The Expanding Borders of Area X

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach in the Context of a Weird Renaissance

As a reader, as a writer, I have no question that The Weird exists, both as a mode of expression and an external experience. Nor do I question that we are in the midst of a genuine Weird Renaissance, right this very now. Look not to me to define the parameters of either–I find it right that those boundaries remain vague. For me, these things are givens. At this point, before you read any further, I wish that I could issue you each a small black metal rectangle with a red hole at its heart. If at any time the red heart were to begin glowing, you would know to remove yourself to a safe place. Alas you must trust instead to your own discomfort for the signal to retreat.

Mandrake gestures hypnotically…

I. A Phone

The current success–critical, commercial, and on its own esthetic terms–of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy necessitates a shift in the way we regard Weird Fiction as a medium. Although H.P. Lovecraft presented a rather broad view of the Weird Tale in his 1927 study “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, and traced its origins to the Gothic novels of the eighteenth century, by the time of S.T. Joshi’s seminal 1990 study of Lovecraft’s antecedents, The Weird Tale, the identification of The Weird as largely a creature of short fiction, thriving best in an ecosystem whose apex predator is the novella, hovered somewhere between accepted truism and cliché. The Weird Tale was precisely that: a conte, not a roman. Certainly this perception stems in part from a fixation on Lovecraft and the Weird Tales “Circle” as starting point or bottleneck for the Weird Tale, yet most of the reasons proposed for this limitation evaporate in historical context. David Davis recently published an excellent overview of Weird novels in which he rightfully cited such early examples as Kubin’s Die andere Seite and Meyrink’s Der Golem. Let us sail quickly back over the territory Davis mapped, visiting a few additional islands and drawing certain conclusions about the undersea geology that unites these isolated outcrops in the archipelago of The Weird.

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 3.23.31 PMDavis also cites The House on the Borderland, and rightfully so, as it is when one considers William Hope Hodgson, the accepted hegemony of the short story in The Weird begins to dissipate. Between 1907 and 1912, Hodgson published four novels, three of which–The House on the Borderland, The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, and The Night Land–are critical exemplars of The Weird. Each is also a masterpiece of sustained dread. Alas, Hodgson perished in 1918, a victim of the First World War like so many promising artists of his time. Had he lived longer, and his works not fallen into obscurity, the lineage of The Weird might be traced through Hodgson rather than Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s work contains little that is not in Hodgson’s, though it could be argued that Hodgson’s explicit insistence on the existence of the soul actually makes his vision of cosmic horror less visionary and “pure” than Lovecraft’s. It is difficult however, to question Hodgson’s overall importance to Weird Fiction today, long in coming as it may have been.

Tracing the “development” of the Weird Fiction novel directly from these antecedents remains a challenge. Weird novels of the last century resemble a set of irregularly spaced stepping stones rather than any continuous lineage. Davis mentions Kafka, whose novels only appeared posthumously, in the mid-1920s. E. H. Visiak’s Medusa: A Story of Mystery (1929) deserves inclusion as well, but it remains even more obscure than Hodgson’s work. The 1930s offer scant pickings, but Amos Tutuola begins to publish in the 1940s, and Jean Ray’s masterpiece Malpertuis debuted in 1943, though it too received little attention until Raymond Queneau began to champion it a decade later.

Yet by the 1940s, Noir–arguably The Weird’s younger sister–had already made the leap into longer narrative forms, first the novel, and beginning with The Maltese Falcon in 1941, cinema as well. It is interesting that the works of Dashiell Hammett essentially provide the starting point for Noir in both short and long fiction, as well as in the cinema. No single author of Weird Fiction achieved so decisive an impact, not even Lovecraft. Moreover, while the major Weird novels were often published posthumously, or rarely received recognition during an author’s lifetime, major Noir novelists such as Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain enjoyed commercial success.

