Weird Fiction Review #2: Lovecraft Country

NOTE: This is the second of ten reviews of contemporary weird novels. An overview of the project can be found here. The previous post introduces many of the ideas discussed below.

Lovecraft Country,Matt Ruff’s sixth novel, was published by HarperCollins and nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Jordan Peele, Misha Green, and J. J. Abrams are currently adapting it for an HBO TV series. Like Peele’s film Get Out (2017), this novel explores the relation between American racism and supernatural horror. Like Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, analyzed in the previous post, it “replies” to Lovecraft’s racist fantasies by contrasting the horror of black magic with the violence faced by Black Americans in an earlier period of the nation’s history. Whereas LaValle’s novel is set in 1920s New York and uses the“Lovecraft mythos,” Ruff’s much longer novel (372 pages) is set in Chicago and Massachusetts (not to mention another planet) during the mid-1950s. The central protagonist is Atticus Turner, but its episodic narrative also follows the adventures of his father Montrose, uncle George, aunt Hippolyta, cousin Horace, and others. Each episode attempts to re-situate a popular weird trope in the context of Black life on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. There are haunted houses, an interplanetary portal, a Jekyll and Hyde episode, and an animate doll. A loose plot, in which the black family must contend with a country-club-like sect of white magicians, links the episodes.

In the broadest terms, such as those used by S. T. Joshi in Supernatural Horror, Lovecraft Country counts as Weird Fiction: it features numerous encounters with supernatural creatures and magical forces; but it’s difficult to imagine either Lovecraft or Todorov appreciating it, because it lacks the genre’s primal atmosphere of hesitation. Much like Mat Johnson’s Pym, Ruff’s novel promises a critique of weird racism but (after a few chapters) fails to deliver either the sensation of weirdness or much of a critique. Ruff’s other novels are categorized as Speculative Fiction; based on this novel, he appears more interested in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy aspects of speculation than in Weird Fiction proper. In what follows, I salvage those aspects of the novel worth attention, while using it to explain why contemporary attempts as weird fiction often fail.

The most interesting feature of Lovecraft Country is its sustained meditation on racism and pulp fiction. A sequence of scenes related in the opening pages outlines the problem of “reading while black” as Ruff sees it. The novel begins in 1954, with Atticus Turner, a veteran of the Korean war, driving home to Chicago from Jacksonville, Florida, where he was discharged from the Army. His attitude toward the white racist power structure is made eminently clear: “Around one p.m. he reached the Ohio River, which marked the border between Kentucky and Indiana. As he crossed the water on a bridge named for a dead slave owner, Atticus cocked his arm out the window and bade Jim Crow farewell with a raised middle finger.” (2) But if he thinks he’s left white power behind, he’s soon set straight. When a tire blows (“A Southern tire, Atticus thought: Jim Crow’s revenge.” (2)), he can’t get service at a white-owned mechanics. Fortunately, he’s carrying The Safe Negro Travel Guide: this novel’s rather baldly named version of The Negro Motorist Green-Book, a guide for negotiating segregation while on the road published by Victor Hugo Green from 1936-66. In the novel, Atticus’s uncle George and aunt Hippolyta are the publishers of this guide. With it’s help, Atticus locates “a Negro-owned garage in Indianapolis, some fifty miles away.” (3) Despite the distance, the mechanic, whose name is Earl, drives out to fix the tire—and then offers Atticus dinner and a bed for the night. Over dinner, Atticus and the mechanic discuss their favorite science-fiction authors: “they talked about Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, . . and L. Ron Hubbard, . . . and the Tom Swift series, which Earl had loved when he was young but which embarrassed him now, both for the books’ depiction of Negroes and for the fact that as a boy he hadn’t noticed it. . .” (5) The next morning, on the road again, Atticus is pulled over by an Illinois state trooper, who becomes suspicious upon observing various paperbacks in Atticus’s car. “Anything in the trunk?” the trooper asks. “My Army uniform. Some books,” Atticus replies. The scene unfolds:

“What kind of books?”

“Science fiction, mostly.”

Science fiction?And this is your car?”  […]

“What’s this?” The trooper picked up a gift-wrapped object that had been at the bottom of the box.

“Another book,” Atticus said. “It’s a present for my uncle.”

The trooper tore off the wrapping paper, revealing a hardbound volume. “A Princess of Mars.”He looked sideways at Atticus. “Your uncle likes princesses, does he?” (6-7)

This is the bind that Atticus and other characters face, and that the novel asks us to face as well. In scenes like this one, it raises the question J. M. Tyree asked (see the previous post): is American genre fiction inherently racist? Most if not all the writers referenced in these passages were social conservatives who deployed racial stereotypes in a casual way; the black characters must contend with the knowledge of this, but it’s lost on the white patrolman, who doesn’t realize the deeper irony implicit in what today we’d call his “microaggressions.” The Safe Negro Travel Guide (which the trooper confiscates) signifies the novel’s alternative to genre fiction: antiracist nonfiction. The dynamic Ruff develops between fiction and reality, reading and driving, black and white authorship and reading habits, authority and resistance, is compelling. I wish I could report that the novel continued to complicate this theme, but the structures of feeling introduced in these early scenes don’t change much in the pages that follow. One reason for the lack of dynamism can be glimpsed in the above scenes—except for its central antagonist, the novel is unrelenting in its depiction of black characters as generous, reasonable, upright, and kind, and its white characters (primarily policemen) as suspicious, irrational, devious,and cruel. It reverses the hierarchy of racial representation deployed by Edgar Rice Burroughs or L. Ron Hubbard, but it retains the simplified characterizations found in racist stereotyping and much genre fiction.

When Atticus makes it to Chicago, we meet his uncle, proprietor of “the Safe Negro Travel Company,” (9) and his twelve-year-old cousin Horace (who we later learn is the author of the first comic books to feature a black woman superhero, discussed below). Although uncle George publishes nonfiction, “his deepest passion and most of his shelf space” is reserved for “science fiction, fantasy, mysteries and detective stories, horror and weird tales.” We learn that “Atticus’s shared devotion to these mostly white-authored genres had been a source of ongoing struggle with his father.” (12) The story flashes back to years earlier, when Montrose catches his son reading “At the Mountains of Madness” and schools him by finding in the public library a copy of Lovecraft’s poem, “On the Creation of Niggers.” (HPL’s racism is discussed in the previous post.) Atticus is shamed out of his youthful appreciation, but he still remembers the pleasure he took in these stories,which are regarded several times as like “old friends.” (15) His reminiscences are interrupted by the beginning of the plot, which arrives in the form of a letter from his father, who has recently left for Arkham, Massachusetts (“it’sin Lovecraft Country,” Atticus quips) in order to pursue an investigation into the family ancestry. Atticus’s deceased mother’s grandmother has left a mysterious “legacy” which Montrose hopes to uncover. We soon learn that the town is actually Ardham, Mass.—the “k” is a misprint—but that it’s in the middle of Devon county, a “sundown town” where the sheriff shoots at black motorists without hesitation. In case you didn’t get the point about fictional and actual racism, the sheriff is compared, unfavorably, to a shoggoth three times in as many pages. Soon, Atticus, George, and a convenient romantic lead named Letitia Dandridge (“Letitia, a year younger than Atticus, had for a while been the only girl member of the South Side Futurists Science-Fiction Club” (29)) are on their way to rescue Montrose from whatever trap has been laid for him in rural New England.

Weird fiction is most often related to horror fiction, but the best weird tales depend more upon suspense than horror. Terrifying monsters and/or gruesome tortures may await, but weirdness requires a sense of not knowing, of suspecting or fearing what will come, far more than it requires the horrible outcome. Many weird stories dwell in the uncertainty as to whether anything is happening at all: are there ghosts in this castle? Probably not, since ghosts don’t exist. But what if…? In this, weird fiction bears a closer resemblance to the murder mystery than it does to much speculative fiction. In Poe’s “tales of ratiocination” (think “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”), the reader is aligned with Dupin in the desire to solve the mystery. This produces a generic suspense used throughout the mystery genre. In Poe’s weird stories (think “The Cask of Amontillado”), the crime has yet to be committed; the reader dreads and delights in the realization of the monstrous thing. We are compelled to explore the castle, if only to confirm that nothing’s there. Much more could be said about Poe’s structure of dread, but for present purposes it suffices to observe that uncovering a mysterious horror motivates a form of suspense that weird fiction shares with crime fiction. This can be sharply distinguished from the expectation and discovery enjoyed by readers of fantasy and sci-fi. In these genres, a new reality is presented to the imagination; the “real world,” who mechanics are threatened in mysteries (which affirm the known) and weird tales (which undermine the known), is partially abandoned in fantasy and sci-fi. The goal of readers (and usually protagonists) is to learn more about this alternative reality. Characters may of course be caught up in suspenseful plots and may discover hideous creatures, but because this is a voyage into the unknown, rather than an attempt to hold onto the known, our expectations are inflected differently from the start. The suspension of disbelief is much more optimistic; ultimately, whatever happens in Middle Earth or on Mars will be a wonder to behold, and it can’t touch us where we live.

The first third of Lovecraft Country is occasionally weird, thanks to its development of numerous intersecting threads of suspense. Focalized on Atticus, we increasingly encounter episodes of strangeness, which develop the primal hesitation. An unusual car seems to follow them and intervenes on their behalf, cutting off a truck full of racist firemen who are pursuing them. They learn about the history of their destination. “I never realized just how strange a place it is,” their informant explains, adding “Ardham’s more of a mystery.” (40, 41) It promises a mysterious landscape: “’This is the most detailed map I could find,’Marvin said. ‘Most don’t even hint at a road through the forest, but it exists.’” (41) Late at night, on this strange road, Atticus and George are captured by the town sheriff, who seems prepared to execute them on the spot,when strange sounds are heard in the woods: “Out in the darkness, a big something slid or was dragged along the ground. They heard the snap of another branch,and another, and the groan of an entire tree being shoved over.” (52) Realism faulters when the characters shrug off the unseen force that rescues them, but our sense of weirdness increases when they reach their destination, a manor house that seems lost to time, with a butler who’s not only expecting them, but ushers them in through the front door. “’Mr. Turner, I presume,” the man said. ‘Welcome to the Ardham lodge, sir.’” (59) All of these are examples of the conventional ways that weird tales build suspense, and they work well enough. The suspense produced by the apparent absence of racism at Ardham lodge is one of the novel’s more thoughtful attempts to develop weirdness from a Black perspective. The white folks in this castle are respecting us. There must be something wrong….

Atticus and company are shown to sumptuous rooms in the lodge, and the novel returns to its ruminations on fictions and realities by introducing a time-honored weird trope: the mysterious book. In his room, Atticus discovers a bookcase full of his favorite author:

The lowest shelf was Lovecraft Country: Algernon Blackwood, Robert Block, August Derleth, William Hope Hodgson, Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, and the man himself. Finger-walking over the book spines, Atticus stopped at a reader leather-bound volume that stuck out conspicuously from between The House on the Borderland and Beyond the Wall of Sleep.

The cover of the red book was embossed with the half-sun symbol and the words BY-LAWS AND PRECEPTS OF THE ADAMITE ORDER OF THE ANCIENT DAWN. (65)

The Adamites—a cult of feuding magicians, whose machinations embroil the Turner family for the remainder of the novel—combine science with necromancy in the “real” world of the novel, just as the Lovecraft circle attempted to combine cosmology with supernaturalism. Thus the “truly magical” text is embedded with fictional weird texts, symbolizing the porous nature between actual and fantastical worlds. But this passage is also a good example of why Ruff’s novel fails to generate the reading experience promised by this collection of names. For one thing, it’s rather silly to imagine these authors side by side in 1954. The scholarship and publication that would put them into such a neatly arranged library wasn’t begun in earnest until the 1960s. It’s a minor example of a larger problem: the novel’s tendency to eschew historical realism. The “pastness of the past” is seldom realized. (This has major implications for how racism is imagined, discussed below.) More importantly from an aesthetic perspective, no effort is made to present these mysterious by-laws as strange or unaccountable. Readers familiar with “the Lovecraft circle” will know how the genre treats such texts, which hint at obscene blasphemies and wonders beyond comprehension. They are obscure, frightening, full of potency. Turning them into a version of “Robert’s Rules of Order” is a kind of deflationary joke, aimed at the whiteness of these staid, traditional alchemists, but it comes at the expense of any underlying weirdness. Before long, the reader will be asked to accept magic as an ordinary part of this world.

It turns out that their hosts are the Brathwaite clan. The present-day Brathwaites are descended from Titus, a “slave trader from Boston”who, as Atticus puts it, “owned by mother’s great-great-great-grandmother.” (67) One of Atticus’s maternal grandmothers was raped by Titus or one of his sons, making Atticus the youngest descendant of their bloodline. Consequently, the “rules” of their magic rituals require his presence (as well as that of the youngest Brathwaite, a necromancer named Caleb) at an elaborate ceremony—hence the luring and kidnapping of his father. The ceremony opens a portal, but Caleb uses it to kill some Adamites with whom he’s feuding, so the ultimate secrets are preserved. Caleb thanks the Turners for their help and gives them a magical gift. As the butler explains, “in addition to repairing your car, Mr. Brathwaite made a small modification to it that he believes you’ll find agreeable. . . A dash of immunity. From now on, you should find you’re much less likely to run into trouble on the road. Law enforcement officials, in particular, will tend to treat you as though you’re invisible to them.” (104) In short, a Cloak of Invisibility for the Negro Motorist. Cool. But by now we have passed fully into a fantasy world—one in which magic is an ordinary part of daily life. We have passed from Lovecraft Country into Hogwarts.

