Petrohorror and Unknowing: Petrocultural Engagements with the Limits of Philosophical Thought // Part 2

This is the second of a two-part essay. Part 1 can be found here.

Clinging on to dear life

Reading the theories established in the first part of this essay together, we can now investigate the themes associated with them in concept horror, especially those which are underrepresented by the conventional body of petrofiction; and to integrate the wealth of theoretical terms and practices discussed up until this point into our readings of the chosen stories: H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”[1] and Dean Koontz’s Phantoms.[2] To begin with: the idea of emergence, the how and why of the oily substance’s collision (and collusion) with the lives of its victims. There are three possible culprits: human agency, the substance’s own agency, and the aleatory agency of chance. All three are culpable to some extent in both stories. In “The Colour Out of Space”, it is the meteorite from unknown regions of deep space that provides the colour with its entrance: there is no knowing whether it falls to earth by coincidence or whether it is somehow directed to a place where it could be recharged (the Gardner ranch) before continuing with its journey, but fortuitousness seems to play some role in the colour’s trajectory, and in addition, it does actively effect change on its surroundings for its own gain. What is unambiguous is the human role in its progression: there is an obvious moment of release when the scientists crack the rock open, but human agency is also shown in the story through the agricultural maintenance of the ranch, providing nutrients and shelter (the well) for the parasite to thrive.[3] In Phantoms there exists a more observable negotiation between the Ancient Enemy and the human characters, however this is made clear this is purely for the benefit of each respective side, never mutual. And as with any work of fiction, there are deliberately constructed moments of chance incorporated into the narrative, such as the accidental release of the killer Kale, and the general orchestration of the group of characters which possess the right characteristics (muscle, scientific knowledge, medical skills) needed to save humanity.

As these substances emerge, they bring to the surface with them questions surrounding the distinctions between the living and the dead, the organic and inorganic, and the natural and “that which ought not to be.” These distinctions are tested thoroughly through the process of contamination, usually leading to the reanimation of the dead, as is the case with murdered officer Wargle in Phantoms;[4] or takeover of the victims’ autonomy or natural behaviour, as with everything animal, vegetable or mineral inhabiting the ranch in “The Colour Out of Space”. Is this not also how we imagine the role of oil itself – creeping into and taking over, such as in the cases of industrialisation, the replacement of manual workers with fuel-guzzling machines, many times cheaper and more powerful? In these contexts, the idea of “petropupptry” no longer seems so outrageous, especially when considered alongside similar imagery employed in canonical petrofiction.[5] The recurrence of this visual metaphor across distinct work of fiction implies a common aim, namely, to convey the flows of oil (or oil-capital) as it infiltrates the global, social, or ideological body. These bodies often display what Negarestani terms “zones of emergence”: holes or porosities serving as entrances and exits (Negarestani 2008: 49). For the victims of Phantoms, their faces are often fixed in paralytic screams, their mouths serving as a reminder of their horrifying physical destruction from the inside. Even more disturbing is Nahum Gardner’s death as witnessed by Ammi Pierce, who tells of the “brittle”, “distorted parody that had been a face”, culminating in the line: “That which spoke could speak no more because it had completely caved in.” (COS 329-330) The gaping well and the porous meteorite can be considered continuations of this theme.

In a study of Justin Cronin’s petrogothic vampire novel, The Twelve (2012), Macdonald explains the vampiric transformation of oil-victims into oil-subjects as follows:

Here is the zombified expression of extended oil, a world where petroleum, despite everything, remains undead. Its deathly brilliance, its accelerant uses, allows a form of desperate survival, and, as is explained, the ironic monstrosity of this is that the monsters themselves require the life of humans to extend, as permanently untapped deposits for future consumption. For humans, who create the monster-filled future, are themselves the ultimate, “organic” form of energy supply. (Macdonald 2014: 137)

Here we have the symbiotic relationship laid bare, wherein not only is oil an energy supply for humans, humans are themselves an energy supply for oil. In this relationship, both participating bodies are “undead”: too valuable to be left to either surface or ground, their interaction involves both a surfacing (surging upwards or seeping out) for oil, and a katabatic descent for humans (drilling and extraction). The way in which we use “undead” energy reserves to animate our lives is mirrored by oil’s ability to transfigure its (human) subjects into becoming-undead prey.

The reversal of roles in the dominant energy narrative (wherein usually it is people who are “exploiting” natural resources, the roles of master and slave being strongly defined), the victimisers becoming the victims, and “we [no longer] use oil, oil uses us”, is called “anthropic inversion” by Thacker (Thacker 2012: 176). The intermediary agent, the Earth (the world-in-itself), is pivotal here too. Not merely a milieu to be weirded (in Thacker’s terminology, it is the World(-for-us) that is weirded; the Earth is always weird), the Earth dictates the conversation between the two energy resources (human and oil) through its own surface-ground dynamics, and by this process becomes the true victim, the contaminated body, dying of heatstroke.

The nature of this interaction may help to explain oil’s agency and mission objectives. Both the colour and the Ancient Enemy are survivors: rare, endangered, and in need of its own form of biopower. And while human need for oil may be more socio-political than Darwinian, the (short-term) security and massive acceleration it has provided to both the developed and developing worlds ensure that any future downscaling of its consumption may be logistically and psychologically painful. Consider Nahum’s continued “listless” and “mechanical” drinking of the clearly poisoned well water: “he had by that time become calloused to strange and unpleasant things.” (COS 324) His sentiment seems a precursor to our current energy crisis, our age of continuing exhumation of “tough oil” we know is bad for us, yet a “safer” investment than alternative energy sources.

