When I was a kid (yes,Virginia, dinosaurs walked the earth then), I read Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar” and have regarded garden sheds with an acute suspicion ever since. M R James was responsible for many restless nights, many dreadful dreams (“Casting the Runes”, “A Warning to the Curious”, “Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”, “A Warning to the Curious”, “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas”, “The Wailing Well” were but a few causes of night terrors). If James was the main course, then Stoker’s “The Judge’s House”, Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”, and Laski’s “The Tower” were the disturbing dessert. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” still haunts my dreams — I sometimes wake convinced I have been climbing that long, dread staircase only to surface in a place I don’t belong.
A normal child might have stopped reading such things and turned to stories of flowers and bunnies. You will note that I did not; I kept reading these strange tales, sought out more and more and more of them. It’s a habit I’ve never lost — even as I write this, I am listening to the BBC’s enactments of a series of M R James’ ghost stories. I never learn, do I?
In my teens I added to my list of nightmare fodder, pieces such as Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities”, Etchison’s “It Only Comes Out at Night”, and Ramsey Campbell’s “The Brood”. Stories that might have been horror but seemed to be something else as well. Stories that were … weird.
It never ends. Now I go back and forth between the classics, like Sarban’s The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny, or his Ringstones and Other Curious Tales (two beautiful Tartarus Press editions sit upon my desk), then to more modern pieces like Miéville’s “Details”, or Margo Lanagan’s ever-gloriously-grim “Singing My Sister Down”. Then there’s the newly released Women Writing the Weird, edited by Deb Hoag — a wonderfully promising anthology of unsettling/bizarre/weird tales.
Of course, when I began reading it wasn’t called ‘The Weird’. These tales were defined as gothic; chillers; ghostly; strange; uncanny. Basically, stories under the broad church of, well, creepy shit.
I find myself wondering what they had in common. They weren’t all about the supernatural. It wasn’t horror, although some had definite elements of the horrific in their content and effect. The Weird definitely is not about domesticated vampires, pet werewolves or friendly ghosts.
The Weird isn’t about the tame.
It’s about things that are unexpected, things that fracture the mundane, things that are not explained, that are different and simply are.
It’s beautiful women who lure us away from the path; it’s Saki’s Gabriel-Ernest helping himself to the Toop child; it’s Angela Carter’s “The Snow Pavilion” narrator finding himself among dolls and decay and choosing not to fight it; it’s all the awful wishes the Monkey’s Paw might grant; it’s even the old tale we used to tell each other as kids, “The Hairy Toe”.
It’s the unexplainable, the unanswerable. There is no spoon feeding in the Weird — the reader must interpret as s/he will. There are no pat solutions, no easily digestible climaxes. The Weird is designed to disturb — and one of the great disturbances to the psyche is not being given all the answers. To feel that there is something you’re missing. Reading the Weird leaves one with the uneasy sense that beyond the last full stop something is still happening. Something is still coming towards you – or moving away from you and you desperately want to go with it. The Weird gives you the feeling that nothing is properly finished. The Weird breaks you down and hints ever-so-softly that your conviction of comfort is false.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” is a wonderful example — rich with a creeping dread, a sense of threat that is never articulated or fully realised by the end of the story, but which grows and looms and never goes away.
The Weird is a changeable thing. Grandmaster Moorcock has said “I know the Weird when I feel it”. It shows all the characteristics of a creature that knows evolution is necessary for survival — so even though time of death may have been pronounced on the New Weird, its corpse has been absorbed by the parent Weird and it will go on in another form. You’ll know it when you feel it.
On my brief watch as managing editor, you will find reviews, essays, considerations of the Weird in its manifold forms. The territory is wide and deep; it has infinite length and breadth. Ultimately, the Weird tells us ‘You cannot understand everything’. So sit back and be dazzled, be confounded and uplifted by your fear, by your uncertainty, by the ground that feels quite crumbly beneath your feet.