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]

Weird Fiction Review #4: The Night Ocean

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

About 2 years ago I reviewed Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean; it marked the beginning of my current investigation of weird fiction. I’d recently taught a seminar on “Imaginary Antarctica,” in which we’d read Poe, Verne, Lovecraft, Le Guin, and other writers who invented polar expeditions to the inhuman continent. I discovered Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, published in 2017 by Penguin, on a Chicago bookstore’s “staff recommended” shelf. I read the first half the first day I bought it; the pleasure was so intense that I fell out of life. The rest of my obligations would have to wait while I disappeared down this rabbit hole. I committed in earnest to a voyage of discovery into that vast and thrilling genre of the weird. While I stand by my original claims about the novel (archived below), I knew at the time that I’d dodged several topics. In the two years since, I’ve read a lot, learned a lot. So, for the fourth of my series of reviews, I revise my first post on The Night Ocean to clarify and expand my observations about this intense foray into weird fiction.

The Night Ocean obviously participates in the Lovecraft revival that has been growing since the 1980s, and in the more recent revival of weird literature—a sort of “becoming respectable” of weird fiction and “becoming weird” of mainstream (post)realist fiction. In my survey of contemporary weird fiction, we’ve already seen two novels that participate in the “Lovecraft revival.” The Ballad of Black Tom participates in the Lovecraft universe; in Lovecraft Country, Lovecraft is portrayed as a racist writer of wicked good proto-sci-fi. The Night Ocean takes a different approach to Lovecraft and his world than either of these novels, which are decidedly generic. The Night Ocean is entirely realist. It belongs to that category of weird fiction that makes it such an interesting genre today—the merger of the fantastic with something like “true crime.” This sort of fantastic tale has been with us from the start: Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” and Brockden-Brown’s Weiland, as well as Poe’s Pym are good examples. Although Lovecraft and his followers emphasize the presence of a “supernatural” element, many of the best twentieth-century weird novels approach the uncanny, strange, odd, queer, and bizarre from within a realistic world that never quite sees the intrusion of a supernatural element. To use Todorov’s categories, such stories tilt toward the “uncanny” rather than the “marvelous.” James’s “The Jolly Corner,” Jackson’s “The Summer People,” Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (reviewed below), most of Aickman’s stories, Oates’ Mysteries of Winterthurn and Mielville’s The City & The City are just the most obvious examples of different ways modern writers achieve weirdness without recourse to the Great Old Ones. The Night Ocean is one such story.

Queering Lovecraft with Weird Metafiction

The first half of The Night Ocean  plays intensely with inter- and meta-fictional worlds. I have discussed the importance of this mode in previous posts. Like Poe, Lovecraft, and contemporaries like Langan, LaFarge pursues his metafictional world-hoping in a melancholic vein. But, like The Ballad of Black Tom and Lovecraft Country, he traditional generic conventions regarding the identity of the protagonists. The novel’s narrated by a New York psychoanalyst, a white woman named Marina Willett. Her (possibly deceased) husband, an African-American freelance reporter named Charles, had recently received some fame for his 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 attempted to expose H. P. Lovecraft’s sexuality: was the Lovecraft that we know today (with all his flaws more or less intact) asexual–as most biographies portray him–or a practicing homosexual who remained closeted in the otherwise minutely detailed letters on which his biographies are based? Immediately before the novel begins, Charles has checked himself into a mental health facility in New England (an Arkham Asylum, as it were), then apparently checked himself out, hitch-hiked to the forest, and walked into a lake. His clothes are found on the shore, but no body is recovered. Attempting to discover what happened to her husband, Marina traces Charles’s attempt to trace the “truth” of Lovecraft’s sexuality. This sets up an intensely metafictional narrative, with three or four layers or frames existing one within the other. We have Marina’s account, Charles’s notes, Lovecraft’s texts, and Lovecraft’s life (as interpreted by Charles and others, from the texts). Into this mix, brilliantly, La Farge throws another text—his version of Lovecraft’s famous hyperstitial object, the Necronomicon. (If you don’t know, the Necronomicon is the obscene bible of Lovecraft’s mythos. References are made to this mother of all Black Magic texts in numerous stories, and the book was then referenced by other pulp weirdos (Robert E. Howard, for example), thus setting in motion a metatextual phenomenon that ultimately results (so far) in copies of the wicked book available for purchase online.)

Charles discovers Lovecraft’s Erotonomicon: a diary detailing sexual encounters with various young men, but especially Robert Barlow, a real-world teenage fan whom real-life Lovecraft visited on several occasions. Lovecraft’s actual letters and biographies tell us that the notoriously reclusive writer spent several weeks or more 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 and/or Lovecraft’s “obscene” desire. In numerous excerpts from the diary, Lovecraft refers to himself as “the Old Gent” and refers to his own sex acts as magic rituals. In other words, La Farge creates a frame in which Lovecraft’s stories are quasi-allegories of homosexuality, each of his famous monsters names a different illicit act. His scenes of horror are revealed to be a code for sex with young men, black as well as white, in various hotels and bowers. For example, upon arriving in Jacksonville, 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). In La Farge’s novel, the Erotonomicon is itself the weird object—the impossible thing that so often acts as a portal to another dimension. Reading allows us to see the “fairy lands” in more ways than one. Charles is trying to determine if the whole thing is a hoax or not; Marina is trying to determine the same thing, but filtered through her fear for her husband’s safety and sanity.

