I’m thrilled to have been asked to host a guest post as part of the Impossible Spaces blog tour, and I’m pleased to welcome Jessica George, whose story ‘New Town’ features in the collection. When I read Jess’s story, I was intrigued by the inter play between loss, perception and memory that runs through the story, something which resonates with my own research and also with Jess’s PhD work on the writing of Arthur Machan and H.P. Lovecraft. But, I’ll let Jess tell you more about that.
Hello there! I’m Jessica George, one of the contributors to the Hic Dragones Impossible Spaces anthology, released in July of this year. Impossible Spaces is, in the words of editor Hannah Kate, a collection of ‘dark, unsettling and weird short stories that explore the spaces at the edges of possibility’; you can find out a little more about I (and buy the book!) here. I’m chuffed to be contributing to the Impossible Spaces blog tour, and grateful to Kate Ash for inviting me to guest blog here.
When I spoke via email to Kate about writing a guest blog, she mentioned that the things that struck her most strongly in my contribution, ‘New Town’, were the ideas of perception, memory, and loss. I immediately seized on the last two of these, since they resonated with a theme that’s central to my writing and research: the ways that identity is constructed, and what it means for us – for our identities as individuals, and as humans – when we remove it from its context.
My academic work focuses on the short stories of Arthur Machen and H. P. Lovecraft, and in studying them I’ve been struck by the frequency with which the loss of human specificity crops up as a theme. The human face, in particular, comes under attack with startling regularity. Sometimes this is literal – the gruesome demise of Arthur Munroe in ‘The Lurking Fear’, for example. In other places, it is the humanness of the face that is under attack – the family resemblance between Arthur Jermyn and his ape ancestress in ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family’ undermines his human individuality. Facial expression, in other places, betrays the fact that someone who appears human – like Professor Peaslee, replaced by an alien being, in Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Out of Time’, or the unfortunate victims of half-human femme fatale Helen Vaughan in Machen’s ‘The Great God Pan’ – is no longer fully so.
It’s not just the weird tale where this happens, of course. The integrity and individuality of the human self are brought into question again and again in horror fiction. Think of the shape-shifting creature in John Carpenter’s The Thing, or of the Buffy episode ‘Anne’ (s03e01), with its ‘I’m no-one’ refrain. More recently, Ramsey Campbell’s 2010 novel, The Seven Days of Cain, culminates, in a rather lovely metafictional manoeuvre, with one of the two protagonists realising that she is a fictional character, the creation of her frustrated-writer husband. (Ramsey Campbell, it is worth mentioning here, has also contributed a story to Impossible Spaces!)
My research has focussed upon the relationship between evolutionary theory and the weird tale. The source of horror in so much fiction after Darwin is the loss of human specificity that evolution occasioned. No longer favoured creations of a beneficent deity, we were the product of an indifferent force, a chaotic, non-teleological progression. The ‘humanocentric pose’, as Lovecraft termed it, became impossible to sustain. We were not only unimportant to a vast, uncaring cosmos, but subject to an ongoing process of transformation; unfixed; no longer immortal souls, but bodies—and minds—in flux. This anxiety around the permeability of the boundaries of self runs through (permeates, one might say) the fin-de-siècle Gothic. Dr Jekyll finds himself transformed, physically as well as psychologically, into his ape-like and amoral double; a young and impressionable Dorian Gray becomes as incapable of human feeling as his painted portrait; the aforementioned Helen Vaughan breaks down into a primordial slime, wavering ‘from sex to sex’ and descending ‘to the beasts’ in the process. The specificity of self vanishes, the bases of identity crumbling.
If evolutionary theory undid the notion of the inviolable human self in the nineteenth century, a similar undoing was accomplished in the twentieth by thinker like Lacan, Althusser, and Foucault, who questioned the naturalness of human nature. Sociologists such as Bourdieu and Dick Hebdige, meanwhile, discussed the construction of class and subcultural identity via ‘taste’ and consumer goods. Suddenly, our preferences were the product of our class, race, gender and socialisation, rather than being expressions of an innate and fixed individuality.
I wrote in a guest post at Hannah’s blog about the importance that place held for me when writing ‘New Town’, and I mentioned there the similarity I see between the 1950s new town and the all-American suburbia so beloved by horror writers and directors. Perhaps part of what makes these environments so unsettling is this: if we are constructed by our environments, then will living in environment like this construct us all in the same way? Will it make a lie of our individuality; throw the provisionality of our humanness into sharp relief?
This idea of loss of self, I suppose, is one of the ideas I was trying to get at through the character of Heledd, someone whose idea of herself—her reality, her groundedness in her present—is made up of purchased and gifted material signifiers, and of the expectations and desires of friends and family. Even here, though, I haven’t been quite able to get away from the idea of something else. Stripped of her context, and of the things that make her up, we might expect Hel to retreat into despair—or maybe madness, that trusty standby of the horror writer trying to convey the unthinkable. Instead, on the night before her final disappearance, she turns away from both familial and social expectations and effectively bids her time goodbye, not embracing her fate, perhaps, but accepting that she will need to find some new mode of being. Perhaps that’s a function of the impossibility of really reaching these kinds of questions via writing. Writing, after all, requires a point of view—a position of assumed stability from which to comment on ideas, to view the fictional action. The raising of questions implies a questioner, and perhaps it’s that, finally, that has to be at the centre of fictional identity: ‘Who am I?’
Impossible Spaces is published by Hic Dragones
Jess George blogs at http://greenglassbeads.wordpress.com/