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[MIND MELD] Embracing the Weird: Why We Love Weird Fiction

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I love weird fiction, because it’s just so, well, weird! Because I was having so much trouble putting into words what exactly weird fiction is, and why I enjoy it so much, I decided to ask our panelists instead.

Q: What makes weird fiction so weird, and why do we love it?

Ann VanderMeer
Ann VanderMeer currently serves as an acquiring fiction editor for Tor.com, Cheeky Frawg Books, and weirdfictionreview.com. She was the editor-in-chief for Weird Tales for five years, during which time she was nominated three times for the Hugo Award, winning one. Along with multiple nominations for the Shirley Jackson Award, she also has won a World Fantasy Award and a British Fantasy Award for co-editing The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Other projects have included Best American Fantasy, three Steampunk anthologies, and a humor book, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals. Her latest anthologies include The Time Traveler’s AlmanacSisters of the Revolution, an anthology of feminist speculative fiction and The Bestiary, an anthology of original fiction and art. Upcoming in 2016 is The Big Book of Science Fiction.

Weird fiction is the kind of fiction that has this quality of something ‘other’.  There is something happening with the characters and we’re trying to figure out what’s going on along with them.   And not in a traditional sense. It becomes weird when there is a supernatural element attached to the mystery, the question.  The main character (or characters) is facing something strange, something out of the ordinary and we’re compelled to continue reading to find out the answer.  Some may see this as a spiritual quest, of a kind.  We’re seeking answers to metaphysical questions, pondering the mysteries of the universe. And this is the reason we’re drawn to it.

Weird fiction doesn’t always have to be dark, but it often is, because the unknown, just by virtue of being unknown, scares us.  And we like being scared because it reminds us that we’re alive. People are curious.  We want to know why and how and who. Especially who.  And the who question can even be an inward journey.  And even if we don’t get the answer, or the complete answer, as long as we come away with some of those questions answered by the end, we’re satisfied.  Or at least we’re willing to come back for more. The desire to know the unknown, to seek answers and perhaps gain even a bit of control over the world around us continues to make weird fiction so attractive.

Mike Underwood
Mike has traveled the world, knows why Tybalt cancels out Capo Ferro, and rolls a mean d20. He is the author the several series: the comedic fantasy Ree Reyes series (starting with Geekomancy), a series of novellas with Tor.com called Genrenauts, and more. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiancée and their ever-growing library. He is a co-host on the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show. You can find him at www.michaelrunderwood.com and on Twitter @MikeRUnderwood

What I love about Weird Fiction, especially the New Weird, is that it mashes together many of the genres under the speculative fiction umbrella and then hits Frappe. Pulp, Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror are all constituent elements of the Weird for me, and since I grew up on all of them together, I love that Weird Fiction puts them back together in delightfully bizarre ways.

The biggest emergent element in the Weird, for me, is a fascination with the transformative – with liminality and change, with the hybrid, the chimera – since it’s a genre of chimeras itself. From China Mieville’s ReMade to Kameron Hurley’s unforgettable magician Taigan, shifting between biological sexes through unknowable magic, the Weird unsettles and re-contextualizes for great narrative and political impact, while delivering eyeball kicks, gross-out moments, and unforgettable imagery along the way.

And so, until the Cyborg Gorilla Moon swallows the Uncaring Sun, make mine Weird.

Rjurik Davidson
Rjurik Davidson is the author of the New Weird novel Unwrapped Sky and the collection The Library of Forgotten Books. His new novel, The Stars Askew, will be out in 2016. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson

I was into weird fiction before I knew there was such a thing. Borges, Kafka, Lovecraft —the thing that drew me to them was the way they wrote about things we couldn’t quite conceive: the man who stares at a point and sees the entire universe, angles that don’t add up, and so on. Trying to understand things that are out of our grasp: we experience this as kids all the time. “Why does ‘such and such’ happen, mum?” Often we can’t quite get it. Not yet, anyway. We might have a sense of some underlying pattern, but it’s beyond our little brains. We’re like fish trying to understand language, or a blind mole-rat trying to understand sight (as one of the my characters says in a novel I recently finished). Modern science is like this too. The sheer scale of the universe, the weirdness of quantum physics and string theory. Some avant-garde painting is also a way of trying to capture the unrepresentable too. I love all of these.

