Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Undead (a Zombie Oriented Ontology)

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Undead (a Zombie Oriented Ontology)

Article excerpt

LET ME BE CLEAR AT THE OUTSET: I DO NOT BELIEVE IN SPIRITS, SOULS, OR lives to come. Yet I did once see a ghost. Eleven years ago I was invited to present a lecture at Brown University. My hosts arranged lodging near campus in a proper Georgian house, converted into a charming bed and breakfast. The city of Providence was the nearly lifelong home of H. P. Lovecraft, and the address at which I stayed is mentioned in his story "The Shunned House." (1) But I did not realize that fact until afterwards. I had come home late from the post-presentation festivities, tumbled into the antique bed, and fallen asleep. Around one in the morning an uncanny sensation penetrated my slumber, that disquiet that arises when you know an unseen person is staring at you. I opened my eyes and saw standing by the sink a woman in a flowing black dress. She glared, her anger palpable. Although she would not speak I knew the source of her wrath: she wanted me to tell her what she wanted. I blinked my eyes and the apparition faded. I fell back into sleep, wondering the intensity of my dream, the kind of nocturnal visitation I had not experienced since childhood.

An hour later and again the knowledge of a fixed gaze awakened me. She stood in fierce silence, her demand unrelenting. My eyes adjusted to the room's darkness and she once more vanished, but at this point I arose, turned on the lights, and decided to remain awake until dawn. I left the B&B before the owner arose (you do not linger for muffins after seeing a ghost). The next day I emailed the manager to ask, in as offhand a way as possible, if anyone had ever reported spectral visitations in the room I had occupied. He responded that the cleaning crew sometimes spoken of a woman dressed in black glimpsed in the house, though she had never appeared in that chamber.

Although the event unfolded over a decade ago, until recently I related the story to few, probably because the occasion did not haunt. Like the ghost herself, something seemed insubstantial about the incident. My reaction had been bodily, but the woman in black faded and so did the intensity of my response. I could never have told her what she wanted. Her query was either self-deconstructing or opaquely psychoanalytic. Either way the question was impossible to satisfy, and therefore did not trouble me for long. Yet over the past year the episode in Providence has haunted me anew. I have been on fellowship leave from my academic duties as I write a book about stone, the least phantasmal of substances, a philosophical stand-in for the blunt solidity of all that is irrefutably real. I am writing about rock, though, because like medieval authors before me I discern in the lithic an uncannily living substance rather than an inert and passive materiality. To provoke and frame my thinking I have been researching ecological approaches to literature and the reconsideration of the agency of the inhuman that has been called speculative realism (and more specifically, object oriented philosophy). (2)

While undertaking this research I have found myself drawn to the strange word undead, the negative of a noun that is already a kind of ultimate negative. Un-dead is not the same as alive, nor does it allow for the quiescence of mortality. Undead names the zone of restless and perplexing activity from which monsters arrive, a gap in the fabric of the known world that opens a space neither real nor chimerical, a breach in which everything familiar loses its certainty--including what constitutes life. In ruminating over undead as a kind of contact zone between the human and the nonhuman, as space in which the human becomes inhuman, I have been freshly haunted by that Providence ghost. A decade ago her demand confounded me. Now, though, in a culture that imagines itself as teetering on the edge of terminal catastrophe, I think I can answer her query. The lady in black faded so quickly because, like all ghosts, she lacked substance. …

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