This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Michael Cisco (1970 – ) is an American writer best known for his first novel, The Divinity Student, which was published by Ann VanderMeer’s Buzzcity Press and won the International Horror Guild Award in 1999. Since then, Cisco has published The San Veneficio Canon, The Traitor, The Tyrant, The Narrator, and The Great Lover. Taken together, these books represent the greatest oeuvre of any late twentieth/early twenty-first century writer of weird fiction — all the more remarkable because of the difficulty of sustaining the visionary quality of such narratives over the novel length. Cisco’s short story “The Genius of Assassins,” included as part of The Weird, is undoubtedly one of the stranger and more intense stories in that volume (and that’s saying a lot). In this latest installment of 101 Weird Writers, returning contributor Alistair Rennie profiles Cisco and “The Genius of Assassins,” more than capably proving the dark awe invoked by this story.
– Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers
There are no get-out clauses in “The Genius of Assassins”. There are no rational escape routes leading to reasonable explanations of the behaviour of its characters – no comfort zones beyond the psychotic resolve of their pointless inner motives. There are no metaphysical absolutes of good versus evil to provide a moral framework within which to position, assess or explain their vileness – nothing to help us comprehend the strength of indifference that underlines the horrors they purvey.
“The Genius of Assassins” is not the kind of story you want to think too much about, the way we’re going to do now. The sheer magnitude of its negativity is a test of character that requires a swift conversion to misanthropy in order to survive its sinkholes of scenarios that are to the human spirit what black holes are to light particles. This story snatches away the will to live. It makes you feel ill with the realisation that the episodes depicted in its pages might actually happen – that the weirdness they convey is weirder still for potentially being real. It is one of the most harrowing stories you’re ever likely to read and, by the same token, one of the best and most memorable.
Evil is not evil in “The Genius of Assassins”: it is not the result of some supernatural infestation or cosmic rancour – not the product even of some gleefully perverse or malicious desire for sordid gratifications. It is the consequence, rather, of a psychological zeitgeist that is all-too human and, in its form as a source of “inspiration” (i.e. genius), is hopelessly scientific, unemotional, clean with purpose and, above all, unstoppable.
The Conflation of Opposites
“The Genius of Assassins” is as much a modern study of psychopathic personality as it is a work of fiction. But it is illustrative rather than analytic, not so much a fly-on-the-wall documentary as a series of abstract representations that allow the subject matter to speak for itself, on its own terms, with no authorial or narratorial mitigations or judgements to steer the implications of what it portrays. It begins, accordingly, with an abstract summary of psychopathic conditions, delivered in figurative terms as:
. . . a sooty-winged owl with a blanched, dead mask of livid unfeathered skin . . . Wide-eyed unblinking it descends out of darkness on silent pinions, and snatches away its quarry with a movement too swift to follow. (p. 922)
It is a point to be noted that the “quarry” in question may well apply as much to the killer as to the killer’s victim, a feeling that, somehow, runs throughout the entire narrative without resolution. Both killer and killed seem equally usurped (if on different levels) by the “sooty-winged owl”, whose lofty visage takes on the form of an anti-muse in the context of its relations with the genius it conveys.
As such, the anti-muse inspires with a “savage idiocy” (p. 922) that strikes an incendiary contrast with the quality of genius that ironically (in the most devastating sense of the word) defines it. Similarly, the act of murder takes on quasi-spiritual ramifications as “the miracle of violence” (p. 922); and, in such terms, the nature of genius in “The Genius of Assassins” is defined by its capacity to conflate opposites (genius vis-à-vis idiocy, miracles vis-à-vis violence). By doing so, it effectuates a mutual eradication of epistemological values which forms the basis for the mental operations of the killers in question: they do not operate within a binary framework of moral oppositions, nor do they respond to the standard definitions of metaphysics that underlie them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in “My Father’s Friends” where Simon’s graduation from theatre critic to serial killer is preceded by a moment of rapture that finds him “staring at the sun as if he’d never seen it before” (p. 929). The notebook later reveals this incident as a sort of anti-epiphany that exposes Simon, not to some visionary apprehension of eternal truth or the face of God, but to a delusion that masquerades as one of his own making:
‘. . . the low sun white and cold, and full of worms. Then a fan of white gelatinous rays, transparent tubes whose ends mouth the earth. A flat, white opening in the sky, whose light silvered the air, dotted with their shadows. They are the larvae of the sun and will become themselves stars.’ (p. 933)
The pattern is repeated in terms of the environmental setting of the external reality inhabited by the story’s protagonists. In “The Paradise of Murderers”, the notion of paradise is conflated with its opposite quality – a dreary wasteland which, at its core, offers an appropriate setting for psychopathic behaviour:
The suburbs for which these roads were laid out never happened; the ancient farms crumble under their eaves and sagging roofs, flopped out on their overgrown lots, now plotted on an incongruous grid of dirt roads sighing dust. (p. 924)
Like the anti-muse of the sooty-winged owl-as-genius, the paradise is an anti-paradise of urban nowheres peopled by deadbeats, wasters and the shambling dregs of human life: there are enough ingredients in this formal reality to make anyone in their right minds go mad, let alone a serial killer.
“The Whitest Teeth” takes us away from the urban and suburban sprawl to some abstract coastal periphery, where a semi-derelict beachside mansion becomes the hunting ground of one of the most banal and unspectacular characters you are likely to come across in any work of fiction. And this, of course, is precisely the point: that the serial killer is devoid of personality to the extent that there is nothing remarkable about him except those parts of him that desire to kill.
