Weird Fiction Review #1 The Ballad of Black Tom

NOTE: this is the first of ten reviews of contemporary weird novels. An overview of the project can be found in the previous post.

The Ballad of Black TomBallad of Black Tom Cover is Victor LaValle’s fifth book. LaValle, who won a Shirley Jackson Award and an American Book Award, is an efficient writer. This novel revises the Lovecraft mythos by rewriting one of his most racist stories from a Black perspective. It is the best of several recent fictional “replies” to weird racism. (The others are Mat Johnson’s Pym, which was written about a decade ago and is, after the first three or four chapters, awful and Lovecraft Country, which will be discussed in the next post.) LaValle’s short novel (150 pages) is set in the New York of 1924. It is divided into two parts; the first focalizes on Tommy Tester, a young Black man who hustles to support his father, with whom he shares an apartment on West 144th Street. The second focalizes on Malone, the police officer profiled in Lovecraft’s story, “The Horror at Red Hook.” To understand what’s at stake in LaValle’s book, we must return to the scene of the crime, Lovecraft’s story.

Lovecraft wrote “The Horror at Red Hook” during the few years that he lived in New York City, at first with his wife Sonia, then by himself. According to accounts based on his letters, it was one of the most miserable periods of his life. His neuroticism and paranoia reach a near-hallucinatory intensity, and many of his most virulently racist rants date from this period. A thorough accounting of Lovecraft’s racism is beyond the scope of these posts, but the history of criticism on this weird author is in part a history of acknowledging, dodging, and excusing his extremely conservative views. Rather than retread that ground, I would refer my readers to the best essay on Lovecraft’s racism: “Lovecraft at the Automat,” by J. M. Tyree, which appeared in New England Review ten years ago. As Tyree argues, “’The Horror at Red Hook’ is in fact Red Hook itself, or, more precisely, a neurotic race fantasy turned into a supernatural monstrosity by imaginative hyperbole. Resident aliens become the worshipers and handmaidens of actual and literal alien beings.” (144) The story becomes a screed against New York’s working-class, multi-ethnic neighborhoods; in Lovecraft’s view, immigrants from the Caribbean, the Middle East, China, and Eastern Europe, along with people of African and Jewish descent, threaten the hierarchy of white “stock” by introducing into the United States a “babble” of non-English languages, rituals, and habits. As Lovecraft puts it in the final paragraphs: “As for Red Hook—it is always the same. [. . .] the evil spirit of darkness and squalor broods on amongst the mongrels [. . .]The soul of the beast is omnipresent and triumphant, and Red Hook’s legions of blear-eyed, pockmarked youths still chant and curse and howl as they file from abyss to abyss, [. . .] pushed on by blind laws of biology which they may never understand.”

The story is told in the past tense by an unnamed narrator who has most but not all the facts of the case. The “case” (part psychological study, part police procedural) is that of Thomas F. Malone, an Irish-American police detective who, at the time the story is told, is living in Rhode Island, attempting to recover from the trauma he encountered in Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood just west of Park Slope. On the waterfront below Governor’s Island, Red Hook is known for its shipping yards—it was the busiest port in the world when Lovecraft wrote about it. It’s working-class, immigrant and Black population has also made it the poster-child of inner-city decay. In the 1930s it was a “Hooverville”; in the 1990s it was “the crack capital of America.” Lovecraft did his best to contribute to these views, portraying the neighborhood as a den of depravity. Malone’s case involves illegal immigration, human smuggling, kidnapping, child sacrifice, demonic rituals, and a “dream” of hell. Malone pursues Robert Suydam, an independently wealthy white man who recruits recent immigrants into an army of devil worshippers that help him, apparently, to bring hell to earth. At the last minute, Suydam repents, closing the portal that would release Lovecraft’s hell, which is part global multitude and part pseudo-gothic demonology.

Today Lovecraft’s name has become so firmly identified with the genre that skeptics might imagine weird fiction to be inherently racist. Tyree wonders if it is; he argues that “From Poe on down, there has always been something more or less reactionary about the genre of horror fiction. Its underlying fear of otherness often morphs into literal nightmares of alien beings and unnatural monstrosities” (137), but then observes that Richard Wright regarded weird fiction as necessary to his education as a novelist. The weirdness of weird fiction becomes the relation between weirdness and racial otherness. To what extent is weirdness premised on “otherness” or exoticism, whether understood as Orientalism or blackness? Poe was racist, but his best weird stories (“William Wilson,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” etc.) don’t use racial alienation to generate weirdness; they are organized around verisimilitude rather than difference—around eroticism rather than exoticism. (To exemplify this structure of difference, one should consider Shakespeare’s erotically weird A Midsummer’s Night Dream and exotically weird The Tempest.) On the other hand, Poe’s weird novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, is an exotic romance that features two notorious episodes of racism. The first is a mutiny led in part by a “devilish” Black cook, the second are the inhabitants of Tsalal, who are so completely black that even their teeth are ebony. They prove to be childish yet merciless, primitive yet capable of the most wicked deceit. Such episodes, full of horror and wonder as they are, would not have met Lovecraft’s criterion of “cosmic dread.” The figure in Poe’s Pym who stands for the reality-shattering impossible thing is a towering white figure that hovers in the air like a frost giant above Pym at the story’s conclusion: “And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.” (173) Lovecraft replaces Poe’s Great White Man with monsters that embody Poe’s savages. Dread Cthulhu, who like Poe’s figure stands for the ultimately unknown, is also the fetish object of voodoo rites.

