Weird Fiction Review #10: On the Apollonian and Dionysian in Weird Fiction Today–Piranesi and Unlanguage

My original intention for this post was to close a series of contemporary weird novel reviews with an analysis of Michael Cisco’s Unlanguage, published in 2018 by Eraserhead books. This oddly shaped (9 x 9”), self-described “workbook” in the arts of “unlanguage” promised to be, as I mentioned at the end of my previous post,  “the weirdest novel of 2018.” Then two things happened: I found Unlangauge, true to its name, nearly impossible to read, and I heard a Weird Studies podcast extolling the strangeness of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, published in 2020. I resolved to swallow the one with the other; and indeed, they present such an interesting contrast that the differences between them prove more fruitful than either would be on its own.

The difference between the approaches to weirdness presented in these novels suggests Nietzsche’s distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian styles. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues, with “the immediate certainty of intuition,” that Attic tragedy reconciles these aesthetic modalities, which are otherwise involved in “perpetual conflicts” throughout “the continuous develop of art” (21). The Apollonian style emphasizes “the beauteous appearance of dream-worlds,” in which “all forms speak to us; there is nothing indifferent, nothing superfluous”—save the whole edifice, which has, “glimmering though it, the sensation of its appearance” (21). A superficiality haunts the perfection, a phantasmal supplement that maintains the totality by assigning each part its place. Thus, we are left with “a measured limitation,” “freedom from the wilder emotions,” and “that philosophical calmness of the sculptor-god” (p. 24-5).

Against the singular perfection of sculpted Apollo, Nietzsche describes a Dionysian aesthetics of “drunkenness” and “the narcotic draught”—the “emotions awake” and “the subjective vanishes to complete self-forgetfulness” (26). The music of Dionysus counters Apollo’s “pictorial world of dreams” with “drunken reality, which likewise does not heed the unit man, but even seeks to destroy the individual and redeem him by a mystic feeling of Oneness” (28). Subjective ideals are sacrificed on the altar of the more primal intersubjectivity they annul. Nobility and idealism give way to Delphic “ecstasies” that celebrate those moments when “pain beget[s] joy” and joy “sounds the cry of horror […] over an irretrievable loss” (31). The dream of an objectified and idealized self is torn to pieces by the ecstasy and horror of ritualized carnality. Joy and horror mingle in an ego-destroying voice that gives expression to the singularity of “nature,” which “must sigh over her dismemberment into individuals” (31).

Although the Dionysian partakes of “that detestable mixture of lust and cruelty which has always seemed . . . the genuine ‘witches’ draught,’” it would be a mistake to assign weirdness to this modality alone (30). Apollonian and Dionysian forms of weirdness are equally attainable, and the best works in this genre—like the tragedies Nietzsche analyzes—reconcile these tendencies, fusing subjectively rich pictorial fantasies with the “thrilling,” subject-destroying power of “rhythmics, dynamics, and harmony.” Unfortunately much contemporary scholarship of the weird tends to normalize the Apollonian and therefore seek weirdness only in the grotesque, abject, and dreadful, forgetting the eeriness of the ‘good’ life.

The novels under review fail to synthesize these tendencies in interesting ways. Each develops weirdness according to its particular modality with real virtuosity. Clarke’s dream world mines Apollonian aesthetics for what weirdness can be found in such a “measured limitation.” And Cisco’s genre-mixing jumble attempts a Dionysian illegibility: a dismembered nonnarrative in the “unlanguage of unknowning,” also referred to as “lingua obscura, enigmatica, oraculo, youming yuyan (language of the quiet depths), lugha al lughz (language of riddles), bhasa sammudha (bewildering language), confusion, phantasmagoria, parabolica, eavesdropia” (p. 7).

Apollonian Weird: Susanna Clark’s Piranesi

Published by Bloomsbury in 2020

Let us begin in the cool, clear light of Clarke’s fantastic narrative. Piranesi is Clarke’s second novel; Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, published by Bloomsbury in 2004, is decidedly weird, being concerned with magic and a genre-bending “alternative history,” features of weird fiction since Otranto. It’s popularity and critical acclaim, like that enjoyed in recent years by, say, China Miéville or George Saunders, should put to rest any doubts regarding the marginality of weirdness today. The weird is both popular and critically esteemed in twenty-first century cultural markets. Nearing the top of best-seller lists, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel and praise from the Man Booker Prize committee. It was adapted by BBC One into miniseries that the British Film Institute regarded as one of the best programs of 2015. Piranesi has won several awards, including The Women’s Prize for Fiction and an Audie for the audio-book narration by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Here we enjoy a kind of hyper-legibility. Within a few pages, it’s clear that we are reading a journal organized according to an unfamiliar but meaningful calendar: “Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south-western halls.” The second entry is for the seventh day of this same month, the third for the tenth day, and so forth. We learn that the journal belongs to the explorer of a strange but not illegible world: an impossibly vast, apparently deserted series of galleries and staircases, the walls of which are lined with statues. Such information is conveyed with child-like simplicity:

I am determined to explore as much of the World as I can in my lifetime. To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South. . . . No Hall, no Vestibule, no Staircase, no Passage is without its Statues. In most Halls they cover all the available space, though here and there you will find an Empty Plinth, Niche or Apse, or even a blank space on a Wall otherwise encrusted with Statues … (5)

Thus, we enter an alternative reality with as little confusion as possible. The first dozen entries describe the world and the narrator’s routines – they appear to be ‘shipwrecked,’ living on the marine and avian life that also inhabits this impossible place, recording their observations with diligence worthy of Crusoe.

Our immediate perception of the dreamworld is aided by the novel’s title, which evokes Giovanni Batista Piranesi’s Le Carceri: a series of etchings made between 1743 and 1745 that depicts the fantastic interiors of an apparently endless prison, small parts of which are viewed from various angles. But Clarke’s labyrinth is less threatening—it is more human in scale, despite the impressive size of some of its statures, and resembles a pantheon more than a dungeon. This world is more manageable, more sanitized than Piranesi’s massive, elaborate structures, which sometimes disclose throngs of people (and include many friezes but only the occasional glimpse of a statue). Although our narrator appears condemned to wander these halls, they are a marbled, if not exactly gilded, cage.

XI: Carcere, with a Central Hanging Lantern

The initial effect is wonder, one of the most prevalent weird affects in the Apollonian mode. The thing is unique, singular: an exotic world. Yet not a world: an enlarged fragment of something else, a cosmic ruin. The Apollonian pleasures of the dream world are beautifully evoked by our narrator, whose mixture of curiosity and pride we share. The immediate disclosure and narrative simplicity cast this world in a benevolent light; whatever dangers it may contain, our narrator trusts their capacity to master them. We therefore join in the pleasures of exploration, craning our imaginations to take in the splendors of this inward-facing edifice.

The thrill of exploring a fantastic world—a “contained” (i.e., alternative, or wholly fantastic) world, as this one appears to be—is perhaps most obvious in children’s books and the fantasy genre, but of course this pleasure is inimical to fiction at the most basic level. Clarke’s narrative begins with a fantasy that goes back to Defoe’s novel; we are reading the journal of an isolated survivor in an exotic yet self-contained world; an implicit sense of personal sovereignty undergirds the novel’s weirdness. The sun god’s soothing light burnishes reality, polishing the fantasy of a personhood radically separated from the world it inhabits. Consider such passages as, “Fear and hunger forced me to explore the House and I discovered that fish were plentiful in the Drowned Halls. Their Waters were still and I was not so afraid. The difficulty here was that the Drowned Halls were surrounded by Dereliction on all sides. To reach them it was necessary to go up to the Upper Halls and then descend by means of the Wreckage through the Great Rents and Gashes in the Floor” (36). Numerous fantastic pleasures entwine in such sentences. We learn about the world by learning how the narrator survives in it; but our knowledge is filtered through the first-person narrative. To what extent does the strangeness belong to the narrative voice and to what extent does it belong to the world being described?

The plot expands when we learn about another character, whom the narrator unimaginatively refers to as the Other. The Other refers to our narrator as Piranesi, which is not their actual name. When reading the record of their interactions with this second person, we begin to doubt the narrator’s reliability. When they mention that “much of my time is taken up by my work with the Other (I refer of course to our search for the Great and Secret Knowledge),” our faith in their rationalism wavers (41). The narrator’s rationalism is reaffirmed by passages that express their skepticism of the Other’s mysticism. Our narrator is the doubtful disciple, politely raising their hand to ask innocent yet damning questions about the Other’s attempt to create various, silly-sounding rituals. But the Other also casts doubt on our narrator’s perception of reality, telling them, “the labyrinth plays tricks on the mind. It makes people forget things. If you’re not careful it can unpick your entire personality” (68). Has our narrator’s personality been unpicked? Perhaps the notebook is recording a delusion? This trope is foundational to weird fiction (from Don Quixote onwards), but blossoms most memorably in the modern period—Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” (1835), Poe’s “The Black Cat,” (1843), Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” (1864), Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Blackwood’s “The Listener” (1907), Ewers’ “The Spider” (1915) are notable examples of the weird diary; in these stories, journal entries record apparently impossible events which may be interpreted as delusions. The postmodern or “New Weird” twist on this narrative, efficiently done in Piranesi, is to set the delusional narrator in a fantastic world. (It’s a similar doubling of the psychological and supernatural narratives that makes VandeerMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy so good.)

The journal’s veracity unravels. There is a sort of narrative sleight-of-hand around the narrator’s discovery that their journals have been renumbered and they don’t remember writing the earlier entries, including a capacious index, which they now re-read. In the middle third of the novel, the narrator’s research into their own past propels the plot forward.

Spoiler alert! Skip the next paragraph is you prefer to encounter the mystery for yourself.

This is the story of an intrepid young reporter who has become trapped in an other-world labyrinth by a cultist whose knowledge of the dark arts consists solely of access to this world. It becomes clear what must have happened rather too soon, and the notion of a diary is strained to the utmost, with the narrator recording passages from their own earlier texts in order to fill us in on the missing details. As they discover what happened, the book abandons the weirdness of the dream world for weird-adjacent enjoyments, such as deciphering codes, following clues, and discovering whodunit. Like many New Weird narratives, this one genre-shifts, ultimately leaving the fantastic for a more “realistic” mystery adventure story, seasoned by the hallmarks of “true crime.” Our narrator survives their sojourn in the impossible world.

Weird fiction in the Apollonian mode presents us with a fantasy world that may be parallel to but is not separate from our real world. Since Radcliffe, weird novels have meditated upon the psychological effects of absorption into the fantasy space and the ethics of the reading practice: what it means to become the imaginative subject who spends so much time in the lands fiction creates. The Apollonian brings us to such a world, giving us scenes (of imaginary or real/imaginary) fantastic otherness, the view through the looking glass. To do this, it pays the price of genre: each of its worlds upon worlds succeeds inasmuch as they are momentarily complete; each is an idealized fragment of a world in which everything is in its place.

Piranesi conveys this Apollonian idealization brilliantly, if perhaps too efficiently. The partial world is grotesque in its simple, neglected grandeur—a beautiful labyrinth. Its alchemical nature is explained, sort of, and it becomes the occasion for meditations on how environments shape our perceptions of ourselves. Ultimately, it presents the fantasy world as a transition object; a safe space (there is no minotaur) where, despite the trauma, the narrator eventually learns how to leave the fantastic behind (defeating the Other who has trapped him there). Its fantasy is mostly harmless and inevitably just. Hubris is punished, humility and self-integrity rewarded. It’s set in a weird world, but isn’t in itself a weird novel, at least in comparison to what comes next. As exemplar of the Apollonian weird, it’s notable features include an emphasis on images; the centrality of individual identity; a simple, clear narrative; the ‘containment’ of the fantastic world within a larger ‘real-world’; the absence of violent or disgusting images; and craftsmanship as elegant as the statues it contains.

Dionysian Weird: Michael Cisco’s Unlanguage

Published by Eraserhead Press in 2018

Michael Cisco‘s first novel, The Divinity Student (1999), received considerable attention in the world of horror/ weird/ fantastic fiction small press publishing. In 2013 it was serialized by the Weird Fiction Review. Unlanguage is, I believe, his twelfth publication, and his stories and essays have appeared in Lackington’s, The Weird,  Lovecraft Studies, New Directions in Supernatural Horror Literature, and other haunts familiar to fans of the contemporary weird.

Unlanguage presents itself as a textbook, but the Dionysian is difficult to summarize. It is not a simulacrum, although it includes mimetic elements. It is broken into the kind of sections one might find in a language textbook, such as “UNIT THREE: Negative Voice,” “Unit Three Reading,” “Notes,” “Exercises,” “Questions,” and so forth. But often the text under these titles describes the book, rather than its subject, disclosing a narrative in which unlanguage is studied in a grotesque academy. The narrative, in which the book itself is discovered and used, weaves in and out of the workbook structure, or rather, seeps through it.

Contra Clarke, Cisco confronts us with near total bewilderment. It is an endlessly opening totality one moment, the writhing immediacy of a particular sensation the next. The textbook is practically impossible to understand, and its structure is quickly interrupted by a narrative, which itself soon decays into passages of daydream and nightmare. This radical disorganization of novelistic narrative can be traced to dada and surrealist works; in English, fragmentary, non-linear writing of this kind emerges in the modernism of Stein and Joyce. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, which combine Joycean fragments and playful language with a Gothic setting and sensibility, may have influenced Cisco, but the imagery and tone of Unlanguage are more reminiscent of William S. Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy.

With the Dionysian experience in mind, rather than trace the book’s literary genealogy, we might consider an analogous experience in music. Music is immersive, enveloping, subjectivizing. You enter it and it enters you. Unlanguage is organized like compositions I first heard when listening to John Coltrane, the Velvet Underground, Destroy All Monsters and Sonic Youth, in which the lead instrument enters in a frenzy, placing all the energy of the rock-n-roll climax at the beginning, then bringing us back to the place that inspired it, often ironically. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is the modernist musical equivalent to Stein or Joyce. What begins as near total chaos slowly resolves into something like a story. The Dionysian demands this passage through bewilderment; the bacchanals have already begun; we must enter the frenzy, which does not invite us—like Nijinsky’s choreography, it is inward facing—or walk away. It’s not a matter of beginning in medias res, but of plunging into apparent chaos, hoping that you’ll find something to hold onto in the maelstrom.