For the writer, the weird asks a lot of questions about language. To write about the unwritable or unrepresentable strains language to its breaking point. We often end up coming at it with metaphor and simile, obliquely rather than front-on.

We love the weird — representing the unrepresentable — because it disturbs us. Disturbance is an essential experience, but not because we want some kind of cathartic return to the normal. The weird isn’t in this sense conservative (the way a lot of horror is). Rather, disturbance unhinged our conceptions of the world. It’s disrupts “truths” and “certainties” and “common sense”. It makes us see things in a new way. It asks us to question what our previous beliefs. There’s a radical thrill to that. It’s terrifying and exciting. It’s a literary equivalent of being a child, straining for that new idea. And that’s why we love the weird.

Lucy A. Snyder
Lucy A. Snyder is the author of the Jessie Shimmer urban fantasy series from Del Rey and many weird short stories, thirteen of which are in her forthcoming collection While The Black Stars Burn. She recently won Bram Stoker Awards for her fiction collection Soft Apocalypses and her nonfiction book Shooting Yourself in the Head For Fun and Profit: A Writer’s Survival Guide. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at her website: www.lucysnyder.com.

blackstars4000I love the cross-genre literature that some people label New Weird and others label as something else, depending on what flavor it is. That’s the thing about really excellent stories and novels: they’re never just one thing, are they? New Weird mixes science fiction, fantasy, and horror up in a brain explosion of hybrid vigor.

What do I love about New Weird stories? They’re never the same old thing I read last week. They’re transgressive. They’re political. They’re prickly, edgy, cerebral, difficult. Most of all, though, I love the rich, detailed, fabulous, unabashedly weird world-building that some of the best New Weird stories have to offer. The New Weird takes you places you’ve never been before. They transport you. I want a book that’ll be like an overnight road trip to some strange new amazing border city with all my odd Goth friends: the car’s crammed full of conversations and arguments as the tires beneath you devour the midnight road, and that rattling noise coming from the trunk is unsettling, and that rest stop is utterly creepy, but you get to the city and there’s amazing music and architecture and food and drinks and wait, what kind of mushrooms did you say were in that, again?

New Weird stories work precisely because of that loving, painstaking world-building. An author has to sell outlandish characters and story elements to his or her readers, and the single best way to do that is to ground a story in vivid, believable details. Do it right, and you’ve got a piece that’s immersive, compelling, and unforgettable.

As a writer I’ve spent a fair bit of time brewing up my own variants of old-school weird stories in the vein of HP Lovecraft and Robert Chambers. Readers just don’t get tired of tentacled monstrosities, madness, esoteric cults, and cosmic doom. And why should they? All that’s a heck of a lot of fun. Or it can be, provided writers are willing to come up with new, smart takes on things. At editors’ requests I’ve written six Lovecraftian stories and three King in Yellow stories in the past 18 months, and apart from the two stories about girl detective Penny Farrell that I’m turning into a YA horror novel, they’re all completely different. There aren’t any bad tropes in weird fiction; there are just tired, unimaginative treatments of them.

John Klima
John Klima previously worked at Asimov’s, Analog, and Tor Books before returning to school to earn his Master’s in Library and Information Science. He now works full time as the assistant director of a large public library. John edited and published the Hugo Award-winning genre zine Electric Velocipede from 2001 to 2013. The magazine was also a four-time nominee for the World Fantasy Award and recipient of the Tiptree Honor List for one of its stories. In 2007 Klima edited an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories based on spelling-bee winning words called Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories. In 2011, Klima edited a reprint anthology of fairytale retellings titled Happily Ever After. He co-edited Glitter & Mayhem with Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas–a 2013 Kickstarter-funded anthology of speculative nightclub stories. When he is not conquering the world of indexing, John writes short stories and novels. He and his family live in the Midwest.

For me, weird fiction and the New Weird is about subversion. About taking what people expect and turning it on its ear. When Gregor Samsa wakes up as a giant insect he tries to continue his life as it was before. You don’t expect the protagonist to wake up as a giant insect (at least you didn’t before Kafka). That would seem to limit the possibilities for character development and story arcs. But that isn’t the point; we’re not reading the story to see how this giant insect can carry an ancient relic back to the place it was made in order to save the world. No, we’re reading it to see what happens next. Sure, you might rub a few brain cells together trying to figure out why Gregor Samsa became a giant insect but that also doesn’t matter. It happened because Kafka wrote it that way. Because you don’t expect the premise you can’t predict where the story is going. That’s the thrill of weird fiction: it’s unexpected. Nothing’s worse than figuring out the path of a novel within its opening chapter. That makes it hard to keep turning the pages. Weird fiction keeps you guessing.