Atticus and company return to Chicago and the novel’s only truly weird episode concludes. From this point on, supernatural forces are regarded with an underlying indifference. We are left with the more typical fantasy plot: a race to gather various artifacts that function as keys in the ultimate ritual. Rival factions of the Adamites use conventional and supernatural means to acquire them, with the Turners attempting to survive by assisting and foiling various schemes. The narrative develops a campy cheerfulness as it submits its characters to a smorgasbord of fantastic fiction’s clichés. In “Dreams of the Which House,” Letitia attempts to integrate a white neighborhood. She ends up with a haunted house, but the ghosts end up scaring away neighborhood segregationists! In “Abdullah’s Book,” George and Montrose attempt to steal a magic book from the Museum of Natural History; the relation between this Book of Names and the dread Necronomicon is dragged out for several pages without consequence, save learning that Lovecraft didn’t know his way around Arabic names (hardly a revelation). In “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” we learn how hard it is for a black woman to be taken seriously by the scientific establishment in the 1930s and 40s. With another wink at Lovecraft, nine-year-old Hippolyta follows the discovery of “Planet X” and proposes that it be named Pluto. It is, of course, but credit goes to a little white girl! Grown-up Hippolyta then travels to a dangerous planet in a distant solar system, observes a vaguely Lovecraftian alien (“the sphere suddenly burst open like an orange turning inside out, dark rind splitting to reveal a wriggling white pulp. Dozens of pale tentacles shot out, wrapping around the man’s limbs…” (204), and escapes in time to enjoy hot chocolate with her husband. In “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” Caleb Brathwaite gives Letita’s sister Ruby an elixir that turns her into a white woman she names Hillary. She enjoys her newfound power and freedom: “Many white people, men especially, smiled at Hillary as they went by her, but what was really noteworthy was that the ones who ignored her, ignored her in a different way than they would have ignored Ruby. There was no side-eyeing, no pretending not to see her while wondering what she was up to; she didn’t require attention. She was free to browse, not just individual establishments, but the world.” (235) In “The Narrow House,” Montrose meets the ghosts of a lynched family and recalls his own memories of surviving a race riot. In “Horace and the Devil Doll,” the youngest member of the Tuner clan must escape an automaton that recalls a modernist classic of weird fiction, Richard Matheson’s “Prey,” in which an African doll attacks a white woman. Running across a South Side park, young Horace is confronted by a white cop who immediately draws his revolver and prepares to shoot the child. “Then the scene seemed to telescope, as an invisible cable attached to the policeman’s back yanked him into the air and sent him flying into the trees…”(338) He’s been saved by Caleb Brathwaite! As the “invisible cable” suggests, at this point we’re so accustomed to the supernatural it can be described with the simplest of mechanical metaphors. It’s the kind of magic one encounters in unoriginal B-movies, comic books, and video games: invisible force fields generated by flicks of the magi’s wrist, and so forth.

The various strands thread together into a climax I skimmed through; I won’t bore you with the details. What begins as weird fiction ends as an adventure story. The shift in tone and texture is clearly signaled in“Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” which turns from weird fiction to comic books. When nine-year-old Hippolyta trains her telescope on Planet X, we’re told: “It was a magical moment, and in the comic-book version of Hippolyta’s life, it changed everything. Reality was different, of course.” (185) Yet of course Hippolyta’s “reality” involves interplanetary travel—the novel has already abandoned weird realism in favor of superhero narratives. Indeed, as Hippolyta investigates the cosmic portal, she frequently notices parallels to her son’s comics: “she recalled the ocean-dwelling squid men of Europa from Orithyia Blue #5”; “This reminded Hippolyta of the booby-trapped airlock the corsairs of Neptune had used to knock out Orithyia Blue in issue #4…” (193) The Interplanetary Adventures of Orithyia Blue is a comic that “Horace had created … after Hippolyta suggested that it might be nice to read a science-fiction story about a woman for a change.” (175) The heroine, based on his mom, is a “graduate of the Howard Astrotechnical College class of 2001 and the solar system’s best troubleshooter.” (175) She gets involved in complicated adventures, full of “political intrigue” and humor: “the question was not ‘Will Orithyia survive?’ . . . but ‘Will she get to the store before the toy department closes?’” (176) The series has at least twelve issues. Pause to consider the suspension of disbelief required to imagine that a twelve-year-old, without any formal training, can create a year’s worth of professional-quality comic books. The average superhero comic is put together by at least four or five professionals—writer, pencil artist, inker, colorist, letterer, several editors, etc. These people work on each issue as a full-time occupation (whereas Horace also goes to school, plays with friends, etc.) It staggers the imagination: but not to produce a weird effect. On the contrary, this background information is meant to anchor the characters in their real world. It therefore exposes the texture or style of the “reality” that composes Ruff’s universe. It is the same as that used in superhero comics. It makes a nod to reality but fills its world with exceptions to that reality; it exaggerates and simplifies.

While further demonstrating the importance of realism to weird fiction, this approach also has significant consequences for the antiracist work Ruff’s novel promises. Justin Bortnick, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, summarizes the problem:

if you have come to this book looking for new or groundbreaking insights on racism in America or even racism in Lovecraft’s work, you will be disappointed. It never gets further than talking about how racism is bad. It does a fair job of painting the various micro- (and macro-)aggressions those without privilege experience, as well as providing scenery that speaks to the ways that the lack of privilege influences one’s life . . . the message is that racism is worse than Lovecraft’s fictional universe-destroying, insanity-inducing, multi-eyed, bloblike shoggoths, but I don’t think this was an embattled position in the first place. The conclusions one draws from seeing these two types of horror juxtaposed are too obvious to feel impactful. Perhaps Ruff’s real motive is more defensive: Atticus goes out of his way to defend Lovecraft as a writer… [However] there is very little Lovecraft in the book (especially for a book with Lovecraft in the title). The superficialities are there — strange cults, rituals in the night, monsters with more body parts than strictly necessary — but none of the psychic horror…

For me, the novel’s “comic-book reality” also raises questions about the politics of representation. Comic book narratives such as Orithyia Blue rely upon an allegorical mode. As in the recent furor over Black Panther, we are incited to celebrate the heroic representation of figures that stand for under-represented political subjects at the cost of a realistic assessment of the problem. The question of how much realism is “enough” is debatable and may itself be a terrain of struggle. The chief effect in Lovecraft Country is like that found in Soviet propaganda of the 1930s and 40s: its exaggeration simplifies realities, providing fantastic solutions to real-world problems, and obliterates history. In Ruff’s novel, white people are bad and black people are good. Racism is treated with slightly less nuance that one finds in the oft-repeated claims “they hate our freedom” or “the only way to stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns,” etc. The 1950s are imagined as a period of unending racial antagonism: the color line is enforced swiftly and mercilessly by a host of white segregationists, who seem to populate every corner of the city, the heartland, and New England. At the same time, the novel’s continual focus on police violence resonates with Black Lives Matter. The police are a presence that could only be imagined after the massive escalation and militarization of cops that began in the late 1970s. The novel imports a contemporary view of racism into a past, erasing the entire history of Civil Rights and the carceral racism that developed in response. It imposes upon the 1950s a “good guy / bad guy” political logic that belongs to our contemporary age. Ruff, whose white, seems anxious to make every person of color in the novel a paragon of virtue. Montrose initially appears to be a rather rough-hewn guy, but his occasional violence is explained and excused as necessary “tough love.”

As Bortnick points out, Lovecraft Country is equally shallow in its grappling with weirdness. It makes numerous allusions to the Weird Tales-era writers but fails to evoke the sensations for which they are prized. I began this series of posts by quoting Justina Robinson’s prediction, back in 2003, that “Literature is going to SF and try and take the entire thing over by main force”; Ruff’s novel suggests the truth of this sensibility. Published by HaperCollins, it appears to exploit the trend in weird / speculative fiction with considerable cynicism. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the readers and writers of weird tales, along with other pulp genres and comic books, were often subjected to public shaming. Weird stories were (and are) regarded as adolescent, merely sensational, nonliterary pap for the masses—often with good reason. Lovecraft’s racism, I think, is often conflated with these more aesthetic qualities, which is a mistake (if only because Lovecraft was a sophisticated racist; he has many ‘childish’ qualities, but is far-right politics are not one of them). Lovecraft County’s costly cover makes twin promises: that it will indulge in Lovecraftian horror, and that it will make the genre more palatable to literate audiences by offering a critique of his racism. Yet as we’ve seen,it is far less successful in either direction than The Ballad of Black Tom, which approaches the problem from within the genre. It’s not difficult to see how Lovecraft Country would provide fertile grounds for TV series in the style of Get Out, but this adaptation confirms the adage that bad books make good movies. No doubt Ruff and others involved will prosper from this adaptation, but weird fiction will not. Much like what happened during the “horror boom” of the 1980s, genuinely weird stories don’t fit the conventional narratives imposed by / chosen for capitalization.

The next post, on John Langan’s The Fisherman, will take us into a different set of concerns. Langan’s novel is an earnest attempt at prolonged weirdness which raises interesting questions about the genre’s use of framing devices, embedded narratives, and prose style.

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, 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 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.

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 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.

Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock: An Exemplary Weird Novel

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

DO NOT READ THIS

until you’ve read Joan Lindsay’s brilliant weird novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The book has been adapted twice: in 1975 Peter Weir directed highly regarded film version, with Rachel Roberts, Helen Morse, and Anne-Louise Lambert. Earlier this year Amazon released a TV series, with Natalie Dormer, Lily Sullivan, and Lola Bessis. DO NOT WATCH THESE UNTIL YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK! If there was ever a book worth reading before you see the movie, this is it. I knew a bit about the story before I read it, and I was sorry for that knowledge because part of this book’s wonder results from how it arrives as though from beyond.

Unless otherwise cited, quotations are from Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Penguin, 2017.

Weird Literature

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a very weird novel. By “weird,” I mean a genre of sensation. When something feels weird, it may seem odd, unusual, out-of-place, uncanny, eerie, queer, “not quite right.” Weird things are inherently interesting; the sensation hints at something more to come, something that escapes assimilation into what is known. Weird things exceed our capacity to fit them into place. They challenge our sense of the normal; they rend reality. A tear in the cosmos. An impossible object. The “weird sisters” in Macbeth conjure apparitions, one of which conveys a cryptic prognostication: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him” (IV.1). Until the riddle is solved and the prophecy comes true, this utterance remains weird.

As a genre, weird literature comprises all the various stories that present this quality. The most widespread misconception about weird literature is that it should be confined to or essentially described by the pulp stories published by H. P. Lovecraft and his disciples in Weird Tales. The Lovecraft circle is just the tip of weird fiction’s iceberg. Lovecraft’s best stories are important contributions to the genre, but its scope and quality will not best be appreciated when “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Dunwich Horror” are used as templates.

Leaving aside the immense but mostly bibliographic and autobiographical scholarship offered by S. T. Joshi and other Lovecraftians, few scholars and cultural critics have contributed to our understanding of weird literature. In The Fantastic, Tristan Todorov offers a concise but incomplete structural account. He argues that weird (or “fantastic”) fiction is organized by an essential “hesitation.” A character and / or a narrator encounters a person, event, or place that can’t be reconciled with reality. The story remains weird as long as the question of whether or not the impossible thing exists remains active. Eventually, in most stories, the thing turns into either an “uncanny object” (a delusion, resulting from the character and / or narrator’s psychosis or an illusion, produced by someone’s “sleight of hand” or a previously unknown natural phenomenon) or a “miracle” (an impossibility that must be accepted as part of the world; these are fictional worlds, after all). In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher argues that weirdness “is that which does not belong” and so opens a portal to “another world.” On this account, weird things are like Freudian symptoms: making no sense in the rational order of cause and event, they are thresholds beckoning the curious toward unutterable scenes. He distinguishes weird aesthetic events from uncanny ones. While the former “brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it” (10), the latter “occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present where there should be something” (61). The uncanny, which Fisher associates with modernist juxtaposition, is the thing that does not belong among other things. Eeriness, associated with the remains of earlier civilizations and gaps in memory, is the impossible presence or absence of the thing. He devotes a chapter of his essay on the eerie to Picnic at Hanging Rock, emphasizing our sense of the geological formation as a “hole in space.” Fisher’s distinction is easier to sustain in theory than in practice; one can point to weirdness in some texts and point out the eeriness in others, but I have yet to discover a significantly weird text that doesn’t employ both qualities more or less simultaneously. The rock in Lindsay’s novel is both a site of too much absence / presence and a portal onto the unknown. The novel is permeated by this eeriness, but the uncanny is also continually present in a book that juxtaposes three or four narrative styles. In my view, weirdness is the better umbrella term: it can incorporate the uncanny, the marvelous, the perverse, the eerie, and so forth.

In my more expansive view of weird literature, Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of many delightfully weird novels. Far from being confined to twentieth-century pulp stories, weirdness organizes much of the literature in (and in proximity to) the western tradition. Don Quixote, for example, is very weird, so is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland; Or the Transformation is weird, as is Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are also quite weird. Kafka’s The Castle is weird, and so is Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland should be mentioned, as well as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Amos Tutola wrote several wonderfully weird novels, including the The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and My Life in the Bush of  Ghosts. Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is weird, and of course there is much weirdness in magical realism and surrealism. Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day is full of weirdness. Other weird novels by contemporary authors include Mark Danielewski’s The House of Leaves, China Miélville’s The Last Days of  New Paris, Paul LaForge’s The Night Ocean, George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo, and Jeff Van der Meer’s Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy.