Horror of philosophy

As explained already, for Thacker horror is an attempt to conceive of the world-without-us philosophically, but in a “non-philosophical” way. This statement assumes that philosophy is by definition concerned with the world-for-us as its sole avenue of inquiry, and that horror deflects philosophical inquiry from the foundation that the world is the world-for-us to the world-without-us. This for Thacker is symptomatic of the decoupling of thought from the individual mind: in the same way that the world is not really a world-for-us, thought itself is also not “ours”; it too occupies a hyperobjective distance beyond our immediate selves, specifically in the “lacunae in the World and the Earth.” Thought is planetary (residing in the world-without-us) (Thacker 2011: 7-9).

In his essay “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans” (2012), Thacker posits a pathway out of anthropocentric and anthropomorphic thinking altogether, using another petrohorror short story, Fritz Leiber’s “Black Gondolier” (1964), as his case study. He frames the experience of the weird encounter in four stages: the transformation of the human from a rational subject into simply another expression of the fundamentally weird object; or the “unhuman”, defined as “a limit without reserve, something that one is always arriving at, but which is never circumscribed within the ambit of human thought.” (Thacker 2012: 173-80) The first stage is mere subsumption of the unhuman into humanistic frameworks, or anthropic subversion. Following this is anthropic inversion, as alluded to above. This is the recognition of “something else”; of having been discovered by the autonomous, creeping unhuman, rather than being the discoverer.

The third level is ontogenic inversion, the moment in the story wherein the faith of the human protagonist is shaken entirely by the realisation that humanity itself is simply “one instance of the unhuman.” Let us pause for a moment and consider the implications of this shift in perspective. The victims of petrohorror narratives are no longer negotiating with an outsider monster for the purposes of its own enslavement and consumption, they themselves are negotiating with their own monstrosity. In these terms, the ancient enemy’s prophesy/threat of returning at the end of Phantoms takes on a new meaning. Perhaps the “human” victims of Snowfield are themselves separated parts of this paternal “Legion”, suggested by the itching beneath Kale’s skin (Ph 426-430). Not only are anthropomorphic descriptors (terms such as “intent”, “sentience”, or “agency”) no longer easily applicable when recognising the unhuman, it cannot even be thought of as “other”. When faced with the monster of the weird story, the victims are foremost victims of themselves; the limits of their capacity for thought. Their crisis is a crisis of the inside, not the outside, and only a reckoning with the unhuman that is the collective self (what is thought of as humanity) will suffice.

A negotiation with ourselves, then, is shown in works of petrohorror be the adequate response to the looming energy crises which dominate our own human narratives. Yet, as horror narratives, we should be aware that delving deeper into them, the more “rational” we make them in an attempt to understand them, will also produce further horror still, as noted by George Sieg (Sieg 2008: 30-31). A confrontation with our energy future requires much more than systemic behavioural changes, mutually agreeable international policies and treaties, vast economic investment and infrastructure, and so on; it also requires a questioning of how we choose to conceive of and represent ourselves, and what we (collectively) are really capable of – an idea that for many is much more frightening even than oncoming environmental disaster.

In this sense, global warming really is a philosophical concern – the frameworks of existentialism, ontology and phenomenology are starting points in considering how to think philosophically about the crisis. But before using it, we must first be aware of what happens to thought when the thinking subject is exposed to the unhuman. During his moment of ontogenic inversion, the third level of inversion as mentioned above, Daloway, the protagonist of “Black Gondolier”, is able to conceive of the human as an indifferent instance of the unhuman. “At this point”, Thacker writes, “thought falters, and here we enter a fourth stage we can call misanthropic subtraction.” This is represented by the Lovecraftian technique of utilising euphemistic, analogical phrases such as “the unnameable”, in conjunction with baroque, over-gratuitous descriptors; and for Thacker they together constitute “a singular epiphany concerning the faltering not just of language, but of thought as well.” Attaining “the thought of the limit of all thought”, results in a “black illumination” by which the unhuman is treated by the subject as an indifference towards the human (Thacker 2012: 177-180). Human thought, finally, is therefore a property of the unhuman (Thacker 2011: 93-94).

Thought, then, is like a resource we borrow for the purpose of understanding. It too is a hyperobject: we cannot easily think “beyond thought” (of death, for example); it cannot be easily localised according to the contours of the brain; and so on. If we then define philosophy as the creation of or engagement with concepts and systems of thought designed to broaden our awareness and understanding,[6] the relevance of going beyond philosophy in the context of going beyond oil consumption begins to emerge. Not only does the energy crisis replicate the classical thinker’s predicament of needing to work beyond the limits of their epistemological framework when that framework becomes unsustainable, and to cognise an unstable future ahead of time; the energy crisis also finds its parallel in the autophagic process of thinking, the self-effacing of the individual consumed by their interaction with logical propositions and postulates.