As the above passage suggests, Lovecraft’s sexuality is filtered through that of William S. Burroughs–whose iconoclasm, misogyny, dour conservatism, preference for old-fashioned suits and “gentlemanly” manners, and acerbic skepticism suggest a strong corollary to Lovecraft’s slightly earlier, slightly pulpier, immediately less successful attempts at the sort of grotesque, queer romances both writers did well. In La Farge’s novel, 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, while also fantasizing about a queer subculture whose speech is uninflected by ambiguity. The novel’s premise of discovering encoded homosexuality is sublimated into an erotics of intertextuality, as we follow Marina’s search for his missing husband, Charles’s pursuit of the truth behind the Erotonomicon, and Lovecraft’s pursuit of young (but willing) Robert Barlow.The result is an intensity of symbolic slippage reminiscent of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales.

At least since Hoffmann’s Tomcat Muir, one strand of weird fiction concentrates aesthetic energy upon a deconstruction or deviation of the mimetic relation between fact and fiction in realist literature. Because it’s not a weird tale, Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget” may help isolate the aesthetic tension I wish to focus on here.

This tension exists between the real world, as constructed in the fictional text, and the fictional world of the text. Obviously, all texts that deploy realism construct a world that the reader recognizes as standing in for reality. The real world so created may or may not correspond to our reality, but we take it to correspond to someone’s reality, and that reality to be continuous with our own, however removed in space and time. Thus, for example, when I read Madam Bovary, I assume that Emma’s world and my own everyday reality exist in the same universe, separated only by normative space/time. I know, of course, that Flaubert’s portrait of Bovary’s world is a fiction, but this is precisely the element of disbelief that I suspend in order to enjoy the novel’s intense realism. Something weird occurs when this ordinary disposition toward realism is skewed by the fictional narrative. In the case of “Marie Roget,” 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. The fictional tale inserts itself into the real world more directly than one finds in the realism of Flaubert (or Austen, or most other literary realists). It blurs traditional demarcations between the reader’s factual world and fiction’s mimetic relationship to it, by proposing that the fictional protagonist has an “answer” to the real-world police investigation that exceeds the investigation’s ability to solve the mystery. It suspends the suspension of disbelief normally operative in literary realism. And this is precisely the weird element of the story; although all of Poe’s Dupin stories are “tales of ratiocination,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget” is not like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or “The Purloined Letter”; without a proper conclusion, it fails to maintain the formula for detective fiction Poe is inventing. It is, I would argue, much weirder than those stories because it’s focus is on the (de)construction of parallel realities.

As I’ve suggested, this anti-normative stance to mimetic realism comes into existence alongside realism, most notably in Cervantes and Sterne. E. T. A. Hoffmann brings this principle into the aesthetic regime. It plays an important role in Wieland and is the organizing principle of Poe’s Pym. Lovecraft and the other writers of weird fiction follow Poe’s lead. In the first half of his novel, La Farge has provided a new version of this conceit. He has updated the weird hoax by situating Lovecraft the author at the center of an investigation that treats the impossible manuscript as real. This works so well precisely because Lovecraft invented numerous fictional texts, not to mention an entire university (Miskatonic, 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. The entire device, operating across multiple stories, serves as a kind of veracity machine, which of course confronts the impossibility of squaring their evidence with known theories of the universe.

La Farge’s novel obviously “outs” Lovecraft, but it complicates the politics of this act by situating it within another story—that of the emergence of fan fiction and the roots of sci-fi “geekdom.” In queering Lovecraft, the novel makes a kind of laughing jab at readers who would prefer to think of these fantasies as exercises in “pure” (i.e., asexual / sublimated / fantastical) imagination. But it’s also an ode to the formation of a homosocial subculture that is “discovered” through Lovecraft’s letters and diary. 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 memerber 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)

Here is a cast of real-world people, portrayed as characters whose lives can be reconstructed through a combination of actual and imaginary documents. La Farge seems to be working closely with the real-world archive of documents (letters, biographies, literary histories), but these have been made to reveal far more than they do. Any historical fiction might do the same, but here the interplay between factual and fictional reality is continually thematized. It is as though the impossible addition to the real-world archive—the Erotonomicon—casts a spell upon our reality, revealing a “fairy” world of queer affect that was previously hidden from view. The geeky banter between the boys in this hotel room—engaged in a collective effort to wrest fantasy away from the fascists—recreates a nuanced circulation of desire between what can and can’t be spoken. As fictional characters, these young men share a common love of sci-fi; it has brought them together into a burgeoning but still uncertain alliance—the occasion for Pohl’s wittiness and Wollheim’s practicality. Their growing affection for each other is overshadowed by Lovecraft’s stature within the group: he represents the queer outside to their homosociality.  

