The Mere Touch: Weird Reviews

Maureen Kincaid Speller

The mere touch of cold philosophy.” – Keats

Reviewed in this column:
The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit, NY, 2012)
Ivyland by Miles Klee (OR Books, NY, 2012)
Shiny Thing by Patricia Russo (Papaveria Press, 2011)
Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2012

Recently, the New Yorker has, a little unexpectedly, produced a science-fiction issue. I say ‘unexpectedly’ yet the New Yorker has never been agin fantastika per se though I think it treads warily around actual manifestations of genre. Which makes the New Yorker’s sudden full-on engagement with ‘science fiction’ all the more peculiar. It seems a bit ‘in your face’ for a magazine which prides itself on its subtlety and restraint.

Indeed, what amused me most about the issue was its cover, a fine piece by Daniel Clowes, comics and cartoon artist, and a regular New Yorker contribution. If you haven’t seen it, it shows a 1950s-style space guy, a robot and a space creature bursting through the wall into the panelled politeness of a New York City drinks party. My own theory is that the spaceman’s presence is actually a collective thought bubble, what most people in the room think of when they think of science fiction – brash, tacky, childish, energetically transgressive, however you choose to phrase it. Consequently, the magazine’s contents can be read as a riposte to this rather jejune view, though it is of course the New Yorker’s own particular take on the matter, one that may well be unrecognisable to the committed genre fan.

Actually, I enjoyed the issue as a kind of primer on what sf for the non-sf reader might look like, though there was one story, ‘Monstro’ by Junot Díaz, which seemed to me to be as much ‘weird’ as it was sf. It’s behind the subscription wall, alas, so I can’t link to it (though I do urge you to get hold of a copy if you can), but while Díaz is, on the one hand, using tropes of cosy catastrophe – inexplicable plagues, odd behaviours emanating from the affected, unexplained technological failure – on the other, the way in which he sets these events, reported by the narrator, who doesn’t experience most of them first-hand, against the narrator’s own life in the Dominican Republic during that summer, chasing girls, hanging out with his friends, waiting for something, but not for catastrophe, speaks to me of something closer to ‘weird’. It is not so much that he is indifferent – he is anything but – yet he can’t quite get a sufficient grip on events to start constructing a coherent narrative, so these bizarre events stud his account of his summer, gradually, inexorably drawing closer.

While I do not see the New Yorker producing a similar issue on the ‘weird’, at least not any time soon, in the same way as it smuggles in its science fiction, so weirdness not infrequently seeps from its pages. Sometimes we notice it, sometimes we don’t. There are people who would read ‘Monstro’ in a completely different way were it in the New Yorker but not in a designated theme issue. Myself, I like to suppose I would always recognise it as being odd, science-fictional, weird, simply because that is how I read, but I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to read it in the same way I do. And this has set me thinking more deeply about how I read the contemporary weird.

Unlike classic weird tales, which context and critical discussion have often made more obviously visible to the modern reader, contemporary weird tales are not always as easily identifiable, not least because, as ‘Monstro’ hints, our daily lives are anyway beset with weirdness, and we live in a period where that general weirdness is more regularly made explicit. Perhaps the art of detecting weirdness lies in determining how weird is truly weird. John H. Stevens raises this issue in his article, ‘The Joy of Thinking (And Reading) Weirdly’, here on Weird Fiction Review, when he says that

Reading is an act both of imagination and cogitation, of making sense and creating worlds. But weird fiction pulls you into a second, deeper pool, where your beliefs are challenged, ridiculed, overthrown, or insulted.

Now that may sound not dissimilar to the spaceman who breaks down the wall and stands there, waving around his implausibly large raygun, but I’d argue it is different, very different. Once you’ve blasted a wall apart and shown off the shiny weapon that did it, what next? Actually not a lot, except more blasting and more posturing, confirming rather than challenging beliefs. If the novels and short story collection I am going to discuss in this column have anything in common, it is that however differently they present themselves, behind all of them exists that second, deeper pool John Stevens speaks of, though its existence is revealed in very different ways.

