Strange Trees

The Aesthetics of Ecology in Weird Fiction

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

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


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

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

Or can they?

Color Out of Space (2019) Dir. Richard Stanley

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trees in the opening shot of Color Out of Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cram’s slim volume of weird tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackwood’s story is available on Project Gutenberg here.

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

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

Amazing Stories September 1927

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

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

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

The 1948 Arkham House edition

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

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

Smith’s story can be read online at Eldritchdark.com.

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

For more on this story checkout The Angry Scholar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird Fiction Review #5: Lincoln in the Bardo

NOTE: This is the fifth of ten reviews of contemporary weird novels. An overview of the project can be found below.

George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo was published in 2017 by Random House, to considerable acclaim. It briefly topped the New York Times best-seller list, and won the Man Booker Prize—another laurel for Saunders, whose short stories, published in Haper’s, Esquire, and The New Yorker, have won him a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a World Fantasy Award, among others. The keepers of the keys to literary acclaim adore him. It’s testament to his vigorously original style; no prose feels more “of the moment.” His pastiche of corporate and advertising argot, his tone of perpetual emergency, and the precision with which he creates a rubbery (tough, malleable, unnatural) reality bring America English into the twenty-first century. Reading his best stories, I get a thrill like that which I imagine Flaubert’s or Woolf’s contemporaries to have felt. Thomas Pynchon, the great stylist and one of the weirdest authors of our age, overcame his notorious reticence to praise Saunders’ “astoundingly tuned voice.”

Given his status in the field of literary production and his evident pursuit of a pure (i.e., wholly original) style, it is odd to think of Saunders as a genre writer. Placing Lincoln in the Bardo alongside pulpier fiction, such as LaValle’s, Langan’s, or Cantero’s, exemplifies the approach to weirdness that I’m attempting to articulate. Weird fiction is weird in part because it troubles the hierarchy that developed in the modern literary field—the one that vaguely but relentlessly distinguishes “high art” from “low,” the canonical from the popular, the sacred from the vulgar, etc. Saunders’ stories remind us that this distinction is particularly troubled by the genre of fantastic fiction, which includes work by Henry James and Edith Wharton alongside H. P. Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson. The politics of taste is the most obvious reason why Saunders isn’t commonly perceived as a writer of ghost stories. For example, there’s no mention of Saunders in S. T. Joshi’s two-volume survey of supernatural horror, even though his stories—from his first collection, Civil War Land in Bad Decline (1996) to this recent novel–deploy supernatural and uncanny elements, including ghosts (“Civil War Land in Bad Decline,” “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror,” and Lincoln in the Bardo), zombies (“Sea Oak”), speculative worlds (“Bounty”), and episodes of psychosis (“Escape from Spider-Head,” “My Chivalric Romance”). His oeuvre includes realist stories (“Puppy,” “The Falls,” and “The Tenth of December”), but many of his tales employ the supernatural. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo was published by Random House, not Tor, Tartarus, or Centipede, and Saunders stories appear in The New Yorker, rather than Apex, Shimmer, Pseudopod, or anthologies by Ellen Datlow. (“Sea Oak,” however, was reprinted in Peter Straub’s excellent, two-volume American Fantastic Stories, published by the Library of America.)

Given that Saunders is unquestionably a “mainstream” writer–in a review of Lincoln in the Bardo for the London Review of Books, Robert Baird finds that “it would be hard to overstate his influence on American writing”—we might observe that a great many critically acclaimed and popular contemporary writers–Toni Morrison (RIP), Joyce Carol Oates, China Mieville, Thomas Pynchon–write ghost stories, horror stories and about speculative worlds. Recognizing the literary value of Saunders’ weird tales may betoken the “mainstreaming” of a genre: weirdness passes from being one kind of story to being a (negative) component of literary realism. This dissolution of weird  fiction into literature has occurred twice before—at the birth of realism, in the early 1800s, and during the modern moment, when the ghost or doppelganger story was taken seriously by writers (Dostoevsky, James, Wharton, Kafka) who also took realism seriously.

