by Gary Budden
There’s a branch of speculative fiction that draws heavily on landscape and nature for its horror, its unease and its weirdness, a loose but persistent tradition that we can call ‘the landscape weird’.
I feel there’s a book length study on this subject – any history of speculative fiction will end up touching on the landscape weird. To consider British writers alone, we have the visionary Romano-Celtic Welsh borderlands of Arthur Machen and John Cowper Powys, and the awe inspiring primal nature encountered in the work of Algernon Blackwood.
There are bizarre tales like Clive Barker’s ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ and Liz Williams' 'The Hide', the dense and cryptic novels of Alan Garner (Red Shift, Strandloper and Thursbitch especially), the shadow-tongued Anglo-Saxon world of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and the deadly coastlines of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney. The rural and wild landscape in these writers’ works becomes a place of threat, of mythic wonder, of hauntings and buried memory.
Discussing the ‘English Eerie’ Robert MacFarlane accurately points out this about the Edwardian ghost-story writer M.R. James: ‘He repeatedly invokes the pastoral – that green dream of natural tranquillity and social order – only to traumatise it.’
The landscapes we find ourselves in are not blank canvases. They are not simply the backdrops or stage sets on which we act our pastoral fantasies without ripples being made. Engage with place and it engages with you.
In Britain, an old, crowded country with a complicated and traumatic history of land ownership, the land is freighted with stories and saturated in narrative. Who belongs and who does not is an anxiety that needles and gnaws. Bucolic retreats hide the trauma of enclosure, of land grabs, of ancient battles and modern abuses; peel back the turf and you’ll find wounds not yet healed. In every town and village there is unique and half-remembered folklore.
This buried trauma in the landscape, unearthed by the unlucky or unwary, is a major element of the landscape weird, where the past is never past. In M.R. James’ work, the discovery of lost antiquarian objects spells doom for his protagonists. In Arthur Machen’s, the old gods and customs of the Romano-Celtic world never truly left and still inhabit remote places, even managing to infiltrate London itself. Algernon Blackwood considered nature itself to be a primal force – in his classic stories like ‘The Willows’ and ‘The Wendigo’, and in novels such as The Centaur, this force seems at times malevolent and hostile, and at others mystical and divine. It is unknowable.
Robert Holdstock understood the saturation of myth and story the land possessed; in his Mythago Wood cycle, a patch of woodland in southern England acts as a sort of folkloric arboreal tardis, making the mythic archetypes we carry in our heads take physical form in an endless, treacherous forest of the Jungian variety. These ‘mythagos’ are dangerous – a Robin Hood variant is as likely to loose an arrow into your shoulder as begin a program of wealth distribution. The yearning to return to the wildwood (that ‘green pastoral dream’), can be our downfall. Holdstock based the enticing and deadly Ryhope woodlands on what he knew; the forests and woods of Kent, England. The landscape weird is close to home.
Of course, the landscape weird reaches way beyond the confines of the UK. In 2014 Jeff Vandermeer created one of the finest examples of a malevolent yet captivating landscape in his ‘Area X’, based on the forests and swamplands of his Florida home. In The Southern Reach trilogy (comprising the novels Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance), Area X is an area of pristine wilderness that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. There’s a sense that the land itself has forcibly expelled humanity. Nature isn’t passive and something supernatural or extraterrestrial is fighting back.
That unease and essential unknowability of the landscape is what gives these novels their power. When humans do enter Area X, things are not right. The place is too alive, perhaps humming with the life that would flourish without us. Few who go in make it out, and even if they do, they are not the same. The queasy suspicion that, perhaps, human beings are simply not supposed to be there is an idea very similar to that of Blackwood’s. We can see definite parallels with ecological horror films such as Long Weekend (an essential bit of late-70s Australian cinema) or the Swedish genre mashup Jordskott (where the forest itself, and its mythic inhabitants, appear to be the enemy).
The Southern Reach has some clear influences (lazy ‘Lovecraft meets Roadside Picnic’ comparisons are common) but succeeds in wedding these influences into something new and genuinely weird. The novels have fuelled recent discussions of the intersections between speculative fiction, landscape writing and ecology, with the New Yorker even going as far to dub Vandermeer ‘The Weird Thoreau’. The Los Angeles Review of Books, in a wonderful essay, tied Vandermeer’s Area X in with the philosophical idea of the ‘hyperobject’ – essentially a force or process so large and complex it is literally beyond human understanding. Area X (and nature itself?) is the hyperobject. We know it exists but we cannot ever hope to understand it, and that lack of understanding becomes the source of horror. This is a concept that occurs again and again in weird fiction; the impossible geometry and indescribable monsters of Lovecraft, the knowledge beyond the veil represented by Machen’s Great God Pan, the boiling nature of ‘The Willows’, the endless mutating pathways of Holdstock’s forests.
The landscape weird represents an overlapping set of shared anxieties. Worries about how mankind has degraded and debased the landscapes we consider picturesque or pastoral; the sense that somehow the land may reject us or fight back. The nagging suspicion that ecological collapse is inevitable. We are conscious, on some level, of the human histories the soil contains, how perhaps we are benefiting from the abuse and exploitation of others – perhaps even the very rural communities that surround the holiday cottage, the second home or rural writer's retreat (a theme prevalent in British folk-horror). We can see the ruins and remnants of cultures that came before (packaged as ‘heritage’), and our minds fill with old gods and the knowledge that all human culture is in the end temporary. Empires come and go, but we know, deep down, that nature and the land will outlast us.
The landscapes and environments we try to tame are too big for us, unknowable and unaccountable. This unsettles and frightens, provokes feelings of awe, and gives literature of this kind its undeniable power.