It is from this perspective that Thacker can equate the boundaries of human(-driven) thought with the horror of philosophy; and by extension, we are able to associate this strand of extra-philosophical inquiry with the horror of ecology. This is Thacker’s understanding of the horror of philosophy:

the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility – the thought of the unthinkable that philosophy cannot pronounce but via a non-philosophical language. (Thacker 2011: 2)

This new association of concept horror with the energy humanities can be used to uncover themes within petrohorror which have greater resonance in our understanding of the oil crisis. Many observations regarding emergence, agency and autonomy could be made here, but we must be careful not to reduce our usage of these terms to the anthropic. The relative indistinction uncovered by Thacker between human subjectivity and weird objectivity must be maintained if we are to utilise the concept horror methodology.

One way in which to think through this is to consider the oil creatures of petrohorror, the colour and the ancient enemy, as what the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl termed “intentional objects”. A large influence on Timothy Morton’s own phenomenological hyperobjects, intentional objects behave oppositely to real objects, which as we attempt to grasp the essence of them, “withdraw” from us, and become unknowable.[7] Intentional objects, on the other hand, are always present, immanent, encroaching even (Harman 2008: 353). Crucially however, these two objects are interlinked. Oil is both a real and intentional object, as are the colour and the ancient enemy: this is another of their weird qualities. According to Graham Harman, an intentional object is “both always and never present.” (ibid.: 362) Oil both withdraws into our unconscious and oppresses us with its presence; the threats of petrohorror monsters are simultaneously observable and unmeasurable, and “express their reality only by drawing neighboring objects into their orbit.” (ibid.)

A quality such as “agency”, therefore, can be understood as associated with weird objects such as oil beyond the level of anthropic inversion, if viewed as an expression of its intentionality, and not merely an endowment of a “human” attribute. The colour has the intention to regenerate itself using the earth’s resources, and the ancient enemy’s agenda also implies a certain logic regarding its own survival. Our unhuman agency – to grow stronger, to consume – is witnessed in the reflection of these narratives; and in the case of Phantoms, the enemy is eventually overcome through an observable negotiation, and recognition of the other. What is clear, when recognised in this way, is that these stories do not present the kind of human morality – the anthropo-guilt – which is often expected from ecofiction; instead providing complex, unprecedented, horrific occurrences for which no singular blame can be directly administered.


In “Petrofiction”, Ghosh made a distinctive claim. “The truth is”, he wrote, “we do not yet possess the form that can give the Oil Encounter a literary expression.” (Ghosh 1992: 31) However, by considering the body of work I have called petrohorror, this claim can be contested. Surely, Ghosh did not consider “The Colour Out of Space”, Phantoms, and “Black Gondolier” works of petrofiction: his usage of the term “Oil Encounter” seems to refer to a specific instance of emergence, a West-meets-East narrative that largely adheres to the pre-established mould set by colonial and postcolonial literature. Yet many years on from 1992, and given the substantial advances in our awareness of the oil crisis, it is now apparent that oil encounters are universal. For us then, petrofiction must be multidirectional and non-monotonic, and aim to utilise new literary forms to express not merely a singular historical event, but a much wider series of environmental effects and consequences. It is this revised definition of petrofiction, and its integration into ecocriticism, which the petroculturalists since Ghosh have sought to identify and exemplify.

This revision of the genre (if, indeed, this term is adequate), I argue, allows and benefits from the inclusion of the works of genre horror I have identified. Petrohorror, bolstered by the philosophical investigations of concept horror, brings into focus the immediate fear and dread of a substance difficult to objectify; a substance we cannot think beyond, as it is fully integrated not only with “our” thinking, but which itself takes on the form of thought, which cannot be thought of beyond itself. In a sense, petroculturalists attempt to seek new perspectives on the Lovecraftian unnameable thing, and to use empirical data and rational discussion to cognise the extent of its impact on the future. Petrohorror, through techniques such as anthropic inversion and misanthropic subversion, constructs allegorical manifestations of the thing in question, and plots which bring to the surface the paralysing, chaotic responses to our encounters with it. The result of these inversions is that narratives can begin to adequately represent a disjointed, “unnatural” world, of plastic,[8] of seemingly boundless energy and capital, that makes a call for a “return to nature” even less convincing, and forces us to invent progressive, anterograde solutions to the eco-pocalypse facing us.  The palliative potential of the petrohorror genre, as the energy dilemma reaches peak urgency, would be to show its readers that although humanity’s actions have resulted in an age of global horror, reactionary stasis would only further problematise the crisis.


[1] Hereafter COS.

[2] Hereafter Ph.

[3] There is an unambiguous anti-industrial, even transcendental streak running through Lovecraft’s story, a reaction to the unreasonable demands of expanding urban environments, creeping into his beloved New England home, which of course is the primary concern of the metanarrative here. The new reservoir being built perhaps suggests “The Colour Out of Space” be read as a revenge story against encroaching modernity, in which case Lovecraft’s own ecological views may be of secondary concern.

[4] The narrator describes the fatal attack as follows: “Wargle moved erratically across the street, jerked this way and that, heaved and writhed and spun, as if he were attached to strings that were being manipulated by a drunken puppeteer.” The victim shortly re-emerges later in the story, continuing the theme of reanimation beyond the boundaries of life and death. Ph 152 (my emphasis).

[5] For example, in John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil , there is a visually arresting scene which physically enacts a petropuppet danse macabre: a Texan oil baron and a senior Civil Servant attach strings to a government official, and together the three perform a song-and-dance number (McGrath 2015: 156-157).