The critical distinction is not solely a matter of reception. Saunders’ satirical humor and vernacular style, as well as a penchant for allegory, allow his work to be labeled “experimental fiction” and “literary,” rather than “horror fiction” and “generic.” Because he’s a comedian, his work does not feel like horror, despite the cruelty he inflicts upon his characters and the regular appearance of reality-rending monsters. But as Todorov points out, there’s no reason to assume that a story’s descent into madness or disclosure of miraculous events should be met with screams rather than laughter. E. T. A. Hoffmann kept the hilarious and uncanny in close proximity, and this achievement may be found in many wonderfully weird tales, including Poe’s “Hop-Frog” and “The Imp of the Perverse,” some of Ambrose Bierce’s stories, John Kendrick Bangs’ “Thurlow’s Christmas Story,” and Stephen King’s “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet.” Similarly, because Saunders’ prose is so original (or “innovative,” as his characters would put it), it doesn’t feel like the pseudo-Gothic prose adopted by Lovecraft or the terser, functional prose of modern horror writers, likes Oates, King or Ramsey Campbell. (There is a kind of curious precedent for Saunders’ style in Ray Russell’s “Sardonicus” and “Sagittarius”–weird tales aimed at readers of Playboy in the 1960s.)

Several critics have pointed toward the quality of Saunders’ work that I wish to describe, without quite naming it. I haven’t found any reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo that explicitly link Saunders to weird, fantastic, or speculative fiction, yet most critics index a strangeness that helps to define his oeuvre. According to Baird, Saunders “has often reveled in a sense of uncanny disorientation.” Ron Charles, writing in The Washington Post, calls Lincoln in the Bardo “ a divisively odd book” and “fantastical.” Michiko Kakutani, in The New York Times, describes it as “ like a weird folk art.” For Jenny Shank, in Dallas News, “Lincoln in the Bardo is weird, disorienting, funny and incredibly moving.” For Hari Kunzru, in The Guardian, “Lincoln in the Bardo feels like a blend of Victorian gothic with one of the more sfx-heavy horror franchises.” In short, there’s no question that Saunders’ work is affectively weird. The question is: how does this strangeness comport with the genre of weird fiction, relying upon generic tropes while testing the limits of supernatural horror? How might we recalibrate our understanding of the genre in order to include novels such as this one, which invites the reader to experience multiple kinds of weirdness? Where, exactly, does the sense of uncanniness, oddity, and queerness originate in Saunder’s prose? In this post, I hope to indicate answers to these questions, while drawing on and clarifying the observations made by previous reviewers.

Speculative Fiction

Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over the night of February 25, 1862 in Oak Hill Cemetery. President Lincoln’s son Willie has died of “fever” (most likely Typhoid) at the age of 12 a few days before. During the night, Lincoln visits the cemetery and cradles his son’s body. Saunders makes this historical event the occasion for what Ron Charles calls “an extended national ghost story”. Lincoln’s visit is witnessed by dozens of ghosts, who sleep in their “sick beds” by day and roam the cemetery at night. These spirits exist in something like the Buddhist bardo, confined to Oak Hill’s environs until they accept that they are dead. As critics have noted, the central conceit echoes Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of poetic monologues spoken by the deceased members of a fictional Illinois town. Because the story is written in something like dramatic form (see below), it also suggests the third act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938). But as Kakutani notes, the novel more closely resembles Masters’ poetry to the degree that “Saunders’s extraordinary verbal energy is harnessed . . . in the service of capturing the pathos of everyday life,” rather than its wonder or joy. Like Masters, Saunders delights in reframing Victorian sentiment (from a modern perspective) by drawing out its Gothic elements. In this, the novel’s characters—mostly the grotesque ghosts, whose inability to quit the mortal plane turns them into contemporary caricatures of Victorian sots and playboys, penitents and queers—and it’s themes—the struggle to confront loneliness, cowardice, grief, and confusion—recall Saunders’ earlier fiction. As Thomas Mallon observes in The New Yorker, Oak Hill bears more than a passing resemblance to the impossible historical theme parks described in some of Saunders’ most memorable stories, including “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Wave Machine,” “My Chivalric Romance,” and “Bounty.”