All mystery novels are variations on the story of a crime and its solution. All weird novels relate the discovery of an impossible object; it may be an apparition, a doppelganger, or an automaton, a haunted house, hotel or city, an enchanted forest, a strangely blighted field, or the sort of monolith discovered at Hanging Rock. There is one exception to this rule: books which are weird as books. Tristram Shandy is fundamental in this respect, and introduces another identifying feature of weird stories: their relative lack of plot. Frequently “nothing happens” in the weird novel because cause and effect are distorted by the impossible thing. Time warps and is magnified. The clocks stop or strike thirteen. In The House on the Borderland the narrator lives for millions of years in a single night. Lincoln at the Bardo takes place in a single night and an eternal afterlife. Many weird novels resemble encyclopedias, without overarching plots at all. When weird novels do present a chronicle of events, as in Don Quixote or The Palm-Wine Drinkard, the emphasis is not on the causal chain between episodes, but on the realism or surrealism of each of them.

Picnic at Hanging Rock present its own particular twist on the weird plot.  Within the first quarter of the novel, we learn all that we will of the impossible event; the remaining 150 pages are devoted to an exploration of its aftermath. While on a Saint Valentine’s Day picnic to the titular rock, three pupils (Marion, Miranda, and Irma) and a teacher (Miss McCraw) from Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies disappear. Extensive searches are made, but they have vanished without a trace. A fourth girl, Edith, was with the other students when they went missing, but her recollections are fragmented and negligible. Vastly compounding the mystery, approximately a week later, one of the girls–Irma Leopold–is discovered on the rock, barefoot and unconscious, but not dehydrated or suffering from significant bodily harm. Although her shoes are never found, her feet show no evidence of travel across the rough volcanic stone. She has no memory of anything that happened and can shed no light on the mystery, which remains unsolved.

Weird Frames

Lindsay’s novel is so weird it blurs the boundary between reality and fiction even before the narrative begins. Like many of the best weird stories, it provides a minimal but highly effective prologue that asks us to question the veracity of the narration. A short paragraph immediately preceding chapter one states: “Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.” The novel was published in 1967 and many of the characters are teenagers in 1900, so “long since” seems unlikely. Concern for the reputations of those portrayed in the novel implies that it is based on real events, but the same sentence tells us that this question doesn’t matter. Todorov’s “hesitation” has already been initiated. It applies to our sense of the work itself: is it literature or a “real life mystery”? Every single sentence in the pages that follow must endure this scrutiny.

Such a framing device is not unique to Lindsay’s book; no genre has made more frequent or better use of narrative frames than the weird. The most famous example is the (fictional) editor’s preface to The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, which explains that the story is an incomplete manuscript, “fictionalized” by Poe based upon Pym’s first-hand narration. We learn that although everything we are about to read actually happened, several events were by nature so unusual, improbable, horrific, and bizarre that the authors (Pym and Poe) have presented the story as a fiction in order to make it more palatable to a skeptical public. Poe, of course, authored several hoaxes–alongside Pym were the more believable “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Balloon Hoax,” which when published in the New York Sun caused members of the public to rush to the (real world) site of the (fictitious) balloon landing. Machen’s “The Terror,” a novella serialized in a London newspaper during World War I, and Orson Welles’ dramatization of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds are other notable examples of the kind of weirdness that causes us to question the veracity of the book’s report. In this regard, Picnic at Hanging Rock resembles Nazi Literature in the Americas: the reader continually wonders, did such people, events, documents actually exist?

Lindsay hints at reasons for using this documentary conceit by making the value of appearances a theme of the story.  Mrs. Appleyard’s college is an elite finishing school; it’s promise is to improve a girl’s appearance by training her in manners, elocution, and demeanor. Such a school depends upon its reputation; Mrs. Appleyard spends much of the novel struggling to maintain the school’s marketability in the wake of the scandal. When we are first introduced to the Headmistress we are told “looking the part is well known to be more than half the battle in any form of business enterprise from Punch and Judy to floating a loan on the Stock Exchange” (3). Irma, the “little heiress” who reappears on the rock understands this law of the social universe. “Radiantly lovely” herself, she “loved people and things to be beautiful” (4). Mr Hussey, the coachman who conveys the girls to the rock and provides the first witness account of what transpired there, also understands. We meet him calling to his horses: “ ‘Steady there Sailor . . . Woa Duchess . . .” and then learn that “the five well-trained horses were actually standing like statues, but it was all part of the fun; Mr Hussey like all good coachmen having a nice sense of style and timing” (8). Appearances (and disappearances) may be deceiving, but they are a source of tremendous value.

The Weird Narrative

What they lack in plot, weird stories make up for in narrative voice and atmosphere. On the one side we have the narrator’s relation to the impossible thing. On the other side, we have the thing’s warping of reality. There is an almost endless variety of combinations between narration and the thing narrated. If the hoax, which presents a “true” account of (fictitious) events stands at one pole, the unreliable narrator stands at the other–Poe’s “William Wilson” and the narrator of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Listener” are superb examples. (It is difficult to maintain the unreliable narrative for many pages, so this relation is mostly found in short stories. Dostoevsky’s The Double is perhaps the most sustained version of this device.) At the center of this dynamic, we find Lovecraft’s approach: the narrator begins as a rational, even uninterested witness of minor weird phenomena; he makes the mistake of becoming fascinated and looks further into it. Contact with the impossible  thing causes him to question and even lose grip on reality; he ends up a lunatic or suicide. The thing is necessarily unspeakable and therefore must at some level escape the narrative itself. As Lindsay’s unnamed narrator puts it, “There was so much to be said, so little that ever could or would be said. . . The thing was beyond words; almost beyond emotion” (115).

Lindsay’s narrative deploys a particularly effective conceit which was also used to great success by Machen and Lovecraft: the perspective of the compiler. By “compiler” I mean a perspective similar to that of the historian, the curator, or the reviewer. According to this conceit, the impossible thing manifested in the world; some people encountered it directly. It’s influence upon them caused a second set of people to investigate the case, gathering witness accounts. The compiler, having read these accounts, presents us with a grand retrospective view–the final say on the matter, as it were. Lindsay’s use of this conceit is brilliant because it is continually implied but never stated. Picnic at Hanging Rock is narrated as though from the position a journalist writing an overview of an actual event that, however miraculous, has been mostly forgotten. The novel ends with a closing frame as effective as its opening one: an “extract from a Melbourne newspaper, dated February 14th, 1913” (203). Appearing in the paper ”exactly thirteen years since the fatal Saturday,” it offers a “human interest” follow-up to the original reporting, as though someone were drawing upon the newspaper’s archive of original coverage of the event. It is as though the book’s narrator has done likewise, but with more in-depth research and a greater willingness to “fill in” the sensations and reasons that could be presumed, based on the available evidence, to have motivated those involved. Picnic at Hanging Rock was published one year after Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and its detailed speculative improvisations, loosely based upon an enormous number of documents, provide a similar experience.

Like In Cold Blood (and subsequently many less interesting “true crime” novels), it is organized as a chronology of incidents leading up to and resulting from the horrible event. It weaves together numerous timelines, tracking the movements of major players with the benefit of hindsight. Lindsay’s narrator explains that the goal is to trace the pattern created by the impossible event. The pattern slightly precedes the event: on Saint Valentine’s Day, as the girls “had begun the innocent interchange of cards and favors, the pattern had begun to form” (113). A week later, the girls and teacher still missing, “it was still spreading; still fanning out in depth and intensity, still incomplete” (113). As it spreads outward from the event, the pattern draws more people into it, “weaving and interweaving the individual threads of their private lives into the complex tapestry of the whole” (113). Every coincidence is grasped as a possible, partial explanation of the girl’s disappearance. The most obvious theme is developed around the first coincidence: the fact that the picnic occurred in the late afternoon of Valentine’s Day, which is taken very seriously by the teenage girls. Falling in the middle of the Australian summer and a few weeks before Easter break, it is the obvious day to schedule one of the school’s rare outings. The novel opens with the exchange of Valentine’s Day cards, all of which are sent anonymously; it is a ritualistic exercise of the imagination and a barely sanctioned admission of Eros–a moment when the circulation of desire is partially acknowledged. Nonetheless, it is only a coincidence. Lindsay’s narrator treats it accordingly. A less imaginative novel–one written without the conceit of journalist integrity–would collapse the day and the disappearance, thus reassuring readers that they are immersed in a fictional world, where everything makes sense, rather than a bewildering reality recreated from evidence. The novel maintains its primary “hesitation” by refusing to offer any satisfactory conclusions regarding the relations between theme and incident.

Numerous journalistic practices anchor this realism. We are regularly presented with documentation: transcripts from police interviews, summaries of medical opinions, and excerpts from important letters exchanged by central figures in the case. We are also told about letters that are delayed or do not arrive–facts that can only be determined retrospectively. The narrator constantly calls attention to what may and may not be inferred based upon the evidence. For example, “Whether the events just related were eventually made known to Mrs. Appleyard can only be surmised. It is unlikely under the circumstances that Dora Lumley broke her promise of silence to Mademoiselle” (149). With the advantage of hindsight, the narrator-as-compiler frequently jumps forward in time in order to clarify the partial and conflicting accounts of what happened. During a description of the first interview of Michael by the police we are told that “Many days later, when [Constable] Bumpher was firing questions at him all over again, he realized that he had no definite plan of action when he had crossed the creak…” (80). Care is given to debunk the various rumors that circulate: “Everyone on the Mount knew that Mrs Cutler was caring for the heroine of the College Mystery . . . It was rumored that the nephew had broken all his front teeth scaling a sixty-foot precipice. That he was madly in love with the girl. That the lovely little heiress had sent to Melbourne for two dozen chiffon nightdresses and wore three strings of pearls in bed at the lodge” (114-5). None of this is true, as revealed by our own, more accurate report. Accounts of other incidents are corroborated. Edith is the only one of the four girls who go up to rock to come back on the afternoon of the picnic. Relating her experience, the narrator informs us: “Edith began, quite loudly now, to scream. If her terrified cries had been heard by anyone but a wallaby . . . the picnic at Hanging Rock might yet have been just another picnic on a summer’s day. Nobody did hear them (32, italics in original). The narrator who emphasizes every available certainty, no matter how inconsequential, appears to be operating with facts. Perhaps the greatest source of realism is generated by descriptions of the press coverage of the event. Chapter nine begins “GIRL’S BODY FOUND ON ROCK – MISSING HEIRESS FOUND. Once again the College Mystery was front page news, embellished with the wildest flights of imagination, public and private” (101).

All of this inclines us toward a perception of the event as having actually occurred. But an equal number of passages tug in the opposite direction. The documentary conceit is challenged at every moment by the inclusion of details that strain the possibility of knowing them. If the reporter’s theme is Saint Valentine’s Day, the novelist’s theme is the havoc played upon a world of appearances by what Lindsay calls “Situations.” At the very center of the novel’s labyrinth (page 102 of the Penguin edition, which is exactly 204 pages), we find this passage:

Strong-minded persons in authority can ordinarily grapple with practical problems of facts. Facts, no matter how outrageous, can be dealt with by other facts. The problems of mood and atmosphere known to the Press as ‘Situations’ are infinitely more sinister. A ‘situation’ cannot be pigeonholed for reference and the appropriate answer pulled out of a filing cabinet. An atmosphere can be generated overnight out of nothing or everything, anywhere the human beings are congregated in unnatural conditions. At the Court of Versailles, at Pentridge Gaol, at a select College for Young Ladies where the miasma of hidden fears deepened and darkened with every hour.

This passage marks the threshold between competing modes of fictional realism. The first is that of “the Press,” the second is that of literature, particularly the Novel of Manners, which from Frances Burney’s Evelina to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, creates a social world with more intimacy than official documents will ever reveal. Picnic at Hanging Rock is an intimate history of a public sensation. In this context, the impossible thing is the “miasma” of sentiment, slowly building to hysteria, the emerges to disrupt the “unnatural” repression of libido. There are many weird precedents for this story, from Gothic Romances to The Turn of the Screw, but none treat the theme with Lindsay’s scale and precision. The intimate histories of numerous school girls, teachers, servants, and neighbors are tracked with minute attention to the telling detail, subtle gesture, and suggestive phrase. If references to press accounts anchor the documentary realism, the numerous, minute descriptions of dreams anchors the intimate history. It strains credulity to imagine that any witness supplies the details of Mrs Appleyard’s or Albert’s dreams. The former could have kept a diary, but it is never mentioned. The later, barely literate, does not keep a diary. Perhaps his dream, recounted to Michael, was subsequently related to a reporter? An impossible speculation, because the dream’s source doesn’t exist in that world, but only in the world of the novel of manners. As much of the novel takes place in this reality as it does in the other. We continually pass through the looking-glass that separates sensation from sentiment.

Generic Hybrid

What I am calling the “novel of manners” aspect of Picnic at Hanging Rock is itself composed of interwoven patterns. It weaves together three sentimental genres. It’s weird version of the sentimental novel, tinged with Gothic undertones, is the most prominent, but there are two others, both versions of “male romance”: the adventure story and the policier. Generic hybridity is an important hallmark of weird literature. A story’s indeterminate or unsettled relation to generic tropes often generates considerable weirdness. Todorov hints at this quality when he argues that fantastic literature is not a genre in its own right, but a relation between the genre of realism and the genre of fantasy. Like most of Todorov’s theorizing on this subject, the concept is suggestive but to narrow in scope. Weird novels are not only situated on the borderland between literature and mass-produced romance (such as “true crime”), they can also be amalgamations of multiple genres. (Here the most obvious example is Lovecraft’s hybridization of ghost stories, adventure stories, and science fiction stories.)