[6] This is primarily a Deleuzoguattarian definition, derived from What Is Philosophy? (1994). Negarestani recurs this idea by defining philosophy as a “program”; “the primary focus of this cognitive program is to methodically urge thought to identify and bring about realizabilities afforded by its properties (theoretical and practical intelligibilities pertaining to thinking as such), to explore what can possibly come out of thinking and what thought can become.” (Negarestani 2015)

[7] “To represent a globe or tower is to witness a specific configuration of colors, textures, shadows, and physical co-ordinates. But if we see presentation as object-giving rather than presentational, we shift our focus toward the essential nucleus of the perception”. (Harman 2008: 352)

[8] “For Earth, the rendering of organic life on the surface of its crust into subterranean mineral fossil fuels is a core vascular labor. As oil, plastic is life recycled. So that the plasticity of plastic – the real compression-decompression effect of oil as the ultimate fate of the living thing – long predates the physical possibility of its composition by animals (humans) as the chemicals we call “plastics.” That futurity is ancient.” (Bratton 2012: 47)


Bratton, B.H. (2012) “Root the Earth: On Peak Oil Apophenia”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: 45-57.

Ghosh, A. (March 1992) “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel”, The New Republic, 29-34.

Harman, G. (2008) “On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl”, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic, 332-364.

Koontz, D. (1990) Phantoms, London, Headline Book Publishing.

Lovecraft, H.P. (2014) The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, ed. Klinger, L.S., New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Macdonald, G. (2014) “Improbability Drives: The Energy of Sf”, Paradoxa, No. 26, 111-144.

McGrath, J. (2015) The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, ed. Macdonald, G., London/New York, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re:press.

— (2015) “What Is Philosophy? Part One: Axioms and Programs”, e-flux #67, available online at

Sieg, G. (2008) “Infinite Regress into Self-Referential Horror: The Gnosis of the Victim”, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic, 29-54.

Thacker, E. (2011) In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, vol. 1, Winchester/Washington, Zero Books.

— (2012) “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 173-180.

Featured image credits: ü (2008) “04_MILLION_LITERS”.


Petrohorror and Unknowing: Petrocultural Engagements with the Limits of Philosophical Thought // Part 1

This is the first of a two-part essay. Part 2 can be found here.

The emerging field of cultural studies that has been variously named the energy humanities, petrocultural studies and petrofiction seeks a new critical method to interpreting the arts, particularly literature. In his 1992 essay “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel”, the author Amitav Ghosh asked the question: If the oil industry is the twentieth century’s equivalent of the Spice Trade, why are there so few literary responses to it? This is a question which has driven a new wave of cultural critics, historians and writers who collectively seek to read pre-existing works of literature through both their implicit and explicit consumption of energy. This new engagement, in turn, can serve a cultural or political function. When a text is situated historically (both date of setting and publication) within the various crises surrounding the real uses of oil, it is hoped that the humanities can function as part of the more general response to our problems with energy consumption (see Yaeger 2011).

And these problems are numerous. Humans’ lives have revolved around the consumption of energy for as long as recorded history, whether in the form of wood, sunlight, or biopower (ibid.). In a real sense, human life is impossible without thermodynamic energy transfers; they dictate the organization of societies, economies, healthcare, and much more besides. But the “modern” forms of energy, specifically oil, pose new devastating challenges. The sheer volume of oil consumption since World War II has compounded the environmental impact of the preceding dominant energy sources significantly, raising CO2 emissions to a peak now almost impossible to climb down from. Economically, too, oil appears miraculous, especially to the global North: as an inexpensive resource, it has made home and work life much more comfortable on an individual level, and has ensured greater amounts of capital be kept in the hands of fewer people (Smil 2008: 1-2). As Irme Szeman says, “It requires surprisingly little effort to produce an alternative history of the past century in which oil plays the role of the central protagonist directing and organizing human life activity.” (Szeman 2012: 3) Yet as reserves deplete and temperatures rise, it is precisely this centrality of oil which must be overcome.

I wish to examine a body of work hitherto underrepresented in discussions of petrofiction: genre horror literature, and in particular, the sub-genre (of sorts) known as weird fiction. In several weird short stories and novels, oil has a unique function: as a horrifying, unstoppable entity which, upon encounter, reveals humanity’s insignificance and finitude. From the beginning, petrocultural studies have engaged with modes of horror,[1] and it seems apt to continue this trend into new critical territory. If the energy crisis does indeed evoke horror, then an examination of the forms this horror may take may help us conscious of the energy crisis to better realise our role in its unfurling petrodrama.

The aim of this essay is twofold. Firstly, it is to establish horror fiction (particularly weird fiction) as a genre of legitimate interest to petrocultural studies. This will be achieved by granting focus to texts which directly or indirectly allude to the substance and environmental effects of oil. The primary two examples chosen here are the H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), and the Dean Koontz novel Phantoms (1983). Secondly, in this essay I will be exploring precise philosophical connotations of “petrohorror”. The relationship between horror and philosophy has already been significantly documented, and to attempt a complete integration of this pre-existing scholarship into the domain of petrocultural studies would be too grandiose a task here, so I will be mostly limiting myself to an analysis of the central thesis of Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Volume 1 (2011). In the introduction to his book, Thacker defines horror as the encounter with the limits of rational thought, a thought for which the language of philosophy fails to adequately express. This I argue is similar to the horrors of the fossil fuels crisis, within which there is no singular coherent narrative which accurately conveys our species’ and our planet’s present situation, or potential or necessary future orientation.