The uncanny funhouses in these stories are Saunders’ portal into speculative fiction. In popular discourse, “speculative fiction” is treated as an umbrella term for a wide range of supernatural and fantastic stories, but in my taxonomy it is a recently popularized sub-genre of weird fiction—one that combines the “world-building” associated with science fiction or fantasy with a disfigured realism. Because of its laborious negotiation with historical accuracy, speculative fiction is best associated with dystopian literature and what Poe calls “tales of ratiocination.” It’s an intellectual genre, full of explanation and/or exemplification of its alternative reality—a world that our world might (have) become. Speculative fiction insists upon an intellectual rigor that is easily (joyfully) disregarded by “classic” fantasy and science fiction. It’s rigorous / rigid adherence to the real world maintains the affective charge of rational curiosity, preventing a drift into the purely fantastic—the impact of “if it were so,” rather than “what if.” The most important works of post-war speculative fiction include Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and many of Jorge Luis Borges’ stories in Artifices (1944), The Aleph (1949), and Dr. Brodie’s Report (1970), as well as more recent works, such as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2008), and Mieville’s The City & the City (2009). In these stories, the impossible thing is history as such—impossible because it might always have gone otherwise. Mallon alludes to this aspect of Saunders’ work when he describes his oeuvre as “a half-dozen books of accomplished, high-concept short fiction.” Speculative fiction depends upon the “high concept” and a willingness to “accomplish” a vision of this altered reality. Saunders’ ridiculous theme parks are slightly alternative dystopian realities, filtered through the self-serving perspectives of management and labor in a world where symbolic labor is paramount.

In this regard, Lincoln in the Bardo creates a surrealist cemetery funhouse by crossing historically based accounts of Victorian sentimentality with a loosely constructed version of a partially non-Western afterlife. As Kunzru explains, “This is not a straightforwardly Tibetan bardo, in which souls are destined for release or rebirth. It is a sort of syncretic limbo which has much in common with the Catholic purgatory, and at one point we are treated to a Technicolor vision of judgment that seems to be drawn from popular 19th-century Protestantism…” The most important literary precedent for this deliberately confusing and often “technicolor” other world may be found in Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954). The salient difference is that in Tutuola’s novels the highly energetic, hybridized, and dreamlike world is coextensive with our own and engulfs the future. Saunders’ bardo, like his theme parks, is an island of insanity (in this case, the size of the cemetery) surrounded by a more rational order and securely located in the national past.

Ghosts

As in Tutuola’s stories (and, for example, Mielville’s New Crobuzon), the pleasure of discovery is paramount; Saunders’ funhouse is full of monstrous creatures. As Charles puts it, “a ghoulish gallery of desiccated lives, minds dehydrated until all that remains are the central anxieties and preoccupations of their lives above ground.” Kakutani offers a similarly accurate portrayal of these creatures, describing them as “Edward Gorey-style ghosts, skittering across the landscape — at once menacing, comical and slightly tongue-in-cheek.” The ghosts “manifest” in neurotic forms, their bodies misshapen or experiencing various degrees of corporeality depending upon their anxieties (and they are nothing but anxieties). For example, “The crowd, having suspended its perversities, stood gaping at Mr. Bevins, who had acquired . . . such a bounty of extra eyes, ears, noses, hands, etc., that he now resembled some overstuffed fleshly bouquet” (141). They are weirdest when their bodies dissolve into scenarios or mutate rapidly: “The Traynor girl lay as usual, trapped against, and part of, the fence, manifesting at the moment as a sort of horrid blackened furnace. . . The girl was silent. The door of the furnace she was at that moment only opened, then closed, affording us a brief glimpse of the terrible orange place of heart within. . . She rapidly transmuted into the fallen bridge, the vulture, the large dog, the terrible hag gorging on black cake, the stand of flood-ravaged corn, the umbrella ripped open by a wind we could not feel” (36-7). This is a “high-concept” ghost; its shimmering takes the form of surrealistically displaced symbolic objects that fluctuate with personal and cultural significance.