Our Lady of DarknessDavis also places Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel UBIK in the context of The Weird, and among Dick’s contemporaries in science fiction James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon, Stanislaw Lem, and J.G. Ballard equally deserve inclusion for certain works, if not all novels. If I take any major exception to Davis’ list, however, it is the omission of the 1977 novel Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber, more or less a contemporary of Dick. Both authors appeared in Dangerous Visions, along with Ballard, and Tiptree appeared in Again Dangerous Visions. I know I am not alone in considering Our Lady of Darkness the finest Weird novel of the last century at least, and in its evocation of an urban Weird, it served as the culmination of the direction in which Leiber had been moving since his celebrated 1941 story “Smoke Ghost”. Regardless of whether Leiber’s work with urban settings served as a genuine influence on VanderMeer or any of the other writers associated with the New Weird, it does represent an essential step in that direction. Stephen King’s The Shining appeared the same year, and a case can be made for its intrinsic Weirdness as well, though its success came under the banner of mainstream horror.

Several key Weird novels followed about a decade later: John Shirley’s In Darkness Waiting (1988), Kathe Koja’s debut novel The Cipher (1991), and Marc Laidlaw’s The 37th Mandala (1996). The opening chapter of the last is an especial masterpiece. The effects of subterranean fermentation begin to show.

Up until this point tracing any lineages through the scatter of Weird novels remains difficult. There are some connections: Shirley and Laidlaw share common roots in cyberpunk, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House echoes distinctly down the line in both The Shining and in Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree (2009). However, this apparent insularity of The Weird in the novel medium vanishes upon recognition that Weird novels are really the fruiting bodies of an extensive mycelium of short fiction that spent the last century spreading and adapting right beneath our feet. Then at the fin de siècle the Weird novel bursts forth in the peculiar fruit known as the New Weird, commencing with Jeff VanderMeer’s first novel, Draden, In Love in 1996, and China Miéville’s King Rat two years later. From the start, the New Weird has shown no fear of the novel, and here the Weird novel begins to form its first expanding fairy ring.

The New Weird’s circle of hybrid and exotic boletes grew quickly too amorphous to define, and any literary movement was essentially over by the time it was named. But first simultaneous with the New Weird’s expansion, then in some cases preceding it, and finally in its wake, a new series of Weird novelists began to pop up all across the meadow, following no pattern in their placement, but drawing in general on earlier expressions of cosmic horror. These authors include Michael Shea, Lucius Shepard, Lewis Shiner, Jeffrey Ford, the aforementioned Caitlin R. Kiernan, Michael Cisco, Brian Evenson, and Laird Barron.

Thus begins the Weird Renaissance–behold the plethora! More and better Weird Fiction writers are working at all lengths right now than ever before.

II. A Mouse

A second axiom of The Weird regards the limited size of its audience, usually identified as in the high three-digit range or just beyond the cusp of four on a good day. Such estimates obviously have much to do with small press sales figures and attendance at convention events. Miéville was able to escape these limits somewhat by incorporating tropes from science fiction/steampunk and fantasy and marketing to a general genre audience, but until recently other authors struggled to experience similar crossover success.

Markets change with almost every generation. Consider Shakespeare. The brief and brilliant florescence of the Elizabethan theater actually bracketed the famous Bard’s lifespan: 1564-1616 for Shakespeare, 1562-1648 for the theater as he knew it. Had he been born a generation earlier or lived that much later, he might have been forced to labor in another medium, perhaps less prominently, and his work never spread throughout the British Empire as a foundation of the English language. He could not have become a novelist: the novel did not take hold in England until a century after Shakespeare’s death. Poetry alone could never have paid his bills the way theater did at the Globe.

Pulp magazines originated toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, the successor to dime novels and penny dreadfuls. At their peak in the 1920s and ‘30s, some sold as much as one million copies per issue, and many paid rates beyond even what most genre authors receive today. The death of H.P. Lovecraft in 1937 coincided with the decline of the pulps, and by the mid-1950s they were gone.

With the demise of the pulp market, genre fiction migrated to digest-sized magazines and cheap paperbacks. Science fiction and Noir thrived in these media, as did horror and fantasy to a lesser extent. Weird Tales failed to make the transition to the new format and ceased publication in 1954. Weird Fiction, which had never achieved a distinct genre categorization, now lived only in the shadows of the other genres, analogous to early mammals of the Cretaceous, with Arkham House the flickering volcanic beacon at which the flame was relit time and again.

Black MaskFor at least a generation the gene pool of The Weird remained the province of these small scuttling creatures, with occasional viral intrusions into longer works in other genres. Had it made the leap into the novel prior to World War II, history might be different. A definite springboard had existed: all of Hammett’s novels first appeared as serials in the pulp magazine Black Mask prior to hardcover publication. But whether due to editorial policy or writers’ predilections, the Weird stayed small.

