Toward a Theory of Weird Cinema

This begins a series of essays that apply the aesthetic framework developed in reviews of contemporary weird novels to recent films. The scenes, stories, and sensations that animate weird novels may be found as frequently in visual narratives; indeed, the 21st century has seen a new set of cinematic tropes—those of “found footage” films—that rediscover narratological structures deployed in Gothic novels and 19th/20th-century weird tales.

As with the literary weird, the cinematic weird is not easily segregated, stylistically, chronologically, or culturally, from the field of aesthetic production in general. Since Georges  Méliès’ The Vanishing Lady, The Haunted Castle, and A Nightmare (all made in 1896), the weirdness of film has also been one of the medium’s abiding themes, with bizarre and uncanny scenarios, odd and queer characters, and dreadful monsters appearing, ghostlike, in the projector’s wavering beam.

Georges  Méliès, The Haunted Castle (1896)

Needless to say, cinematic weirdness takes many forms. My goal in these essays is to create a constellation of texts by which to guide future analysis. This initial post has three specific objectives: to establish a guiding distinction between horror and weirdness in film; to sketch out the aesthetics of contemporary cinematic weirdness by tracing several visual traditions that inform recent films; and to offer a close reading of an exemplary film, Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song (2016).

Weirdness v. Horror

There is no pre-existing category within the field of cinematic production and consumption that corresponds to “weird cinema.” The films under review are categorized as “horror,” “surreal,” “experimental,” “thriller,” and so forth. More importantly, the popular conception of “weird” is grossly inadequate to an analysis of the aesthetic sensations that should be classed as such. In earlier posts, I argued that the current “Lovecraftian” conception of weird fiction fails for several reasons: it subsumes weirdness under the category of horror; it prioritizes a singular mood or tone (that of “cosmic dread”); it (only/always) objectifies the encounter with the Real; it reifies racist, heteronormative and nationalistic figures, scenes, and stories; and through a combination of the above, it obscures a more nuanced, multicultural, and antinormative tradition. Many of the best weird novels belong to this larger, more enduring tradition.

The same may be said for contemporary film. Today, the category of “horror” subsumes many films that might better be termed weird, while other very weird films remain uncategorizable. This is particularly true of films in the “found footage” style, which are generally labelled as “horror” by critics who bemoan the genre’s lack of horror. Like all other affects, terror, fear, and abjection are inevitable and important elements in our culture. I am not, in what follows, arguing against the cultural sensation of horror. But I am railing against its use as an umbrella term that obscures more than it reveals. Let horror be horror and let the many fans of horror rejoice; but the stew of shared sensations thickens when we recognize the multiplicity of feelings evoked by popular culture, and that is my goal.

In truth, weirdness and horror, regarded as aesthetic sensations induced by the language of cinema, are worlds apart. Although they are often interlaced in film narratives, these sensations are neither co-constitutive nor interdependent. Pause to consider the differences between the affective relations that constitute the open-ended sensation of weirdness and the severance of those relations, which constitutes the horror scenario. The sense impressions and intellectual conceits associated with weirdness—from the odd and strange to the uncanny and incomprehensible—share a quality—let us call it expectation—which horror cancels. Curiosity, uncertainty, anticipation, and dread connote the unfolding dislocations and relocations that weird events make apprehensible. These senses of the world are “lively”; they are premised upon on-goingness, an anticipatory future in which meaning continues to dislocate or is restored. By sharp and often painful contrast, horror—be it conveyed via shock, violence, or abjection—ends expectation. The fear of horror is the anticipation of the end of anticipation, the fear of death. This is quite different from the uncanny terror of the unknown. Weird affects initiate an opening to what is not, while horror brings what is to an end. The first is the looming expectation of the winding road, the second is stomping on the brakes—too late.

The distinction is easily discernible in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which, yes, I am about to “spoil.”

The Gothic house in Psycho signifies the film’s weirdness.
The horror scenes in Psycho sever weird expectation.

What are the weirdest features of the film? The Gothic house; the odd mannerisms of Norman Bates; the unexpected narrative twist; and the Freudian psychology that motivates the murders. What are its most horrific moments? The shower scene, Arbogast’s murder, and the final revelations—Norman in drag and his mother’s corpse. Each of these horror scenes severs or puts an end to the curiosity/ uncertainty/ dread that is evoked by the film’s odd and uncanny scenarios. To the extent that our knowledge of previous violence contributes to our sense of uneasy anticipation (e.g., when Arbogast and then Lila and Sam enter the motel), this dread (Ann Radcliffe calls it “terror”) is different from the uncertainty and uneasiness we experienced earlier in the film, when following Marion’s narrative. The tension of horror (a killer is lurking) has a singular focal point (usually the protagonist’s body in space) which might be distinguished from the more “open” or “uncertain” focal point of weirdness, which invites us to wonder whether or not there might be something going on. This is where weirdness closely resembles the suspense associated with thrillers.

Weirdness opens a door to the unknown, perhaps the unknowable. We are lost in weirdness. Horror, on the other hand, forecloses the possible. Horror finds us; we find ourselves in it, at the end. That foreclosure is symbolized in film by images of death or abjection. As in Psycho, these scenes are often conveyed cinematically through structural and symbolic shocks to the viewer’s psyche—rapid cuts and shifts in perspective, combined with terrifying images, reorganize our sense of sensation—we jump in our seats, spill our popcorn, gasp, shriek, laugh. Such affective responses are different from the silent, focused, uncertain and anticipatory scanning of narrative and visual scenarios that accompanies weirdness. Encountering the strange evokes a hypersensitivity to the non/normative; it generates a potential for the unusual (first step on the road to the impossible) to emerge within/alongside/in opposition to the ordinary. Consequently, weirdness courts the unexpected, the unusual, the surprising and original; horror, by contrast, is always the same. It may be sudden or prolonged; it may be unexpected or anticipated; it may be realistic or cartoonish; in every case, the moments of horror are repetitions of a singular affective event: the closure of the possible. Regarded in this light, weird affects may anticipate horror scenarios (the false perception that they inevitably do contributes to the centrality of dread for the Lovecraftians), but the sensations are neither organically linked nor similar in quality.

Once the affective difference between weirdness and horror is conceptualized, the generic differences between horror films and weird cinema are easily untangled. At either end of the spectrum, we may imagine two gravitational poles: one pulls outward, toward weird, unsettling, uncanny affects and the other inward, toward what I will term the “normativity of horror.” The latter is obvious in countless franchises (Dracula, Godzilla, Psycho, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream, Saw, etc.), which are, by the time they reach their second or third reincarnations, “pure” horror films to the extent that they present minor variations on horror’s singular scenario. It is no accident that such films tend to reproduce normative categories of identification and highly formulaic plotting; they symbolically defang the horrible by repeating its most generic scenes ad nauseum. The Jurassic Park / Godzilla movies created in the last couple of decades are obvious examples; death is gratuitous (half the time, we’re siding with the monsters) and the violence is used to police normative gender and class roles. Horror is reduced to a general thrill of being in proximity to mayhem for our protagonists (inevitably scientists or other members of the military industrial complex, plus some cute kids), who seldom encounter anything strange; on the contrary, they always already know what’s going on. Certainty is the cornerstone of these films, which align the monster’s creative destruction with national military powers. What could be more square? At this edge of my imaginary diagram, horror bleeds into that nebulous genre of “action/adventure,” which, however unrealistic, tends toward the normative mainstream.

Further from this pole, we may imagine less idiotic, more realistic, intensely horrific films, such as those often labelled “torture porn” or “New French Extremity.” Trouble Everyday (2001), Irreversible (2002), and High Tension (2003) are among the earliest and best of this subgenre, in which I would include such realistic, nihilistic, and gory films as films as Antichrist (2009) and The House That Jack Built (2018). Spectacular violence and sustained scenes of abjection propel these visual narratives, many of which have also raised controversy due to their homophobic, sexist, and nationalistic perspectives (or those of their makers). Although much more visceral, the intensification and prolongation of the horror scenario (as well as it’s totalization in apocalyptic films) serves the same ends as the goofy repetitions of the franchises: it confronts us with horror’s nihilism. Horror has nothing to say—which is not to say that it is not a valuable experience, but that it reproduces narratives to assassinate them. No wonder so many horror stories recycle so few plots. Within the field of the franchises, this quality is celebrated through a kind of ritual, goofy defanging realized through repetition of the grotesque and terrifying. These “extreme” films perform a similar action, but with realism and social satire dominant; nonetheless, many of them share a nihilistic relation to horror’s singularity: it is a foregone conclusion, around which the shit (it’s all fantasy, anyway) circles. By contrast, the horror films of Michael Haneke (Benny’s Video (1992), 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), Funny Games (1997)) recognize the unspeakable of horror. They are distinct from those of Lars von Trier, Eli Roth or Tom Six because they take death seriously.

Near the middle of my imaginary diagram are horror narratives that introduce weird elements, while remaining predominantly organized around the horror scenario. Here we may find campy postmodern “classics,” such as Re-Animator (1985), Evil Dead II (1987) and some of the Freddie Kruger movies. Recent examples include The Cabin in the Woods (2011), Witching and Bitching (Las brujas de Zugarramurdi) (2013), Castle Freak (2020) and Freaky (2020). In such films, we find supernatural creatures (zombies, witches, Old Ones, body swaps), as well as significant amounts of grotesquery and body horror, accompanied by an anti-realist, cartoonish texture. These movies sublimate the uncanny by intellectualizing it (although not as fully as “torture porn” films do). That may sound strange, given how anti-intellectual these films are; yet they present the impossible as a conceit rather than a source of narrative intensity. This is why they revolve around generic “slasher” scenarios, despite the magical elements, and rely upon allusions to other films.  In these narratives, acceptance of the impossible is merely a given—after all, as the Scream franchise reminds us, it’s just a movie.

On the border of these narratives, we find “body horror,” which merges the abject realism of “extreme” horror with the age-old body dysmorphia of “classic” horror. David Cronenberg is obviously the maestro here, although homage to Yuzna’s Society (1989) should always be paid.

The other pole, that of the weird, magnetizes the disconcerting, unaccountable, extraordinary, queer, and curious. Such films may or may not present us with supernatural entities or monsters of any kind. (Consider, for example, the absence of any monster in the most popular weird film of the past 25 years, The Blair Witch Project.) These films share a commitment to discovery and may evoke dread—although this sense of fearful anticipation is not in itself necessary. They include films labelled “surreal,” “experimental,” “satire,” or “arthouse,” but also many that fall, however uneasily, under the category of horror. In the next section, I diagram an overview of the various modes by which weirdness is evoked today.

Subjective and Objective Realism, Surrealism, and Metafiction

Cinematic weirdness may be identified by the aesthetic modalities through which the sense of dislocation and the potentiality of the impossible is achieved. For brevity’s sake, I cite a handful of predominantly postwar films to illustrate these tropes.

Weird narrative requires realism; the world must be presented as natural, normative, ordinary for the strange, queer, otherworldly to emerge. Films may be strange from the start, or unplotted, but weird narratives, in film as in fiction, develop a “real” world which is rendered strange to produce uncanny effects. In literary texts, as Todorov observes, fantastic plots are sustained by prolonging the “hesitation” or uncertainty that exists, for characters and readers, regarding the impossible. Weird texts are those which make the extenuation of this affect the driving force of the story, which may or may not end in horror.

In written texts, a variety of narrative styles prolong this uncertainty. A first-person, limited narrative reveals or conceals the impossible thing differently than a third-person, omniscient narrative. Free indirect discourse, which blends objective, omniscient narration with subjective, internal narration, is often employed to great effect by weird authors, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann, Henry James, and Shirley Jackson, and writers may also combine several styles in one story, as Hoffmann does in “The Sandman.” Visual narratives have less flexibility in the construction of subjective narrative, although “found footage” techniques have been used to develop a visual language of “embedded,” “first-person” perspectives and meta-narratives. Despite the inherently “objective” framework of the traditional cinematic image (in which the camera is an unrepresentable, objective window onto reality), montage and framing has long been used to present viewers with a particular character’s perspective on reality (i.e., the film’s diagetic “real world”). It is seldom difficult for viewers to identify (and identify with) the protagonist of a visual narrative, and to recognize the camera’s perspective as simultaneously objective and motivated by the protagonist’s perspective. This ‘normal’ language of cinematic signification is denatured in various ways to generate weird effects.   

Examining the interplay between subjective and objective cinematic realities allows us to apprehend the primary modes by which weirdness is conveyed. I term “subjective,” those visual representations that, in the narration, prove to be uncanny forms of misidentification: the subjects of the narrative are confronted by disconcerting, apparently impossible images that turn out to be the result of ‘natural’ or ‘real-world’ forces. As viewers, whatever we saw or think we saw, was either an optical illusion or a subjective distortion of reality. As in Radcliffe’s novels or most stories by Poe, the supernatural remains a paranoid, hysterical or neurotic projection of the protagonist’s fantasies. Such films remain firmly in the “real world,” while interrogating the relationship between the apparent objectivity of audio/visual recording technology and the subjective interpretation of this reality. Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), Kukor’s Gaslight (1944) or Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) exemplify narrative and visual techniques that create radical uncertainty on the part of protagonists and viewer, without introducing supernatural elements. More recent films in this mode include Altman’s Images (1972), Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), de Palma’s Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984), Penn’s The Pledge (2001) and Soderbergh’s Unsane (2018). These films are most frequently categorized as dramas or thrillers, but we may see in them an important aspect of weirdness: the protagonist’s disorientation within diagetic time/space. Objective reality remains intact, but perceptions of that reality are presented to us through sequences that evoke the protagonist’s experience of disorientation and delusion. Our protagonist is accused of hysteria, paranoia, etc., but the plot will validate their perception, and therefore, ultimately, our trust in the “truth” of the visual realism the brings us the story.

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (2021) employs a weird plot.

More pertinent to our study are weird narratives that do reveal a supernatural entity. I term these “objective” because the impossible objects are represented as actually occurring in the mise-en-scene, rather than as figments of the protagonist’s imagination. As in Victorian ghost stories or the works of Blackwood, Wharton, or James (M.R. and Henry), many weird tales culminate in a glimpse of the impossible thing. The possibility that natural laws have been transgressed propels the narrative, which is brought to a climax by the revelation of the supernatural entity. These narratives present a real world that is intruded upon or interrupted in some way.

These movies are not the weirdest. In this part of our diagram, we find films that prolong the uncertainty before it culminates in unreal horror. Many of the most famous films categorized as horror prolong the sensations of weirdness as far as possible, before ultimately introducing the otherworldly. Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Omen (1976), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Shining (1980), The Changeling (1980), and Get Out (2017) deploy this formula. These films, at the intersection of my diagram, might be considered weird horror; like Psycho, they juxtapose sequences in which the language of film generates curiosity, dread, and fear, moving from one dominant affective tone to the next. In terms of plot, they are immediately distinguishable from “normative” horror narratives, which introduce the monster much earlier (Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong, Freddy Kruger, Cenobites, It, etc.), or graft horror onto a mystery narrative (e.g., Silence of the Lambs, Seven, etc.). Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) rightly stands as a masterpiece of weird horror owing to its ability to present an otherworldly monster early in the narrative while retaining the sense of subjective irrationality (paranoia, hysteria) and continuing to fuel our curiosity (because the monster has no fixed form). Recent films that reproduce this weird narrative include The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), Annihilation (2018), Midsommar (2019), Color Out of Space (2019), Censor (2021), The Advent Calendar (2021) and In the Earth (2021). The films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, discussed at length in a later post, follow this plotting, while incorporating surreal and metafictional signifiers of weirdness explained below.

Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) is surrealistically weird.

Whether subjectively or objectively weird, the above movies depend upon normative narrative structures; scenes are mostly sequential in plots that follow one or two central characters as they brush against the boundaries of the rational and real. But since its inception, cinema has also explored the weirdness of discontinuous or dream narratives. Readers may be familiar with Un chien andalou (1929), Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern cycle, The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966), Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974), Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997), and Mulholland Drive (2001), Being John Malkovich (1999), Holy Motors (2012) or The Green Fog (2017). While there are countless other “surreal” or “experimental” films that are profoundly weird, these suffice to indicate cinema’s equivalent to narratives that have long been a mainstay of weird fiction, from Lewis’s The Monk (1796), Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Kafka’s The Castle (1926) to the novels of Robbe-Grillet, stories by Shirley Jackson and George Saunders, or the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. These stories generate uncanny effects by dislocating normative storytelling procedures, adopting what Freud termed “dream logic.” They express the weirdness of cinema by allowing the cuts between frames to enter the narrative, as though the normally invisible movement from frame to frame and scene to scene were instead treated as a series of dislocations, delays, and new directions. Such films may or may not evoke the supernatural; frequently, as in The Phantom of Liberty, Eraserhead, or Holy Motors, they include supernatural elements among other, “real world” sequences. The primary sensations they evoke include a profound sense of the odd, disconcerting, and unaccountable. Because the effect is achieved formally, through parallel movements (Phantom of Liberty is disconcerting because there is no single protagonist; Holy Motors because the protagonist’s body moves between subjectivities; The Green Fog because representations of the subjects constantly change, etc.), the normative language of visual narrative becomes the impossible thing—ever deferred, like the meal in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The weirdest director working in this tradition today is Quentin Dupieux, whose work will be discussed in detail in a later post. 

Creep (2014), directed by and staring Patrick Brice, is one of the best found fiction films.

The fourth modality for weirdness in contemporary film combines the previous elements by evolving the cinematic language of “found footage horror.” The use of “found footage” develops out of dada, surrealist, and other avant-garde methods of making films that surfaced in the 1960s, thanks to Super 8 cameras and the Pop aesthetic, which valorized reproduction and detournement; the first found footage films recycled/reappropriated rolls of film that had been shot for other purposes. The narrative conceit of “found footage”—shooting film that appears to be unedited footage but constructs a traditional narrative—slowly emerged throughout the 1970s and 1980s, before exploding in the 2000s, following the incredible commercial success of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity (2007). Thousands of found footage films, nearly all marketed as “horror” movies, appeared in subsequent years. Few use footage that was originally made for other purposes; twenty-first century “found” footage exists as an aesthetic effect, not as the physical/political process of reappropriation.

The conceit these filmmakers deploy is two-fold. The first premise is that a nonfictional movie, usually a documentary, was the “original” goal of the production. Contemporary found footage films rely upon the concept of the “mockumentary”; actually, mockumentaries are foundational to this subgenre: Clarke’s The Connection (1961); Watkin’s The War Game (1966) and Punishment Park (1971); Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980); Duncan’s 84C MoPic (1989); Belvaux, Bonzel and Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog (1992); and Avalos and Weiler’s The Last Broadcast (1998) use this formula to establish what will become a common narrative conceit. Importantly, the mockumentary enjoys equal if not greater success in comedy, with a history that includes Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969) and Zelig (1983), Fellini’s The Clowns (1970), Idle and Weis’s The Ruttles (1978), Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Cundieff’s Fear of a Black Hat (1993), Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996) and Best in Show (2000), and Charles’ Borat (2006). In these films, weirdness takes the form of oddity, zaniness, and “cringe,” which is comedy’s version of torturous abjection. Occasionally (Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness (2004), Glosserman’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Version (2006); Clement and Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows (2014)) mockumentaries strike a successful balance between comedy and horror.

These movies are non-normative in their use of a metafictional framework that generates a satirical/skeptical mode of enjoyment by asking us to reconsider both the “reality effect” generated by normal documentary filmmaking and the “reality” that we are pretending to observe, usually “behind the scenes” in one way or another. In the comedies, the weirdness of film finds figuration in odd-ball and wacky characters, be they automatons, clowns, queers, or maniacs. These misfits are negotiating the ‘ordinary’ (if equally ridiculous) ‘real world’ that is imagined to exist in the documentary background, and which becomes, through their strangeness, the object of a more subtle parody. Found footage “horror” (in this context it could be labelled “tragedy”) reverses this dynamic, putting a bunch of ‘normal’ documentarians in the foreground and figuring the otherworldly in the landscape. Our protagonists are ambassadors from the ordinary world who find what they were looking for: a background that consumes them.  

