Re-encountering the Weird: The Outer Dark & the continuing relevance of Weird Fiction

By now those interested in the literary form in question will have at least heard about the landmark episode of The Outer Dark podcast that came out not too long ago, where host and writer Scott Nicolay gathers together some highly significant players in the realm of weird fiction for a bumper-size — that is, two hour — discussion about what the ‘weird’ is and where it’s headed.

tod_008_state-of-the-weird-2017

For me, the conversation nudged a series of ideas and associations that I’ve allowed to become dormant for quite some time. Fact is — discovering weird fiction was an important landmark for me in many ways, but I’ve felt it wane from hungry obsession to doggedly pursued intellectual interest and now down to a fading interest of late, but the podcast in particular yielded some answers as to why that may have been the case.

Weird Fiction was the spur that led me to set up Schlock Magazine: a collective group exercise in creative writing for like-minded scribblers here in Malta that then blossomed into something of a bona-fide (though always ‘4dLuv’) online publication, and whose reins I’ve now handed over to my dear sister.

Around the same time, however, I also wrote my Master’s dissertation on ‘the New Weird’; by then already at least somewhat boxed away and shorn of any real new-ness, enabling me to study it as a bracing exercise in literary experimentation, if not an enduring literary tradition or even sub-genre in its own right.

Slippery and just about impossible to define — the brilliant and imposing tome that is Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘The Weird’ anthology attests to that with girth and panache — the Weird is also, necessarily, alienating.

the-weird

And for the longest time, its deliberate alienation also signaled for me an invitation to fully embrace the uncanny and disturbing sides of our perception. It made the Weird a thing of endless, edgy possibility. Where other genres would skate towards tradition — or its degraded cousin, convention — the Weird would flourish in its unique fungus-growth of strangeness. And where the field of mainstream literature — so my reasoning went — would often spin compelling narratives in fine language, they would still not descend so deep into the rabbit hole of strangeness that the very best exemplars of the weird reveled in.

Of course, sweeping assumptions like these are largely borne out of laziness, which is why they don’t yield any critical rewards in the long run. But apart from the inaccuracy of such statements, the supposed undercurrent of the Weird — its commitment to evoke a sense of alienation in the reader without offering up any narrative explanation or even, really, any sense of catharsis — ceased to be engaging for me after a while.

Thing is, we’ve all been left bummed out, nervous and scrambling for answers these past couple of years and months. It’s safe to say that the world’s an uncertain place wherever you are right now, and even though an argument could be made for that always having been the case (again, depending where you are), we can all agree that we’ve reached something resembling Consensus Panic at this point, for reasons that I barely need to specify.

Coupled with my own natural tendency towards anxiety — which I tend to treat with a healthy and regular dose of Marcus Aurelius and journaling — it felt as though the Weird was becoming an indulgence too far. To wit: why would I want to actively pursue fiction whose primary and perhaps only priority is to jolt you out of any remaining peace of mind you may still be in possession of?

Partly because I wanted to give my own writing a keener sense of structure — in response to some very valid criticism I received for my debut novel, and because I’ve made it a point to try and craft MIBDUL to a more or less ‘classic’ framework — I’ve caught myself edging away from the Weird as I try to learn the rules first before breaking them, as it were.

But listening to the Outer Dark podcast reminded me not just of the variety that’s intrinsic to the weird — Han Kang’s blistering award-winner The Vegetarian was discussed as a truly Weird candidate, for one thing — but also that its main aim is not to disorient, but to cohere.

hankangveg

Responding to some of Nicolay’s prompts, Ann VanderMeer in particular seized upon a characterisation of the Weird that I’ve often neglected, but that I now feel should have been a point of focus all along. Namely, that the Weird stems from a primordial desire to confront the Unknown.

And it’s not just limited to the verbiage and racism of someone like HP Lovecraft, or the less politically problematic but no less arch work of someone like Algernon Blackwood. It is found in Kafka, it is found in Calvino and it is found in any number of international literary traditions who don’t shy away from letting the true strangeness at the core of human life run amok.

The Weird is many things, yes. And one of these things happens to be the ability to look at the unknown in the face and to acknowledge it as such. Not to deny it, or to repurpose it within a more rationalised framework. But to let it sit just as it is, and bleed its beautiful spool into the work.

There might be a sense of fear or at least trepidation in leaping into that kind of aesthetic program. But as this great edition of the Outer Dark reminds us, it’s one filled with as much strange fruit as it is with disquieting vistas into the black hole of the indifferent universe.

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We Need to Talk About Genre | Individuality vs Community

Argument: We divide fiction up in genres because of our chronic fear of loneliness.