But the sea change came, arguably washed in on the wave of the Internet, which burst into households during the mid-1990s. Cult authors suddenly found their cults expanding. Noir authors like James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, and Dennis Lehane bootstrapped into the mainstream. Weird Fiction became a topic of interest, and at last it did so by that name. The small press market expanded. New writers of the Weird arose, each of them claiming that much more turf. The Weird began to lurk just beyond large scale recognition…

III. A Newfound Door

Despite the proliferation of The Weird over the last two decades–and growing awareness of the Weird Tale and Weird Fiction as literary categories–the form has continued to strain against its own glass ceiling.

Until now.

Jeff VanderMeer exploded these preconceptions with Southern Reach. With these three novels, or one long novel in three parts, VanderMeer brought The Weird to public awareness…and in multiple countries and multiple languages. Even if the public doesn’t know what hit it yet, it has been hit. With Southern Reach, The Weird has at last achieved critical mass.

Several features of VanderMeer’s trilogy deserve special attention:

First of all, it offers a Lovecraft-free path to the True Weird. Lovecraft’s legacy has grown problematic, and even disregarding the controversy his ultra-racist political views have inevitably generated, his name evokes role-playing games, plush toys, and tentacle porn as much or more than tales of cosmic horror. The author’s own tropes have subsumed his work. Although many critics invoked Lovecraft’s name in some sort of lazy shorthand in reviews of Annihilation, the first Southern Reach novel, VanderMeer had already disavowed Lovecraft as an influence.

Secondly, Southern Reach represents a synthesis of access routes to The Weird, combining and transcending both the New Weird and more conventional approaches. Its real world setting makes it accessible in ways that even Miéville’s early novels are not

Finally, the publication of the trilogy by a major publishing house, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, was inherently game-changing, and their decision to release all three books across the span of only half a year was unprecedented, drawing favorable attention in itself. The medium, once more, is the message…

The timing of Southern Reach created a synergy with the eight-part TV mini-series True Detective, which borrowed from Robert Chambers, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, and other Weird authors, and drove up interest in Weird Fiction (Tom Lynch, the publisher of Miskatonic River Press, told me that coincident with the increasing references on True Detective to the King in Yellow, Carcosa, and other elements of Chambers’ work, sales of the Joseph S. Pulver edited Chambers tribute anthology A Season in Carcosa shot up from single digits to double digits to over 500 copies in just one month [personal communication 2014]).

Southern Reach and True Detective brought new readers to The Weird. Some of them will stay, and they will stay hungry for more. Who will feed them?

A third major prong of this advance rests with Joe R. Lansdale, whose novel Cold in July has been adapted to film and is making the rounds of festivals to a strong critical reception. Though Cold in July is strictly Noir with no Weird elements, it has made Lansdale a deservedly hot property in Hollywood, with another film and a TV series already in the works. If Hollywood digs into Lansdale’s oeuvre to any depth, The Weird will also emerge (as will Bizarro, The Weird’s other younger sister, if anyone tackles a film of The Drive-In or its sequels).

The membrane between Noir and The Weird is thin. Jim Thompson, one of the great authors from the second era of Noir (the postwar era when paperbacks replaced the pulp magazines as the primary market for genre authors) wrote: “There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot–things are not as they seem.”

Thompson gave us here the perfect instrument not only for understanding both Noir and The Weird, but for comparing the two and recognizing them not as discrete genres, but as different quantum levels of the same literary impulse. In Noir, the revelation of how things really are usually involves the epiphany or discovery of a brutal truth about one [or more] character’s personal relationships and/or the larger sociopolitical structure in which the protagonist operates. Although the protagonist is sometimes the agent by which that truth is revealed, the revelation is often tragic in nature, and the protagonist is frequently destroyed by it. Noir is an American tragic vision equivalent in scope and literary merit to tragedy in the Elizabethan theater.

The Weird operates the same way, only here the Thompsonian revelation occurs not on a personal and/or sociopolitical level, but on the cosmic scale. In its broadest form, it is a revelation of the universe’s indifference to humanity and/or of the presence of things previously unsuspected that take an unwholesome interest in humanity. Now this cosmic revelation may be initiated by a noir revelation, in the same way that an atomic bomb serves as the trigger for a hydrogen bomb, but just as with the H-bomb, it is the terminal revelation that is definitive.