Weird Sexuality

It is commonly understood (in biographies and critical accounts) that Lovecraft sublimated an intensely repressed sexuality into the glimpses/scenes/images of “cosmic horror” for which he is known. In his introduction to Alone with the Horrors, Ramsey Campbell makes passing reference to this aspect of Lovecraft’s writing. Campbell’s early attempts are weird fiction are represented in this anthology by “The Tower of Yuggoth,” which was published in a fanzine, participates in the Lovecraft universe, and clumsily reproduces the Old Gent’s style. As Campbell puts it, “At the time it felt very much like the start of my career as a writer; now it looks more like a phase [. . .] At least it’s eldritch—it keeps saying as much—but it also offers cackling tress and curse-muttering streams. [. . .] And watch out for those peculiar erections in the woods! I used the term in utter innocence, not then having experienced any of them while awake. No doubt a Christian Brotherly promise of hell if one encouraged such developments helped” (11-12). This retrospection combines several feelings: the embarrassment of imitation mingles with the shame of sexual innocence. “Eldritch” and “erection” become not-quite interchangeable signifiers of an innocence that finds more than it bargained for in fanzine imitation. This weird sexuality—not exactly the same as queer sexuality, but closely aligned in its “decoding” of ambivalently-oriented signifers—exposes a vulnerability that La Farge explores as sci-fi fandom, and which Campbell, in his stories, equates with early science-fiction, but also the work of queer counterculture authors, including Genet and Burroughs.

Indeed, the most vociferous criticism of Lovecraft in the twenty-first century is launched at his sexuality, rather than his racism (which tends to be excused by his biographers). The most obvious example of the public shaming is Charles Baxter’s review of The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft in the December 18, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books. Baxter targets the fantasies of “young men,” whose love of horror, he argues, is commensurate with their desire, in college creative writing classes, “to concoct gruesome narratives” full of “Mayhem, awkward sentences, paper-thing characterizations.” In Baxter’s view, this bad (i.e., pulp) style is linked to the two most obvious / cliched signifiers of weird fiction in the Lovecraftian vein: “But always there are the aliens, organic or machinelike or both, and always the accompanying rage and revulsion.” Baxter’s critique of Lovecraft hinges upon the association he makes between bad style, fantasy narrative, and adolescence:

Fiction like Lovecraft’s can be brutally hypnotic; the young reader, intellectually undefended and easily shaken, enters the writer’s fear-drenched universe and can’t easily get out of it. The mood of unappeasable, apocalyptic menace gradually overcomes those who are unprepared for it. Though sometimes stagy, the intensity in Lovecraft’s stories does not seem fake. Closing the book, the initiate tries to find other readers who were similarly spellbound. A cult is formed, as if to combat post-traumatic stress. From generation to generation the cult grows.

In this and other passages, Lovecraft’s narratives seduce young (white male) readers through a mixture of campy (“stagy”) and less mediated stimulation. These young men are susceptible to the sensual indoctrination of Lovecraft’s prose, and soon, “spellbound,” find themselves in a very strange cult: one that “grows” “from generation to generation,” “as if to combat post-traumatic stress.” In it’s crudest form, the association between male libido and genre fiction that Baxter descries merely repeats the hysteria around comic books in the 1950s, or music lyrics in the 1980s: a fear that popular fictions will cause the nation’s youth to develop collective fantasies that will erode public morality. But again, this reaction is particularly interesting in the context of weird fiction, which has focused attention quite precisely on the power of fiction to hypnotize its readers and transport them to a “universe” for which they are “unprepared.” Baxter has merely named the plot of many weird tales, from Hoffmann’s “The Golden Flower Pot” to The Night Ocean.

Matt Keeley, reviewing the novel for Tor.com, is right to observe that “While it hasn’t been marketed as such, La Farge may have written the first great novel of fandom.” In The Night Ocean, we get gleeful glimpses of Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, and Robert Bloch, alongside those mentioned above. The book tours a circuit of fandom, with Lovecraft as the sublime object of this desire. 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)

In this excerpt from Lovecraft’s (fictional) diary, the first glimmer of a deeply repressed flirtation (which in the novel will eventually lead them to sex-filled afternoons on the banks of a lake behind Barlow’s house) proposes an uneasy alliance between signifiers of fan culture and eroticism. The closeted discourse exists within a closet in the fictional world because, as in the actual world, weird / fantastic / sci-fi pulp magazines were frowned upon as developing an unmanly reading habit. Like fairy stories, they may be acceptable for children, but should be given up upon achieving sexual maturity. The negotiation of this shame masks and yet makes a space for the negotiation of sexual shame. Because all of this is revealed within multiple narrative frames, with an emphasis upon the effort to piece together a coherent story about what happened—what happened to Charles? What happened to Barlow?—the reader participates in the (re)construction of a fictional world that parallels the fan’s dedication to the author as (false, wicked, sinful) idol.

Return to Realism

The first two-thirds of La Farge’s novel are delightful. But the playfulness borrowed from the early life of science fiction fades in the novel’s tedious final act. Although much less enjoyable, the novel’s final section is interesting for its repudiation of the dance of metatextual and queer signification that has been so well established. Simply thumbing through the book reveals the 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 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 realism. Writing for the Washington Independent Review of Books, David Z. Morris, regards this straightening-out of the weirdness as a positive feature of the novel. 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.” Why do these readers approve of the novel’s turn to real-world horrors—the Holocaust–over fictional confrontations with the fantastic? In the first half, La Farge suggests that 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. But the maturation turns away from homosocial and homosexual desire, expressed through the sharing of fictions, toward a world where reality, anchored by historical trauma, occasions a heterosexual drama.

