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 Mieville’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, Salon.com 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 Mieville’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.

WEIRD FICTION: A WORKING DEFINITION

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 Mielville’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);
  • Mielville, 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.

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