The second, equally important conceit is that the production is severed by horror. Consequently, the footage is imagined to document not only the original production, but also the reproduction of the horror that interrupted it. The most frequently employed narrative involves amateur filmmakers who attempt to record the unknown turns into horror. This is the premise of Cannibal Holocaust, Man Bites Dog, The Blair Witch Project, Troll Hunter (2010), Grave Encounters (2011), The Conspiracy (2012), Digging Up the Marrow (2014), and dozens of others. We are asked to imagine that we are watching unedited footage in which a “real life” documentary becomes a survival scenario. (An important variation, the home movie, will be discussed in later posts.) Weirdness is generated at the level of plot and through the viewer’s engagement with the (imagined) documentary, which is viewed “against the grain,” i.e., with an eye for the discrepancies between subjective and objective realities.

Although frequently associated with low budgets, hand-held cameras, and improvisatory acting, the essential components of found footage films are not these stylistic features; on the contrary, the most important aspect is the metafictional frame. The premise that what we are watching is “real,” rather than the usual movie magic, is a conceit that returns us to the earliest examples of weird fiction, such as Daniel DeFoe’s A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, often regarded as the first modern ghost story, and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), a hoax which purports to be a “found” manuscript documenting impossible events. For centuries, the metafictional frame has been used to establish a strange relation between “documented,” eye-witness accounts and fictional scenarios. Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) use this technique, as does Verne’s The Sphinx of the Ice-Fields (1897), Manchen’s The Terror (1917) and Welles’ radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds (1938); an important variation (akin to the “home movies” in found footage films) is the diary, as deployed by Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Manchen in The White People (1904), Blackwood in “The Listener” (1907), and Klein in The Events at Poroth Farm (1972). The metafictional frames recast the reading experience in a manner that heightens weirdness—we are asked to scrutinize the ordinary with diligence, anxiously scanning for evidence for or against the narrator’s purported encounter with an impossible thing.

This metafictional frame is the conceit of all found-fiction films, but among contemporary found footage there is a subset of films which are particularly canny as regards the uncanny effects generating this enjoyment. In the aesthetic tradition of Cannibal Holocaust (which focuses upon the editing of the film itself), such movies as Skew (2011), The Conspiracy (2012), Creep (2014), Found Footage 3D (2016), Frazier Park Recut (2017) and Butterfly Kisses (2018) generate weirdness by introducing into the plot a perception that the supposedly “raw” footage we are watching (the original narrative conceit) has actually been “cooked” (edited) by someone (or something). The result is an intensely fertile environment for weird affects, and the best found-footage films recognize the full potential of this doubly-framed staging of reality interrupted by the Real.

Taken together, these aesthetic strategies suggest that a ghostly genre, weird cinema, has been partially obscured by the horrific, despite the differences between these affects and the modes of their aesthetic reproduction. The remainder of this essay is devoted to a close reading of affects in one of the most effectively uncanny films of recent decades, the 2016 British feature A Dark Song, written and directed by Liam Gavin and starring Steve Oram and Catherine Walker. I choose this narrative because its realism, subjective/ objective dynamics, prolonged hesitancy, and rejection of the horrible demonstrate the dominance of weird sensations in a film that is conventionally labeled as horror. As they say on Random Number Generator Horror Podcast No. 9, “Warning! Spoilers ahead!”

A Dark Song

Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song (2016) is among the most viscerally weird dramas of recent years.

As the film begins, Sophia (Walker) pays a handsome sum to lease a large estate in the remote Irish countryside. She is seeking privacy; her expressionless face holds back what the opening chords suggest will be a torrent of grief. The independent, distressed woman seeking refuge in an eerie house is a Gothic trope found in Radcliffe’s novels and Psycho; the melancholic protagonist, best dated to Hoffmann’s stories, occurs throughout the weird canon.

The cinematography emphases ordinary life as Sophia meets a dour man (Joseph Solomon, played by Oram) at the train station, and they travel to the rented house; she is consulting him for services that remain obscure. His abrupt questions transgress conventions of politeness, but she answers eagerly, establishing a master/disciple relationship, enforced by gender norms and economics (she is paying for his professional services), that develops throughout the narrative. The conversation reveals that, despite the visual signifiers of introduction, we have begun in media res. Their conversation is rife with signifiers that have more meaning for the characters than for us. She has begun a series of ritualistic cleansings. When he asks her why she seeks guidance, her answer, “for love,” sends him packing; as she drives him back to town, we learn that he’s been asked to perform what he calls the “Abramelin procedure”—a black magic rite for conjuring one’s guardian angel. He scornfully tells her that performing this rite “for love” is “like getting Titian to decorate a cake.”

The reviewer might pause here to explain this Kabbalistic arcana, based on a seventeenth-century grimoire and performed by Alistair Crowley, but the movie does not. The script will deploy numerous allusions to Kabbalistic and Gnostic texts and rituals, but Gavin’s choice is decisive: the film’s focus is upon the embodied and emotional significance of this profane act; its cultural baggage is discarded, just as the world will be left behind as the ritual commences. The movie would convince us that the ritual is real, but the power of its narrative derives nothing from the actual texts to which characters allude. This sets the movie apart, emphatically, from what I’m calling “weird horror” narratives, which inevitably introduce Gnosticism into the story. Here, our acceptance of the power of dark magic is beside the point; this is a narrative about Sophia’s acceptance of it. This focal point situates the film firmly within the ‘real’ world. Sophia is performing this ritual in an extension of our shared reality (rather than in a world that also contains supernatural elements). This is matched by an entirely conventional mode of cinematic storytelling. The cinematography is efficient, unobtrusive, without any of the surreal or metafictional elements that will be discussed elsewhere.

The magician agrees to assist Sophia only when she reveals another reason for her request: “My child died. I lost my child. He was taken from me, and it was my fault. I have to hear his voice again. I need to speak to him.” Her melancholic purpose convinces him that she is sincere and sets the tone for follows, while situating this narrative within a tradition of ghost stories and weird tales about the resurrection of the dead.

Realism contributes to the intensification of weird affects in A Dark Song

Back in the house, Joseph takes pains to explain the seriousness of their endeavor, while mocking Sophia’s cursory knowledge. “Real angels, real demons” should not be confused with “psychobabble bollocks.” There will be days of fasting, “back-breaking rites” and “ritual sex,” he cautions, underlining clauses in a contract; she remains undeterred. Joseph’s unstylish track suit, the shabby, post-war kitchen, unobtrusive camera work, and naturalistic performances underscore his insistence that Sophia ‘be realistic’ about their potential for summoning the impossible thing.

This scene, along with two that follow, clarify the dramatic forces that allow A Dark Song to intensify the weird “hesitation” longer than other films. Sophia’s determination, but also her psychological instability, is emphasized on her final trip to town. Shopping for their extended shut-in, she encounters her sister, who urges against this foolishness. Sophia demands that she not be interfered with; she is “doing something” to counteract the grief and no longer cares if it’s “godly” or not. In a juxtaposed scene, we glimpse Joseph at the mansion, printing pages off the internet—an activity he has berated Sophia for engaging in, and one that introduces the notion that he may be conman, taking advantage of her melancholia to extract not only the large sum she offers, but the food, shelter, and sex she will be required to provide. Sophia, the grieving woman, the disciple, must submit to Joseph’s dictates, which in the real world are of course “bollocks.” Since the film’s world is an extension of our own, and guardian angels do not exist, he can only be a grifter; on the other hand, we may consider him a professional in an unusual but not necessarily malevolent arm of the care industry, helping her through her grief by creating the ritual she believes that she needs—or, like Sophia, we may choose to accept his earnestness. He speaks and acts as though the magic were real.

If Joseph is scamming Sophia, his approach to gaslighting her is fiendishly clever; in the Crowley role, he insists upon his authority to determine the causes and consequences of every action, claiming, for example, that when she tells a half-truth, it causes him to nick his hand with a knife. By continually doubting her investment in the ritual (“this has to be pure,” he tells her) he causes her to commit more fully to a project, the parameters of which fall entirely under his determination. Her wish causes her to accept the possibility that invisible forces are at work.

This dynamic is symbolized by a ritualistic sequestration from the world. Joseph pours a line of salt around the outside of the mansion. Before completing it, he offers Sophia a final warning: “this is your last chance to back out. Once I complete the circle, no one can leave until the invocation’s done. Not for food. Not for emergency. Not for anything.” Completing this circle will lock them into the ritual—either through invisible magic or through mutual adherence to imaginary rules. “Seal it,” Sophia says. Her commitment is soon tested, for the next morning, when she seeks to assert a small degree of authority, reminding Joseph that she is paying client, he becomes violent, smashing a plate and hurling insults; for the ritual to work, she must accede all power. Under his supervision, they engage in a series of actions, each innocuous on its own. Geometric shapes are drawn on the floor, candles and objects placed about; there are phrases to be learned and foods to be consumed. Joseph provides vague, cliched explanations for what he requires. “For the next two days,” he tells her, “I’m going to unshackle the house from the world. You mustn’t leave the circle. No food, no water. Focus on the stone…”

Sophia confronts her grief while clinging to expectation

These scenes occupy the first third of the movie. In the next third, we find ourselves sometimes identifying with Sophia, sometimes with Joseph, as each struggles to maintain their commitment to an arcane and obscure formula that must be followed to the letter. If these intensely realistic scenes may be read allegorically, the obvious analog is psychoanalysis. As analyst, Joseph insists that Sophia sit with her suffering; the only way through her grief is by touching the void (in the film this pursuit is perverse, since Sophia’s discourse is expressed through the closed symbolic structures of magic, rather than the open-endedness of words in the therapeutic setting, which go in search of their meanings). As the patient, Sophia perseveres; her search for signs that anything significant has occurred—that the ritual is working, as the weeks turn into months—organizes our experience as viewers, who also “anxiously scan” (a term discussed in later posts) for signs of the impossible. A Dark Song is “The Yellow Wallpaper” inside out. Our protagonist, confronting the loss instead of the arrival of her child, invites the male authority into the room, and they both attempt to peel back the paper, to discover the trapped thing underneath.

When the signs appear, the curiosity, hope, dread, and doubt that we experience through identification with the protagonists enters a phrase that is common to weird fiction, and which helps to distinguish these sensations from those more directly related to horror. Weirdness prolongs hesitancies and finds pleasure in the pain of not knowing; it values subtle shifts, slight changes in atmosphere or tone, hints and vagaries, uncanny slippages. By contrast, horror puts an end to not knowing; it insists that we confront finality, and so values the cut, the sudden, turn of events, and foreseen conclusions. A Dark Song prolongs weird expectation until the end. Sophia wants to believe in signifiers of the supernatural—the placement of a photograph, minor coincidences—that we may encounter as her delusions; Joseph insists that every event, no matter how insignificant, should be taken as a sign, yet we may doubt that he believes this. As we enter the film’s final third, it becomes unclear whether Sophia is experiencing hallucinations, brought about by the ritual, or we are witnessing the merging of worlds that Joseph promised. Like many of the movies mentioned above, as the film nears its climax, a variety of techniques are used to generate a surreal, hallucinatory sequence.

SPOILER ALERT! If you care about not knowing the ending, I hope you’ve watched the film by now because the final sequence is crucial to a claim regarding the aesthetics of weirdness.

In the final sequences, Joseph is dead and Sophia, who has confessed that she seeks not a moment of redemption with her son, but to damn his killers, is beset by phantom figures, which may be devilish spirits or figments of her devilish imagination. After confronting these demons, she wakes one morning with a new clarity. It is over. She has not found what she is seeking. In a daze, but aware of the gravity of her actions, she steps over the line of salt—and although the ritual has not been completed—nothing happens. The world does not end.

Sophia returns to the house. There is something there, in a room at the top of the stair. It is her guardian angel. It is beautiful beyond imagining. It brings what angels always bring: the miracle of forgiveness, acceptance, peace. Weird narratives need not end in horror. The uncertainty may result from or resolve itself into the miraculous just as well. And that is the truth of weirdness—its openness to the unknown is fueled as much by curiosity as by dread, for when the monster turns out not to be monstrous at all, the conclusion is only more satisfying.

Next in the Series

The next four posts in this series seek to elaborate the varieties of weirdness outlined above.

In the next two essays, I discus the work of two or three contemporary weird auteurs. The films of Quentin Dupieux are extraordinarily weird; Rubber (2010), Deerskin (2019), and Mandibles (2020), denature the monster of horror narratives, exploring how the impossible thing might enter the film’s reality in original ways. The films of Benson and Moorehead develop weirdness through a variety of diagetic and extradiegetic techniques, while engaging in the construction of a “mythos”—an intertextual world that is a peculiarity of the genre. In Resolution (2012), Spring (2014), and The Endless (2017), they bring together numerous elements of weird narrative, combining Lovecraftian horror with surrealism.

The two essays after that are devoted to exploring the found fiction phenomenon in detail. The first of these will touch upon “classics” of the genre, such as Cannibal Holocaust, Evidence, and The Blair Witch Project, in order to identify the significantly distinct narrative devices that make contemporary films, such as Evil Things (2009), Troll Hunter (2010), and The Conspiracy (2012) so effective. The second essay will examine found footage films that push the boundaries of weird narrative, such as Creep, Skew (2011), Grave Encounters 2 (2012), Digging Up the Marrow (2014), The Midnight Swim (2014), Butterfly Kisses (2018) and Char Man (2019). Such films present us with the “logical conclusions” to which this new subgenre’s techniques have led and suggest new directions for cinematic weirdness in this mode.

Weird Fiction Review #10: On the Apollonian and Dionysian in Weird Fiction Today–Piranesi and Unlanguage

My original intention for this post was to close a series of contemporary weird novel reviews with an analysis of Michael Cisco’s Unlanguage, published in 2018 by Eraserhead books. This oddly shaped (9 x 9”), self-described “workbook” in the arts of “unlanguage” promised to be, as I mentioned at the end of my previous post,  “the weirdest novel of 2018.” Then two things happened: I found Unlangauge, true to its name, nearly impossible to read, and I heard a Weird Studies podcast extolling the strangeness of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, published in 2020. I resolved to swallow the one with the other; and indeed, they present such an interesting contrast that the differences between them prove more fruitful than either would be on its own.

The difference between the approaches to weirdness presented in these novels suggests Nietzsche’s distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian styles. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues, with “the immediate certainty of intuition,” that Attic tragedy reconciles these aesthetic modalities, which are otherwise involved in “perpetual conflicts” throughout “the continuous develop of art” (21). The Apollonian style emphasizes “the beauteous appearance of dream-worlds,” in which “all forms speak to us; there is nothing indifferent, nothing superfluous”—save the whole edifice, which has, “glimmering though it, the sensation of its appearance” (21). A superficiality haunts the perfection, a phantasmal supplement that maintains the totality by assigning each part its place. Thus, we are left with “a measured limitation,” “freedom from the wilder emotions,” and “that philosophical calmness of the sculptor-god” (p. 24-5).

Against the singular perfection of sculpted Apollo, Nietzsche describes a Dionysian aesthetics of “drunkenness” and “the narcotic draught”—the “emotions awake” and “the subjective vanishes to complete self-forgetfulness” (26). The music of Dionysus counters Apollo’s “pictorial world of dreams” with “drunken reality, which likewise does not heed the unit man, but even seeks to destroy the individual and redeem him by a mystic feeling of Oneness” (28). Subjective ideals are sacrificed on the altar of the more primal intersubjectivity they annul. Nobility and idealism give way to Delphic “ecstasies” that celebrate those moments when “pain beget[s] joy” and joy “sounds the cry of horror […] over an irretrievable loss” (31). The dream of an objectified and idealized self is torn to pieces by the ecstasy and horror of ritualized carnality. Joy and horror mingle in an ego-destroying voice that gives expression to the singularity of “nature,” which “must sigh over her dismemberment into individuals” (31).

Although the Dionysian partakes of “that detestable mixture of lust and cruelty which has always seemed . . . the genuine ‘witches’ draught,’” it would be a mistake to assign weirdness to this modality alone (30). Apollonian and Dionysian forms of weirdness are equally attainable, and the best works in this genre—like the tragedies Nietzsche analyzes—reconcile these tendencies, fusing subjectively rich pictorial fantasies with the “thrilling,” subject-destroying power of “rhythmics, dynamics, and harmony.” Unfortunately much contemporary scholarship of the weird tends to normalize the Apollonian and therefore seek weirdness only in the grotesque, abject, and dreadful, forgetting the eeriness of the ‘good’ life.

The novels under review fail to synthesize these tendencies in interesting ways. Each develops weirdness according to its particular modality with real virtuosity. Clarke’s dream world mines Apollonian aesthetics for what weirdness can be found in such a “measured limitation.” And Cisco’s genre-mixing jumble attempts a Dionysian illegibility: a dismembered nonnarrative in the “unlanguage of unknowning,” also referred to as “lingua obscura, enigmatica, oraculo, youming yuyan (language of the quiet depths), lugha al lughz (language of riddles), bhasa sammudha (bewildering language), confusion, phantasmagoria, parabolica, eavesdropia” (p. 7).

Apollonian Weird: Susanna Clark’s Piranesi

Published by Bloomsbury in 2020

Let us begin in the cool, clear light of Clarke’s fantastic narrative. Piranesi is Clarke’s second novel; Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, published by Bloomsbury in 2004, is decidedly weird, being concerned with magic and a genre-bending “alternative history,” features of weird fiction since Otranto. It’s popularity and critical acclaim, like that enjoyed in recent years by, say, China Miéville or George Saunders, should put to rest any doubts regarding the marginality of weirdness today. The weird is both popular and critically esteemed in twenty-first century cultural markets. Nearing the top of best-seller lists, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel and praise from the Man Booker Prize committee. It was adapted by BBC One into miniseries that the British Film Institute regarded as one of the best programs of 2015. Piranesi has won several awards, including The Women’s Prize for Fiction and an Audie for the audio-book narration by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Here we enjoy a kind of hyper-legibility. Within a few pages, it’s clear that we are reading a journal organized according to an unfamiliar but meaningful calendar: “Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.” The second entry is for the seventh day of this same month, the third for the tenth day, and so forth. We learn that the journal belongs to the explorer of a strange but not illegible world: an impossibly vast, apparently deserted series of galleries and staircases, the walls of which are lined with statues. Such information is conveyed with child-like simplicity:

I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. . . . No Hall, no Vestibule, no Staircase, no Passage is without its Statues. In most Halls they cover all the available space, though here and there you will find an Empty Plinth, Niche or Apse, or even a blank space on a Wall otherwise encrusted with Statues … (5)

Thus, we enter an alternative reality with as little confusion as possible. The first dozen entries describe the world and the narrator’s routines – they appear to be ‘shipwrecked,’ living on the marine and avian life that also inhabits this impossible place, recording their observations with diligence worthy of Crusoe.

Our immediate perception of the dreamworld is aided by the novel’s title, which evokes Giovanni Batista Piranesi’s Le Carceri: a series of etchings made between 1743 and 1745 that depicts the fantastic interiors of an apparently endless prison, small parts of which are viewed from various angles. But Clarke’s labyrinth is less threatening—it is more human in scale, despite the impressive size of some of its statures, and resembles a pantheon more than a dungeon. This world is more manageable, more sanitized than Piranesi’s massive, elaborate structures, which sometimes disclose throngs of people (and include many friezes but only the occasional glimpse of a statue). Although our narrator appears condemned to wander these halls, they are a marbled, if not exactly gilded, cage.

