Eco-Vampires: The Undead and the Environment, by Simon Bacon
Reviewed by Annegret Märten
King's College London
Review of Simon Bacon’s Eco-Vampires. The Undead and the Environment, McFarland & Company, 2020. 207 pp. Paperback (ISBN: 9781476676227).
In Eco-Vampires. The Undead and the Environment, Simon Bacon argues that vampire narratives reveal how the relationship between humans and the planet they inhabit has become increasingly unstable. The book offers a reconceptualization of the figure of the vampire, which has traditionally been connected to seductive and extractive practices. The vampire has therefore repeatedly been read in the context of colonial narratives as a harbinger of a capitalist system which ensnares humans to participate in exploitative practices. Bacon certainly incorporates this notion in the present work, but, in keeping with the emerging fields of the Ecogothic and Ecohorror, the main thrust of his argument reevaluates vampiric characteristics not just of monstrous human(oid)s but also of vampiric landscapes, houses, cars, and plant life. Bacon argues that in these varied cases there is a “jouissance” and specifically “biological jouissance” at work. He adopts this term from Joan Copjec (1994) and employs it in the sense of reproductive overabundance and excess which drives the various vampiric transformations. As a result, he calls his broad definition of the vampiric “performative” (7), although a more sustained elaboration of how this term impacts his critical project of analyzing primarily filmic material would have been welcome. For example, what agency do the actors, spectators, filmmakers, or the camera itself have in instigating these excesses and revealing the new dimensions of the “vampiric”?
The book is divided into five main chapters and is fronted by a useful introduction. This situates key literary texts like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1985) in the context of an exploration of whether vampires are more in tune with the unspeaking animals and sticky soils of nature than previously realized. If this is the case, according to Bacon’s working hypothesis, they might therefore also be aligned with a resistance to ecological exploitation and commodification. The author reads vampires and vampiric figurations in this way to mine them for their ecocritical potential. The traditional understanding of the vampire is therefore expanded and teased in surprising directions. Throughout the book, vampires emerge as nature’s resistance strategy against neoliberal capitalism.
The first chapter unfolds this new line of questioning with compelling readings of classic films such as F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu and Werner Herzog’s Vampyre (1979) as well as more recent already explicitly eco-conscious films, like Alex Garland’s 2018 Annihilation. Sublime Arctic wastelands, deserts, and other untamed wild spaces are read as having vampiric qualities that attempt to keep human greed in check. Chapter 2 explores the “eco-vampiric” as a counter-colonial gesture of protection against human invasion. Here, specific elements in the ecosystem, such as houses or holes in the ground, take on regenerative qualities as defense mechanisms. Conceptually, this new perspective on colonialism and vampire narratives is intriguing, but its rather unfocused treatment in the examples means that this chapter is less convincingly tied into the overall concept than the others. The third chapter, “Undead Eco-Warrior,” draws out parallels between zombiism and vampirism, and examines examples that center on the notion that humans might be a kind of plague of which the planet needs to rid itself. In the light of the current pandemic, the question of whether humans are themselves somehow alien to the planet they inhabit takes on particular urgency.
The conceptual core of the book can be found in chapter 4, “The End of the End.” It examines the self-destructive mechanisms of human consumerism and offers insightful readings of Stoker’s original Dracula figure, and other more “performative” vampirisms, on aspects of race, class and technology. In doing so, it unpacks how industrialized human society has become a danger unto both itself and planetary ecosystems. Vampires are discussed as both representative of that destructive quality and as holding the potential to rebalance it. The final chapter then develops this point and focuses on narratives of invasion in order to reveal how the vampiric might tell of planetary strategies of “resistance, renewal and, sometimes, revenge” (191) against humanity’s destructive tendencies.
Over the course of this timely book the author discusses fifty films and TV series, not counting the ones simply mentioned in passing. Each chapter consists of five subsections, which discuss two case studies each, and these are then evaluated over six or so pages. The range of examples is thrillingly varied, ranging from Austrian splatter to Spanish sci-fi, with all the blockbusters in between. This reminds one of the encyclopedic approach of film historian Kim Newman in Nightmare Movies (2008), but, while Newman is chiefly interested in the production context of films and the longevity of certain themes in horror narratives, Bacon is keen to unfold the plot details of each example and then offer comparative assessments that trace the “eco-vampiric” connections between the works. Many individual readings are insightful and compelling. Despite this, the sheer number of examples and the focus on plot retellings can be straining for the reader. It becomes difficult to keep track of how the argument develops, and thus it feels as if the overall sound Ecogothic underpinning that is set out at the beginning of the book is not fully developed.
Bacon’s previous work on vampires—for example, examining the ways they might act as catalysts for radical becomings (Bacon 2017)—demonstrates a keen interest in developing complex theoretical ideas through the lens of this traditionally blood-sucking figure. That this is much less the case in Eco-Vampires, does not detract, however, from the fact that Bacon’s work constitutes a vital contribution to the field. Given the repeated notion that vampiric figurations and the planet are “intimately connected” (32, 48, 52), Bacon’s analyses can be usefully read alongside works of the New Materialist school, which has extensively explored the notions of planetary entanglement that are so central to Bacon’s argument. The fact that references to theoretical concepts in Eco-Vampires often remain very cursory (124, 147), suggests that the book has ultimately not been conceptualized with an academic audience in mind but is geared towards a wider readership eager to sink its teeth into ecocritical ideas within pop culture.
-16 Nov. 2020