I’m invested in this question, which is evidenced by my foolhardy effort to write a parallel-narrative novella incorporating both the fairy tale idiom and the very ‘real’ world, as well as my attempt at getting at what that multi-faceted mongrel genre ‘the New Weird’ is all about for a Master’s dissertation.

But first, some (recent) observations on the matter from more articulate and well-versed people than myself.

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  1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at this year’s National Book Awards

“I rejoice at accepting [the award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”

 

  1.  ‘A Better Way to Think About Genre’ by Joshua Rothman (New Yorker)
Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye

“It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed. As it happens, there is such a system: it was invented by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, and laid out in his 1957 masterwork, Anatomy of Criticism.”

  1.  The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally. by Nick Mamatas (Los Angeles Review of Books)
A young HP Lovecraft

A young HP Lovecraft

“Lovecraft’s quality is obscured by his difficulty, and his difficulty is obscured by his popularity. If Lovecraft isn’t seen as a difficult writer, it is because of the pulp idiom in which he worked. [Jonathan] Franzen points to college as the place where people are made to read difficult books, but Lovecraft is an adolescent fascination. Lovecraft demands the careful attention that only a teen boy with little else to do – no high school romances, no sports practice – can muster. Lovecraft’s pulp provenance, and early spike by Edmund Wilson, kept Lovecraft’s work from being taken seriously. Only over the past twenty years, with reprint volumes via Penguin Classics and Library of America, with champions such as Michel Houellebecq and Reza Negarestani has Lovecraft earned a place in what we used to call the canon (while making quotation marks in the air with our fingers, notch).”

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These are all problems that have been burning at my brain in some form of another for as long as I can remember (slight exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way). Because I take this very seriously for whatever reason – friends and family who know me intimately can feel free to psychoanalyze away – I’m driven to find an evolutionary root to our need to divide up literature into genres, and then argue about it endlessly.

Cards on the table: if I’m a follower of any critical school on this front at all, I’m a follower of Frye’s. His organic view of genre both suits my needs as a writer and provides me with an inclusive argument about genre that, ostensibly, short-circuits going-nowhere binary arguments on the issue. Also, there’s a pervasive paradox in the way I process this whole thing: I hate the idea of genre as segregation, but I don’t want us to do away with recognizing genres, because there’s an aesthetic pleasure in picking out what belongs to which tradition.

That Edgar Allan Poe influenced Lovecraft who in turn influenced Ridley Scott and Stuart Gordon and Caitlin R. Kiernan and Nick Mamatas and Cradle of Filth and countless others, and that the details stolen from Lovecraft by each of these artists are traceable to Lovecraft but still distinct, and that this intertextual richness evokes a kind of hopeful reminder of the prodigious human imagination, as it stretches across generations.

But on a more universal note, I will suggest that genre stems from a combined need for both INDIVIDUALITY and COMMUNITY. In this pantomime debate between the ‘literary mainstream’ and the ‘genre community’, the literary side is ‘clubby’ in the original sense of the word: the domain of an elite that gatekeeps itself into a privileged minority, with all the attendant ‘real world’ social implications of that.

While the ‘genre’ community, on the other hand, is seen as a regressive ‘cult’ circle that turns its back on the ‘real world’ in favour of a vacuum-sealed aesthetic that often favours the tried and tested over any attempts at current social commentary or formal innovation (perhaps the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is an iconic example).

But this perception – the pantomime is very much a perception – is made doubly complicated by the fact that we’re discussing works of art here. Leaving aside value judgements of the individual works of art in question, the reason why the genre debate will never settle into a peaceful resolution is because we’re asking the works of individuals to answer to the needs of a community, however large and nebulous this community may be.

There will always be mavericks, trailblazers, and ‘exceptions to the rule’. But even declaring that the mavericks are all that you like places you in a double bind: each maverick will have their influences, and in each influence – much like Lovecraft’s fish-god mongrels from Innsmouth – lies a genetic code that can’t be denied, and which ties back to a tradition.

Traditions are what genre is built on, and tradition will be something not even the most opaque of ‘literary’ fiction would be able to deny… strain as it might for originality and freedom from market constraints and critical labels.

We all want to be ourselves, but none of us want to be lonely.

READ RELATED: Getting it Ass-Backwards: The Genre Binary at LonCon

Bits of October | The Favourite Season

Eye of the storm: M'Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

Eye of the storm: M’Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

The heat has finally decided to recede but the weather is still nice – October is equivalent to spring in Malta but it comes with Halloween attached, therefore it wins.

Traditionally associated with decay, the season has actually borne some fruit for me already, so it’s just a matter of maintaining a productive momentum now.