Vaudeville, with its roots in freak shows and medicine shows, might be promising territory for the weird. Most people regard the theatre as a place set apart from daily life and enter it prepared for the unconventional, expecting to see wonders, demanding them even. For the space of a show, the performers are transformed into mystical beings, elevated by their position on the stage. At the same time we know, not least because we are told this so often, that the performance is an illusion. Indeed, if anything being told this is as much part of part of the game as the performance itself. Both audience and performers knowing that they are engaged in an act of dissembling yet still they play the game. The nature of this split consciousness is difficult to pin down but it is this tension between the normal and the remarkable, and this performance of the remarkable, that comes into play in Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Troupe (Orbit, NYC, 2012).

At the heart of the story is the young pianist, George Carole, a gifted musician who has spent the last six months at Otterman’s Vaudeville Theater, making himself indispensable as performer and music arranger. Although George is not from a vaudeville family neither has he joined the theatre because he has unrealistic expectations of stardom. He has been content to carve out a niche for himself as house pianist. Yet, as the novel opens, George has suddenly quit, refusing to say why he is going. However, Irina the orchestra’s viola player, a shrewd woman, has guessed. Heironomo Silenus’s vaudeville troupe has, for some reason, skipped playing Otterman’s on the circuit, and George, who has a particular interest in the troupe, has quit to chase after them. What George does not tell Irina is that he believes that Silenus is his father and is hoping his long-lost parent will take the orphan George into his care, teach him stagecraft and be the parent George has lacked.

So far, The Troupe seems like a bildungsroman with a distinctly American flavour, as George lights out for the territory of the vaudeville circuit, determined to establish himself and take up his rightful place with the troupe. However, George has noticed that there is something odd about Silenus’s troupe, both in its uncommon four-act structure and in the fact that George has never yet met anyone who can remember what the fourth act actually is. Indeed, the troupe’s entire performance is strangely forgettable. He has also gradually become aware that others are looking for the troupe: strange grey men with jerky movements and vacant eyes, who bring with them a particular quality of silence which has the power to drain a room of noise and colour. He is not sure what to make of this but he is uneasy about it. When George arrives at the town where the troupe is performing, and finds that the grey men are already there, it seems natural to go straight to the theatre, see the show and warn Silenus of their presence.

In the fairytale version of this story George would be greeted warmly, absorbed into the troupe, and his warning believed. Instead, George is greeted with suspicion, not least because he remains awake during the fourth act, and suddenly finds himself on the street with Silenus and Kingsley, the puppeteer, pursued by mysterious figures whom Silenus calls the ‘wolves’, or ‘gaps in Creation’. Here, George witnesses Silenus performing a crude form of magic, using the shadows of the three men to distract their attackers, and shortly after, he is on a train with the group, heading out of town as fast as he can.

George’s new life on the road is less than he might have hoped for. Bennett is writing against the familiar trope of the outsider initiated into the life of the carnival troupe, learning the ropes, finding success. Much of what George sees mystifies him, even as a seasoned observer of vaudeville performers; he is no longer among people who treat him as an equal, or indeed as an adult, and no one answers his questions, of which he has many. There is the mystery of Silenus’s room, which seems to materialise in whichever hotel he’s staying in and the unexplained journeys he and Stanley make through another doorway in the room. When George goes with them he is invariably asked to perform dangerous tasks but again he has little idea of what he is doing, or why. Meanwhile he expected to accept all of this at face value. It is strange, it is unnatural, but most of all, it is boring.

Which is an odd thing to say, perhaps, but as Bennett’s story unfolds, one begins to realise how contingent such fictions generally are on people either knowing things or being actively denied information, and knowing that. For George, mostly disregarded unless he has an immediate use, piecing together a meaningful narrative is practically impossible to construct because he doesn’t really know what information he needs or lacks. Silenus – Harry – may call the ‘wolves’ gaps in Creation but this is meaningless to George. Indirectly, this also makes sense of the novel’s occasionally odd pacing, mostly associated with George’s periods of kicking his heels when the troupe is otherwise busy, arising from the fact that in fictional terms he has intruded into a story which is not his own and in which, to begin with, he has no purpose. The best he can do is to retire to his bildungsroman and pine after the beautiful Colette, who of course has no interest in him.