XI: Carcere, with a Central Hanging Lantern

The initial effect is wonder, one of the most prevalent weird affects in the Apollonian mode. The thing is unique, singular: an exotic world. Yet not a world: an enlarged fragment of something else, a cosmic ruin. The Apollonian pleasures of the dream world are beautifully evoked by our narrator, whose mixture of curiosity and pride we share. The immediate disclosure and narrative simplicity cast this world in a benevolent light; whatever dangers it may contain, our narrator trusts their capacity to master them. We therefore join in the pleasures of exploration, craning our imaginations to take in the splendors of this inward-facing edifice.

The thrill of exploring a fantastic world—a “contained” (i.e., alternative, or wholly fantastic) world, as this one appears to be—is perhaps most obvious in children’s books and the fantasy genre, but of course this pleasure is inimical to fiction at the most basic level. Clarke’s narrative begins with a fantasy that goes back to Defoe’s novel; we are reading the journal of an isolated survivor in an exotic yet self-contained world; an implicit sense of personal sovereignty undergirds the novel’s weirdness. The sun god’s soothing light burnishes reality, polishing the fantasy of a personhood radically separated from the world it inhabits. Consider such passages as, “Fear and hunger forced me to explore the House and I discovered that fish were plentiful in the Drowned Halls. Their Waters were still and I was not so afraid. The difficulty here was that the Drowned Halls were surrounded by Dereliction on all sides. To reach them it was necessary to go up to the Upper Halls and then descend by means of the Wreckage through the Great Rents and Gashes in the Floor” (36). Numerous fantastic pleasures entwine in such sentences. We learn about the world by learning how the narrator survives in it; but our knowledge is filtered through the first-person narrative. To what extent does the strangeness belong to the narrative voice and to what extent does it belong to the world being described?

The plot expands when we learn about another character, whom the narrator unimaginatively refers to as the Other. The Other refers to our narrator as Piranesi, which is not their actual name. When reading the record of their interactions with this second person, we begin to doubt the narrator’s reliability. When they mention that “much of my time is taken up by my work with the Other (I refer of course to our search for the Great and Secret Knowledge),” our faith in their rationalism wavers (41). The narrator’s rationalism is reaffirmed by passages that express their skepticism of the Other’s mysticism. Our narrator is the doubtful disciple, politely raising their hand to ask innocent yet damning questions about the Other’s attempt to create various, silly-sounding rituals. But the Other also casts doubt on our narrator’s perception of reality, telling them, “the labyrinth plays tricks on the mind. It makes people forget things. If you’re not careful it can unpick your entire personality” (68). Has our narrator’s personality been unpicked? Perhaps the notebook is recording a delusion? This trope is foundational to weird fiction (from Don Quixote onwards), but blossoms most memorably in the modern period—Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” (1835), Poe’s “The Black Cat,” (1843), Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” (1864), Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Blackwood’s “The Listener” (1907), Ewers’ “The Spider” (1915) are notable examples of the weird diary; in these stories, journal entries record apparently impossible events which may be interpreted as delusions. The postmodern or “New Weird” twist on this narrative, efficiently done in Piranesi, is to set the delusional narrator in a fantastic world. (It’s a similar doubling of the psychological and supernatural narratives that makes VandeerMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy so good.)

The journal’s veracity unravels. There is a sort of narrative sleight-of-hand around the narrator’s discovery that their journals have been renumbered and they don’t remember writing the earlier entries, including a capacious index, which they now re-read. In the middle third of the novel, the narrator’s research into their own past propels the plot forward.

Spoiler alert! Skip the next paragraph is you prefer to encounter the mystery for yourself.

This is the story of an intrepid young reporter who has become trapped in an other-world labyrinth by a cultist whose knowledge of the dark arts consists solely of access to this world. It becomes clear what must have happened rather too soon, and the notion of a diary is strained to the utmost, with the narrator recording passages from their own earlier texts in order to fill us in on the missing details. As they discover what happened, the book abandons the weirdness of the dream world for weird-adjacent enjoyments, such as deciphering codes, following clues, and discovering whodunit. Like many New Weird narratives, this one genre-shifts, ultimately leaving the fantastic for a more “realistic” mystery adventure story, seasoned by the hallmarks of “true crime.” Our narrator survives their sojourn in the impossible world.

Weird fiction in the Apollonian mode presents us with a fantasy world that may be parallel to but is not separate from our real world. Since Radcliffe, weird novels have meditated upon the psychological effects of absorption into the fantasy space and the ethics of the reading practice: what it means to become the imaginative subject who spends so much time in the lands fiction creates. The Apollonian brings us to such a world, giving us scenes (of imaginary or real/imaginary) fantastic otherness, the view through the looking glass. To do this, it pays the price of genre: each of its worlds upon worlds succeeds inasmuch as they are momentarily complete; each is an idealized fragment of a world in which everything is in its place.

Piranesi conveys this Apollonian idealization brilliantly, if perhaps too efficiently. The partial world is grotesque in its simple, neglected grandeur—a beautiful labyrinth. Its alchemical nature is explained, sort of, and it becomes the occasion for meditations on how environments shape our perceptions of ourselves. Ultimately, it presents the fantasy world as a transition object; a safe space (there is no minotaur) where, despite the trauma, the narrator eventually learns how to leave the fantastic behind (defeating the Other who has trapped him there). Its fantasy is mostly harmless and inevitably just. Hubris is punished, humility and self-integrity rewarded. It’s set in a weird world, but isn’t in itself a weird novel, at least in comparison to what comes next. As exemplar of the Apollonian weird, it’s notable features include an emphasis on images; the centrality of individual identity; a simple, clear narrative; the ‘containment’ of the fantastic world within a larger ‘real-world’; the absence of violent or disgusting images; and craftsmanship as elegant as the statues it contains.

Dionysian Weird: Michael Cisco’s Unlanguage

Published by Eraserhead Press in 2018

Michael Cisco‘s first novel, The Divinity Student (1999), received considerable attention in the world of horror/ weird/ fantastic fiction small press publishing. In 2013 it was serialized by the Weird Fiction Review. Unlanguage is, I believe, his twelfth publication, and his stories and essays have appeared in Lackington’s, The Weird,  Lovecraft Studies, New Directions in Supernatural Horror Literature, and other haunts familiar to fans of the contemporary weird.

Unlanguage presents itself as a textbook, but the Dionysian is difficult to summarize. It is not a simulacrum, although it includes mimetic elements. It is broken into the kind of sections one might find in a language textbook, such as “UNIT THREE: Negative Voice,” “Unit Three Reading,” “Notes,” “Exercises,” “Questions,” and so forth. But often the text under these titles describes the book, rather than its subject, disclosing a narrative in which unlanguage is studied in a grotesque academy. The narrative, in which the book itself is discovered and used, weaves in and out of the workbook structure, or rather, seeps through it.

Contra Clarke, Cisco confronts us with near total bewilderment. It is an endlessly opening totality one moment, the writhing immediacy of a particular sensation the next. The textbook is practically impossible to understand, and its structure is quickly interrupted by a narrative, which itself soon decays into passages of daydream and nightmare. This radical disorganization of novelistic narrative can be traced to dada and surrealist works; in English, fragmentary, non-linear writing of this kind emerges in the modernism of Stein and Joyce. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, which combine Joycean fragments and playful language with a Gothic setting and sensibility, may have influenced Cisco, but the imagery and tone of Unlanguage are more reminiscent of William S. Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy.

With the Dionysian experience in mind, rather than trace the book’s literary genealogy, we might consider an analogous experience in music. Music is immersive, enveloping, subjectivizing. You enter it and it enters you. Unlanguage is organized like compositions I first heard when listening to John Coltrane, the Velvet Underground, Destroy All Monsters and Sonic Youth, in which the lead instrument enters in a frenzy, placing all the energy of the rock-n-roll climax at the beginning, then bringing us back to the place that inspired it, often ironically. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is the modernist musical equivalent to Stein or Joyce. What begins as near total chaos slowly resolves into something like a story. The Dionysian demands this passage through bewilderment; the bacchanals have already begun; we must enter the frenzy, which does not invite us—like Nijinsky’s choreography, it is inward facing—or walk away. It’s not a matter of beginning in medias res, but of plunging into apparent chaos, hoping that you’ll find something to hold onto in the maelstrom.

The primary disorientation is our introduction to an impossible language, a language designed for speaking what can’t be uttered. This passage, from “UNIT FIFTEEN: Primary Antitense,” is one of the most easily quotable “lessons” in the textbook:

Beside the verb tenses in the preceding sections, there exists another category of tenses whose use is reserved for some of the less commonly required grammatical possibilities afforded by unlangauge. Each antitense reflects a s different reflex of actions, which the student may find difficult to conceptualize. Contrarieties of logic do, however, occur in everyday experience. Keeping strictly to an antinomial grammar is essential if one is to avoid certain commitments which lead in turn to extremely dangerous pitfalls. Escaping such pitfalls may itself become a form of confinement. Therefore, antitense express action as undoings. [. . .] The primary antisense is employed for that which is both continuing to take place and also finished; the verb “to live,” for example, when applied to the current existence of spectres. There are some events in the past which have never happened, and which continue into the present; the negative form of the primary antitense is to used in relating the occurrence of such events. (89)

To immerse ourselves in this book, we must study unlanguage. The lessons are not easy. At times, as in the above passage, unlangauge sounds tantalizingly like the language of the Lacanian unconscious, the impossible language of the Real, in its non-symbolic immediacy. This makes it, of course, a purely fantastic invention—language as the apparition, the thing that can only be gestured toward, hinted at, talked around. The deconstruction of grammatical lessons, or more precisely their reconstruction into a nonsensical zombie grammar, presents many delightful turns of phrase, gestural glimmers of ideas, much as music might do. As text, these passages may best be understood in the context of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which deconstructed the first-person lyrical I. Poets including Susan Howe, Tom Raworth, Leslie Scalapino, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, Bob Perelman, Harryette Mullen and many others played with passages from instruction manuals, historical and sociological texts, legal testimony, advertising and popular culture, creating hybrids that exposed the subjectification at work in the original documents. Endlessly self-referential, at one point Unlanguage describes itself as “a shallow garbled and fragmentary bullshitnarrative congealed from the poachings of web films televisions bad books and magazines” (77). `The continual code switching, with narrative elements emerging like a pattern in the wallpaper, does to a conventional horror narrative what the Language poets did to confessional verse.

Like a fair amount of Language poetry (and nearly all of the “conceptual poetry” that followed it), grasping the concept is more than half the pleasure. Once the idea is established the lessons become tedious. As our student narrator complains, “My notes, exercises, just look like weird English. How can I say I have been taking this class? Is such a class even conceivable? . . . I can’t form a single phrase in unlanguage. So what good has attending these classes done me, if I have?” (91). As a reader, I found myself asking similar questions about the later textbook passages. Many of them provide curious or charming approaches to thinking about this impossible language, but since it is, after all, impossible one is tempted to skim.

In the narrative sections, our protagonist finds a copy of the textbook and joins a school/cult of unlanguage learners. This links the simulacrum to a centuries-old trope of weird fiction: the discovery of profane knowledge. The foundational principle of this trope is succinctly stated by the title of an Algernon Blackwood story, “The Man Who Found Out: A Nightmare.” But the cabbalistic pursuit of profane and esoteric knowledge was already easy to lampoon by the time Jan Potacki wrote The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in 1815; despite a partial resuscitation by the modern weirdos (most notably Blackwood, but also the pulp writers), the discovery and entrance into a cult studying profane texts remains a hackneyed plot device. (Indeed, it is the same basic device that organizes the second half of Piranesi.) As the narrator (in a psychiatric hospital, having been declared insane, perhaps because of their experiences) states, “It’s a story with easily-anticipated outlines that unwind like creeping tendrils of decay back into the past, shaping it to fit the current situation’s needs. The plot is the enemy…” (260). Indeed it is, in this book, which ultimately presents another variation on the diary of a deranged mind–only in this case, the derangement is foremost and the emergence of a narrator/protagonist occurs gradually and partially. The plot, inasmuch as it exists, is difficult to follow; its scenes stutter and jump about in time, repeatedly returning us to certain scenarios.

The most frequently repeated scenario visualizes the decay of corpses in spectacular detail, making decay the book’s dominant visual metaphor for its language of unknowning. Unlanguage is the language of death and new growth. Its power is figured by the grotesque reconfiguration of a rotting body:

 The arms and legs split and tendrils like translucent, whitish kelp bore into the air around her, quivering with nervous energy. Something in her gives way and fluid gushes down the chair to the floor, forming a steaming pool around her curling feet. Stiff, enormous sacs with membranes have grown into her hands; she looks as if she were cradling pale yellow jellyfish. [. . .] Now hanging over the back of the chair, her head is wattled over with heavy rot structures. The lower jaw has vanished into the chest, where her breasts have divided into a profusion of cylindrical, maned blisters like stands of sea anemones, and the bones have broken through the skin and turned to clubs of coral, rough, pitted, and drab. (46)

In its illegibility, Unlanguage invites us to attend to the decay of narrative, the death of meaning, the loss of sense—not as recent social/historical developments, but as the inevitable. Unit 22: Nonsense Voice begins with a discussion of “the Destroying voice” used in “phantasmagoria” to “relay the idea that it is impossible that anything should continue to exist forever, that even the gods will die, that death is complete annihilation, and this appalling reduction to nothing must happen to everyone, eventually” (119). If Clarke invites us through the looking glass, Cisco shatters the glass and invites us to glimpse our own destruction in the fragments. As exemplified in this novel, the Dionysian weird today is recognizable by its emphasis on bewilderment, meta-language, fragmentation, and the grotesque. It is murky and ambiguous, recursive and deconstructive.

The pictorial daydream and the hallucinogenic nightmare, the fantastic image and swirling cacophony are equally capable of generating weird affect in fiction today. Of the novels reviewed in this series, the Apollonian prevails, as it does in fiction more generally. Dionysian elements are most obvious in Lincoln in the Bardo, The Drive-Thru Crematorium, The Night Ocean, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. In this narratives, individualized subjectivity decays, plots become fragmentary, the sensual qualities of language (partially) subvert the sensical, and the grotesque bubbles up.

This brings to the end the initial series of reviews I began several years ago; the book reviews will continue, but the next stop on our journey through the contemporary weird will be at the movies. One of the hallmarks of the “weird revolution” in recent decades is the rise of “found footage” narrative films. While normally (and almost exclusively) labeled as “horror,” this subgenre marks a turn toward the weird in visual narrative. Future posts will explore this strange territory in more detail.

Weird Fiction Review #9: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay has been moving rapidly into best-seller territory for several years. His major novels include A Head Full of Ghosts (2015), Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (2017), which won the British Fantasy Award for best horror novel, The Cabin at the End of the World (2018), which won the Bram Stoker Award, and Survivor Song (2020), published by HarperCollins. He has also published a collection of short stories, Growing Things (2019), edited several anthologies, and collaborated with Stephen Graham Jones (reviewed earlier in this series). He has recently begun a series of neo-noir novels that will go on my summer reading list. Check out his website for more information.

Whereas Gareth Miles’ Soul Shakedown (reviewed below) charts the intersection of weird fiction and speculative fiction, The Cabin at the End of the World can be located at the intersection of weird fiction and horror. It provides an opportunity to discuss some of the distinctions between these genres, which are frequently mistaken for each other. In order to better understand the difference, I will consider how three sensations–weirdness, suspense, and horror–converge and diverge in this novel. The following review has two parts. In part one, I focus on the weird elements of the novel, without spoilers. In part two, I focus on the horror elements and there are major spoilers.

Weirdness at the World’s Edge

The sensation of weirdness involves hesitation, when the normal/known falters or rearranges itself; Todorov is correct to observe this sense of uncertainty as the genre’s minimal requirement and principle plot. The tone or texture of this suspension cannot be determined in advance. Although many weird tales evoke “cosmic dread,” strictly speaking, fear is not required and its figuration as a monster is absolutely unnecessary to the genre. Similarly, although the dynamics of the uncanny are unquestionably at play, any association of Freud’s term with creepiness or terror should be disregarded for the moment. Weirdness can evoke curiosity, wonder, a premonition of the marvelous just as much as it can conjure fear, terror, or a sense of inevitable doom. Weirdness itself is not horrible, fantastic, or marvelous; it is the more primal and disorientating sense that one may or may not be entering such territory. Dread captures the sense of potential, while still tilting the equation in horror’s favor. (And it’s always good to remember that within the reading experience, these sensations continually reverse and recombine themselves; for example, while we may identify with characters in weird stories who dread what’s coming next, as readers of the genre, we’re usually also hoping for the worst.)

Suspense is a broader category of sensation. We experience suspense when we know the outcome but not what will happen next. Suspense pervades nearly every popular narrative structure: romance plots, adventure stories, mysteries, all generate suspense by posing the possibility of a significant outcome and delaying its arrival. There are many forms of narrative delay, with different kinds of anticipations.

Suspense and weirdness intersect in complicated ways. Obviously, the suspension of the known or normal–the hesitation occasioned by the possibility of the impossible–is frequently imbricated with suspense more generally. This is obviously true in weird tales that follow a mystery/quest narrative: will the impossible thing be discovered? Is the house haunted? Is here a monster in these woods? Do the outer gods exist? Equally important in the weird tradition is a form of suspense related to skepticism. Is this manuscript to be believed? Are these witness accounts accurate? Did I just notice that? Could this be true?

However, weirdness can also interrupt or dislocate suspense. Suspense narratives, with few exceptions, are premised upon a degree of certainty. We know that the mystery will be solved, that the lovers will overcome the barriers between them, that the delayed thing will arrive. Our certainty that the suspense will not last indefinitely is part of its pleasure. We get to watch the plans derail, knowing that they will come together eventually. This quality heightens suspense because the generic formula structures expectation. Weirdness can disrupt this certainty, and a great many of the best weird tales do exactly that: leaving us in a state of confusion or irresolution. Was that real? Is this story to be believed? Did anything happen or not? In short, weirdness can suspend suspense, rewriting the narrative as it unfolds so that the inevitability forecast by suspense never arrives. A dream may have no conclusion save in the waking. One of best images of this quality of the weird must be the anarchist’s railroad in China Mielville’s Iron Council, which pulls up the tracks from behind itself in order to lay them down in front, and which (spoiler) becomes frozen in time. Radical weirdness may derail conventional suspense narratives such that they never arrive at their destination.

This quality illuminates an important contrast between the weird and the horrible. Their is no denying the close ties between these sensations; weirdness emanating from the supernatural is associated with horror throughout centuries of literary tradition. But in the modern weird tale (which we can date to the Gothic novels), horror emerges as a resolution to the weirdness. When the monster steps into the light, the strange is replaced by the terrifying. This function is obvious in many Lovecraftian weird tales, where coming face to face with the impossible thing serves as a climactic moment, turning the story into an adventure narrative, tipping the narrator into madness, and / or ending the story altogether. Obviously, the figuration of the the thing endows it with meaning, cancelling its status as the impossible object. In this regard, horror’s sensations negate strangeness. Against the open-endedness of weirdness (is this really happening?), horror overwhelms us with its inevitability (yes, it is happening–the impossible is real, there is no escape, etc.). In horror narratives, the suspense comes with a guarantee that it’s going to get worse (but also that there will be survivor). A horror narrative may draw out the suspense almost indefinitely, but the axe must eventually fall.