The cartoonish, “tongue-in-cheek” quality emerges at the expense of the more “traditional” or sentimental ghosts, such as Mrs. Ellis, “a stately, regal woman, always surrounded by three gelatinous orbs floating about her person, each containing a likeness of one of her daughters” (78). After a detailed description of a sentimental drama in which Mrs. Ellis tries to mother her daughters, we are told “On other days, everyone she met manifested as a giant mustache with legs” (79). The joke uses Monty-Pythonesque surrealism to undercut the melodrama.  A similar kind of humor occurs when we are introduced to Eddy and Betsy Baron, impoverished drunkards who can’t give up debauchery. Their pastiche of the morality tale is undercut by relentlessly blasphemy, removed from the text as though by a Victorian censor. Here’s Eddie Baron on his children: “F—- them! Those f—-ing ingrate snakes have no G——-ed right to blame us for a f—-ing thing until they walk a f—-ing mile in our G——ed shoes and neither f—-ing one of the little s—-heads has walked even a s—-ing half-mile in our f—-ing shoes.” The modern reader guffaws at this across the gulf of historical time—we laugh at our own assumptions that pre-Civil War ghosts weren’t quite so foul-mouthed. The same humor animates the script of Deadwood, for example.

At the heart of these depictions is an odd sort of literary Naturalism: Saunders holds his characters in the kind of loving contempt that Stephen Crane deploys, while revealing humans to be creatures of nakedly gross appetites, such as one finds in Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Flannery O’Connor, or Irish Murdoch. But all of the tenets of Naturalism have been turned inside out. Redemption is possible; the moral order can be restored, and the path toward restitution is leavened by absurdity. Thus, for example, Trevor Williams, a minor ghost, is a

former hunter, seated before the tremendous heap of all the animals he had dispatched in his time: hundreds of deer, thirty-two black bear, three bear cubs, innumerable coons, lynx, foxes, mink, chipmunks, wild turkeys, woodchucks, and cougars; scores of mice and rats, a positive tumble of snakes, hundreds of cows and calves, one pony (carriage-struck), twenty thousand or so insects, each of which he must briefly hold, with loving attention, for a period ranging from several hours to several months, depending on the quality of loving attention he could muster and the state of fear the beast happened to have been in at the time of its passing (127).

As it did for the Beats (Ginsberg in particular), Buddhist compassion provides a mode of buffering and forgiveness for colonial and capitalistic devaluing of life in the national past. We meet racist ghosts (Lieutenant Cecil Stone), property-loving ghosts (Percival “Dash” Collier), and numerous ghosts (like our tour guides, Hans Vollman and Rogers Bevins III) who remain entangled in lust. All of these “too human” traits get sorted in the bardo, where they are caricatured until their “fleshly bouquet” manifests itself: an absurdity that finds forgiveness in laughter. Lincoln’s visit to the cemetery ultimately results in a wave of transubstantiation, suggesting that his presidency be regarded as a moment of national redemption. Lincoln’s love is literally enlightening—this is where the novel caresses allegory.  

It touches upon horror at two points—one in the “real” world of Lincoln’s grief, the other in the funhouse afterlife. The episode of grief feels contrived. The ghosts enter Lincoln’s consciousness and experience his sorrow. With their help, he experiences the transitory nature of all things: “Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another. / Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond” (244). These thoughts help him to let Willie go, and in that act the ghosts encounter their own loss, which allows them to give up their burdens. For a moment each ghost puts aside their individualized lusts and collective prejudices. For our chief narrator, Bevins, this kindness is an act of democracy. Upon entering Lincoln, he glimpses the Civil War: “Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails . . . well, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself. / Well, the rabble could. The rabble would. / He would lead the rabble in managing. / This thing would be won” (308). The real-world grief sustains the national allegory, but as a result the sensation of grief is hollowed out.

The other moment of horror is much more powerful. It occurs near the center of the novel, when Reverend Everly Thomas delivers the book’s longest monologue. He is stuck in the bardo not because of his attachment to earthly pleasures, but because of his fear of Christ’s judgment. His story is among the best sequences Saunders has written: a fantastic satire on that strand of the American Gothic we associate with Jonathan Edwards’ sermons. Thomas waits in line to be admitted through the pearly gates. It is quite a bit like the line at airport security. He watches as St.Peter and some angels screen those ahead of him:

Quick check, said Christ’s emissary from his seat at the diamond table.