And that is not all that’s happening. For me, it began with the reference to ‘wolves’, which made me think immediately of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights and the phrase, ‘the wolves are running’, a code among those on the side of the forces of good; Silenus made me think of Prince Caspian and then the references to ‘grey men’ led me to Michael Ende’s Momo. Stanley’s casual reference to some fur coats in a closet upstairs reinforced my sense that Bennett was working in part with tropes from children’s stories but what clinched it for me was Harry’s explanation for what he is doing, which is nothing more nor less than trying to repair the world by singing it back into existence in the places where it has faded or been damaged by the darkness which Creation supplanted. One recalls inevitably Aslan singing Narnia into existence in The Magician’s Nephew, and indeed that title itself seems to hold a certain resonance for the novel. Other references are less overt, less easily labelled, perhaps because they have sunk more deeply into the collective unconscious from which story arises: one thinks in particular of the transplanted fairy court with whom Harry deals at one point. This suggests that story is somehow flowing through the gaps in Creation that Silenus and his troupe have not yet fixed, acting as a kind of imaginative bridging for the reader, highlighting the points when participants are bereft of words and explanation for what they’re seeing. It is an intriguing thought and of a piece with Bennett’s constant sly undermining of the novel’s progress and the conventional narrative structures.

It is of course possible to read this simply as a coming-of-age story set in the age of vaudeville, with a gradual rapprochement being reached between father and son, and a young man finding his place in the world, and indeed it can be read very successfully in that way, at least to judge from some of the reviews. It is also possible to read this as a magical novel, as a mythic novel, if one so desires. It is not a novel that bespeaks immediately of the weird yet I think the weird exists here. If I were looking for a quick and dirty description, I might call it weird seen from a mainstream perspective, but that would be unfair as well. In this instance, the weird, the truly weird as opposed to the gothic horror fol-de-rols that distract the eye as a good magician should, lurks quietly in the corners of the novel, only becoming apparent by slow degrees, shyly, reluctantly, but it nags insistently away at the mind as if to say that something is not quite right here, something is really not quite right.

Ivyland (OR Books, NYC, 2012), Miles Klee’s debut novel, doesn’t so much nag the reader about its wrongness as scream it from the rooftops, which immediately suggests misdirection to the suspicious-minded reader. As Poe knew, if you want to hide something, hide it in plain view. So what is Klee concealing from us? Nothing, apparently, is left to the imagination as the reader picks her way delicately through post-urban New Jersey, a landscape in which small-town America is falling apart at the seams, a state of affairs reflected in the fractured nature of the narrative itself, constantly reaching into the past, as advertised by the chapter headings. This is not so much nostalgia as reflective of someone’s attempt to figure out where it all went wrong.

And where did it go wrong? Perhaps with the creation of Belltruvin, ‘the most successful over-the-counter anti-anxiety medication, and Adderade, a groundbreaking beverage that spells the end of unfocused energy’, or perhaps the mysterious medical procedure called VV, which doesn’t seem to do anything, but the necessary anaesthetic gas creates addicts or zombies, depending on how you respond. Somewhere in the resulting world transhumanity for all is supposedly available but the problem with any visionary idea, be it science fiction or in real life (and the two are no longer that far removed from one another), is that vision and reality rarely match, except in the rarest of cases. Instead of a happy, healthy, compliantly posthuman society, we’ve ended up with Ivyland, where people struggle against increasing odds to maintain a normal existence in the face of galloping bizarreness.

Energy may no longer be unfocused but it is not always easy to establish what it is focused on. Hecuba the former school-bus driver barely clings to sanity while her son, DH, seems determined to lead as self-destructive a life as he possibly can, hooking up with Lev Van Vechten on one lame-ass scheme after another, all of which makes perfect sense to them but leave a trail of botched surgeries and maimed people behind them. Henri, the socially inept schoolboy genius who never had VV has somehow survived to adulthood and gathered around him a small coterie of friends, though no one is quite clear how he has managed this. In his own way Henri is a good friend but you have to know him to like him. Among those friends Aidan, the amused detached commentator, represents a small beacon of comparative sanity, but that means he has to deal with the religious group standing on the lawn, worshipping a tree that has been struck by lightning, revealing an image of their prophet.

It is difficult to avoid the surreality of this novel. Klee keeps piling on the absurd detail, layer by layer, and there is no doubt that the novel is extremely funny. Yet something jars in the way that he is also constantly undermining this layering. There is a sense that underneath it all people are struggling to make their voices, their actual voices, heard, to let everyone else know that this is not a paradise in which they find themselves, and actually that does matter. We can sight of them in fleeting glimpses, as though they’re taking a breather for a moment, and have let down the guard of performance as a result, yet soon enough, they’re off again, at a relentless exhausting pace, sustained by the constant switching between narrators and indeed the flashbacks. Similarly, Klee self-consciously draws attention to the novel’s structure: there is constant rereferencing of the same event from different characters, either handing on the action like a baton, or else revisiting from a different angle, a different interpretation. One might have the sense that Ivyland is just one long, glorious cut-up muddle, and yet on closer examination it has a very coherent linear narrative running below the surface, much of it focused on the friendship between Henri and Aidan.

