What is it about the countryside that is eerie? What lurks behind English hedgerows, or those straight and murky canals of Chilliwack? What is this unease I feel when I see an abandoned farmhouse? Buried bottles and Celestine trinkets behind the cobwebs; the smell of old moldy books and the haunt of peeling paint; the leaden sills of windows- the glass is moving.
Is it simply a trope? A well worn meme recycled and imitated by pop culture? Or is it more intricate? Is there a recompense from a future to a past that is gone forever? The steady march of industrialization has left these parcels reticent and suggesting; hefty and redolent. Or perhaps these eldritch tracts are themselves seeping into our consciousness- wrenching at our collective memory. “You will not forget what you did here”.
John Macfarlane writes about the effect:
“A second reason James stays with us is his understanding of landscape – and especially the English landscape – as constituted by uncanny forces, part-buried sufferings and contested ownerships. Landscape, in James, is never a smooth surface or simple stage-set, there to offer picturesque consolations. Rather it is a realm that snags, bites and troubles. He repeatedly invokes the pastoral – that green dream of natural tranquillity and social order – only to traumatise it”.
Indeed it’s why the first season of True Detective worked so well- employing the semiotics of mysticism intertwined with a brooding, seemingly benign pastoral landscape. The geography slowly leaches into the narrative. Driving across the midwest for the first time in my life really illuminated this to me, and even goes some way to explain the election of Donald Trump. The economic and geographic isolation of these communities heightens the ideological disconnect that pervades the heartland versus hinterland discourse.
Again, Marcfarlane lays this out beautifully. Just substitute England for Fraser Valley or the midwest:
“It would be easy to dismiss all this as an excess of hokey woo-woo; a surge of something-in-the-woodshed rustic gothic. But engaging with the eerie emphatically doesn’t mean believing in ghosts. Few of the practitioners named here would endorse earth mysteries or ectoplasm. What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression. Contemporary anxieties and dissents are here being reassembled and re-presented as spectres, shadows or monsters: our noun monster, indeed, shares an etymology with our verb to demonstrate, meaning to show or reveal (with a largely lost sense of omen or portent)”.
This is the same tack that Eugene Thacker takes in In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy. What he seeks is “the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility – the thought of the unthinkable that philosophy cannot pronounce but via a non-philosophical language”.