Weird energy

Weird fiction is a genre tag which was first applied to short stories such as those found in the American pulp magazines Weird Tales and Amazing Stories (the former’s print run began in 1923). It categorizes a blend of fantasy, horror, and science fiction which deals primarily with “alien” beings, existing within hidden realms and usually imperceptible to humans, but which manifest themselves under particular (if sometimes undisclosed) circumstances. In doing so, the characters and settings of the story are unsettled, as is the reader, by the prospect of a disruption to what was previously considered the rational and natural order. Undoubtedly the archetypal weird fiction author was H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Frequently published in the aforementioned pulp publications, the scope of Lovecraft’s fiction encompasses a vast and barely coherent genealogy of monstrous entities, woven together in a lore known to fans as the Cthulhu Mythos.

Within this group of stories, all the conventions and literary techniques of weird fiction can be traced. Lovecraft’s prose is grandiose, archaic, and mystical, yet it is always tethered to an empirical or scientific framework, narrated by a distinguished and respectable New England professor: the collision of these two contrasting effects pushes the tone of the Lovecraftian story into the degree-zero of the uncanny. As author and Lovecraft scholar Michel Houellebecq explains, “the trajectory of this collision is traced by a precise and firm line that becomes more dense and more complex as the story progresses, and it is this narrative precision that converts us into believers of the inconceivable.” (Houellebecq 2008: 81) And this element of inconceivability, which tears through and makes a mockery of the anthropocentric “laws of nature”, is almost entirely indescribable or “unnameable” as well. There is a great example of this in “The Colour Out of Space”, wherein the farmer’s wife, having witnessed “things in the air which she could not describe”, is able only to communicate through wild gesticulations and incomplete speech: “In her raving there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns. Things moved and changed and fluttered, […]” (Lovecraft 2014: 323).[2] Thacker describes the push-pull of Lovecraft’s literary style, the simultaneous hyperbolic description of the landscape and the essentially minimalist (non)description of the forces which disturb it, as “misanthropic subtraction” (Thacker 2012: 177-178). (We shall return to the full implications of what this concept might suggest in the second part of this essay.)

“The Colour Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft’s most celebrated short stories, concerns a land surveyor who has been sent to an area known by locals as “the blasted heath”, where a new reservoir is to be constructed, for the benefit of the townspeople of nearby Arkham. His meeting with a local man, the elderly Ammi Pierce, leads the latter to recount the tale of Old Nahum Gardner, who had in the 1880s owned a ranch on the prospective site; a ranch that in Nahum’s time had been visited by a meteorite. This extra-terrestrial object exhibited unusual properties, such as rapid cooling and shrinking, and when a group of scientists from the local university drilled into a section it released a strange globule, which reflected bands of indescribable colours. At least this is how it is portrayed by Ammi: he also states it was “only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” The substance popped when hit with a hammer by one of the scientists, leaving a spherical cavity where it had been (COS 317).

Over the coming months, the Gardner ranch slowly began to undergo supernatural transformations: the vegetation grew abnormally large and became luminous in the dark for a while, before turning grey and brittle and quickly disintegrating altogether. Nahum’s wife and sons, one by one, descended into madness or otherwise disappeared entirely. And the well water had become putrefied: this was discovered by Ammi when he visited the ranch. After a gruesome final encounter with Nahum, Ammi called for an investigation of the well, wherein the bones of two of Nahum’s sons and several animals were discovered. Additionally, the well contained an unusual slimy substance; later at night the well was seen to be displaying the same luminous qualities as the colour found in the meteorite. In the final scene of Ammi’s tale, he tells the surveyor that he and the other men witnessed a shaft of the colour’s light “pour” upwards into the sky. Concluding his story, Ammi expresses grave concern that the new reservoir will bring up a water supply still contaminated by the colour, and this could potentially lead to the deaths of several Arkham citizens. The surveyor mirrors this sentiment to the reader, but also states that he will continue with his work regardless: “I hope the water will always be very deep – but even so, I shall never drink it.” (ibid: 339-340)

Dean Koontz’s 1983 novel Phantoms is set in the Californian mountain town of Snowfield. Returning from her mother’s funeral with her younger sister Lisa, Dr Jennifer Page soon discovers that the town’s entire population of around 500 are either dead or missing, with bodies littered everywhere. She is unable to diagnose their cause of death, or understand why the corpses are bloated, bruised, and unable to decompose. She calls Santa Mira County Sheriff Bryce Hammond, who brings a squad over to investigate. Sensing high-level risk, Hammond calls an old ally, CBW (Chemical and Biological Warfare) Civilian Defence Unit General Galen Copperfield, for military assistance. Unable to leave due to the possibility of contamination (although disease or poisoning are looking less likely as causes of death), the group spend several hours overnight waiting for Copperfield’s unit, mostly in hiding from a giant moth which has savagely killed one of the officers.

