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Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool...so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which...can be called imitation. -Richard Dawkins
Of myths and memes
Last October, I took a dive into weird fiction. This year I want to look at strange things like memes that evolve into frightening myths. Don’t get me wrong. Autumn is about as beautiful as they come, as far as seasons go. It’s at once yellow, brown, and blue, a low sun painting meadows with haunting orange light. Leaves slowly sail downward, like small birds gently gliding to the ground. But there’s also the inevitable darker side: shorter days, longer nights, a chilly bite in the air, the first frost, celebrations of saints and the dead, and glowing faces of carved pumpkins.
I want to talk some about memes and mythology. While cultural memetics can be analogized with biological evolution, memes existing in the host of a mind don’t have to be factual to spread. The virus can be folklore to some and absolute truth to others. The meme’s replication, or mimicry, can die out or spread widely. It’s the latter that is something to fathom as you are alone on a rain-splattered night, sitting by the fire with shadows forming odd shapes on the wall, wind moaning outside. And before I go much further, this does relate to eco-fiction, because authors create new myths in our warming and increasingly absurd world. An article from The Conversation gives one example, in which Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost captures the mythological and empirical orientations of the novel’s characters and shows how these perspectives influence the story and potentially its readers. New myths in eco-fiction (and art) is something I will get into in a future newsletter. This month I’ll plant the seed.
So, some back story. I met my husband years ago via the Something Awful forums. Since those early years, we haven’t been as active, but back then we were both attracted to the forums for their gaming discussions and humor. We got to know each other, fell in love, and married in 2006. A few years after that, in 2009, there was a discussion called “Create Paranormal Images,” which became one of Something Awful’s most popular Photoshop threads ever. The idea was to impose a scary thing into a photo as if it were real. Soon enough, the thread evolved into a storytelling thread. Not only were forum users adding images of ghost-like figures, cryptids, and unimaginable monsters onto weird illustrations, they were writing life into, and providing backstories for, their art. On the third page of the 46-page thread, a user named Victor Surge (Eric Knudson) posted his idea of a slender, tall male figure. Victor was inspired by HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, another story on the forums called “The Rake,” and more. He kept developing the myth, and soon it spread. The Washington Post pointed out that Slender Man had many origins from that early thread: “Germany’s Black Forest. Ancient Egypt. Cave paintings in Brazil purportedly depict his movements.” I can’t help but wonder if Slender Man’s origins were due to a male archetype we all subconsciously recognize, if not a completely evil one then at least with one with fuzzy but tragic traits, maybe even with a few benevolent characteristics thrown in.
A few more pages went by, but the users kept going back to Victor’s creation as if it were summoning them. And that’s how the Slender Man myth was born; the thread became only about that subject. Slender Man came alive, a tulpa materializing as storytellers copied the meme into hundreds of possibilities, all backed by data coming from fictional radio operators, journalists, personal backgrounds that weren’t real but read like it, military personnel, grandparents, parables, you name it. Despite the thousands of collaborated fictional data, the unknowns of Slender Man were even bigger: other than a vague tall, slender, and somewhat foggy representation, who was he, really? Though some wanted to define the monster down to minute details, most did not. Let him form his own reality seemed to be the majority’s idea. The blank face contributed to the vagueness, open-ended possibilities, and horror. Definitely not a person you wanted to meet. Frightening photos of slender beings illustrated the burgeoning myth. I was impressed by some of the writing. It wasn’t like today’s internet rage-speak; it was pure art.
I hadn’t thought about Slender Man since 2009 when that thread came out, but I recently watched a documentary called Beware the Slenderman (which had come out in 2016), and the power of memes and myth was not lost on me. What was surprising to me was the reach of the story. What began as a horror art form eventually became viral and made its digital folklore rounds through the internet, boosted by Creepypasta. Eventually it would inspire video games, movies, podcasts, and plenty of fan fiction. The true crime documentary revealed how the myth became so real to two girls that they actually stabbed another girl, one of their friends, because they were convinced Slender Man was real and that he would do bad things to them if they didn’t carry out the act. Or, alternatively, they could go live in his special mansion in a nearby forest if they did this horrible act. I was never sure about the motive. Luckily the stabbed girl lived. But the documentary made me feel frightened, because there’s plenty of myths out there, traveling from mind to mind, spreading untruths and misinformation, which has risen to extreme levels in today’s world. The line between innocence and evil is as thin as the layer of frost on a pumpkin. The viruses we carry can shape us into anything, and to think it may start with a single image of a tall, scary man shrouded in black and fog—or a fake video or a Facebook rumor or a political lie—well, we cannot underestimate the reach of that, as we all know by now. BBC recognized fakelore vs folklore. Though the concept of how things are mimicked and hosted and develop into viral things is interesting, it’s been a long time since I’ve interacted with internet communities with any sort of regularity. And that’s my scary October dive into spooky waters.