I know that when I read work from Jeff VanderMeer or Karen Russell or China Mieville or Kelly Link or Laird Barron or KJ Bishop or Jeffrey Ford or Ray Vukevich or so many more that it will be unique and full of things I don’t expect. One of the greatest things about reading with my kids is that they’re new readers and therefore their expectations are low; i.e., they don’t understand all the tropes that are used in a lot of fiction. For them the hero can genuinely be in peril while I know that the author wouldn’t dare hurt the hero so the story is flat for me; there is no rising tension. But my kids are so caught up in the world of the writer that the experience of reading is almost a physical thing. My daughter will literally shout at the villian in a book or cheer the hero. I loved that about reading when I was young. Weird fiction makes me feel like a new reader again. Is the protagonist in danger? Yes. Is the protagonist safe? I don’t know. The protagonist(s) in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy always seemed to be one step from desctruction. It made reading the novels stressful (in a good way) because I was never sure what would happen next.

Someone once called Electric Velocipede – the magazine I edited and published from 2001-2013 – a weird fiction magazine. I immediately started to defend the publiction and explain how it wasn’t a home for the weird. Then I thought about how it’s featured stories about: a sugar clown who makes living edible circuses for children’s birthday parties, a wheelchair-bound man who dies and then moves to New Orleans to fill a house with stairways, a subgenre of music that features dogs playing punk, the way he does it without revealing what ‘it’ is, a dissertation defense that is done as a combination of presentation and combat, and even in the earliest issues Ezra Pines’ “Mr. Brai”n stories that defy description (story titles include: “Mr. Brain and the Carpet of Snow,” “Mr. Brain and the Island of Lost Socks,” and “Mr. Brain and the Mystery of the Passionate Tree”). The magazine became more weird as time went on because it was the stories that did something unexpected that I liked best. Our guidelines closed with: Show us something different.

Show me something different and I’ll read it every time.

Orrin Grey
Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters, as well as a writer, editor, and amateur film scholar who was born on the night before Halloween. He’s a regular guest of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, and his stories of ghosts, monsters, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the YearPainted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts is his latest collection of weird stories.

I think what makes weird fiction so weird may simply be that nobody can really agree on an exact definition for it, which kind of lets it be all things to all people. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft—who is seen by many as the godfather of modern weird fiction, even while he was, by his own admission, certainly not its progenitor—defined the “true weird tale” as one that contained “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces.” That’s a pretty decent definition for the weird story as it was popularized in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, where it generally referred to stories that had a supernatural element but were somehow just outside the traditional ghost story or Gothic tale.

In much the same way, modern weird fiction seems to overlap with and partake of other genres like fantasy and horror, but never quite mirrors them completely. It’s more about approach than it is about either intent or content. It’s horror without the need to necessarily be shocking or scary, it’s genre without being required to contain any of the genre’s trappings. In the right hands, mummies and vampires and werewolves can all still be weird, but weird fiction can just as easily deal with something at once a lot more mundane and a lot less familiar. Ramsey Campbell famously said that he writes horror because he hasn’t ever found its boundaries. For many of us, I think that may be true of weird fiction, as well.

As for why we love it? Well, there’s definitely a weird renaissance going on right now, with more and better work being done in the field than has been done probably since Lovecraft’s time, maybe ever. There are great new voices that are breaking out of the realm of Lovecraftian pastiche and writing stuff that will become as timeless and as important anything from the golden age of Weird Tales.

Lovecraft and his creations are enjoying a greater public awareness now than ever before. Cthulhu has made an appearance on South Park and there was an H.P. Lovecraft stand-in character (voiced by Jeffrey Combs, no less) who showed up in a couple of episodes of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. The other day, in Target, I saw a Minecraft toy for something called the “Eye of Cthulhu.” While all this may do a lot to actually drag Lovecraft’s mythos out of the realm of the truly weird, it does provide a lot of publishing opportunities for those of us who’re traveling in the footsteps of the Old Gent and his predecessors, or blazing new paths in the wilderness they first explored.