Insipid and stale, essentially lifeless in every detail, the setting and the assassin in “The Whitest Teeth” become two aspects of the same blandness and decay – each a reflection or embodiment of the other, so that the house becomes an externalised psychological profile of the killer’s own, dehumanised mental character:
The house looms above the level of the beach on a slanted promontory of rock, its shuttered windows refusing to open on the sea. I have the impression the place is in probate, some sort of protracted dispute; it is empty and neglected. (p. 927)
In “My Father’s Friends”, meanwhile, the formal reality of Simon’s environment recalls a dismal post-industrial cityscape placed at a slight historical distance that gives it an aura of tawdriness, presenting the kind of place that feels instantly wasteful, where minds begin to drift, and desires evolve in wrong directions. An outbreak of cholera adds to a general backdrop of social incohesion that provides perfect opportunities for the random elimination of easy victims, all of whom are children: ‘With the epidemic, everything is possible” (p. 933).
Dehumanization and banality as products of civilisation are here posited as causes of the onset of psychopathic behaviour. The social and political backdrop in perpetual stages of decay acts as an inducement to psychological disorder which brings the sooty-winged owl to prominence within those most vulnerable to its impact. As a consequence, the material existence becomes a habitual zone of experience within which psychotic fantasies are able to happen.
Negation as a Context for Purpose-Building
The conflation of opposites effectively negates the significance of oppositional values as a means of structuring reality and of rendering it comprehensible in human terms (to make reality knowable, in other words). Likewise, to negate the extremes of good and evil is to undermine the viability of moral postulates upon which definitions of human behaviour are normally grounded. Without such a framework within which to assess the world and everything in it (including and especially human relations), the killer, in effect, is able to mentally restructure the terms of his existence according to the aberrant logic of his delusions.
The killer of “The Paradise of Murderers” exemplifies the principle of negation as a context for purpose-building, beginning with a reduction of himself to the value of nothing:
. . . I’m a zero, and I don’t even care anymore. I don’t care about me, and I don’t think about tomorrow, or anything. I know tomorrow isn’t thinking about me. (p. 924)
Existence to the value of zero places the killer in a sort of existential vacuum. Through the mechanism of his delusions, however, he is able to construct a vision of himself whereby the vacuum is filled with a sense of purpose deriving from the inversion of the values of personal worth he has so far negated:
I see now – you’re not a doer, you’re an un-doer. That’s what you are, see? Everybody is something – everybody has to be something. . . I know something you can undo. (p.924 – 925)
For the psychopath, the restoration of self-worth is achievable through the negation not of himself but of the value of others, which can be effectuated through their brutal erasure. Such are the logical outcomes of the genius of assassins that, without a proper framework in which to operate, the killer simply invents one using the warped logic of his delusions.
Taking this further, “The Genius of Assassins” demonstrates that the miracle of violence will find its own resolutions and sense of purpose, that it will construct its own versions of reality in order to secure its existential validation. In the case of “The Paradise of Murderers”, this happens through the killer’s response to the plea for help from his alter-ego, who reasons:
‘Someone like you, you could do me a big favour. I mean you could really help me a lot.’ He holds out his hands, indicating himself. ‘I’m all knotted up, see? That’s my sickness. I’m bound up in a knot – I am the knot,’ he adds vehemently,’- and it’s torture for me . . . If you kill a man – would you do that?’ (p. 924)
Here, the killer acquires efficacy as a sort of saviour coming to the aid of a version of himself that requires a release from its emotional contortions through the squared circle of killing someone.
Similarly, in “My Father’s Friends”, Simon is “guided by the larvae” (p. 933) who become the imagined arbiters of an existence that requires him to kill children in order to facilitate the continued existence of the larvae:
‘Rain falls, scattering rings across the puddles – and each death is a drop that makes the mass quiver and thrill, and each drop lends vital force to what would otherwise be an inert, passive, shrinking thing, a body of stillborn larvae . . . Don’t forget what you owe the larvae of thought,’ the larvae would say. ‘don’t forget your solar responsibilities’. (p. 933 – 934)
Simon inhabits a mental landscape where he pursues a self-perpetuating sense of purpose that requires him, merely, to kill children in order to ensure its completion.
Where in the Weird?
The Weird in “The Genius of Assassins”, as in all of Cisco’s work, is never alien or peripheral but is insinuated as part of the fabric of the envisaged world he creates. In many of his novels, the characters exist in an inverted world where psychological conditions are the prevailing states of the material universe they live in. In a sense, these novels are not so much second world fantasies as thought-experiments or laboratories in which psychological states are able to thrive and multiply in their own setting.
“The Genius of Assassins” differs in the sense that its fictional world is a replication of our own. The core of the narrative, however, is a series of first person points of view that look on our world through the prism of madness, so that the real world, our world, becomes a laboratory in which psychopathic fancies are able to thrive and multiply in their own setting.
It is a reversal of Cisco’s habitual and highly effective technique of using second world fantasy as a means of building not worlds but mindscapes. The effect, however, is the same. In Cisco’s fiction, madness, psychological breakdown, trauma, agitation, exuberant psychological and emotional states, neurotic fluxes – these form a basis for the Weird that exists, not as a separate entity, but as a definitive condition of the reality his characters inhabit; and this is where Cisco has more in common with Eastern European writers like Dostoevsky, Conrad and (of course) Kafka than he does with western champions of the Weird like Lovecraft, Ligotti or Laird Barron.
“The Genius of Assassins” is a highly unpleasant story both because and in spite of its brilliance; and, in this respect, Cisco is fearless in his approach. He will not countenance anything other than a full-on engagement with a subject matter which tends to be treated in fiction as a wholesale fetish. The serial killer has become the bogeyman of the modern epoch, the favourite ingredient of Saturday night fright fests and “real life” crime dramas which entertain but very rarely disturb. The full measure of the wretchedness of this story can only be appreciated through an actual reading; and, in this sense, “The Genius of Assassins” has no equal.