The being on the right held the mirror up before the red-beared fellow. The being on the left reached into the red-beared man’s chest and, with a deft and somehow apologetic movement, extracted the man’s heart, and placed it on the scale.

The being on the right checked the mirror. The being on the left checked the scale. (190)

To one screened passenger, the gates of heaven open—to another, hell. By the time you are at the checkpoint, it’s too late to escape judgment. Thomas flees not because he is afraid of the outcome, but of the mercilessness of the act of judgement. It’s an Althusserian Christ: the hailing is the horror. That’s not to say that the hell we glimpse isn’t horrific—but I’ll leave that for the reader to discover.

For now, I draw two conclusions. First, like E. T. A. Hoffmann or Shirley Jackson, Saunders is a weird comedian, rather than, like Lovecraft or Wharton, a tragedian. Second, that his comedy reverses the “cosmic indifference” associated with Lovecraft’s racist existentialism. In Saunders’ world, caring is everything. The impossible thing is God. This realization, in the words of Lincoln, as reported by an African-American ghost, so neatly reverses the politics of Cthulhu, I can’t help but think that its intentional: “We must see God not as a Him (some linear rewarding fellow) but an IT, a great beast beyond our understanding, who wants something from us, and we must give it, and all we may control is the spirit in which we give it . . . What IT wants, it seems, for now, is blood, more blood, and to alter things from what they are, to what IT wills they should be…” (310). Here the horror demanded by the inhuman god is waged in the name of black liberation. Lincoln the Emancipator, Saunders wages, is born in this moment of eldritch torment.

As Metafiction

Its fantastic afterlife is only one of the novel’s weird aspects. It also enjoys considerable formal weirdness. As I’ve been arguing throughout these reviews, since Don Quixote, weird fiction is notable for a genre-confounding (yet genre-defining) metafictional playfulness. The weirdness of fiction is frequently evoked by texts that confound the normative forms of “mainstream” realist novels. Among the most prominent examples are Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, with its alternating chapters of human and cat narratives; Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordan Pym, which claims to be a true account of Antarctic exploration; Verne’s The Sphinx of the Ice-Realm, which treats Pym as though it were real; Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which masquerades as a textual exegesis; and Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in which alternating chapters occur in different genres (detective sci/fi and fantasy). Another contemporary novel that fits this category, Michael Cisco’s Unlangauge, will be discussed in a later post. Lincoln in the Bardo juxtaposes a factual world, composed of actual and imaginary excerpts from histories of Lincoln, with a fantasy world (the cemetery at night) which takes the form of an awkward script. Alternating chapters immerse us in either the world of historical verities or the world of fantastic drama. As Charles puts it, the book “confounds our expectations of what a novel should look and sound like.” Kakutani explains how “Saunders intercuts facts and semi-facts (culled from books and news accounts) in a collage-like narrative.”

The collage of observations lifted from historical texts is strange and edifying. At least since “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” which is narrated by a “verisimilitude inspector,” Saunders has been fascinated by earnest absurdity of historical reconstruction; this element of the novel immerses us fully within the experience his previous work evokes. Saunders begins the novel by undermining factual reconstructions of the Lincoln household. He does this by juxtaposing minute observations from competing accounts of the night that Willie Lincoln died. Chapter V begins with six statements about the moon, presumably gleaned from letters, diaries, and other credible historical accounts:

Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening. –In “A Season of War and Loss,” by Ann Brighney.

In several accounts of the evening, the brilliance of the moon is remarked upon. – In “Long Road to Glory,” by Edward Holt.

A common feature of these narratives is the gold moon, hanging quaintly above the scene. – In “White House Soirees: An Anthology,” by Bernadette Evon.

There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds. –Wickett, op. cit.

A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to all human folly. –In “My Life,” by Dolores P. Leventrop.