Another big component, I think, that’s contributing to the vitality of modern weird fiction is the vigor and courage of the small press. Of course, I’m partial to Word Horde, since they’re putting out my latest collection, but there are dozens of great small presses that are operating right now to provide the loamy, fertile soil in which the weird tale can flourish.

Megan E. O’Keefe
Megan E. O’Keefe lives in the Bay Area of California and makes soap for a living. Her debut novel, Steal The Sky, which centers around an airship heist, is due out from Angry Robot Books in Jan. 2016. She is a first place winner in Writers of the Future, and her short fiction has appeared in Shimmer and Podcastle. Visit her website at: www.meganokeefe.com or communicate with her via cat pictures on twitter @MeganofBlushie.

New Weird is a strange little genre that kicks around at the edges of other genres, stealing like mad while snubbing its nose at standard speculative tropes. Which is, of course, precisely why I love it. To me, a very large part of what makes weird fiction so appealing is just how far it falls outside of what’s become expected of fantasy.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t love fantasy – it is, in fact, my favorite sandbox. But what makes New Weird so appealing to a longtime lover of fantasy is that it feels like a rediscovery of the fantastic. In grabbing like wild from other genres, New Weird has the ability to breathe fresh life into older tropes.

Take, for example, the works of China Mieville. Along with Jeff VanderMeer, Mieville is one of the pioneers of the modern New Weird effort, and his novel Perdido Street Station is often cited as one of the genre’s seminal works. It’s a fantastic book, and from Slavic vodyanoi to Egyptian kephri, it features a grab-bag of mythology not often seen in fantasy. He dumps this mythical mélange into a steampunk-esque world fraught with union politics and an interdimensional spider that makes Lloth look sane. If you jump into Perdido Street Station without knowing what to expect, it feels like leaping into an icy river full of pollution – and I mean that with love, Mieville is on record as saying he finds garbage beautiful.

After Perdido, you may think you’ve got a handle on what New Weird is. Myth and grit and Victoriana – check. But then you crack open the other giant of the genre, VanderMeer, and you’re plunged into an entirely different river; and this one might give you a weird fungus. While Mieville utilizes a gothic tone, VanderMeer adopts a more immediate, almost frenetic voice that accelerates the reader through his strange and occasionally horrific worlds. To read VanderMeer is to experience a fever dream.

Crack open Michael R. Underwood’s New Weird inspired novel, Shield and Crocus, and take a turn yet again as you’re plunged into a world thriving off the Tiamat-esque bones of an ancient giant. The setting lends the tale the gothic tone of Mieville, but Underwood twists the genre once more by inhabiting his world with various species of superhero, further proving that New Weird is a genre of experimentation.

It’s this wide variety of elements that makes New Weird so addictive – you never quite know what a New Weird story will hold, or what direction the narrative will take. For someone who grew up addicted to the novelty of the fantastic, New Weird feels like a step back to the early days of discovering elves and dragons for the first time. Only this time, they’re suffused with the aesthetics of horror.

But that’s not to say that New Weird isn’t developing its own tropes. Insects, fungi, and grimness abound in weird fiction, as does a baroque sense of detail. And, in eschewing many of the more romanticized elements of traditional fantasy, you’re usually in for an unsettling conclusion to a New Weird tale. I’d love to see New Weird keep growing into the future, but I believe that for it to survive and thrive, it needs to keep on embracing its weirdness and reinventing, even if that means subverting itself.

Larry Nolen
Larry Nolen is a freelance translator and teacher. He has three current or forthcoming translations that appear in the following anthologies: ODD? (2011); The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Fictions (2011 UK; 2012 US); and The Big Book of SF (2016). He blogs at The OF Blog and Gogol’s Overcoat and contributes essays to Weird Fiction Review.

This is a deceptively challenging question to answer, as there seems to lurk behind this the deeper question of whether or not we can circumscribe something whose very nature appears to defy attempts at definition.  Yet there is something about the Weird that we intuitively grasp even as all efforts to describe it fall short.  In thinking about this question, I recalled writing a piece a couple of years ago for Weird Fiction Review on Bruno Schultz’s “”Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” in which I prefaced my review of that short story with a commentary on Schultz made by a character in a Roberto Bolaño novel, Distant Star.

This is how I translated the relevant passages:

I opened the book, the Complete Works of Bruno Schulz translated by Juan Carlos Vidal, and I tried to read. At the end of a few pages I realized that I was not understanding anything. I was reading but the words were passing by like incomprehensible beetles, busy in an enigmatic world.