The primary disorientation is our introduction to an impossible language, a language designed for speaking what can’t be uttered. This passage, from “UNIT FIFTEEN: Primary Antitense,” is one of the most easily quotable “lessons” in the textbook:

Beside the verb tenses in the preceding sections, there exists another category of tenses whose use is reserved for some of the less commonly required grammatical possibilities afforded by unlangauge. Each antitense reflects a s different reflex of actions, which the student may find difficult to conceptualize. Contrarieties of logic do, however, occur in everyday experience. Keeping strictly to an antinomial grammar is essential if one is to avoid certain commitments which lead in turn to extremely dangerous pitfalls. Escaping such pitfalls may itself become a form of confinement. Therefore, antitense express action as undoings. [. . .] The primary antisense is employed for that which is both continuing to take place and also finished; the verb “to live,” for example, when applied to the current existence of spectres. There are some events in the past which have never happened, and which continue into the present; the negative form of the primary antitense is to used in relating the occurrence of such events. (89)

To immerse ourselves in this book, we must study unlanguage. The lessons are not easy. At times, as in the above passage, unlangauge sounds tantalizingly like the language of the Lacanian unconscious, the impossible language of the Real, in its non-symbolic immediacy. This makes it, of course, a purely fantastic invention—language as the apparition, the thing that can only be gestured toward, hinted at, talked around. The deconstruction of grammatical lessons, or more precisely their reconstruction into a nonsensical zombie grammar, presents many delightful turns of phrase, gestural glimmers of ideas, much as music might do. As text, these passages may best be understood in the context of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which deconstructed the first-person lyrical I. Poets including Susan Howe, Tom Raworth, Leslie Scalapino, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, Bob Perelman, Harryette Mullen and many others played with passages from instruction manuals, historical and sociological texts, legal testimony, advertising and popular culture, creating hybrids that exposed the subjectification at work in the original documents. Endlessly self-referential, at one point Unlanguage describes itself as “a shallow garbled and fragmentary bullshitnarrative congealed from the poachings of web films televisions bad books and magazines” (77). `The continual code switching, with narrative elements emerging like a pattern in the wallpaper, does to a conventional horror narrative what the Language poets did to confessional verse.

Like a fair amount of Language poetry (and nearly all of the “conceptual poetry” that followed it), grasping the concept is more than half the pleasure. Once the idea is established the lessons become tedious. As our student narrator complains, “My notes, exercises, just look like weird English. How can I say I have been taking this class? Is such a class even conceivable? . . . I can’t form a single phrase in unlanguage. So what good has attending these classes done me, if I have?” (91). As a reader, I found myself asking similar questions about the later textbook passages. Many of them provide curious or charming approaches to thinking about this impossible language, but since it is, after all, impossible one is tempted to skim.

In the narrative sections, our protagonist finds a copy of the textbook and joins a school/cult of unlanguage learners. This links the simulacrum to a centuries-old trope of weird fiction: the discovery of profane knowledge. The foundational principle of this trope is succinctly stated by the title of an Algernon Blackwood story, “The Man Who Found Out: A Nightmare.” But the cabbalistic pursuit of profane and esoteric knowledge was already easy to lampoon by the time Jan Potacki wrote The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in 1815; despite a partial resuscitation by the modern weirdos (most notably Blackwood, but also the pulp writers), the discovery and entrance into a cult studying profane texts remains a hackneyed plot device. (Indeed, it is the same basic device that organizes the second half of Piranesi.) As the narrator (in a psychiatric hospital, having been declared insane, perhaps because of their experiences) states, “It’s a story with easily-anticipated outlines that unwind like creeping tendrils of decay back into the past, shaping it to fit the current situation’s needs. The plot is the enemy…” (260). Indeed it is, in this book, which ultimately presents another variation on the diary of a deranged mind–only in this case, the derangement is foremost and the emergence of a narrator/protagonist occurs gradually and partially. The plot, inasmuch as it exists, is difficult to follow; its scenes stutter and jump about in time, repeatedly returning us to certain scenarios.

The most frequently repeated scenario visualizes the decay of corpses in spectacular detail, making decay the book’s dominant visual metaphor for its language of unknowning. Unlanguage is the language of death and new growth. Its power is figured by the grotesque reconfiguration of a rotting body:

 The arms and legs split and tendrils like translucent, whitish kelp bore into the air around her, quivering with nervous energy. Something in her gives way and fluid gushes down the chair to the floor, forming a steaming pool around her curling feet. Stiff, enormous sacs with membranes have grown into her hands; she looks as if she were cradling pale yellow jellyfish. [. . .] Now hanging over the back of the chair, her head is wattled over with heavy rot structures. The lower jaw has vanished into the chest, where her breasts have divided into a profusion of cylindrical, maned blisters like stands of sea anemones, and the bones have broken through the skin and turned to clubs of coral, rough, pitted, and drab. (46)

In its illegibility, Unlanguage invites us to attend to the decay of narrative, the death of meaning, the loss of sense—not as recent social/historical developments, but as the inevitable. Unit 22: Nonsense Voice begins with a discussion of “the Destroying voice” used in “phantasmagoria” to “relay the idea that it is impossible that anything should continue to exist forever, that even the gods will die, that death is complete annihilation, and this appalling reduction to nothing must happen to everyone, eventually” (119). If Clarke invites us through the looking glass, Cisco shatters the glass and invites us to glimpse our own destruction in the fragments. As exemplified in this novel, the Dionysian weird today is recognizable by its emphasis on bewilderment, meta-language, fragmentation, and the grotesque. It is murky and ambiguous, recursive and deconstructive.

The pictorial daydream and the hallucinogenic nightmare, the fantastic image and swirling cacophony are equally capable of generating weird affect in fiction today. Of the novels reviewed in this series, the Apollonian prevails, as it does in fiction more generally. Dionysian elements are most obvious in Lincoln in the Bardo, The Drive-Thru Crematorium, The Night Ocean, and Picnic at Hanging Rock. In this narratives, individualized subjectivity decays, plots become fragmentary, the sensual qualities of language (partially) subvert the sensical, and the grotesque bubbles up.

This brings to the end the initial series of reviews I began several years ago; the book reviews will continue, but the next stop on our journey through the contemporary weird will be at the movies. One of the hallmarks of the “weird revolution” in recent decades is the rise of “found footage” narrative films. While normally (and almost exclusively) labeled as “horror,” this subgenre marks a turn toward the weird in visual narrative. Future posts will explore this strange territory in more detail.

Weird Fiction Review #9: The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay has been moving rapidly into best-seller territory for several years. His major novels include A Head Full of Ghosts (2015), Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (2017), which won the British Fantasy Award for best horror novel, The Cabin at the End of the World (2018), which won the Bram Stoker Award, and Survivor Song (2020), published by HarperCollins. He has also published a collection of short stories, Growing Things (2019), edited several anthologies, and collaborated with Stephen Graham Jones (reviewed earlier in this series). He has recently begun a series of neo-noir novels that will go on my summer reading list. Check out his website for more information.

Whereas Gareth Miles’ Soul Shakedown (reviewed below) charts the intersection of weird fiction and speculative fiction, The Cabin at the End of the World can be located at the intersection of weird fiction and horror. It provides an opportunity to discuss some of the distinctions between these genres, which are frequently mistaken for each other. In order to better understand the difference, I will consider how three sensations–weirdness, suspense, and horror–converge and diverge in this novel. The following review has two parts. In part one, I focus on the weird elements of the novel, without spoilers. In part two, I focus on the horror elements and there are major spoilers.

Weirdness at the World’s Edge

The sensation of weirdness involves hesitation, when the normal/known falters or rearranges itself; Todorov is correct to observe this sense of uncertainty as the genre’s minimal requirement and principle plot. The tone or texture of this suspension cannot be determined in advance. Although many weird tales evoke “cosmic dread,” strictly speaking, fear is not required and its figuration as a monster is absolutely unnecessary to the genre. Similarly, although the dynamics of the uncanny are unquestionably at play, any association of Freud’s term with creepiness or terror should be disregarded for the moment. Weirdness can evoke curiosity, wonder, a premonition of the marvelous just as much as it can conjure fear, terror, or a sense of inevitable doom. Weirdness itself is not horrible, fantastic, or marvelous; it is the more primal and disorientating sense that one may or may not be entering such territory. Dread captures the sense of potential, while still tilting the equation in horror’s favor. (And it’s always good to remember that within the reading experience, these sensations continually reverse and recombine themselves; for example, while we may identify with characters in weird stories who dread what’s coming next, as readers of the genre, we’re usually also hoping for the worst.)

Suspense is a broader category of sensation. We experience suspense when we know the outcome but not what will happen next. Suspense pervades nearly every popular narrative structure: romance plots, adventure stories, mysteries, all generate suspense by posing the possibility of a significant outcome and delaying its arrival. There are many forms of narrative delay, with different kinds of anticipations.

Suspense and weirdness intersect in complicated ways. Obviously, the suspension of the known or normal–the hesitation occasioned by the possibility of the impossible–is frequently imbricated with suspense more generally. This is obviously true in weird tales that follow a mystery/quest narrative: will the impossible thing be discovered? Is the house haunted? Is here a monster in these woods? Do the outer gods exist? Equally important in the weird tradition is a form of suspense related to skepticism. Is this manuscript to be believed? Are these witness accounts accurate? Did I just notice that? Could this be true?

However, weirdness can also interrupt or dislocate suspense. Suspense narratives, with few exceptions, are premised upon a degree of certainty. We know that the mystery will be solved, that the lovers will overcome the barriers between them, that the delayed thing will arrive. Our certainty that the suspense will not last indefinitely is part of its pleasure. We get to watch the plans derail, knowing that they will come together eventually. This quality heightens suspense because the generic formula structures expectation. Weirdness can disrupt this certainty, and a great many of the best weird tales do exactly that: leaving us in a state of confusion or irresolution. Was that real? Is this story to be believed? Did anything happen or not? In short, weirdness can suspend suspense, rewriting the narrative as it unfolds so that the inevitability forecast by suspense never arrives. A dream may have no conclusion save in the waking. One of best images of this quality of the weird must be the anarchist’s railroad in China Mielville’s Iron Council, which pulls up the tracks from behind itself in order to lay them down in front, and which (spoiler) becomes frozen in time. Radical weirdness may derail conventional suspense narratives such that they never arrive at their destination.

This quality illuminates an important contrast between the weird and the horrible. Their is no denying the close ties between these sensations; weirdness emanating from the supernatural is associated with horror throughout centuries of literary tradition. But in the modern weird tale (which we can date to the Gothic novels), horror emerges as a resolution to the weirdness. When the monster steps into the light, the strange is replaced by the terrifying. This function is obvious in many Lovecraftian weird tales, where coming face to face with the impossible thing serves as a climactic moment, turning the story into an adventure narrative, tipping the narrator into madness, and / or ending the story altogether. Obviously, the figuration of the the thing endows it with meaning, cancelling its status as the impossible object. In this regard, horror’s sensations negate strangeness. Against the open-endedness of weirdness (is this really happening?), horror overwhelms us with its inevitability (yes, it is happening–the impossible is real, there is no escape, etc.). In horror narratives, the suspense comes with a guarantee that it’s going to get worse (but also that there will be survivor). A horror narrative may draw out the suspense almost indefinitely, but the axe must eventually fall.

There need be no axe at all in the proper weird tale. There are few better examples of the weird suspense narrative than Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1950). Widely recognized as one of the best postwar works of weird fiction in English, this story evokes a tremendous amount of uncanny anxiety in its few pages. A retired white couple, the Allisons, decide to stay at their rural summer cottage after labor day, when they (and the other summer residents) would normally return to New York City. When shopping in town for additional supplies, the news of their decision seems to evoke slightly ominous responses from the locals and to circulate too quickly among them. It seems more difficult to remain after the summer season than the Allisons expected. The gas can’t be delivered, the car breaks down, the phone doesn’t seem to work. By the end, nothing outlandish has happened but the suspense is almost overwhelming. Without ever leaving the ordinary, everything has become strange. It seems, somehow, as though the Allisons’ world will end–as though their existence could only be tolerated (by the local economy, by the local culture, by the natural order itself) until labor day. The normal is haunted by a paranoid suggestion that their idyllic summer life on the lake is indeed an idyll: a dream maintained by unspoken conventions which cannot sustain itself when those conventions are innocently breached.

In setting her protagonists in a cottage on the lake, Jackson draws on a long and rich history of weirdness at the margins. Weirdness emanates from the space / time beyond the known and normal. This is true in Gothic novels, which prominently displace their narratives in time and their characters in space. Walpole’s Otranto manuscript is situated on the edge of the age of reason; Radcliffe’s Udolpho is a mountain fortress beyond the control of civil society; Shelley’s Frankenstein pursues his creation into the Arctic wastes. Countless stories make similar use of these spatial / temporal / epistemological edges: unchartered continents, primeval forests, uninhabited islands, forgotten cities and abandoned houses appear again and again.

The Cabin at the End of the World draws on these conventions, and Jackson’s story in particular, to establish an isolated, interrupted normal. The setting is a summer cabin in northern New Hampshire, on a lake and beyond cell phone service. The majority of the novel’s third-person narration focalizes upon the cabin’s three inhabitants: Wen, a precocious almost eight-year old girl, and her two daddies by adoption: Eric, a market analyst, and Andrew, a professor at Boston University. The story’s events are told by switching back and forth between these focalizations, but the narration remains sequential, without significant narrative overlap (i.e., more than one character’s account of any given event). While there is some difference in perspective between these characters, because the focalization is relatively light (i.e., it doesn’t descend far into any character’s psychology) and because they are facing the same crisis, the movement between them feels artificial. There is nothing Faulkneresque about the shift in perspectives; as with Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It (reviewed below), the switch between characters often feels more like a movement between cameras than between psyches.