In my analysis, weird fiction has always enjoyed a characteristically unsettled relation to the worlds that it creates. After reading too many romances, Don Quixote mistakes himself for a knight and the world around him for a mythic land. Cervantes’ novel makes numerous, hilarious references to itself, setting up a kind of double-entendre when characters in the second volume read the first volume. This metafictional play is taken up in Tristram Shandy, which presents the novel itself as the “impossible thing.” Poe’s Pym is the well-spring of a more modern kind of metafiction: the creation of a “mythos,” or a fictional world shared by multiple characters in multiple stories by multiple authors. One is used to the fantasy world created by a single author that spans numerous texts, and one may be aware of authorial collaborations between authors, such as the Surrealists. But only in weird fiction has it become a regular practice for authors to set stories in other author’s fictional worlds (more recently, slash and fan fiction follow this formula). The trick is to treat those fictional worlds as part of a shared reality. The weird “Preface” to Poe’s Pym sets the stage by developing a dialectical relationship between reality and fiction, realism and romance. In the preface, signed by “A. G. Pym,” Poe’s narrator explains that upon returning from his adventures, he was approached by Poe, then editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe urges him to write his story, but Pym refuses, arguing that “the incidents to be narrated were of a nature so positively marvelous that . . . the public at large would regard what I should put forth as merely and impudent and ingenious fiction.” (263) Poe’s solution is to “draw up in his own words” a version of the adventure based on “facts” that Pym provides, which is published under his own name in the Southern Messenger. Poe presents them “under the garb of fiction.” (264) But “despite the air of fable” which Poe “ingeniously” lends Pym’s truth, “the public were still not disposed to receive it as fable.” In other words, as they did with the other hoaxes, they mistake the fiction for truth. This convinces Pym that “the facts of my narrative would prove of such a nature as to carry with them sufficient evidence of their own authenticity.” (264) Thus, the novel we are about to read. By referencing two chapters published in the January and February issues of the Messenger, the fictional character Pym anchors his preface in the actual world; he then explains that the “marvelous” that actually exists (in fiction), when presented as fiction (a fictional fiction), will be taken as fact (a fictional factuality). He is therefore justified in presenting his (fictional) facts without fabulation.

Jules Verne recognized the metafictional space that Poe was attempting to describe about ten years after it was published. He thought about it for decades. Pym’s narrative was the subject of the “only piece of literary criticism he ever published,” and he returned to it in 1897, when he wrote The Sphinx of the Ice Realm. (A beautifully translated and edited edition of Verne’s and Poe’s novels by Frederic Paul Walter was published in 2012 by SUNY Press. It is one of the most valuable publications made possible by the recent return to the weird.) Verne’s explorers read Pym’s account; they retrace parts of his voyage, confirming and correcting the original fiction. Minor characters in Poe’s story become important figures in Verne’s, but Sphinx is not merely a sequel because for its characters Poe’s novel is a fiction which they increasingly discover to be factual as they sail into the unknown regions of Poe’s (fictional / actual) Antarctica. Lovecraft borrows heavily on both stories for Mountains of Madness. But the other, more interesting absorption of this idea was the perpetuation of Lovecraft’s world in numerous stories written by him and his disciples. Certain places (Miskotonic University, Arkham Asylum) and certain monsters (Cthulhu, Shoggoths) became the basis for countless stories shared across a wide range of media. The phrase uttered by Poe’s savages—“Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!”—may now be heard in countless stories.

This is the generic history Black Tom inherits. LaValle doesn’t use any narrative frames, but it begins with a claim that seems aimed at Lovecraft: “People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place. . . . They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn’t here.” (9) This phrase sets up the initial hesitation: will we encounter a “magical” New York, or will it be a place of fantasy—and if so, whose? This is the central theme of the book. Charles Thomas Tester knows how to “make a living from this error.” A “dutiful son,” he “hustles” for his father, a widowed, disabled brick-layer, who spends his retirement in their small apartment, singing the blues. People call Tommy “a scammer, a swindler, a con,” but he prefers to think of himself as an “entertainer.” (11) He can’t carry a tune, but he performs versions of the Blues Man for white people who want to experience Harlem’s dark mystery at a safe distance. At the beginning of the novel, he’s running what appears to be a typical hustle. A rich old white woman in Queens is looking for a book of black magic; Tommy claims to have found it for her. Carefully dressed to look “the part of the dazzling, down-and-out musician,” (11), he crosses the segregated city. He’s learned how to appear “unremarkable, invisible, compliant . . . in an all white neighborhood. Survival techniques.” (12-13) But the hustle requires him to manifest Blackness for his client, whose name is Ma Att. He is selling Harlem exoticism. When she asks him where he acquired the book, he invents a dangerous-sounding nightclub: “’There’s a place in Harlem,’ Tommy said, his voice hushed. ‘It’s called the Victoria Society. Even the hardest gangsters in Harlem are afraid to go there. It’s where people like me trade in books like yours. And worse.’” (15) In the novel’s world, the Victoria Society is a Caribbean social club that caters to nostalgic immigrants by providing the atmosphere of “a British tearoom.” (19) In short, Tommy’s pulling a kind of “Lovecraft scam”: convincing overly sensitive white people that their dark fantasies are really out there—in a Harlem he knows they won’t dare enter. But this relation between truth and reality is complicated by the object which Tommy delivers. It is a curious book: “no larger than the palm of Tommy’s hand. It’s front and back covers were sallow yellow. Three words had been etched on both sides. Zig Zag Zig. Tommy didn’t know what the words meant, nor did he care to know. … A good hustler isn’t curious.” (14) But he doesn’t fail to notice that when he hands the book to his client “a faint trail of smoke appeared in the air,” as though “glancing contact with daylight had set the book on fire.” (15) And, just to be safe, he’s directed his father to cut out the final page of the book, thus presumably disabling its magic, while allowing Tommy to tell his client the truth that he hasn’t touched the book. Tommy negotiates the black market in black magic with a skepticism that extends on both directions. He knows that he’s supplying the “black” part of her fantasy but isn’t sure where the “magic” begins and ends. For readers of the genre, the book’s weirdness is magnified by its color, which calls to mind The King in Yellow, an episode of weird mythology created by Robert Chambers using elements from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” (The Chambers-Bierce mythos was the most likely model for Lovecraft’s mythos.)