There is just one problem with all of this plausible analysis, and that’s Cal, Aidan’s brother, an astronaut, currently in space and on his way to certain death. Suppose, just suppose that none of this is anything more than Cal’s fevered imaginings as he waits for the inevitable end. But isn’t that in itself another narrative convention? And that, to my mind, is the joy of this novel; it simply can’t and won’t settle. It advertises its resistance in such a way as to deceive the reader into assuming it’s all about shiny artifice and it resists anyway. In some ways I’m no wiser at the end of this novel as to what’s going on than I was a chapter into it. It is a constant challenge to my ability to construct a narrative from it, and the story I have pulled out of it so far is so fragile as to be blown away in a moment. It reminds me of how terrifyingly frail the stories we tell ourselves in order to keep going actually are.

While Ivyland may wear its degeneration like a highly visible badge of honour, things are very different in the worlds portrayed in Shiny Thing (Papaveria Press, 2011), Patricia Russo’s collection of short stories, yet that fragility persists, as does the urban setting. Blue Street runs like a thread through many of these stories, a symbol of times before and times after. Below Blue Street things happen; indeed, they happen above Blue Street as well but somehow Blue Street represents the dividing line between what is acceptable and what is, almost literally, beyond the pale. Blue Street is what you talk about when you want to frighten children with stories f the old days. Yet it is not always easy to tell which side of the street the storyteller is standing, and that offers interesting resonances for the reader.

Russo’s is a world full of small, mysterious changes. People become wet, or slippery (‘Turning, Or Turning’), or else begin to sparkle (‘Hiding’) or most perturbingly, they granulate and shed limbs (‘Lusard Street’). Alternatively, they might be surviving the aftermath of … well, no one is quite sure what any more. Whether the one arises from the other is never made clear. Some things have slipped out of the memory and anyway, survival is what matters rather than dwelling on the past. The past is for stories, the present is for action, though action is perhaps too strong a word for people simply getting on with things, dealing with odd events as they arise, making accommodations. And making accommodations is key to how Russo’s post-world functions, that and its habit of being unobtrusive. Thus, while ‘Happyfacing’ focuses on the effects of change, its narrator, growing old, close to death, is nonetheless still thinking forwards; this, and indeed a focus on age, is something that marks a number of Russo’s stories. Others are fascinated with children, their drive for survival, their adaptability and indeed their bravery in the face of the incomprehensible. Throughout, it is the quiet acceptance of weirdness intruding into daily life, the getting on with it, that distinguishes these stories. Calmness of character is always a marker. Anger disrupts far more than weirdness itself. Tolerance of strangeness is encouraged and many of the stories revolve around embracing changes rather than attempting to defy them. ‘The Jaculi’ is a prime example of this; after an initial night of madness and terror, when mythical flying beasts arrive in Blue Street, it is the ‘grandmothers’, the men and women who seem to appear whenever help is needed, who argue for an accommodation between people and flying serpents. While the rest of the city exterminate their jaculi the residents of the Triangle invite this latest strangeness into their lives and consider themselves enriched as a result. That, and the jaculi keep down the vermin as well.

In ‘Happyfacing’ the narrator notes how the ‘city was dead, but it wouldn’t lie down and be still’, and this sense permeates all of Russo’s stories. The drive to continue, in some form or other, is incredibly strong, and if that means reaching an accommodation with wet skin, sparkly skin and flying serpents, then, hey, why not?

Brian McGreevy’s Hemlock Grove (Farrar, Straus and Girux, NYC, 2012) is marked by a similar acceptance of weirdness, or perhaps more accurately, by a sense of its being unremarkable, to a certain extent at least. The underlying question seems to be ‘how much weirdness can a community tolerate’, to which the answer is ‘more than you might suppose’. From the blurb, I formed the impression that this novel was a rich kid/poor kid murder-mystery, with vague horrific undertones but the novel is so much more subtle than that. The presence of a werewolf and an upir, or vampire, might suggest urban fantasy, and indeed one might see a buried class assumption in the fact that the vampire is the rich kid while the werewolf is trailer-trash, but this is a minor detail in a really more complicated story.