The first chapter introduces Wen, who is playing in the font yard when “A man rounds the bend and walks briskly down the driveway like he’s coming home” (7). He introduces himself as Leonard and although “She’s had the stranger-danger talk with her dads countless times,” Wen doesn’t run away when he approaches (8). They talk for awhile, and Leonard seems charming in a vaguely sociopathic way, taking an outsized, affable interest in the girl’s activities. They are still talking when he is joined by three more strangers “carrying strange long-handled tools” (24). The narrator gives us a detailed look at these makeshift weapons, which suggest that Wen has just met members of an evil cult or possibly a group of zombie survivors. Leonard’s words to her before she runs to get her daddies confirm the menace without revealing its origin: “None of what is going to happen is your fault,” he tells Wen. “You haven’t done anything wrong, but the three of you will have to make some tough decisions. . . We are not here to hurt you. We need your help to save the world” (25).

Cut to Eric and Andrew on the back deck, relaxing with books and idle chatter when Wen rushes in to tell them about the strangers in the front yard. Panicked, they immediately lock themselves into the house. They demand that the strangers leave and try to call the cops (no reception and the landline has already been cut by the time they think to use it). I wish I could say that the sheer terror that seems to inflict Eric and Andrew at the sight of these rustic strangers was presented as satire, but Tremblay plays it ‘straight’: these two gay but otherwise full grown adult professionals seem nearly helpless at the mere prospect of unknown folks calling at their rental cottage. Andrew’s animus toward these uncouth but not unfriendly (so far) strangers is at least explained; after being gay-bashed outside a bar in Boston years earlier, he has suffered traumatic anxiety triggered by the presence of what appear to be “the hate-filled, ignorant cavemen he’s had to deal with his whole life” (47).

The four strangers soon breach the cottage; a brief fight ensues and Eric and Andrew are incapacitated, with Eric concussed by a fall. In a scene we’ve seen before, they are bound to chairs at their own table, and made to listen to their captors’ demands. Leonard explains that their captivity has nothing to do with their sexual identities and that their captors are obeying an imperative beyond their own understanding. “We’re just normal people like you, and we were thrown into this–this extraordinary situation,” he explains, “We didn’t choose this. We’re here because, just like you, we have to be” (72).

Leonard’s conviction, his patient explanations of their predicament, and his caretaking of Wen (he is good with children) is the most significant source of weirdness for the next several chapters, which otherwise follow a home invasion horror plot. There’s a gun in the car if only Eric or Andrew could get to it. Fortunately, the rustic freaks have a lot to say. They introduce themselves in turn: there’s Sabrina, from So. Cal.; Redmond, who is menacing and ironic; Adriane, a practically-minded former line cook (80) and Leonard, a former elementary school mentor and bartender from Chicago, turned ringleader. He explains their predicament in remarkably direct terms: “Ultimately, whether the world ends or doesn’t end is entirely up to you three… The message is clear, and we are the messengers, or a mechanism through which the message must pass” (83). You know it’s coming, and Tremblay doesn’t waste any time getting there. Leonard continues, “Your family must choose to willingly sacrifice one of your three in order to prevent the apocalypse. After you make what I know is an impossible choice, you must then kill whoever it is you choose. If you fail to make the choice . . . you will only live long enough to witness the horror of the end of everything…” (84)

Here we can see the divergence of the weird tale and the horror narrative. In the weird tale, events would conspire to make Andrew, Eric, and Wen seriously consider that their sacrifice is required. In another story, they might convince themselves that the prophecy must be obeyed or act as though a sacrifice were necessary for reasons obscure to the reader, etc. But the hostage scenario, the stock cult psychos, the general tenor of the work, and events as they unfold move us in another direction. While Tremblay sustains the weirdness as far as it will go, in the final two thirds of the novel suspense is primarily generated along the horror axis. The weirdness is relegated to a delusion; the problem is not so much whether we believe that the world will end, or that the protagonists believe it, but that Leonard and his gang believe it. Although the TV begins to report events that correspond to the cult’s apocalyptic scenarios, this only strengthens Eric’s and Andrew’s awareness of the danger posed by the cult, not their prophecy. In any case, the “impossible thing” they’ve been asked to do–sacrifice one of their own–is not impossible; it is merely intolerable.

As we enter the fantasy time of horror, the suspense begins to follow a clear logic predicated upon physical survival. The question becomes, how to escape? Can these two well-educated fathers reason their way out, perhaps sow dissent in the ranks? Or can they delay the maniacs and make use of their daughter’s relative freedom to make a run for the car? How can they support each other as they succumb to exhaustion and their own delusional thinking? Above all, how do they keep Wen safe? Their predicament supplies plenty of suspense, but as the tension increases the strangeness dissipates. Looking more closely at the textures and temporalities of the novel’s horror suggests that, at least in a contemporary novel like this one, horror’s imperative normalizes the text, canceling its weird potential. The violence horror commits against weirdness is a subset of the violence it commits against life. For weirdness is profoundly lively, organized around various fantastic possibilities; its suspense mingles dread with curiosity. The unknown is universal and unique; it is thoroughly disorienting. By contrast, the horrifying is particular and repetitive; it reorients the subject toward an unalterable singularity.

Horror as the End of the World

There’s big praise from Stephen King on the back cover of The Cabin at the End of the World. The master of horror calls it “thought-provoking and terrifying.” That should be warning enough to lovers of the strange and fantastic; King has written two or three weird stories, but his corpus is deeply, broadly, achingly normative. In this section, I will investigate some of that normativity, before concluding with an examination of horror and the unalterable.

So, Eric and Andrew are tied up and Leonard has presented them with a grade-B moral dilemma. How shall it be resolved? The horror plot calls for senseless violence; it is not long in coming. When Redmond begins torturing Eric, the other members of the gang kill him with a sledgehammer. There’s plenty of splatter and spray. The cabin on the lake is beginning to look more like Lizzie Borden’s father’s house than the unnervingly quaint interior of the Allison’s cottage.

The texture of the text slips into an informative mode (the differences between focalizations matter less and less, even as they expand to include the cult members). Theories for the cultist’s bad behavior are explained in tedious, faux-professional detail by Andrew, who “recalls reading about a uniquely twenty-first century mental-health crisis with a growing population of people suffering from clinically paranoid, psychotic elusions deciding to ignore professional help. . . The online groups reinforce and validate the delusions. . .” (157) His reasoning with the home invaders is equally uninspired: “Look at us tied up here. Really look at us. Is this right or normal? . . . How about you go and look at the guy you mashed to a pulp out on the deck, tell me that’s not wrong” (141).

The hard, dull light of the normative can be heard in passages that describe actions in a heroic frame and with an excruciatingly objective attention to details. Here’s Andrew in action: “He doesn’t hesitate. He calmly shrugs and lifts his right shoulder, a movement as innocuous and ordinary as a breath expanding within his chest. As his shoulder rises, he slides his right hand up. . . He is composed and considerate as he goes about the serious business of untying the leg ropes. The knots behind his calves are thick and obvious, and they give away their secrets to his battered fingers” (167).

It is the lack of incredulity that most offends. The universe has become entirely too neat; the absurd is erased to make way for the inexorable. Only a reality much more stable than our own can sustain the painfully objective style that emerges here. Such dullness, I fear, is the price to be paid for horror in the age of King. Although our protagonists suffer bouts of irrationality, the madness is figured in the cult members; this externalization of the irrational leaves us with an all too rational and mechanistic universe, which is to say one shaped by the narcissism of the normal. Part of this is the ‘straightening out’ of the structure of suspense. As we enter the horror narrative, the scenes of gross physical violence can only mean that more and greater forms of violence are coming. Soon we encounter sentences such as the following: “If Eric is a cornered lion tamer, then Adriane is the lion, stalking, pacing, and darting forward at Eric and then skittering back when he swings what was once her staff. She has a steak knife in each hand, the blades thin but serrated” (177). Note how the simile draws on what it takes for an easily digestible symbol, the “cornered lion tamer,” and how this symbolic content supports a description of the imagined materiality of the scene–the positioning of bodies and weapons. This is a good example of the normalization of narrative textures that seems ubiquitous in contemporary horror narratives. You will find exactly the same quality in the best-selling novels of King or Peter Straub. I simply can’t read them; not because they are scary but because they are so prosaic.

Spoiler alert!

So far, I have been localizing the deadening effect of the horror narrative in a contemporary style of normativity that has become the hallmark of success in an era when popular novels aspire to become movies (not to mention Netflix series). In the final paragraphs, I want to go further in order to describe what I’m calling horror’s imperative. To do this, I will spoil the end of Tremblay’s novel. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens. Furthermore, and more significantly, I am going to spoil major parts of Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, Funny Games.

Funny Games (1997)

Funny Games is also set in a cabin on the edge of lake. In this case, the middle-class family, Anna, Georg and Georgie, has arrived a little early in the season. They are settling in when two young men stop by, claiming to be friends of the neighbors. Intense naturalism focused upon politeness, hospitality, parenting, and propriety generates nearly overwhelming suspense when the young men refuse to leave. When the family is bound and the torture begins, Funny Games becomes the most horrifying film I’ve ever seen. I do not recommend it. I was in a daze of terror for more than week. (Although directed by Haneke, the U.S. remake (2007) is not nearly as effective, in part because the tensions around politeness don’t exist in the American vacation house as they do in Austria and in part because Tim Roth, while a wonderful actor, was a poor choice for the father role.)

Here’s the spoiler, if you haven’t already guessed it. In The Cabin at the End of the World, the unthinkable horror is the same as in Funny Games. It is the child who dies (on in the case of Haneke’s film, dies first). Andrew ends up with the gun. He shoots Adriane, whose “throat explodes in a geyser of blood” (184) and then he and Leonard are wrestling for control of the weapon when it goes off and little Wen “doesn’t see or hear or feel anything anymore” (186).

Wen’s death is the novel’s ultimate horror. Everything has been done to protect her; she is the adopted child of the family, protected by Leonard, and adopted by the readers, who spend time in her head and that of her parents. It is surprising, shocking, and almost unspeakable. The end of the world has arrived earlier than expected; the sacrifice, meant to protect a world for young Wen to grow up in, has deprived the world of her. This horror doesn’t conclude the narrative, but it tilts us into an extended denouement, the narrative purpose of which is to restore the broken normal by punishing the wicked and making a space or the survivors to endure. While accidental, Wen’s death would seem to fulfill the prophecy. It also breaks the psychotic spell for Sabrina, who kills Leonard, then herself. Eric and Andrew are left alone on the road outside their cabin. Eric, concussed, wonders if maybe the world is about to end, while Andrew, wracked with grief and guilt, struggles to maintain their mutual sanity. At one point Eric “waits and gives Andrew a chance to say the right thing, the impossible right thing that would make this all go away and take us and Wen back home safe” (267).

The inability to take it back is central to horror narratives. No film commits to the inexorability of horror than Funny Games. It is structured around five or six truly horrific moments. One occurs when young Georgie is killed by the intruders; it is unexpected and casual, a sort of accident. As in The Cabin at the End of the World, the parent’s inability to protect their child is a horror almost beyond reason. But there are two more and more powerful horrors in the film. The second one occurs when Anna grabs the shotgun they used to kill her son and shoots one of the men in the chest. It appears that justice is about to be restored–that we are entering the revenge narrative (as in Last House on the Left (1972) or Revenge (2017)). But the other tormenter grabs the remote control and rewinds the film that we are watching, reversing the incident. The cruelty of this is almost unbearable. A metafictional leap restores the unjust to life, but it can’t bring back Georgie or justice. The miracle is in the hands of the tormenters; the film’s rejection of the normative horror narrative, which gives us a survivor, clarifies the nature of horror, I think. It is to be found in the sense of inevitability. Indeed, the final, equally horrific episode in Funny Games occurs at the very end. Anna is bound and put onto a sailboat. With a terrifying casualness, she is pushed into the water. There is no escape. There are no survivors. There will be no justice. This is the horror of horror.

Tremblay’s novel offers a more conventional ending. Drawing directly from Beckett, he has Eric say, “What will we do? We can’t go on.” To which Andrew replies, “We’ll go on.” Their love for each other, their reasonableness will prevail. As in most horror novels and films, the survivors are as necessary as the violence. This restoration is not available in Jackson’s story or Haneke’s film, but for entirely different reasons. In Jackson’s story, the violence never arrives. In Haneke’s film, it continues to arrive beyond all reason and until their are no survivors. While Jackson’s story is purely weird, Haneke’s film is utterly horrific.

Tremblay’s novel draws on weird conventions and incorporates a weird theme, but it is a horror narrative at heart, and unfortunately a very normative one at that.

The next and final installment in this series of Weird Fiction reviews will examine what I hope and expect was the weirdest novel of 2018: Michael Cisco’s Unlangauge, published by Eraserhead Press.

Weird Fiction Review #8: Jac Jemc’s The Grip Of It

Jac Jemc, The Grip of It. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2017.

Haunted houses are a staple of weird fiction. From Gothic castles to the abandoned house on swampland lampooned in Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids, fantastic fiction has much to say about uncanny dwellings. Jac Jemc’s gripping novel The Grip of It belongs to this genre.

With an MFA from Chicago’s School of the Art Institute, Jemc has enjoyed deserved success as a writer of weird fiction. The Grip of It, her third major publication, was praised by many reviewers and widely recommended, with favorable notices in Entertainment Weekly, O, Marie Claire, Esquire, and other popular magazines. Her most recent book, the short story collection False Bingo won the Chicago Review of Books Award for fiction, and a new novel is expected next year.

For the sake of time, our tour of the haunted house scenario in English literature will visit a single location before supplying the reader with a map. We begin at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Walpole’s approach to the weird tale is ingeniously simple. He invents a manuscript, supposedly printed in Naples 236 years earlier, in 1529. He offers his “translation.” The weirdness is generated by juxtaposing three perspectives.