On this visit to Queens, Tommy realizes the advantage of pretending to be a blues singer in white neighborhoods, where “outer-borough bohunks ad Paddys probably didn’t know a damn thing about serious jazz, so Tommy’s knockoff version might still stand out.” (18) This scheme brings him, a few days later, to Flatbush in Brooklyn, where he encounters none other than Robert Suydam, the villain of Lovecraft’s story. Suydam offers him a year’s salary to play guitar at a party he will be holding in a few days. Tommy agrees. But a few minutes after Suydam leaves, Tommy’s assaulted by a private dick and Malone; they’ve been following Suydam on behalf of his family, who wishes to declare the devil worshiper insane. This part of the story is related in “The Horror at Red Hook,” minus Tommy of course. Tommy discusses the gig with his father, who gives him a straight razor to keep under this shirt in case things go south. On his way back to Flatbush, Tommy’s harassed by white kids, playing neighborhood vigilantes, but they don’t follow him onto the grounds of Suydam’s estate—more fearful of what is to be found there than of a Black man in their borough. It turns out that Suydam has invited Tommy to a rehearsal and planning session, rather than to the party proper. In his gothic library, he tells Tommy that he hasn’t really invited him for his (nonexistent) musical skills, but because “you understood illusion.” (46) He gives Tommy a pitch, offering a better life. “Your people,” Suydam says, sounding just like Lovecraft, “are forced to live in mazes of hybrid squalor. It’s all sounds and filth and spiritual putrescence.” Tommy’s confused. “You talking about Harlem?” he asks. (47) This failure of Suydam’s vision to describe the friendly, free-spirited Harlem in which Tommy lives is one half of LaValle’s critique. In the same scene, we are brought fully into Lovecraft’s universe, with descriptions of the Great Old Ones and especially the “King who sleeps at the bottom of the ocean”—presumably Cthulhu. (50) Several weird things occur while Tommy’s in the library. For a second, Suydam appears to be shape-shifting. Outside the windows, Tommy glimpses what appears to be the city beneath the sea. When he opens the door to leave, he finds himself face-to-face with Malone, yet not: “Tommy realized something strange about Malone, or about Malone’s surroundings. While Tommy stood in the library of Robert Suydam’s home, Malone stood in what looked to be the lobby of an apartment building. . . It was as if the two locations—mansion and tenement lobby—had been stitched together by a haphazard tailor, Tommy Tester and Detective Malone facing each other because of a bad splice in reality’s fabric.” (52) This “splice” occurs between multiple realities. In the novel, it bridges space and time; it also bridges the two narratives the compose the book (Tommy’s and Malone’s). It also bridges the color line: a splice between white and black protagonists. It also splices stories: Lovecraft’s and LaValle’s.

At this point, the novel develops a trope used by other writers, particularly Ruff in Lovecraft Country. It juxtaposes the horror of the fantastic with the horror of “real world” racism. While Tommy’s at Suydam’s, the private detective, an asshole from Texas named Howard (Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the Texan who created Conan, bonded over a shared sense of white supremacy), breaks into his apartment in search of the missing page from Ma Att’s book; he murders Tommy’s father, claiming that he mistook the old man’s guitar for a gun. He is, of course, not charged for the crime. Numb, disgusted, burning with rage, Tommy returns to Suydam’s party, where the old man rallies a horde of disreputable immigrants, promising them a new world in exchange for his leadership. “But Tommy Tester couldn’t celebrate such a thing. Maybe yesterday the promise of a reward in this new world could’ve tempted Tommy, but today such a thing seemed worthless. Destroy it all, then hand what was left over to Robert Suydam and these gathered goons? What would they do differently? Mankind didn’t make messes; mankind was the mess.” (76) Opening the library’s magic doors, Tommy walks into hell… His rage, provoked by racial injustice, generates a “cosmic” degree of “indifference” for humanity; he goes in search of all the evil he can find. This is the second part of LaValle’s critique; the black man becomes the true subject (rather than intended object) of Suydam’s black magic; reborn as Black Tom, it’s the former kid from Harlem who will decide humanity’s fate.

The second half of The Ballad of Black Tom picks up the thread of Malone’s narrative, repeating with new details and a shocking twist the events related in Lovecraft’s story. Malone is the closest Lovecraft comes to creating a hard-boiled romantic lead of the Black Mask school. Dublin-born (the whitest of white “stock,” to use Lovecraft’s term), Malone is a typically “sensitive” weird hero. Unlike Dupin or Holmes, his irrationalism allows him to see what other, more procedurally-oriented minds, cannot. “He would often regard it as merciful that most persons of high intelligence jeer at the inmost mysteries;” Lovecraft tells us, “for, he argued, if superior minds were ever placed in fullest contact with the secrets preserved by ancient and lowly cults, the resultant abnormalities would soon not only wreck the world, but threaten the very integrity of the universe.” Such is the texture of Lovecraft’s racism; the “Horror at Red Hook” may be the polyglot masses, but the villain of his narrative is a wealthy old white man with the intelligence and willfulness to set the plot in motion. In Lovecraft’s world, the ruffians are incapable of anything but obedience. Malone “was conscious, as one who united imagination with scientific knowledge, that modern people under lawless conditions tend uncannily to repeat the darkest instinctive patterns of primitive half-ape savagery in their daily life and ritual observances; and he had often viewed with an anthropologist’s shudder the chanting, cursing processions of blear-eyed and pockmarked young men which wound their way along in the dark small hours of morning. One saw groups of these youths incessantly; sometimes in leering vigils on street corners, sometimes in doorways playing eerily on cheap instruments of music, sometimes in stupefied dozes or indecent dialogues around cafeteria tables near Borough Hall, and sometimes in whispering converse around dingy taxicabs drawn up at the high stoops of crumbling and closely shuttered old houses.” Such is Lovecraft’s Red Hook: whatever “cosmic dread” may result, it’s wellspring is this very ordinary structure of white nationalism, which views the daily life of people of color as a primal anarchy.