Some moments to boast about, because that’s how the web-generation rolls.

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Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

The New Weird anthology of short fiction and essays (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer) may not be the absolute best and/or influential book I’ve ever read, but it’s had a strong enough impact on my post-adolescence creative life to warrant at least its own custom dust jacket.

The anthology introduced me to M. John Harrison – ‘The Luck in the Head’ is proof that genre-inflected surrealism could really be a thing, with atmosphere to boot – and it made me sit up and pay attention to Clive Barker, as ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ showed me that far from being superficial trafficker in splatter, Barker is interested in tapping into the primoridal (at a stretch, ‘pagan’) strain of horror fiction. It has even led to friendship, as Alistair Rennie’s blistering, shocking and hilarious ‘The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines’ (the only original story in the anthology) made me seek out the author online, and a couple of years later I found myself sitting on the sofa of his plush Edinburgh pad showing him a video recording of a round-robin reading my friends and I performed of the story (in funny voices).

Its carnivalesque meld of genre elements and literary fiction made me feel like kindred spirits were around: that I could consolidate my since-childhood love of genre fiction with a newfound love of carefully constructed language and intertextual lit games. This spark was an extra kick in the butt to kick-start one of my enduring (collaborative) passion projects, Schlock Magazine, and the addendum essays gave a necessary backbone to my MA dissertation on the New Weird.

I knew my friend Sarah Micallef – aka The Secret Rose – would be able to meet this challenge, and then some.

Click here to get the full lowdown on how she put this baby together.

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Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Speaking of Schlock, this month we’re resurrecting from our summer-slumber (blame the aforementioned heat) just in time for – again – Halloween, and I’m quite happy with what’s in store.

Already up is our interview with prolific writer and editor of The Spectral Book of Horror Stories Mark Morris, along with a profile of Spectral publisher Simon Marshall-Jones.

I like the unsentimental approach Morris has towards fiction writing; an inevitable survival tool, perhaps, considering he’s written tie-in material for properties like Doctor Who, Spartacus and the Dead Island video game.

Here’s my favourite extended quote from the interview:

“I accepted the ‘Dead Island’ commission – an 80,000 word novel in four weeks, based on nothing more substantial than 15 pages of gaming notes. I panicked and sweated over that one for an hour or two after accepting it, and then knuckled down and within half a day produced a novel plan and writing schedule, which I stuck to rigidly. That then gave me the confidence to write a Spartacus novel, which again was an 80,000 words in four weeks job. I’d never seen the TV series and knew nothing about the ancient Roman Empire, but I said yes and just got on with it.”

In the weeks ahead we’ll also be featuring analyses on Penny Dreadful, along with an excellent essay on the ‘splatpunk’ horror sub-genre that delightfully skates a fine line between academic rigour and fannish enthusiasm.

Click here to read our full interview with Mark Morris.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

It has also been a good season for reading so far. I’ve finished Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-nominated We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves last night; having zipped through it in little over a week (a busy work week, I hasten to add). Though I think it’s ultimately not as hard-hitting and profound as it could have been (strong ideas are suggested but never allowed to fully take root), it remains an endearing and touching read. Fowler is clearly an effortless storyteller; there’s a fine balance of heart and mind all throughout, and the back-and-forth narrative is effervescent and rich.

On an entirely different tangent, Jeff VanderMeer’s conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy was both obliquely satisfying and inspiring. To some readers’ frustration, Acceptance deliberately refuses to wrap up every single mystery at the heart of Area X. But I found its oblique approach to be its most powerful quality.

Acceptance

In fact, ‘oblique’ is what is best about both the VanderMeer and the Fowler book. Among other things, memory is Fowler’s theme, and the fragmented hopping back and forth of her narrator Rosemary is what lends the book both its charming conversational rhythm and uncanny poignancy.

VanderMeer, on the other hand, enhances his genre-collage by coming at everything sideways and leaving plenty of leftover gaps for the reader. Gaps which, thanks to his left-field manipulation of genre details, create a creepy – in the literal sense of ‘creeping’ – effect over the proceedings.

I will be talking about the Southern Reach Trilogy with my good friend Marco Attard, for an upcoming edition of his Pop Culture Destruction ‘Destructcast’.

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The Southern Reach Trilogy is also about our mistreatment of the natural world and its enduring power despite all of this, so I was glad to experience some of nature’s wrath first-hand during a picnic-cum-hike at one of Malta’s few remaining spots of unblemished ‘nature’.

Far from being a damper on our outing, a sudden storm lent a welcome atmosphere to our adventure. We found shelter and watched the rain and lightning, and the mud-caked trip back ensured we experienced something of an adventure too.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to usher autumn in (see image above).