“This is one of the effects of reading weird fiction: it does not dictate your imaginative path, but impels you to make your own.” – from “The Weirdness Addendum.”
At year’s end I finished reading the massive anthology The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I’ve been digesting it ever since. It was a humongous capstone to an edifice of weird anthologies for the year that included their Odd? anthology and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities project. At the end of reading The Weird I found I needed a period of time to absorb what I had read, as I took a “devour the whole thing” approach to it. Now, with some time to reflect on it, I want to write about some thoughts and ideas that have resulted from that reading. Rather than write a standard review, which seems difficult to do, I want to reflect on. . . not what I have learned necessarily, but what that reading has done to stimulate my thinking and my imagination.
- We rarely appreciate that reading’s intoxicating pleasures are manifold and exquisite: it’s very easy to get into the serious literary aspects of The Weird, so I think it’s important to discuss first how enjoyable it was to read this collection, with its combination of cacophonous voices, perplexities, and lunatic energy. The central theme allows for a broad array of stories to bump up against each other. While the stories are organized chronologically that doesn’t automatically lead to similarities, which makes reading from one to story to the next a very surprising pursuit. Shifting from Caitlin R. Kiernan’s earnest, dramatic “A Redress for Andromeda” to Michael Chabon’s morbidly comic, neo-pulpish “The God of Dark Laughter,” for example, was a bit startling, but then amusing. The variety of authors and styles is a heady mix due to the changes in tone and theme that orbit around cores simultaneously grotesque and sublime, becoming a textual rollercoaster in some stories, a tenebrous baccahanal in others.
Unsettling stories entertain us in many ways; the Chabon story was, to me, a bit boring and rote at the beginning and at the end, but the middle, where we learn some things about the protagonist that create some sympathy for him, becomes oddly entertaining, even between the moments of comedy. Even as we see the dénouement from a mile away, we feel sorry for this poor schlub DA who has been dealt a cruel hand by fate and is caught in the sort of ancient battle that fans of fantastika have encountered many times. The pleasure here is in a combination of gallows humor and the ramshackle remains of that clichéd battle that, despite seeming rather exhausted, will likely still destroy the world. Life is still petty and sad and tragically funny even when cosmic forces swirl about.
- What is problematic is often not within our grasp to correct: Human agency is generally revealed as a conceit in these stories. It’s not just a matter of forces beyond our ken sinking their tendrils into our reality, but that the perceptions that condition our actions are fundamentally misrecognizing how the world works beneath the surface we accept. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” is a classic example of this, of the need for humans to shake off their preconceptions and accept that they live their live through illusion. The world that we effect through our actions is superficial and trivial, and when we are confronted with what lies beyond the veil of that world, there is little we can do other than lose our minds. It is only when we apply our actions in a desperate attempt to push back against the veil, to apply ourselves directly against what lurks outside of our confabulated reality, that we begin to understand our place in the universe.
Many of the stories in this collection echo that spirit, but take in different directions. Some are more obviously horror stories, such as Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows,” while others are about more personal demons, as Joanna Russ’ “The Dirty Little Girl” shows us. Sometimes people are manipulated into changing their actions, while others discover that what they do is irrelevant. Some, like the Russ story, become lessons for the protagonist, but not simple educations. Rather, the people who move through these narratives must learn to think and act in ways new and even alien to them to achieve some understanding of the hollowness or incompleteness of their life. The source of their problems, of their unease and anxiety, does not lie in everyday troubles, but in deeper disturbances and predicaments. Until they change their idea of agency to adjust to what has been revealed to them (sometimes forcefully), they flounder and misstep through the world.
- Understanding is not knowledge, but revelation: What’s the difference? Knowledge is “the name of that thing is Ook.” Revelation is “there are creatures like Ook in the world!” Weird fiction is about the recognition of what I discuss in #2 above. It is about coming into contact with things that are difficult, contentious, or impossible to know. It about prophecy, divulgence, consequence, afflatus. It is coming to terms with powerlessness, lack of vision, the cosmic smallness of humanity. It is learning the true costs of living, feeling it deep inside you, as in Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “The Hell Screen.” It is what eats us from the inside out and impels us inevitably towards death, even as we struggle to come to terms with life.
“Whatever the influence is,” says the narrator of Clarke Ashton Smith’s “Genius Loci,” ” it’s hardly of human origin.” Influence from somewhere or something else saturates these stories. You do not accrue information but instead experience directly the effects of coming into contact with the unusual and the enigmatic, the absurd and the unthinkable. Situations arrive that have no rational explanation, but that are inevitable in their effects, like the sleeping sickness and the intrusion of nature (or is it un-nature?) in Alfred Kubin’s “The Other Side.” Understanding is an event, not a process in these stories, as it often is in “real life” as well.