World eco-fiction spotlight
This month I interviewed Arif Anwar, author of The Storm (Washington Square Press, 2021). In 1970, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) experienced the deadliest humanitarian disaster in history when at least 300,000 died in the Bhola Cyclone. (This is still scary, right?) Arif, who is from Chittagong, Bangladesh, created a tapestry of three generations of people related to the original character and her family who were in the storm. It’s an epic story, really, crossing time through wars, religious differences, and class divisions. I highly recommended it. The novel is also a cautionary tale. As Arif told me, “In a way, Bangladesh has been a preview of what was coming for the world for the past half century. We’ve grown much stronger and resilient over the years, and storms and natural disasters now claim fewer lives. But with climate change, it feels like years of progress will be undone. Countries like Bangladesh pay the price for the emissions of much larger and richer nations. The city of Sydney, Australia, for example, emits as much CO2 as all of Bangladesh.”
Book of the month
You may remember my interview with Waubgeshig Rice a few months ago. We talked about Moon of the Crusted Snow and his (then) upcoming sequel Moon of the Turning Leaves, which is now out, so of course I’ve been devouring it at night. And for all the otherwise horror in the world, this novel reminds me, at first, of the laid-back pleasure of a morning spent fishing or a hike in the forest, with society’s worries far away. However, it’s never as simple as that.
Evan and his teenaged daughter, Nangohns, are chosen to lead a scouting party on a months-long trip down to their traditional home on the shores of Lake Huron—to seek new beginnings, and discover what kind of life—and what danger—still exists in the lands to the south. Waubgeshig Rice’s exhilarating return to the world first explored in Moon of the Crusted Snow is a brooding story of survival, resilience, Indigenous identity, and rebirth.
Read more at Penguin Random House.
I virtually visit Ireland again this month to talk with author JJ Green about their novel The Last Good Summer.
JJ tells me, "About 10 years ago in the area where I live, it was discovered that a waste disposal company, contracted by the local council to safely dispose of the city’s waste, was instead burying it in the ground in illegal dump sites. The amount of waste was in the millions of tonnes, making it one of the biggest waste dumping rackets in Europe.” (Still frightening, right?) The story is an environmental murder mystery that follows a dual timeline that moves from the 1980s, when the disaster took place, to modern times.
To find out more about eco-fiction and what’s new, please visit Dragonfly.eco, and come back often, because I constantly update the site with new books, interviews, and more.
In case you’ve missed these exciting resources at Dragonfly, which are constantly being updated, check ‘em out!
LinkTree: Find out more about my work.
Rewilding Our Stories: A Discord community, now expanded into a website, where you can find resources, reading, and writing fun in fiction that relates strongly to nature and environment. There’s a new submissions call-out for writers’ experiences with climate disasters.
World’s biggest playlist? Our environmental/nature song-of-the-week playlist goes back to 2015.
Book recommendations: a growing list of recs.
Eco/climate genres: They’re all over the place, and here’s an expanding compendium.
Inspiring and informative author quotes from Dragonfly’s interviews.
List of ecologically focused games.
List of eco/climate films and documentaries.
Eco-fiction links and resources.
Book database: Database of over 1,000 book posts at Dragonfly.eco.
Turning the Tide: The Youngest Generation: Fiction aimed toward children, teens, and young adults.
Indie Corner: The occasional highlight of authors who publish independently.
Artists & Climate Change. This is an extraordinary resource delving into all kinds of the arts focused on climate change. For a while now they’ve been rerunning my world eco-fiction spotlights. I’m a core writer for their team, and I’m both honored and grateful. Look for my “Wild Authors” series there. Note that this site is indefinitely paused at the moment, but the owner let me know that the content isn’t going away.