The first is supplied by the story’s protagonists, sincere if passionate rationalists engaged in a family drama involving love and inheritance. They are, as Walpole explains in the preface, those Renaissance forefathers whose letters “contributed to dispel the empire of superstition.” The second perspective is supplied by their servants, who still believe in the supernatural. (As Walpole explains in his second preface, the “deportment of the domestics” is central to his project.) In alternating scenes, the nobility and domestics encounter “supernatural” events, nearly all of which turn out to have natural causes. (Walpole’s model is Shakespeare; elements of Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream are particularly evident). But the drama begins with an impossible event–a giant helmet falls out of the sky, crushing the heir of Otranto’s fortune. The nobility are baffled, but they must accept the object’s stubborn materiality, which is emphasized. They set out to determine the meaning of this impossible thing, while reprimanding the domestics for their foolish beliefs.

Walpole’s hoax title page
on the 1765 edition

The third perspective is that of the readers, who are asked to read the text with skepticism. By presenting the text as a “hoax” (whether or not that deceit is believed makes no difference), Walpole invites us to scrutinize the style and substance closely, allowing it to test our sense of plausibility. In the preface, Walpole pretends to apologize for the text’s “air of the miraculous.” He predicts that we may try to excuse the impossible things that it purports to describe as symptoms of the “original” writer’s style or intentions–then challenges our ability to do this. He asks us to observe that the story’s style is not poetic or allegorical. On the contrary, his “translation” brings before the public a text from Renaissance Italy written in a surprisingly modern style. He begs us to observe how “Every thing tends directly to the catastrophe.” There is no ornament, no flights of fancy. The naturalistic details provided by our narrator embed him with the rationalists. (“My rule was nature,” Walpole will later confess.)

This leaves us, the readers, in the position of the domestics–if we read past chapter one, we have already, at least tacitly, accepted the miraculous event. In short, the “empire of superstition” continues; the age of reason has not extinguished our capacity to accept the impossible. This is Walpole’s satire on the reading public, which is also born out by the novel’s sardonic tone.

Over the centuries, writers have invented innumerable combinations of Walpole’s key ingredients. In all of the weirdest stories, we find a built environment (a house, castle, hotel, etc.), rational and irrational inhabitants, and an unreliable record of the impossible event. While the Victorians wrote some excellent haunted house stories (see The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert), I’d argue that the most memorable houses were explored by writers confronting the modernist restructuring of space, time, and subjectivity. Consider this cluster of weird stories that foreground the uncanny atmosphere of rooms, apartments, estates, and cathedrals: Henry James’s “The Ghostly Rental” (1876), “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), and “The Jolly Corner” (1908); Ambrose Bierce’s “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch” (1891); Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892); M.R. James’s “Canon Albric’s Scrapbook” (1894), “Lost Hearts” (1895), “Number 13” (1904), “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” (1910), and “A View from a Hill” (1925); Madeline Yale Wynn’s “The Little Room” (1895); Emma Francis Dawson’s “An Itinerant House” (1897); Edith Wharton’s “The Lady Maid’s Bell” (1902), “Afterward” (1910), “Bewitched” (1926), and “Mr Jones” (1929); Algernon Blackwood’s “The Listener” (1907) and “The Empty House” (1907); Walter De la Mare’s “Out of the Deep” (1920); H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” (1924), “The Shunned House” (written in 1924), and “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1932). These stories may be seen as variations on Walpole’s formula. For example, in “The Yellow Wall Paper” the rationalist is played by John, the narrator’s husband, the “superstitious domestic” is played by the narrator, and the textual ambivalence is evoked by pretending that the text is her diary. As Gilman’s story remind us, the modernist fascination with Freudian psychology and William James’s “stream of consciousness” led them to evoke uncanny sensations by creating hysterical and neurotic narratives. The ultimate expression of the modernist haunted house is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which also includes elements of postmodern pastiche.

The postmodern haunted house story begins with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1950), which takes The Castle of Otranto in a different direction, abandoning the hoax and the modernist psyche in favor of a more direct confrontation between the reader and the impossible thing. The text does not pretend to be a translation, diary, or hysterical account; instead, the style makes it seem otherworldly. It is nearly impossible to determine, sentence by sentence, where the novel’s realism ends and its allegory begins. Just as Walpole asks his readers to do, we struggle to determine what, if anything, constitutes the “real” of the world it purports to disclose. Other haunted places that are weird in this postmodern way may be found in Ray Russell’s “Sardonicus” (1959) and George Saunders’ “Civil War Land in Bad Decline” (1992). Since the 1960s, haunted dwellings have organized popular and critically acclaimed stories that use a variety of these methods. While the Gothic formula remains (e.g., Stephen King’s The Shining (1977)), the most interesting contemporary stories revisit modernist techniques. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) strike me as the most valuable.

All of this prepares us to get into The Grip of It, for this novel offers a thoughtful and original variation on the haunted house tale. Jemc’s novel satirizes the middleclass dream of home ownership while providing a simple, effective twist to the formula. At some unspecified time after the foreclosure crisis, Julie and James, young, white, college educated, middleclass, in love, and with a taste for the Gothic, invest in a “big and Victorian” house at the “end of a cul-de-sac” as far from the city as employment opportunities allow them to go. Their story is told in alternating first-person narratives. Already Jemc’s variation can be discerned. The roles of rationalist and domestic are played alternately by Julie and James. The unreliable narrative and gender dynamics introduced by Gilman are in play, but ownership of the discourse and power in the relationship (and world) are equally distributed between the male and female characters. Inasmuch as the terms “unreliable” and “engendered” are nearly interchangeable when applied to literary narratives (from Tristram Shandy’s accidental circumcision onwards, the unreliable narrator repeats an Oedipal drama), Jemc’s originality stems from narrative transsexuality. Whereas “The Yellow Wallpaper” or “The Jolly Corner” bring us almost completely into the reality experienced by a single, obsessed subject, The Grip of It toggles between two equally rational/hysterical subjects. The narrative is easily shared by these characters because Julie and James are almost identical. They share ownership of the house and enjoy equal liberty of movement and access to the labor market. They attempt to be equal partners in their relationship. Most importantly, their narrative styles are nearly the same. Each has their own secrets and fears, but they inhabit the same discursive terrain (a terse, sometimes bland post-Hemingway prose style that is entirely normal). Being equally (un)reliable, they alternately support and resist each other’s encounters with the house’s weird features. They lose their grasps on reality in different ways, growing apart as they succumb to their new house’s strangeness, but the “hesitation” they experience is not attributed to sexual difference, as it is in the modernist stories.

In the early chapters, Jemc’s novel develops a theme that occurs in many haunted house stories: the pleasures and perils of homemaking for a “normal” couple. (At one point, Julie and her friend Connie toast Julie’s decision to live in “Normal Town.”) No doubt, contemporary versions of these tropes owe much to Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (1977), a “true crime” novel that, like the film franchise it inspired, focuses on the efforts of middleclass white newlyweds to make their new house a home. Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” begins with a similar premise. In these stories, as in Jemc’s novel, realism is established around the feelings associated with taking possession of a big, old house that, of course, comes with a history of its own. Importantly, both members of the couple bring their own emotional baggage. They negotiate their relationship while sharing the house as a “project.” The alternating narratives allow Jemc to develop these scenes in detail; we witness a series of “nonevents”–moments when something is overlooked or isn’t mentioned. Here is Julie:

“What’s up?” James says, without lifting his eyes.

“We’re missing a pot.” I glance around, counting again.

“Probably got packed in a different box.”

“That would be an entirely reasonable theory if I didn’t remember feeling so proud that I’d fit them all into two perfectly sized boxes.”

James rolls his eyes and I know why; because this is precisely a thing that would bring me joy, boring to anyone else, but thrillingly efficient to me. (15)

Julie and James find themselves in the other’s gaze, as Julie does in this passage. She knows that James knows her quirks, and this allows her to set aside her observation of the missing pot. Their unpacking, exploring, and fixing up of the place is related on an almost daily basis, allowing many little oddities to accrue. There are noises and stains, strange rooms and queer neighbors. As Julie or James or both discover the weird pattern, they tend to hide their sense of the uncanny, functioning as each other’s object cause of repression. This begins, subtly, to put a strain on their relationship, which anxiety they both also conceal. The first moment when they “come clean,” confessing their suspicions and clearing the air, is narrated by James. Over dinner, they discuss trivial matters, each hiding their own secrets. Julie breaks first, blurting out that she has discovered what she believes is a grave in the backyard. James accompanies her outside. She shows him “a plot of stale dirt lined on one side with rocks.” James is unimpressed by the grave, but not with Julie. Standing beside her, he feels “all the love I possibly can for her” and “remind[s]” himself “not to kiss her.” When she asks him to reciprocate, by telling her what he has been withholding, he does:

I know that I owe it to her to be honest and share my worry, too, though. I tell her about the children in the trees. I tell her how they call to each other. They hunt for a murderer.

Julie acts as if this is less concerning. “That’s just kids playing.”

I feel hurt for taking her seriously and being dismissed myself. This is how she copes, though. “You’re right,” I say. I’m proud of her for not taking this trouble on. I try to believe. I think of the bartender’s stories and keep them to myself. (33)

Of course, James has not been taking Julie any more seriously than she takes him. He just made a statement about the grave that was equally dismissive. Hurt by her apparently casual dismissal, he refuses to share a strange rumor about the house, telling himself that he is protecting her. As the book continues, they continue to disavow and ignore “the problem,” which increasingly becomes a matter of trust and sharing, while independently pursing the other “problem”–the strange events that occur in and around the house, and the ominous stories told about its former inhabitants. As Julie says at one point, “I might tell James or I might not. I start to lose track of what I’ve shared with him and what I’ve kept to myself” (65). The dual-narrative filtering of the uncanny events effectively combines the drama between rational and irrational subjects with the drama between the humans, their house, and the supernatural.

The latter remains offstage, but as stories about the house begin to surface and the characters experience increasingly powerful dreams and delusions, a creepiness begins to emerge. The “checkout lady” tells Julie that a previous owner just disappeared. “They searched the whole house. They waited. Eventually the house went into foreclosure…” (49) At the local library, Julie finds records of a tragedy (the death of a child) at their neighbor’s house, and upon further surveillance he does appear melancholic, perhaps obsessive. At one point they suspect him of entering their house while they are away. The house itself can’t be found on any maps. These “objective” oddities are conventional and tend to lack the details necessary to generate an atmosphere of uncanny locality. (Such an atmosphere is handled far more ingeniously by Shirley Jackson in “The Summer People,” for example.)

By contrast, the delusions that our protagonists suffer are far more elegantly and effectively deployed. By juxtaposing perspectives, Jemc prevents us from being able to determine whether certain occurrences “really happened” or were hallucinations. One of my favorite examples unfolds in this way:

James is at work when he gets a series of text messages from Julie. He ignores them. Then “at 4:59, the message changes: ‘For real. I need help.'” James calls her. “She is silent for a long time. ‘I’m stuck in some room of the house. I don’t know how to get out'” (98). As James rushes home, we cut to Julie’s narrative:

I hear the door slam, feel the reverberations. When I dial James’s phone, the call goes straight to voice mail. I crouch down to see if there’s a lip between the floor and the wall to grab and shove out, but instead I find a book, leatherbound and wedged thick with loose pages. The room seems to pull in closer, and I panic, wondering if I’ll be crushed, then suddenly the wall behind me slides to one side on its own, and light floods in and I am in our bedroom, and I push through the crack quickly, and I look at where I’ve been and it’s just another space we don’t know, a narrow closet, and I examine how the wall works and slide it back, trying not to close it completely, but it clicks into place and then I can’t seem to budge it open again. [. . .] James comes into the room, screaming for me, then quieting down when he sees that I am right here.” (99-100).

I like this sequence because of what it doesn’t include. There is no account of Julie discovering this impossible closet; all we are given are the few sentence above. And when James enters the room, Julie is on the bed, sounding very slightly incoherent. When he asks “What happened?” she says “There’s a room behind that wall, but it’s gone now” (100). Was it a dream? This uncertainty or “hesitation” is weird fiction’s contribution to the haunted house narrative, and Jemc’s novel provides many fine instances of it.

I won’t give away the ending. I didn’t see it coming. It provides a sufficient if slightly disappointing conclusion, and in the meantime, our protagonists’ descent into the maelstrom of hallucination and conspiracy made this book hard to put down.

In conclusion, I want to return to the dual-narrative structure. At least since Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), multiple narrators have been used to elaborate a ghostly mystery (the same effect, of course, can be achieved by epistolary narratives, such as Shelley’s in Frankenstein (1818) or Bram Stoker’s in Dracula (1897)). But all previous stories that I know of emphasize the difference between narrative perspectives; Jemc’s novel emphasizes their similarity. For Julie and James, gender equality is a mutual aspiration; maintaining it is their shared goal. Efforts to resolve the atmosphere of suspicion that envelops them as the house undermines their confidence in themselves and each other drive the novel’s sentimental drama. As manifested in their nearly interchangeable narrative styles, this feature contributes to Jemc’s satire of the suburban subject. In their aspiration to enter “Normal Town,” J and J make themselves interchangeable. They hide their quirks from each other and from their friends and coworkers. As white middleclass consumers, their desires are superficial and ordinary.