- Not liking a story can be an adventure in itself: There were several stories that I did not like, but that I read through anyway. There were others that seemed impenetrable or unedifying at first read. Leonora Carrington’s “White Rabbits” was spookily recondite, and I’m not sure that I liked it, although there were resonances in the imagery that whispered to me. Georg Heym “The Dissection” is so visceral and brief that it seems like a dream and a slap across the face at the same time, daring to toy with your perceptions and emotions, so simple and quick that you fear the treacherous depths of its bloody waters.
Michael Cisco’s “The Genius of Assassins: Three Dreams of Murder in the First Person” is the most destabilizing story in the collection: ecstatic, chimerical, serpentine. . . the list of adjectives could go on for some time. But these words are just touchstones to try to anchor an attempt at understanding this story which seems to not be a story. It is about dreaming, about the poverty in the richness of our imaginations, about a virulent delirium that always flows along the edges of our cognition. It’s not that I am unsure of what it means, but that to grasp it fully is threatening, requiring a combination of abandon and rigor that means dipping back into it. I’m not sure I’m ready to do that yet.
- The power in weirdness is that it makes you ask questions, and then question the questions: This is not postmodern mumbo-jumbo, although it may sound like it. It is actually one of my favorite things: the hermeneutic spiral, which eventually comes to a conclusion like an arrow skewering your mind. The sharp point here is that a good weird story has a critical slant, not as in “academically analytical” but as “making you not accept what you see and hear.” As Michael Moorcock wrote in the Foreweird, “What is good about the majority of these stories is precisely that they leave you with many more questions than answers, the mark, in my view, of a superior kind of fiction..” These tales have more than one purpose, more than one pathway to the end; they demand choices of belief, dare you to trust the words. Eric Basso’s masterpiece “The Beak Doctor” is one long labyrinth of words and images and moments that can annoy you or mesmerize you, make you shake your head to return to your self or wonder what a “you” is.
This is one of the most powerful elements of great weird writing, this dance of questions and not-answers, of sureties that fade and misty maybes that hide and reveal seemingly at a whim, but that have patterns and costs to their meanderings. From classical morality plays like Jean Ray’s “The Shadow Street” to the walk through a hellishly surreal war-scape in Lucius Shepard’s “Shades,” there is always something just outside what you see and feel that needs to be discerned and reckoned with. There are not just matters of tension and conflict; they are unforgiving and sometimes eloquent moments that send characters into extreme or unforeseen states of mind. The answers, when they do find them, often do not satisfy or, worse, actively undo the characters. But that whirls the reader back to foundational questions like “Who are we?’ and “What do we miss in how we see the world?” And the questions keep spinning long after many of these stories are done. . . .
- What unnerves you makes you stranger: Following the questions sometimes makes you throw up your hands. Sometimes, you figure something out. Maybe something very textual, like how a phrasing generates a response from you, or a cascade of images, like the ending of Liz Hand’s “The Boy in the Tree.” Weird fiction is not designed, I think, to give us something as banal as “life lessons,” but the challenges that twist through these fictions can insinuate themselves in your imagination as it struggles to deal with the dissonance and consternation these stories create as you absorb their words. The shifts in perception, the questions, the whorl of understanding/not understanding, of pulp cliché and surreal innovation, invite you to take a small step in a new direction, to accept things with a touch less certainty, and to realize that uncertainty has its uses and its own contours that can lead you to another understanding. And many of these stories suggest that you continue on past the last word and wonder. There is potential strength in that.
- This world is not my home: With apologies to Lone Justice, these stories make a powerful statement to me: that I am just passing through this life. Ghosts are as real as you make them; what haunts us, whether in our dreams or our stories, murmurs to us about the impermanence of surety. Our pasts and others’ futures cram us into the now; we try to make our way through a world that we have done almost nothing to make on our own. A wise man once said “Home! Home is where you hang your hat!” Home is what we make with our choices, with what we choose to see and interpret. Home is always challenged because it is always something we make, fragile and impermanent, with our minds as much as our hands. In truth, we are adrift, in so many ways. Home is a dream of anchorage, a refutation of the unknowable. The paradox of these stories is that they make me realize that it is not this world that is my home, that despite everything I do and do not know, we each make a world in our heads that allows for home. Sometimes we share those worlds, sometimes we make worlds that challenge them. We keep making and unmaking them with words until the day when we are beyond words.
- You never really get to the end of a story, if it’s done well.