The story of the police investigation, closely related to the journalistic conceit, is carefully crafted. In the first half, we get the exhaustive, futile search for the missing persons, the interviews of witnesses, and the return to the “scene of the crime.” In the second half, as the pattern continues to unfold, we get page-turning suspense as the first definite crime is uncovered, and a “race against the clock” in pursuit of the murderer. One of the most intense scenes of investigation occurs when Constable Bumpher (central figure in the policier) and Mademoiselle Poitiers (central figure in the novel of manners) bring Edith to the site of the girl’s disappearance. In keeping with the detective story, this triggers a repressed memory that provides a clue; in keeping with the sentimental novel, the clue is an intimate detail that must be conveyed to the officer indirectly. The child has seen Miss McCraw, the mathematics teacher who has also gone missing, no one knows exactly when or how. When Edith tries to picture the scene she begins to giggle and explains that what she saw is “too rude to say out loud in mixed company” (55). She whispers her secret to Madmoiselle, who conveys the shocking observation: “Miss McCraw was not wearing a skirt–only les pantalons” (56). In keeping with the novel’s weirdness, we never learn the veracity or significance of this memory. 

Another significant intersection between the detective story and other genres occurs when Michael (lead character of the adventure story and starring man in the sentimental romance) decides to investigate the rock. Here the novel borrows from numerous works of detective fiction, most notably Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” In that story, Dupin discovers, hiding in plain sight, the missing letter that the Prefect of the Parisian police could not detect with his army of searchers. Similarly, although for different reasons, Michael discovers Irma on the rock, which has been thoroughly inspected.

The story of this discovery is related as an episode of wilderness adventure undertaken by two young men on horseback; for roughly fifty pages we are immersed in this variant of the cowboy romance. All the requisite elements are there: the boys sneak out at daybreak, take a risky shortcut through the woods, and make camp at the base of the rocks. Later there will be a cryptic message in a diary and a race to find help for a wounded comrade. The genre’s undercurrent of queer desire ripples through these passages, which detail the growing friendship between Michael, a member of the British gentry who has just arrived in Australia and Albert, his uncle’s coachman. From the beginning, our view of Albert is textured with the pleasure Michael takes from his company: “Albert’s worldly wisdom was unending. Michael was filled with admiration” (22). The pairing of Michael, son of one of England’s most respected families, and Albert, an orphan from the colonies, is the occasion for an ongoing investigation of the mores of their cross-class allegiance. As they head out on their adventure, competing tastes and values are brought to the fore: “The two young men on horseback passed a groom sluicing himself at a pump before an ornate wooden stable, admired by Michael as ‘artistic’, dismissed by Albert as ‘fancy crap’” (72). As the pattern unfolds, Michael gives Albert credit for saving Irma, which results in Irma’s father sending Albert a check that allows him to quit his job and go adventuring with Mike.

Ultimately, the homoerotic desire unearthed in the adventure story proves more rewarding than the love plot that develops between Michael and Irma, but the story of their courtship also occupies a prominent place in the narrative, returning us to the novel of manners. There is a touching scene of blushing awkwardness when Michael visits Irma at her bedside, and a scene that blends humor and anxiety when Michael fails to show up at a luncheon meant to consecrate the budding romance between these two “well-matched” youths. Their romance is tender. With “the Hanging Rock in its dark glittering beauty” rising “between them,” they are children again, sticking close to home: “Together, Michael and Irma had explored every inch of the Colonel’s rose garden, the vegetable garden, the sunken croquet lawn, the shrubberies whose winding walks ending in delicious little arbours, ideal for the playing of childish games . . .” (119, 123). But the rock also drives them apart, for Michael continually catches glimpses of Miranda, the girl who he went back to the rock to find–his secret valentine. Eventually, in keeping with the conventions of sentimental novels, he writes a discreet letter that, in the most gentlemanly way possible, ends their relationship. After excerpting its most significant passage the narrator comments ruefully: “For a person who found difficulty in expressing himself on paper, the writer had convey his meaning remarkably well” (132). He has, in other words, managed to convey his rejection through hints and suggestions, never stating it openly. He has maintained appearances.

In like manner, Lindsay laces the narrative with repressed libido. One of Lovecraft’s favorite words is “hint,” but in his weird tales almost nothing exists as an actual subtext. We are frequently told of “abominable rites” that “the author of the foul Necronomicon” “hints at obscenely,” but rarely is such information actually conveyed through implication. No so in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Sexuality between the girls and between them and their tutors is continually glimpsed or suggested, but never addressed directly. Lindsay deploys a version of free indirect discourse worthy of Jane Austen (were the latter slightly obscene): “‘Tais-toi, Irma,’ chirped the light canary voice of Mademoiselle, for whom la petite Irma could do no wrong. The girl’s voluptuous little breasts, her dimples, full red lips, naughty black eyes and glossy ringlets, were a continual source of aesthetic pleasure” (5). Or again, while on their way to the rock: “The three senior girls, Miranda, Irma, and Marion Quade, inseparable companions, were allotted the covered box seat in front beside the driver, an arrangement with which Mr Hussey was well pleased. Nice high-spirited girls, all three of ‘em . . .” (8 ). In both cases, through free indirect discourse, we glimpse a character’s glimpse of unutterable desire. Within the story of detection we are told, drily, by the doctor, that neither of the girls who come back from the rock have been sexually assaulted. Only once is the undercurrent of sexual violence allowed to surface. It emerges in a conversation between Constable Bumpher and Mrs. Appleyard. With a complexity of inflection typical of the novel, Bumpher tries to put his fantasy of sexual violence into Mrs. Appleyard’s mouth in order to punish her for her elitism: 

Yes, it was possible, but highly unlikely, said the Senior Detective . . . that the girls had been abducted, lured away, robbed–or worse. ‘And what,’ asked the Headmistress, tightlipped and clammy with fear and the insufferable heat of the room, ‘could be worse, may I ask, than that?’ It appeared that they might yet be found in a Sydney brothel: such things happened now and then. . . Mrs. Appleyard could only shudder. ‘They were exceptionally intelligent and well-behaved girls who would never have allowed and familiarity with strangers.’

‘As far as that goes,’ said the detective blandly, ‘most young girls would object to being raped by a drunken seaman, if that’s what you had in mind.”

‘I did not have it in mind. My knowledge of such things is necessarily limited.’ (104)

It’s easy to sympathize with Bumpher’s crudity–he is disgusted by the Headmistress’s sense that good breeding and manners will prevent the girls from being subjected to such brutality. The reader may recall what we know of Albert’s sister, taken from the orphanage by an older man. But Mrs Appleyard also states the truth; her perspective is necessarily limited; her source of income is the College, which depends upon the value placed upon the appearance of virginal innocence by Australia’s elite families. She can’t afford to appear to know what he means.

Picnic at Hanging Rock’s novel of manners warps grotesquely as desire masked by propriety and creativity denied by traditional educational policies return as hysterical violence. In an important early scene, well positioned in the interstices of the public catastrophe, Mrs Appleyard disciplines the youngest pupil, Sara, for failing to recite Felicia Hemans’ “Casabianca” (“The boy stood on the burning deck…), used as a recitation exercise for several generations of schoolchildren. Sara wants to do well, but she can’t learn the poem: “it’s so silly. I mean if there was any sense in it I could learn it ever so much better.” Mrs Appleyard scolds her viciously and foolishly: “‘Sense? You little ignoramus! Evidently you don’t know that Mrs Felicia Hemans is considered one of the finest of our English poets!” (34). Sara offers to recite another poem by heart– “An Ode to Saint Valentine.” “‘I am not acquainted with it,’ said the Headmistress, with due caution” (34). When it turns out that Sara has written it, the Headmistress punishes her further.

Sara figures numerous threads in the pattern. Because of her refusal to learn the poem, she is not allowed to attend the picnic. Yet her fate depends upon what happens at the rock. Her Valentine ode is secretly written to her senior roommate Miranda; her same-sex affections mirror those of Michael for Albert. Like Albert and his sister, she is an orphan and poorer than the other girls at the school. She is also one of the most creative–she writes her own poems and her paintings show promise. And she will eventually go missing.

As the novel of manners shifts from the story of “outward” violence to the story of “in-house” violence, it tilts into a Gothic novel. The social environment is supplemented by a spooky atmosphere. It begins to emerge as Sara sits awake in her room, yearning for Miranda’s return: “Presently the possums came prancing out on to the dim moonlit slates of the roof. With squeals and grunts they wove obscenely about the squat base of the tower, dark against the paling sky” (112). Before long, we will read of women hiding in cupboards and Mrs Appleyard will stalk the empty hallways at night. The cataclysmic scene of derangement occurs in the exercise room, described by the girls as “the Chamber of Horrors.” Irma, recovered from her escapade on the rock, humbled by Michael’s rejection of her, briefly visits the college wearing a red cloak out of a fairy tale. The girls cluster about wildly:

Irma, limp and utterly bewildered, was near suffocation. . . Fanny’s little snub nose hugely out of focus and sniffing like a terrier with an exposure of bristling hairs. A cavernous mouth agape on a gold-stopped tooth – that must be Juliana – the moist tip of a drooling tongue. Their warm sour breath came and went on her cheeks. Heated bodies pressed on her sensitive breasts. She cried out in fear and tried in vain to push them away. A disembodied moonface rose up somewhere in the background. (143)

The scene brings the public and private horrors together. Irma’s appearance magnetizes their fear of the rock, their need to know what happened there, its mystery and wildness. This merges with the eroticism of proximity as their bodies press against Irma’s and they shove their mouths near hers. Although Irma emerges mostly unscathed, the eruption of animal desire transfers the rock’s violence to Sara. She has been strapped to a board as punishment for slouching. When the girls are sent away, she is forgotten. As a result, she witnesses a scene between two of the teachers that most likely results in her murder.

Weird Places

Above and beyond it all is the Hanging Rock. Lindsay creates one of the most potent weird environments in literature. From haunted castles and fantastic cities to fairy forests and blighted fields, weird writers frequently imagine uncanny and eerie environments. For example, the best contemporary weird novels–Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X–is a complex expansion upon Lovecraft’s celebrated “The Color Out of Space.” In both cases the impossible thing is an environment that seems to come alive, an ecosystem with a will of its own. Arguably the hybridization of place and entity, the vegetable and animal, is as important to the genre as apparitions, doppelgangers, and the “Outer gods.”

Hanging Rock may or may not be such an entity. It is an uncertain place, an environment that is never clearly described. A thing of “intricate construction,” its “long vertical slabs” are “smooth as giant tombstones” or “grooved and fluted by prehistoric architecture of wind and water, ice and fire.” The “boiling bowels” of the earth have erupted into a “monumental configuration of nature” that makes “the human eye . . . woefully inadequate” (25). In its proximity, clocks stop and characters constantly lose sight of each other. It bewilders eerily. As they set out on their picnic, Mrs Appleyard reminds the girls “that the Rock itself is extremely dangerous and you are therefore forbidden to engage in any tomboy foolishness in the matter of exploration, even on the lowest slopes” (7). But Hanging Rock’s sublimity overpowers her command. When the senior girls ask to explore just a little bit, Mademoiselle gives permission without a thought.

“The thing I should like to see are those queer balancing boulders,” says one of the young explorers (28). The rock’s tantalizing queerness draws them upward and outward, away from the picnic, away from the world. It flashes erotic obscenities: “now a dark slit between two rocks where maidenhair fern trembled” (28). Eventually they come upon a singular monolith–ever the portal to elsewhere in weird fiction. At its base, “an overpowering lassitude” overtakes them (31). When, a week later, Michael returns to the mountain, “the monolith, black against the sun,” plunges him into an ancestral memory. The spirit of “A Fitzhubert ancestor hacking his way through bloody barricades at Agincourt” inhabits him and he remembers words “in the family crest: Go on” (82). This weird trope (frequently deployed by Blackwood, Machen, Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard), aligns the rock with a savage sensuality imagined to exist in less civilized times. But the novel never situates the rock in the history of Australian colonialism or associates it with Aboriginal culture. Instead, the rock presents us with an erotics of the natural environment.

Most importantly, it magnifies its surroundings. Finding themselves on “an almost circular platform” among the boulders, Irma discovers “a sort of porthole in one of the rocks” that offers a view of the picnic grounds. “As if magnified by a powerful telescope, the little bustling scene stood out with stereoscopic clarity” (28). The rock’s influence is powerfully felt when it interrupts the journalistic narrative by magnifying insect life. At the picnic “the diligent ants were crossing miniature Saharas of dry sand, jungles of seedling grass . . . scattered about amongst the monstrous human shapes were Heaven-sent crumbs, caraway seeds, a shred of crystallized ginger–strange, exotic but recognizably edible loot” (16). Later we glimpse “layers of rotting vegetation and animal decay: bones, feathers, birdlime, the sloughed skins of snakes; some with jagged horns and jutting spikes, obscene knobs and scabby carbuncles; others smoothly humped and rounded by the passing of a million years” (77).

Ultimately, its a dreamy place. The dreaminess changes the world and warps the narrative. It lulls all sensitive souls to sleep and initiates the dreams, described with exquisite surrealism, that can’t be reconciled with the documentary conceit. Mrs Appleyard dreams that she and her late husband are in “a fourposter bed . . . bobbing about on the waves” (33). Spending the night at the rock’s base, Michael “dropped off into a wakeful dream in which the ring of the Arab’s hooves on a loose stone was the housemaid throwing back the shutters of his room at Haddingham Hall” (79). While convalescing, Michael dreams of “a white swan sitting on the brass rail at the end of the bed” (97). When Michael proposes that he and Albert make a life together, Albert tells of a “bobbydazzler” of a dream in which his sister–another kind of “missing” girl–visits him. It initiates in Michael “a jumble of imagery impossible to digest”: the unutterable thing (166).