Meanwhile, the incident begins to receive major press coverage, and in London, the eccentric (and for some time discredited) anthropologist Dr Timothy Flyte is informed that his name, as well as the name of his book The Ancient Enemy had appeared on a mirror in Snowfield, and he is encouraged by his publicist to travel to the town to rejuvenate his career. The next day, the CBW division unit arrives, and although initially sceptical of Hammond’s claims soon fall victim to a pair of gruesome deaths themselves. They are then contacted by “the ancient enemy” itself, through a computer terminal, describing itself as a demon and asking for Flyte personally, so that he may become his “Matthew” and chronicle it. Later Flyte arrives and Dr Sara Yamaguchi of the CBW unit makes some progress in identifying the creature responsible for their torment. It is an entity living below the Earth’s surface with the ability to alter its DNA structure and take any form, as well as break off parts of itself and operate independently of its nucleus. This substance is revealed to contain a large variety of hydrocarbons, giving it similar properties to petrolatum (petroleum jelly). The survivors develop a weapon made from Biosan-4, a bacteriological invention currently being tested to eat away at oil spills, and using this weapon they defeat the ancient enemy. However, a remnant appears in the woods outside Snowfield to the escaped murderer Fletcher Kale, as well as motorcycle gang leader Gene Terr, and suggests to them that by worshipping it and carrying out its commands, namely killing the survivors, it will one day return. A few days later the two men storm the hospital and attempt to carry out the task, but are finished off by the surviving officers (Koontz 1990).[3]

It should be immediately apparent to petroculturalists that both substances in these stories – the colour and the ancient enemy – are analogous to energy resources or their waste: oil, “natural” gases such as shale gas, and nuclear runoff such as thorium. Both substances are deliberately mercurial, constantly undergoing change and being of limited perceivability at a time to human observers. They are “unconscious” in the sense described by Patricia Yaeger: following from Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, Yaeger suggests that the symbolic dimension of a text reveals its underlying thermodynamic processes, as an “energy unconscious,” which interferes with the dominant narrative of energy abundance, and the “touch-a-switch-and-it’s-light” magic realism of contemporary modes of living (Yaeger 2011: 309-310). Likewise, the fictional slimes lie hidden underground, beneath human perception, feeding and growing stronger, until they are brought to the surface, and corrupt and shake the faith in the human narrative.

By human hands, the iridescent colour is drilled out of a giant space rock which shouldn’t be there, only to leak out and slowly corrupt the local biosphere, and eventually its human inhabitants. This is a clear analogy for the discovery of oil beneath the Earth’s surface, and its applied scientific and cultural usages which were beginning to occur in the period between the story’s two settings (1880s and 1920s): the appropriation of an “alien” substance for human consumption.[4] The egregious ballooning of the vegetation, which initially burn brightly with an alluring, almost neon-like luminosity before crumbling to grey ash, also mirrors the pattern of “exuberance and catastrophe” as investigated by Frederick  Buell.[5] The ancient enemy, which is effectively called oil by Koontz, also takes on a multitude of forms and names, one of which is Proteus, the Greek god of change and mutability. It epitomises the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy can be transferred from one state to another, with some escaping as heat (when disguised as a dog, the ancient enemy becomes “painfully hot” whilst metamorphosing in the arms of Officer Gordy Brogan (Ph 334)).

Both of these stories are unambiguous with their depictions of the weird: scientists are informed of the presence of an unidentifiable object, which they deny can exist in an ordered universe, and are then disproven by these objects’ monstrous, life-threatening exhibitions of their qualities; qualities which imitate those of the real-world ooze, oil. This would lead to the conclusion that oil is a weird substance, and can be investigated using these genre concepts alongside those of “canonical” petrofiction.

In his reading, Anthony Sciscione classifies “The Colour Out of Space” as an example of “symptomatic horror”, which, as he explains, is a term applicable to “works that attempt to encounter the radically non-human without recourse to ontological presence and positive conceptualization, instead channelling the incompatible agency through its effects on the landscape and representing it in the text primarily with reference to the discursive and hermeneutic gaps it occasions.” (Sciscione 2012: 131-132) Although Phantoms doesn’t rely on “discursive and hermeneutic gaps” in the same way as “The Colour Out of Space” does (Ammi’s tale is full of “gaps […] where his sense of logic and continuity broke down” (COS 314), making its teller an unreliable narrator in conventional literary terms, but entirely credible in terms  of the weird), it also can be considered “symptomatic”, in that the antagonizing force is revealed through environmental effects (on the victims’ bodies) rather than through direct initial encounters. Sciscione calls this corruption weirding; a term used to describe the odd disturbances effected by these alien forces’ proximity, and the resultant uncanny effects. “The Colour Out of Space” contains several pages of unusual changes on the Gardner ranch brought about as a result of the colour; in every detail, there is something “not quite right”. For example, trees grow “too” thickly to be considered healthy, as a result of the poisoned water, resulting in “inconsistencies” between what is and what ought to be, according to their human observers (Sciscione, 137, 143-4). Similarly, a large proportion of Phantoms is used to illicit confusion regarding the condition of the corpses, which are swollen and bruised all over, yet without showing signs of decomposition, nor blood or broken bones or skin. It could be argued too that the global ecological effects of oil consumption are weird in this phenomenal sense; an idea which will be returned to later in this essay.