But there is another context in which to read the alternating but similar narrative sequences: the found footage film. Found footage narrative cinema has exploded since The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) demonstrated the capacity of this conceit to turn independently made films into blockbusters. Although generally classified as comedy or horror, narrative based found footage films are particularly good at generating weirdness, uncertainty, and dread (rather than shock, terror, or revulsion). In a few of the best films, two or more cameras are involved in the diagetic story (which usually involves amateur film makers discovering something they shouldn’t). There are wonderfully uncanny moments that occur when the viewer is unsure who is operating the camera or when different cameras record an uncanny event from various perspectives. (See for example, Hollow (2011), Creep (2014), and Hell House LLC (2015), three of the best films to use this particular conceit.) I can’t help but notice how much Jemc’s novel feels like these films. Although the narratives reveal the inner lives of the protagonists, because Julie and James share a sensibility the movement between chapters often feels like a jump cut between cameras. Cameras may be differently positioned in space and time, but they are equally objective. The difference in perspective is material, not sentimental. A similar sense of worldly being operates in Jemc’s novel. If someone put me in charge of adapting the novel, I would argue against a found footage treatment of it, but I can see the temptation because the characters are more distinguished by what they witness (or hallucinate) than by individualized personalities.

NEXT TIME: We take another little detour from the program of 10 weird fiction reviews to discuss Gareth R. Miles’ Soul Shakedown (2020), a “metaphysical adventure” that may be the first work of speculative fiction written in Guyanese dialect.

Weird Fiction Review #7: Stephen Graham Jones’ Mapping the Interior

This is the 7th in a series of 10 reviews of contemporary weird novels. For an overview of this project, see my first post in the series.

Stephen Graham Jones, Mapping the Interior. TOR: 2017

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of more than fifteen novels or novellas, as well as at least six collections of short stories. In other words: prolific. Born in 1972, he’s published more than many authors do in a lifetime before the age of fifty.

I haven’t read all of his works, but most touch upon weird fiction. (Jones has received recognition from the Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, and Black Quill Awards, and his work appears frequently in supernatural/horror anthologies). Mapping the Interior, a 108-page novella, fits the genre in several ways.

It admits to the supernatural in the first sentence: “I was twelve the first time I saw my dead father cross from the kitchen doorway to the hall that led back to the utility room” (11). The preternatural is immediately paired with psychological irreality; the young narrator explains that his father’s ghost appeared while he was sleepwalking, which is described with a child’s understanding of the Freudian id: “To sleepwalk is to be inhabited, yes, but not by something else so much. What you’re inhabited by, what’s kicking one foot in front of the other, it’s yourself. . . [B]eing inhabited by yourself like that, what it tells you is that there’s a real you squirming down inside you, trying all through the day to pull up to the surface. . . But it can only get that done when your defenses are down” (11-12).

Thus in the first minutes of this economical novella, we are presented with the “hesitation,” or tension between actual and fantastic perceptions that organizes weird narratives. We are also introduced to the original and most commonly used theme of Gothic novels: the quest to discover/dodge one’s ancestry. For the first hundred years of weird fiction in English–from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the Victorian ghost stories by Elizabeth Gaskell (e.g., “The Old Nurse’s Tail” 1852) and Margaret Oliphant (e.g., “The Secret Chamber,” 1876), stories of inheritance were the central concern of the genre. Mapping the Interior draws upon many of the tropes used in these tales, although in Jones’ story the first-born male child is not the inheritor of an ancient estate, but a dirt-poor sixth-grader born on an unnamed Native American reservation.

According to his biography on Fantastic, Jones is Blackfeet, but grew up in West Texas, rather than Montana. These ancestral and regional influences permeate Mapping the Interior. The most literal mapping is of the narrator’s modular home (“You can leave the reservation, but your income level will still land you in a reservation house…,” his mother says), which he records with childish exactitude: “our house was almost twenty feet wide and nearly three times as long, about. My tape-measuring involved Dino holding it steady for me every twelve feet, though, . . . so there could have been some missing inches” (17-18).

One reason for this survey is the hope of discovering evidence of his father’s presence. He’s convinced that his father’s ghost has arrived in the guise of a fancydancer, and searches the house for a bead, a feather–any material evidence to confirm the visitation. This introduces the second mapping: that of a complicated cultural genealogy. As our narrator explains, “Thing was? My father never danced. . . My father was neither a throwback nor a fallback. He didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the stories, and didn’t care that he didn’t” (14). Nonetheless, “‘He was going to be the best dancer of us all, once he had straightened up again,’ one of his sisters had told me” (16). Our narrator knows that such wishful thinking is “how you talk about dead people . . . especially dead Indians. It’s all about squandered potential, not actual accomplishments” (16).

This leads us to the third interior, which of course is our narrator’s own desire: to be like his father as he was, to be like his father as he could have been, and to meet his father–as an apparition or at least in a dream. As he explains, “My name’s ‘Junior,’ after all. I’m my father’s son” (22). Late at night and after school, while his mother is at work, Junior tries various experiments he considers likely to coax his father into existence or induce a state of consciousness that will allow him to become aware of his father’s visitations.

Occasionally, his experiments are interrupted by childcare; his younger brother Dino suffers seizures and isn’t very socially aware. Junior protects Dino from bullies and the vicious guard dogs they pass on their way home from the bus stop, and he gives Dino a superhero figurine to bite down on when he seizures.

Driven by Junior’s guileless but thoughtful observations, the narrative proceeds at an easy pace. In this, it resembles other stories by Jones that I’ve read. His style is wholesome and easily digestible. In its earnestness, setting, themes, and humor, Mapping the Interior often seems like a less cynical variation on Sherman Alexie’s stories of reservation life. We get scary childhood adventures (Junior is trapped under his house by one of their neighbor’s pit bulls), sentimental conversations at the supper table (his mother tells charming stories about his dead dad), and rather stereotypical visions: “There was a man standing in the doorway of Dino’s room. There were feathers coming off him at all angles. He was just a shape, a shadow in the glass, but I knew him” (59).

The plot maintains tension between the supernatural and the psychological through a series of escalating events; Junior’s father appears to save him from the neighbor’s dogs–or was it the Sheriff? He seems to kill his dead father–or was it the neighbor, whose broken into their modular home to revenge his canines? These episodes play out first as hallucinations, then as less explicable but more realistic occurrences in the adult world. It’s fast-paced by predictable, with increasing suspense but little mystery.

In earlier reviews, I’ve explored the parameters of weird style. A considerable amount of queer energy emerges from Edgar Cantero’s verbal translations of visual events or George Saunders’ neoVictorian vernacular, for example. And I have criticized other narratives–The Fisherman and Lovecraft County, in particular–for their heavy-handed syntax and cliched characterizations. None of these qualities, positive or negative, apply to Jones’ brisk but basic sentence structures and plot devices. Our narrator is a earnest and matter-of-fact adolescent. His voice is often charming but never profound. The best moments draw on observations of everyday life from a tween’s perspective, such as when our narrator discusses the optics of holding his brother’s hand on their walk home: “I held Dino’s hand as soon as the bus pulled far enough away. If anybody saw, it wouldn’t help his cause any, I didn’t think. Probably not mine either, but at least I had the idea–mostly from action movies–that I could go wolverine, fight my way out of any dogpile of bodies” (27). Or when theorizes a form of contact made by sharing objects: “Another thing I’d learned at school, it was ‘canteen kiss.’ It’s when you drink after a girl you like, or she drinks after you. . . If my dad had touched me, then there was some kind of countdown where I could touch where he’d touched, and it would matter” (25).

Such observations make Junior a minor example of the “sensitive” protagonist that has been employed in weird fiction since E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe created characters whose heightened sensibilities made them especially attuned to preternatural sensations. But there is far less at stake in Jones’s narrative. Odd and sometimes gruesome things occur, but Junior’s sanity is never really in doubt–he is far too conscientious and self-effacing to come across as psychotic, even when sleepwalking–and his innocence doesn’t significantly reframe social conventions (as in Mark Twain’s or Stephen Crane’s stories of childhood, for example). Despite it’s sometimes demonic spirits and even some zombie dogs, the narrative radiates a too bright inner light. Even obscure events are presented with a rational efficiency, and even violent scenes are told with straightforward sobriety. The Oedipal drama plays out sans tragedy. There is a twist at the end, when the child’s narrative is replaced by that of his adult self. Junior grows up to be a fancydancer and a father, but an evil spirit haunts him. “When I was twelve years old, I mapped the interior of our home,” he says. “Now, sitting across from my little brother, I’m sketching out a map of the human heart, I guess. There’s more dark hallways than I knew. Rooms I thought I’d never have to enter. But I will…” (108).

A similar story (father / son relations on the reservation) but with much more genuine weirdness can be found in Jones’s short story collection, After the People Lights Have Gone Off (Dark House Press, 2014). In “Brushdogs,” a father narrates strange events observed while hunting Elk with his twelve-year-old son. In this story, the father’s name is Junior, his son Denny. As a “brushdog,” Denny’s job is to walk along a path in the forest a few miles further down the mountain, hopefully scaring Elk in his father’s direction. At one point, Junior has climbed to the top of a windswept knob; scanning the region through his rifle scope, he sees a similar hill, but with a cairn built on top. Curious, he wipes his face and readjusts the scope. When he looks again, his son, obviously lost and somewhat disheveled, is climbing the hill. He can’t bear to observe his son through the rifle scope, so he squints and waves instead. Denny doesn’t see him and when Junior looks again, his son is gone. It’s a sinister scenario, full of subtle tension that’s bolstered by the father’s gruff tenderness. Back in the truck, he doesn’t express his worry, love, or fear for his son, or even tell him that he was observed. The sentences are still simple and economical, but the unspoken and the mysterious are more powerfully felt, if only because an adult’s perspective is inevitably richer than a child’s. After another cairn appears and they go back into the woods, this fourteen-page story descends into an obscurity that is far more effective than anything in Mapping the Interior. I enjoyed this novella, but if you had to choose only one book by Stephen Graham Jones, I’d recommend the short story collection.

Next in my series of weird fiction reviews: a haunted house story for millennials, Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It.

Strange Trees

The Aesthetics of Ecology in Weird Fiction

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

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

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

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

Or can they?

Color Out of Space (2019) Dir. Richard Stanley

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trees in the opening shot of Color Out of Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cram’s slim volume of weird tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackwood’s story is available on Project Gutenberg here.

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

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

Amazing Stories September 1927

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

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

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

The 1948 Arkham House edition

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

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

Smith’s story can be read online at

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

For more on this story checkout The Angry Scholar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird Fiction Review#6: Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids

Cantero Blumhouse / Anchor Books

This is the 6th in a series of 10 reviews of contemporary weird novels. For an overview of this project, see my first post in the series.

Edgar Cantero is a Spanish writer and cartoonist who’s published novels in Catalan and English. Meddling Kids (2017) was a New York Times best-seller, thanks to positive reviews from mainstream institutions, such as Publisher’s Weekly, USA Today, and NPR. He’s been enjoying some success: Bloody Disgusting, Geeks of Doom, the Financial Times, Indiebound have featured him recently.

As evidence of the “weirding” of contemporary culture, this popularity is notable, especially when we consider that Meddling Kids was published by Doubleday in collaboration with Blumhouse Productions—the company known for lucrative horror films, including Paranormal Activity, Get Out, Sinister and The Purge. Blumhouse is becoming a new kind of lateral entertainment corporation, specializing in weird experiences—alongside films, they produce TV, publish novels, and organize haunted houses, mazes and “scare zones” based on their productions. A multi-media, cross platform company that specializes in popcult weirdness. They have captured the market in B movie horror for all the best reasons.

From the perspective of the weird literary tradition (as though one could see with the eyes of the thing), Meddling Kids is a nodal point between horror (a mainstream subgenre of the weird that emphasizes supernatural monsters, from Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson to King and Rice) and several more contemporary slash fanfic elements. As reported on Wikipedia, Book Riot considered Cantero’s novel to be one of the best queer books of the year. (Book Riot’s interview with Cantero is a good place to learn a little more about him.) The novel’s weirdness resonates with several of its queer elements. Very basically (and Cantero’s devils are all in the details), this is fan fiction that explores a lesbian romance between two hetero cartoon figures, one of whom is often our protagonist. The genre-based cast features these competent and familiar final girls, accompanied by their Weimaraner and a dopey former classmate dude. Their exploits are rendered in a scintillatingly campy prose style. Everything is drawn with a sharp wit, if not always with a queer eye. Like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (reviewed in a previous post), Cantero is a weird stylist. But while Saunders’ prose draws on historical and contemporary speech acts—the lingua franca of U.S. subjectivity—Cantero’s is visual and media-oriented: he “translates” visuals–in this case cartoons–into a novelistic framework, queering them along the way. It’s plot is a genre mashup, part teen romance, part Lovecraftian horror, part TV fan fiction. I won’t try to enumerate the ways in which Cantero’s novel recalls the weird tales of Hoffmann (particularly The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr) or Poe (particularly Pym), but my analysis reflects my appreciation of the book’s capacity for creating a weird world by combining semi-ironical allusions to popular texts. Meddling Kids belongs to the genre of weird literature, even though it’s too silly to be considered a horror novel and too tongue-in-cheek to be regarded favorably by the contemporary Lovecraftians, whose ontology is inflected by “dire realism”—a dour posthumanism that expresses an eco-nihilism in which the worst possible case is the most realistic. (See for example: Omidsalar, Alejandro. (2018). “Posthumanism and Un-Endings: How Ligotti Deranges Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror” in The Journal of Popular Culture.) The popular in Meddling Kids manifests as a gleeful optimism that grows out of Cantero’s love of low-brow culture. It enjoys the same fast-paced superficiality, the genre leaping, explored in my previous post, on The Drive-Thu Crematorium, but with a much sunnier disposition, a playfulness in place of Bassoff’s pulp abjection.

SPOILER ALERT: There is only one spoiler for this novel, and it occurs before we get to page one. Between the title page and the first page of the prose narrative, we get the reproduction of an imaginary newspaper: The Pennaquick Telegraph of August 29th, 1977. A headline fills the page: “TEEN SLEUTHS UNMASK SLEEPY LAKE MONSTER.” Below the headline is an image of the sleuths, their quarry, and the arresting officer. One of the sleuths is a dog. If you existed within U.S. culture’s broad televisual penumbra since the 1970s, you’ve begun to recognize the subgenre. It was dominated by those Sunday morning cartoon teen sleuths known by the name of their impossible protagonist, Scooby Doo. According to Cantero, the original model was Enid Blyton’s Famous Five franchise, but the published text of Meddling Kids draws closely on Scooby Doo episodes. If you can’t stand the animated show originally called Scooby Doo, Where Are You? that’s all you need to know. Stop now, because the novel makes few (albeit thoughtful) deviations from the cartoon. If you’re still interested, you’ll be pleased to know that this novelization is so dedicated to “translating” the visual into the verbal that it achieves a weirdness that at least equals the pleasurable goofiness of the cartoons.