***

Same as myself, I discovered with alarm and lit the cigarette and tried to lose myself in the pages of my book. The words of Bruno Schulz acquired for a moment a monstrous dimension, almost unbearable. I felt that the dull eyes of Wieder were scrutinizing me and at the same time, that in the pages that I was turning (perhaps too quickly), the letters that were before beetles had turned into eyes, into the eyes of Bruno Schulz, and they were opening and closing again and again, some eyes clear like the sky, shining like the sea’s spine, which was opening and blinking, again and again, in the middle of total darkness. No, not total, in the middle of a milky darkness, like the interior of a black cloud.

 

For many readers, I suspect their initial encounters with weird fiction resemble that of Bolaño’s narrator; we often bounce off of these imaginative vistas because they are foreign to us, they force us down imagined paths that we were loathe to explore. Yet when considered at length, those “beetles” morph into something else, something that perhaps is beyond our ken or at least our ability to pinpoint just what about it appeals to us. It is this recognition that there is something vital, something that makes us react, sometimes viscerally, to what we have just read (and perhaps recreate in our dreams in odd “remixes”) that appeals to us, makes us want to read more, even if we do not understand fully why we want to do so.

In addition, there is a cultural element to this. It is no accident that weird fiction has emerged out of post-industrial civilizations. We have killed our old gods and have supplanted them with clockwork and precise ordering of even minute details of quotidian life. Yet Order is not enough for us; we yearn for something that exists outside these neat boxes. Even when these outside forces feel threatening to us, we sense a need for such chaotic elements, albeit kept at a safe remove in the fictional realms rather than our “progressive” societies. Weird tales evoke alternate perceptions of the world. They challenge our concepts of the world around us and for that, they spark strong emotions. We may, like obscenity, not be able to define it precisely, but we certainly “know” it when we encounter it.

Christopher Burke
Christopher Burke grew up in Cincinnati and received his M.A. in Literature from the University of Louisville in 2008. He has worked as a bookseller, audio book editor, and tutor. He contributes reviews and essays to Weird Fiction Review. Christopher’s short fiction has appeared on the award-winning NoSleep podcast and in the forthcoming journal Nightscript. More information is available at http://www.christopherburkewords.com

Weird fiction tends to be fundamentally concerned with eliciting an effect of disquiet, displacement, and alienation in the reader, a kind of pleasing displeasure, to use a phrase that might admittedly induce a bit of a groan. In order to accomplish this, it generally must first create a convincing world that bears some resemblance to our own and subsequently introduce some kind of fundamental discontinuity or asymmetry that our minds would instinctively tend to resist. Speculative elements are often employed in order to upset our sense of orientation, though this need not be so (see, for example, Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People”).  I think the fact that Weird fiction tends to prefer to write towards a tone or effect makes it an inherently challenging one for both the reader and the writer. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and the strange elements that come into play in this tradition are a result of that.

It would be overly reductive and simplistic, I think, to attribute the resurgence of interest in Weird fiction (or New Weird, Weird Renaissance, etc) to technology’s ability to expose us to new ideas, but I do think that is a crucial part of the equation. Instant access to information, images, video, and other media from all over the world has given the author two things that I think contribute to the New Weird’s even greater tendency to experiment than its forebears: 1) more source material, ideas, and perspectives from cultures that differ from one’s own, and 2) more competition in the sense that it is easier than ever to be exposed within a few seconds to the horrors of the real world, which the writer must both distill and transcend . But it doesn’t have to be all super-serious; even in the darkest fiction I think there’s always an element of playfulness that has to be involved when working within a genre that, although it has some general soft “rules,” can readily introduce almost anything one can imagine to the plot if the writer can make it convincing. Many people seem also to feel that the world around them often moves faster than they can keep up with, at times producing similar effects of displacement or alienation, and in Weird fiction we find a sensation to which we can relate in addition to the comfort and entertainment it provides.

I think we love Weird fiction because we love to be challenged. We love to be exposed to new ideas, new plots, and new sensations that result from the well-executed tale. It is rather cliché for some critic or another to periodically declare “such and such genre is dead,” but I think it’s clearly the reality that movements and genres simply tend to evolve into something unrecognizable from what it had been in the past, and the New Weird is simply another example of a trend that has recognizable roots with an unpredictable but promising future as it continues to develop and experiment.