Adapting Weird Literature

Weird literature is not easily adapted. Weirdness in particular brings out those part of fiction that will never be captured by any camera. One can of course make weird films. Obvious examples include many of Luis Buñuel’s films, Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows, Brian De Palma’s Body Double and Sisters, Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Suspiria, The Blair Witch Project, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Holy Motors. But aside from The Birds and The Shining, few weird novels have been successfully adapted to visual media. The recent adaptation of VanderMeer’s Annihilation, for example, captures about 5% of the thrilling weirdness found in the novel.

The best film versions of weird books work by radically re-imagining normative procedures for adaptation. Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy and The Trip, both based on Laurence Sterne’s weird novels and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydan, are exemplary. The first allows the novel’s weirdness to restructure the film’s narrative, which continually cuts between the period drama and the drama of its filming “in real life.” The Trip, I would argue, makes a “faithful” adaptation by departing almost entirely from A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, transforming it into a contemporary tour of restaurants and historic sites. Updating the plot, setting, and characters, it preserves the meandering exploration of male sentimentality that makes the original story quite weird. 

Neither of the adaptations of Picnic at Hanging Rock capture the novel’s retrospective view or its weaving together of generic textures. Weir’s straightforward, realist film is an efficient adaptation, and probably as good a version as could be made without recourse to “found footage” or other documentary techniques. I watched the first several episodes of Amazon’s adaptation before turning it off. Like Mrs Appleyard (its central focus) it makes a “tactical blunder” (103). It invests the girl’s school with an atmosphere of “chic bizarre,” asking us to take pleasure in Appleyard’s peculiar tastes. In so doing, it seeks to immerse us fully in the historical past. But the novel’s weird intensity is actually generated by its retrospective view. The novel embeds the impossible event in a past that is slipping away, whereas the TV show situates us emphatically in the present tense. 

A better, although obviously indirect “adaptation” may be discerned in the original episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Despite all the obvious differences, the police investigation crossed with an examination of confined sentiment (repressed by propriety and compressed by a place where everyone knows everyone else) and the dreamy fluctuations of time and space suggest important affinities.

The Night Ocean: Weird Fiction Minus the Weird

To begin with a confession: I’m no Lovecraftian. I admire a dozen of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, particularly “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “The Shunned House,” “The Dunwich Horror,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” I had the pleasure of teaching “At the Mountains of Madness” last year in a course on imaginary Antarctica, which also included Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Verne’s The Sphinx of the Ice Realm and LeGuin’s “Sur.” I’ve read most of Lovecraft’s stories, some of his essays, and a little of the academic scholarship. But I’m not a member of any Lovecraft societies, secret or otherwise, and my knowledge of his personal life is cursory at best.

This puts me in the target demographic for Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, published in 2017 by Penguin. I read the first half the first day I bought it; the pleasure was so intense that I felt myself falling out of life. The rest of my obligations would have to wait while I disappeared down this rabbit hole. (The second half was much less enjoyable, for reasons I’ll go into later.)

My interest in Lovecraft stems from his work in the peculiar genre of “weird fiction.” This genre peaked in the first decades of the 20th century; it mediated the relation between modern sciences (anthropology, geology, sociology, psychology) and the folk cultures these disciplines took as their object of professional inquiry. The genre’s most notable writers include Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ambrose Bierce, and Robert E. Howard also contributed important stories, as did Henry James in “The Turn of the Screw.” Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll were revered innovators. As a genre, “weird fiction” has two chief characteristics: an intense interest in intertextuality and metafiction, and a dedication to testing the limits of rational knowledge. Although weird fiction owes much to gothic romances, from The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho to Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget” best epitomizes the modernist approach. Poe’s fictional detective Dupin pokes holes in the real-life investigation into the death of Mary Rogers by deconstructing newspaper reports; his fiction turns the scientific investigation against itself, discovering clues in the lacunae of official inquiry. It blurs demarcations between fact and fiction while preserving the “mystery” of Rogers/Roget’s murder. Dupin ultimately fails to name the “true” culprit, but Poe succeeds in debunking the “truth” generated by modern investigative techniques. Lovecraft and the other writers of weird fiction follow Poe’s lead by undermining the modern “myth” of a fact-based, rationally coherent universe discernible through a combination of textual research and immediate experience. It was, in short, a kind of late romanticism: exposing the underside of modernism’s professional rationality. Its protagonists are almost inevitably gentleman naturalists or academic researchers who glimpse realms beyond the grasp of science.

Weird fiction’s exposure of the fictions involved in the construction of the modern world led writers to explore two variations on metafiction. The first depends upon the construction of fictional texts, which function as “windows” onto mysterious and illogical regions of experience. M. R. James’s ghost stories, each disclosed through an antique book, best exemplifies this preoccupation. In “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book,” the illustration in the back of a 16th century manuscript calls forth the demon it depicts; in “The Mezzotint,” the illustration of a house changes each time it’s viewed, depicting a child’s abduction; in “The Tractate Middoth,” a library book hides a will that conjures a ghostly clergyman. The texts inside texts (inside texts) heighten the realism of the unreal by distancing it from the reader’s life, while simultaneously magnifying the pleasures of reading.

The second variation reverses this logic. While weird metafiction continually reframes experiential reality, weird intertextuality uses multiple references to create a singular world. Otherwise unrelated stories reference the same mysterious events in order to convince the reader that something must actually be “out there.” Several of Arthur Machen’s stories are designed around this principle; for example, in “The White People,” various characters glimpse the titular monsters, an underground race whose existence has given rise to folklore about fairies, elves, and ghosts. The canny reader picks up on the overlap between narratives, thereby getting to “discover” a world that no single narrator quite understands. (If weird fiction’s intertextuality is neurotic, its metafiction is psychotic.)

One of Lovecraft’s great achievements was to combine both modes. He invented numerous fictional texts–most famously, the dread Necronomicon by “the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.” The book is referenced in many stories. He also invented Miskatonic University, in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts. More than fifteen of its faculty–biologists, doctors, folklorists, geologists, psychologists, zoologists– glimpse a pantheon of aliens–Dagon, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, and of course the infamous Cthulhu. Likely, this was a clever tactic for pulp writers, whose work was less distinguished by authorship than by the worlds they created. Readers of Astounding Stories, Weird Tales, and other pulps returned to writers by returning to worlds.

The other and more important quality of weird fiction was the weirdness. Today, we might think of it as a literary confrontation with the Lacanian “Real.” Characters encounter a thing (usually a creature, but also art, architecture, feelings) that simply can’t be described. In his book-length essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft pays no attention to the metafiction and intertextuality he mastered; his focus is entirely upon the literary production of fear. Folklore and organized religion, he argues, are “formalised” discourses designed to confront the biological fact that “we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure.” Weird literature is sharply distinguished from horror, a discourse that is “externally similar, but psychologically widely different.” The latter involves “mere physical fear and the mundanely grotesque.” It doesn’t achieve a break from “reality.” (Think Stephen King.) Weird literature, by contrast, creates an “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” and a “particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” Zizek couldn’t define the Lacanian Real better. An amazing book by Graham Harman, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, explores this confrontation with the phenomenology in depth (going back to Heidegger and Husserl) and breadth (discussing all of Lovecraft’s major stories). Unlike most commentators, who obsess over “the real” Lovecraft and/or his fictional worlds, Harmon focuses on the author’s “deliberate and skillful obstruction of all attempts to paraphrase him” (9). This stylistic feature explains Lovecraft’s contribution to (weird) literature.  The trait for which some critics condemned him–his refusal to explicitly describe the “shambling horrors” his protagonists witness–is his genius. He advanced an insight nascent in Poe (the Freud to Lovecraft’s Lacan): that what is beyond reason is necessarily beyond the senses.

I love the first half of The Night Ocean because it plays with inter- and meta-textuality perfectly; I was disappointed by the second half because it refuses the weird. The former establishes La Farge’s novel as an enjoyable piece of postmodern, information-age fiction; the latter reveals a literary pretension inimical to weird fiction, which (as Lovecraft suggests in Supernatural Horror) was always a popular, rather than highbrow, genre.

The novel’s narrated by a New York psychoanalyst named Marina Willett. Her (possibly deceased) husband, Charles, was (or is) a freelance reporter specializing in profiles of the “almost famous.” His stories bring to life the hopes and travails of those who dedicated their lives to ideas that never took off. His final and most successful project attempts to expose Lovecraft’s sexuality: was he asexual (as most official biographies portray him) or a repressed yet practicing homosexual? Charles discovers Lovecraft’s Erotonomicon, a diary detailing sexual encounters with various young men, but especially Robert Barlow, a teenage fan with whom real-life Lovecraft visited for several weeks on two occasions. Lovecraft’s letters and biographies tell us that the notoriously reclusive writer spent a surprisingly large amount of time at Barlow’s parent’s house in Florida and made the teenager executive of his estate. They collaborated on a half-dozen stories, including “The Night Ocean,” from which La Farge’s novel takes its title. In La Farge’s novel, we learn that the story, which describes a young artist’s glimpse of a merman–”a swimming thing emerged beyond the breakers. The figure may have been that of a dog, a human being, or something more strange.”–can be interpreted as an expression of Barlow’s or Lovecraft’s “obscene” desire. I give little away when explaining that the Erotonomicon turns out to be a hoax inside a hoax. Since Poe’s “The Balloon Hoax,” the ability of texts to deceive us has been a staple of the genre.

La Farge spins an enormous and intricate web of intertextuality and metafiction as Marina recounts how her husband discovers Lovecraft’s journal of sexual exploits. In numerous excerpts from the diary, Lovecraft refers to himself as “the Old Gent” and to sexual acts as magic rituals and monstrous creatures readers of his stories know well. Upon arriving in Jacksonville, Florida, Lovecraft meets a boy at his hotel:

No sooner had I got my hat off and my stationery unpacked then he was scratching at the door, insinuating the he knew certain rituals which would turn even the oldest flesh to stone. For $1.25–how they are cheap down here! No morals, I suppose, to pay the price of–I had an Ablo and two Nether Gulfs. That showed him what old flesh can do! At least when warmed by the Florida sun . . . The imp limped out round-eyed, and offered to return in the morning with another of his brotherhood. (36)

A footnote (one of the novel’s delights are numerous footnotes, some meant to be from editors of the Erotonomicon, some from Marina) supposes that “Nether Gulfs” refers to “Active anal sex,” but notes that “Lovecraft refers to that act elsewhere as ‘the Outer Spheres,’ but, confusingly, he also uses this second term to mean orgasm” (36). Pointing out the uncertainty of the text’s weird signifiers is a technique Lovecraft used in many stories. In La Farge’s novel, it queers Lovecraft’s fantastic terms, a kind of laughing jab at readers who would prefer to think of these fantasies as exercises of “pure” (i.e., asexual) imagination. At the same time, as the above passage suggests, the Erotnomicon exposes Lovecraft as recognizably queer. The boy knows the Old Gent’s desires at a glance, playing on the idea of a subcultural system of signification that straight readers have missed.

References to the real world grow more intense as Marina traces her husband’s research into Robert Barlow. The real-life Barlow transcribed many of Lovecraft’s manuscripts before studying anthropology at several universities. Specializing in Nahuatl, he took a position at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. His prodigious scholarship earned him a Rockefeller Foundation grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He chaired the Department of Anthropology at Mexico City College before committing suicide in 1951, apparently because his homosexuality was about to be exposed. Among his students was William S. Burroughs, who wrote to Ginsberg of the “queer” professor’s death. Burroughs is one of many real-world characters that show up as we learn of Barlow’s life among early science-fiction fans in New York and radical artists in Mexico. With intense detail, La Farge imagines scenes drawn from Barlow’s biography. As a member of the “Futurians,” a proto-Marxist avant-garde sci-fi club, Barlow joins Donald Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, Robert “Doc” Lowndes and other writers and publishers for the first World Science Fiction Convention, held in New York in July, 1939. The story of their attempt to wrest science fiction away from “the fascists” is written with joyful intensity. They design costumes and print manifestos in a beat New York apartment:

Pohl took the cutout fabric to the window and sewed up the legs of Lowndes’s suit by hand, but we had all overlooked the fact that Lowndes was three-dimensional. He hopped around with one leg in the space suit, one out. “What are you people doing?” asked Wollheim, who had just come in. He had been in Pohl’s bedroom, typing up a leaflet with the Futurians’ demands, to be handed out at the convention. “We need a steamroller to flatten Lowndes,” Pohl said. “We need s-s-someone who knows how to s-sew,” said Michel. “Forget the costumes,” Wollheim said [. . .] He handed a mimeograph stencil to Michel. “I figure we need two hundred copies.” Over by the window, Pohl dropped a cigarette into the paint can. “Is paint flammable?” he asked no one in particular. (256)

I don’t know to what extent these details are “true to life.” I hope they are mostly invented. La Farge’s ability to (re)create the fan’s sensibilities–overlooking Lowndes three-dimensionality, proposing to flatten him to fit the costume–puts him on par with the very best postmodern novelists, such as Don Delillo, Katherine Dunn, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace. Pynchon’s epic tale of turn-of-the-century cultural anarchism, Against the Day (2006) frequently came to mind. Like that book, The Night Ocean moves effortlessly across space and time, without forsaking minute details of mundane life.

Matt Keeley, reviewing the book for Tor.com, is exactly right when he argues that “While it hasn’t been marketed as such, La Farge may have written the first great novel of fandom.” Along with the above authors, we get gleeful glimpses of Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Bloch and other science-fiction luminaries.

The playfulness borrowed from the early life of science fiction fades away in the novel’s rather tedious final act. Simply thumbing through the book reveals this difference. The first several hundred pages are full of journal entries, footnotes, transcripts of interviews and twitter feeds. The second half settles into much more conventional prose, with almost no intertextuality. Similarly, the story shifts away from real-world characters to focus upon a fictional character named Leo Spinks, whose life-story takes us to small-town Canada, the recently liberated Belsen concentration camp, and suburban New York. Without giving too much away, the second half “undoes” the first half. It replaces the queer Lovecraft with accounts of Spinks’ straight marriages, and replaces the fandom with sober portraits of holocaust survivors and bitter housewives.