There need be no axe at all in the proper weird tale. There are few better examples of the weird suspense narrative than Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1950). Widely recognized as one of the best postwar works of weird fiction in English, this story evokes a tremendous amount of uncanny anxiety in its few pages. A retired white couple, the Allisons, decide to stay at their rural summer cottage after labor day, when they (and the other summer residents) would normally return to New York City. When shopping in town for additional supplies, the news of their decision seems to evoke slightly ominous responses from the locals and to circulate too quickly among them. It seems more difficult to remain after the summer season than the Allisons expected. The gas can’t be delivered, the car breaks down, the phone doesn’t seem to work. By the end, nothing outlandish has happened but the suspense is almost overwhelming. Without ever leaving the ordinary, everything has become strange. It seems, somehow, as though the Allisons’ world will end–as though their existence could only be tolerated (by the local economy, by the local culture, by the natural order itself) until labor day. The normal is haunted by a paranoid suggestion that their idyllic summer life on the lake is indeed an idyll: a dream maintained by unspoken conventions which cannot sustain itself when those conventions are innocently breached.

In setting her protagonists in a cottage on the lake, Jackson draws on a long and rich history of weirdness at the margins. Weirdness emanates from the space / time beyond the known and normal. This is true in Gothic novels, which prominently displace their narratives in time and their characters in space. Walpole’s Otranto manuscript is situated on the edge of the age of reason; Radcliffe’s Udolpho is a mountain fortress beyond the control of civil society; Shelley’s Frankenstein pursues his creation into the Arctic wastes. Countless stories make similar use of these spatial / temporal / epistemological edges: unchartered continents, primeval forests, uninhabited islands, forgotten cities and abandoned houses appear again and again.

The Cabin at the End of the World draws on these conventions, and Jackson’s story in particular, to establish an isolated, interrupted normal. The setting is a summer cabin in northern New Hampshire, on a lake and beyond cell phone service. The majority of the novel’s third-person narration focalizes upon the cabin’s three inhabitants: Wen, a precocious almost eight-year old girl, and her two daddies by adoption: Eric, a market analyst, and Andrew, a professor at Boston University. The story’s events are told by switching back and forth between these focalizations, but the narration remains sequential, without significant narrative overlap (i.e., more than one character’s account of any given event). While there is some difference in perspective between these characters, because the focalization is relatively light (i.e., it doesn’t descend far into any character’s psychology) and because they are facing the same crisis, the movement between them feels artificial. There is nothing Faulkneresque about the shift in perspectives; as with Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It (reviewed below), the switch between characters often feels more like a movement between cameras than between psyches.

The first chapter introduces Wen, who is playing in the font yard when “A man rounds the bend and walks briskly down the driveway like he’s coming home” (7). He introduces himself as Leonard and although “She’s had the stranger-danger talk with her dads countless times,” Wen doesn’t run away when he approaches (8). They talk for awhile, and Leonard seems charming in a vaguely sociopathic way, taking an outsized, affable interest in the girl’s activities. They are still talking when he is joined by three more strangers “carrying strange long-handled tools” (24). The narrator gives us a detailed look at these makeshift weapons, which suggest that Wen has just met members of an evil cult or possibly a group of zombie survivors. Leonard’s words to her before she runs to get her daddies confirm the menace without revealing its origin: “None of what is going to happen is your fault,” he tells Wen. “You haven’t done anything wrong, but the three of you will have to make some tough decisions. . . We are not here to hurt you. We need your help to save the world” (25).

Cut to Eric and Andrew on the back deck, relaxing with books and idle chatter when Wen rushes in to tell them about the strangers in the front yard. Panicked, they immediately lock themselves into the house. They demand that the strangers leave and try to call the cops (no reception and the landline has already been cut by the time they think to use it). I wish I could say that the sheer terror that seems to inflict Eric and Andrew at the sight of these rustic strangers was presented as satire, but Tremblay plays it ‘straight’: these two gay but otherwise full grown adult professionals seem nearly helpless at the mere prospect of unknown folks calling at their rental cottage. Andrew’s animus toward these uncouth but not unfriendly (so far) strangers is at least explained; after being gay-bashed outside a bar in Boston years earlier, he has suffered traumatic anxiety triggered by the presence of what appear to be “the hate-filled, ignorant cavemen he’s had to deal with his whole life” (47).

The four strangers soon breach the cottage; a brief fight ensues and Eric and Andrew are incapacitated, with Eric concussed by a fall. In a scene we’ve seen before, they are bound to chairs at their own table, and made to listen to their captors’ demands. Leonard explains that their captivity has nothing to do with their sexual identities and that their captors are obeying an imperative beyond their own understanding. “We’re just normal people like you, and we were thrown into this–this extraordinary situation,” he explains, “We didn’t choose this. We’re here because, just like you, we have to be” (72).

Leonard’s conviction, his patient explanations of their predicament, and his caretaking of Wen (he is good with children) is the most significant source of weirdness for the next several chapters, which otherwise follow a home invasion horror plot. There’s a gun in the car if only Eric or Andrew could get to it. Fortunately, the rustic freaks have a lot to say. They introduce themselves in turn: there’s Sabrina, from So. Cal.; Redmond, who is menacing and ironic; Adriane, a practically-minded former line cook (80) and Leonard, a former elementary school mentor and bartender from Chicago, turned ringleader. He explains their predicament in remarkably direct terms: “Ultimately, whether the world ends or doesn’t end is entirely up to you three… The message is clear, and we are the messengers, or a mechanism through which the message must pass” (83). You know it’s coming, and Tremblay doesn’t waste any time getting there. Leonard continues, “Your family must choose to willingly sacrifice one of your three in order to prevent the apocalypse. After you make what I know is an impossible choice, you must then kill whoever it is you choose. If you fail to make the choice . . . you will only live long enough to witness the horror of the end of everything…” (84)

Here we can see the divergence of the weird tale and the horror narrative. In the weird tale, events would conspire to make Andrew, Eric, and Wen seriously consider that their sacrifice is required. In another story, they might convince themselves that the prophecy must be obeyed or act as though a sacrifice were necessary for reasons obscure to the reader, etc. But the hostage scenario, the stock cult psychos, the general tenor of the work, and events as they unfold move us in another direction. While Tremblay sustains the weirdness as far as it will go, in the final two thirds of the novel suspense is primarily generated along the horror axis. The weirdness is relegated to a delusion; the problem is not so much whether we believe that the world will end, or that the protagonists believe it, but that Leonard and his gang believe it. Although the TV begins to report events that correspond to the cult’s apocalyptic scenarios, this only strengthens Eric’s and Andrew’s awareness of the danger posed by the cult, not their prophecy. In any case, the “impossible thing” they’ve been asked to do–sacrifice one of their own–is not impossible; it is merely intolerable.

As we enter the fantasy time of horror, the suspense begins to follow a clear logic predicated upon physical survival. The question becomes, how to escape? Can these two well-educated fathers reason their way out, perhaps sow dissent in the ranks? Or can they delay the maniacs and make use of their daughter’s relative freedom to make a run for the car? How can they support each other as they succumb to exhaustion and their own delusional thinking? Above all, how do they keep Wen safe? Their predicament supplies plenty of suspense, but as the tension increases the strangeness dissipates. Looking more closely at the textures and temporalities of the novel’s horror suggests that, at least in a contemporary novel like this one, horror’s imperative normalizes the text, canceling its weird potential. The violence horror commits against weirdness is a subset of the violence it commits against life. For weirdness is profoundly lively, organized around various fantastic possibilities; its suspense mingles dread with curiosity. The unknown is universal and unique; it is thoroughly disorienting. By contrast, the horrifying is particular and repetitive; it reorients the subject toward an unalterable singularity.

Horror as the End of the World

There’s big praise from Stephen King on the back cover of The Cabin at the End of the World. The master of horror calls it “thought-provoking and terrifying.” That should be warning enough to lovers of the strange and fantastic; King has written two or three weird stories, but his corpus is deeply, broadly, achingly normative. In this section, I will investigate some of that normativity, before concluding with an examination of horror and the unalterable.

So, Eric and Andrew are tied up and Leonard has presented them with a grade-B moral dilemma. How shall it be resolved? The horror plot calls for senseless violence; it is not long in coming. When Redmond begins torturing Eric, the other members of the gang kill him with a sledgehammer. There’s plenty of splatter and spray. The cabin on the lake is beginning to look more like Lizzie Borden’s father’s house than the unnervingly quaint interior of the Allison’s cottage.

The texture of the text slips into an informative mode (the differences between focalizations matter less and less, even as they expand to include the cult members). Theories for the cultist’s bad behavior are explained in tedious, faux-professional detail by Andrew, who “recalls reading about a uniquely twenty-first century mental-health crisis with a growing population of people suffering from clinically paranoid, psychotic elusions deciding to ignore professional help. . . The online groups reinforce and validate the delusions. . .” (157) His reasoning with the home invaders is equally uninspired: “Look at us tied up here. Really look at us. Is this right or normal? . . . How about you go and look at the guy you mashed to a pulp out on the deck, tell me that’s not wrong” (141).

The hard, dull light of the normative can be heard in passages that describe actions in a heroic frame and with an excruciatingly objective attention to details. Here’s Andrew in action: “He doesn’t hesitate. He calmly shrugs and lifts his right shoulder, a movement as innocuous and ordinary as a breath expanding within his chest. As his shoulder rises, he slides his right hand up. . . He is composed and considerate as he goes about the serious business of untying the leg ropes. The knots behind his calves are thick and obvious, and they give away their secrets to his battered fingers” (167).

It is the lack of incredulity that most offends. The universe has become entirely too neat; the absurd is erased to make way for the inexorable. Only a reality much more stable than our own can sustain the painfully objective style that emerges here. Such dullness, I fear, is the price to be paid for horror in the age of King. Although our protagonists suffer bouts of irrationality, the madness is figured in the cult members; this externalization of the irrational leaves us with an all too rational and mechanistic universe, which is to say one shaped by the narcissism of the normal. Part of this is the ‘straightening out’ of the structure of suspense. As we enter the horror narrative, the scenes of gross physical violence can only mean that more and greater forms of violence are coming. Soon we encounter sentences such as the following: “If Eric is a cornered lion tamer, then Adriane is the lion, stalking, pacing, and darting forward at Eric and then skittering back when he swings what was once her staff. She has a steak knife in each hand, the blades thin but serrated” (177). Note how the simile draws on what it takes for an easily digestible symbol, the “cornered lion tamer,” and how this symbolic content supports a description of the imagined materiality of the scene–the positioning of bodies and weapons. This is a good example of the normalization of narrative textures that seems ubiquitous in contemporary horror narratives. You will find exactly the same quality in the best-selling novels of King or Peter Straub. I simply can’t read them; not because they are scary but because they are so prosaic.

Spoiler alert!

So far, I have been localizing the deadening effect of the horror narrative in a contemporary style of normativity that has become the hallmark of success in an era when popular novels aspire to become movies (not to mention Netflix series). In the final paragraphs, I want to go further in order to describe what I’m calling horror’s imperative. To do this, I will spoil the end of Tremblay’s novel. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens. Furthermore, and more significantly, I am going to spoil major parts of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, Funny Games.

Funny Games (1997)

Funny Games is also set in a cabin on the edge of lake. In this case, the middle-class family, Anna, Georg and Georgie, has arrived a little early in the season. They are settling in when two young men stop by, claiming to be friends of the neighbors. Intense naturalism focused upon politeness, hospitality, parenting, and propriety generates nearly overwhelming suspense when the young men refuse to leave. When the family is bound and the torture begins, Funny Games becomes the most horrifying film I’ve ever seen. I do not recommend it. I was in a daze of terror for more than week. (Although directed by Haneke, the U.S. remake (2007) is not nearly as effective, in part because the tensions around politeness don’t exist in the American vacation house as they do in Austria and in part because Tim Roth, while a wonderful actor, was a poor choice for the father role.)

Here’s the spoiler, if you haven’t already guessed it. In The Cabin at the End of the World, the unthinkable horror is the same as in Funny Games. It is the child who dies (on in the case of Haneke’s film, dies first). Andrew ends up with the gun. He shoots Adriane, whose “throat explodes in a geyser of blood” (184) and then he and Leonard are wrestling for control of the weapon when it goes off and little Wen “doesn’t see or hear or feel anything anymore” (186).

Wen’s death is the novel’s ultimate horror. Everything has been done to protect her; she is the adopted child of the family, protected by Leonard, and adopted by the readers, who spend time in her head and that of her parents. It is surprising, shocking, and almost unspeakable. The end of the world has arrived earlier than expected; the sacrifice, meant to protect a world for young Wen to grow up in, has deprived the world of her. This horror doesn’t conclude the narrative, but it tilts us into an extended denouement, the narrative purpose of which is to restore the broken normal by punishing the wicked and making a space or the survivors to endure. While accidental, Wen’s death would seem to fulfill the prophecy. It also breaks the psychotic spell for Sabrina, who kills Leonard, then herself. Eric and Andrew are left alone on the road outside their cabin. Eric, concussed, wonders if maybe the world is about to end, while Andrew, wracked with grief and guilt, struggles to maintain their mutual sanity. At one point Eric “waits and gives Andrew a chance to say the right thing, the impossible right thing that would make this all go away and take us and Wen back home safe” (267).

The inability to take it back is central to horror narratives. No film commits to the inexorability of horror than Funny Games. It is structured around five or six truly horrific moments. One occurs when young Georgie is killed by the intruders; it is unexpected and casual, a sort of accident. As in The Cabin at the End of the World, the parent’s inability to protect their child is a horror almost beyond reason. But there are two more and more powerful horrors in the film. The second one occurs when Anna grabs the shotgun they used to kill her son and shoots one of the men in the chest. It appears that justice is about to be restored–that we are entering the revenge narrative (as in Last House on the Left (1972) or Revenge (2017)). But the other tormenter grabs the remote control and rewinds the film that we are watching, reversing the incident. The cruelty of this is almost unbearable. A metafictional leap restores the unjust to life, but it can’t bring back Georgie or justice. The miracle is in the hands of the tormenters; the film’s rejection of the normative horror narrative, which gives us a survivor, clarifies the nature of horror, I think. It is to be found in the sense of inevitability. Indeed, the final, equally horrific episode in Funny Games occurs at the very end. Anna is bound and put onto a sailboat. With a terrifying casualness, she is pushed into the water. There is no escape. There are no survivors. There will be no justice. This is the horror of horror.

Tremblay’s novel offers a more conventional ending. Drawing directly from Beckett, he has Eric say, “What will we do? We can’t go on.” To which Andrew replies, “We’ll go on.” Their love for each other, their reasonableness will prevail. As in most horror novels and films, the survivors are as necessary as the violence. This restoration is not available in Jackson’s story or Haneke’s film, but for entirely different reasons. In Jackson’s story, the violence never arrives. In Haneke’s film, it continues to arrive beyond all reason and until their are no survivors. While Jackson’s story is purely weird, Haneke’s film is utterly horrific.

Tremblay’s novel draws on weird conventions and incorporates a weird theme, but it is a horror narrative at heart, and unfortunately a very normative one at that.

The next and final installment in this series of Weird Fiction reviews will examine what I hope and expect was the weirdest novel of 2018: Michael Cisco’s Unlangauge, published by Eraserhead Press.

Black Lives Matter Memorial Continues

On July 4, 2020, we began a memorial for Black people killed by the police under the Red line tracks in Rogers Park. Previous posts, on 8 July and 17 September, describe some of the goals we have had in making and maintaining the memorial.

The Winter Memorial

In this post, on a day that feels like the beginning of spring, I reflect upon what the memorial is becoming. When it began, with Black Lives Matter protests occurring across the city and nation, the project was as much a protest as it was a memorial. It expressed grief, outrage, frustration, perhaps also the optimism of agitation; the will to change. Eight months later, it continues to resonate in these ways, but has acquired other sentiments and signs; perhaps they were there already, and I have become attuned to them. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel on public monuments sponsored by the Chicago Monuments Project. This amazing project seeks to address “the hard truths of Chicago’s racial history, confront the ways in which that history has and has not been memorialized, and develop a framework for marking public space that elevates new ways to memorialize Chicago’s history more equitably and accurately.” The other panelists offered very thoughtful insights into what the city’s monuments might become; the public’s questions and their answers illuminated qualities of this project that were not apprehensible to me when we began.

There have been a number of material additions to the memorial as public contributions have continued to grow and change it’s shape and scope. The most obvious addition is:

The altar

The Altar
by Erik Gustifson &  Damien Hinjosa

Two local carpenters built what we call the altar. One of them stopped by one day and asked if we’d like them to build something for the photographs, candles, cans of food, bottles, incense, and other offerings that were left against the wall. We said, “go for it,” with no idea if anything would materialize or what it would be. A few months later, I arrived one morning to find this beautiful construction. It is made out of wood, decorated with furniture tacks, and the inside is covered with corkboard so that you can put photos and prayers up with thumbtacks. It protects the candles from the wind and all the offerings from the snow and rain.

As an object, it is beautiful. It’s five arches sit on two tiers, which wrap around the corrugated outer edge of the arches to meet the base of the backboard. Within the arches are eight shelves. The inside of the arches and the outside of the tiers are lined with small, thick black furniture tacks. But for me, the truest expression of the love it contributes to the memorial comes from its resonances with the inside of the underpass. In its size and many functions, it honors, protects, and amplifies what was already going on within the monument.

I am grateful for the altar every time I visit the monument. Even before it arrived, I had begun to think of the monument as a kind of church. I have been visiting it every Sunday, which is when my family used to attend Episcopal services when I was growing up. I have found there much of what I remember from church in those years: a place for solemn reflection, a reminder of the work that must be done, prayers for the dead and fellowship for the living.

Portraits and More Birds

Portraits of Darius Pinex, Dakota Bright, and Rekia Boyd honor Chicago residents killed by the police.

A number of people brought large portraits of various kinds to the monument. The first portrait to appear was on the Red line wall, a little ways away from the edge of our site. It is an exquisitely made, slightly larger than life portrait of a Black woman, sketched in black and gold on brown paper and wheat-pasted onto the wall by someone who knew what they were doing. It appeared without a title or explanation; it is far enough away from the monument that it seems to comment upon as well as contribute to what we are doing. The next large portrait was an image of Breonna Taylor made out of multiple sheets of standard sized printer paper taped together. This image came with a story: its contributor worked for a city library; they designed and printed it to put up on the library bulletin board, but a supervisor refused to allow it. In short: library police! So this person brought it to us and we affixed it to the wall.

More recently, a member of the P.O. Box collective printed large portraits of Chicago residents killed by the police. These portraits, some of which are pictured above, now grace the tops of the inner arches that face the altar.

A crow or possibly raven protects our rainbow flag

Birds have always visited the monument. There is an electrical box at one edge of the main wall with an accumulation of pigeon poop that required years of growth. I’m afraid we’ve scared them off, but maybe they will return in the spring. Meanwhile, a number of exquisitely crafted paper and tape birds have begun to perch on the electrical cables running along the upper edge of the inner wall, and some have even occupied the pigeons’ former roost.

Precarity and Repair: Toward a Living Memorial

We are grateful to the journalist Ash-har Quraishi for a thoughtful portrait of our memorial for Scripps that has appeared on local stations across the country. You can watch it here on WXYZ in Detroit: Artists maintain neighborhood memorial mourning victims of police violence. Quraishi told me that he’d been visiting memorials made in the wake of George Floyd’s death across the country, and that ours was one of the few that was still intact. The reason for our ‘longevity’ is simple: our memorial is still in progress. We are not yet done building it; our installation remains ongoing.

One of our goals is to make a visual representation of all the Black people killed by police and security forces in the United States over the last decade. This visual representation is far from finished. So far, we have pasted up names as far back as 2014. Although Rekia Boyd is on our wall, we have not yet begun to represent all Black lives taken in 2012, the year she was murdered on an unusually warm March 27th by an off-duty police officer. And the crisis continues. At least 125 Black people have been killed by the police since we began the project eight months ago. Furthermore, our data is incomplete. I have been relying on two primary databases: Fatal Force, a Washington Post database that attempts to record all encounters with the police that resulted from a death by gunshot. Obviously, this data is incomplete for our purposes. Daniel Prude, George Floyd, and Eric Garner don’t appear on it, for example. A more comprehensive database is Fatal Encounters, which attempts to track every death in which the police were involved. These databases, like all of the ones I’ve found, rely upon local news reports. For the most part, the local news reporters rely on police statements for their initial story–and few of these deaths are ever revisited on the news. In the last six months, I’ve observed a disturbing trend. More and more frequently, the police repots do not identify the race of the person who died. I suspect that under heighted scrutiny police departments may be hiding Black death by refusing to provide this information. This is particularly ironic when one considers their role in the construction of racial categories of identification in the first place.