LaValle revises this world in two ways. He grants agency to Tommy and, curiously, he reforms Malone, recusing him, as it were, from Lovecraft’s racism. LaValle’s Malone is at least halfway likeable. His “sensitivity” manifests as “sympathy” for Suydam and Tommy, and a dislike for Howard’s brutality and racism. His narrative also supports one of the novel’s most intense (and unfortunately final) moments of weirdness. The single best moment occurs when Malone and Howard visit Ma Att:

At the doorway, a stooped, slim woman had appeared, her nose prominent, hair pulled back tightly. But behind that woman, Malone swore he saw—what? More of her. Some great bulk trailed behind her, off into the distance of the gloomy front hall. Nearly everyone else—ones not so sensitive, so attuned—would’ve dismissed this as a trick of the shadows, a bit of bent light. Insensitive minds always dispel true knowledge. But Malone couldn’t ignore the sense of her length, of largeness, behind the figure of this woman at the door. Not a second presence, but the rest of hers. (84)

This is the stuff of weird fiction: the glimpse of an impossibility; a hint at a world beyond, the suggestion of a thing that can’t be said. The “hesitation” Todorov places at the heart of the genre depends upon this sort of parallax view. As soon at the thing comes fully to light, the weirdness is lost. Weird fiction’s impossible thing is like the denouement of a mystery; once it steps into the light, the writer has only a few scenes before the reader’s interest evaporates. The impossible thing decays into an illusion or delusion, or into a “miracle”—an impossible thing which must, in the fictional world, be treated as a fact. Unlike detective fiction, however, weird fiction doesn’t require this climactic unveiling. Weird fiction promises what Keats called “negative capability”; many of the best stories leave the hesitation intact, and each truly weird story must wipe the slate clean after the last adventure. Readers must imagine a world without magic in order to experience its possibility afresh. Consequently, the Lovecraft mythos poses a problem for the genre: inasmuch as the Great Old Ones are already known (by the reader) to exist in the (fictional) world, the primal hesitation is already lost.

The Ballad of Black Tom confronts this problem when we turn to Malone’s narrative. We know already what he will find beneath the squalid tenements at Red Hook; LaValle’s task is to revise not only the plot and theme, but the nature of the weirdness. He does this far better than many contemporary weird writers, but his scenes lack the intensity of description and manifestation of incredulity that produces truly weird suspense. As Malone begins to realize Suydam’s plan—as in the original story, he wants to gain immortality and power by opening a magic portal to the city beneath the waves—he encounters various weird happenings, but they are rendered with a definiteness and inevitability that prevents them from generating much weirdness. Returning a third time to Ma Att’s, he discovers that the house itself is gone:

Only a week ago he’d been at this address. He had met Ma Att at the threshold of her home. . . And now it seemed Ma Att was gone. Her entire cottage, too. The walls, the roof, the windows, the little mailbox that hung by the front door. Gone The front lawn, too. All of it had been pulled up out of the ground like weeds. Nothing remained by the house’s sewage and water pipes. They peeked out of the soil like a partially unearthed skeleton. The plot resembled an open grave.

“How?” Malone said again, but nothing more. (110)

But two very short paragraphs later, he’s “recovered” and sets about interrogating witnesses, one of whom provides a remarkably clear account of the scene. We learn that Black Tom has whisked Ma Att away through a magic portal in these words, spoken by a neighbor: “Now, I don’t know how else to put this next part, so I’m going to say it like I saw it. Right? She stepped outside, and the Negro stood there patient as you please, and then it was like a door opened. You see, right there were the funeral home gate touchers her property? Something opened right there. I say a door, but I don’t mean a real door. Like a hole, or a pocket, and inside that pocket it was empty, back. I don’t know what else to say. Like the sky at night, but without any stars….” (112) Such passages suffer from too much clarity. When the impossible thing is not treated (by characters, the narrative) as an impossibility, the story tilts into fantasy. This is one reason why atmosphere matters: it helps to establish a credibility that might then be cast into doubt. Here, the neighbor tells Malone what he and we, the readers, expect to find. The portal to inky blackness is rendered as merely the believable unbelievable. In short, the atmosphere dries up in the Malone section, as though the protagonist knows what we know—that we’ve read this story before.

As LaValle speeds through the events narrated in Lovecraft’s story, Black Tom intervenes, changing the narrative. I won’t give away the horror that gets introduced. There’s a good twist, and thoughtful reply to the racism of the original story. But nothing’s particularly weird. Todorov’s distinction between allegorical and weird events provides a useful explanation of why the weirdness dissipates as the novel continues. As Todorov argues, when we read allegorically, we read against a literal interpretation on the words. In unalloyed allegory, such as The Pilgrim’s Progress, the objects of narrative attention are not regarded as real; the Delectable Mountains are not treated as actual mountains, Giant Despair is not a “real” monster. Todorov pursues the relation between allegorical and literal utterances in various tales, showing how sometimes the allegorical interpretation “weakens” the literalism that weirdness requires. Poe’s “William Wilson,” he concludes, effectively produces the weird hesitation between literal and allegorical interpretations—an astute insight into that story’s triangulation of three weird qualities (the primal hesitation, between the presence of a double and the narrator’s madness is synthesized to become one pole in the relation between fantastic and allegorical relations to the text). Gogol’s “The Nose” is his “limit-case”: either the whole thing is impossible literalism or realism at the service of an impossible (absurd) allegory. With this dynamic in mind, it’s interesting to consider how and why LaValle’s antiracist revision of Lovecraft’s story eschews the slower pace of atmospheric realism, which anchors a literal mode of interpretation, as it repeats and modifies the original. I’d postulate that allegory sustains its double meaning by generating correspondences between its metaphors and a canonical text, such as, in Bunyan’s case, 17th century Christian theology. In the strange case of “mythos”-based metafiction, the canonical text is the original story that produced the world in which certain impossible elements may appear. For Verne it’s Poe’s Pym, for LaValle it’s Lovecraft’s “Red Hook.” The former retains its weirdness by accumulating, over hundreds of pages, a literalism that overwhelms the metafictional correspondences, allowing them to become embedded within the text. The first half of LaValle’s novel, set in a kind of “parallel reality”—that constituted by the politics of Black life—sustains some of the literalness, but the final third, focalized on Malone, tips fully into an allegorical rewriting of Lovecraft’s story. Sustaining the affect of weirdness becomes a minor priority as the allegory plays out.

