcendental idealism (especially in his early discussion of Poe) but ultimately relies on the nihilism of Schopenhauer and what has been recently labeled "speculative realism" (7) or "neo-materialism" (9), an offshoot of ecocriticism. Newell thus moves from the realm of the sublime to an "oozing" sense of disgust as he proclaims the purpose of his investigation: "disgust can provide a version of aesthetic experience in some sense profoundly parallel to the sublime but in another wholly inverse to it--a sublimity shorn of anthropocentrism" (13). The Freudian concept of unheimlich, he contends, is not sufficiently elastic to account for the posthuman dimension of the weird, which seeks to represent what humans ultimately cannot grasp. (Readers will judge for themselves whether Freudian accounts of the return of the repressed are too limited to explain the works under consideration.) Aiming to explain why weird fiction is titillating--"why ... we find the aversive emotions that horror fiction arouses to be pleasurable" (15)--Newell shows that his chosen writers anticipate posthuman ontologies through an aesthetic of disgust that "ruins and erodes" (13) the integrity of the human subject.

In chapter two, which highlights the "macabre metaphysics" of Poe, Newell declines to follow other critics who find Poe's beautiful dead women aestheticized. Highlighting instead the idea of disgust in stories such as "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," he applies his thesis to an extended analysis of "Morella" and "Ligeia." Reading them through the lens of Schelling's Absolute, Newell argues that both stories use the "decomposing and metamorphosing cadavers of women to represent the breakdown of subjectivity" (27). Rather than romanticizing Poe's portrayal of the female figure, as other critics have, Newell's interpretation foregrounds the "disgusting realities of decomposition" (40). But Poe offers something more than disgust. Borrowing terms from Schelling's Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, Newell contends that "even seemingly dead or inert matter" combines "attractive and ... repulsive forces" (33).

In the final and what is perhaps the least original section of this chapter, Newell spotlights the Doppelganger motif in "The Fall of the House of Usher," which he terms a "possession narrative" that equivocates over who is possessing whom (48). In terms once again borrowed from Schelling, the story is said to exemplify an "aesthetics of disgust facilitating an understanding of the monstrous Absolute" (54). Dubbing Poe "the forefather of the weird," Newell notes that his kind of Gothic was resurrected in the late nineteenth century by the authors whom Newell proceeds to examine.

In chapter three, which "shows how Arthur Llewelyn Jones-Machen shares some of Poe's 'aesthetic effects,'" Newell also writes that Machen adds elements of "Celtic mythology" and "medieval romance" (57). Machen is a complex figure. Though he belonged for a while to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and shared the late Victorian fascination with the supernatural, his weird fiction interestingly mingles magic and mire. Furthermore, though his Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature (1902) expounds a theory of mysticism, Newell observes that Machen's works of scientific materialism such as The Great God Pan (1890) and The Three Imposters (1895) seem to rob the world of magic and wonder. Yet while Machen retreats to a primordial time of "mucus, sludge, and protoplasmic ooze" (18), the slime ultimately assumes a divine or sacramental power. Machen's fiction, we are told, represents slime "as a sacramental substance that ... elicits aesthetic ecstasy, troubles materialist ontology, unsettles scientific ways of knowing and confounds 'common sense' realism as he perceived it" (62). Exemplifying Carlyle's definition of "Primitive Truth" (62), writes Newell, Machen asserts the value of the primeval universe or pantheistic natural landscape.

In chapter 4, Newell shows how the fiction of Algernon Blackwood confronts the human conceit of subjectivity. Finding in Blackwood's oeuvre a Radcliffean horror "of revulsion that annihilates the soul" (97), Newell argues that Blackwood's brand of ecogothic turns weird in erasing humanistic boundaries. But rather than resting at the level of revulsion, Blackwood's fictional vision of this disintegration aestheticizes "the amorphousness and permeability that trouble ... the subject's relation to the universe" (98).

To further explain Blackwood's "weird wilderness," Newell invokes China Miéville's concept of the abcanny. Unlike the uncanny, which Newell identifies as mere "psychological repression" (101), the abcanny reassimilates "radical, non-human otherness" so that the dissolution of the line between humanity and nature evokes a blend of "revulsion" and "awe." By disrupting a wholly ontological relation, Newell writes, the abjected in this case achieves a newfound reorganization of reality exceeding human consciousness and the sublime. Blackwood's story, "The Willows," is said to exemplify this "vegetal ontology" (102), which derives from Michael Marder's philosophy of plants. The trees of the title stand preternaturally in a "total alterity" and "complete otherness" (104) that resist knowable meaning altogether, filling the human characters with a disgust that is also an incomprehensible threshold of some kind. In his readings of Blackwood's "The Wendigo" and "The Man Whom the Trees Love," Newell extends the concept of vegetal ontology through the ecocentric theories of critics such as Christopher Hitt and Jane Bennet. In Blackwood's ecological vision, we are told, "there is nothing that separates humanity from the nonhuman" (122) and his fiction "embraces the immanent unity of all things" (123).