To me, this swerve away from the weird feels like a retreat from the pleasures of weirdness. It exposes the century-old distinction between modern literature and genre fiction. Had the novel gone the other way–bringing us further into Lovecraft’s  “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces”–it would have committed itself to the low-brow plots of pulp stories. Instead, La Farge contains his horrors within the bounds of historical reality. He chooses to write a paraphrasable novel in the end. Writing for the Washington Independent Review of BooksDavid Z. Morris, regards the straightening out of weird fiction as a positive. The Night Ocean, he writes, is “happily free of any version of Lovecraft’s own iconic creations. This separates it from a rather pathetic subgenre of work that waves a lot of tentacles around and calls it ‘homage,’ [. . .] the core achievement is darkly sublime, a translation of the cosmic insanity of Lovecraft’s work back into the human realm.” J. W. McCormak agrees; in a review for Culture Trip, he observes that La Farge’s novel “returns Lovecraft and his ambiguous legacy to the world as we know it, which is, oh yes, much more horrible than any ‘Colour of Space’ or squamous Cthulhu.”

It’s interesting to consider why these readers approve real-world horrors over fictional confrontations with the fantastic. Why is Lovecraft’s ambiguity such an offense? In the first half, La Farge suggests that we fear weirdness because it brings us into contact with repressed sexuality. Lovecraft’s barely discernible monsters allow us to catch glimpses of what Freud (in a phrase Lovecraft would love) called “polymorphous perversity.” Our infantile fears and desires are inseparable and infinitely malleable; “growing up” requires the separation, repression, and straightening out of these feelings, to produce a subject that fits into social norms. In this sense, The Night Ocean “matures” from a work of fan fiction into an adult novel.

One of the book’s best details is young Bobby Barlow’s bedroom closet, where he keeps his collection of pulp magazines. The closet is named Yoh-Vombis, after a story by Lovecraft’s colleague Clark Ashton Smith called “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis.” In the Erotonomicon, Lovecraft first propositions Barlow while they sit in the closet, thumbing through a fanzine:

I could help myself no longer, and asked whether there might be a secret panel in the back of this closet which led to another closet, where he kept the truly accursed volumes of his collection. He professed not to understand what I meant: was I looking for something by Charles Fort? Yet I thought that in the back of his eyes–which are pale brown, by the way, and much magnified by his glasses–I saw some tremor of interest. (37)

The best parts of The Night Ocean discover closets within closets within closets, and resonate with a jouissance that balances innuendo with the fan’s delight in minutiae. Less interesting is the labor necessary to put all of this back into the closet before the novel’s close.

PULP METAFICTION

Metafiction” was coined by William H. Gass to call attention to fictions that call attention to themselves. It’s often associated with “postmodern” writers, such as John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, Vladimir Nabokov, Flann O’Brien, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace. Of course the first and most influential novels–Don Quixote and The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy–were also the most playfully self-conscious.

Gass approaches the genre through modernist experiments. He regards Beckett, Joyce and Stein to be “pioneers” of contemporary (1970s) metafiction. Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1968) is his chief contemporary example. In a telling phrase, Gass refers to Barth’s “extraordinary genius.” The strong relationship between metafiction and avant-garde modernism obscures “pulp metafiction”: novels about novels written by industry hacks. The pulp industry of the 1920s and 30s became the paperback mysteries, romances, sci-fi’s, fantasies and horror novels of the 60s and beyond. This “genre fiction” always also played with metafiction. The famous opening of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is an obvious example:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he’d done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the  meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Another example is the Nero Wolfe novels by Stein’s friend, Rex Stout. Archie’s narratives are consistently self-conscious. He explains why he chose one word over another or why he’s ordered the narrative as he has; sometimes, he exhorts his readers to guess “who done it” or assumes that they see some “obvious fact” that hadn’t yet occurred to him. Other authors who call attention to multiple levels of mediation include Edgar Allan Poe (in many works, but especially “The Mystery of Marie Roget”), Robert Louis Stevenson (in The New Arabian Knights), G. K. Chesterton (in The Man Who was Thursday), and horror writers, such as M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft. Let’s not forget Kenneth Fearing’s novels, particularly Dagger of the Mind (1941), Clark Gifford’s Body (1942) and Loneliest Girl in the World (1951).

In this post, I discuss two works of popular metafiction written after Gass’s essay appeared. The first is Donald Westlake’s Jimmy the Kid (1974), one of the Dortmunder novels; the second is Fat Ollie’s Book (2002), an 87th Precinct police procedural by Ed McBain. Whereas the modern “genius” spends years on a “master-piece” (Stein’s phrase), Westlake and McBain published several novels a year for many years, aiming at a middle-brow reading public. Westlake (1933-2008) wrote well over a hundred novels under several pen names, including Richard Stark and Samuel Holt. McBain is the most popular pen name of Evan Hunter (1926-2005), who wrote Blackboard Jungle (1954) and the screenplay for The Birds (1963) while cranking out more than fifty 87th Precinct novels, not to mention the “Matthew Hope” series and numerous books under other names (Curt Cannon, Ezra Hannon, Richard Marsten). Both authors show all the virtues of the industry; their books are efficient, fast-paced, well-plotted thrillers that balance generic expectations with original narratives. Unlike many of their peers, both authors sustained high-levels of originality and craftsmanship, despite their prestigious output.

Their novels adhere to the standards of realism maintained by the culture industry. Indeed, pulp writers have contributed much to literary realism. What would it be without Dr. Watson or Philip Marlowe? Westlake’s and McBain’s stories are worth reading in part because their metanarratives occur within these conventions. This “layer” of generic realism doesn’t limit their metafictional explorations. On the contrary, the “real world” established in earlier books in the series contributes to the pleasures of their books about books.

So far, I’ve treated Westlake and McBain as interchangeable cogs in the fiction factory; to some extent, they are. Like “bingeable” TV, their episodic novels may be intensely enjoyed and soon forgotten. But their metafictions are quite different, and must be analyzed one at a time.

Jimmy the Kid

Westlake experimented with metafictional moments throughout his career, but became increasingly interested in self-reflective narratives in the final decade. Baby, Would I Lie? (1994), about a reporter investigating a country-music star accused of murder, and A Likely Story (1984), about a commercial writer putting together a Christmas book, deploy metafictional elements for satirical purposes; the Sam Holt novels, supposedly written by an actor-turned-detective, are self-conscious, with an eye toward drama. Holt frequently pauses to reflect that he knows how to act like a detective in “real life” because of his years acting on TV.

Jimmy the Kid is something else again. To appreciate it, one must know about Westlake’s most famous series: the hard-boiled Parker novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, and the comedy-thrillers starring the hapless thief Dortmunder, published under his own name. The Parker novels feature a gang of bank robbers with a strong focus on their titular hero, a brutal but honest stick-up man. Written in a tragic vein; they can be as fast-paced as a Continental Op story and as brutal as a Jim Thompson novel.

I prefer the Dortmunder novels. The series is a melancholic comedy about an extended family that ekes out existence on the margins of legality. John Dortmunder is the brains behind (but not the leader of) a gang of non-violent thieves operating in New York throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Other characters include Andy Kelp, the lock-specialist; Stan Murch, the driver; and Tiny, the muscle. Secondary characters include May, Dortmunder’s “faithful companion”; Murch’s mom, a cabbie who finds work for the gang; J. C. Taylor, who sells “How to” and sex manuals through the mail; Max, who owns the auto-shop that takes cars with “misplaced papers”; Arnie, the fence whose personality is so bad he gives better prices; and so on. Each novel is a loosely chronological episode in the life of this community, anchored by a complicated heist-gone-wrong plot. The gang’s rarely successful, but they never quite get caught.

The metafictional “twist” in Jimmy the Kid begins when Kelp gives Dortmunder a novel to read: Child Heist, by Richard Stark. It’s a typical, although wholly fictional, Parker novel (based on notes for a story that was never finished). One-by-one, Kelp convinces the other gang members to read it:

Murch laughed politely.

“No, on the level,” Kelp said. “What I want you to do, I want you to read that book.”

“Read a book?” Murch read the Daily News and several car magazines, but he didn’t read books.

“You’ll like it,” Kelp told him. “And I’ve got an idea that hooks up with it.”

Murch picked up the book. He would like it? Child Heist, by Richard Stark. “What’s it about?”

“About a crook,” Kelp said. “A crook named Parker. He’ll remind you of Dortmunder.”

“That sounds great,” Murch said, but without much enthusiasm. He riffled through the book: words on every page.    (22)

As Murch, “feeling the stirrings of curiosity,” begins to read, the first few sentences are printed in same same font as the novel we’re reading: :”When the guard came to open the cell door, Parker said to the big man named Krauss, ‘Come see me next week when you get out. I think I’ll have something on’”  (22).

This isn’t just an attempt to promote one book by mentioning it in another. In 1974, Stark was selling better than Westlake, so the promotion would have to go the other way for it to work effectively. Most importantly, this “tie-in” is unthinkable within the hard-boiled atmosphere of Parker’s world, while being entirely acceptable within the Dortmunder comedies. Westlake’s comedic realism is more elastic than Stark’s stark dramas.

The reader of both series reads them for one reason: entertainment. But this isn’t what Kelp has in mind. He wants the gang to read the story as an instruction manual. His enjoyment of the story fuels optimism that a heist planned according to the book’s formula “was all going to work just beautifully. Just like the book. . . Robbery stories where the crooks didn’t get caught in the end–fantastic. For Kelp, it was like being an American Indian and going to a western movie where the cowboys lose” (23). Like Don Quixote and Emma Bovary, Kelp confuses fiction and life. He believes life will imitate art. He convinces Dortmunder, Murch, May, and Murch’s mom to adopt this view because, like him, they identify with the traditional “losers” of the American narrative. Their turn to fiction is an investment in contradictory fantasies: that the “bad guys” can win the day (reversing the normative ‘plot’ of popular culture) and that plots can organize life: things will go according to the book’s plan. Kelp insists that the novel, in which Parker’s crew holds a teenager for ransom, “had like a kind of realism to it,” but already he feels the tug of it’s romance: “the awkwardness of a guy bringing his new girlfriend around to meet the fellas at the bowling alley” (26). The dance between romantic expectations and real-world consequences is the source of this particular comedy of errors.

Chapter three ends with Kelp, “crouching like a surfer in the curl,” exclaiming “Don’t you see? We do the caper in the book! We do the book!” (29). The next chapter begins with the first obstacle: “Dortmunder just sat there.” His initial disinclination stems from associations between reading and doing time: “Reading can speed the days a little, and that’s all to the good. So all in all it had been a fairly familiar experience for him, reading a book, though strange to be doing it in a place with no bars over the window. And also strange to be doing it for some other reason outside of the act of reading itself” (30). The second obstacle arrives less than a page later, when the female members of Kelp’s reading group object to Stark’s sexism:

Murch’s Mom said, “I suppose you want May and me to take care of this brat, like the women in the book.”

Kelp said, “Well, we’re not talking about a baby or anything [. . .] We’re talking about a kid maybe ten, twelve years old.”

“That’s very sexist,” Murch’s Mom said

Kelp looked blank. “Hah?”

“Wanting May and me to take care of the kid. Role-assumption. It’s sexist.”

“Goddammit, Mom,” Murch said, “you’ve been off with those consciousness-raising ladies again.”

“I drive a cab,” she said. “I’m no different from a man.”    (31-2)

Such is the unsettling power of fiction, as Westlake views it. Personal and political associations cause even the most generic text to introduce antagonism. Even barely literate intimates disagree about how best to interpret the text. No “master-piece” is necessary for fiction to do it’s work. It immediately promotes multiple, divergent, delightfully chaotic misidentifications. It turns out that Dortmunder’s real concern stems from a perception of the book itself as a rival. He’s worried that he’ll be written out of the narrative. He’s the guy who plans the jobs; if the plan comes from a book, what’s his role? After May explains “aw-tour” theory to him–”the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director”–he acquiesces (38). “Well, I got an open mind,” he says, “I’m always ready to have a book writer tell me my business” (45).

Chapter 7 of Jimmy the Kid is chapter 4 of Child Heist. Parker, Krauss, and Henley find a target by staking out the exit from the Midtown Tunnel and watching for children riding alone in chauffeured limos. In Chapter 8, Dortmunder, Kelp, and Murch follow this plan. The juxtaposition of pages from the “two” novels illuminates the difference in style between Stark and Westlake. The Parker narrative is plot-driven. It confines itself to actions that contribute to the heist. Descriptions of characters and settings are minimal and objective: “When Parker walked into the apartment, Krauss was at the window with the binoculars. He was sitting on a metal folding chair, and his notebook and pen were on another chair next to him” (45). Dortmunder’s narrative is character-driven, full of inefficient actions and subjective judgments: “When Dortmunder walked into the apartment, Kelp was asleep at the window with the binoculars in his lap. . . . Kelp was sitting in a maroon armchair with broken springs; this was a furnished apartment, three rooms full of the most awful furniture imaginable” (48). The reader’s invited to ponder two modes of realism. The first locates reality in the minimal necessary material construction of the world; it emphasizes Parker’s indefatigable will. In the second, realism is guaranteed by the world’s gratuity; entropic bodies and semi-conscious desires take precedence. Parker’s stripped-down world is hard-edged and unforgiving. In Dortmunder’s, the world’s unpredictable excess helps as much as a hinders. In the very next scene, a cop questions Kelp and Dortmunder, but his investigation is interrupted when his horse shits on their (stolen) car, allowing them to escape.

