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Into the Seething Vortex: Occult Horror and the Subversion of the Realistic

Kumler, David Ryan. Into the Seething Vortex: Occult Horror and the Subversion of the Realistic. 2020. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

Into the Seething Vortex examines a fascination with the occult that pervades contemporary popular culture. Whether we look to the neo-Lovecraftian cosmic horror of True Detective, the distinctly Satanic spin of the recent Sabrina reboot, or even Lana Del Rey’s recently admitted hexing of Donald Trump, occult ideas, symbols, and aesthetics are a ubiquitous feature of our present popular imaginary. This dissertation asks what this fascination with the occult—what cultural studies scholars have called “popular occulture”—might mean politically. Ultimately, I read contemporary popular occulture as reflecting a broad impulse towards “the weird”—a concept fundamental to the work of H. P. Lovecraft that has since been taken up by cultural critics and philosophers such as Mark Fisher and Eugene Thacker, who regard it as a useful concept for thinking about that which confounds our sense of “the realistic.” In a moment when, as many have observed, the future seems to have been cancelled, we are in desperate need of an alternative to business as usual, and in this dissertation I look to weird fiction in order to consider what that might look like. Informed by the work of scholars like Cedric Robinson, Sylia Wynter, Alexander Weheliye, and Calvin Warren, I seek to complicate the “realistic” ways in which both the human and the truth have been deployed as cornerstones of political emancipation, highlighting the role played by racial capitalism in structuring both concepts. I do this primarily through readings of contemporary works of Lovecraftianfiction—focusing specifically on the work of Ruthanna Emrys, Thomas Ligotti, and Victor LaValle—and other artifacts of contemporary popular occulture, which, as I argue, complicate and unsettle received notions of reality and our relation to it. Ultimately, I suggest that occult narratives and practices—fundamental to the genre of weird fiction—often reflect (and perpetuate) a broad impulse to think beyond the realistic and even a recognition that “reality” is itself ideologically conditioned and thus contingent. Such narratives seek out the moments when thought itself falters—when, confronted with its limit, realism becomes impossible—and through such fissures offer the possibility of imagining and producing a different world, however terrifying it might be to do so. This dissertation contributes both to a body of scholarship that exists at the intersection between cultural studies, critical race theory, and political theory and to the contemporary influx in Lovecraft scholarship.

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