M. P. Shiel, the Decadent Vortex, and Racial Anxiety


  • Neil Hultgren


Decadent literature is unique in that it purports to confront the realities of nature as it was imagined in the late nineteenth century – nature that, like language, had proven itself deaf to human concerns and unwilling to uphold its end of the mimetic bargain that the Romantics had struck with it. If nature had shifted, over the course of the nineteenth century, from Wordsworth’s nurturing and unbetraying presence to Tennyson’s harpy, then decadent writing registered this shift and attempted to make sense of the new identity of nature and the hard truths that accompanied it. Recent criticism by scholars such as Dennis Denisoff and Benjamin Morgan has explored the relationship between decadent literature and nature through an ecocritical lens, whether in relation to paganism (Denisoff) or scalar understandings of the globe (Morgan).[i] Amidst this recent convergence of ecocriticism and decadence, whether via what Denisoff describes as ‘Pagan animism and ritual de-individuation’ or what Morgan explores as a ‘spatial scaling-up’ of literature in discussions of global climate change, human subjectivity has, somewhat inevitably, slid into the background.[ii] Ecocriticism, in its efforts to think through the effects of human agency on climate change and imagine a future for the earth that is not based on humanity, has by necessity turned towards unique ways that science fiction and fantasy writers explored extended and collective kinds of subjectivity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Ursula K. Heise predicts that ‘The larger-than-life hero or single protagonist may decrease in importance, since epic-style narratives over the last century have tended to shift the major narrative actants from individual human characters to collective and sometimes nonhuman actors’.[iii]


[i] See Dennis Denisoff, ‘The Dissipating Nature of Decadent Paganism from Pater to Yeats’, Modernism/Modernity, 15.3 (2008), 431-46, and Benjamin Morgan, ‘Fin du Globe: On Decadent Planets’, Victorian Studies, 58.4 (2016), 609-35.

[ii] Denisoff, ‘Decadent Paganism’, p. 444; Morgan, ‘Fin du Globe’, p. 611.

[iii] Ursula K. Heise, ‘Science Fiction and the Time Scales of the Anthropocene’, ELH, 86 (2019), 275-304 (p. 301).