Following the book’s advice, the gang tracks down Jimmy, the youngest son of a divorced Wall Street lawyer. He’s twelve years old, which Kelp considers an advantage: “The kid’ll have a ball, it’ll be like living out one of his favorite television shows” (63). He assumes that the kid has a capacity to buffer reality by experiencing it as fantasy, which of course Kelp does continually. The well-educated and lonely Jimmy proves much more “adult” than his captors. He’s introduced in the act of bantering with his therapist, the free indirect discourse revealing his sophistication: “”One of his unresolved and so-far unstated disagreements with the doctor concerned this aspect of childlike behavior; Jimmy felt that his own disapproval of such behavior in himself was so instinctive and so strong that it simply had to be trusted. He was not, however, prepared as yet to debate the issue with Dr. Schraubenzieher, so he altered the subject slightly…” (65). Jimmy regards himself as an “auteur” whose genius is unrecognized only because he’s still younger in body than in mind: “He knew he wanted to make movies because he was an artist; the doctor, assuming him to be a child, assumed the desire to be childish. . . Would they have given Mozart a toy piano? Wasn’t Mozart a child?” (67). Jimmy believes himself a genius, and acts accordingly; Dortmunder and friends know themselves to be loveable losers, and play their roles with much ineptitude and bickering.

Westlake explores the multi-layered relation between “reality” and “make-believe” with typical efficiency. In Child Heist, the gang wear Mickey Mouse masks “to make it easier for the kid” (72). “We’re all going to play make-believe for a while now,” they tell Jimmy’s fictional predecessor, Bobby. Their gambit works reasonably well. When Dortmunder’s crew attempt the same thing, Jimmy immediately fails to play the role they’ve assigned to him. “We’re going to play make-believe,” an exasperated May eventually tells him, “I’m going to make believe I’m Mickey Mouse and you’re going to make believe you can behave” (83). He does regard the adventure as a TV show, but doesn’t identify as a character so much as the director. He soon escapes, but returns to help the kidnappers complete their operation.

Meanwhile, the novel explodes metafictional fireworks in all directions. Jimmy repeats Poe’s trick in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” filing down nails in the window to leave Dortmunder with “a locked-room mystery” (115). He reverses their game of make-believe in order to stay up late watching Bride of Frankenstein: “But if you let me stay and watch the movie, you can take your masks off and I promise I’ll make believe you kept them on” (118). When Jimmy’s dad talks to the kidnappers (Murch’s mom, calling from a pay phone), the FBI records the call. Their conversation is revealed in a scene in which father and agents listen to the recording. Pausing and replaying it allows for another layer of mediation. Murch’s mom reads a “script” made out of passages from Child Heist. Hearing this, the FBI agents assume that the gang is more professional than it is; their mistake causes them to take extra caution, which helps the kidnappers. And on and on.

Without giving too much of the plot away, I’ll conclude by noting that the novel ends with correspondence between Richard Stark and his lawyer concerning Kid Stuff, a low-budget film Jimmy makes about his experiences. Not knowing the “actual” source of the film’s plot, Stark complains that it’s a “direct steal” of Child Heist (170). This is a fictional letter signed by a “real-world” pen name about a movie based on “real-world” events based on a fictitious novel. According to Westlake, Stark fails to recognize that life does imitate art; Stark’s perceptual short-circuit implicitly critiques the fetish for the stripped-down realism of the Parker novels.

Fat Ollie’s Book

The 87th Precinct novels follow investigations by Steve Carella, Bert Kling, and a dozen other mostly amiable, mostly hard-working detectives in a fictional city meticulously crafted to resemble New York. Each novel begins with the same epigram: “The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique.” This frame, borrowed from Dragnet and recently used in Fargo (the movie and TV show), asks its public to accept the fiction for the sake of reality. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, as though what follows were based on “real-world” events.

“Established investigatory technique” turns out to be the routine itself. McBain locates realism in the slow slog of following leads and questioning witnesses. Conducting murder investigations is treated as a middle-class job, with many pages given to water-cooler conversations, being stuck in traffic, and balancing work with home life. Opening a book (Ice) at random, we find:

Carella was wearing a turtleneck shirt under his sports jacket that Saturday morning. The first thing Meyer Meyer said to him was, “Those things make you look short.”

“They keep me warm,” Carella said.

“Is it better to be warm or tall?” Meyer asked philosophically, and went back to his typing.        (Ice, 17)

In Fat Ollie’s Book, one cop makes another needle-point pillows that read:

Share

Help

Love

Encourage

Protect     (80)

This little cipher lengthens the typical police code: “Serve and Protect.” It locates love in the middle of the “SHLEP.” Love the process, is the wish this police lover gives to her police man. It works. “‘That says it all,’ he told her, and took her into his arms.” The romance of routine–following the codes–evokes McBain’s labor-intensive process as a writer. His world is constructed one stitch at a time. His books, like the pillow, are texts for non-academic readers.

The crimes are often brutal, and the stories build to thrilling climaxes, but the detectives are professional, and patient. McBain uses long passages of dialogue to convey the methodical collection of data in a city where everyone wants a say and no one’s perspective is truly objective:

“Were you here in the hall when all this happened, Mr. Coogan?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Where in the hall?”

“In the balcony.”

“What were you doing up there?”

“Listening to sound checks.”

“While you were listening to those sound checks, did you happen to hear the sound of a gun going off?”

“Yes.”

“In the balcony?”

“No.”

“Then where?”

“From somewhere down below.”

“Where down below?”

“The stage.”

“Which side of the stage?”

“I couldn’t tell.”          (10)

Several of the earliest books in the series included long transcripts from interviews in the squad room, all written like this. The utter banality of the dialogue works because McBain is also methodical. Every detail and inflection matters. The generic formula follows Poe’s juxtaposition of narratives in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and several of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels: closely related details are allowed to repeat so that the reader, like a cryptologist, learns to read the patterns behind the words.

A personal drama always occurs in the background, as counterpoint to the slow investigation. In one novel, Carella’s wife, Teddy, faces an assault charge; in another, Kling’s wife cheats on him; after the divorce, he begins a romance with a Black officer, and so forth. Like the construction of a fictional New York, this formula focuses the series on the negotiation of public and private lives. Policing requires constant intrusion of public officers into private lives. Each book in the series illuminates the private life of a different detective to various degrees, but only to the reader. More often than not, a particular officer’s personal problems are not known by the rest of the large cast. Private passions sometimes interfere with the procedure, but usually the detectives successfully police themselves.

Not Fat Ollie, a minor character in many of the novels. Detective/First Grade Oliver Wendell Weeks works in the 88th precinct. Originally he appears as a foil to Carella, Kling, and the others. He embodies all the worst traits of city police: he’s violent, corrupt, slovenly, and rude. Colleagues bemoan his racist jokes and open bigotry. He cuts corners, doesn’t follow the rules. He is the obscene underside of their professionalism: his crude improvisations gets results. The closest thing he has to a redeeming trait is a habit of imitating W. C. Fields:

“Seems a resident here got himself aced yesterday morning, ah yes,” Ollie said.

“So I understand,” Carella said.

“Then why’d you ask, m’little chickadee?” Ollie said, once again doing his world-famous W. C. Fields imitation. The pity was–but he didn’t realize this–nobody knew who W. C. Fields was. Whenever Ollie did his impersonation, everyone thought he was doing Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. (26)

Our view of Ollie changes drastically when, near the end of the series, his authorial aspirations are revealed. His private passion, it turns out, is writing police procedurals. His manuscript, “A Report to the Commissioner,” written in the voice of Olivia Watts, a sexy undercover agent, is stolen from his car while he’s responding to the murder of a Mayoral candidate. Ollie joins Carella’s investigation in order to track down his manuscript, which circulates through the underworld in advance of him, causing chaos when it’s mistaken for an actual police report.

The thieve’s confusion is understandable, because Ollie’s book follows “established investigatory technique.” His major epiphany as a novice author is to write it “true to life”:

At first, the book itself was giving him trouble. . . The trouble was that he was trying to sound too much like all those pissant writers out there who were not cops but who were writing what they call “police procedurals,” and by doing this, by imitating them, actually, he was losing track of his own distinctiveness, his very Oliver Wendell Weekness, no pun intended.

And then he hit upon a brilliant idea.

Suppose he wrote the book like a Detective Division report? In his own language, the way he’d type it on a DD form. . .      (20)

In multiple flashbacks, McBain uses Ollie to defend his own approach to the genre he’d written for fifty years. Ollie realizes that “anyone writing the stuff had better learn to keep it simple” (58).  He rewrites his “literary” style: “The sound of music came from somewhere inside the apartment. Its noisome beat filled the hallway tremblingly” becomes “Loud music hammered the halls” (59). This is the private part of his revelation: the discovery of his “own language.” The public part illuminates the other half of McBain’s formula. Upon “realizing that most of the mysteries on the bestseller list were written by ladies, Ollie took an entirely different approach.” Writing his report from a woman’s perspective, “he had found a voice at last” (59). Like McBain, he realizes that the macho world of the police investigation should be balanced by a feminine world focused on familial relations. In McBain’s work, these worlds are strictly heteronormative; the police sometimes run into “fags” on the street, but their love lives revolve around child-rearing, weddings, divorces, family vacations and other strictly straight-world occasions. Ollie’s plot queers this world; by turning the first-person narrator into a woman, he attempts to merge McBain’s work-life/family-life distinction.

The first eight pages of Ollie’s manuscript, printed in a different font, begin on page 85, appearing periodically thereafter. The manuscript contains texts printed in yet another font, suggesting an endless regression of quoted texts. Olivia interprets texts in Ollie’s text, which we read in the context of the series. A cross-dressing heroin addict named Emilio also interprets Ollie’s book. Mistaking it’s fiction for fact, he reads it like Dortmunder’s gang: as an instructional manual that will help to commit a crime. Whereas Westlake’s comedy hinges on a too-intimate reading of the book in question, McBain’s thief soon realizes that the “Report to the Commissioner” is written in code; he attempts to “translate” Ollie’s fiction by mapping it onto the “real” city–the fantastical city painstakingly constructed over dozens upon dozens of novels. “The trouble with Livvie’s city was that it was imaginary,” is Emilio’s epiphany. “The people, the places in her pages were all fictitious. For all Emilio knew, even the police routine was phony and not based on established investigatory technique” (166). Upon reading a passage of Ollie’s novel, Emilio thinks:

You’re not going to fast for me, honey. . . You’re giving me clue after clue. If I don’t find you by Sunday, I’ll eat my rhinestone-studded thong panties. You have just told me that your informant is a tall, thin, one-eyed Jamaican who is known as The Needle, big surprise, but whose real name is Mortimer Loop, which is probably not his real name, either, they are so fuckin cagey, these people….     (120)

We soon learn that “in real life, this was a white man named William “Fats” Donner. Ollie had changed Donner’s name and description for fictitious purposes and also because he did not wish to get sued later by a fat junkie snitch” (120-1). Nonetheless, Emilio makes more progress in his interpretation than Ollie does in his investigation.

Once the novel’s text is introduced, metafictional resonances explode. In a flashback we learn that Ollie receives advice from a publisher that includes “YOU MUST INCLUDE A TICKING CLOCK” (84). Immediately after Emilo begins to map Ollie’s fiction onto McBain’s fictional world, we’re told: “The clock is ticking!” The book’s “simple” formula doubles. The race between cop and criminal becomes a race between the character’s interpretation of the text and the reader’s progression through the murder investigation. McBain and Ollie fulfill this generic requirement simultaneously. While the investigation proceeds at its patient pace, it’s new romantic leads, Olivia (in Ollie’s novel) and Emilio (reading Ollie’s novel), spring from deduction to deduction, keeping one step ahead of the criminals (in Olivia’s fictional world) and the cops (in McBain’s mise-en-scenè). All of this is rhymed again by the book’s overall plot: Carella’s search for the politician’s murderer requires the interpretation of several letters, while Ollie’s search for his manuscript requires him to “uncover” Emilo’s double-identity: a man at home, a woman on the streets.

Meanwhile, Ollie gains interiority. Of all the detectives in the series, he has until now been the most caricatured. In the station house, he’s “a character,” constantly performing himself; in the series, he’s the most artificial character, his persona put together through a gross amalgam of stereotypes. Up until this point, he’s every fat white man in the popular-culture canon. He eats hamburgers as rapidly as Popeye’s J. Wellington Wimpy, banters as buffoonishly as Oliver Hardy, bickers as good-naturedly as Jackie Gleason, and makes bigoted declarations as innocently as Archie Bunker. Now, we learn his inner thoughts. Normally, a character’s’ personal-life intrusions concern “real-world” problems: Carella’s wife is deaf, Kling’s new relationship is interracial, etc. Of all people, Ollie’s romance is actually Romance. His interior monologues mix racism with literary opinion: “He could just imagine how difficult it was for poor Jonathan Franzen, whom Ollie admired a great deal because he’d dissed a Negress like Oprah Winfrey” (96). His literary perspective makes him an ass (an observation his sister needle-points into a sampler that hangs over his toilet), but also a better detective: “Ollie guessed Walsh thought he looked like a TV detective. TV detectives thought they looked like real-life detectives, which they didn’t. Trouble was, real-life detectives watched TV and then started acting like TV detectives, who were acting the way they thought real-life detectives did” (211). Ollie’s appreciation for the way life imitates art imitating life helps him to solves the crime his manuscript’s created. He doesn’t recover the manuscript until a later 87th Precinct novel arrives: Hark! (2004).  In this book, full of anagrams, palindromes, and quotations from Shakespeare, Ollie finds Emilio. He’s burned the manuscript–but also MEMORIZED it. Ollie puts him in an interrogation room with a microphone and he regurgitates the entire thing. 