In my previous post, on Langan’s The Fisherman, I sketched some of weird fiction’s position within the literary field; I argued that fantastic tales deserve their name in part because they don’t conform to the conventional logic of taste that distinguishes between bohemian autonomy, bourgeois realism, and generic sensationalism. Langan’s attempt at psychological realism fulfills weird fiction’s promise of a procession of melancholic narratives, while failing to provide what amounts to bohemian autonomy: the promise of style for its own sake (which sake is closely bound to realism, as Bourdieu suggests, but motivated by a “pure” aesthetic—le mot juste).

La Farge is an accomplished stylist; he does well what Langan does less well with diction and syntax. The first half of The Night Ocean also does well what Langan does well: it frames a series of melancholic narratives, one within the other, to produce a densely weird tale. Then in the end, the weird tale is undone, to be replaced by historical realism. This, curiously enough, has rather dire consequences for the prose which animated the first part of La Farge’s novel. It’s as though the turn to historical realism—the realism of trauma, rather than of exploration—deadens the prose in its effort to provide literary heft.

Weird Fiction Review #3: The Fisherman

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

The Fisherman, published in 2017 by Word Horde (a small press specialized in speculative / supernatural fiction run by Ross Lockhart in Petaluma, CA), is John Langan’s second novel. His first, House of Windows (2009) and his numerous short stories (collected in Mr. Gaunt and Other Easy Encounters (2008), The Wide, Cavernous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies (2013), and Sefira and Other Betrayals (2016)) are all in the genre, and he’s an active member of the online horror/speculative/weird tales community, with articles and interviews in e-zines such as Nightmare and Weird Fiction Review. His blog Mr. Gaunt provides links to his many projects, including an interview with Peter Straub and the anthology Creatures (2011), co-edited by Paul Tremblay, whose latest novel will be discussed in this series.

The Fisherman received a fair amount of press from mainstream reviewers, such as the New York Times and NPR, further indicating the popularity of weird fiction today. Writing in the Times, Terrence Rafferty calls it “superb,” citing its ability “ to sustain the focused effect of a short story or a poem over the course of a long horror narrative,” and making a favorable comparison to Robert Aickman, whose resurrection is one of the more salubrious results of the return to the weird. I can’t agree with Rafferty’s assessment, but his terms—the effort to “sustain the focused effect” associated with poetry—point in the right direction. The Fisherman provides a contemporary object-lesson in some of the foundational “poetics” of the genre. Langan gets many elements right—his themes, plotting, and narrative frames all contribute to his novel’s considerable weirdness; but his overly methodical prose detracts from this affect. Consequently, this novel provides insight into the relation between aesthetic techniques that contribute to the effect of supernatural horror that contemporary fiction might evoke. Before turning to Langan’s novel, I will quickly sketch a few observations regarding the “poetics” of weirdness in relation to the modern literature of ‘sensation.”

As I suggested in my first post of this series, I treat weirdness as both an affect in the psychological sense—a feeling that names a certain relation between the subject and its object, in which the latter is regarded as meaning more than is immediately discernible—and the name of a genre with a long history in the field of literature, broadly conceived. I say “broadly” because one of the most intriguing qualities of weird fiction—one of its weirdest features—is its appearance in texts commonly regarded as “high art,” or canonical literature as well as in genre, pulp, or sensational fiction. It is unlike most other genre fiction in this regard.

To briefly explain: in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Pierre Bourdieu describes the “literary field” as a set of social practices within the broader field of cultural reproduction. Within this field, distinctions are made by writers, critics, and the reading public between “the degree of consecration . . . between styles and lifestyles” associated with genres (122). His case studies are Flaubert and Baudelaire, whose aesthetics define the modern perception of capital “L” Literature in terms of its “autonomy,” a condition also realized in the writers’ relation to the market in material and social capital. At one pole we find bohemian or avant-garde poetry, published in little magazines for no money, but consecrated by the heroism of the aesthetic “purist,” starving for the sake of his art and contemptuous of even sympathetic critics. At the other extreme, we have the “Theatre de boulevard,” which Americans might think of as Broadway. Here it’s all about money. Bourgeois entertainment lives or dies by its ability to capitalize upon the fluctuating tastes of its fickle audience. Lodged between these poles are the “psychological,” “society,” and “naturalist” novels, as represented by Zola, Hugo, etc. The contemporary field in the United States looks nothing like this, of course. Bourdieu doesn’t attempt to account for the mode of mass production that emerges in the twenties, which scholars refer to as “the culture industry.” Yet the process by which social/aesthetic/political distinctions are made—the structure of taste—remains remarkably robust.

For the modern U.S. reading public, “sensational” writing was (and remains) a nebulous region within the broader field, roughly commensurate to “genre fiction,” the subcategories of which are often named by sensations: “horror, romance, mystery, thrillers,” etc. These genres, developed in dime magazines, the pulps, and paperbacks, are neither autonomous nor consecrated by bourgeoise critics and scholars. Within most of these genres, such as the western, the mystery story, or science fiction, writers of considerable merit may produce work worthy of the attention afforded to Literature, but in so doing they are working against generic constraints. Fantastic or weird fiction does not fit easily into this aesthetic taxonomy. As a genre, it emerges among Gothic romances, such as The Castle of Otranto (1764), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and the “Arabesques” (themselves derived from Ovid and 1001 Arabian Nights) written by Hoffmann in the early 1800s. From Daniel Defoe’s “A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal” (1706) to Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” (1910), canonical authors have always written weird tales.