Concepts of oil

Now that the legitimate interest of oil to authors of weird fiction has been observed, we can begin to investigate oil through philosophical “concept horror,” which will eventually lead to Thacker’s understanding of horror as the encounter of the limits of philosophy. In the Editorial Introduction to Collapse IV, subtitled Concept Horror, Robin Mackay asks:

What if, prising the more disturbing elements of modern thought loose from their comfortable framing as part of an intellectual canon, we were to become fully attentive to their most harrowing consequences? What if, impatient with a consideration of their claims solely from the point of view of their explanatory power and formal consistency, we yielded to the (perhaps ‘unphilosophical’) temptation to experiment with their potentially corrosive effects upon lived experience? If the overriding affect connected with what we ‘know’ – but still do not really know – about the universe and our place in it, would be one of horror, then, inversely, how might the existing literature of horror inform a reading of these tendencies of contemporary thought? (Mackay 2008: 4)

This loose explanation of philosophy’s liaison with genre horror literature is designed to open many streams of conceptual engagement. The anthology’s many essays offer a variety of responses to the horror and weird labels, but where the whole volume appears unified is in the contributors’ attempts to utilise horror’s disruptive and weirding qualities to dislocate thought from the dominant “philosophical” framework. This critical technique is employed by the essayists in Collapse IV to practice new incarnations of phenomenology, theology, and metaphysics.

These practitioners of concept horror have all the conventions of horror and weird fiction at their disposal, yet of the selection it is oil which takes many of their imaginations. There is a consensus of what, conceptually, oil is, or a shortlist of what it could be. Many of these imaginative descriptions are inspired by Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, a work that simultaneously encompasses speculative theory and speculative fiction to create a highly original interpretation of Middle Eastern politics both ancient and (super)modern, and of which oil itself is a principal actor. Here then is an effort to describe oil as it resides in the works of Negarestani, Benjamin H. Bratton, Robin Mackay, McKenzie Wark, Ed Keller, and Eugene Thacker; all themselves heavily influenced by the “paleopetrology” of Dr. Hamid Parsani, the subject of Cyclonopedia. Oil is an autonomous, global agent which takes the control of the socio-political biosphere (the Earth), as the xeno-agent from within, as its primary aim. Flowing from a unified source, beneath the vast desert regions of the Middle East, oil corrupts human relations using (Islamist) religion, capitalist economy, and warfare (or jihad); permeating the entire globe in its viroid contamination. On a molecular level, oil embodies death, as “hydrocarbon corpse juice”, or “Devil’s excrement” (Negarestani 2008: 25-28); or “the planetary archive of putrification and cumulative decrepitude”, or “meat” (Bratton 2012: 48). But on a number of more disturbing levels, oil is also life, produced from photosynthetic processes and stored across eons as “buried sunlignmht” (Mackay 2012: 29); gifting it some consistency with Bataille’s theory of solar economy. It is also an animative force, “poison[ing] […] with absolute madness”, infecting (individual and social) bodies and manipulating them in a reverie of “petropuppetry” (Negarestani 2008: 20).

There is one further element of the Parsanian/Negarestanian school of oil theory that must be mentioned: that is, it comes in two variations, elucidated in Negarestani’s later essay “Outlines for a Science Fiction of the Earth as Narrated from a Nethermost Point of View” (2010). Much of what has been described in the previous paragraph would be classified by Negarestani as belonging to the “biogenic” theory of oil: oil as having been formed from hydrocarbons of existing planetary biomatter under immense pressure, heat, and time. The counterpart to this interpretation is the “xenogenic” or “abiogenic” theory. Liberally inspired by astrophysicist Thomas Gold’s theory of the “Deep Hot Biosphere”, the contention here is that the hydrocarbons from which our planetary oil is formed originated in deep space, before becoming trapped inside the earth. Furthermore, the bacterial processes which create oil may be more continual, even renewable, than otherwise thought. Oil is no longer a “fossil fuel”, but an alien “xeno-insider” which has always been there, potentially a signifier of the origins of life on Earth. Furthermore, this xenogenic oil displaces the role of the Sun to merely one lifegiving celestial body amongst many, exploding Bataille’s “solar hegemony” entirely (ibid.).[6] Whilst Negarestani upholds both theories as viable during Cyclonopedia, it becomes evident that his imagination finds greater riches in the latter.

Thinking the unthinkable

Contentious, even objectionable as these theories may immediately be from an ecological standpoint, taking them as serious approaches towards literary interpretation leads to some fascinating insights into the more horrific elements of petrofiction, as we investigate Thacker’s particular strain of thought and its relevance to discussions within the energy humanities. In The Dust of This Planet opens with the author’s ecological concerns, and charts the pathway along which they will be encountered:

The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. […] The aim of this book is to explore the relationship between philosophy and horror, through this motif of the “unthinkable world.” (Thacker 2011: 1)

For Thacker, for thought to be able to approach “unthinkable” territory, it must overcome the assumptive, pre-given modes of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, and to do this, new terminology must be implemented. The world-for-us (also called the World) is that anthropocentric conception to be broken out of; the world-in-itself (the Earth) is the paradoxical anthropocentric attempt to think of the world without the human, or the world as it “ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us.” (ibid.: 4-6) The world-without-us (the Planet), on the other hand, can be imagined by the human: as a mediatory state between the human and the non-human, this is the Planet as represented in post-apocalyptic fiction and that which forms the basis for the ecocritical incentive (to “save the planet” is to preserve the human as much as the terrestrial body) (ibid.). The Planet is described by Thacker as “a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific.” (ibid.) And once again, this horror finds its ultimate expression in the form of ooze, or oil.

It would seem necessary, if we are to take seriously the crisis of energy and its impact on humanity, we would need to think in terms of the Planet, and not just the World as we see it. To attempt to perceive even partial or temporary solutions to the problem of our current levels of energy consumption is to think one step ahead of an oncoming threat we can barely even identify; in effect, to think beyond that which is already beyond us. It also requires a degree of ethical engagement: to act not on our own behalf as such, but for the Planet, and the future generations which are to inhabit it.