The full moon that night was yellow-red, as if reflecting the light of some earthly fire. –Sloane, op. cit. (19)

The moon, of course, is the perfect choice for prying open the Pandora’s box of historical facticity. It is both the symbol of inconstancy, the harbinger of illusion, and the most obvious natural nocturnal phenomenon—an event that should be capable of verification. By emphasizing the historical divergences from a singular narrative, Saunders invites us to put all the documentary sections under scrutiny. This is a move worthy of Poe, for it achieves an effect that is quite the opposite of its initial appearance. When, later in the novel, we are given several glimpses of Lincoln on his way to and from the cemetery—eyewitness accounts that testify to the “fact” of the President’s midnight visit to his son’s sepulcher—we are prepared to accept their fallibility—which makes it all the more credible.

Unfortunately, the ghostly drama is presented using the same technique: we are given a text and then its author. In my excerpts so far, I have omitted this aspect of the novel, but I will now provide a passage. Here, Bevins, Vollman and Thomas bear witness to a moment when the pleasures of the world are breaking through:

The happy mob of children gathered about a tremendous vat of boiling chocolate, and dear Miss Bent, stirring it, making fond noises at us, as if we were kittens. –roger begins iii

My God, what a thing! To fine oneself thus expanded! –hans vollman

How had we forgotten? All those happy occasions? –the reverend everly thomas

To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; een to the exclusion of all else.—roger bevins iii

One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story. –hans vollman

(If not permitted to tell it, one must think it and think it.) –the reverend everly Thomas (255)

The goal, I suppose, is to present a fully “dialogic” novel—one in which every event is gleaned partially through multiple eyewitnesses, and therefore can only be understood by deciphering the observations of competing discourses. This is the most avant-garde aspect of Saunders weirdness, since it attempts to deconstruct the first-person or focalized omniscient narrative of more conventional novels: shades of Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner (not to mention “The Sandman”). The dialogic quality can be wonderful—the shimmery instability of speech acts—especially as they contort to appease a presumed interlocuter–has always been Saunders’ forte. But the inscriptions are awkward and exhausting; the reader soon wearies of waiting to the end of each utterance to find out who is speaking. I found myself constantly performing a little eye scan motion to pick up the name listed at the end of the speech before reading it: a problem easily solved by the typographic conventions of the stage play, long since in existence. And the cemetery scenes are unquestionably dramatic. But although each character speaks, often to the other characters, because it is a novel, they must also narrate what the other characters are doing. It’s like a play in which several characters are tasked with telling us what is happening on stage. I applaud the originality of this mode, but it generates a peculiar tedium–like that which one encounters when reading (not watching) Ionesco.

Saunders’ Weird Style

The advantage of the novel-script hybridity is the priority it gives to Saunders’ odd and sometimes marvelous style. The notably original style I evoked at the beginning emerges from countless utterance in which Saunders’ characters, deeply embedded within particular situations, try to provide their presumptive auditors with observations and insights that strain their discursive capabilities. They are always, within their own multitude of possible life worlds, experiencing weirdness. This is what their speech acts reflect. Expressions of jargon-inflected, earnest befuddlement and hyper-specific characterizations are the dramatic and novelistic pillars on which the Saunders brand is built. His characters constantly tax syntax and invent neologisms in order to describe phenomena beyond their control and / or comprehension. The ghosts in this story are constantly trying to explain their own impossible situation; “walk-skimming” is the most memorable phrase, as though a ghost couldn’t quite account for its own floating. In a rather damning review in the Atlantic (March 2017) Caleb Crain observes this penchant for “a hypercolloquial idiolect” and argues that “sadism and sentimentality” compete in Saunders’ prose, resulting in an “antic pastiche” that “rivals the Victorians at death kitsch.” Mallon offers a kinder observation, noting that the novelist “likes to create desperate people trying their best to be dignified and gentle.” Sanders observes “a mutually reinforced cognitive dissonance.” Each of these phrases helps to triangulate the singular quality of Saunders’ prose.