In short, LaValle’s novel is a valuable weird allegory that demonstrates the possibility of antiracist weird fiction, even when written in the Lovecraftian universe. It effectively exposes Lovecraft’s racism; as this subject will continue in the next post, I will conclude by returning us one last time to Lovecraft’s “Red Hook.” In contemporary critical discourse, the defense of Lovecraft’s racism often exaggerates the sense of cosmic “indifference” that he writes about in letters and ruminates on in a few of the tales (most importantly, At the Mountains of Madness). In the “cosmic indifference” reading, the true horror is an existential dread commensurate with a sublime realization of the miniscule place humans occupy in the history of the planet and the universe. That’s part of it; in “Horror at Red Hook,” Lovecraft’s refusal to grant agency to his Celtic cop is an interesting part of the story. But the “Horror” that Malone encounters is not chiefly motivated by a rationalist’s sense of proportion. I’ve wonder what advocates of cosmic indifference make of such passages at this one, from Malone’s dream that was not a dream: “Avenues of limitless night seemed to radiate in every direction, till one might fancy that here lay the root of a contagion destined to sicken and swallow cities, and engulf nations in the foetor of hybrid pestilence. Here cosmic sin had entered, and festered by unhallowed rites had commenced the grinning march of death that was to rot us all to fungous abnormalities too hideous for the grave’s holding. Satan here held his Babylonish court, [. . .] for in this quintessence of all damnation the bounds of consciousness were let down, and man’s fancy lay open to vistas of every realm of horror and every forbidden dimension that evil had power to mould.” I don’t find much indifference in such passages. “Cosmic sin,” “Satan,” “this quintessence of all damnation,” “every forbidden dimension’? Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones don’t treat the human universe as a mere nothing—they are positively devilish, promising power, the fulfillment of lust, the dance of anarchy, and above (or below) all, the threat of “hybrid pestilence,” which for Lovecraft meant the mixing of the races. This was not a matter of “indifference” to the author of “The Conservative,” Lovecraft’s far-right amateur publication. It was a matter of politics and morality. However, as Richard Wright understood, the weirdness Lovecraft mined, albeit often at the service of his racist antimodernist misanthropy, could be put to other uses. LaValle’s short novel demonstrates this convincingly and with playful winks at the Lovecraftian connoisseurs. The Ballad of Black Tom ends up in allegory, but it remains the best mythic antiracist revision of weird fiction on the market to date.

A longer, but far less convincing, attempt at the same revision motivates the next novel I will review, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country.

Contemporary Weird Novels

Fifteen years ago, in the Third Alternative Message Board conversation reprinted in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The New Weird (2008), Justina Robinson predicted that “Literature is going to SF and try and take the entire thing over by main force in the next five years. … I think this has to happen, because the world has turned into a SF world” (325). Robinson’s prophecy rings true. Leaving aside the metaphor of “main force” (as though literature were a besieging army and speculative fiction the outgunned heretics), the weird subgenre has been main-lined by the mainstream. Weird is everywhere today. The culture industry increasingly brings speculative / fantastic / weird / supernatural narratives to market. The New Weird anthology joins many others, such as the VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (2011), Peter Straub’s Poe’s Children: The New Horror (2009), and the two-volume Library of America collection of American Fantastic Tales (2009), also edited by Straub. The genre’s resurrection, often attributed to the publication of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), gained new heights of visibility with Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy; published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2014, it received attention from prominent mainstream reviewers, including The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and National Public Radio. When the trilogy’s first book, Annihilation, was released as a summer blockbuster, his novels again appeared on the front tables in book shops and near the top of Amazon’s recommendations. Meanwhile, the Lovecraft industry continues apace, with reissues of his stories, another biography, and increasing scholarly attention to his work. The Lovecraft Mythos has been taken up by comic book artists and video game engineers, and I’ve read rumors that Guillermo del Toro is putting together a screen adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness… Speaking of del Toro, his success parallel’s Miéville’s in a revealing way. The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Hellboy (2004) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) are generic masterpieces that have garnered critical acclaim and a growing fanbase. They join countless other big-budget movies and TV Shows that feature supernatural horror. Twin Peaks is back, and so is Picnic at Hanging Rock. Plus American Horror Story, plus Lore, plus Zone Blanc, etc. Weirdness also thrives in new media—podcasts such as Welcome to Nightvale, Alice Isn’t Dead, The Last Podcast on the Left, Dark Windows, and Weird Studies make the strange, bizarre, eerie, and horrific their central focus. The hosts of Weird Studies, J. F. Martel and Phil Ford, make a compelling case for weirdness to become an object of intellectual inquiry, and have begun that research.