Hyperreality and Horror Narratives

Meddling Kids must be one of the most “postmodern” novels ever written—at least according to the hallmarks of postmodernism identified in the 1980s and 90s (by Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson, for example). The plot is a “procession of simulacra.” By modernist standards, it has no reality principle. The depth model of subjectivity and the logic of Naturalism (according to which sensation is shaped by forces beyond control or understanding) have been abandoned.Like Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, it’s critical and consumer success suggests a new normal in the publishing world—a tolerance for pastiche that used to be exceptional has become the new normal.

According to Jean Baudrillard, writing in the early 1980s, our world has become a “system of objects” dominated by “models of a real without origin.” (Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, p. 1). The map now determines the territory; “No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept. . . The real is produced from . . . memory banks. . . It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or a negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational. . . It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (p. 2). Baudrillard fails to predict the return of the real in the form of global crisis (be it global warming or pandemic), but his analysis of popular culture predicts 21st century cultural phenomena from reality TV to Trump’s presidency with remarkable clarity.

The unreality Baudrillard describes—one in which “simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’”—has troubled writers of weird tales since the emergence of a modern sensibility in the early 1800s. But Baudrillard argues that in the 20th century (never mind the 21st) the “ground” of reality, be it idealism or materialism, has eroded. In hyperreality, the imagination, in order to remain apart from a consumer culture in sheen replaces substance, retreats into a world of hypercontrolled cuteness. This passage from Simulacra and Simulation resonates with several elements of Cantero’s novel:

The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp. Whence the debility of this imaginary, its infantile degeneration. This world wants to be childish in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that true childishness is everywhere—that it is that of the adults themselves who come here to at the child in order to foster illusions as to their real childishness. (p. 13)

This sensibility resonates with Martin Scorsese’s recent comments about superhero movies resembling theme park rides. In a cartoon world, the shock is continual and unmitigated because it doesn’t matter—the ride always comes to the same end. Thus the Marvel universe, in which everything has shock but nothing has value. Scorcese mourns a cinematic realism he resuscitated in the 1960s (at the expense of working class and white ethnic stereotypes, not to mention the Manhattan of the 1960s).

Horror narratives have continued to grapple with the “adult” side of hyperreality in various ways. Two approaches suggest themselves. The first is an object-oriented or creature-based approach to the weird, the second is subject-oriented and metafictional. The difference between these approaches involves where and how they engage with the terrible pleasures of the simulacra.

In the B-movie entitled “Horror of the Simulacra,” the monster replicates/infects its victims, so that its prey (or protagonists) can’t tell who is what. This is the premise of many brilliant horror films, such as The Thing (1951; 1982) or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956; 1978). In these movies, the strange thing masquerades as human before it manifests as the monster (an animated plant in both cases). John Carpenter’s The Thing stands in clear opposition to the other alien monster movie of 1982, E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which brought a new degree of childish cuteness into national culture. But in keeping with Baudrillard’s premise, we might say that narratives such as Carpenter’s are threatened by E.T.—they succumb to a form of enjoyment that disregards the attempts at cinematic realism in order to enjoy generic repetitions. Indeed, “Horror of the Simulacra,” as an imaginary title, dispels the uncanny suspense. Such a film, like many a Hammer production, would be appreciated as the object of playful derision, not fear. I use Carpenter as an example because he recognized this problem—his solution was to embrace campiness, resulting in Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live (1988). These movies “reply” to the commercial failure of The Thing by doubling down on B-movie tropes. They partially absorb the simulacra by camping it up. Like the Scooby Doo TV series, Meddling Kids favors this approach. It relies upon B-movie monsters to establish a generic plot. We know the formula. It then ornaments the generic structure, with as much flavor and flair as possible.

I want to complete my weird analogy before proceeding. The B-movie entitled “The Simulacra of Horror” is quite different; it represents a much more radical approach to the threat of the simulacra monster. This movie is either a documentary about special effects in horror films, or it’s a post-Hitchcockian psychological thriller, along the lines of Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) or De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984). In these films, the veracity of the image is doubted, and this doubt becomes the basis of the suspenseful (but not supernatural) plot. The simulacra is contained by the image; our inability to trust the cinematic realism—we don’t know if what we are seeing is what the protagonist is seeing–generates the horror. The horrible thing is the film itself. In these plots, an “adult” reality remains possible because the truth content of visual signification is the source of disorientation. Realism overcomes the comedy of generic repetitions. The plot, driven by the remediation of realism, tends to be original; there is little space in the presentation for a generic formula. The ultimate achievement in this direction is Carax’s Holy Motors (2012); this is not a horror movie, but it is profoundly weird. It includes a supernatural monster but mitigates its impossibility by presenting a narrative in which subjectivity is no longer coterminous with the body of the protagonist.

This is not the approach taken by Cantero. He give us a fantastical narrative within a thoroughly mainstream novel. (Just as the TV franchise to which he pays homage was carefully planned for a market demographic.) The same elements (impossible creatures, unreliable representations) are satirically entangled and disentangled in the comedic plots of Scooby Doo episodes. It’s fun, like a theme park ride. Its limited pleasures consist of taking apart and putting together generic tropes. The whole thing is driven by a wry pop-cult campiness, fueled by an endless stream of allusions and a comic book style. Cantero’s novel marks a new level in the ascension of fan fiction up the ladder of literary respectability. It is more literary than novelizations of movies, but more dedicated to pop-culture than even Sethe Grahame-Smith’s mashups, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) or Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2010). I guess you could read it without knowing the TV show, but as someone who does remember Scooby-Doo, I’d say that the novel’s reconstruction of the TV characters, plots, and scenes is at least 60% of the (already attenuated) fun.

Scooby-Doo, What Are You?

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? was written by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears for Hanna-Barbara Productions; it aired in 1969, making a vigorous nod to popular versions of the counterculture.  It played on CBS until 1976, then on ABC until 1985. Warner Brothers made numerous spinoffs, including TV specials and feature-length films. The show’s premise drew on already popular teen sleuth narratives—The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew franchises. But the show’s “meddling kids” were a team of four, plus the dog. The titular hound embodies their collective id, but also serves as the transitional object for one of the crew’s members, Shaggy. This brilliantly designed character is essential to the show’s libidinal economy, which is pitched at the precise angle where the pseudo realism of teen adventure romances meets the Dr. Seuss like nonsense of cartoons. Allow me to explain, because the best part of Cantero’s novel is the way he translates this part of the original TV show into a new version of novelistic realism.

The Scooby Doo universe combines a strand of teenage sentimental realism with the metaphysical surrealism developed by Chuck Jones in Warner Brothers cartoons. By “teenage sentimental realism,” I mean a subtle but consistent atmosphere of heterosexual and homosocial desire, combined with a persistent attitude of meaningless irony, bolstered by an underlying faith in science. The irony is expressed by all the characters except Scooby and sometimes by the visual style. The realism is a narrative conceit borrowed from the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (not to mention earlier generations of teenage sleuths), which allows our adventurers to accept the possibility of supernatural entities while always unmasking them as real-world criminals. By “metaphysical surrealism” I mean the conceit used by cartoonists like Jones to establish weird parameters for modernist cartoon realism. These parameters combine extreme physical malleability with indestructibility. Scooby Doo’s father is Wile E. Coyote, who could run in the air, accordion on impact, or get stretched and squashed without harm. He might limp for a few panels, or be all squashed up and dizzy, but a minute later he was ready to go. The show’s visual style combines this with a teen-sleuth realism. Most of the time, the extreme malleability happens to Scooby, and sometimes to Shaggy, but it occurs less frequently with the other characters. Like Scooby himself, these parameters are rubbery.

The success of the franchise may be attributed to the elegant way it allows these elements to combine. Fred and Daphne are a good-looking couple, your basic teen idols, like if the beefier Hardy boy was adventuring with Nancy. Velma and Shaggy are valuable if decidedly less hip sidekicks, like if Nancy’s friend George was hanging out with a scrawny version of the Hardy’s chum Chet.

In mimicry of 1970s teenage vagaries, no one is or isn’t a couple, But Velma and Shaggy are less of an item than Fred and Daphne. They haven’t made it because Shaggy still clings to his pre-Oedipal identity, which is embodied in a surreal dog.

Scooby’s cousin in the magical dragon that Pete discovers; his grandson is the teddy bear that comes to life for Mark Wahlberg in the Ted franchise. Fortunately for everyone, Velma sublimates her unreciprocated desire into rationality, which is why she’s always more skeptical of the supernatural than the others. The elegance I mentioned above emerges in the show’s ability to realize this psycho-social drama in a visual style that allows the dog (and those in its proximity) to undergo all manner of transformation without ill effects. Scooby can become a motorcycle, for example, or get swung like a baseball bat.

Scooby’s infinite malleability and ultimate invincibility make him a figure for the id, but he manifests pure desire in the narrative as well, such as in his endless hunger, his intense but short-lived episodes of fear, and his endless capacity to forgive and forget.

The Lovecraftians will damn me for comparing Scooby Doo to a Shoggoth (not to mention an Ancient Old One), but the formula is the same. In this case, the impossible object is what Todorov would call a “miracle”—the repressed thing figured as a character in the narrative without any doubt on the reader’s part. In Scooby Doo TV episodes, the ghoul is never a ghoul, the ghost is never a ghost, the phantom always turns out to be an ordinary thief. The impossible thing lies on the other side of the narrative—it’s one of the good guys (like E.T.).

Meddling Kids, Where Are You?

Cantero rewrites the relations between our teen sleuths without giving up the basic libidinal components; he rewrites the realism to include a supernatural entity out of Lovecraft. He establishes fictional realism, while maintaining stylistic surrealism. Like everything in the mass culture simulacra, the results are thrilling minute by minute but painfully meaningless in the long haul. Much like the bizarro fiction reviewed in my previous post, Meddling Kids deliberately moves too quickly to establish meaningful realism, but whereas Bizarro fiction is satirical and embraces the abject, Cantero’s novel is more like an ode to consumer culture; it embraces the cute and the cool.

A novelistic realism is partially established by making our teen sleuths into thirty-somethings who have succumbed to ordinary loss and desire. Their names and personal histories have been changed, but the structure of social relations established in the TV show is maintained. Their characters are realized through free indirect discourse. In Meddling Kids, Scooby is played by a non-cartoonish but focalized dog named Tim, while Daphne is played by Kerri and Velma is played by Andy. In the opening chapter, Andy attempts to “put the band back together” (46); they’ve drifted apart after that last adventure and the death of Peter, who plays the role of Fred and whose ghost haunts Nate, who is Shaggy’s substitute. A lesbian subplot is established by revealing Andy’s crush on the hetero Kerri. Several passages from an early scene between Andy, Kerri, and Tim demonstrates the narrative style that remains (tediously) consistent throughout the novel:

     “We are scared!” Andy countered. “We’ve been scared ever since! We never went back to Blyton Hills after that. . . Why aren’t we back in that house solving the real mystery?”
     “Because we grew up!”
     It went downhill from there, Tim noticed, watching the girls on the bed . . . a moody Mom and Dad are fighting look on his Byronian face.
     Kerri caught her breath, tired and sad. “We grew up, Andy. We grew apart. That’s life. . . We can’t spend our whole lives in Blyton Hills, chasing sheep smugglers and lake creatures.” . . .
     She lay down and switched the light off. The coils in the toaster glinted yellow in the dark, a poor but well-intended impersonation of a fireplace.
     Andy met Tim’s eyes, the dog’s profile outlined in the warm glow. They held a silent exchange for a minute or two, until Tim deemed it courteous to lay his head down, cose his eyes, and pretend to sleep.
     Kerri murmured in the brown dark, “Can you please take your arm off me? I feel smothered.”
     Andy’s right hand radioed a message: We’ve been spotted. And it fell back. (30-1)

The drama—the friends must decide if being grown up means they should ignore a past that continues to haunt them—and the subtext (Andy’s crush on Kerri) are about fifty percent of the novel’s thematic components (the other half is Peter’s ghost and the Lovecraftian horror). The dog’s mute eloquence is consistently part of the plot, although his role is far less than Scooby’s in the cartoon, due to the pretense of realism. In the above passage, the “coils in the toaster” are actually strands of Kerri’s orange hair, which actually glows, causing the “brown dark” by which Andy and Tim regard each other. This is a magical component—a cartoonish aspect—which is woven into the narrative through a focalization on Andy. We are not sure if Kerri’s hair actually glows, or if it does so only for Andy. Similarly, when Andy’s arm communicates with the rest of her soma as though it were on a secret mission of its own, the narrative style is precisely geared to keep the phenomenon halfway between free indirect discourse (i.e., Andy’s imagination) and a cartoon reality in which bodies perform these supplemental actions on a regular basis.

While ever present, the cartoonish qualities of this universe expand during the numerous action sequences. A early one occurs when Tim, Andy, and Kerri bust Nate out of Arkham asylum, in a scene more reminiscent of The A-Team than Lovecraft or Batman.  Tim trots into the asylum, past the various nurses and guards, carrying a rope with a large hook on one end. The rope is tied around Nate and “In the next heartbeat, Nate was quite literally fired off his armchair and through the human barricade of wards and nurses, scattering them like rubber bowling pins. By the time his backside touched the linoleum again he was already halfway down the corridor, zigzagging off the walls like a pinball, zooming toward the stairwell door . . . He touched about six steps in three floors. With his head” (51). This is something you’d find the Scooby Doo cartoons, with either Scooby or Shaggy undergoing the impossible punishment unscathed.