Both writers use metafiction to explore the relation between books and their genres. Both raise questions about how casual readers interpret texts. Both imagine the popular narrative to introduce a thrilling / dangerous chaos into the world’s plot. Westlake focuses on the relation between auteurs and collective projects. McBain focuses on the campy misinterpretation of sexual codes. For Westlake, writing in the early 1970s, our fictions are Freudian projections that never quite hit the mark. Comedy results from the impossibility of following our own scripts. For McBain, thirty years later, fictions result from textual misinterpretations. Their organization of the future is more important than that they were organized in the past. In both cases, metafiction is existential–the occasion to meditate on the mediation of reality–but no more so than in ordinary life. Our anxiety over the construction of reality motivates us (positively, if foolishly, for Westlake, through its absence for McBain), but mostly because it’s annoying. It accrues in little frustrations: life’s “liveable shit” (to quote the Sleaford Mods).

For Gass, metafiction edges literature into philosophy. It adds serious reflection of a new order to the reading experience. The culture industry’s metafiction is more dramatic and playful. No one would mistake these books for Beckett, Stein, or Barth. But they do evoke the playfulness of Cervantes and Sterne. The confusion engendered by the book’s alternative reality is survivable; everyone gets “lost in the funhouse” but everyone gets out again. 

As I write this, a constitutional crisis plays its miserable “make believe” out through an unpresidented conglomeration of twitter feeds, CNN, Breitbart, and real-life reruns of Celebrity Apprentice. We’ve been creeping up on government via reality TV for decades. The question is, how do we collectively live this crisis? Those most invested in tragedy want a hard-edged, uncomplicated reality. The rest of us want something more capacious and contagious. We shouldn’t give up the fantasy of an ordinary, infinitely complicated, always misunderstood, endlessly forgiving reality.

BACK TO THE BONE: Jeff Smith’s Bone Comics

Bone coverLast week, I observed a comrade’s son reading Jeff Smith’s Bone. It gave me hope. Only a month earlier, I’d wished Bone upon a brilliant student who’d written her honors thesis on graphic novels. The coincidence got me thinking. I hope everyone remotely interested in graphic narratives will read this beautiful, crazy “cartoon epic.”

The term’s appropriate. Epics are long. Mythic and historical in scope. At 1,332 pages, Bone must the single longest complete graphic narrative. Obviously many comic strips and series burn thru more pages, but they do so serially, rather than with the attempt to create a singular story arc. (For example, the complete Love & Rockets would be much longer, but Los Bros. Hernandez use the open-ended narrative structure of telenovelas; by contrast, Bone sustains a singular narrative–a version of The Odyssey. Our protagonist, Bone, spends the entire time attempting to get home. The story’s closest living relative is the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the collected Bone even comes with a map similar to those constructed of Tolkein’s world). But it’s graphic narrative is also reminiscent of modern epics, such as Pound’s Cantos or Williams’s Paterson. Although mediated differently, Smith’s comic, like these long poems, prioritizes imagistic fragments, allowing the sweep of history to lodge within ordinary life. Bone is one of the most finely drawn and thoughtfully conceived comic stories. It’s “epic” in quality as well as scope.

When I told my friend’s son how glad I was to see him reading, in my phrase, “the best comic of all time,” he corrected me: “it’s not a comic; it’s a graphic novel.” Similarly, my student’s honor’s thesis required a defense of the genre: graphic novels should be regarded as comics book for grown-ups. Bone blurs this distinction. It’s both comic book and graphic novel; it mixes the cartoon’s slapstick with the length and complexity of a Russian novel. When it first appeared in 1991, I didn’t get it. I was too “young” because I was too concerned with being “grown up.” Into more macho and ironic graphic novels, I was put off by the amorphous, Pogo-like characters, intensely slow scenes, and black-and-white printing. 25 years later, I’m charmed by its whimsy. It balances adolescent enthusiasm with poetic intensity, and plays with genre expectations in delightful ways.

THE STORY (in 5 sentences)

Three cousins–Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Happy Bone–flee a riot sparked by one of Phoney’s get-rich-quick schemes; they get separated while crossing a mountain range into foreign territory. The arrive in a magical land populated by peasants, princesses, talking animals, dragons, and other monsters. It’s as foreign to them as it is to us, while their world, which we hear of but never see, is full of nuclear waste, organic gardens, venture capitalists and Fourth of July parades. Our protagonist, Fone Bone, falls in love with Thorn, a warrior princess; with the help of her kick-ass grandmother and a Red Dragon, they defeat a Tolkienesque evil. Phone Bone spends much time bickering with his cousins and trying to keep them alive; in the end, the three of them head back to Boneville, their reality.

THE STYLE

Cartoon confrontationThe original comics were black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings. Before they were colored, Smith’s drawings depended upon the size and shape of lines, along with the spacing of narrative elements, to develop complex characters, slapstick humor, and fast-paced action. He contributed to the innovations in the use of negative space and “slow motion” that Frank Miller popularized in Ronin and the Dark Knight. But more like Hergé than Miller, Smith focused on a precise rendering of panel-by-panel actions and reactions. His work resembles Saul Steinberg’s in it’s love of the pen and George Booth’s in the the care it extends to the minutia of details.  But Smith does more; he uses two graphic styles to represent a fundamental rift in his world. Bone and his cousins are Pogo-like cartoon creatures, drawn with thick, smooth lines. The residents of the valley in which they find themselves are human and animal, rendered with thinner, scratchier lines. The Bones’ bodies are empty of all but the most significant details; the human and animals bodies are more fully “filled in” with textural marks. In other words, two styles share many frames. Compare this to Miller’s two realities but single style in Ronin or the distinct styles of Jaime Hernandez’s Hoppers vs Gilbert’ s Palomar. In Bone, characters from one stylistic reality (cartoonish / clear-line) find themselves in a world dictated by a different stylistic reality (realistic / textured). 

This difference is fundamental to the entire narrative; in Smith’s world, visual styles dictate physical laws. Bone and his cousins enjoy different gravitational effects. For example, unlike the humans and animals around them, they suffer few or no ill-effects from falling from great heights, but can be literally “bowled over” by love. They function in the story’s reality, but with a difference.

Bone Falls in Love

Thorn gives Bone an extra-long look, which adds romance to her statement that “we’re friends.” We see Bone absorb this; then he’s flipped out of his saddle by a feeling. The hearts floating over his head in the last panel don’t apply to Thorn, her grandmother, or other characters of the “human” world. In the last panel, Thorn looks back in surprise. Not only is she unaware of his infatuation (he’s about to write her some very bad love lyrics), she’s confused by its physical effects. The visual metaphor appears to her as an unaccountable accident. It’s as though Bone comes from the world of the Id, while Thorn remains within the world of the ego. The ego’s world is the only world we see, but the Id’s world sounds (as disclosed in conversation) more like our own. The ego’s world is inhabited by humans and (talking) animals; the Id’s world (Boneville) is represented by cartoon creatures, who are astounded that animals talk. The on-going negotiation between these worlds–both kinds of creatures attempting to understand the other with great patience–constitutes the daily life that fills the narrative foreground, even as an epic battle unfolds. 

AN INTENSE IMMEDIACY

In it’s initial stages, the battle unfolds in meticulously rendered chase sequences. Bone’s chased by two “stupid, stupid rat creatures”: Laurel-and-Hardy monsters you can’t help but love. Consider the time sequence and intense details in this typical sequence:

Stupid Stupid Rat Creatures

Slapstick rendered with intense naturalism recalls Buster Keaton’s The General or The Navigator. In the first panel, Bone, falling off the collapsing tree, catches the rat creature’s ears. In the second panel, the rat creature realizes the size of the cliff.  Both characters recognize the need to work together. But as Bone climbs to safety, the second rat creature slams into them and everyone falls. Look at Bone’s expression in the final panel and at how the rat creature acknowledges his critique. In Daredevil in the late 70s / early 80s, Miller began to depict action with this degree of balletic detail, a marked contrast to the more symbolic sequences of “classic” superhero comics. Smith applies this technique to comic effect. Everyone survives. 

The slowing down of visual narrative is used to amplify ordinary reactions to extraordinary events. One of my favorite sequences unfolds over two pages. Phoney, working off his latest scam by doing dishes in a tavern, is confronted by a wizard resembling the Grim Reaper:

Phoney Bone and Death 1Phoney Bone and Death 2

Phoney confronts  what for him’s a typical dilemma. He’s ready to assault any entity that threatens his cousin–unless a “business” prospect interferes. The thing appears first at the window, then sticks it’s head into the kitchen, provoking a physical reaction that can only be experienced by the residents of Boneville. The page ends with a comedic jolt as Smiley slams more dishes onto the counter. On the first panel of the next page, Phoney’s jitters are the result of both his confrontation with the mythic figure and the frazzling carelessness of Happy. Then the perspective reverses, and the wizard’s actions are mirrored as Phoney looks through, then leans through, the window. Note his shadow as he peers out. Four silent panels set up his realization that surreal forces are involved. He understands capitalism, but not magic…

It gets more complicated. As the forces of evil overwhelm the peasant-warriors, a meta-level hallucination occurs. Bone’s favorite author is Herman Melville; he carries Moby-Dick and a diary in his knapsack. As the forces of evil grow, Thorn’s and Bone’ dreams grow strange. In the following, he dreams that he’s Ismael and Phoney, Ahab. 

The White Whale

The dramatic perspective, technically precise detail, and embedded frames are typical of the entire comic.  Notice how the background details fade in the middle panel and disappear entirely from the bottom panel. The styles continually mediate a range of subjective/objective details; the more intense the personal drama, the more the style beckons toward early Disney comics, which minimized background. Bone’s dream enjoys a similarly multi-layered relation to the plot as a whole. Sometimes Phone Bone and Phoney Bone seem like the little angels and devils that appear in poems and cartoons to indicate moral decisions. Both are sought by the forces of darkness, whose prophecies suggest the importance of one or the other of them. Meanwhile, Bone and his cousin have a lot of baggage. They’ve grown up together, looking out for each other in myriad ways. Now their confronting a strange world,  often with their backs to the wall. Phoney, whose cartoon features are determined by greed the way Bone’s are by love, gets them into a lot of trouble. Happy Bone, whose trait is goofiness, usually goes along with his get-rich-quick schemes, leaving Bone  to confront his cousin. Their antagonism is symbolic, but also the subject of an intense, ongoing conversation.

Furthermore, dreaming is treated with great reverence; Thorn’s dreams reveal her destiny and are used to control her will.  Bone and Thorn, young lovers that they are, spend a lot of time interpreting each other’s dreams.  No one interprets Bone’s dream (when he wakes, everyone’s gone), so it’s up to us. Imagining Phoney as Ahab suggests the Bone recognizes his cousin’s mania, and also that he regards him as the Captain of their little gang. Indeed, the dream suggests that if Phoney is allowed to lead their quest for home, they will die. Bone must come to recognize that he’s the Odysseus to Phoney’s Ahab.

Smiley Bone and Rat Creature make money close upIt’s more complicated than that,  of course, because Phoney also wants to get them safely home; he’s just convinced that a large amount of loot will help them on their way.  Like Scrooge McDuck, he suffers from an intense money fetish. When Smiley and an orphan rat creature they’ve named Bartleby figure out how to coin money, Phoney weeps with joy. By contrast, Bone’s Caspar the Friendly Ghost, a frequently ignored superego that hovers near by, lamenting bad decisions when he’s not saving the day.

The climax involves a war between humans, rat creatures, and other monsters, plus an explosion that recalls Mt. St. Helen’s eruption. As the characters flee across the blighted landscape, they share a collective hallucination that causes Bone’s dream to come to life. Phoney finds himself having to traverse the boulder-strewn desolation with a wooden leg, thanks to his cousin’s Id. Their conversation’s hilarious.

Smith takes the time, panel-by-panel, page-by-page, to complicate everything. The characters are constantly commenting on their own actions and reactions; about 70% of the story involves their conversation about what’s going on. In the scene described above, Phoney yells, “It’s a VOLCANO! Can’t we just say that the mountain BLEW UP? Why’s it EVIL?” He’s never accepted the story about sorcerers and dragons everyone in this world seems to believe. He’s infuriated by Bone’s and Happy’s acceptance of this nonsense. Yet the evidence is right there–in his wooden leg, which only makes matters worse… Like Moby-Dick, Bone explores at length the numerous stated and unconscious goal(s) of the voyage. Even the love plot’s complicated. Does Thorn treat Bone’s infatuation lightly because: a) she regards him as doughy little cartoon; b) she sees him as a possible suitor, but is into hunky farm boys; c) like him, she’s shy; d) she’s got a lot of her mind as she transforms from peasant to princess-warrior. The answer’s all of the above. Their relationship, as important as that between Bone and his cousins, evolves tenderly through dozens of side-bar “check-in’s” as the epic unfolds:

Bone and Thorn conversation 1

Bone and Thorn conversation 2

Smith renews our trust in the possibilities of earnest conversation. Friendly banter–little apologies, admissions, explanations–will be the source of their survival. When it matters, they will trust each other and reason together.  This trans-species intimacy is at times facilitated and hindered by their wildly different experiences and bodies.  These bodies are “lived in” throughout the story, but also symbolic of two styles in the now-massive comic-book industry.  Bone and Thorn cross the boundaries between the adolescent slapstick of the dailies and the aesthetic priorities of the mature graphic novel.

In recent years, captivated by Hollywood, the comics industry has moved in the opposite direction. They create “universes” that are entirely monotonal, singularly textured.  When “Spiderman 14: A New Beginning” and “X-Men 36: Another Apocalypse” prove too much for you, go back to the Bone.