Edgar Allan Poe, obviously enough, is the figure for the uneasy relation between these two poles of the field of fiction. He was and remains “edgy”: his poems, stories, and essays are the subject of both scholarly dissertations and the idle enjoyment of adolescents. He was a hero for avant-garde bohemians and a politically conservative editor of gentleman’s magazines. His approach to literature uncannily appears on both sides of what would become the modern terrain of assessment. In essays, reviews, and the stories themselves, Poe offers a minute appraisal of his own poetics. “I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect,” he wrote in “The Philosophy of Composition,” his explanation of the entirely rational method by which he produced his sensational poem, “The Raven.” (503; (in this post, quotations from Poe are from Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Poetry and Tales, edited by James M. Hutchisson. Broadview: 2012). For Poe, a literary “effect” was like a dramatic “point”; thus his essay takes us ‘behind the scenes’ of poetic composition to reveal “the painful erasures and interpolations—[…] the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.” (504) Readers of a romantic inclination have taken this essay to be tongue-in-cheek: its minute poetics of one of the most successful entries in the small genre of weird poetry (other entries include Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”) must be the work of inspiration. How could such intense sensation be produced by mechanical means? But Poe is not putting us on; he makes versions of the same argument in several reviews and exemplifies his logic in numerous stories.

His analysis of “effect” is oddly physical. It begins with the length of time an average reader may be expected to sit with a text. “The initial consideration was that of extent,” he argues, “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sitting be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed.” (504) In his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (several of which are weird), he extends the reader’s temporal experience from lyric poetry to short stories. He begins his favorable review by defending the short story as a “poetic” genre. Because “the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance,” he writes, “true poetry” can only exist “within the limit” of “what might be perused in an hour.” (525-6) This is because “All high excitements are necessarily transient”: the sensations we experience when reading do not last long. He likes Hawthorne’s tales because they take “a half-hour to one or two hours” to “peruse.” One need only read any of Poe’s most sensational stories—“Ligeia, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “William Wilson,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Oval Portrait,” “The Black Cat,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Cask of Amontillado”—to know how much he cherished brevity. These stories take twenty minutes to an hour to absorb, even when reading closely. When it comes to claiming the reader’s attention, originality is the most important factor, but it doesn’t require inspiration. Original impressions may be produced by combining previously successful effects. The “wise” writer “invents … incidents” that can be “combined” to produce the “preconceived effect.” The result should be an intense compression of effects, such that “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” (526)

Following Poe, let’s assume that the effort to sustain a poetic intensity—the production of a new sensation (or variation on a dominate sensation) in every line—is a vital quality of what I am calling “sensational” fiction. Here we encounter an interesting conundrum. All fiction generates sensation; this may even be its most important quality: its “purposeless purpose,” to condense Kant. Throughout much of the twentieth-century, “genre” fiction also describes “low” or “popular” or “kitschy” fiction. In this loosely cultivated part of literature’s garden the violence of sensation is stripped of the moral and ethical requirements of naturalism, the delicate sensibilities of a realism developed in the “novel of manners,” and the radical critique of form offered by avant-garde novelists and bohemian poets. Because the pulp and paperback publishers gambled on volume over quantity, flooding the market with thousands of stories each month, “sensational” fiction is closely equated with a boring or brutal prosaicism. Little to no time is spent, by authors or publishers, cultivating style. If “all high excitements are necessarily transient,” and the goal is to produce a large number of these short-lived sensations, there was no time to search for “le mot juste,” which is why pulp fiction is the nadir of modern aestheticism as such. The premise of “The Philosophy of Composition,” and its underlying logic of cause and effect, “set the stage” as it were for pulp formula. Poe articulates a simple mechanics for producing marketable sensations. Yet at the same time, his insistence upon the lyrical compression that creates an intense correspondence between each word or utterance and the story’s final impression is one of the qualities that so delighted Baudelaire. In short, Poe’s notion of sensation contains the seeds that will flower in both pulp and avant-garde forms of modern fiction. There’s nothing original in this observation; my point is just that a poetics of weird sensation runs both within and against the grain of twentieth-century genre fiction. In the American context, Lovecraft, deservedly or not, inherits Poe’s position within the field; his pulp stories have been consecrated by academia and enjoy a sort of bohemian notoriety.

Poe’s notion of compression also helps to explain why so many weird tales are short stories. The greater the length, the more difficult it is to sustain any given sensation, weirdness included. Thus, when Rafferty argues that The Fisherman sustains poetic intensity over its 266 pages, he implies an enormous accomplishment: one that Poe attempted only once, in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. This observation is supported by a key point made by Langan and repeated by several of The Fisherman’s reviewers: that he worked on the novel for twelve years. It suggests the painstaking process of autonomous aestheticism, a devotion to the novel for its own sake. The comparison to Aickman, a singularly powerful stylist within the field of “strange” stories, further re-enforces this view. We are asked to approach the novel as a sort of “pure” aesthetic project, despite its generic origins. The attempted “expansion” of Poe’s formula for sensational stories into a novel also implies a movement across the terrain of literary sensibility—from the pulps toward the “mainstream” of psychological realism. In my view, this expansion fails in a very particular manner, one which reveals an inherent tension between weirdness as a sensation and the weird tale as a genre.