Yes, Peter Rumancek is considered by many to be gypsy trailer-trash and he is an easy suspect when a young girl is found dead, her body horribly mauled. The matter is not helped by Peter’s having blandly assured Christina Wendall that he is a werewolf, something she dutifully repeats after the murders begin. In fairness, Christina, who likes to hang around the Rumanceks’ caravan, asked him because she had noticed that his index and middle fingers were the same length, which is apparently a sure sign of being a werewolf. Peter’s matter-of-fact response, his explanation (recessive genes), and his low-key observation that it might bother other people to know are all indicative of his easy acceptance of his … I’d say ‘condition’, but the point is that this is not a thing to be pathologised because Peter is genuinely comfortable in and out of his skin. The reasons he makes people nervous are to all do with social status, and his identity as a werewolf is irrelevant, until Christina starts telling tales.

By the same token, Roman Godfrey, rich kid, scion of the local family of wealthy industrialists, who have moved on from steel-making to biotech, may be upir, but this doesn’t mean that he and Peter are instantly supernatural best buddies. They know who and what they are but continue to move in their separate circles until the murders begin. The really startling thing about Roman is his sister, Shelley, who appears to be literally monstrous, although her email correspondence with her uncle reveals a clever mind and a sharp observer. Roman, too, is aware of Shelley’s capabilities but their mother, Olivia, suppresses her daughter’s interest in her appearance, insisting that she dress to conform with the monstrous stereotype. Roman, however, is happy to hitch a trailer to his sports car to take Shelley to and from school, and takes care of her as best he can. No one comments because, not only does money talk, it silences, and no one is about to cross the Godfrey family.

The murders bring Peter and Roman together in an immediately easy alliance; they may be temperamentally unlike one another but they understand what they’re dealing with – a rogue werewolf – and they pool their knowledge and skills in order to deal with it. McGreevy is constantly writing against expectation as he handles the supernatural elements of the story but similarly, he plays with the mystery element of the novel. Even the looming biotech facility owned by the Godfreys does not play quite the role one might expect, and to describe this novel as a thriller, as a hunt to catch the werewolf before it kills again, would be to do it a serious disservice.

I seem to be falling into describing this novel by what it doesn’t do, by how it contradicts or mutes the tropes with which it works, so it is time to talk about what it actually does. What it does, I think, is to portray a community. On the one hand, this community is full of fictional types: young rich boy, young poor boy, teenage girl outsider, teenage rich girl, rich baffled parents, dodgy scientists, threatening FBI investigators and so on, but the emphasis is on the stuff of community, how it functions or not rather than on how the weird intrudes. Because the weird doesn’t intrude. It is always there. The difference is that for various reasons it has come to the attention of more people and as such its presence takes on greater significance and, as the story unfolds, contributes more and more to the way in which the narrative is being shaped. The denouement, when it comes, is not really about weirdness at all. Manifestations of the weird might be instrumental in its occurrence but for the most part the same result could have occurred in entirely mundane ways. It’s just that in this instance they didn’t. And that is what makes this novel really rather special in my view. It presents itself as realist novel – the tone throughout is firmly, distinctively realist – but constantly undermines this in its presentation of weirdness.

On a panel at the recent Book Expo America, Jeff VanderMeer commented that the weird is to the twenty-first century what fairytales were to earlier times. Fairytales – the real deal – were as much about pulling you into John Stevens’ ‘second, deeper pool’, which, I now realise, is where Jeff’s third bear probably goes to drink, as they were about beguiling an idle hour. In some ways they were stories about surviving, and I think that is equally true of the stories I’ve discussed here. They are about how the weird lives in the twenty-first century and how we live alongside it.


Maureen Kincaid Speller has been a fantasy and SF critic for over 25 years, contributing reviews to Interzone, Strange Horizons, Foundation, Vector (the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association) and The Zone, among others. She also has her own blog, called Paper Knife. In 2011 the British Science Fiction Association produced a chapbook of her critical writings, And Another Thing: A Collection of Reviews and Criticism, edited by Jonathan McCalmont. She earns a living as a copy editor and proofreader, and is partway through a Ph.D on Native North American literature and ethical approaches to critical theory. She lives in Folkestone, Kent, UK, with her husband, Paul Kincaid, and spends what’s left of her spare time growing vegetables.