Laird Barron
Laird Barron is an author, poet, and editor, writing stories stories with elements of crime and horror. His collection of short stories, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, was published in 2007 by Night Shade Books. His first novel, The Light Is the Darkness, was published in 2011 by Infernal House, followed by The Croning in 2012 from Night Shade Books. His newest collection is The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Learn more about Laird Barron at his website, https://lairdbarron.wordpress.com.

My working definition of The Weird is that it contains one or more of the following: a sense of dislocation from mundane reality; the suspension of the laws of physics; an inversion or subversion of order; a hint of the alien. Weird stories hit a different register than other genres. There’s the experience of frisson, but it’s a different thrill than the variety you receive from a good horror tale. Which is all to say, it’s personal. I perceive the weird as a distinct literary tradition, albeit one intimately related to fantasy and horror, and that relationship is fluid, maybe a little complicated.

I don’t acknowledge the New Weird as a living movement. New Weird is an artifact of an aborted movement from the early Aughts. There is simply The Weird, a genre that has been with us for ages. We love for it for many of the same reasons that we enjoy horror — weird literature is a safe way to explore transgression, to fantasize about the upset of the status quo.

Ross E. Lockhart
Ross E. Lockhart is an author, anthologist, bookseller, editor, and publisher. A lifelong fan of supernatural, fantastic, speculative, and weird fiction, Lockhart is a veteran of small-press publishing, having edited scores of well-regarded novels of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Lockhart edited the anthologies The Book of Cthulhu I and II, Tales of Jack the Ripper, The Children of Old Leech: A Tribute to the Carnivorous Cosmos of Laird Barron (with Justin Steele), and Giallo Fantastique. He is the author of Chick Bassist. Lockhart lives in a state of quantum flux in Petaluma, California, with his wife Jennifer, hundreds of books (currently residing in boxes), and Elinor Phantom, a Shih Tzu moonlighting as his editorial assistant.

“Weird Fiction” to me feels like an oxymoron. Fiction is weird by its very conceit: made-up stories about people who never existed, going to imaginary places and doing improbable–even impossible–things. Even the most realistic attempts, grounded in facts and research, is a funhouse mirror, distorting faces to twisted and cartoonish extremes.

But we are a storytelling species. Narrative is in our genes, and so is, I suppose, the urge to elaborate, to invent a more interesting version of the world in which we live. The first fisherman’s tale, spinning a yarn about the leviathan that got away, likely came the even after the first human picked up a rod and set out towards the sea. The first love story likely flowed shortly after the first broken heart. The first ghost story, lamented loss, pondered what might lie beyond this life. And the first time someone sat staring out into the wooded darkness from a safe circle of firelight, wondering if that rustling was an animal, man, or worse, likely spawned the first Weird Tale.

Weird Fiction, the literary tradition named by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, defined by H. P. Lovecraft, and codified in the pages of pulps like Weird Tales, has been on the ascendency over the last several years. Born from a union of the Gothic and the grotesque, the Weird ranges from ghost stories to cautionary tales of hazardous sensation to cosmic horrors unimaginable. Perhaps this is because the strangeness of the world at large has finally caught up with our capacity for imagination.

At Word Horde, I unabashedly publish Weird Fiction. But my preference is a big tent Weirdness able to accommodate not only the narrow definitions of Le Fanu and Lovecraft but the lofty, forward-gazing goals of Scott Nicolay’s Dogme 2011 and the VanderMeers’ internationalism. I love fiction that recalls the past, but looks to the future, engaging it in ways that feel fresh, and risky, and new. But always fun (even when terrifying). And that’s the aesthetic that drives Word Horde, allowing me to bring you stories ranging from Molly Tanzer’s weird Western Vermilion to Nicole Cushing’s outré dark ride Mr. Suicide to Orrin Grey’s technicolor Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts. Likewise those tales collected in my recent anthologies Giallo Fantastique and Cthulhu Fhtagn!; these are stories of the now, told by some of the finest authors working within the Weird tradition, never resting on the laurels and mores of the past, but pushing forward, progressing.

Does this mean a Weird Fiction renaissance is at hand? Maybe. I prefer not to define a thing in motion, lest we end up with as many fractional subcategories as there are black metal subgenres. Forget Dreadpunk, forget New New Weird, forget all those Johnny-come-lately definitions and simply embrace the Weird. Revel in it. Wear it like a sacred mask. Dance by the balefires. Let the Weirdness animate you. And let your freak flag fly.