To contribute to this conversation, I gave myself an assignment: “Survey contemporary weird novels by reading ten books published in the last two years. Consider each novel in terms of its precedents in and contributions to the genre, its relation to the other contemporary novels, and its charm, or ability to grip the imagination.”

The following ten posts record the results of this investigation. Each novel is treated individually, in the order of publication. The posts are part essay, part review. WARNING: PLOTS ARE REVEALED, SOME MYSTERIES ARE BROUGHT TO LIGHT.

The Novels are:

  • The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle (Tom Doherty, 2016)
  • Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff (HarperCollins, 2016)
  • The Fisherman, by John Langan (Word Horde, 2016)
  • The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge (Penguin, 2017)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders (Random House, 2017)
  • Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero (Penguin Random House, 2017)
  • Mapping the Interior, by Stephen Graham Jones (Tom Doherty, 2017)
  • The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
  • The Cabin at the End of the World, by Paul Tremblay (HarperCollins, 2018)
  • Unlanguage, by Michael Cisco (Eraserhead Press, 2018)

Why these books, rather than many others? With a nod toward the Weird Studies podcast, I let the universe decide. For about a year, off and on, I kept an ear out for recommendations; these books were brought to my attention. Two were recommended by book store personnel, three by Amazon’s algorithm, the rest by podcasters and bloggers. They are published by a range of presses, from small, genre-specific publishers to the biggest players in the industry. The fact that they are mostly by white men, tells us something about the contemporary state of the genre, which I will discuss in a concluding post.

In the remainder of this introduction, I develop my definition of weird fiction—a notoriously slippery genre—and explain the key concepts I will use to discuss each book.


Among the classic weird tales is Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” This is a fitting question to ask of the genre itself, although it should now be stated in the present tense. What is weird fiction? Unsurprisingly, given the genre’s preoccupation with mystery, no one seems to know. Participants on the Third Alternative Message Board defend the thing’s generic instability: “one of the best things going on with this form of fiction is it’s genuinely unlabelable (is that a word?),” writes Harrison (328). A similar ambiguity finds expression in the editor’s introduction to Skelos, a “Journal of Weird Fiction and Dark Fantasy” launched in 2016. “The Weird Tale has always been a kind of catch-all,” according to Mark Finn; it is “neither fish nor fowl. . . Sometimes it’s a strange conflation of genres that produces this liminal space . . . where the story takes place. . . Weird fiction almost defies categorization.” (4). According to Carl Freedman, writing about Miélville’s The City & the City: “‘Weird Fiction,’ his own preferred term for his work. . . , is in fact an omnibus category that in practice has included elements from such arealistic forms as science fiction, world-building fantasy, horror, surrealism, and magical realism” (13). According to Ian Maclean, the translator of Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in the Saragossa, “Potocki seems at one time to have thought of his work in terms of the Gothic novel . . . but it also has affinities with many other literary modes: the picaresque . . . the adventure story . . . the pastoral . . . the libertine novel . . . the conte philosophique . . . the fantastic . . . the Bildungsroman. . .” (xiv – xv).

There are many reasons why weird fiction’s most knowledgeable readers refuse to offer a simple, coherent definition of the genre, such as one might easily imagine for the other genres that they mention. As a phenomenon, weirdness describes an affective relation between a subject and an object in which the object’s significance remains on the horizon of intelligibility. It indicates the foggy region where knowing becomes unknowing, and the unknown becomes known. When we experience weirdness, we have decided that something—a person, a place, an object, the world—holds for us a promise of something beyond our understanding. It may fascinate or repulse us, generate interest or fear. Its sisters are the strange, the odd, the queer, the eerie, and the uncanny. It lives in dreams, dances in madness, comports with satyrs and centaurs and ghosts. With a mixture of pride and shame, weird writers and editors defend this inherent/apparent ambiguity. Many weird writers, in stories and essays, imagine the experience of weirdness as a sort of ever-shrinking wilderness, a sensitivity or capacity to experience the supernatural that was abolished by modernity. Enlightenment science shines its hard and conquering light across the globe and universe, outlawing the ancient rites, ridiculing the faithful, tearing down the forests, and turning the castles over to tourists. The last time the genre flourished—during the heyday of Weird Tales in the pulpy 1920s and 30s—it assumed a lowbrow, kitschy, garrulous form—a Hyde to the Jekyll it had been thirty years earlier, when Henry James and Edith Wharton were among its celebrated authors. Weird fiction developed a bad reputation, which slowly grew into a counterculture that haunted the margins of literature. The “horror boom” of the 1980s massively expanded the genre’s reading public, but also defused the weirdness, pushing the genre further underground. Until very recently, most of it was ignored by literary scholars. Except for stories by a few authors—Edgar Allan Poe and James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Wharton—the genre was deemed too far outside the field of literature to be worth evaluation. All of this has left weird writers with a high tolerance for generic ambiguity.

The twentieth century’s meager contributions to weird studies leave us with two incommensurate definitions of the weird tale. The first, propounded by H. P. Lovecraft in Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927; 1934) emphasizes “cosmic fear,” which Lovecraft believes to be an “instinctual” response to the unknown. He sharply distinguishes “this type of fear literature” from stories that focus on “mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome” (15). For a work to be truly weird, it must generate for the reader “a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers.” This impossible thing must rend the fabric of known reality, causing the story’s protagonist to experience an existential crisis, be it madness or the apocalypse.  “Atmosphere,” he insists, “is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation” (16). In The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970; trans. 1973), Tzevtan Todorov provided an almost entirely different definition. He dismisses Lovecraft’s emphasis on the “sentiment of fear or perplexity” as absurd, observing that a sense of horror or dread is by no means the only way that writers formulate a response to the unknown (35). Instead, he defines the genre as any work that emphasizes a certain kind of “hesitation” or “duration of uncertainty” (25). The reader, and usually one or more characters, encounter the “impossible thing”; since it can’t exist in what we take to be reality, we are thrown into a state of inquiry: have our senses betrayed us (is it an illusion)? Or our mind (is it a delusion)? Or must we accept that the thing exists (as what Todorov calls “a miracle”)? The narrative tension between these outcomes sustains the text’s weirdness; whether the impossible thing turns out to be the result of human ingenuity or fallibility, or whether it turns out to be an “actual” angel or monster, makes no difference. Either way, the weirdness is over when the indecision ceases, just as a detective story is over when the criminal’s caught.