The peeling memorial

So we are not done. And meanwhile, the memorial deteriorates rapidly. It was never meant to last; wheat paste and paper is no match for a Chicago winter. I knew this when we started but I had no conception of what the project’s future might be. I expected that we’d get shut down in a few days. As it turns out, that didn’t happen–in part because we agreed not to put anything lasting on the public walls. Unlike paint, wheat paste is not considered durable by the city, and for good reason. Although we have been perfecting our recipe and technique, snow, wind, and rain are at least as effective as the city’s Graffiti Busters. But fragility in one area generates durability in another.

Some of us who visit the memorial regularly have determined to maintain it. When the name cards begin to peel, we reapply our paste and stick them back down. When the names fade, we go over them with a fresh marker. When the paper is about to come completely off or the name illegible, we replace them. Thus, the memorial has become something to be tended on a weekly, if not daily basis. We care for it and in the shelter of that care we are rewarded with new friendships, new alliances, new ways to serve.

I will end with a story of the memorial becoming other to itself over the winter.

Rest in Peace, Ricardo Arnold.
We miss you.

One of our neighbors sees the memorial almost daily; since before we began, she was waiting for a ride almost every day under the Red line tracks. A few months ago, her husband Ricardo–a Rogers Park resident for many decades–died of COVOID-19. When she told me this, she explained that she understood that his name wouldn’t be appropriate for the wall as he had not been killed by the police. But I felt that this was one of the things the altar has made possible; it has made a space within the memorial which is larger than the memorial’s stated purpose. In the darkest days of February, she brought us a couple of photographs of Ricardo for the altar. Putting them up, along with some verses, and remembering this beautiful Black man, taken well before his time, was very moving, and an expansion and clarification of our project.

Since my last post about the memorial, three stories about it have appeared; one is mentioned above. Here are the other two. A few days after Christmas, Darcel Rockett visited the memorial with photographer Erin Hooley. The result was an incredibly thoughtful and detailed piece on the memorial which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 30 December 2020. Here is a link to “Volunteers create Black Lives Matter memorial under the Red Line in Rogers Park with the names of people killed by police.” A few days later, Joanie Lum of Chicago’s Fox 32 paid us a visit, creating this generous portrait of the project, which aired on 8 January 2021: “Mural dedicated to victims of police violence keeps growing.” We are deeply grateful to these reporters for taking the time to understand what we are trying to do.

As the warmer weather returns, I invite everyone to visit and contribute to the memorial. It is a public monument. No one controls it; no one determines how it should be used. A group of volunteers are meeting there every Sunday from 11:00 to 1:00 to tend to it and add names.

The Crisis Continues

This memorial continues because the crisis continues.

Take the case of Benjamin Tyson. On Thursday 25 February, Baltimore police responded to reports of a non-fatal shooting following an altercation in the Inner Harbor neighborhood, near the Aquarium. Police chased a suspect into a nearby parking garage. Body camera footage shows Benjamin Tyson walking up the ramp; he is ordered to put his hands up. He takes both hands out of his pockets. In his right hand he holds gun. It is not pointed at the police; both hands are half-way raised and on on their way up when the video stops. Two or three officers fired sixteen rounds. In their initial report, the Baltimore Police Department claimed that Benjamin gun had “misfired.” Then they said that it had “jammed.” Indeed, their own footage clearly shows that he does not fire the weapon. They claim that he points it at the officers but that is not in the video either. According to Baltimore’s Mayor, Brandon Scott, the killing of 35-year-old Benjamin is an example of “our police officers being where they’re supposed to be.” According to Benjamin’s sister, Kia Shaw, the police’s version “is not the events that we viewed.” “They can’t keep killing us with no explanation,” she is quoted as saying on WJZ, “Sixteen shots was overkill, so we want answers.”

We miss you, Benjamin Tyson.

Weird Fiction Review: Soul Shakedown

Soul Shakedown (2020)

Gareth R. Miles’ Soul Shakedown wasn’t on the list of contemporary weird novels I set out to review. This “metafictional adventure” was published in 2020 by the author; it fell into my hands through auspicious circumstances. Much like Jon Basoff’s The Drive-Thru Crematorium, a work of contemporary “bizarro” fiction, Soul Shakedown isn’t strictly weird, but belongs to a related genre, speculative adventure fiction.

Born in London, raised in Georgetown (Guyana), and having lived in Venezuela, Brazil, the U.S., and Whales, Gareth Miles is a citizen of the world. As the reggae MC SKS de Arrowhead, he raps about social justice and labor rights with a Rastafarian perspective. Soul Shakedown, his first novel, brings his Rastafarian philosophy and progressive politics into fiction.

The novel’s narrator, “five foot five, oddly-proportion, pug-nosed Compton Sharpe” (37), lives in East Orange, New Jersey with his father, his girlfriend, “calm polite studious Sammie” (20), and their baby girl, Angie. As the novel begins, Compton has taken a new job at the De Lancey Institute, a science lab which employs him as a janitor. His work–endlessly polishing wooden panels around the laboratory–is easy enough, but baby Angie begins to suffer from an inexplicable illness. She becomes unresponsive–not comatose, but vacant, as though she weren’t all there. Desperate for a solution, Compton organizes a meeting with his best friends (soul mates), Jackie, Chopper, and Patricia. Jackie’s an organic intellectual, full of history and ancestral knowledge; Chopper’s more physical, an expert at karate; Patricia’s special power appears to be sexiness (“She look so much like a goddess I surprise she ain’ got eight arms,” Compton explains (30)). This group, along with Sammie, Pops, and Compton himself, band together to rescue Angie from whatever seems to be stealing her personality. For reasons that are not entirely clear, they immediately determine that Angie’s loss of spirit is being caused by the De Lancey Institute. The scientists who work there are something like Ol’ Higue, a figure from Guyanese folklore who travels through electrical sockets and “does suck out yuh blood just like vampire” (30). Most of the novel’s actions occur on a single night, when this group raids the laboratory.

Soul Shakedown is ambitious. It provides an original idea and a rare narrative perspective; but elements of the narrative, plot, and speculative concept sometimes work against each other in the wrong way. To understand what does and doesn’t work, we should recall this novel’s most significant ancestors, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954).

Tutuola, The Palm-wine Drinkard (1952)

Born in 1920, Tutuola grew up in a farming village outside Abeokuta, Nigeria. He received six years of formal education in English and was working as a blacksmith for the Royal Air Force in Nigeria when he composed his first and most famous novel. It is very weird for two reasons. First, Tutuola wrote in English inflected by a Yoruba dialect. Grammar and spelling follow speech patterns rather than traditional English prose structures–a feature which was considered disgraceful by some of his contemporaries, but which caught the attention of Dylan Thomas, who championed his work. Tutuola’s use of non-standard English puts these novels in a long tradition of vernacular prose. From Robert Burns and Mark Twain to Kamau Brathwaite and Irvine Welsh, the English literary tradition has included this counterforce–the English of the colonized. (Brathwaite terms it “Nation language.”)

Second, the novels are narrated by ordinary Nigerians who become lost in a parallel world–a land of the dead which both intersects and overlaps with the modern world. Its characters derive from Yoruba folklore, but they do not linger in some premodern age. Their lives are much like those of living Nigerians–save for the total insanity and intense violence that permeates this alternative realm. As the Rev. Geoffrey Parrinder puts it in the introduction to Grove Press Edition (1984):

It has a nightmarish quality of its own, and one feels the bewilderment and fear, repugnance and despair, and also intoxication and exaltation, which one would expect to experience in the company of ghosts.. . . One goes with the author in his waking nightmare. . . The unknown bush with its frightful spirits . . . is a dreadful place. Fairy tales can scare, but this is more terrifying than Grimm as its matter is more serious and is believed in by millions of Africans today. (10-11)

Note the last sentence here: I don’t know what specific social phenomena Parrinder has in mind, but the swerve to contemporary beliefs hints at the hallucinatory quality of Tutuola’s work. The synthesis of verbal energy and modern folk tale has a psychotic effect; for the protagonists and the reader, reality becomes utterly unreliable. The world is so ordinary and outrageous by turns that you have no idea what might happen next.

Soul Shakedown owes a clear debt to Tutuola’s novels. It is written in Guyanese English and draws on the folklore of Guyana while presenting a Rastafarian cosmology. It combines this narrative style with transportation to an alternative reality–a soul world which sometimes resembles Tutuola’s bush of ghosts.

With these similarities in place, the difference between weird and speculative fiction becomes more comprehensible. We can distinguish between these fields by considering that weird fiction depends upon realism. It establishes our own ‘real world’ before hinting at a puncture of that reality. At the other end of this spectrum is pure fantasy–the narrative that is set in a fictional world. The term speculative fiction originally designated worlds between these two poles. Speculative narratives were often set in alternative histories, for example, or in fantastic worlds that bore certain “realist” elements (such as an urban setting, contemporary technologies, etc.). But there is also an affective register that distinguishes these genres. Whereas weird or fantastic stories condense affect around “could it be?”–the hesitation, delight, or dread upon discovering that the laws of reality may fail–speculative fictions organize our interest around “what if?”–they tend to be more akin to science fiction in this regard. Weird fiction disorients; speculative fiction orients us in a partially alternative reality. Tutuola’s fiction does both; although it’s focus is on world building, it remains intensely weird. It’s dynamic revolves around encountering the impossible. Miles’s fiction is speculative. It’s interest is an explanation of the incredible. Although Soul Shakedown establishes a contemporary “real world” setting for its characters, it is not particularly invested in it. Miles’ investment is in the exploration of a singular idea (and, like most novels, the presentation of a sentimental education).

The speculative world is built around a delicious concept. This thing called soul. The practice of soulfulness saturates Compton’s world. It can be seen in the ancient Timehri (Guyanese rock carvings) Jackie describes and felt when listening to “Natural Mystic” on Bob Marley’s Exodus. Most importantly, it is lived in moments of positive intimacy. Compton’s growing up, trying to be a good man. His mother has died and he’s moved in with his father; he’s planning on proposing to Sammie and doesn’t smoke weed around the baby. His narrative often focuses intensely upon the family dynamic, as though searching for moments of soulful connection. One occurs early on:

Is Sammie who break up the bad vibes. She just walk up and rub he pon the shoulder. One ting I love bout that gal, she never stay mad long, and when she calm down, she got a talen for leeching the rage outta big-nostril bull-people like me and Pops. [. . .] I ain’ say nothing, I just walk up and put my arms round both a’ dem and pull us all together. I kiss Pops pon the cheek and Sammie pon the mouth and Angie pon her lil nubbidy-nubbin of a nose. (21)

Getting high, Jackie expostulates a theory. Although our souls inhabit our bodies, they also live in a soul world. This soul plane resembles our own in a crucial way: souls are part of a food chain; soul beings eat soul food; their shit is what we know as personality. Angie’s soul isn’t getting the proper nutrients, somehow–hence her lack of animation. Indeed, “Natural Mystic” is the only thing they’ve found that wakes Angie from her stupor. As Compton puts it,

Jackie practically break-dancing in he chair as he expound pon the meaning of all this. “You see how is true wuh I been tellin you Comps? Chops? Eh? Bout how de riddims got a power, man, a heavy heavy power! Dem does call up de ancestor spirit, and watch now how they callin back she spirit! Dat is why ah does always tek care is wah riddims I selectin at a dance! Cos you callin up spirits man, and you ain’ waan call up de wrong ones bai-“… and so on and so forth. (39)

Compton is skeptical, but when they get to the lab, Jackie’s theory proves true. Angie’s soul is being stolen by the corporation. The laboratory is actually an enormous machine, a soul vacuum, or maybe a sort of soul fishing hole, that allows the creatures passing for scientists to feed on the neighboring population. They’ve been siphoning off bits of Compton’s soul (which rubs into the wood when he polishes it) and through him they got to little Angie, whose a very soulful little girl. As Compton puts it, “I ain’ get hire fuh be a janitor, I get hire fuh be a . . . nutritional supplement” (97).

Compton’s crew soon discover that the only way to free Angie’s soul is by attaching to the machine. Compton goes first. The middle three quarters of the novel occur in the soul world he enters. Each person sees the soul world according to their own memories. For Compton, it’s the Georgetown of his youth. At least, it appears to be until he notices a weird atmosphere:

The sea brown and choppy like always, but it got something. . . stagnant about it. Like it lackluster. It ain’ galloping towards the seawall at full battle charge like it use to. It kinda groaning towards shore, like is a onerous task and it almost too weak to do it. And is not only the sea; everywhere me look, tings is just… low energy. […] The donkey I now see pulling a cart down the road below me manage to seem like it shambling even though it trotting, and the two guys on the cart look like they dozing with they eyes open. They fine fine too, I notice as they pass by–so skinny they ribs stickin out like famine victims. (58)

This part of the soul world has been colonized by soul eaters, who have addicted the population to really shitty soul food. The food has almost no soul content whatsoever–it’s not nutritious or flavorful. Compton, who is soon joined by his father and Sammie–and later by his (deceased) mother–hatches a plan. They will get their friends on the outside to send them high quality soul food through the machine. They will distribute it to the population. The miserable souls, grateful for real soul food, will help them free Angie.

That’s the speculative idea, as I understand it. The Rasta solution is to organize against the sheriff by finding a way to feed the people. Soul food will reenergize their personalities and fill them with gratitude. It is delicious. In Fantastic Fiction, Todorov points out how many fantastic fictions begin as puns made literal. This literalization of the metaphor is a common operation of Freud’s “dream logic,” and Miles’ soul world is dreamy, at least at first. There is a moment where the characters actually discuss opening up some kind of vending stand on the beach, moving their food to the soul-starved inhabitants of this once-happy realm. Compton’s personality–skeptical but easily amazed, loving but selfish–could encompass such a plot. But Miles’ world isn’t that subtle. Perhaps with a nod to Tutuola’s world, the spirit plane proves to be a frenzied, grotesque place. Bodies grow and shrink at alarming rates and everyone seems to be in a feasting frenzy or clubbing each other. For example, when the trapped souls get the high-quality food:

As for the obese, basketball-stomach ones now–I lil concern bout dem. I ain’ know if they bodies could take it, the way how they knocking the food back. I got visions of dem just exploding . . . Turns out I ain’ had no need to worry though. At first, they whole structure puffing out alarmingly, til dem resembling human hot-air balloons. But after couple minutes, they flesh start shuddering and rolling around like is magma bubbling up in a volcano, and just like how lava does solidify into volcanic rock, is so they blubber start solidifying into solid soul-sinew. (137-8)

The soul world’s physics are more comic-book than dreamy, more flat than atmospheric, more “mission-oriented” than memory-based.

In The Weird and the Eerie (2016), Mark Fisher insists that “weird fiction always presents us with a threshold between worlds” (28). There is much to be written on the contours of alternative worlds in weird fiction: several have been discussed in previous posts. The most literal “threshold” is the portal. In pure fantasy, such as Narnia or Hogwarts, the portal is given a specific location. (At the weird end of the spectrum, we are more likely to find stories which merely hint at the possibility of some other place. Machen’s The White People, Blackwood’s The Willows, and Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock are notable examples.) Science fiction of course supplies many technological portals, probably the most famous being H. G. Well’s time machine. In Soul Shakedown, the portal seems ordinary enough; as far as I could tell, it resembles the machine in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986), but with wood paneling and upgraded computers. This suggests that the soul realm is experienced as a sort of virtual reality. While Compton’s inside, his body’s motionless, protected by his friends, who are operating the controls. But inside the machine’s world, at least for Compton, there is no equivalent portal. At one point, however, he does travel from the soul world to a higher plane of soulful existence. (This is accomplished by dreaming and in the dream becoming a ghost, which then travels through a beam of light into a more ethereal zone.) Portals within portals.

So far, so good. But in the second half, it falls apart. I blame the action adventure plot. The whole time that Compton’s in the machine, we have to imagine that his friends are racing against the clock in the real world–sooner or later, their break-in will be discovered. They haven’t got all night. At least at first, there’s no way of telling how the soul world’s temporality might correlate to the real world sequence. But then they begin communicating and hatch all kinds of plots. The time constraints creep into the soul world, which ends its dreaminess. We end up in an action movie. Speculative fiction can handle an adventure plot far more than weird fiction. The speculative idea may be relayed through any number of conventional story lines. Weirdness, by its nature, favors the unknown outcome. It is hesitant, curious, uncertain, introspective.

This issue is compounded because Compton is not an action hero. He observes deeply–this is the essence of his soulfulness. When he takes a bite of the high-grade soul food, it’s a serious trip. He’s ingesting Chopper’s soul; as it washes through him, he experiences pieces of his friend’s life, sees things through his eyes, shares his bodily memories. Compton describes the experience for three or four pages, and it’s some of the most enjoyable writing in the book. The idea needs Compton’s careful yet joyful description. But meanwhile, Compton’s constantly reminding us that time is of the essence; the entire plot demands it. I kept wishing that the plot followed the rhythms of Compton’s voice. The use of Guyanese English patois is not disruptive. In this, it departs from Tutuola’s “broken English,” which mixes, very deliberately, with the grotesqueries of the ghost world. (Welsh does the same thing in Porno and some passages of Glue, when the narrator’s brogue feels like an assault upon the linguistic empire.) This choice makes sense, because Compton’s a friendly narrator, always ready to offer insight and insight into his insight. But in the latter half especially, this narrative style doesn’t jibe with the action sequences, which become frequent and extended. By the end, Compton’s back in the lab and everyone is Kung Fu fighting, literally.

NEXT UP in the Weird Fiction Review Series: Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World (HarperCollins, 2018).

Weird Fiction Review #8: Jac Jemc’s The Grip Of It

Jac Jemc, The Grip of It. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2017.

Haunted houses are a staple of weird fiction. From Gothic castles to the abandoned house on swampland lampooned in Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids, fantastic fiction has much to say about uncanny dwellings. Jac Jemc’s gripping novel The Grip of It belongs to this genre.

With an MFA from Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, Jemc has enjoyed deserved success as a writer of weird fiction. The Grip of It, her third major publication, was praised by many reviewers and widely recommended, with favorable notices in Entertainment Weekly, O, Marie Claire, Esquire, and other popular magazines. Her most recent book, the short story collection False Bingo won the Chicago Review of Books Award for fiction, and a new novel is expected next year.

For the sake of time, our tour of the haunted house scenario in English literature will visit a single location before supplying the reader with a map. We begin at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Walpole’s approach to the weird tale is ingeniously simple. He invents a manuscript, supposedly printed in Naples 236 years earlier, in 1529. He offers his “translation.” The weirdness is generated by juxtaposing three perspectives.

The first is supplied by the story’s protagonists, sincere if passionate rationalists engaged in a family drama involving love and inheritance. They are, as Walpole explains in the preface, those Renaissance forefathers whose letters “contributed to dispel the empire of superstition.” The second perspective is supplied by their servants, who still believe in the supernatural. (As Walpole explains in his second preface, the “deportment of the domestics” is central to his project.) In alternating scenes, the nobility and domestics encounter “supernatural” events, nearly all of which turn out to have natural causes. (Walpole’s model is Shakespeare; elements of Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream are particularly evident). But the drama begins with an impossible event–a giant helmet falls out of the sky, crushing the heir of Otranto’s fortune. The nobility are baffled, but they must accept the object’s stubborn materiality, which is emphasized. They set out to determine the meaning of this impossible thing, while reprimanding the domestics for their foolish beliefs.