Poe famously chooses “melancholy” as “the most legitimate of all the poetical tones,” and therefore the chief effect to be sought when generating the sensations deployed in “The Raven” (506). His notion of melancholy combines “beauty” with “sadness.” (This as distinct from the “homeliness” and “passion” that he combines to produce tales of horror (such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” or the “The Pit and the Pendulum,” in which squalid, grotesque environments establish the setting for terror). With an infuriating literalism—“it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes” (506)—he determines that “the death . . . of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally it is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.” (508) Langan follows this advice to the letter. His narrator Abe is grieving the death of his wife Marie, “and us married not two years,” drinking heavily, and about to lose his job, when he takes up fishing to hold onto life (3). When a coworker in his office named Dan suffers a similar loss—his wife and young twins are killed in an auto accident that is partially his fault—these “men without women” (the title of the novel’s first section) begin fishing together, spending what used to be “family time” in the woods: “For the rest of that summer, on into early fall, as we roamed the Catskills, fishing streams I’d fished on my own, trying some spots that were new to me, I learned a little about Dan’s wife, and about his family, too.” (25) As Dan grapples with his loss, he confesses to an uncanny feeling: “I have the strangest thoughts lately. I swear I do. When I look at things—when I look at people—I think, None of it’s real. It’s all just a mask, like those papier-mache masks we made for one of our school plays when I was a kid. What play was that? It seems like it must have been Alice in Wonderland, but I can’t remember. I wish I could remember that play. I wish I could. All a mask, Abe, and the million-dollar question is, What’s underneath the mask?” (28-9) Weirdness is promised in the tone and guise of melancholia, and because we are told on page one that the present narrative is motivated by the loss of “a good friend, most of my sanity, and damn near my life,” the sensation is doubled. As the allusion to Alice makes clear, the strangeness of grief will take us to both sides of reality’s looking glass.

Two additional frames for weirdness are developed early on: the trope of the fisherman’s “tall tale” (the “one that got away” is given grotesque meaning) and intertextual correspondences to Moby Dick. The novel begins with a quotation from Melville and the sentence “Don’t call me Abraham: call me Abe.” Our Ismael “know[s] a story or two. That’s what fishermen are, right? Storytellers.” (1) The accumulation of these conceits early on follows Poe’s formula for developing an intensity in which “no word written” may not be given significance in relation to “the one pre-established design.” Langan establishes a rich terrain on which to evoke weirdness: we might distrust the narrator’s senses, subject as they are to melancholic fantasies, distrust the story related by Dan, also warped by grief, and further regard the whole story as the work of a playful fabulist. This is all very promising, but despite the narrator’s insistence that “a story doesn’t have to be fitted like some kind of prefabricated house—no, it’s got to go its own way” (2), there is also something labored in the prose, much as though the narrative were a prefab house being put together by someone not at all confident in their carpentry. Langan’s gambit appears to be the extension of details, provided by an untutored but thoughtful narrator, so that the events of a weird tale are spread across chapters rather than paragraphs. But the narrator’s meandering opinions do not compress resonant conceits. For example:

It wasn’t until late February of that next year that I finally had [Dan] over for dinner. Despites its abbreviated length, February’s always struck me as an especially bleak month, at least in these parts. I know it’s not the darkest month, and I know it’s not the coldest or the snowiest month, but February is gray in a way I can’t explain. In February, all the big, happy holidays are gone, and it’s weeks and weeks—months, even—until Easter and spring. I suppose that’s why whoever decides these things stuck Valentine’s Day smack dab I the middle of the month, to help lighten its load. To be honest, though, even when I had a reason to celebrate the fourteenth, I still thought of the second month as a bleak time. I think this was part of the reason I invited Dan to join me in a meal, and why, when I opened the door that Saturday night and saw him standing there, ushaven and obviously unshowered, wearing an old track suit reeking of mothballs and mildew, I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been, especially considering that, when I’d seen him on Friday, he’d been his usual tidy self. (26)

Regarding the psychological/natural atmosphere established in the first six sentences of this passage, let’s remember how Poe evokes the same feeling in “The Raven”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Obviously, prose doesn’t need to be this compressed, but weird fiction, focused upon the singular sensation its genre promises, weakens rapidly when extraneous signifiers are introduced. Poe knows that we know what December’s like, whereas Langan seems to think his readers are not familiar with February’s bleakness. The extension of sympathy produced by such utterances generates a static of unnecessary information. It’s “extraneous” because the narrator is being all too rational, affirming a shared experience, rather than undermining it. The narrative voice, despite being positioned as a melancholic teller of tales, possesses no obsession. To put it another way, the loss is missing. The neurotic compulsions promised by the plot do not find expression in the narrative voice. For example, in a story told by a fisherman there is remarkably little mention of lures and reels, bait and casting and all the other fishing stuff I know little about but expect when reading such a tale. By my very rough estimate, there are fewer direct references to fishing in these 260 pages than in Hemingway’s, “The Big Two-Hearted River,” a subtly uncanny fishing tale that comes in at about 12 pages. We are told that fishing is a lifeline, but it’s not treated as such. These (absent) references would potentially contribute to the narrator’s weirdness in a way that explanations of Valentine’s Day do not. (By contrast, Valentine’s Day plays a vital role in the weirdness evoked by Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock: see my post below.)