I’m struck by how much this top-selling young adult novel resembles Saunders’ award-winning Lincoln in the Bardo, discussed in an earlier post. Both books are dedicated to a comical, surrealistic narrative which is achieved through a neo-Romantic prose style. They are hyper-eloquent and dedicated to matching melancholia with silliness. Shortly after the above scene, Meddling Kids breaks into script format, which lends even more resemblance to Saunders’ genre-busting presentation of his story through epigrammatic speeches. In Cantero’s world, the silliness can be metafictional:

     NATE: I once spent five weeks digging a tunnel out of a clinic where I’d been admitted for two weeks.
     ANDY: (After rereading the lines above.) Why didn’t you walk out after the two weeks? (57)

The point here is to reproduce the goofy cartoon gags of the TV show by finding their literary analogues. To this end, Cantero keeps as busy as any Warner Bros. cartoonist, inventing hundreds if not thousands of such gags. Once these become customary, like a rhythm section, he introduces scenes from other genres, particularly pulp horror. The team discover passages from the Necronomicon and soon enough must confront lake monsters that are not jewel thieves in disguise:

It took some time for the human brain to comprehend. A few things could be established without ambiguity. It stood, or slouched, on two legs. And the upper limbs, overjointed as they were, might have been called arms. The limbs in between were harder to classify. . . And it had a face of a sort. Most of its head, wobbling sickly at the end of a twisty-tendoned neck, was blank, all smooth gray salamander skin; but a single feature, a deep barbwire impression from absent ear to absent ear, smeared with black blood, seemed to mark where the mouth was supposed to be.

If you are familiar with the countless versions of this almost unthinkable monster that circulate in pulp stories, comics, video games, TV shows, etc., you’ll appreciate the details of Cantero’s imagery. The balance between a Lovecraftian monster—one that punctures the characters’ reality by entering the text as a thing that is nearly impossible to describe—and a cute cartoonish satire of the same thing (the barbed-wire mouth between absent ears) is thrillingly precise. And thankfully, he knows that this mashup between the pseudo realism of pulp adventure stories and their cartoonish double makes for a delicious camp sensibility, which is leveraged time and again as the generic plot unfolds. It’s good antic comedy when Kerri and Andy argue over the effectiveness of various cartoon ploys when facing “real-world” necromancers:

     ANDY: Right. What if we lure him out and set a trap like last time? We build a Lake Creature Phony Express!
     KERRI: You expect a hundred-fifty-year-old necromancer to pull open a fake door in his own house, roll down two flights of stairs on a serving cart, and land in a fishing net? Also, no cart and no net.
     ANDY: True. (Thinks, then to Tim.) Feel free to jump in any time.
     TIM: (Tilts his head, resenting the pressure.)

This is a typical sequence from a Scooby Doo cartoon, with the dog’s expression providing the gag. This sequence is rendered with a post-Gothic literary realism—it obeys the laws of the known universe and the rules of decorum you might expect from Dickens, for example. Within this reality, the characters are astonished to discover monsters from a nearby universe—the world of pulp novels. Cantero juggles the generic expectations well. The plot has numerous, if rather predictable, twists and turns, like any good theme park ride. Like so many pop cult franchises these days, this is a knowingly generic form of weirdness. It’s weirdness emanates from a campy antic stylishness that allows Cantero to braid together genres with a wink. He leaves everybody more or less holding hands at the end, while unmasking various real-world and supernatural culprits. Literary realism is merely a style; one filter through which to render the characters in a fairy tale set in the magical forest of morning cartoons.

The Drive-Thru Crematorium: A Detour into the Bizarre

The Drive-Thru Crematorium, available on Amazon.

I interrupt the order of these reviews to discuss Jon Bassoff’s The Drive-Thru Crematorium (Eraserhead Press, 2019) in rough proximity to its publication date (August 2019). I had the good fortune to engage in an email interview with Bassoff, which I’ve incorporated into this analysis. This is Bassoff’s sixth novel; his earlier books, all published by Down & Out press, are “gothic noir” adventures that have received considerable praise. In what follows, I use a close reading of The Drive-Thru Crematorium to introduce readers to bizarro fiction, the latest genre to emerge from the weird renaissance. Bassoff’s novella, a free-wheeling mashup of plot twists one finds in Jim Thompson (e.g., The Nothing Man or Pop. 1280) and Franz Kafka (elements of The Trial and The Metamorphosis), exemplifies some of the qualities that define this genre. Along with Michael Cisco’s Unlanguage (also published by Eraserhead), which will be discussed later in this series, The Drive-Thru Crematorium helps to determine the kinds and degrees of weirdness coming out of Portland’s strangest press.

Bizarro Fiction

Given its publication by Eraserhead Press, The Drive-Thru Crematorium appears to be a work of bizarro fiction. This emerging genre is published by several small presses, including Bizarro Books, Raw Dog Screaming Press, and Afterbirth Books, but Eraserhead is the most prominent and prolific publisher of bizarro fiction today. As the name suggests, this is unquestionably weird stuff. Bizarre and weird are nearly interchangeable in commonsense discourse. Bassoff has published numerous other books that have been categorized as gothic, noir, and suspense, so he should not be regarded as exclusively or even primarily as a “bizarro” writer. When I asked Bassoff if he regarded his novel as Bizarro, he wrote (in part): “I’m not entirely sure where/if I fit into the genre. I certainly didn’t write The Drive-Thru Crematorium—or any of my other novels—with the bizarro genre in mind, but once I finished, I knew I had written a novel that was weird as hell. I knew this wasn’t going to be gobbled up by many mainstream publishers. But when I found out that Eraserhead gravitated to influences such as Kafka and Lynch, I thought that maybe we could be a fit.”  Bassoff’s narrative and allusions indicate a sensibility that helps to explain the genre. Bizarro fiction is “weird as hell.” It’s about as far outside the “mainstream” as you can get this side of pornography (which it often includes, albeit not in this narrative). It gravitates toward absurdism and pop-culture postmodernism—Kafka and Lynch are its saints.

The Bizarro Starter Kit, an anthology published in 2007 by Bizarro Books, presents an explanation of the genre that sounds more like a shopping list than a manifesto. The first definition explains why no study of contemporary weird fiction should neglect it: “Bizarro, simply put, is the genre of the weird.” The second definition, quoted more frequently, claims that “Bizarro is the literary equivalent to the cult section at the video store.” Ah the 1980s—I remember them fondly when I recall “the cult section” at the local video store, although I would have difficulty explaining exactly what could be found there. Although “cult” suggests conformity, it was really the most eclectic aisle, one that contained a myriad of partial objects: low-budget horror, experimental films, strange documentaries, “outsider” movies. In the early days of video stores, this section, not “mainstream” (drama, comedy, action, foreign) and not pornography (behind the curtain), was an amalgam of grade-B and independent films that had made it up the supply chains to become the short-lived objects that video tapes were. David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) is a good example; independently produced, combining surrealism with body horror, slowly gaining in status thanks to a small audience of die-hard fans: the film clearly inspires many elements of the Bizarro genre. An equally good example would be John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). Or Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968). Or the Mondo horror compilation Faces of Death (1978). Whichever titles one chooses to exemplify this short-lived category of video rental browsing, the general sense of “edgy” eclecticism is key: this is pop culture’s back-alley, where pushers, punks, prostitutes, pansies, and the poor congregate in the shadows, seeking relief from the punishing glare of Main Street conformity.

The peculiar mixture of art and/as filth, the timeless and trashy, is made explicit by another definition in The Bizarro Starter Kit: “Franz Kafka meets Joe Bob Briggs.” Kafka was a Jewish Bohemian modernist whose absurdist stories stand alongside those of Joyce, Nabokov, Stein, and Woolf in the canons of modernist fiction. Briggs is a contemporary, self-proclaimed “red neck” internet sensation, whose reviews of shitty “Southern” movies (all of which resemble the Dukes of Hazard TV show, according to his own criteria) revel in their low-brow status. This contrast between modernist, international, avant-garde aesthetics and postmodernist, nationalistic, popular pleasures drives important aspects of the genre. It hinges upon an opposition much like Durkheim’s distinction between a “sacred” singular (embodied by Kafka or Lynch) and the “profane” multitude (encompassed by a proliferation of grade-B, trashy, and “generic” sensations). Bizarro fiction’s “weirdness” results from genre’s effort to desacralize normative aesthetics. As I’ve suggested in earlier posts, this affective quality of the weird (i.e., as that which is non-normative) is more important than the appearance of supernatural entities, the presence of “cosmic horror,” or any particular plot or narrative.  

The “pulp” qualities of Bizarro fiction are evident in the mode of publication, as exemplified by Eraserhead. A glance at the reveals an incredibly rapid rate of publication. They appear to be publishing at least one paperback every month. Since The Drive-Thru Crematorium appeared in August, this small press has released Renee S. DeCamillis’ The Bone Cutters (September, 2019), Dave Zeltserman’s Everybody Lives in Hell (October 2019), S. T. Cartledge’s Cherry Blossom Eyes (November, 2019), and Kevin Sweeney’s Genocide on the Infinite Express (December 2019). Another notable feature is the publication rate of some authors, most notably Carlton Mellick III, whose novellas have been appearing at a steady clip since the genre began. His best-known titles include The Baby Jesus Butt Plug (2004), The Haunted Vagina (2006), and Every Time We Meet at the Dairy Queen, Your Whole Fucking Face Explodes (2016). His recent Eraserhead publications include Mouse Trap (2019), The Boy with the Chainsaw Heart (2018), Neverday (2018), and Stacking Doll (2018). In its cultivation of prolific authors and rush to get titles that fulfill generic expectations to market, Eraserhead resembles pulp publishers during the “golden age”: a resemblance worn with pride on the flashy covers of some publications, which allude to the gaudy covers of Weird Tales, Dime Detective, or Adventure Stories, as well as the famous Franzetta covers of fantasy paperbacks. Whereas the pulps and paperbacks marshalled the labor markets of industrial modernism to distribute thousands of weekly and monthly magazines to consumers through subscriptions, newsstands, and the check-out lines at grocery stories, Eraserhead appears to be organized through post-industrial channels. Titles are made available through Amazon and are probably printed on demand. Amazon’s incomprehensibly large marketplace allows a press like this to find its audience without the burden of shipping or even necessarily printing copies prior to sale. Although the labor and distribution networks are entirely different, the effort to stand out in a mass-market of rapidly produced cultural products makes Bizarro fiction a kind of pulp redux: a knowing and often ironic return to the stuff that was so bad it was good.

The Drive-Thru Crematorium

Bassoff’s novella begins, “Stanley Maddox had worked at Evergreen Lending for six years before they forgot who he was” (7). This absurdist premise is presented with blunt efficiency in the first chapter. One day, arriving at the office, his coworkers regard him with confusion. Mr. Elliot, the boss, wonders if Stanley is a new employee. He explains that there is no record or recollection of Stanley at the firm. Our protagonist accepts this in a peculiarly detached manner: “’I see,’ Stanley said. He was surprised and saddened by Mr. Elliot’s research but had to admit that the evidence was overwhelming . . . Unless there was a conspiracy of forgetfulness, it seemed likely that it was he who was mistaken” (10). Finding that Stanley seems qualified to do the job he’s held for six years, Mr. Elliot makes an absurd offer: Stanley may continue to work for Evergreen Lending, provided he doesn’t require a salary. Confused, saddened, and exhausted, Stanley accepts the newly impossible conditions.

In what I’ll call a “classic” work of weird fiction—a story by Hoffmann or Gaskell, Wells, or Jackson or Kafka—this event and its consequences would constitute the entirety of the story. The erasure of the protagonist from his workplace would unfold gradually, building the “hesitation,” or suspension of the sense of reality, that Todorov describes. Or we would be presented with an account of daily life that was slowly or suddenly turned inside out by the loss of recognition, with a focus on the narrator’s potential delusions. But it’s precisely that quaint practice of 18th/19th/20th century realism that bizarro fiction has no time for. It wants an aesthetic where Kafka and Joe Bob Briggs really do intersect. One potential result of this juxtaposition is a recognition of the absurdity of consumer culture; but it also defuses the “Kafkaesque” qualities of the text by introducing them into a temporality that can’t sustain realism (which takes both the writer’s time, in the search for the “mot juste,” and the reader’s time, in the imaginary absorption into a fictional reality).

The Drive-Thru Crematorium provides a good example of this contemporary pacing. By the end of the first chapter, Stanley is reconciled to his fate. The impossible thing does not have a profound psychological or even, apparently, material effect upon his life. There are reasons for the character’s lack of affect, which I will discuss later. For the moment, let’s stick to the plot. In rapid succession, it delivers a half-dozen or so equally bizarre events—any one of which would constitute an entire story by most writers of weird fiction. Stanley arrives home. His wife Wendy is on the couch, engrossed in a made-for-TV movie. She ignores him. In the upstairs bedroom, changing out of his work clothes, Stanley sees “a man in the house opposite, his face pressed against the dimly-lit window. He was banging on the glass and seemed to be yelling” (15). The panicked man in the suburban house next door is more than enough for a tale of suspense or strangeness. But Stanley does nothing, and the man goes away. At the dinner table, Wendy tells him that “there’s a rabbit in the house” (17). After dinner, Stanley goes looking for the apparently wounded animal, following a trail of bloody paw prints into the basement, where he discovers “something equally strange. In the middle of the room were piles of pinewood boards, surrounded by a handsaw, tape measure, hammer, and framing square. And behind the wood and tools were three caskets, one sized for an infant” (19). This, of course, is shockingly unexpected and would encompass the totality of a more traditional weird narrative. Stanley tells Wendy about the coffins in the basement, but she merely shrugs it off, and he’s somehow too timid or respectful of her silence to pursue the matter. Instead, lays awake, worrying about “the Midnight Monster,” a home-invading psycho-killer that’s in the news. He observes a picture of himself and his wife on the bedroom wall. Looking more closely, he sees that “the cropping of the photo was different. Both he and his wife had shifted ever-so-slightly to the left, and now a portion of Stanley’s leg and shoulder was gone from the frame” (21-2). This is another marvelous subject for a weird tale in its own right—is this a supernatural event, as in M. R. James’ “The Mezzotint,” or is Wendy gaslighting him in some way? But Stanley merely reflects that “the world was a strange place” and goes to sleep (22). The next morning, he looks at himself in the bathroom mirror. He observes “a small flap of skin, the size of a canine tooth,” hanging “below his cheekbone”—a mysterious wound. He wonders, “What if the skin continued peeling, bit by bit, until his entire face was gone, leaving a monstrous one beneath?” (23). Spoiler alert: this will happen before the short novella has run its course. As I’ve suggested, any one of these scenarios might be the basis for a weird narrative, which would explore the unravelling of Stanley’s reality. But in this case, we’ve only reached the end of chapter three. And this pacing is true of most bizarro fiction. It maximizes the presence of the miraculous, while treating it as merely another fictional event.