Nancy Jane Moore
Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel, The Weave, came out in July from Aqueduct Press. She is also a member of the authors’ publishing co-op Book View Café and blogs on Thursdays at http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/.

We like weird fiction because sometimes our brains insist that 2+2= -7. We know it’s not true, know that even considering the idea is irrational, but for a moment – or a day or, in some cases, a lifetime – we believe the unlikely, the unreal, the completely insane.

I suspect this isn’t just a capacity of the human brain. Surely other animals find themselves convinced that something that makes no sense in their ordinary life has just happened. But regardless of whether apes or cats do it, people surely do.

Our brains make weird connections all the time. Dreams – both pleasant ones and nightmares – are the obvious example. My story, “Three O’Clock in the Morning” (which probably qualifies as weird fiction), grew out of a recurring dream I had as a child in which the Berlin Wall suddenly appeared in the middle of my house and then kept moving, closing me off from more and more of it until I was forced to try to tunnel under my bedroom floor to get away.

But weird doesn’t only happen in dreams. About a year ago, at 3:20 AM, the bed I was sleeping in started to rock back and forth. My first thought was “Someone is having very athletic sex.” Given that my sweetheart and I weren’t having any kind of sex at that moment (having been sound asleep until the rocking started) and that there was no one else in our bed, this was an irrational thought. But it took me some seconds to figure that out because the sexy explanation beat the hell out of the rational one which was, of course, earthquake. (We live in California.)

Though come to think of it, the fact that the earth can move with no warning and completely upend our lives is pretty damned irrational. Perhaps some of our capacity for believing the unlikely and loving weird stories has to do with the fact that our planetary home is not as stable as we pretend.

One of the challenges to making AIs who can pass as human will be to figure out how to make those creatures think irrationally. We may assume we want AI who are completely rational, especially if we’re going to allow them to design rocket ships and manage banks, but I doubt we’ll recognize them as thinking beings unless they can also make irrational leaps.

What makes weird fiction weird is the fact that someone puts those flights of fancy (or unspeakable horrors) into that most rational of media, the written word. Our minds come up with the unreal and irrational all the time, but we push it aside, pretend it didn’t happen. In a story, the unreality leaps out at us and reminds of those odd dreams, those unusual moments, that time when we believed – if only for a moment – that 2+2 really did equal -7.

C.S.E. Cooney
C. S. E. Cooney is the author of Bones Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015). She is an audiobook narrator for Tantor Media, and a singer/songwriter under the name Brimstone Rhine. Visit her website at csecooney.com

This was so particularly a sticky question for me that I had to confront the Facebook Hivemind. (Sort of a pre-Mind Meld mind meld.) I was reassured to be directed to the M. John Harrison quote from 2003 that asked some of the same questions I did: “The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything? Is it even New? Is it, as some think, not only a better slogan than The Next Wave, but also incalculably more fun to do?”

For the first part of the question, I have to say that it’s difficult for me to separate the weirdness of fantasy as an entire genre (with science fiction tucked firmly under its uber-umbrella) from a specific kind of New Weirdness. Fantasy, I think, is the weird stuff. The stuff that doesn’t really happen in our observable reality—from Martians to unicorns to grief-eating leeches. And yet, the New Weird seems to be a place for writers to go when they do not wish to labor under the tropes and connotations of the “fantasy/sci-fi” genre.

When I asked his opinion, writer Carlos Hernandez reflected that the New Weird is “a dinner party full of virtuosos. All the iconoclasts gather together and try to outwit each other. There’s not one kind of weird; by that definition, it’s not weird anymore.” Still, I wanted to be really clear I knew who were considered New Weird writers. Miéville was the most consistent. I did, in fact, read Perdido Street Station. Years ago. Hey, I learned the word “chitinous” from that book (though not how to pronounce it). VanderMeer? Awesome! I read Annihilation. Loved the writing on the walls. (Or WAS IT writing? Could’ve been mold.)

After all this, I still don’t know if I know EXACTLY what New Weird is, much less if I love it. I like Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. They’re New Weird, right? Is New Weird like the New Wave Fabulists? “No,” said my friend Didi Chanoch. “New Weird is an amalgam of new and old. A refresh of an old tradition. Link seems wholly original to me. Her own thing.”

