“Why does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than it does on the world?” asked the novelist Amitav Ghosh, writing in The Guardian in 2016. “Is it perhaps too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration?” Ghosh cited just a handful of prominent climate-change novels by authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood and T. Coraghessan Boyle, lamenting what he perceived as a general failure of literary imagination. We could add to his list more recent work by John Lanchester (“The Wall”) and Richard Powers (“The Overstory”), but Ghosh’s larger point remains: A world in climate free-fall, marked by the outlandish and the improbable — freakish hurricanes, droughts, fires, heat waves and flash floods — is “not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction.”
Yet the idea of a world in crisis is fundamental to horror, a genre historically devalued by the gatekeepers of high culture as, well, outlandish and unserious. Horror has always sought to amplify fear. It works against false comfort, complacency and euphemism, against attempts to repress or sanitize that which disturbs us. Inevitably, the climate crisis has given rise to a burgeoning horror subgenre: eco-horror. Eco-horror reworks horror in order to portray the damage done to the world by people, and the ways the world might damage or even destroy us in turn. In eco-horror, the “natural” world is both under threat and threatening.
The best-known work of eco-horror might be Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy (2014), about a beautiful and deadly exclusion zone known as Area X. The first book, “Annihilation,” which was made into a Hollywood film last year, is narrated by a biologist on a mission to explore the area. She records her initial impressions of the abandoned landscape, including a “low, powerful moaning” audible at dusk. Her team discovers a structure in the earth, an inverted tower. The biologist is lowered into it. There is a smell like rotting honey. The walls are covered with words, the writing system of some kind of fruiting body. She hears a heartbeat. The structure turns out to be a living organism, a “horror show of … beauty and biodiversity.” The biologist leans in close and is sprayed with golden spores — infected.
“Annihilation” raises the possibility that from this point on, everything we read is a hallucination produced by these spores: a fungal narration. The biologist’s body begins to glow. No one returns from Area X. It’s a place that colonizes minds and ingests bodies. It’s also repeatedly described as “pristine,” in contrast to the polluted world around it. “I can no longer say with conviction that this is a bad thing,” the biologist declares about Area X at the end of the novel, “not when looking at … the world beyond, which we have altered so much.”
VanderMeer has said that Area X was inspired in part by a 14-mile hike he makes regularly through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, near his home in Florida. In Area X, such a hike would be lethal. As one critic put it, the place is “a perfect wilderness, deeply hostile to human life”: It’s nature in spectacular force against humanity — it will not be destroyed by us, nor will it accommodate us. Horror has always played on the potential for beautiful landscapes to be deadly; eco-horror adds the sickening twist that we are implicated in the environmental degradation that is now imminently threatening.
In the most insidious eco-horror, contamination isn’t somewhere out there. It’s right here, inside your body, seeping under your skin. As Eula Biss writes in “On Immunity” (2014), a subtle work of nonfiction about the growing anxiety she experienced during pregnancy: “We are no cleaner, even at birth, than our environment at large. We are all already polluted … we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth.” Pregnancy has long been a source for horror, from “Rosemary’s Baby” to Helen Phillips’s recent novel “The Need,” in which the birth of a child marks the beginning of an intense disturbance for the mother. Convinced that she hears an intruder intent on harming her infant and toddler, she moves through her home hypervigilant, on the brink of panic, “acutely aware of the abyss, the potential injury flickering within each second.” Maternity, and the possibilities for profound loss it introduces, are the real sources of terror here, as they are in “Future Home of the Living God” (2017), by Louise Erdrich, in which a pregnant Native American woman confronts a world in climate crisis where evolution has run amok — or, more precisely, has begun to run backward. The terrors of a world out of control coalesce around pregnancy, the embodiment of an uncertain, and foreboding, future.
Pregnancy may be eco-horror’s most potent trope — a claustrophobic, concentric rendering of humanity’s predicament as both source and victim of harm. The recent HBO mini-series “Chernobyl” (based in part on witness accounts of the nuclear disaster collected by the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich) unfolds as an eco-horror story, and a pregnant character is crucial to the plot. The radiation is depicted as uncanny; the fire at the nuclear plant emits an eerie light. “It’s beautiful,” a local resident says, watching ash fall like snow and the strange light on the horizon. “The air is glowing,” another says. Then bodies begin to bleed, blister and vomit. A bird falls from the sky behind a group of schoolchildren; a deer lies dead in the forest as the wind spreading radiation crackles through the trees.
“Chernobyl” reminds us that environmental threats are distributed unequally: Powerful interests are protected, and the most vulnerable are the least culpable and least able to protect themselves — another horrible twist. The camera returns repeatedly to a pregnant woman who has been exposed to radiation. In the final episode, her baby dies four hours after birth. “The radiation would have killed the mother,” we are told, “but the baby absorbed it instead.” The story is based on the real-life experience of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of a firefighter at Chernobyl who died of acute radiation syndrome, but it draws on the imagery of eco-horror in its evocation of the fetus receiving the mother’s toxin and dying in her place.
In eco-horror, pregnancy is inherently compromised, a highly vulnerable and potentially deadly experience of interrelation. In “Sealed,” my own recent eco-horror novel, a pregnant woman and her partner flee a pandemic that causes skin to seal over people’s eyes, ears, noses — every bodily orifice — in an extreme reaction to environmental contamination. Through her pregnancy, the woman is herself sealed into a dangerous ecology — a microcosm of her compromised world.
In “The Uninhabitable Earth” (2019), the journalist David Wallace-Wells criticizes stories of global warming that offer “escapist pleasure, even if that pleasure often comes in the form of horror.” He cautions against treating the end of the world as entertainment for a privileged few. The aesthetics and ethics of eco-horror are complex, and the genre sometimes sits uneasily with environmental priorities (“Chernobyl,” for instance, has been criticized for maligning nuclear energy, which is safer for the environment than fossil fuel). But at its most effective, eco-horror compels us not to look away. It attempts to close the distance between the reader and sufferers of environmental disaster, and when it really gets under the skin, eco-horror makes you feel the inescapable reality of climate catastrophe inside your body — through panic, nausea, fear. In eco-horror, we witness acts of environmental violence currently hidden from sight; we might see who suffers most and who gains by that suffering.
“As with other strongly held beliefs, our fears are dear to us,” Eula Biss writes. What we do with those fears, she argues, is a central question of citizenship. It’s also the question that arises when eco-horror frightens us in ways we can’t leave behind. Eco-horror deepens my dearest fears: of sickness, contamination, isolation and violence. That I might harm my child by my own hand. That I’ve already done so, sealing her into a dying world, a world I helped to poison.
Naomi Booth, a lecturer at Durham University in England, is the author of “Sealed.”
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