Ashley Kniss: May 2022 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for May 2022 is Ashley Kniss. 

Ashley Kniss is an Assistant Professor at Stevenson University in Owings Mills, Maryland. Her research interests include American Gothic literature, ecohorror, American religious history, apocalypse, and the posthuman. She currently serves as the Writing Coordinator at Stevenson University and has also taught several courses in her focus area of 19th-century American Gothic literature, including surveys on the American Gothic, Monsters in American Literature, and Ecohorror. She is currently working on her first monograph based on her dissertation, The Gothic Apocalypse: Death, Resurrection, and Dread in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, and “‘The hand of deadly decay’: The Rotting Corpse, America’s Religious Tradition, and the Ethics of Green Burial in Poe’s ‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una’” can be found in Fear and Nature: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene (2021). Her writing can also be found in Gothic Nature and ASLE’s series on teaching ecohorror.

How did you become interested in studying ecocriticism and/or the environmental humanities?

I actually didn’t start out as a scholar in the environmental humanities. I wrote my dissertation within a traditional English Ph.D. program and focused on nineteenth-century religious narratives of apocalypse, specifically how Poe, Hawthorne, and Dickinson defied the dominant narrative of a positive apocalypse by depicting the biblical apocalypse within the gothic mode. I explored how the image of the corpse halted apotheosis – the physicality of the corpse, more specifically, the decomposition of the body, seemed to threaten nineteenth-century notions of resurrection. Once I graduated, I remained interested in decomposition and its implications for human identity, but I began applying a latent interest in the environmental humanities to my study of rot and decay. This pursuit led me down a rabbit hole of scholarship from materiality and the ethics of waste to human foodiness, trans-corporeality, and posthumanism. Additionally, my own experiments in permaculture, no-till gardening, composting, waste reduction, and fermentation have fueled my interest in the many ways that controlled rot is a necessary component of biotic communities and one way that humans might practice entanglement and interdependency within our own local ecologies.

I found my scholarly niche in ecohorror. Like the gothic, ecohorror can feel like an unstable phenomenon with ambiguous parameters and unclear definitions. However, scholars like Stephen Rust and Carter Soles (2014) and Christy Tidwell and Carter Soles (2021) have contributed important works that help to outline the dimensions of ecohorror as both a genre and a mode. While my own somewhat weird interest focuses on decomposition, bodies, and human identity as the body transforms, by way of rot, into its surrounding ecosystem, I remain fascinated by the potential of ecohorror to help us objectify our fears and anxieties about the environment. Even when ecohorror narratives sometimes reinforce these anxieties, I also see them opening potentially positive posthuman spaces where anthropocentric hierarchies crumble and humankind undergoes a richer entanglement with the nonhuman ecologies that already exist within and around us.

Who is your favorite environmental artist, writer, or filmmaker? Or what is your favorite environmental text? Why?

I know this is a familiar text for ASLE readers, but Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation remains one of my favorite books even though I love all three novels in The Southern Reach Trilogy. Many of the ecohorror films and narratives I come across still revert to an anthropocentric ending where humankind defeats its nonhuman adversary. However, VanderMeer’s refusal to give in to an anthropocentric narrative in favor of embracing something altogether alien continues to surprise me, as does his depiction of the novel’s narrator, the biologist, who recognizes that perhaps transformation, mutation, and a loss of human identity are not, in fact, bad things if it means that ecosystems might survive our damaging human influence. When I mentioned the potential of ecohorror to open up posthuman spaces by exploring our environmental anxieties through the genre of horror, this is what I mean. There’s the oft-cited line from the biologist, who reflects, “The terrible thing, the thought I cannot dislodge after all I have seen, is that I can no longer say with conviction that this is a bad thing. Not when looking at the pristine nature of Area X and then the world beyond, which we have altered so much.” Yes, the idea of becoming something other than human by way of a monstrous transformation is terrifying, but ecohorror forces us to see differently. I know that ecohorror texts run the risk of reinforcing ecophobic attitudes toward the nonhuman, but I’m far more interested in the ways in which ecohorror narratives create spaces that force confrontations that lead to realizations like the biologist’s.

What are you currently working on?