Author Leah Bobet told me, “To me, there’s this lushness to New Weird fiction; this great sense of atmosphere. Desideria, or Jeffrey Ford’s The Physiognomy. It’s ineffable place, but thick and rich and you can grab it in your fist and it’s velvet or pliable or yes.” Now, Ford I haven’t read yet—but I’ve heard him read, and look forward to getting my brain all up in his fiction. Kornher-Stace? I ADORE HER STUFF. Why? Because it’s like dark chocolate and batrachotoxin — if that’s New Weird, I can ASSURE you I love it. Or at least that part of it.

Mike Allen
Mike Allen is editor of Mythic Delirium magazine and the Clockwork Phoenix anthologies, author of novel The Black Fire Concerto and short story collection Unseaming, a Nebula Award and Shirley Jackson Award finalist, and winner of three Rhysling Awards for poetry. He lives in Roanoke, Va., with wife and co-editor Anita, two mischievous cats and a neurotic dog. He posts about his writer exploits at http://descentintolight.com, his editor exploits at http://mythicdelirium.com, and combines the two at @mythicdelirium.

My pet theory: people who are into the Weird have developed a taste for what I’d call Discomfort Food.

Much commercial fiction is comfort food, minding the boundaries of genre, granting victory to the good guys, concluding in a romantic union, serving up a proper dose of wish fulfillment.

But for someone like me, a diet full of granted wishes is a shallow diet, a hollow diet. It doesn’t reflect what I see unfold in so-called “objective reality.” It doesn’t reflect the unnerving interactions I’ve had with actual flesh-and-blood people. It definitely doesn’t reflect the strange societies said people have constructed.

Enter the Weird.

What is “The Weird”? To me, this is one of those terms like “slipstream” or “interstitial” – I grasp the concept, but applying it practically gets slippery. The general definitions provided by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer in their mammoth anthology The Weird serve as well as any. (I’d bet I’m not the only participant in this Mind Meld to refer to them.) I’ll give my personal paraphrase: a story that uses elements of the supernatural, or even the completely inexplicable, to not just scare the reader (though many of them do) but to challenge assumptions about what’s real, especially assumptions about humanity’s place in the hierarchy of the real. H.P. Lovecraft is often cited as a founding father, with his notion of all humanity dangling on a vulnerable thread, blithely at the mercy of a universe indifferent at best, predatory at worst. But Franz Kafka fits here too, with ill-fated Gregor irrevocably awakening as a giant bug, Josef K. executed by a nightmarish bureaucracy for a crime that’s never explained.

The thing about it is, when a story begins from the position that what we see around us isn’t what’s really there, that the physical and psychological norms we exist within should not be trusted, if such a story succeeds in drawing the reader into its skewed vision, then awe-inspiring mindscapes can open up, stuff to rival the strangest and most hallucinatory dreams. The Weird doesn’t build worlds: instead, The Weird opens cracks in the world. That’s one reason to love the Weird: the sheer intoxication of its mind-bending atmospherics.

But for me, that’s perhaps subservient to this passion I mentioned for Discomfort Food.

I can explain it best in first person. I don’t buy into Happily Ever After. I don’t buy into simple storylines. I don’t buy into the notion of a cosmos that’s fundamentally Good. I think a lot of things in the world, especially the world of humans, make little sense. And so, on a basic level, the existence of The Weird proves that in at least this one way I am not alone, that there are others out there who see what I see. And on a more complex, more thrilling level, I get to savor writers like Thomas Ligotti, Kelly Link, Laird Barron, Livia Llewelyn, John Langan, Scott Nicolay, Gemma Files, Helen Marshall, Chesya Burke, Alyssa Wong, Stephen Graham Jones, Simon Strantzas, Nicole Kornher-Stace, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Nathan Ballingrud, and more, as they explore their own notions of what’s awry with the world to their fullest imaginations.


About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at https://littleredreviewer.wordpress.com/ where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.

4 Comments on [MIND MELD] Embracing the Weird: Why We Love Weird Fiction

  1. “further proving that New Weird is a genre of experimentation.” I think, for me, this is what makes New Weird so exciting. Any rules there may be are as flexible as a slinky made from blood vessels, and not knowing what to expect is expected.

  2. Wow! that is a fantastic write up of the Weird an that anthology!

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