Fortunately, The Fisherman weaves a much denser web of weird conceits than those so far established. Here again we might observe various mechanism for producing weird effects, in themselves “formulaic,” which Langan deploys. The next conceit the novel initiates involves fabulation and framing: tales within tales. Abe and Dan hear about a special fishing spot in upstate New York named “Dutchman’s Creek.” On their way to check it out, they stop at “Herman’s Diner on Route 28, just west of Wiltwyck.” In the diner, under a weird painting (“This painting was so old, so begrimed with the smoke of a thousand omelets and hamburgers, that only by diligent and careful study could you begin to develop an idea of its subject. The canvas was such a mess of masses of shades and shadows that I half-suspected it was some kind of giant Rorschach Test. “(41)), Herman tells Abe and Dan a story which occupies the next 147 pages: more than half the entire novel. As we enter this frame, the narrator explains that after surviving the events of the novel, “I wanted to copy down everything I could recall of what Howard had said, get all of it exactly right.” He writes for four days straight, getting all the details correct: “I understood that the story had passed to me, that somehow, Howard had tucked it inside me.” Not only that, but he discovers, in the act of writing, “details . . . Howard hadn’t included. . . And yet, at the same time, every last detail I wrote down seemed familiar. I had the maddening sense that, even though Howard hadn’t related anything like the complete story to us, I had carried it with me out of the diner.” (46)

This framing device has the potential to initiate a secondary system of weird referents. We can doubt the story that Herman tells, and we can doubt the narrator’s retelling. As touched upon in previous posts, the secondary or tertiary narrative frame is an age-old convention in weird fiction, with roots in 1001 Arabian Nights and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, for example. As Poe recognizes in the introduction to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the “fictional” frame may in certain instances be used to impart realism at the same time. Properly handled, the truth can be stranger than fiction, at least within fiction.

Langan immediately multiples the narrative frames. In Abe’s transcription, Howard begins by explaining that his story comes from Reverend Mapple, “minister at the Lutheran Church in Woodstock and what you’d call a local history buff.” (49) The minister’s story is a retelling (supplemented by his own researches) of an account of life on the banks of “Deutschman’s Creek” (as it was known in the 1910s) told him by Lottie Schmidt, a German immigrant whose father worked on the construction of an enormous reservoir built in the Catskills. These conceits—the amateur researcher whose observations resonate with the testimony of an unreliable narrator—are also common mechanisms for producing weird effects: variations on this formula were particularly favored by weird modernists, such as M. R. James, Machen, and Lovecraft. Frazier’s The Golden Bough is the obvious inspiration for this “antiquarian” weird tale, in which an increasingly obsessed / horrified narrator pieces together a glimpse of the impossible thing from folklore, second/third party testimony, and direct observations of archaic rituals.

Unfortunately, The Fisherman doesn’t use these devices in a manner that generates weird effects. The problem of “extraneous” information generated by the rational / sympathetic narrator in part one is reproduced on a larger scale in the novel’s second part—precisely because of the numerous supplements that are allowed. Lottie’s tale is supplemented by Rev. Mapple, whose story is supplemented by Howard, whose story is supplemented by the narrator’s own mysteriously “familiar” yet additional details. I suspect that Langan’s intent was to create the degree of detail associated with naturalism or psychological realism, thus allowing readers to become absorbed in the immediate exigencies of the weird events that Lottie witnesses, but this turns out to be a poor choice. Each narrator’s sympathetic supplement is used to generate transparency, rather than the inherent artifices of a palimpsest. For example, Howard’s story begins:

Anyway, as far as the record shows, the Indians left [the town that would become Dutchman’s Creek] alone. And for a long time, until the eighteen-forties, not much of interest happened there. The other towns in the Esopus valley grew up around it. The hemlock tanneries were established and became a thriving concern—that was the big business here, the tanneries. Then, one summer’s day, this man comes riding out of the west, along the turnpike. He isn’t much to look at. Even for the time, he’s a little fellow, with black, stringy hair—kind of greasy—and a black, stringy beard that hangs down from his chin like a cheap disguise. […] This man comes riding on a one-horse cart, and there isn’t much remarkable about either horse—a brown nag that wearing the same thick coat of dust as the man’s clothes—or the cart. Oh, except for the cart’s wheels: apparently, their rims are twice as thick as they need to be, and covered in pictures. Actually, this is a little unclear. Some folks who see the man making his slow way along the turnpike say that the wheels are wrapped around with symbols like hieroglyphs, you know? While others declare that the wheels are decorated with pictures that look like writing but aren’t… (54)