Which is also an excellent description of Southern Reach. The Weird has arrived full force in the novel, and may be headed for film. Paramount Pictures bought the rights for the trilogy, and a screenplay for Annihilation is already in the works.

The Weird is the new Noir.

9 replies to “The Expanding Borders of Area X

  1. Or Noir is the Old Weird. I’ll be reading Annihilation soon, and I’m looking forward to it. Really, if you expand your focus enough it becomes clear that all of human experience and art is pretty weird. So much of it grows out of conflict and trauma, a very fertile garden bed.

    I’ve recently read a lot of Joe R. Lansdale’s work. Really satisfying reading, but I think the weird is baked into all of his stuff to some degree. Tight Little Stitches is a weird classic, certainly (or just a classic, period.)

    Many thanks for this overview of the good, weird stuff.

  2. Uland: There is consensus amongst people that aren’t massive racists. Massive racists like the authors of that god-awful blog you linked to.

  3. This is getting way too inbred, the way this site is becoming a full time promotion vehicle for Jeff V.

  4. AW— There must be an awful lot of racists buying Lovecraft editions if that’s the case. He’s certainly outselling the ideologically safe authors.

  5. —Maybe that’s what’s truly “problematic”; the fact that the reading public is just not interested in post-Marxist foppery.

  6. Last comment, promise.
    I didn’t post the link to try and win approval, but to illustrate how your particular ideology is one of many. The New Right ( or Neo-Reaction) has been claiming Lovecraft for years ( he’s a regular subject at Counter Currents, for example). Those who’re now claiming leadership in genre fiction are only helping our cause. He is ours. He is us.Without him you have very little.

  7. Actually I’ve been a hard lefty for decades and have loved Lovecraft for all of that time. As have many others that I know on the left. No author ‘belongs’ to anyone. It is true that he had some moronic ideas with regards race and class, as do the rest of the right, but that does not detract from his horror nor the skill of his prose. Both TS Elliot and Ezra Pound had vile politics and opinions but that doesn’t mean they weren’t poetical geniuses.

    I think that an analysis and understanding of Lovecraft’s bigotry can add to our reading of his work. His fear of the ‘other’ does, without a doubt, sit at the heart of his cosmic horror. But then so does his atheism and his infatuation with astronomy. It also gives an insight, through the prose, into the racialist mindset of an earlier time. Into a philosophical position that is now as outmoded and irrelevant as the writings of Lenin, Stalin, or Mao.

    It is untrue to say that without Lovecraft we have very little. We still have the works of Poe, Dunsany, LeFanu, Bierce, Machen, and all the other authors who wrote before and contemporaneously with Lovecraft.

    The fields of Horror and Weird literature have moved on dramatically since the days of Lovecraft. We do owe him a massive debt of gratitude for his development of the horror/weird tale but we have moved on from that and now there are authors who are light years beyond Lovecraft in both imagination and talent. The likes of Thomas Ligotti, Livia Llewellyn, John Langan, Laird Barron, Willum H Pugmire, Molly Tanzer, Nicole Cushing, Joe Pulver, Jeff Vandermeer, Gemma Files, China Mieville, and so on. None of whom hold views anything like Lovecraft yet they all build from him.

    Basically we’ve grown up, or at least are in the process of growing up, and we are now more than the sum of our forbears. We build on a broader tradition that also incorporates the likes of Kafka, Shulz, Grabinski, Saki, Borges, James and many, many more. We take influence from the developments in science, in society, in our understanding of who we are, where we come from and where we seem to be going.

    We are more than H.P. Lovecraft and he no more belongs to the right than he does the left. His work, and the work of all writers of the weird, belongs to all. So feel free to write about HPL’s bigotry as though it offers some kind of cultural credence to your reactionary ideology. The rest of us will simply roll our eyes and move onwards into a weird and wonderful future full of all the dazzling creativity that humanity has to offer.

  8. The simple fact that an internet troll fixates on Lovecraft after reading an article that mentions over 40 authors shows exactly why Lovecraft’s position in The Weird has become problematic.