At its root, it’s satirical. In The Fantastic, Todorov has good reason to draw a boundary between the affect-laden realism of fantasy and the intellectual operations of allegory. Satire manifests in the uncertain margins between these modes. Obviously, given the fantastic nature of the creature from which its name derives, satire has always entwined closely with weirdness. From Rabelais, Voltaire, Sterne and Swift to Lewis Carol, Ambrose Bierce, Nikolai Gogol, Flannery O’Connor, Roald Dahl, or Poppy Z. Brite, the peculiar and absurd, the monstrous and miraculous, has been a resource for satirists. But it works against itself, as such. Satire sublimates the visceral quality of “cosmic horror,” turning terror into scorn, the gasp of an encounter with the impossible into a knowing laugh.

In Lincoln in the Bardo, the style is driven by two forms of humor. The first is a the subtle, “high” comedy that results from grandiloquence. Hans Vollmann is particularly susceptible: “It would be difficult to overstate the vivifying effect this visitation had on our community” (66) he says at one point—a phrase that enacts what it describes. A similar kind of comedy occurs when the narrative finds occasion to laugh at its own efforts at transubstantiation. An angel tells Betsy Baron, “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore”; “See, I don’t get that,” Betsy replies.

The other, less subtle mode is verbal vaudeville, as in this banter between the besotted Barons; note that I’ve taken the liberty called for by the text and treated it as a script:

Betsy Baron: Remember that time we left little Eddie at the Parade Ground?

Eddie Baron: After the Polk watdoyoucallit.

Betsy: We’d had a few.

Eddie: Didn’t hurt him.

Betsy: Might’ve helped him.

Eddie: Made him tougher.

Betsy: If a horse steps on you, you do not die.

Eddie: You might limp a bit.

Betsy: And after that be scared of horses.

Eddie: And dogs.

Betsy: But wandering around in a crowd for five hours? Does not kill you.

Eddie: What I think? I think it helps you. Because then you know how to wander around in a crowd for five hours without crying or panicking.

Betsy: Well, he cred and panicked a little. Once he got home. (85-6)

This is Saunders the working-class satirist at his best. Shades of Gilbert and Sullivan, Abbot and Costello, Didi and Gogo, Lucy and Ricky, Cheech and Chong. “These were the Barons,” Roger Bevins tells us a few lines later, sounding exactly like a vaudeville mc asking for applause.

Kakutani’s right to observe that “The supernatural chatter can grow tedious at times”; this is Saunders[MR1] ’ first novel; at times it feels premature. It doesn’t have a novel’s scope, despite its grand themes. It feels like a novella that’s been puffed up (Saunders’ best novella is “Bounty,” and his long short stories often share a breadth and tempo with Gogol’s). It deserves its length when the antics are brought to earth. Bevins, Saunders’ chief narrator, is the true protagonist. He’s an aesthetician, in the sense meant by Hoffmann; his spirit (dis)embodies democracy. He articulates a modernist sublime that finds expression in the “stuff” of ordinary life. Unlike the other characters, who can’t give up some singular wish or desire, Bevins can’t give up multiplicity. Life, in its endless particularity, its embeddedness within itself, is the pleasure that keeps him from heaven. He won’t forgo “Such things as, for example:

two fresh-shorn lambs bleat in a new-mown field; four parallel blind-cast linear shadows creep across a sleeping tabby’s midday flank; down a bleached-slate roof and into a patch of wilting heather bounce nine gut-loosened acorns; up past a shaving fellow wafts the smell of a warming griddle (and early morning pot-clang and kitchen-girl chatter); in a nearby harbor a mansion-sized schooner tilts to port, sent so by a flag-rippling, chime-inciting breeze that cause, in a port-side schoolyard, a chorus of childish squeals and the mad barking of what sounds like a dozen—

Saunders’ realization that this list may only be interrupted is credit to a keen perception of the multitude. It is this speech that causes Bevins to become a “fleshly bouquet” of sensory organs. The grotesque beauty of multiplicity is his sublime. In this, his work resembles that of Hoffmann’s, Poe’s, Wharton’s, Joan Lindsay’s, Mielville’s, or VandeerMeer’s. It is unquestionably weird.

NEXT: At halftime we interrupt this broadcast to review a previously unscheduled weird novel: Jon Bassoff’s The Drive-Thru Crematorium (2019), published by Eraserhead press.


 [MR1]