In chapter 5, Newell reads the writings of William Hope Hodgson in light of the feminist and environmental theories of Stacy Alaimo and Karen Barad. From this perspective, Newell finds that Hodgson's writing defies human subjectivity that is either transcendental or even discrete and instead treats it as "porous" and "drawn into a pulsating universe of human and non-human agents" (133). Unlike Blackwood's fiction, which treats transcorporeality as wondrous, Hodgson portrays the world almost "entirely negatively" as "borderless, oozing" with its population of "sea-wrack monsters" and "tenebrous pig-beasts" (135). While monster theory asks us to see the violation of normative categories and divisions as the source of abjection, Newell argues that Hodgson's tales of fungal proliferation and contamination go further. Surpassing the threat of mere death, they are said to offer up a fearful universe in which the power of nature leads to a kind of absorptive, existential annihilation. Human exceptionalism and separateness are treated as delusions. Citing Susan Miller, Newell explains that Hodgson's depiction of contamination expresses the fear of bodily disintegration and eradication of the tropes of "inner" and "outer" (136). Hodgson's fiction, then, works to upend our notions of agency, of who or what acts or is acted upon. This collapse of dualism disgusts us.

In arguing that his chosen writers are weird precisely because they anticipate the insights of contemporary ecological thought, Newell cogently deploys posthumanist theory. Nonetheless, traditional concepts central to horror and Gothic theory may still apply to the literature he analyzes. Newell insists, for instance, that Hodgson's "swine-things" cannot be sufficiently explained by the traditional uncanny as "a manifestation of the repressed returning." Yet when he contends that the swine-things are "not merely an image of foreignness, but of the failure of our own categories" (146-47), he implicitly makes the unheimlich exclude the collapse of human-based ontological constructions. This move seems particularly apparent when he historicizes the swine-things in the post-Darwin cultural discourse of degeneration and atavism that fueled literary naturalism. In this regard, the perceived collapse of the dichotomy between human and animal (upon which culture would seem to rest) may be handily incorporated into traditional Gothic understanding of the unheimlich-- of displacement as a human experience. Likewise, although Newell clearly shows the foundational importance of disgust in the weird fiction he investigates, the abjection upon which disgust depends was long ago explicated by Julia Kristeva in her well-known The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982), which arguably accounts for much of the territory Newell covers. Nonetheless, Newell's emphasis on post-anthropocentrism valuably complements our understanding of this topic.

In chapter 6, Newell concludes his study by turning back to Lovecraft. Faulting existing scholarship for neglecting the importance of affect in favor of materialist approaches, Newell links Lovecraft to "a certain strand of the gothic" that transforms terror into disgust through a focus on non-human agency (163). Influenced, Newell argues, by Schopenhauer's fatalism, Lovecraft saw fictional experience as a conduit to "the mystic substance of reality itself" (165). As part of that project, he "dethrones human beings" and reduces them "to a disgusting monism" (168). Focusing on two stories, "The Rats in the Wall" and "The Colour Out of Space," and the novel called The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Newell reads them through the lens of Schopenhauer's will-to-live as an animating material force, complicating criticisms made of Lovecraft's racist revulsions and prudish misogynies. For Lovecraft, he argues, rats that devour exemplify "the impulse to consume" (178) that is indiscriminately shared by human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate alike. In thus revealing "a seething, secret layer of reality behind the artificial world of representations manufactured by human consciousness" (179), Lovecraft's rats provoke a disgust that far exceeds social Darwinist fears of regression and atavism. Kantian sublimity, which depends on human agency and consciousness, cannot explain the forces at work in Lovecraft's fiction, such as an indescribable, infectious, rapacious "colour" or the foul odor of human-fish hybrids. Relying on Carolyn Korsmeyer's theory of the sublate, Newell asserts that aestheticized disgust is the concept most capable of explaining the ontological fracturing with which Lovecraft grapples. Unlike some of the other authors he considers, however, Newell finds Lovecraft's vision "utterly without consolation" (199) for the human subject.

Given the sense of disintegration that permeates our consciousnesses in the twenty-first century, given our awareness of impending climate catastrophes, extinctions, geopolitical turmoil, and myriad other crises, it is perhaps appropriate that Newell ends on such a dire note. Recently, Panama gave legal rights to the natural world, granting the agency we have so long denied the environment. That denial, as we know, has produced perilous results for the planet. With the aid of posthuman environmentalism and new materialist philosophy, among other schools of thought, Newell shows how his chosen authors precociously perceived the fatally flawed anthropocentric paradigms that have brought us to this point. In this very precocity, Newell tells us, we can find the essence of the weird.

Although Newell's journey into the realm of the weird is timely and astute, one might wonder why he treats only male Anglo authors. He scarcely mentions, for instance, any of the writers anthologized in Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers, 1852-1923, ed. Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger (Pegasus, 2020). Though Newell's introduction briefly notes the Gothicism of Mary Shelley, the charnel houses and redistribution of human parts in Frankenstein surely provoke the kind of disgust that Newell finds the hallmark of the weird. But if the weird is essentially masculinist during the period he examines, why was this so? Was there a domestic weird, for instance, that Newell's criteria do not accommodate? This is the kind of question that Newell's admirably stimulating book leaves open for more investigation.

Monika Elbert is Professor of English at Montclair State University.

Wendy Ryden is Professor of English at Long Island University.

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