On Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘This World is Full of Monsters’: Queer Ecology as a Pathway to Queer Embodiment

This piece originally appeared on NiCHE, the Network in Canadian History & Environment.

Fiona Doloughan writes that storytelling is “part and parcel of our way of apprehending and articulating our experience of (aspects of) reality,” such that it is “fundamental to human experience”: we “‘story’ aspects of our existence and pass on knowledge and insights from one generation to the next.”[1] That’s why for Donna Haraway, it “matters what stories tell stories;” for Robin Wall Kimmerer, the stories we choose to “shape our behaviours have adaptive consequences;” for Sophie Chao, stories are a “potent medium for reimagining climate relationally and beyond the human.”[2] In this post, I want to explore how American writer Jeff VanderMeer utilises this potent medium in his short story “This World Is Full of Monsters” (2017). Through the lens of queer ecology, I want to see how he envisions queer inhabitation of the Earth, queer embodiment, and queer coexistence with the nonhuman in ways that challenge binary ideologies and hierarchies.

 A queer theory of ecology registers and celebrates a multiplication of differences on many scales, and life as monstrous, dislocated, or wild and disorderly, as Jack Halberstam would describe it. Halberstam says that the queer, the wild, and, I would add, the weird, are not synonymous, “nor does one extend the other,” but each informs and is informed by one another. Inhabiting the dark, the wayward, the unfathomable, they promote “productive confusion, taxonomic limits, and boundary collapse.” Queerness, wildness, and weirdness are “the absence of order, the entropic force of chaos” that “spins narratives of vegetal growth, viral multiplication, dynamic systems of nonhuman exchange.”[3] Thus, they are sites for the emergence of different forms of knowledge through non-knowledge.

All that the story-creature represents—the wild, the queer, the weird as incomprehensible, lawless, perturbing—is fundamental to existence and survival. 

“This World Is Full of Monsters” engages in queer ecology as it tells tales of a story-creature entering a man’s life and bringing about radical transformations of both planet Earth and the man himself. The first few lines tell us that the story-creature comes from nowhere, is “covered in green fur or lichen,” and has “large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth.”[4] Already, its unexpected arrival and vague description allude to its mysterious origin, its liminal existence outside the normal, the predictable.

We learn later that the story-creature brings these unruly elements into and through the man’s body not to make itself intelligible—far from it—to offer a path to wild and weird embodiment. As the man falls asleep, the story-creature “gnawed its way into [his] belly,” “crawled up through [his] body into [his] head,” “made [him] stumble out the door of [his] house […] giddy and disoriented,” and “sprouted out of the top of [his] skull in a riot of wildflowers, goldenrod, and coarse weeds”: “The explosion smashed through [him]. [He] screamed out.”[5] There’s something quite queer about this infiltration—the way lifeforms, human and other, interpenetrate each other, become liquid, a meshwork of series of interrelations that are transgressive, disturbing, open-ended, non-essentialist. The story-creature proliferates and reproduces with the man in ways that are expansive, unanticipated, and out of his control, countering linear, progressive heterosexual reproduction and heteropatriarchal authority over other modes of being. This entity resides in the realm of the wild, the queer, and the weird, and renders the man wild, queer, and weird through sensually intimate cohabitation with and through him: a queer human-plant embodiment.

Sketch of an owl’s head surrounded by strange plants and human-plant heads; butterflies comprise the left wing and tadpoles, plant-peacocks, skulls, worms, and bacteria comprise the right wing.
Sketch drawn by author.
[Image description: Sketch of an owl’s head surrounded by strange plants and human-plant heads; butterflies comprise the left wing and tadpoles, plant-peacocks, skulls, worms, and bacteria comprise the right wing.]

As it grows roots “through [his] brain and through [his] soft palate and through [his] lower jaw” and takes him to a transformed Earth teeming with things indecipherable, the story’s waywardness shows itself to be a force of chaos that inhabits the realm of the unknown.[6] To borrow from Halberstam, it has “its own regulatory regimes, its own concept of order, and its own hierarchies and modes of domination,” and I would add, its own stories to tell that call into question human epistemologies.[7] On many occasions, the man sees things that fly but that “should not have been able to fly” and “other story-creatures” that hold shapes his eyes “did not want to recognise;” “some held no real shape at all,” and they “had spread more than one story.”[8]

The story-creature and its companions are irreducible to any system of knowing; in permeating the man’s body, they unmake his world, exposing him to a vastly complex and strange one to which he has no access: “I would never understand. How could I? I had not understood the story to begin with.”[9] The story-creature appears at the edge of knowledge. Its resistance to all known laws pushes his imagination to the limit, challenges the hierarchies that put humans over and above everything else, and offers space for new, non-binary, non-hierarchical ways of knowing and worlds to emerge. What’s happening here is not only fictional; storytelling documents “our experience of (aspects of) reality.” There is a plenitude of lifeforms on Earth that live between the cracks and the shadows, that invade the human world but evade the human grasp, always at the ready to bewilder us.

Cluster of small white mushrooms
Fairy inkcaps; photo by author.
[Image description: Close-up picture of fairy inkcaps entangled in moss, leaf litter and sticks.]

All that the story-creature is and represents—the wild, the queer, the weird as incomprehensible, lawless, perturbing—is, therefore, fundamental to existence and survival. There’s no escaping it. Halberstam ends his book Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire (2020) with a compelling statement:

Wildness […] is a force we live with and a way of being that we are organising out of existence. If the wild has anything to tell us, it is this: unbuild the world you inhabit, unmake its relentless commitment to the same, ignore the calls for more, and agree to be with the wild, accept the wild, give yourself to the wild, and float or drown in its embrace.[10]

The man in “This World Is Full of Monsters” wants to end himself due to the pain of his transformations but cannot, so eventually he learns to embrace the story-creature. He learns to find pleasure in it. Going on many strange journeys with the story-creature to witness the wonders of an Earth storied by it and to arrive “in the succour of the sea, surrounded by such seething life,” the man at the end no longer feels pain but “new connections [that] roared into [his] head in such a joyous profusion.” Together with weird story-creatures who are now his companions, he says: “We were ecstatic.”[11] The story-creature unbuilds the world the man inhabits, and he comes to accept the story-creature, give himself to it, and both float and drown in its queer embrace.

“This World Is Full of Monsters” offers a weird, other-than-human mode of storytelling—a fluid, disorderly way of seeing and experiencing the world that “no one of [the man’s] species had ever seen and [experienced].”[12] The Earth never fails to bewilder and unsettle us, and we need stories that tell stories about this inherently messy intertwinement.

[1] Fiona J. Doloughan, Contemporary Narrative: Textual Production, Multimodality and Multiliteracies (London: Continuum, 2011), 11.

[2] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 35; Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 43; Sophie Chao, “Decolonising the Field(s): Insights from the Pacific in an Age of Planetary Unravelling,” YouTube (April 5, 2022), 22:08.

[3] Jack Halberstam, Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2020), 7, 30.

[4] Jeff VanderMeer, “This World Is Full of Monsters,” Tor (November 8, 2017), par. 1.

51] Ibid., par. 3, 5, 6.  

[6] Ibid., par. 13.

[7] Halberstam, 131.

[8] VanderMeer, par. 25, 22.

[9] Ibid., par. 38.

[10] Halberstam, 180.

[11] VanderMeer, par. 121, 133.

[12] VanderMeer, par. 127.

*Cover image: Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: A piece of lichen surrounded by leaf litter in various shades of brown and some pieces of green moss.]

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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