I should be working on my book, but I keep getting distracted by more interesting ecocritical projects. I just presented an essay on Gothic mycology in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” that now needs to be expanded into an article. My project focuses on how Poe anticipates many of the contemporary narratives that we’re seeing today that depict fungi as monstrous, agentic, and possibly sentient. I was particularly struck by Poe’s portrayal of fungal decay as a posthuman space that is certainly horrifying but also conceptualizes a more egalitarian way of thinking about humankind’s relationship to the nonhuman, one that also destabilizes anthropocentric hierarchies through the process of fungal decomposition. Poe isn’t generally thought of as a writer of ecohorror (though he should be!), but I find that ecohorror makes appearances and disappearances throughout his corpus. The Usher mansion is covered in “minute fungi” whose mycelium overspreads the house in a “fine web-work.” Usher himself speaks of the “sentience of all vegetable matter” and later refers specifically to the fungi that overspread his home, attributing a sinister intentionality and agency to the nonhuman plant life that has pervaded both the house and the humans within. The tale is, of course, frightening. After all, the mushrooms win. But we also see a glimpse of a world in which humankind are colonized rather than colonizers, where the nonhuman is granted agency and sentience, and where our anthropocentric notions of intelligence are turned on their heads.

What is something you are reading right now (environmental humanities-related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally? Comment briefly on why or how it inspires you.

I don’t know if this counts because I finished it about a month ago, but I loved Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, which tackles a number of subjects, from the way in which fungi resist classification to the way in which mycology reveals how human and nonhuman ecologies collide. Sheldrake also tackles plant consciousness, a rigorous field of study going on right now that desperately needs folks in the humanities who are good at dealing with terms that have complicated definitions like “consciousness,” “sentience,” and “intelligence.” His chapter on lichens is particularly wonderful, highlighting the many ways that lichens defy scientific taxonomies. For example, lichens are a single organism, but also an organism comprised of symbiotes, and, really, lichens are ecosystems unto themselves. We only discovered in 2016 that lichens were not made up of just two organisms, a fungus and an alga, but also a third fungal partner, or mycobiont. Later, scientists would find out that there was a fourth mycobiont in another species of lichen.

I’m experiencing a bit of an obsession with fungus right now as they are popping up everywhere I look. Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia as well as Sorrowland (2021) by Rivers Solomon both contain monstrous fungal presences. Two films – In the Earth and Gaia (both 2021) – also explore the mycological potential of fungus as an ecohorrific monster. Entangled Life was even featured in an episode of Ted Lasso. Fungi are the cool kids of ecohorror pop-culture right now, and I’m officially obsessed. The recent fungal presence in ecohorror film and literature, however, is unsurprising. Fungi defy categories, making them monstrous in their own right, but they also colonize human bodies forcing hybridization on humankind as well. In this way, fungi, as a subject in film and literature, have distinctly ecohorrific potential. They proliferate seemingly overnight; being “creatures of the night,” they don’t need light to grow. Some, using bioluminescence, glow at night, and they have a monstrous proclivity to grow and spread in the presence of death and decay. This is an ecomonster I want to see more of!

Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you? Why?

This is so hard! A foundational scholar for me has been Val Plumwood, whose writing on the ethics of green burial, human foodiness, and our place within the food chain aligns with much of my own perspective when exploring the corpse in ecohorror. She argues that the Western way of thinking about death as an eternal continuity that only includes the soul belies the actual reality of continuity that a corpse might achieve by offering opportunities for new life through the process of rot and decomposition. Along the same lines, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter changed the way I think about the agency of corpses and other decomposing organic matter. At one point, Bennet addresses matter that we throw away, trash and other waste, but I apply her thinking to corpses as well. Rather than acknowledging the potential vitality of all matter, we hide trash away in landfills, and we fill corpses with harmful chemicals and sequester them in graveyards away from any kind of ecological contact that would allow them to transform into something useful. Bennett’s framing of matter as vital, vibrant, and agentic has not only contributed to my thinking about the ethics of waste but also how (eco)horror, a genre that often features animate corpses, creates spaces that force us to confront the agency and vitality of objects we otherwise consider lifeless and therefore useless.