A large proportion of Timothy Morton’s work has been to designate global warming, the earth, and combined human environmental impact as “hyperobjects” (Morton 2013). From a human perspective, hyperobjects are massive in both temporal and spatial terms, making their causation difficult to identify. Among their many properties, they are “viscous”, meaning that they “stick” to us. They are pervasive, persistent, and difficult to think outside of (we are always inside hyperobjects) (ibid.: 2, 27-37). They are also “nonlocal”: in a sense, they are themselves not the physical objects they are manifested as, but somehow operate on another plane of spacetime, spanning vast epochs on huge timescales (ibid.: 2, 38-54).

Within this terminology, oil too is hyperobjective. It is incalculably vast (no-one can say for sure exactly how much is left), has formed over millions of years, and its usage will leave an impact for a time period far beyond the humanly imaginable. This is suggested by Thacker, when he writes that “any attempt to point to or isolate oil is futile, precisely because it is fully continuous, not only with the Earth, but also with modern industrial society” (Thacker 2011: 93). Furthermore, oil holds a totalitarian grip over our imagination: to adapt a famous quote attributed to Fredric Jameson, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of oil consumption. Yet despite this, observes Caroline Edwards, it is simultaneously “absent” from cultural discourse (Edwards 2015), usually providing merely an unconscious input (to return to Yaeger’s term).

But in addition to these invincible attributes, oil is “horrifying”: in Morton’s vernacular, this word applies to an immediate timescale (affecting within five hundred years), as opposed to “terrifying” (thirty thousand years), and “petrifying” (one hundred thousand years) (Morton: 58-60). As a hyperobject, oil is all three of these, but it is chiefly the first which concerns us. As Graeme Macdonald observes, projections of this horror may be fictional, but at the same time, “all too horrifically unreal.” (Macdonald 2014: 133) As something actually observable to humans, horror both shocks and humiliates us, reveals our flaws and limitations, and entices a feeling of helplessness. Yet it is not immediately apparent that, in Thacker’s sense, the horrifying expresses the limits of the knowable. The terrifying and the petrifying certainly do: those timescales are unimaginable. But I would argue that the “horrifying” timescale cannot be so easily separated from the effects of terror and petrification; rather, that it is the very overwhelming immediacy of the energy crisis that freezes us in our tracks and compels us to silence, as much as it is the unimaginable consequences beyond our lifetimes. In this way, objects of horror can be symbols for what lies beyond their visceral immediacy.


[1] Ghosh began his “Petrofiction” essay by alluding to the history of oil as “a matter of embarrassment verging on the unspeakable, the pornographic”, and “a story that evokes horror, sympathy, guilt, rage, and a great deal else” (29-30).

[2] Hereafter COS.

[3] Hereafter Ph.

[4] The beginnings of the U.S. oil industry are fictionalized in the quintessential work of petrofiction: Oil! by Upton Sinclair. It is interesting to note that both Oil! and COS share a journal publication date (1927), suggesting that the oil consciousness typically thought of as having originated fully after the Peak Oil crisis of 1973 may have had a much earlier episode worthy of further investigation.

[5] Buell, F. (2012). In his usage of these terms, Buell draws heavily on Catton (1980).

[6] See also Bratton: 48-52; Smil: 67-68.


Bratton, B.H. (2012) “Root the Earth: On Peak Oil Apophenia”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: 45-57.

Buell, F. (2012) “A Short History of Oil Cultures: Or, the Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance”, Journal of American Studies, Volume 46, Special Issue 02, May 2012, 273-293.

Catton, W.R., Jr., (1980) Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, Urbana/Chicago, University of Illinois Press.

Edwards, C. (2015) “Peak Oil in the Popular Imagination”, Alluvium Vol 4., No. 4, available online at

Ghosh, A. (March 1992) “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel”, The New Republic, 29-34.

Houellebceq, M. (2008) H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life [H.P. Lovecraft, Contre le monde, contre la vie], trans. Khazeni, D., London, Gollancz/Orion.

Koontz, D. (1990) Phantoms, London, Headline Book Publishing.

Lovecraft, H.P. (2014) The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, ed. Klinger, L.S., New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Macdonald, G. (2014) “Improbability Drives: The Energy of Sf”, Paradoxa, No. 26, 111-144.

Mackay, R. (2008) “Editorial Introduction”, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic, 3-28.

— (2012) “A Brief History of Geotrauma”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 1-37.

Morton, T, (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Minneapolis/London, University of Minnesota Press.

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re:press.

— (2010) “Outlines for a Science Fiction of the Earth as Narrated from a Nethermost Point of View”, in World Literature Today 84, 12-13, available online at

Sciscione, A. (2012) “Symptomatic Horror: Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space””, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 131-146.

Smil, V. (2008) Oil: A Beginner’s Guide, Oxford, Oneworld.

Szeman, I. (2012) “Introduction to Focus: Petrofictions”, American Book Review, Special Issue: “Petrofictions”, March-April 2012, Volume 33, 3.

Thacker, E. (2011) In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, vol. 1, Winchester/Washington, Zero Books.

— (2012) “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 173-180.

Yaeger, P. (ed.) (2011) “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources”, PMLA Special Issue 126, 2, 305-326.

Featured image credits: ü (2008) “05_MILLION_LITERS”.