Walpole’s hoax title page
on the 1765 edition

The third perspective is that of the readers, who are asked to read the text with skepticism. By presenting the text as a “hoax” (whether or not that deceit is believed makes no difference), Walpole invites us to scrutinize the style and substance closely, allowing it to test our sense of plausibility. In the preface, Walpole pretends to apologize for the text’s “air of the miraculous.” He predicts that we may try to excuse the impossible things that it purports to describe as symptoms of the “original” writer’s style or intentions–then challenges our ability to do this. He asks us to observe that the story’s style is not poetic or allegorical. On the contrary, his “translation” brings before the public a text from Renaissance Italy written in a surprisingly modern style. He begs us to observe how “Every thing tends directly to the catastrophe.” There is no ornament, no flights of fancy. The naturalistic details provided by our narrator embed him with the rationalists. (“My rule was nature,” Walpole will later confess.)

This leaves us, the readers, in the position of the domestics–if we read past chapter one, we have already, at least tacitly, accepted the miraculous event. In short, the “empire of superstition” continues; the age of reason has not extinguished our capacity to accept the impossible. This is Walpole’s satire on the reading public, which is also born out by the novel’s sardonic tone.

Over the centuries, writers have invented innumerable combinations of Walpole’s key ingredients. In all of the weirdest stories, we find a built environment (a house, castle, hotel, etc.), rational and irrational inhabitants, and an unreliable record of the impossible event. While the Victorians wrote some excellent haunted house stories (see The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert), I’d argue that the most memorable houses were explored by writers confronting the modernist restructuring of space, time, and subjectivity. Consider this cluster of weird stories that foreground the uncanny atmosphere of rooms, apartments, estates, and cathedrals: Henry James’s “The Ghostly Rental” (1876), “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), and “The Jolly Corner” (1908); Ambrose Bierce’s “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch” (1891); Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892); M.R. James’s “Canon Albric’s Scrapbook” (1894), “Lost Hearts” (1895), “Number 13” (1904), “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” (1910), and “A View from a Hill” (1925); Madeline Yale Wynn’s “The Little Room” (1895); Emma Francis Dawson’s “An Itinerant House” (1897); Edith Wharton’s “The Lady Maid’s Bell” (1902), “Afterward” (1910), “Bewitched” (1926), and “Mr Jones” (1929); Algernon Blackwood’s “The Listener” (1907) and “The Empty House” (1907); Walter De la Mare’s “Out of the Deep” (1920); H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), “The Shunned House” (written in 1924), and “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932). These stories may be seen as variations on Walpole’s formula. For example, in “The Yellow Wall Paper” the rationalist is played by John, the narrator’s husband, the “superstitious domestic” is played by the narrator, and the textual ambivalence is evoked by pretending that the text is her diary. As Gilman’s story remind us, the modernist fascination with Freudian psychology and William James’s “stream of consciousness” led them to evoke uncanny sensations by creating hysterical and neurotic narratives. The ultimate expression of the modernist haunted house is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which also includes elements of postmodern pastiche.

The postmodern haunted house story begins with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1950), which takes The Castle of Otranto in a different direction, abandoning the hoax and the modernist psyche in favor of a more direct confrontation between the reader and the impossible thing. The text does not pretend to be a translation, diary, or hysterical account; instead, the style makes it seem otherworldly. It is nearly impossible to determine, sentence by sentence, where the novel’s realism ends and its allegory begins. Just as Walpole asks his readers to do, we struggle to determine what, if anything, constitutes the “real” of the world it purports to disclose. Other haunted places that are weird in this postmodern way may be found in Ray Russell’s “Sardonicus” (1959) and George Saunders’ “Civil War Land in Bad Decline” (1992). Since the 1960s, haunted dwellings have organized popular and critically acclaimed stories that use a variety of these methods. While the Gothic formula remains (e.g., Stephen King’s The Shining (1977)), the most interesting contemporary stories revisit modernist techniques. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) strike me as the most valuable.

All of this prepares us to get into The Grip of It, for this novel offers a thoughtful and original variation on the haunted house tale. Jemc’s novel satirizes the middleclass dream of home ownership while providing a simple, effective twist to the formula. At some unspecified time after the foreclosure crisis, Julie and James, young, white, college educated, middleclass, in love, and with a taste for the Gothic, invest in a “big and Victorian” house at the “end of a cul-de-sac” as far from the city as employment opportunities allow them to go. Their story is told in alternating first-person narratives. Already Jemc’s variation can be discerned. The roles of rationalist and domestic are played alternately by Julie and James. The unreliable narrative and gender dynamics introduced by Gilman are in play, but ownership of the discourse and power in the relationship (and world) are equally distributed between the male and female characters. Inasmuch as the terms “unreliable” and “engendered” are nearly interchangeable when applied to literary narratives (from Tristram Shandy’s accidental circumcision onwards, the unreliable narrator repeats an Oedipal drama), Jemc’s originality stems from narrative transsexuality. Whereas “The Yellow Wallpaper” or “The Jolly Corner” bring us almost completely into the reality experienced by a single, obsessed subject, The Grip of It toggles between two equally rational/hysterical subjects. The narrative is easily shared by these characters because Julie and James are almost identical. They share ownership of the house and enjoy equal liberty of movement and access to the labor market. They attempt to be equal partners in their relationship. Most importantly, their narrative styles are nearly the same. Each has their own secrets and fears, but they inhabit the same discursive terrain (a terse, sometimes bland post-Hemingway prose style that is entirely normal). Being equally (un)reliable, they alternately support and resist each other’s encounters with the house’s weird features. They lose their grasps on reality in different ways, growing apart as they succumb to their new house’s strangeness, but the “hesitation” they experience is not attributed to sexual difference, as it is in the modernist stories.

In the early chapters, Jemc’s novel develops a theme that occurs in many haunted house stories: the pleasures and perils of homemaking for a “normal” couple. (At one point, Julie and her friend Connie toast Julie’s decision to live in “Normal Town.”) No doubt, contemporary versions of these tropes owe much to Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (1977), a “true crime” novel that, like the film franchise it inspired, focuses on the efforts of middleclass white newlyweds to make their new house a home. Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” begins with a similar premise. In these stories, as in Jemc’s novel, realism is established around the feelings associated with taking possession of a big, old house that, of course, comes with a history of its own. Importantly, both members of the couple bring their own emotional baggage. They negotiate their relationship while sharing the house as a “project.” The alternating narratives allow Jemc to develop these scenes in detail; we witness a series of “nonevents”–moments when something is overlooked or isn’t mentioned. Here is Julie:

“What’s up?” James says, without lifting his eyes.

“We’re missing a pot.” I glance around, counting again.

“Probably got packed in a different box.”

“That would be an entirely reasonable theory if I didn’t remember feeling so proud that I’d fit them all into two perfectly sized boxes.”

James rolls his eyes and I know why; because this is precisely a thing that would bring me joy, boring to anyone else, but thrillingly efficient to me. (15)

Julie and James find themselves in the other’s gaze, as Julie does in this passage. She knows that James knows her quirks, and this allows her to set aside her observation of the missing pot. Their unpacking, exploring, and fixing up of the place is related on an almost daily basis, allowing many little oddities to accrue. There are noises and stains, strange rooms and queer neighbors. As Julie or James or both discover the weird pattern, they tend to hide their sense of the uncanny, functioning as each other’s object cause of repression. This begins, subtly, to put a strain on their relationship, which anxiety they both also conceal. The first moment when they “come clean,” confessing their suspicions and clearing the air, is narrated by James. Over dinner, they discuss trivial matters, each hiding their own secrets. Julie breaks first, blurting out that she has discovered what she believes is a grave in the backyard. James accompanies her outside. She shows him “a plot of stale dirt lined on one side with rocks.” James is unimpressed by the grave, but not with Julie. Standing beside her, he feels “all the love I possibly can for her” and “remind[s]” himself “not to kiss her.” When she asks him to reciprocate, by telling her what he has been withholding, he does:

I know that I owe it to her to be honest and share my worry, too, though. I tell her about the children in the trees. I tell her how they call to each other. They hunt for a murderer.

Julie acts as if this is less concerning. “That’s just kids playing.”

I feel hurt for taking her seriously and being dismissed myself. This is how she copes, though. “You’re right,” I say. I’m proud of her for not taking this trouble on. I try to believe. I think of the bartender’s stories and keep them to myself. (33)

Of course, James has not been taking Julie any more seriously than she takes him. He just made a statement about the grave that was equally dismissive. Hurt by her apparently casual dismissal, he refuses to share a strange rumor about the house, telling himself that he is protecting her. As the book continues, they continue to disavow and ignore “the problem,” which increasingly becomes a matter of trust and sharing, while independently pursing the other “problem”–the strange events that occur in and around the house, and the ominous stories told about its former inhabitants. As Julie says at one point, “I might tell James or I might not. I start to lose track of what I’ve shared with him and what I’ve kept to myself” (65). The dual-narrative filtering of the uncanny events effectively combines the drama between rational and irrational subjects with the drama between the humans, their house, and the supernatural.

The latter remains offstage, but as stories about the house begin to surface and the characters experience increasingly powerful dreams and delusions, a creepiness begins to emerge. The “checkout lady” tells Julie that a previous owner just disappeared. “They searched the whole house. They waited. Eventually the house went into foreclosure…” (49) At the local library, Julie finds records of a tragedy (the death of a child) at their neighbor’s house, and upon further surveillance he does appear melancholic, perhaps obsessive. At one point they suspect him of entering their house while they are away. The house itself can’t be found on any maps. These “objective” oddities are conventional and tend to lack the details necessary to generate an atmosphere of uncanny locality. (Such an atmosphere is handled far more ingeniously by Shirley Jackson in “The Summer People,” for example.)

By contrast, the delusions that our protagonists suffer are far more elegantly and effectively deployed. By juxtaposing perspectives, Jemc prevents us from being able to determine whether certain occurrences “really happened” or were hallucinations. One of my favorite examples unfolds in this way:

James is at work when he gets a series of text messages from Julie. He ignores them. Then “at 4:59, the message changes: ‘For real. I need help.'” James calls her. “She is silent for a long time. ‘I’m stuck in some room of the house. I don’t know how to get out'” (98). As James rushes home, we cut to Julie’s narrative:

I hear the door slam, feel the reverberations. When I dial James’s phone, the call goes straight to voice mail. I crouch down to see if there’s a lip between the floor and the wall to grab and shove out, but instead I find a book, leatherbound and wedged thick with loose pages. The room seems to pull in closer, and I panic, wondering if I’ll be crushed, then suddenly the wall behind me slides to one side on its own, and light floods in and I am in our bedroom, and I push through the crack quickly, and I look at where I’ve been and it’s just another space we don’t know, a narrow closet, and I examine how the wall works and slide it back, trying not to close it completely, but it clicks into place and then I can’t seem to budge it open again. [. . .] James comes into the room, screaming for me, then quieting down when he sees that I am right here.” (99-100).

I like this sequence because of what it doesn’t include. There is no account of Julie discovering this impossible closet; all we are given are the few sentence above. And when James enters the room, Julie is on the bed, sounding very slightly incoherent. When he asks “What happened?” she says “There’s a room behind that wall, but it’s gone now” (100). Was it a dream? This uncertainty or “hesitation” is weird fiction’s contribution to the haunted house narrative, and Jemc’s novel provides many fine instances of it.

I won’t give away the ending. I didn’t see it coming. It provides a sufficient if slightly disappointing conclusion, and in the meantime, our protagonists’ descent into the maelstrom of hallucination and conspiracy made this book hard to put down.

In conclusion, I want to return to the dual-narrative structure. At least since Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), multiple narrators have been used to elaborate a ghostly mystery (the same effect, of course, can be achieved by epistolary narratives, such as Shelley’s in Frankenstein (1818) or Bram Stoker’s in Dracula (1897)). But all previous stories that I know of emphasize the difference between narrative perspectives; Jemc’s novel emphasizes their similarity. For Julie and James, gender equality is a mutual aspiration; maintaining it is their shared goal. Efforts to resolve the atmosphere of suspicion that envelops them as the house undermines their confidence in themselves and each other drive the novel’s sentimental drama. As manifested in their nearly interchangeable narrative styles, this feature contributes to Jemc’s satire of the suburban subject. In their aspiration to enter “Normal Town,” J and J make themselves interchangeable. They hide their quirks from each other and from their friends and coworkers. As white middleclass consumers, their desires are superficial and ordinary.

But there is another context in which to read the alternating but similar narrative sequences: the found footage film. Found footage narrative cinema has exploded since The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) demonstrated the capacity of this conceit to turn independently made films into blockbusters. Although generally classified as comedy or horror, narrative based found footage films are particularly good at generating weirdness, uncertainty, and dread (rather than shock, terror, or revulsion). In a few of the best films, two or more cameras are involved in the diagetic story (which usually involves amateur film makers discovering something they shouldn’t). There are wonderfully uncanny moments that occur when the viewer is unsure who is operating the camera or when different cameras record an uncanny event from various perspectives. (See for example, Hollow (2011), Creep (2014), and Hell House LLC (2015), three of the best films to use this particular conceit.) I can’t help but notice how much Jemc’s novel feels like these films. Although the narratives reveal the inner lives of the protagonists, because Julie and James share a sensibility the movement between chapters often feels like a jump cut between cameras. Cameras may be differently positioned in space and time, but they are equally objective. The difference in perspective is material, not sentimental. A similar sense of worldly being operates in Jemc’s novel. If someone put me in charge of adapting the novel, I would argue against a found footage treatment of it, but I can see the temptation because the characters are more distinguished by what they witness (or hallucinate) than by individualized personalities.

NEXT TIME: We take another little detour from the program of 10 weird fiction reviews to discuss Gareth R. Miles’ Soul Shakedown (2020), a “metaphysical adventure” that may be the first work of speculative fiction written in Guyanese dialect.

The Black Lives Matter Memorial Continues

Our memorial for people of color killed by police forces across the nation continues to grow as the public and members of the P.O. Box Collective contribute to it. For a full account of this project, see the previous post.

A number of news organizations have featured the memorial. We are particularly grateful to Jalyn Henderson for her report on the project for Chicago’s ABC 7 Eyewitness News:

Memorial to Black lives lost to police brutality welcomes public participation.

We are also grateful to Zack Miller of the Loyola Phoenix for his in-depth reporting on the memorial and the crisis in policing that occasions it:

‘Neighborhood Memorial for Victims of Police Violence’ Continues to Grow More Than a Month After its Creation.

Writing for Block Club Chicago, Joe Ward also profiles the growing memorial:

Memorial For Victims Of Police Violence Takes Over Rogers Park Viaduct.

Everyone is invited to participate in the memorial. Posters proclaiming BLACK LIVES MATTER are available for free at the site. We continue to add names to the viaduct every Sunday from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm. Please join us.


One of my genre-bending poems is featured this week on The Five-Two:

Enter the Dove

Raymond Chandler meets John Ashbery in the context of a Hardy Boys novel.

Black Lives Matter in Rogers Park, Chicago

On the 4th of July, the CAFF Collective and the P.O. Box Collective began a neighborhood memorial in support of Black futures. The memorial is under the red line tracks at Glenwood and Farwell in Rogers Park, Chicago.

Beginning the memorial on the 4th of July

I developed the idea for the memorial a few days after the protests began in response to George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on May 25. The first step was to screen print hundreds of posters, which were distributed for free to the public at the site.

Black Lives Matter posters for display in neighborhood windows

“Free lines” are a technique for distributing movement culture posters, t-shirts, and pamphlets that the Cheap Art for Freedom (CAFF) Collective developed during opposition to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002-6.

The next step was to screen print hundreds of “We Miss You” cards. Each card has space for the name of a Black person killed by the police and the date of their death.

We Miss You Laquan McDonald. We Miss You Freddie Gray…

As residents of the neighborhood passed by, we invited them to “take a poster and leave a name.” Some people chose not to interact, but most stopped to talk and some stayed to help us wheat paste the names to the memorial wall.

Everyone can contribute to the memorial

The names of Black victims of police violence were taken from several databases, including the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database of people fatally shot by the police and Operation Ghetto Storm, which to the best of my knowledge was the first attempt to create a comprehensive database of Black death at the hand of state and private security forces, back in 2012. At that time, Operation Ghetto Storm estimated that a person of color dies at the hands of the police every 28 hours in the United States. Based on the Washington Post’s data, which includes only those deaths caused by gunfire (George Floyd is not included, for example), its clear that the numbers of fatal encounters have only increased since Trump took power. On average, a Black person is shot to death every day in America. The number of people who are wounded but not killed, or choked or electrocuted or beaten to death is not known.

A small section of the wall, which itself shows a tiny percentage of Black People killed by the state

Anyone looking at these or other databases that track police violence should know that they are incomplete and often misleading. Because neither the federal government nor most state governments maintain public data about police violence, the basis for the data is mostly local news reports, which tend to rely upon police spokespeople for their account of events. Many killings are not investigated further. It takes eyewitness testimony, cellphone footage, and the persistence of the victim’s family to bring a full account to light. Often, its several years before the truth of incident becomes clear. Consequently, nearly every “first draft” of what happened justifies the homicide (usually by saying that the victim “fired at,” “pointed a gun at,” “lunged at,” or “charged at” one or more officers. These are the magic words that allow any officer to escape punishment–or often even a thorough investigation–of the actions that led to the loss of yet another Black life. Over time, and against the concerted efforts of police administrators and union bosses, district attorneys, and elected officials, a many fatal encounters are revealed to be totally unjustified, even according to the laws written to favor state violence.

In 2014, I began to research Black death at the hands of cops, security guards, and citizen vigilantes (commonly known as “homeowners” in the local news). Using “objectivist poetics,” I created factually accurate accounts of these incidents that focalize on the people who were killed. This is in contradiction to the news accounts, which almost always tell the story from the murder’s point of view. Here are three of these poems:

March 2, 2012
New Orleans, Louisiana

Wendell Allen, 20, oldest of eleven
was a high-school basketball star.
"He was my everything. He was my superstar,"
his mother Natasha said. At Frederick Douglass
averaging 21 points a game, he landed a spot
on the Times-Picayune's All-Metro team.

Upon graduation, Wendell tried Navarro College,
a day's drive away in Corsicar Texas;
but, missing his family, he came home
and found a job at Richard's Disposal:
community focused, environmentally friendly
their logo.

            A teenager named Troy Deemer
told cops that Wendell's brother Davin
sold pot. Officer Michael Voltolina observed
exchanges between Deemer and others in the driveway;
it was assumed (not proven) that marijuana
was exchanged for cash.

On the first Wednesday in March
NOPD's 3rd District narcotics unit
rammed in the front door of their house.
Riot-geared officers entered the living room,
where Wendell's sister Jazmine was watching TV.
Officer Joshua Colclough and several others
ascended the staircase.
                         Wendell, just home
from pickup basketball, shirt off and hands empty,
came out of Davin's upstairs room;

Colclough shot him through the lungs and heart.

March 27, 2012
Chicago, Illinois

Rekia Boyd, 22, walked among throngs
of Douglas Park residents
enjoying the warmest March in years.

Dante Servin, an off-duty detective,
became "frustrated" by the noise.
Strapping on his piece, he went out
"to get a burger." 
                   Soon he encountered
Rekia and her friends leaving the park.
Driving the wrong way up a one-way street,
he blocked their progress.
from his car, Servin told the group
to quiet down, sparking a verbal altercation
with several of the men.

"Fearing for his life," Servin fired five rounds
over his left shoulder. He hit Antonio Cross,
who was reaching for a cell phone,
and shot Rekia in the back of her head.

July 21, 2012
Saginaw, Michigan

Milton Hall, 49, slept on the streets.

