Other gods, other powers : numinous horror in American literature




Omidsalar, Alejandro

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The Gothic has literary criticism in an interpretive stranglehold. Despite their wide cultural and temporal sweep, studies of the Gothic mode depend almost uniformly on suspicious reading practices, frequently overlooking the supernatural ideas that initially animated the Gothic and other, lesser-known modes of horror. At the same time, the Gothic mode—especially in its American context—is entwined with Judeo-Christian moral positions and political-historical anxieties, ensuring a human-centered ontological outlook that maintains narrow parameters for what sorts of dark fiction are considered worthy of academic consideration. My dissertation, “Other Gods, Other Powers,” broadens the scholarly conversation about the literary macabre by mapping the evolution of numinous horror, a strain of American supernatural horror writing that imagines the divine in non-anthropocentric and non-anthropomorphic ways, prioritizing pessimism, entropy, and negation over conventionally accepted, Judeo-Christian-influenced understandings of the divine. The numinous, a term denoting the experience of the divine as awesome or terrifying, is the aesthetic category that unifies the transhistorical scope of my dissertation, which runs from 1798 through 1988, covering works by Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Ben Hecht, Fred Chappell, and Thomas Ligotti. An alternative, markedly pessimistic tradition comes to the fore across these readings, contradicting popular understandings of American literature’s supposedly inherent optimism and humanism. Numinous horror narratives depict gods as malevolent, inscrutable, and alien; they re-imagine godhood as a state of omnipotent idiocy only accessible to people at the cost of their humanity. The horror in these works comes from the divine’s absolute inscrutability; the narration of each text must contend with an irremediable lack of knowledge, clarity, and certainty. My dissertation models a kind of reading that approaches a text’s underlying supernatural and metaphysical premises on their own terms, instead of reading them allegorically, symptomatically, or otherwise superstitiously. Pulling from philosophical, theological, and new materialist theoretical conversations, “Other Gods, Other Powers” opens up an oft-overlooked, philosophically rich body of writing to interdisciplinary inquiry by contributing to current conversations about alternative reading practices and genre fiction’s place in literary scholarship



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