On Monsters As Marionette: An Introduction to Ghost Light II

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Editor’s Note: This is the introductory post to Ghost Light II: Monstrosities, a series of essays exploring the entanglements between other-than-human folklore and environmental history edited by Caroline Abbott.

The first collection of essays in the original installment of the Ghost Light series saw six scholars approach the entanglements they had encountered between the more, non, or other-than-human and folklore in their work and lives as environmental historians. In the Call for Participants for this, our second installment of the series, contributors were introduced to a 2015 essay in which Natalie Lawrence guided scholars toward a more comprehensive framework by which to contextualise, think with, and problematise the monster. “What do we mean when we talk about monsters?” the 2015 essay asked.1 Building on this question, Ghost Light II issued a single, over-arching prompt intended to invite parallels between this concept and more recent non/humanity frameworks. I asked: what do environmental historians mean when we talk about the monstrous?

In posing this question, I offered agreement with Natalie Lawrence’s foundational 2015 essay, which posed its important question as a means to remind scholars of history that monsters “are not self-evident,” but I challenged potential contributors to expand upon this thinking and its frameworks. Monsters, I argue, are just as Lawrence unveils them: divisive, intricate beings entangled with the human systems in which they were conceived. But monsters are rarely so well contained. They privilege scholars of history with nigh innumerable ways of thinking about and with them. They frequently entangle in even the simplest nets, yet escape all those we set for them only to rise, revenant, in new questions, faces, places and encounters. Laconic as they may be on the page, emergent non-humanity frameworks of the last decade alone provide many of them a necessary mouthpiece, and so, issue a fresh and exciting challenge to Lawrence’s earlier writing.

Donna Haraway’s vital 2016 Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene redirected the field towards the importance of just these more-than-human stories. Haraway’s essential non-humanity frameworks demand a “becoming-with” which, among other things, asks scholars to hold themselves accountable to the other-than-human beings with whom they and their work are enmeshed.2 It prompts them to continue telling the associated, often-difficult histories of these beings. Alison Sperling explains of Donna Haraway’s call to “stay with the trouble” as so:

“[i]t requires that we do not deny the ways in which we are always and unavoidably knotted into damages and violences, that we must acknowledge these knots if we are to try and reweave, repattern the fabric of the present.”

Alison Sperling, Review: “Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene”, March 8, 2018.

For their entanglement with these (and many other) human threads, I hold to my agreement with Lawrence: monsters are indeed not self-evident — but neither are they the historian’s marionette. The fact that monsters are often “created to serve” of the systems, anxieties, and fears driving settler histories are, of course, not mutually exclusive to the practice of thinking with their Being, or of analysing the way the other-than-human moves through environmental history.3 But perhaps we should ask them what they are, just to be sure — or, as Ghost Light contributor Adrianna Michell explained in her 2022 essay, we “risk ignoring the stories” the being “might tell about itself.”4 Indeed, to think with the monstrous presents historians with a valuable opportunity to do, be, and write better: to acknowledge and better “[hold the] traces of more-than-human entanglements that persist through time, in visible as well as shadow places” Amanda Wells described in her 2022 contribution.5

I am immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to curate the forthcoming selection of essays for Ghost Light II: Monstrosities , all of which will offer careful engagements with the monstrous, and will walk with our audiences through the coming season as time for reflection. Published this autumn (October and November) on NiCHE, the global reach of this competitive cohort offers contributions which consider, expand upon, and respond to the series prompt in diverse and exciting ways. Together, we will encounter the monstrous across six highly distinct ecologies, cover a multi-century scope, and witness the movement of an increasingly-strong, field-wide commitment to thinking with other-than-human experience of environmental history. Whether the essays in this series prompt readers to seek their own monsters in someone else’s research, or embolden them to encounter new and unfamiliar ones in their own, it is this re-encountering which this collection aims to record, and which I am confident these essayists have done with the utmost care.

Fig. 1. “Letting the family skeletons out of the cupboard,” an illustration from The Harmsworth New Monthly Magazine, Vol. I (bound edition), c. 1897. Plate photographed from original in private collection of the author.


[1]  Lawrence, Natalie. “What is a monster?,” Research News Blog, The University of Cambridge, September 7, 2015, https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/what-is-a-monster.
[2] Alison Sperling‘s book review (published March 8, 2018) of Donna Haraway’s 2016 Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene offers readers who may be unfamiliar with Haraway’s frameworks a clear conceptualisation of the otherwise-abstract angles of “becoming-with” which Haraway’s 2016 work explores in full.
[3] Lawrence, 2015.
[4] Michell, Adrianna. “Garlic Mustard Assemblages: A Brief Recipe for Pesto,” The Otter, Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 18, 2022, https://niche-canada.org/2022/10/18/garlic-mustard-assemblages-a-brief-recipe-for-pesto/.
[5] Wells, Amanda. “‘Place of Spirits:’ Persistence and Deep-Time Entanglements in Colonised Place,” The Otter, Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 31, 2022, https://niche-canada.org/2022/10/31/place-of-spirits-persistence-and-deep-time-entanglements-in-colonised-place/.

Header image: Detail of an illustration plate in a bound volume of issues of The Harmsworth Magazine, c. 1900—1. A woman illuminated by oil-burning lamps, flees two ghostly specters hovering in the distant left background of the detail image. Plate photographed from original in private collection of the author.
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Caroline Abbott

Caroline is a recent graduate of Glasgow University (M.Res. 2019) with interests in the intersections of other-than-human histories, print, gender and environment in the long nineteenth century. She is managed by a small gray rescue Manx and a formerly-feral house panther.

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