The sky was blue; Midwestern wisps
of altocumulus--a pleasant afternoon
when the SPD received a call
that Milton had stolen a cup of coffee
from a convenience store. Some reports
suggest that it was Milton who called 911.

The first officer on the scene, A. J. Tuer
(also known as Wojciechowski)
found Milton in the parking lot
with a knife. She reported that he was
not "looking so nice" and said
that if officers didn't arrive soon
she'd "have to shoot this guy."

Soon five officers and a dog
cornered Milton near the lot's edge.
He's said to have taunted them:
"My name is Milton Hall," he shouted.
"I just called 911! My name is Milton
and I'm pissed off!"

The dog's leash was let out; its advance
further agitated Milton.
"Let the motherfucking dog go!" he screams.

In witness video, he steps back. Six officers
fire 47 rounds, striking him eleven times.

These episodes, and thousands of more like them, are what the names on our wall represent. Some of these fatal encounters can be found on an interactive map the artist/activist Brian Holmes created several years ago.

On August 5th, a member of the Rogers Park police department demanded that we stop adding names to the wall, take down the posters, walk away from our memorial. We complied. But since then, the memorial has grown every day, as our neighbors add flowers and candles, photos and names in chalk.

Flowers, candles and photos have begun to appear at the site

We invite and encourage everyone who cares about Black futures to contribute to the memorial. Take a poster, leave a name, light a candle, say a prayer. Remember that this small gesture barely registers the enormity of state violence. The next step is to defund the police; history has shown us that reform efforts pour more tax dollars into police coffers without in any way mitigating the crisis. We need to dismantle, rebuild, start again. Not until the state can prove that Black lives matter–not until it exists to support Black futures–will any of us be free.

Weird Fiction Review #7: Stephen Graham Jones’ Mapping the Interior

This is the 7th in a series of 10 reviews of contemporary weird novels. For an overview of this project, see my first post in the series.

Stephen Graham Jones, Mapping the Interior. TOR: 2017

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of more than fifteen novels or novellas, as well as at least six collections of short stories. In other words: prolific. Born in 1972, he’s published more than many authors do in a lifetime before the age of fifty.

I haven’t read all of his works, but most touch upon weird fiction. (Jones has received recognition from the Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, and Black Quill Awards, and his work appears frequently in supernatural/horror anthologies). Mapping the Interior, a 108-page novella, fits the genre in several ways.

It admits to the supernatural in the first sentence: “I was twelve the first time I saw my dead father cross from the kitchen doorway to the hall that led back to the utility room” (11). The preternatural is immediately paired with psychological irreality; the young narrator explains that his father’s ghost appeared while he was sleepwalking, which is described with a child’s understanding of the Freudian id: “To sleepwalk is to be inhabited, yes, but not by something else so much. What you’re inhabited by, what’s kicking one foot in front of the other, it’s yourself. . . [B]eing inhabited by yourself like that, what it tells you is that there’s a real you squirming down inside you, trying all through the day to pull up to the surface. . . But it can only get that done when your defenses are down” (11-12).

Thus in the first minutes of this economical novella, we are presented with the “hesitation,” or tension between actual and fantastic perceptions that organizes weird narratives. We are also introduced to the original and most commonly used theme of Gothic novels: the quest to discover/dodge one’s ancestry. For the first hundred years of weird fiction in English–from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the Victorian ghost stories by Elizabeth Gaskell (e.g., “The Old Nurse’s Tail” 1852) and Margaret Oliphant (e.g., “The Secret Chamber,” 1876), stories of inheritance were the central concern of the genre. Mapping the Interior draws upon many of the tropes used in these tales, although in Jones’ story the first-born male child is not the inheritor of an ancient estate, but a dirt-poor sixth-grader born on an unnamed Native American reservation.

According to his biography on Fantastic, Jones is Blackfeet, but grew up in West Texas, rather than Montana. These ancestral and regional influences permeate Mapping the Interior. The most literal mapping is of the narrator’s modular home (“You can leave the reservation, but your income level will still land you in a reservation house…,” his mother says), which he records with childish exactitude: “our house was almost twenty feet wide and nearly three times as long, about. My tape-measuring involved Dino holding it steady for me every twelve feet, though, . . . so there could have been some missing inches” (17-18).

One reason for this survey is the hope of discovering evidence of his father’s presence. He’s convinced that his father’s ghost has arrived in the guise of a fancydancer, and searches the house for a bead, a feather–any material evidence to confirm the visitation. This introduces the second mapping: that of a complicated cultural genealogy. As our narrator explains, “Thing was? My father never danced. . . My father was neither a throwback nor a fallback. He didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the stories, and didn’t care that he didn’t” (14). Nonetheless, “‘He was going to be the best dancer of us all, once he had straightened up again,’ one of his sisters had told me” (16). Our narrator knows that such wishful thinking is “how you talk about dead people . . . especially dead Indians. It’s all about squandered potential, not actual accomplishments” (16).

This leads us to the third interior, which of course is our narrator’s own desire: to be like his father as he was, to be like his father as he could have been, and to meet his father–as an apparition or at least in a dream. As he explains, “My name’s ‘Junior,’ after all. I’m my father’s son” (22). Late at night and after school, while his mother is at work, Junior tries various experiments he considers likely to coax his father into existence or induce a state of consciousness that will allow him to become aware of his father’s visitations.

Occasionally, his experiments are interrupted by childcare; his younger brother Dino suffers seizures and isn’t very socially aware. Junior protects Dino from bullies and the vicious guard dogs they pass on their way home from the bus stop, and he gives Dino a superhero figurine to bite down on when he seizures.

Driven by Junior’s guileless but thoughtful observations, the narrative proceeds at an easy pace. In this, it resembles other stories by Jones that I’ve read. His style is wholesome and easily digestible. In its earnestness, setting, themes, and humor, Mapping the Interior often seems like a less cynical variation on Sherman Alexie’s stories of reservation life. We get scary childhood adventures (Junior is trapped under his house by one of their neighbor’s pit bulls), sentimental conversations at the supper table (his mother tells charming stories about his dead dad), and rather stereotypical visions: “There was a man standing in the doorway of Dino’s room. There were feathers coming off him at all angles. He was just a shape, a shadow in the glass, but I knew him” (59).

The plot maintains tension between the supernatural and the psychological through a series of escalating events; Junior’s father appears to save him from the neighbor’s dogs–or was it the Sheriff? He seems to kill his dead father–or was it the neighbor, whose broken into their modular home to revenge his canines? These episodes play out first as hallucinations, then as less explicable but more realistic occurrences in the adult world. It’s fast-paced by predictable, with increasing suspense but little mystery.

In earlier reviews, I’ve explored the parameters of weird style. A considerable amount of queer energy emerges from Edgar Cantero’s verbal translations of visual events or George Saunders’ neoVictorian vernacular, for example. And I have criticized other narratives–The Fisherman and Lovecraft County, in particular–for their heavy-handed syntax and cliched characterizations. None of these qualities, positive or negative, apply to Jones’ brisk but basic sentence structures and plot devices. Our narrator is a earnest and matter-of-fact adolescent. His voice is often charming but never profound. The best moments draw on observations of everyday life from a tween’s perspective, such as when our narrator discusses the optics of holding his brother’s hand on their walk home: “I held Dino’s hand as soon as the bus pulled far enough away. If anybody saw, it wouldn’t help his cause any, I didn’t think. Probably not mine either, but at least I had the idea–mostly from action movies–that I could go wolverine, fight my way out of any dogpile of bodies” (27). Or when theorizes a form of contact made by sharing objects: “Another thing I’d learned at school, it was ‘canteen kiss.’ It’s when you drink after a girl you like, or she drinks after you. . . If my dad had touched me, then there was some kind of countdown where I could touch where he’d touched, and it would matter” (25).

Such observations make Junior a minor example of the “sensitive” protagonist that has been employed in weird fiction since E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe created characters whose heightened sensibilities made them especially attuned to preternatural sensations. But there is far less at stake in Jones’s narrative. Odd and sometimes gruesome things occur, but Junior’s sanity is never really in doubt–he is far too conscientious and self-effacing to come across as psychotic, even when sleepwalking–and his innocence doesn’t significantly reframe social conventions (as in Mark Twain’s or Stephen Crane’s stories of childhood, for example). Despite it’s sometimes demonic spirits and even some zombie dogs, the narrative radiates a too bright inner light. Even obscure events are presented with a rational efficiency, and even violent scenes are told with straightforward sobriety. The Oedipal drama plays out sans tragedy. There is a twist at the end, when the child’s narrative is replaced by that of his adult self. Junior grows up to be a fancydancer and a father, but an evil spirit haunts him. “When I was twelve years old, I mapped the interior of our home,” he says. “Now, sitting across from my little brother, I’m sketching out a map of the human heart, I guess. There’s more dark hallways than I knew. Rooms I thought I’d never have to enter. But I will…” (108).

A similar story (father / son relations on the reservation) but with much more genuine weirdness can be found in Jones’s short story collection, After the People Lights Have Gone Off (Dark House Press, 2014). In “Brushdogs,” a father narrates strange events observed while hunting Elk with his twelve-year-old son. In this story, the father’s name is Junior, his son Denny. As a “brushdog,” Denny’s job is to walk along a path in the forest a few miles further down the mountain, hopefully scaring Elk in his father’s direction. At one point, Junior has climbed to the top of a windswept knob; scanning the region through his rifle scope, he sees a similar hill, but with a cairn built on top. Curious, he wipes his face and readjusts the scope. When he looks again, his son, obviously lost and somewhat disheveled, is climbing the hill. He can’t bear to observe his son through the rifle scope, so he squints and waves instead. Denny doesn’t see him and when Junior looks again, his son is gone. It’s a sinister scenario, full of subtle tension that’s bolstered by the father’s gruff tenderness. Back in the truck, he doesn’t express his worry, love, or fear for his son, or even tell him that he was observed. The sentences are still simple and economical, but the unspoken and the mysterious are more powerfully felt, if only because an adult’s perspective is inevitably richer than a child’s. After another cairn appears and they go back into the woods, this fourteen-page story descends into an obscurity that is far more effective than anything in Mapping the Interior. I enjoyed this novella, but if you had to choose only one book by Stephen Graham Jones, I’d recommend the short story collection.

Next in my series of weird fiction reviews: a haunted house story for millennials, Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It.

Strange Trees

The Aesthetics of Ecology in Weird Fiction

Before English prose had assembled itself into the forms that we recognize as the short story and novel, a generic strand of weird fiction had coalesced in horror narratives, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. He descends.

MACBETH That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good!
Rebellious dead, rise never till the Wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time and mortal custom.

Macbeth is pleased because, despite the ghosts and witches, despite his own daring and capacity for sin, if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that trees don’t walk. “That will never be,” he states, with flat certainty. There is no force, earthly or ethereal who can “impress the forest.” The stationary and stubborn nature of, well, nature is unconditional. Indeed, the restoration of justice occurs when in Act V, a lookout reports “a moving grove.” Macbeth rushes to meet the weird sisters’ prophecy–leaving the safety of Dunsinane (“Our castle’s strength / Will laugh a siege to scorn”); he has been tricked, of course–he was right in the first instance–tree’s can’t move!

Or can they?

Color Out of Space (2019) Dir. Richard Stanley

Inspired by Richard Stanley’s adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” (2019; HPL’s story first appeared in the September 1927 issue of Amazing Stories), I interrupt my reviews of contemporary weird fiction to discuss one of the genre’s most interesting themes: the impossible thing as an ecosystem.

As a genre, weird fiction emphasizes the uncanny suspension of belief in reality by presenting characters and audiences with a potentially supernatural entity; introduction of this “impossible thing” causes characters and audiences to experience what Tzevtan Todorov calls a “hesitation”: a part of the narrative when we can’t decide if the impossible thing is a delusion or signifies a new reality. This is what happens in Macbeth, and it occurs in countless weird tales, from Gothic romances to the contemporary novels discussed in previous posts. Weird fiction can be distinguished from the neighboring genres of fantasy and science fiction on the grounds of this hesitation. Weird fiction maximizes the hesitation, whereas these other, much more modern genres, minimize it or eliminate it entirely. In Middle Earth, Narnia or Xanth, conscious and mobile trees are merely part of the landscape, along with unicorns, centaurs, dragons, and whatever other strange creatures can be invented. Similarly, science fiction proposes the possibility of animal-plant-like creatures that arrive on earth from some other world, where such life is possible. It doesn’t prolong the hesitation, but accepts the impossible creatures as real within the narrative. Here I am thinking of John Wyndham’s marvelous The Day of the Triffids (1951), which was made into a decent film in 1962 by Steve Sekely (who also made what must be the first Nazi zombie movie, Revenge of the Zombies in 1943). It doesn’t take too long to discover that roving and rapacious plants from another planet have arrived on earth; the question is what to do about it.

Organized around this hesitation, a lot of weird fiction uses the possibilities of plant consciousness to question the foundational taxonomy that separates life into kingdoms. There are six kingdoms in modern biology: Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Archaea, and Bacteria. Since plants, animals, and fungi are visible to the naked eye, most weird tales play on the commonsense differences between these kingdoms, such as by giving trees consciousness or mushrooms mobility (not to mention a powerful appetite). But plant monsters are only part of the story; the more intense weirdness is generated by qualities of the narrative that do more than blur scientific classifications. I refer to those aspects of the story that play with the modes of perception by which we distinguish between “natural” and “human” worlds.

Versions of this aesthetic (dis)orientation has been mentioned in various contemporary studies of weirdness, such as Graham Harmon’s Weird Realism, David Peak’s The Spectacle of the Void, and Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet, all available from Zer0 Books. Rather than review these reflections, I want to focus upon a particular strain of weirdness by calling attention to stories that generate uncanny hesitation by thinking about the impossible thing not as a singular entity but as an ecosystem; the monster is a region of the forest, a portion of the field, a landscape. I argue that in these stories, the impossible thing is one or another version of an aesthetic biology. Neither art as an imitation of life, nor life as an imitation of art, but life and art as singular entity (much as today we like to think of viruses as part biological and part mathematical). In short, when authors set out to create weird ecosystems, they confront a foundational orientation–one which organizes the world into “art” and “life,” the “human” and “natural,” the aesthetic and the biological. In Lovecraft’s story, the ecological monster is also a color. But while “The Colour Out of Space” is the most popular weird tale of this kind, it is far from the best. In what follows, I survey some of these stories, closing with an assessment of Stanley’s film.

First, a little brush clearing. Any number of weird stories imagine strange landscapes and animal-vegetable hybrids as monsters. The magical forest can be traced back through Renaissance and classical texts to ancient myths. Modern versions of the forest can be found in Gothic novels, such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791) and Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1805). A decent contemporary version of the weird forest can be found in the French TV show, Zone Blanche (2017; known in English as Black Spot). In these narratives, the forest is treated as an uncanny “zone” within or alongside our world; like caves, the forest primeval is a place on the borderlands of not only civilization but reality. The forest marks an indistinct portal between our world and a fantasy world (one where monsters exist). (On the role of portals in uncanny narratives, see Mark Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie). The hesitation is sustained so long as the protagonists can’t decide if they are merely lost in a strange place or have entered a parallel universe. While fascinating, this is not the trope we are pursuing here.

Let us also put aside the many wonderful vegetable monsters that inhabit strange lands or come from outer space or scientific experiment. The most obvious such creature is probably the singing flytrap in Frank Oz’s 1986 adaptation of The Little Shop of Horrors (which itself has a curious history, beginning with John Collier’s weird tale, “Green Thoughts” (1932)). Aficionados of pulp weirdness will be acquainted with the monstrous fungi described by William Hope Hodgson in The Boats of Glen Carrig (1907), and everyone should read “The Voice in the Night” for its remarkably depiction of of predatory lichen. Shambling vegetation enjoyed a cultural revival about forty years ago; as in Lovecraft’s story, it comes from outer space via meteorite in Dr Who: The Seeds of Doom (1976) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). It embodies swamp consciousness in Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing (which began in 1982, alongside Wes Craven’s movie version of the comic book.) These narratives present us with amazing monsters, but they figure the dangerous plants as creatures rather than ecologies, and don’t address aesthetics.

The trees in the opening shot of Color Out of Space

While Lovecraft’s story features a meteorite carrying life from afar, this isn’t nearly as important to the story’s narrative, which leans on rumors and rural gossip, than it is to Stanley’s film. The more interesting qualities of “The Colour Out of Space” may be traced to Poe. The title of this essay comes from a passage in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838). Dehydrated and stifled in his hiding place below decks, our protagonist falls into a “stupor” and dreams of “deserts, limitless and of the most forlorn and awe-inspiring character” in which “strange trees seemed endowed with a human vitality and, waving to and fro their skeleton arms, were crying to the silent waters for mercy, in the shrill and piercing accents of the most acute agony and despair” (Pym, 276-7). Pym’s dream becomes a reality for the characters of Lovecraft’s story; near the climax they witness an unspeakably strange phenomenon:

 What had been disputed in country gossip was disputable no longer, and it is because of the thing which every man of that party agreed in whispering later on that the strange days are never talked about in Arkham. It is necessary to premise that there was no wind at that hour of the evening. One did arise not long afterward, but there was absolutely none then. Even the dry tips of the lingering hedge-mustard, grey and blighted, and the fringe on the roof of the standing democrat-wagon were unstirred. And yet amid that tense, godless calm the high bare boughs of all the trees in the yard were moving. They were twitching morbidly and spasmodically, clawing in convulsive and epileptic madness at the moonlit clouds; scratching impotently in the noxious air as if jerked by some alien and bodiless line of linkage with subterrene horrors writhing and struggling below the black roots.

Read “The Colour Out of Space” online here.)

The other notable feature of Lovecraft’s story–the mysterious color–also derives from Pym. Arriving upon the mysteriously warm island near the South Pole, the crew of the Jane Guy discover an indeterminately weird landscape–one which Pym primarily defines in terms of what it’s not: “The trees resembled no growth of either the torrid, the temperate, or the northern frigid zones and were altogether unlike those of the lower southern latitudes we had already traversed. The very rocks were novel in their mass, their color, and the stratification; and the stream themselves . . . had so little in common with those of other climates that we were scrupulous of tasting them…” (Pym, 348). Only one feature of this alien landscape is given positive attributes: the water, which “was not colorless, nor was it of any one uniform color–presenting the eye, as it flowed, every possible shade of purple, like the hues of a changeable silk. This variation in shade was produced in a manner which excited profound astonishment in the minds of our party . . .” (Pym, 348). Lovecraft makes full use of this trope; in his story, “a dim though distinct luminosity seemed to inhere in all the vegetation, grass, leaves, and blossoms alike, while at one moment a detached piece of the phosphorescence appeared to stir furtively in the yard near the barn” and the color takes up residence in the well. Thus, “Thaddeus went mad in September after a visit to the well. He had gone with a pail and had come back empty-handed, shrieking and waving his arms, and sometimes lapsing into an inane titter or a whisper about ‘the moving colours down there.’”

The madness of a color living in the well does not ultimately derive from the “cosmic horror” disclosed by the recognition of a trans-dimensional entity; the wellspring of it’s weirdness is not the impossibly objective nature of the universe, but the uncanny recognition that the natural world is only another fold in the aesthetic structure of reality. Poe devoted two stories to this “enigma”: “The Domain of Arnheim” (1847) and “Landor’s Cottage” (1849), which he referred to as a “pendant” to the earlier tale. These texts are themselves curious hybrids, being neither story nor essay. In the first, Poe speculates at length upon a problem he conceptualizes in this way:

 that no such combination of scenery exists in nature as the painter of genius may produce. . . In the most enchanting of natural landscapes, there will always be found a defect or an excess—many excesses and defects. While the component parts may defy, individually, the highest skill of the artist, the arrangement of these parts will always be susceptible of improvement. In short, no position can be attained on the wide surface of the natural earth, from which an artistical eye, looking steadily, will not find matter of offence in what is termed the “composition” of the landscape. And yet how unintelligible is this! In all other matters we are justly instructed to regard nature as supreme. With her details we shrink from competition. Who shall presume to imitate the colors of the tulip, or to improve the proportions of the lily of the valley? . . . No pictorial or sculptural combinations of points of human liveliness do more than approach the living and breathing beauty. . .

