Panel 9 – How Do We Know?: Subjective Epistemologies
- Chloe Alexandra Germaine Buckley, Lancaster University (UK), “Cthulhu versus Sherlock Holmes: Shadows over Baker Street, epistemological disruption and the ‘willing surrender of disbelief’ in postmillennial alternative-history Weird fiction”
- Hellen Giblin-Jowett, (UK), “A ‘whiff of printer’s shrapnel’: HG Wells and the nostrils of divergence”
- Molly Cobb, University of Liverpool (UK), "'Time is a private matter': Identity and the subjective nature of time in Alfred Bester's 'The Men Who Murdered Mohammed'"
Cthulhu versus Sherlock Holmes: Shadows over Baker Street, epistemological disruption and the “willing surrender of disbelief” in postmillennial alternative-history Weird fiction
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have been successful for so long because of their power to assuage the anxieties of their readers, shore up faith in modern systems of scientific and rational enquiry, and guarantee the accessibility and circulation of knowledge. H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu ‘mythos’ stories have fascinated for so long because of their power to disrupt enlightenment narratives of progress, revealing the crawling chaos underneath human “civilisation”, offering only madness and/ or death in the face of the revelation that everything we know about the world is wrong.
These descriptions suggest that Lovecraft and Doyle’s work are opposed, specifically in terms of their approach to epistemology. Though both emerging at the border between fin de siècle gothic and incipient modernism, Doyle’s enlightenment narrative of an individual able to master knowledge provides a sharp contrast to Lovecraft’s bleak materialism and protagonists hopelessly overcome by knowledge beyond their comprehension. In Shadows Over Baker Street, a 2003 short story collection edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, these two opposed narratives violently clash. The collection rewrites ‘Holmesian’ history, revealing a Weird universe underneath Holmes’ bourgeois rationality. The mash-up performs a striking transformation upon both source texts. On one hand, Lovecraftian anti-intellectualism disrupts the epistemological certainty offered by Holmes’ method of “deduction”. Nonetheless, Holmes manages to retain a degree of authority and mastery that Lovecraftian protagonists crucially lack, tempering the bleak materialism of the Weird mythos.
Challenges to the enlightenment have, of course, been made before –by Gothic, Romanticism and Postmodernism. The Weird differs from these, however, since in the place of failure of knowledge, a radical ontology is proposed. The radical ontology of Weird, which posits humanity’s insignificance in the face of a numinous cosmicism, is read here as a response both to modernist enquiries into epistemology and later, sceptical postmodern ontologies. Lovecraftian Holmes offers instead the possibility of radical belief: When “deduction” has eliminated the rational, whatever remains, however impossible, must be believed.
In a reversal of the usual Holmesian narrative, readers are encouraged not only to suspend their disbelief, but surrender it entirely to the ‘ineluctability of the Weird’ (Miéville). I content that this surrender of disbelief to the Weird can be explained with reference to our postmillennial moment, one in which the Weird proliferates – in popular culture, literature, and even philosophy. Shadows over Baker Street is one text among many that signals a new challenge to epistemological certainty, ushering in an era of belief - in the unbelievable.
Chloe Buckley is a PhD student at Lancaster University, specializing in postmillennial gothic fiction, children’s gothic fiction, subcultural studies and the Weird. Chloe has published on the history of children’s gothic fiction (in The Gothic World ed. Byron and Townsend, 2013), fantastical representations of the Pendle Witches (in Preternature), and on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and the psychoanalysis of gothic (in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly). She is the General Editor of the online journal, The Luminary and Associate Lecturer in ‘Victorian Literature’ and ‘Media and Cultural Studies’ at Lancaster University.
A ‘whiff of printer’s shrapnel’: HG Wells and the nostrils of divergence
The development of themes of alternate history in twentieth-century work by HG Wells from some examples of ‘remote seeing’ in the author’s earliest short stories (1894-97) is widely acknowledged and debated. The pivotal role of olfaction in prompting those early excursions into other imagined universes, however, is not. This paper considers the crucial role of smells that give access to counterfactual reflection in Wells’ fiction from 1894, including ‘The Man with a Nose’, ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ and ‘Æpyornis Island’. It explores the connection between Wells’ first uchronic stories and the ‘decadent’ fin-de-siècle literary texts – such as Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) – which also explore olfactive and rhinological concerns in the wake of post-sanitation reform and defaecalisation of the Thames. Ultimately, I urge the application of an olfactory reading that sheds light upon some contemporary aspects of Wells’ earliest forays into the writing of alternate histories.
Hellen’s PhD thesis, on the subject of ‘Smell, Smells and Smelling in Victorian Supernatural Literature’ was accepted last year by Newcastle University. She is now turning it into a book and is working on her French, to improve her understanding of the nineteenth-century apophatic tradition à propos scent motifs in work by Zola and Huysmans.
'Time is a private matter': Identity and the subjective nature of time in Alfred Bester's 'The Men Who Murdered Mohammed'
In contrast to the broad social sweep of many alternate histories is the more individual microhistory. This form of alternate history can be seen in Alfred Bester’s 1958 short story, “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”. Alongside such texts as “By His Bootstraps” and “—All You Zombies—” (Robert Heinlein, 1941 and 1958 respectively), this narrative considers the nature of time and its impact on the individual, as well as the privatisation of temporal experience. Bester’s text utilizes time travel not as a framing device for the narrative but as a vehicle for the direct implications of a solipsistic approach to time and the identity of the self within it. This approach emphasises a sense of the individual self as separate from its social environment and personal identity as inherently distinct from its external world in both time and space. Envisioning the altering of history as affecting no one but the alterer demonstrates the lack of a universal continuum and the isolated nature of an individual’s timeline, which can be seen as a representation of the inability for the individual to exhibit any agency over their social environment. This renders the subjective attempts to alter the timeline as inevitably futile from a sociological perspective. I propose that Bester is utilizing an otherwise standard SF trope to invite his readers to re-examine the way in which individuals are made to conform to a position within the external world, historically and politically. This paper will delineate the relationship between the self’s subjective experience of the world, psychologically and in regards to personal identity, and the objective assumptions of that world in regards to the individual, thus demonstrating the existential considerations of the self and its seemingly unalterable place in social history. The narrative, as I will argue, reflects the broader context of the Cold War by using microhistories to counter the belief of the nations involved that history was bound to be on their side; a belief which indicates an ignorance of their citizens’ personal timelines.
Molly Cobb is a doctoral student at the University of Liverpool, researching the psychology of the Cold War identity in the 1950’s work of Alfred Bester. She also has an MA in Science Fiction Studies from Liverpool. She is currently an organiser of the Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference.