WFR’s 101 Weird Writers: #17 — William Gibson and John Shirley

Strange Tribes in "The Belonging Kind"

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.

William Gibson (1948 – ) is an American-Canadian writer who has been called the ‘noir prophet’ of the cyberpunk subgenre. John Shirley (1953 – ) is an American writer of novels, short stories, and film scripts, associated with both cyberpunk and splatterpunk. Gibson met Shirley at a science convention in the early 1980s and they became good friends. “The Belonging Kind” (1981) originally appeared in Charles Grant’s classic Shadows anthology series and seems to synthesize the best of Gibson’s and Shirley’s solo work. It’s a wonderful weird form of speculative fiction, creepy and thought-provoking, as ably demonstrated by regular 101 Weird Writers contributor Desirina Boskovich.

- Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”


The Belonging Kind” is a collaborative story; in fact, it’s the only collaborative story featured in The Weird. This alone sets it apart, but the strangeness doesn’t stop there. Though it was written by William Gibson and John Shirley, two grandmasters of the cyberpunk subgenre, it is not actually a cyberpunk story. And though Gibson has since achieved the greater commercial success, at the time the story was written, he’d yet to publish a novel. Shirley was his mentor, offering him the push needed to put his work out into the world.

Of course, such strangeness demands an origin story. In an interview with The Paris Review, Gibson tells it like this:

[Shirley] was an extremely outgoing person, and he introduced himself to me: “I’m a singer in a punk band, but my day job is writing science fiction.” I said, “You know, I write a little science fiction myself.” And he said, “Published anything?” And I said, “Oh, not really. This one story in this utterly obscure magazine.” He said, “Well, send me some of your stuff, I’ll give you a critique.”

As soon as he got home he sent me a draft of a short story he had written perhaps an hour beforehand: “This is my new genius short story.” I read it — it was about someone who discovers there are things that live in bars, things that look like drunks and prostitutes but are actually something else — and I saw, as I thought at the time, its flaws. I sat down to write him a critique, but it would have been so much work to critique it that instead I took his story and rewrote it. It was really quick and painless. I sent it back to him, saying, “I hope this won’t piss you off, but it was actually much easier for me to rewrite this than to do a critique.” The next thing I get back is a note — “I sold it!” He had sold it to this hardcover horror anthology. I was like, Oh, shit. Now my name is on this weird story.[1]

The Belonging Kind” was published in 1981, a year after Shirley’s classic City Come A‑Walkin’. Three years later, Gibson would publish Neuromancer, the ground-breaking novel that birthed the cyberpunk movement almost singlehandedly (after sweeping that year’s awards, becoming the first book to nab the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Philip K. Dick Award). Fifteen years after that, Gibson would pay tribute to City Come A‑Walkin’ in a forward for the new edition, stating that “John Shirley was cyberpunk’s patient zero, first locus of the virus… [City Come A‑Walkin] is, quite literally, a seminal work; most of the elements of the unborn Movement swim here in opalescent swirls of Shirley’s literary spunk.”[2]

Gibson followed up Neuromancer with Count Zero and Mona Lisa overdrive (the Sprawl trilogy). The nineties brought the Bridge trilogy: Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties. Meanwhile, the real world was working hard to catch up with the glittering high tech dystopias of Gibson’s earlier work. In the 2000s, Gibson began publishing novels that might best be described as science fiction of the present day. Not near future, but now future. These later novels have brought Gibson a level of critical acclaim often sought but rarely achieved by science fiction authors. The cultural context was bound to change; Gibson was always writing about a fast-developing future, a moving target. But an unchanging vein of obsession runs through these books: in its own way, each one is about the collateral damage of the high tech future, as glimpsed in the uncanny cracks of the present.

Meanwhile, Shirley’s obsessions have been more varied. He wrote a handful of cyberpunk novels, following City Come A‑Walkin’ with the 1980’s Eclipse trilogy (Eclipse, Eclipse Penumbra, and Eclipse Corona) and the 2008 Black Glass (“the lost cyberpunk novel”). He writes horror of a violent, gruesome, and extreme variety, like Wetbones, Demons and In Darkness Waiting, shaping a subgenre then known as “splatterpunk.” His more recent novels delve into dark fantasy (Bleak History) and near future science fiction (Everything is Broken). He’s penned a number of commercial tie-in novels, and he’s written lyrics for the band Blue Oyster Cult (18 songs), as well as fronting a few bands himself. He co-wrote the screenplay for the movie The Crow, a gothic romance haunted by the real-life tragedy of its star’s fatal shooting during filming. His short fiction has been collected in a number of volumes, including the award-winning Black Butterflies and the most recent In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley. Basically, if it’s bloody, gritty, scary, or dark, he’s written it, and maybe lived it. Stories about Shirley, both his own and other people’s, focus on the chaos and darkness — and yes, extremity — of his younger days.

But back to “The Belonging Kind,” which came about in those extreme early times, before most of those books had happened. In an interview with 21Cmagazine, Shirley said:

My original intention, when I first started writing, was to interpret the world the way the Surrealists did: to get into those places where the conscious world – the physical world – and the unconscious world come together. To make people see the fantastic in the mundane.[3]

The Belonging Kind” fits perfectly into this conception. Its protagonist is Coretti, a socially awkward academic who lectures on linguistics at a community college. His ex-wife has accused him of dressing “like a Martian”; “he didn’t look as though he belonged anywhere in the city.” Coretti, who isn’t “very good at conversation with strangers,” spends his social time hanging out at bars. One night, he glimpses a beautiful girl. To his surprise, she converses with him and accepts his offer of a drink. Yet, being a linguist, Coretti notices something off about her speech. When she talks to him, she’s as awkward and stilted as he is. But when she responds to a cowgirl beside her at the bar, her speech takes on a Southern tenor and twang. Fascinated, Coretti follows her out of the bar, where he watches her physical appearance transform under the light of a streetlamp.

She stepped off the curb and it began. It began with tints in her hair — at first he thought they were reflections. But there was no neon there to cast the blobs of color that appeared, color sliding and merging like oil slicks. 

Her hair shifts from coppery to white-blond, “short and spiky”; her dress changes from “the green of young corn, like a husk half stripped away” to “another dress, green satin, shifting with reflections.” That night, Coretti follows her all the way across town, watching as she goes from bar to bar, each time becoming someone else before moving on to the next spot. She meets with a male companion, who shares her talent for mimicking the background conversation of bars and her ability to transform to fit the environment.

And for the first time, Coretti knew what they were, what they must be. They were the kind you see in bars who seem to have grown there, who seem genuinely at home there. Not drunks, but human fixtures. Functions of the bar. The belonging kind. 

There’s one “gap in their camouflage” – no matter how much they drink, they never seem to get drunk. And that night, after following them around and drinking for hours, Coretti realizes he isn’t drunk, either.

In the weeks that follow, he searches again for the woman he first saw. Of course, she has no consistent physical appearance, but he’s sure he’ll recognize her. Meanwhile, his life falls to pieces. He stops eating. Spends too much time in bars. Then he loses his job.

But finally he finds the woman. Again, he follows her and her companion from bar to bar, then into their cab, and onto their hotel, and finally the room on the ninth floor where their kind stay.

No light burned in that room, but the city’s dim neon aura filtered in through venetian blinds and allowed him to see the faces of the dozen or more people who sat perched on the bed and the couch and the armchairs and the stools in the kitchenette. At first he thought that their eyes were open, but then he realized that the dull pupils were sealed beneath nictitating membranes, third eyelids that reflected the faint shades of neon from the window. 

At this moment, Coretti runs away, screaming. He is both drawn to the creatures, and repulsed by their alien nature. For a while, that second emotion wins out; he stops looking for the woman and her kind, and instead lives a quiet, alcohol-fueled life on the edges of society. Until one day, when the phone rings…

Based on Gibson’s account of how the story came about, it seems safe to assume that the concept came mainly from Shirley, while the surface was shaped by Gibson. If this is true, the mode of storytelling draws on both their strengths. Shirley’s work is defined by vivid, horrendous imagination, the kind of imagination that no one really wants to be burdened with, not if they ever want to sleep again. Gibson, on the other hand, excels at atmosphere, expressed through transcendently innovative images and pure burning feats of language. Through a weird alchemy, the rawness of Shirley and the hyperrealism of Gibson come together in a chimera of a story that isn’t really either. Instead, it’s subtle and understated. And somehow, both skin-crawling and sentimental.

The Belonging Kind” is maybe horror, but it isn’t cyberpunk. Not even proto-cyberpunk. Still, it taps into an emotion that gave cyberpunk strength, and made it more than silver mirror shades, tough girls, and leather coats. It was a feeling of alienation, of numbness, of the fragmentation of society and the accompanying estrangement of modern life. It was about the sensation of being forever alone, even when you were in a room full of people: a bar, for instance. It was the rebellion of a young generation who grew up and found themselves in exile. And maybe the nascent beginnings of that cyberpunk sprawl are present in the city through which Coretti searches for his strange woman: the city with a “dim neon aura.” Meanwhile, the strange woman is aloof yet comfortable with the world around her, inhabiting her environment with both a hard edge and an easy grace; that’s an early glimpse of a Gibson heroine.

Shirley’s youthful involvement with drugs and punk rock gave him experience with being alienated from society, at the far, far fringe of the mainstream. His reaction was to violently rebel, shoving the collective face of society in its own hypocrisy, cruelty and inhumanity. His fiction explores the darkest aspects of human nature with a jaded weariness that makes it feel mundane. It was a dynamic rebellion, framed as a demand: Wake up. Wake up to the blatant nightmare you call the real world.

Meanwhile, this fictional Coretti is almost like an alter-ego. An exile, but a numb and sleeping one, who follows the path of least resistance, who finds his tribe without even trying. When he flees, they call him back.

And that is, at its core, the horror of this story. Psychoanalysts say that fear of heights is really the fear that we’ll jump; “The Belonging Kind” walks a similar edge. As terrifying as the loss of selfhood might be, it holds a certain appeal, especially for someone who’s known what it is to be on the edge of things. It would be nice to fit in. It would be nice to never have to worry about the right thing to say. It would be nice to have a tribe who knows you’re one of them, without even knowing your name. But would it be worth the price of identity? Would it be worth the cost of never being yourself, or really anyone at all, ever again?


One reply to “WFR’s 101 Weird Writers: #17 — William Gibson and John Shirley

  1. Thanks for this write-up of two important writers, and in particular for the dissection of their story The Belonging Kind – it is very well-written.