Todorov’s definition suffers from some structuralist rigidity but is far more robust than Lovecraft’s. It allows for recognition of weird stories that are not necessarily horror stories, while hedging against the inevitable slide into a perception of all works that contain supernatural creatures as weird tales. (This is the decision S.T. Joshi makes in Unutterable Horror (2014), his two-volume review of “Supernatural Literature.”) Most importantly, Todorov’s analysis moves us away from Lovecraft’s sense of the unknown as dreadful and dread as a singular, universal experience. These assumptions–attributable to or at least commensurate with Lovecraft’s intense racism and neuroticism–produce a view of the genre as emerging from a supposedly timeless tradition of folk tales and ghost stories. Todorov’s analysis takes us in the opposite direction–toward literature as a discursive enterprise that developed in the early 1700s, with realism at its center and weird fiction as what Zizek would call its “obscene supplement.”

Todorov’s analysis falls short in one significant way. It fails to account for the very thing that Lovecraft emphasizes: atmosphere. For Todorov, the ability of a book to stimulate the imagination, to generate sensation, is a matter of quality, which he assumes as a transcendental category for literature as such. He mocks Lovecraft’s insistence that a particular emotion (“cosmic dread”) should be regarded as inimical to the genre, noting that anything might frighten anybody. Tentacled monsters, fishmen, and ghostly possessions were only useful props for the evocation of Lovecraft’s weirdness, which he mistook for necessary generic elements, just as he imagined the unknown could only be accompanied by a sense of horror. I agree with Todorov on these points. But Lovecraft’s notion of atmosphere points toward something beyond the sense of dread, which we might provisionally think of as a style or quality of the prose that does constitute a necessary ingredient. Todorov, confident that poetry and allegory can never be truly weird, discounts those aspects of the reading experience that owe more to the juxtaposition of images, the rhythms of sentence and scene, the deployment of metaphors, and the development of conceits, than to the structure of plots and development of characters. Frequently, he is content to paraphrase stories to make his case. Recent scholarship tends to adopt the Lovecraftian approach, wrestling with or ignoring its numerous shortcomings precisely because they are enthralled with the more poetic and allegorical qualities of his work. As Graham Harmon phrases it, “Lovecraft’s major gift as a writer is his deliberate and skillful obstruction of all attempts to paraphrase him.” (9) For Michel Houellebecq, Lovecraft’s genius can be attributed to his construction of sequences of sensation, such as one might encounter walking through a (haunted) house: “One discovers architecture progressively and from a variety of angles, one moves within it; this is an element that can never be reproduced in a painting, nor even in a film. . . An architect by nature, Lovecraft was not much of a painter; his colors are not really colors; rather, they are moods, or to be exact, lighting, whose only function is to offset the architecture he describes” (64). The only mistake these scholars take is to ascribe this stylistic quality only to Lovecraft; it is better regarded as an aspect of the genre as a whole—one that can be discovered in the works that Todorov summarizes, despite his failure to discuss it.

In the posts that follow, I use each novel to develop aspects of my definition of the genre, which attempts to unite Todorov’s elegant explanation with Lovecraft’s inept but vital intuition. The best stories are those which maintain the fundamental “hesitation” for as long as possible and/or develop a weird atmosphere. Weirdness is not bound to dread or horror; one might encounter the impossible as amazing and delightful. Much of the pleasure can come from the “unparaphrasable” aspects of the fiction, the sudden changes in temperature and new vistas the contribute to the flickering between illusion and delusion, between reality and the Real. Importantly, this pleasure always potentially extends into a realm of the reading experience often referred to as “metafiction.” Weird fiction is fiction’s doppelganger. The phrase doesn’t just name a genre; it also points to the way in which all fiction is weird. Every work of fiction is a weird object since we adopt a relation to it in which it promises to enhance our view of the world, to enlarge the imagination. Countless weird writers introduce metafictional elements: Algernon Blackwood, Jorge Luis Borges, A. S. Byatt, Ramsey Campbell, William Hope Hodgson, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Shirley Jackson, M. R. James, Thomas Ligotti, Arthur Machen, Joyce Carol Oates, Vladimir Nabakov, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and the authors mentioned earlier are only the most prominent writers to develop weirdness around manuscripts, letters, diaries, and other forms of writing that places texts within texts within texts. Just as attention to “atmosphere” asks us to notice the sensuality of the prose, attention to its metafictional frames asks us to observe the text’s relation to other systems of meaning in which it is embedded. In this regard, the weird writer produces a hesitation between the medium and the message, and this weirdness often bleeds through into the “real” world of the physical text, which may present itself, with various degrees of accuracy, as something other than what it is. Poe’s “hoaxes” are a good example. But the theme is at least as old as Don Quixote: the insanity of fiction, the romance of reading, is the dark mirror weird fiction holds up to allegory’s truth.

