chapter  12
15 Pages

Hyperobjects and the End of the World

Elemental Antagonists of American Naturalism
WithJeffrey Andrew Weinstock

The naturalist tale arguably offers us the first glimpses of a gothic subgenre that has increasingly come to dominate the contemporary pop culture mediascape: fictions of the end of the world. In works such as Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1908), Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899), and Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” (1897), elemental forces, including cold, heat, and ocean waves, function as what Timothy Morton describes as “hyperobjects”: things “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” with which we are entangled and that force upon us the awareness of our own insignificance. Hyperobjects, Morton asserts, “bring about the end of the world” in the sense of forcing us to rethink what the world and our relationship to it are. In this chapter, I will use Morton’s conception of hyperobjects and their role in bringing about “the end of the world” as a lens through which to consider the gothicized elemental forces represented in American naturalism. What these works and their characteristic philosophy of “pessimistic determinism” convey is what we could refer to as the disinterested hostility of natural forces. In some cases, the world literally ends for the stories’ protagonists. More broadly, however, these late nineteenth-century tales force upon us what American horror author H. P. Lovecraft would later characterize as “cosmic fear”: the particularly gothic realization that “nonhuman entities exist that are incomparably more vast and powerful than we are, and that our reality is caught in them.”