Such passages—the story within the story is composed of many—fail to feel weird because, again, they lack an account of loss—in this case, the loss of information ordinarily generated by the researcher’s fetish for accuracy. All the narrative frames painstakingly established a few pages before are abandoned. To which narrator are we to ascribe evaluations such as “not much of interest happened,” “kind of greasy” “making his slow way along the turnpike,” “rims twice as think as they need be,” and so forth? Who exactly are the “folks” who declare the symbols hieroglyphic in the face of “others” who say they only look like hieroglyphs, but are actually illustrations? Where did this debate take place, anyway? Was there a meeting in the town square? Does it evolve from competing versions of a local legend? Or have these details been added by Mapple, Howard, or Abe? As with the narrative voice, the lack of lack produces an abundance of stability that dispels the weirdness evoked at the level of plot. The stranger comes to town, odd things are seen at a certain old house; in later years the abandoned house, which must be razed before the reservoir can be built, becomes a kind of impossible place—ultimately [spoiler alert!] a portal through which a magic fisherman seeks to land an unholy cosmic leviathan. But I found it difficult to care because nearly all the realist details Langan’s narrator(s) reconstruct(s) fail to contribute to the sensation he promises. There are a few moments of weirdness, but finding them felt much like my few attempts at fishing: a lot of waiting around between bites.

A moment near the climax of the story Howard tells in the diner crystalizes this problem of positive narration. Within Howard’s story, the entrance into the magician’s house is focalized on Lottie’s future husband, Jacob. We are told that “it will be from Jacob Schmidt that Lottie will learn the events of that afternoon and evening; although it will take her the better part of two decades to hear all of it. Neither her father nor her mother nor Italo will say anything about what happens … up at the Dort house.” (120) The obscurity of the information, passed from Jacob to Lottie to Mapple to Howard to Abe to us, is emphasized, but not enacted in the narrative. Instead we get:

Jacob is prepared for the interior of the house to be dark. He isn’t prepared for it to be full of trees, evergreens, from the feel of their branches. . . . A dim light whose source Jacob cannot locate renders the trees visible. The evergreens extend far back into the house. . . . Overhead the trees are so high ad so dense he can’t see the roof. Nor is the floor visible, though it feels more like dirt, rather than wood or stone, underfoot. Jacob supposes it makes sense. If you wanted to fill your house with a forest, you would need soil to plant it in.
  My God, he thinks, I’m reasoning like a crazy person. (141)

The thing is, he’s not. He’s being quite reasonable, especially in his self-awareness. The lack of unreason is magnified by the prose style; this scene includes several sentences that I removed because they convey nothing necessary to the effect. The old mansion turns out to be a façade: the door leads not to a man-made interior, but to an otherworldly landscape—an ocean where the leviathan is being hauled ashore over centuries. Within the generic formula, it’s a wonderful idea. It combines weird tropes (the eeriness of an abandoned dwelling, the portal to a dream world) in an original way. And, unlike Lovecraft Country, discussed in the previous post, we are presented with a thickly-textured world. But, oddly enough, this itself is the problem. We are given far too much information in far too rational a light. We know exactly what Jacob thinks and feels, and the account is rendered in a logical, coherent manner. Each sentence bears the weight of too much non-sensational signification. Where else would one expect to feel a floor, save “underfoot”? This precision drags the cosmic horror we are meant to encounter too much into the light.

The third act begins when Abe and Dan leave the diner. Abe feels “disjointed” by Howard’s story, which has apparently taken only a few hours to tell, despite the many hours it took to read. Dan seems nonplussed. When Abe asks for his reaction, he says “I think if that shaggy-dog story had been any hairier, . . . it would have been a carpet.” (199) Does he really think so? Or does he discount Howard’s story in order to persuade Abe to visit the fishing spot, despite this lengthy warning? They go, of course—initiating an ascent into the mountains which is also a decent into the fantastic. They encounter strange fish (again rendered in reasonable, non-horrified prose: “The fish’s face, as I’ve said, was rounded, its eyes a pair of large, forward facing sockets. No doubt, its resemblance to a human skull had factored into my initial shock at its appearance.” (210)) and the ghost of their dead wives and children. The leviathan is encountered for a second time. However, because we’ve already encountered it in Lottie’s story–despite the numerous conceits meant to give us indirect evidence–the narrator’s encounter with the creature is superfluous. He wakes up the hospital and wonders how much of it was a dream.

This critique is not meant to be mean-spirited. My goal has been to isolate a quality of the prose that separates weirdness as sensation from weirdness as generic formula. The novel presents a good case study for the effects of style because the tropes it deploys are so promising. The melancholic narrator, fisherman’s fable, romantic setting, story within the story, and impossible thing are conceived of with originality and knit into a serviceable plot. Yet the reference to Aickman remains misguided. Readers familiar with his stories—”Ringing the Changes,” “The Hospice,” “Residents Only,” “Hand in Glove,” “No Time is Passing”—will recognize the problem. While Aickman evokes the strangeness of mundane life, surrounding his characters with circumstances that are about 90% ordinary, his diction and syntax renders the mundane in a consistently odd light. In an Aickman story the natural world is rendered with a poetic intensity that makes every word count, so much so that we frequently encounter utterances that are themselves nearly indecipherable because they resonate on so many levels we don’t know how to attribute them.  

The issues raised here around psychological realism, the novel’s position in the literary field, and the production of weird effects also inform the next post in this series, on Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean.

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.

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.