One goal of the genre, I think, is to produce absurd events as a nauseating pace. Bizarro fiction strives to be has heavy-handed and fast-paced as possible: to generate an interminable stream of reality-bending events that must be endured (by protagonist and the committed reader) because they have no consequences. If we may go back to the video store for a moment, this pacing is reminiscent of surrealist films (such as Un Chien Andalou (1929)), with their dream-like sequencing, but also recalls The Faces of Death videos, which show only the horrific parts, without the narrative framework that would make them more than violent sensation. Today, the impossible is rendered inconsequential through the massive overproduction (in terms of quantity and quality) of superhero narratives—ones in which the protagonist(s) endure a relentless barrage of mind/body altering events so that the viewers can suffer the barrage of CGI effects. The gluttony of sensational events is treated with flippant irony by most bizarro writers, as it is here, although Bassoff attempts to use the relentless pacing to explore more serious effects as well.

The plot continues to present bizarre scenarios; I won’t describe all the twists, but a few more will help us to understand this pacing. In the next chapters, the impossible events are repeated, but even more extremely. Back at work, where Stanley’s new job is the same as his previous one (he has effectively replaced himself), co-workers steal his lunch, mock him, accuse him of harassing them, beat him up, and escort him from the building. On the way out, his boss asks him to “finish underwriting the Sampson loan,” and Stanley assures him that he will (29). At home, Wendy is on the couch watching another movie, but this time she’s joined by Jeff, a “blue-collar” guy who seems to have taken over the role of husband. He sits with Wendy on the couch, eats across from her at the dinner table, and lays with her in the bed. All the while, Stanley stands around awkwardly, making ineffective comments that are ignored; eventually he curls up like a dog at the base of the bed. Although Stanley is “understandably furious” at this usurpation of his place in the household, he “thought of all the homeless people in faraway cities forced to sleep in bus stations and street corners and decided that sleeping at the foot of the bed in his own beautiful house wasn’t all that big a sacrifice” (43). At this point, the story’s absurdity has doubled: not only are the events impossible, but the narrator’s complacency is beyond belief. But we’re not done yet. Stanley gets a call from his estranged father, whose dying. He rushes to his father’s house, where the old man makes several references to the Oedipal story before expiring. Stanley drives home, where Wendy mocks him until finally he breaks down: “Stanley sat down on the bed and placed his head in his hands. And then he began sobbing. He knew it was pathetic . . . He wished so badly that he could be someone else . . . But no, he was stuck with himself, forgettable, impotent, and static” (55). However, this suffering doesn’t mark a pause in the narrative. A few pages later, still pursuing the rabbit, Stanley looks under the bed, where he discovers “a baby boy, his body slicked with blood” (57). Stanley nurses the newborn, then it’s back to the office, where he’s feted as a new father. Also, the panicked man in the house next door is back, and the photograph has continued to push Stanley out of the frame.

It goes on like this, with more and more dramatic twists. Stanley takes a job as a mortician. He’s chased by a group of doctors. He enters his neighbor’s house and becomes his neighbor. Now his name is Kurt Wagner and he’s the Midnight Monster. He visits his former boss, Mr. Elliot, and slits his throat. When the cops arrive, they recognize him as the mortician and leave him with the body of his victim, which he puts into a wheelbarrow and pushes down the suburban street. Each new absurdity doubles down on the previous ones until it becomes nearly impossible to care what happens next. According to the tenets of mainstream narrative, the inability to care what happens to the protagonist is always a flaw, but in bizarro fiction, it’s a goal. And it’s more than that; it’s an aesthetic ethos that asks us to endure the surfeit of absurdism well beyond the limits of literary propriety. It’s like what happens to hotdogs at a hotdog eating contest, or to cats when you watch way too many funny pet videos. Whatever tastefulness the original object may have possessed, the hyper-consumerist overcommitment to it promotes a mental gag reflex. Bizarro fiction stages this overproduction / overconsumption, making a kind of abject mockery of itself (and, as in the case of Stanley, of its characters, who suffer regular episodes of emotional and physical pain).

In this regard, The Drive-Thru Crematorium stands out for its attempt to situate these events within a satire of consumerist society. Bassoff partially resists an attitude of nihilism that is common in other bizarro fiction, and in a lot of contemporary weird culture. Where most bizarro books prefer parody or pastiche, he goes for satire, which is always a little more serious. (Satire can be funny, of course, but it is distinguishable from parody in its willingness to stake out a moral position.) The satire has two major targets: the objective world of suburban consumerism and the subject that finds a home there. As Bassoff explains, “I certainly don’t want to be glib because I know that in the suburbs there are a lot of hard-working people who are doing the best for themselves and their families. That said, I do feel like the generic-nature and the conformity of space of the suburbs can be somewhat soul sucking. It’s hard to ever develop a real sense of place. Not impossible, but hard. I didn’t really mean for the book to be a critique of the suburbs, though. Instead, it was the right setting for my character. Nondescript. Unimportant. Easily forgotten.”

Suburban culture is satirized through the continual listing of interchangeable brand names. Stanley and Wendy live in “a freshly-built development full of streets with names like Meadow Lane, Sunbird Avenue, and Willow Way” (13). After being thrown out of the office, Stanley visits a mall. He parks “in front of the Olive Garden” and walks “through the food court, past whining kids and agitated parents waiting in line for Chick-Fil-A, Sbarro, and Orange Julius” (30). He then drives “up and down Fillmore Avenue, packed with stores like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, Walgreens, Dollar Tree, Taco Bell, DVS, and Target. The new American West” (31). Driving around, he listens to Kenny G. and then Celine Dion, . . . Engelbert Humperdinck and Peter Cetera” (31). As Basoff related to me, “adult contemporary pairs nicely with our suburbs. Easy. Non-threatening. And that’s what my protagonist needed. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of an unapologetic romantic in Stanley Maddox, my narrator, the kind of romantic that sings along when Olivia Newton-John swears that ‘I honestly love you.’”

A few chapters later, after having his father’s body cremated, Stanley’s “famished.” “Chili’s, The Village Inn, or Denny’s were all scrumptious choices, but he decided on the new Red Robin Restaurant” (79). At his table, “Stanley flipped through the menu, his mouth literally watering at the meal descriptions:

Whiskey River* BBQ: A smoky, tangy tribute to the Wild West. Bourbon-infused Whiskey River* BBQ sauce, crispy onion straws, Cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes and mayo.

A.1.* Peppercorn: Hardwood-smoked bacon, melted Pepper-Jack, A.1.* Peppercorn Spread, tomatoes and crispy onion straws on an onion bun, making this burger worthy of five stars.

Chili Chili* Cheeseburger: You might need an extra napkin. Served open-face with a generous helping of Red’s Chili Chili*, Cheddar cheese, chipotle aioli and diced red onions.

And so on, and so on. (82-3)

These details provide the context for appreciating bizarro fiction’s fascination with the queasiness of “too much,” rather than “not enough.” As a genre, it tries to meet capital’s relentless production of consumable experiences on its own turf. Before he becomes Kurt Wagner, Stanley spends an afternoon with the man, who runs the titular crematorium. Wagner tells him about his collection of serial killer memorabilia: “A Christmas card from Ted Bundy. A lock of hair from Charles Manson. A windbreaker owned by Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker. A brick fragment from Ed Gein’s hardware store. And so on” (75). In this world, everything has a market, even the most hideous crimes. Given the enormous market in “true crime” TV shows and podcasts these days, this satire hits a pretty wide target. The second-hand consumption of hideous events is a burgeoning form of the capitalization of culture. Wagner explains how in prison John Wayne Gacy “produced some truly bizarre artwork. Elvis, the Seven Dwarfs, Charles Manson, to name a few of his favorite subjects” (75). Poorly rendered drawings of pop-cult icons by serial killers is an excellent “objective correlative” for weird fiction. (Rest in peace, T. S. Eliot.)

Within this cultural wasteland, Stanley, his wife, and his boss at Evergreen Lending represent subjects whose dominant qualities include satisfaction, passivity, and a willingness to accept / reproduce the world, however absurd or horrific it becomes. In our email interview, Bassoff explained that “While there are certainly elements of satire in my fiction, I’ve always been more interested in exploring the psyches of wounded characters. That’s where I start. I became inspired to write my first novel after reading a bunch of Jim Thompson’s books. . . Thompson was a paperback writer in the 50s and the 60s, and most of his best novels were told from the point-of-view of psychopaths. Books like The Killer Inside Me and Savage Nights.” The flavor of Thompson’s work is most evident in the characterizations. Like many of Thompson’s characters, Bassoff’s subjects meet adversity with clichés. Stanley embodies what Herbert Marcuse, more than a half-century ago, termed “One-dimensional man.” He lives in a suburb where the houses are so identical that “on more than one occasion Stanley had pulled into the wrong driveway,” but “the nondescript architecture and neighborhood conformity comforted him” (13). “The furniture was Ikea. The decorations Pottery Barn. They were so happy” (14). Wendy watches Hallmark movies. “It’s called Devotion Comes Softly,” she explains. “It shows how God can help you overcome any obstacle, no matter how big and impossible it might seem” (14-15). Stanley seems to share this belief; the first half of the story shows him “forcing thoughts of gratitude” despite the impossible circumstances that he faces (43). Again and again, he is revealed to have no inner resources. His thoughts are always the most cliched possible in the given circumstances. At one point “he drove down the avenue, past one strip mall after another,” wondering how “he could make things right” with Wendy: “most likely by buying some flowers (Lavender Fields Mixed Flower Bouquet—VASE INCLUDED!) and a Hallmark Card (It’s the time of year / that the world opens / to all kids of beauty / the way you open my world / to all kinds of love). That was the magic of life—it was never too late to make things right again” (85).

Disposable culture and its superfluous subjects are symbolized in the drive-thru crematorium of the title. Stanley visits the establishment, a mash-up of funeral home, fast-food franchise, and car wash, on numerous occasions. As Kurt Wagner, he works as a mortician there. The idea behind the franchise is explained near the story’s end: “people could come by after work or during their lunch break and they wouldn’t need to deal with parking or make small talk with people they might have conflict with. They could have a few minutes of private viewing while music played overhead and then they could sign the book . . . If meals could be purchased with such convenience, why not funeral viewings? Eventually, . . . they would be able to place a flashing sign that read, ‘Over one million buried,’ just like at McDonald’s” (131). This double melancholia (the death of mourning) haunts the genre. It presents itself as fast food fiction: entertainment in a world where instant gratification in the imperative.


As exemplified by The Drive-Thru Crematorium, bizarro fiction appears to be a version of contemporary literary weirdness that maximizes absurd and grotesque sensations at the expense of psychological and descriptive realism. It deliberately offends any sense of good taste, civility, or discrimination the reader may have been harboring. As literature, it certainly does the job of reflecting the grossness of late capitalism. It articulates an attitude of cynical disappointment with 21st century U.S. culture, without glimpsing an outside to that culture. It resonates with the 4-chan and 8-chan memes that helped to elect Trump, whose brazen ugliness and shameless sensationalism was predicted by the genre. It enjoys irreverent humor and makes a virtue of disgust. I asked Bassoff about this resonance. He explained that “it’s hard for your work not to respond in some way to today’s political nightmare. It’s no coincidence that some of the most powerful art comes from the darkest times in our history, and so maybe the one bright spot will be the art that comes from this history. But I don’t think my work is a direct response to Trump. I think it’s a response to what has happened in America over the past 70 or so years. The slow deterioration of our communities. The corporatization of our culture. The sense that we are anonymous, replaceable, unimportant. And, of course, the undercurrent of violence. Always the violence.”

In Episodes 20 and 21 of the Weird Studies podcast, Phil Ford and J. F. Martell discuss a phrase from a Philip K. Dick novel they find particularly evocative: “the symbols of the divine initially show up at the trash stratum.” In a culture of conformity, true inspiration must be found among the refuse. This is not a new idea; it has been an abiding principle of Western art for about two centuries. A perfect example, now more than a hundred years old, is Marcel Duchamp’s presentation of a urinal in the Armory show in 1917. To understand this principle, one must not imagine that one is seeking a pearl among the swine, but rather that the swine are the sublime object. Ralph Waldo Emerson made the same claim in “Nature” in 1836, when he argued that “Even the corpse has its own beauty.”  Bizarro fiction seeks the beauty of the corpse of contemporary culture. It does so by rejecting all claims to more conventional forms of literary quality, most notably the slower pacing of realism. The loss of realism distinguishes it from the long history of weird fiction I’ve been assuming; for most weird writers, the establishment of a fictional reality is crucial, if only to undermine that reality. Bizarro fiction begins with the assumption that contemporary life is better understood as an endless series of absurd and meaningless events, which are simply endured, without provoking a substantial transformation of their conditions of possibility.

NEXT UP: The next review follows closely on this one. My focus is Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids, a popular novel set in the world of Scooby Doo cartoons. Like many works of bizarro fiction, it approaches weirdness through a pastiche of trashy pop culture.

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.


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.


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, 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.