Poe’s stories can be read on Project Gutenberg here.

The problem is a overlap between two regimes of perception: one in which the aesthetic totality of the landscape is regarded as a human supplement to the natural order, and one in which nature’s infinite variety under-girds art’s mimetic impulse. In “Landor’s Cottage,” Poe presents this contradiction as it might be experienced by an ordinary man out for a stroll in the forest. Our narrator is lost but not nervous when he comes across a peculiar track:

 just as I had begun to consider whether the numerous little glades that led hither and thither, were intended to be paths at all, I was conducted by one of them into an unquestionable carriage track. There could be no mistaking it. The traces of light wheels were evident; and although the tall shrubberies and overgrown undergrowth met overhead, there was no obstruction whatever below. . . The road, however, except in being open through the wood. . . bore no resemblance to any road I had before seen. The tracks of which I speak were but faintly perceptible—having been impressed upon the firm, yet pleasantly moist surface of—what looked more like green Genoese velvet than any thing else. It was grass, clearly—but . . . so short, so thick, so even, and so vivid in color. Not a single impediment lay in the wheel-route—not even a chip or dead twig. The stones that once obstructed the way had been carefully placed—not thrown-along the sides of the lane, so as to define its boundaries at bottom with a kind of half-precise, half-negligent, and wholly picturesque definition.

The narrator’s musings on this strangely perfect passage underscore Poe’s effort to conceive of a zero point–a point of coexistence or nonrelation–between the natural and aesthetic world:

Here was art undoubtedly—that did not surprise me—all roads, in the ordinary sense, are works of art; nor can I say that there was much to wonder at in the mere excess of art manifested; all that seemed to have been done, might have been done here—with such natural “capabilities” (as they have it in the books on Landscape Gardening)—with very little labor and expense. No; it was not the amount but the character of the art which caused me to take a seat on one of the blossomy stones and gaze up and down this fairy-like avenue for half an hour or more in bewildered admiration. One thing became more and more evident the longer I gazed: an artist, and one with a most scrupulous eye for form, had superintended all these arrangements. . . Everywhere was variety in uniformity. It was a piece of “composition,” in which the most fastidiously critical taste could scarcely have suggested an emendation.

The composite perfectibility of the landscape is figured in Lovecraft’s story as a glossy but inedible cornucopia:

The pears and apples slowly ripened, and Nahum vowed that his orchards were prospering as never before. The fruit was growing to phenomenal size and unwonted gloss, and in such abundance that extra barrels were ordered to handle the future crop. But with the ripening came sore disappointment; for of all that gorgeous array of specious lusciousness not one single jot was fit to eat. Into the fine flavour of the pears and apples had crept a stealthy bitterness and sickishness, so that even the smallest of bites induced a lasting disgust.

Here we see the appearance of bounty without its substance; the animate color turns the vegetables into splendid images while robbing them of use value. This move, I think, is one way that the genre of weird fiction reflects upon itself. For what is weird fiction but the spectacle of fantastic realism without the substance attributed to literary naturalism? Because weird fiction simultaneously elaborates and undermines fictional realism (whereas realist fiction sustains the fantasy without hesitation), it is regarded as “sensationalist” and lowbrow. Lovecraft’s story hints at this relation between art and life, but doesn’t address it as directly or thoughtfully as other narratives do.

Cram’s slim volume of weird tales

Among the precursors to “The Colour Out of Space,” two stories stand out: Ralph Adams Cram’s, “The Dead Valley” (1895) and Algernon Blackwood’s The Man Whom the Trees Loved (1912). Cram is a fascinating architect and author who attempted a revitalization of Gothic sensibility in stone and word. Lovecraft praises the all-important atmosphere of dread in “The Dead Valley,” which is available online thanks to the Library of America. The story is relayed by an anonymous narrator, as it was told to him by Olof Ehrensvärd, “a Swede” whose “stories of the far half-remembered days in the fatherland . . . grow very strange and incredible as the night deepens and the fire falls…” The narrative frame is important inasmuch as it foregrounds the unverifiable nature of the tale–a technique employed by Lovecraft in his story, which is told as a summary of rumors heard second- or third-hand by a surveyor who is bringing modernism (in the form of a reservoir) to rural New England.

Olof and a traveling companion lose their way in the woods at night, and end up on the lip of a strange fog-filled valley. Overcome by an unidentified source of terror, they flee. Weeks later, Olof makes his way back to the valley in daylight. He discovers

A great oval basin, almost as smooth and regular as though made by man. On all sides the grass crept over the brink of the encircling hills, dusty green on the crests, then fading into ashy brown, and so to a deadly white, this last color forming a thin ring, running in a long line around the slope. And then? Nothing. Bare, brown, hard earth, glittering with grains of alkali, but otherwise dead and
barren. Not a tuft of grass, not a stick of brushwood, not even a stone, but only the vast expanse of beaten clay.

I won’t spoil what happens when he enters the valley, except to say that he discovers a “skeleton tree” (shades of Poe) that seems to be part of a ecosystem (the fog is another part) that numbs the body and deadens the will of all living things that come into its zone. This story does not focus on aesthetics, but presents a marvelous vision of vampire ecology. I use that term loosely–neither Olof nor the narrator attempt to explain the phenomena. It’s effects are described in detail, but because entering the ecosystem causes one to became prey to its physical and psychical influence, little can be known. No theories are proposed.

Poe’s weird landscapes are ultimately the result of human ingenuity. Both his stories spin elaborate fantasies about what a man of genius could do with a couple million dollars (he wrote them in the last years of his life, living with Virginia’s mother in a small cottage in present-day Fordham Heights and taking long walks along the Bronx river, in a region that would become the New York Botanical Garden and Bronx Zoo). Cram’s biological entity marks a significant shift toward the modernist conceptualization of the impossible thing. It does not engage aesthetic discourse directly, but it does imagine the weird creature to be an ecological totality. The dead valley is not a creature in the landscape; it is a creature as the landscape.

When it comes to Blackwood’s strange trees, most fans of weird fiction will immediately think of “The Willows” (1907) or the descriptions of the northern forest in “The Wendigo” (1910). Both stories are Blackwood at his best, but here I would call attention to The Man Whom the Trees Loved. This novella, which perfectly balances humor with horror, focuses on the retired civil servant David Bittancy and his wife, Sophia. In act one, Bittancy discovers the work of a painter named Sanderson; Sanderson is not a good artist. In fact, “there was nothing else in the wide world that he could paint,” except for trees. On page one of this novel, the artist’s genius is discussed in terms that will recall Poe’s conundrum:

he caught the individuality of a tree . . . How he managed it was something of a puzzle, for he never had painting lessons, his drawing was often wildly inaccurate, and, while his perception of a Tree Personality was true and vivid, his rendering of it might also approach the ludicrous. Yet the character and personality of that particular tree stood there alive beneath his brush–shining, frowning, dreaming, as the case might be, friendly or hostile, god or evil. It emerged.

Blackwood’s story is available on Project Gutenberg here.

Blackwood imagines an untutored fidelity to nature which captures the “spirit” of the plant as though it were a conscious and willful being. Artless mimesis resulting in an image that reveals more than nature can objectively disclose. Note how in these passages, Blackwood relies on the peculiar quality of words to create impossible images. One couldn’t reproduce in oils the paintings he describes. (This feature of weird fiction has made film adaptations of many stories difficult; the camera’s objective gaze limits the possibilities for this kind of uncanniness.) The portraits of trees are themselves an impossible object, an “it” that “emerges” to thrill and terrify. I won’t give away the plot, but maybe I can tempt you, gentle reader, by adding that when Sanderson spends a weekend at the Bittacy estate, David confesses to a queer desire: although he loves his wife, he loves trees just as much–and now that the forest knows his secret, it begins to reciprocate…

While Blackwood is certainly capable of genuine horror–“The Willows” is among the most terrifying of all weird tales–The Man Whom the Trees Loved, like many tales by Hoffman, Poe, Bierce, Jackson, Borges, Tutola, Aickman and Saunders, derives weirdness from a mixture of horror, curiosity, irony, and whimsy. The third-person narrator frequently focalizes on Sophia, “daughter of an evangelical clergyman,” whose firm opposition to Darwinism embarrasses her husband. Her sentiment filters much of the narrative; while David doesn’t share her beliefs, he contributes to her vision of home and hearth. The narrator, however, regular expresses contempt for Sophia’s sentimentality. The result is a delightfully queer mixture of drawing room comedy of manners (shades of Wilde) and ecological horror. As the forest draws her husband into its grasp, Sophia tries to understand what is happening to him using a mixture of Christian metaphor and common sense. The impossible thing is a thought she can’t articulate–a view of the world in which morality is violently expanded to include the consciousness of the forest.

Amazing Stories September 1927

Lovecraft, of course, was incapable of or at least profoundly uninterested in writing humor; his narratives depend upon a mixture of intrigue, anxiety, disgust, dread and terror. All his most successful stories are variations on the detective and adventure plots made popular by the pulps. The truth is slowly revealed, culminating in scene meant to evoke “cosmic horror.” Spoiler alert! the ultimate revelation in “The Colour Out of Space” goes like this:

What it is, only God knows. In terms of matter I suppose the thing Ammi described would be called a gas, but this gas obeyed laws that are not of our cosmos. This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.

Here cosmic horror mingles with the pictorial perfections Poe imagined in their most abstract, modernist form: pure color. Lovecraft’s impossible thing is a discrete entity, but it permeates the landscape, poisoning the water and causing a range of physical and psychological transformations in the plans and animals that come within its zone.

The 1948 Arkham House edition

Three more recent stories imagine an ecological entity in the context of aesthetic discourse. Clark Ashton Smith‘s “Genius Loci” (1933) appears to draw equally on Blackwood, Cram, and Lovecraft. In his retirement, our narrator has “purchased an uncultivated ranch” in the country. He invites “one of the foremost landscape painters of his generation,” Francis Amberville, to visit for a few weeks. The narrative begins when Amberville comes back from his ramblings with sketches of “a very strange place.” Immediately, three aspects of the place are established. First, it is an “ordinary” landscape, hardly picturesque:

There is nothing but a sedgy meadow, surrounded on three sides by slopes of yellow pine. A dreary little stream flows in from the open end, to lose itself in a cul-de-sac of cat-tails and boggy ground. The stream, running slowly and more slowly, forms a stagnant pool of some extent from which several sickly-looking alders seem to fling themselves backwards, as if unwilling to approach it. A dead willow leans above the pool, tangling its wan, skeleton-like reflection with the green scum that mottles the water. There are no blackbirds, no kildees, no dragon-flies even, such as one usually finds in a place of that sort. It is all silent and desolate.

Smith’s story can be read online at

Second, Amberville is convinced that “the spot is evil.” Third, he felt “compelled to make a drawing of it, almost against my will…” These three elements are beautifully combined in the narrative. Smith’s narrator knows the spot, and relates local legends that touch upon it, but most of the story hinges on his viewing of the sketches and paintings which Amberville brings back. Is the increasing sense of evil that appears on Amberville’s canvases the result of his artistic contributions to the composition, or his ability to capture a supernatural entity that inhabits the landscape itself? And is his increasingly ill humor the result of his frustrations as an artist, a response to the narrator’s own frustrations (he grows tired of his guest), or the effect of a landscape that wants to be painted? The narrator and his guest are both sensitive artists, and the comedy of their interactions mingles with the horror of the oppressive landscape as deliciously as it does in Blackwood’s novella.

For more on this story checkout The Angry Scholar

Ecological horror also informs T. E. D. Klein’s marvelous tale, “The Events at Poroth Farm” (1972). The story is told as an “affidavit” written by a young man named Jeremy “in room 2-K of the Union Hotel, overlooking Main Street in Flemington, New Jersey, twenty miles south of Gilead.” (I’m working with the edition of the story published in the second volume of Peter Straub’s American Fantastic Tales anthology, published by the Library of America.) Jeremy has paused in his flight from Gilead to compose this testimony, which incorporates his journal entries over the previous several months. In what will become a generic cliche (thanks in part to its use by the writers of the found footage masterpieces Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The Blair Witch Project (1999)), Jeremy is a college student who learns about primitive practices that linger in the shadow of the modern economy. In this case, its “a religious community near New Providence that had existed in its present form since the late 1800s–less than forty miles from Times Square.” He is curious, and when he discovers that one of the Gilead families are advertising “for a summer or long-term tenant to live one of the outbuildings behind the farmhouse,” he decides its the best place to spend a summer in which he will preparing “for a course I plan to teach at Trenton state” on “the Gothic tradition from Shakespeare to Faulkner…” The “primary reason” for keeping this journal “was to record the books I’d read each day, as well as to examine my reactions to relative solitude over a long period of time.” As in Ewers’ “The Spider,” Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” and Blackwood’s “The Listener,” the diary form brings the question of narrative reliability to the fore. Are Jeremy’s observations to be trusted, or is he suffering from a paranoid delusion brought on by a chain of curious events during this Waldenesque summer?

The brilliance of Klein’s story lies in the slow accumulation of occurrences in the natural and social environment, each of which might be the mistake of an overly imaginative, isolated, and melancholic mind. For example, early in his diary, Jeremy writes:

Something odd just happened. I’ve never heard anything like it. While writing for the past half hour I’ve been aware, if half-consciously, of the crickets. Their regular chirping can be pretty soothing, like the sound of a well-tuned machine. But just a few seconds ago they seemed to miss a beat. They’d been singing along steadily, ever since the moon came up, and all of a sudden they just stopped for a beat–and then they beat again, only they were out of rhythm for a moment or two, as if a hand had jarred the record or there’d been some kind of momentary break in the natural flow…

In American Fantastic Tales, ed. Peter Straub, p. 237.

Note the overlap between mechanical, aesthetic and biological signifiers in this entry. The crickets “sing” like a “machine” and their “momentary break,” although analogized to a record, interrupts “the natural flow.” Klein’s innovation is to set everything but the framing narrative within the supernatural ecosystem Jeremy imagines or observes. As he reads through the Gothic tradition (“Tried to read more of the Stoker…”; “Read some Shirley Jackson stories over breakfast…”) every little peculiarity of country life becomes magnified in his perception, from a strange critter the cat drags in (“a large shrew, although the mouth was somehow askew”) to the social customs of the Poroth family (“Regular little funeral service over by the unused pasture. . . Must admit I didn’t feel particularly involved . . . but I tried to act concerned. . . I nodded gravely. Read passages out of Deborah’s Bible . . . said amen when they did, knelt when they knelt, and tried to comfort Deborah when she cried”). The imbrication of Jeremy’s aesthetic sensibility and events which increasingly seem to have a biological origin (is the cat infected? is something living in the swamp?) forms a spell-binding pattern. As in the weird diaries by Ewers, Gilman, and Blackwood, Klein’s narrator is a writer. The continual references to notable works in the genre we are reading inserts the uncanny ecology into a verbal rather than visual composition.

The combination of visual and verbal aesthetic discourse in Ramsey Campbell’s ecological horror story, “The Voice on the Beach” (1977) makes it the single best tale in this weird subgenre. The story is available in Alone with the Horrors, the collection of Campbell’s stories published by Tor in 2004. The narrator is a “compulsive writer” who has taken a bungalow on the British coast “to give myself the chance to write without being distracted by city life.” He is a bachelor. His friend Neal comes to visit, particularly to walk along the beach and enjoy the beauty and solitude of this quiet stretch of the shore. Neal becomes increasingly enraptured by the view and the sound of the waves, while the narrator finds them irritating. Neither is young, nor in particularly good health. Their squabbles, exacerbated by the narrator’s frustration with his own writing (shades of Ashton) provides a domestic counterpoint to the strange thing(s) that make the beach so oddly compelling and repellent.

At one end of the beach sit a number of abandoned houses, a desolate village they explore together. In one of the ruined houses, Neal discovers the tattered remains of a journal, some of which the narrator transcribes into the present account. “WHEN THE PATTERNS DONE IT CAN COME BACK AND GROW ITS HUNGRY TO BE EVERYTHING I NOW HOW IT WORKS THE SAND MOVES AT NIGHT AND SUCK YOU DOWN OR MAKE SOU GO WHERE IT WANTS TO MAKE [a blotch had eaten several words]…” “Ah, the influence of Joyce,” our narrator comments “sourly.” He mistakes the obscure testimony for artistic composition, while the patterns of sea and sand, of daily routines and words on the page–all begin to blur together. At one point, Neal develops a theory about the journal:

His low voice seemed to stumble among the rhythms of the beach. “You see how he keeps mentioning patterns. Suppose this other reality was once all there was? Then ours came into being and occupied some of its space. We didn’t destroy it–it can’t be destroyed. Maybe it withdrew a little, to bide its time. But it left a kind of imprint of itself, a kind of coded image of itself in our reality. And yet that image is itself in embryo, growing. You see, he says its alive but its only the image being put together. Things become part of its image, and that’s how it grows…”

Such passages hint at Campbell’s idea, but to fully appreciate the story one must enter the rhythms of its narrative, which ebb and flow with the tides and holiday lunches, the glint of sun on sand and the roar of waves at night. The impossible thing is a view of the beach–almost as though a picture postcard of the perfect holiday were consuming those who linger in the scenery.

Before quitting this ramble through weird ecology, I’ll mention three additional narratives–some of the best and most popular explorations of my theme. The first is Jeff VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach Trilogy, an epic expansion of “The Colour Out of Space”; the next is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979, an adaptation of Roadside Picnic), which is unquestionably the best visual narrative of an uncanny zone. The third is Stranger Things (which premiered on Netflix in 2016). No account of fantastic ecosystems would be complete without a thorough discussion of these narratives, which I will leave for another time.

Richard Stanley’s film is a faithful adaptation of Lovecraft’s story, set in contemporary New England, with a middle-class family in place of the backward Yankee farmers of the original. Stanley introduces contemporary themes, such as a wife (Joely Richardson, who was also in the 2009 adaptation of The Day of the Triffids) who has recently survived breast cancer and is trying to maintain a successful career online, and a daughter (Madeline Arthur) who cuts herself as the family descends into madness. The movie has its moments, but it can’t reproduce the best part of the original, which is my view is the obscurity Lovecraft throws like a veil over the events his narrator recounts. In the original, the surveyor comes across a “blasted heath” more than a little reminiscent of Cram’s dead valley. A considerable portion of Lovecraft’s narrative is occupied with passages detailing the lack of reliable information about what caused the blight:

In the evening I asked old people in Arkham about the blasted heath, and what was meant by that phrase “strange days” which so many evasively muttered. I could not, however, get any good answers, except that all the mystery was much more recent than I had dreamed. It was not a matter of old legendry at all, but something within the lifetime of those who spoke. It had happened in the ’eighties, and a family had disappeared or was killed. Speakers would not be exact…

For all that the reader learns about what may have happened a Nahum Gardner’s farm, the “facts” must be pieced together from a variety of unreliable sources, and everything is tinged with doubt.

Obviously, some of this is nearly impossible in film, although a greater commitment to the surveyor’s point of view would have helped. Although Stanely’s film is framed by the surveyor (played by Elliot Knight, who delivers the most memorable performance in the movie), it does not stick to this outsider’s perspective. The camera follows each character’s trajectory, more or less equally, never settling upon any one protagonist. I suspect that a more interesting version could have been made in the found footage style, along the lines of Mortal Remains (2013) or Butterfly Kisses (2018), both of which explore the recovery of documents that indirectly disclose the terrible truth behind urban legends.