To summarize my view, which is quite expansive compared to other accounts that I have read: weird fiction is any work of literature that concentrates the sensation of weirdness, regardless of its attitude toward the impossible thing that it constructs. The concentration of weirdness occurs along three axes. The first involves narrative, plot, and character: this is the content that can be paraphrased. One or more characters encounter something that defies the laws (small or large) that govern their reality; the thing is weird so long as it allows the reader to also confront the destabilization of reality. The second axis involves the poetics of prose. Todorov is right to observe that poetry rarely if ever achieves the weirdness associated with weird literature; the reader of a poem is already predisposed to disregard realism, which is fundamental to the genre (realism is the fundament to be rent asunder). But the poetics of prose—the style in which a weird narrative is constructed, its use of metaphors, rhythms, dramatic voice, and conceits—can generate much of its weirdness. This is why, for example, Poe’s style matters; why “Poesque” names a certain way of putting together sentences. Writing with style is of course an ideal for most story tellers, but it can be used to tilt the reading experience toward normativity or weirdness. Since realism prefers a certain transparency, weirdness suggests a certain degree of artifice. The third axis concentrates weirdness by situating the text among other texts, either by making them important elements of the story (Lovecraft’s Necronomicon; M. R. James Tractate Middoth, etc.), by constructing narrative frames (The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” Blackwood’s “The Listener,” etc.), or by presenting the text as a true account of (fictional) events (Poe’s “The Facts of the Case of Mr. Vladimir,” Machen’s The Terror, Bolano’s Nazi Literature of the Americas, etc.) I call this a “working definition” in part because I’m not done refining it, and in part because it names a process—the maintenance of weirdness by any means necessary—rather than delimits a singularity. I am open to all kinds of weirdness, but I am more interested in texts that develop a lot of it.

Although weird novels have always existed (have, with Cervantes, even predated the genre of the novel as such), weird fiction is dominated by the short story. From Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe to the contemporary writers collected in The New Weird and Poe’s Children, the short story has provided the greatest good to the greatest number of weird writers. Some of the most important writers, such as Gertrude Atherton, Ambrose Bierce, Borges, M.R. James, Thomas Ligotti, and Lovecraft, expressed their weirdness in short stories exclusively. The hesitation that Todorov observes is difficult to sustain; longer tales must either contrive to maintain a singular tension throughout or develop a series of partial epiphanies: episodes that allow one or more protagonists to encounter multiple versions of the impossible thing. There remains a rich history of weird novels and novellas, especially when we adopt the more expanded view of the genre that I am attempting to articulate.

It is, of course, impossible to create a comprehensive list of texts that fall into any given genre. One must steer by the stars—by pointing toward particularly luminescent or well-situated singularities and constellations. Here is a constellation of weird novels that helps me to understand the tradition in which these contemporary stories succeed or fail:

  • Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605; 1615);
  • Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759 -67);
  • Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest (1891);
  • Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798);
  • Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1805, 1810);
  • Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838);
  • Dostoevsky, The Double (1846; 1866)
  • Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (1871);
  • Gustav Flaubert, Bouvard et Pecuchet (with The Dictionary of Received Ideas) (1881);
  • Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898);
  • Hodgson, The House on the Borderland (1908);
  • Algernon Blackwood, The Centaur (1911);
  • Arthur Machen, The Terror (1917);
  • Kafka, The Castle (1926);
  • Amos Tutola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952);
  • Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959);
  • Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962);
  • Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967);
  • Stephen King, The Shining (1977);
  • Roberto Bolano, Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996);
  • Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000);
  • Muriel Spark, Aiding & Abetting (2000);
  • Miélville, The City & the City (2009);
  • Mat Johnson, Pym (2011);
  • VanderMeer, The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) (2014)

This list comes with several caveats and explanations. Numerous other novels could be added to it; it merely sketches some bright lights that guide my understanding of literary weirdness. Following Todorov, I have discounted fantasy and utopian literature, science fiction and mystery. Many novels written in these genres may include weird moments or characters, but if their plots do not dwell upon the impossible thing, or if they situate that thing in an alternative world (a Middle Earth, Narnia, Earthsea or Xanth), in a distant future or on another planet, they belong to other genres. When it comes to setting, it is easy to distinguish weird fiction, which depends heavily upon the realism it dismantles, from other genres. When considering the “inner worlds” produced by dreams and delusions—the literature of madness and fancy—the genre can not easily be distinguished from works often labeled psychological horror, whimsical stories, magical realism, or surrealism and absurdism. Lovecraft and scholars working in his long shadow, such as Joshi and Harmon, attempt to delineate these boundaries with the phrase “cosmic dread,” which necessitates the appearance of a supernatural creature—a Great Old One or a disembodied soul—to shake the foundations of empirical reality. Such a view is far too restrictive, as I’ve suggested. The cosmic horizon turns out to be an incredibly small field of perception; most of our reality is lived—and therefore can be disturbed—much closer to home. Finally, like other genres, weird fiction has its own logic of obsolescence. Romances and mysteries bore us when the plots and protagonists are predictable. For weird fiction writers, the most difficult task is to create an original version of the impossible thing. Weird stories become banal when the thing that generates the hesitation is too immediately recognizable in its role. For example, apparitions, animated corpses, werewolves, and vampires have been submitted to so much attention over the years that they have ceased to be particularly weird. This is why Buffy, the Twilight series, or The Walking Dead can turn these monsters into the backdrop for family dramas, and why I leave vampires and werewolves off my list. Of course, any of these generic staples can be reanimated by a writer who finds a fresh approach—just as for a good mystery writer any crime will do. But they also exert an influence upon the genre. Lovecraft’s mythos dispelled the haunted house / apparition story that had become so popular in the late 19th century, just as those stories had refined the genre by dispelling Gothic tropes.

In his conclusion to The Fantastic, Todorov determines the genre to have been put to rest by modernism. Kafka, in his view, is the last weird writer. The Metamorphosis’ inversion of the usual relation between protagonist and impossible thing inaugurates a regime of story-telling in which realism no longer corresponds to the reality that the reader is prepared to accept. Apparently, he could not have predicted the resurgence of weirdness embodied in many of the novels I discuss in the coming months, for I am quite certain that he would have enjoyed several of them.