The following essay is a reflection on the nature of weird fiction by author and editor Helen Marshall, which serves as the introduction to Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 4. We also have an interview up today with Marshall about editing the fourth volume in the series.
— The Editors
I come to this Introduction from a somewhat strange perspective. I was one of the people who woke up on November 9, 2016 — as a Canadian living in England, whose eyes were still fixed south of the border, across the pond — in what seemed to be an alternate reality.
The morning of the General Election, I remember logging on and experiencing almost a doubling of vision, as if the universe had split into two tracks that were radically diverging from one another. There was a hallucinatory space of about a week where I still felt as if I could see another world layered underneath mine. There was shock and disorientation, not a little fear — but also bewilderment at how fragile the norms and traditions which formed the bedrocks of reality—my reality, as it turned out — had proven to be.
I don’t mean to rehash politics. The tumultuous events of the last twelve months have been a shock to the system as one by one our certainties about the way things are have been cast aside. New futures have been dreamed up and rapidly discarded. Tiny bubbles of consensual realities have surfaced and burst, or gained power, grown, come to englobe more and more people. The speed of change has been rapid, disorienting. But in the wake of all this I’ve begun to think about my own experiences critically as a way of examining what literature is and what it ought to do.
I grew up in a little town in Ontario, on the border with Port Michigan, and so I’m used to border crossings. I have two passports, and this means I can pass easily, more easily than most, choosing whichever identity is most likely to be granted access. I know that liminal spaces are dangerous, and multiple identities can be useful — but they are also cause for suspicion. If you are two things — or three things, or many things — then you are not easily one thing; you can pass but you still present a risk. And increasingly, as I’ve crossed borders over the last year I’ve registered a radical sense of difference, as the cultures of three countries I’ve felt as familiar as breathing, have shifted and re-aligned.
Weird fiction is a strange beast, an eclectic genre (or subgenre). It originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the works of authors including Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, and M. R. James, and has since developed over the course of the last hundred years to encompass new writers such as China Miéville, M. John Harrison and others. Weird fiction is notable for its generic uncertainty; it exists at the boundary between science fiction and horror — perhaps — or between literary fiction and horror — perhaps — or between Lovecraft and whatever happens to be floating close to hand at any given moment — perhaps!
In 1933, in the lull between two world wars, a year which included the death of President Calvin Coolidge, an assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, the beginning of the Great Depression and the premiere of the original film version of King Kong at Radio City Music Hall, a middle-aged pulp writer by the name of H. P. Lovecraft began work on an article addressing weird fiction which would later be published in the June 1937 issue of the Amateur Correspondent. “I choose weird stories,” he wrote, “because they suit my inclination best — one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” In this article Lovecraft sketched out the parameters of a kind of story interested in using the language of dreams and fragments, vague impressions, snatches of scientific discourse, in order to interrogate the nature of reality. This work, whatever we may think of the man himself and his influence on the field now, both of which have deservedly (in my opinion) required re-evaluation, is still ongoing — and still necessary.
In fact, it would seem that in our moment this work is more necessary than ever.
Recently, another short story writer interested in the nature of reality had something to say about a moment of catastrophic change. In 2011, Dominican author Junot Díaz interrogated the response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti in an article entitled “Apocalypses: What They Reveal” in The Boston Review. He wrote of the etymology of the word “apocalypse”, which means “to uncover and unveil.” There are three kinds of apocalypses, he argues: there are those that follow the actual imagined end of the world; there are those that comprise catastrophes which resemble the imagined end; and there are those disruptive events that provoke revelation. The apocalypse, he says, quoting James Berger, “is the End, or resembles the end, or explains the end.”
We are, by all accounts, no matter where you might fit yourself in the political spectrum, in an apocalyptic moment. We are witnessing the end of something, or an event that resembles it; we are searching for an account that can explain that end.
On the day following the announcement of the results of the American election I was teaching a group of writers at Anglia Ruskin University. It was an evening class. The students had always been a lively bunch, eager, full of questions and comments and jokes and affection for one another. But that day I didn’t know how to address them. One colleague had told me not to talk about Trump, to just leave it out of the room, but that seemed impossible. Politics, whatever we believe, is at the heart of writing; it is a vital part of living and participating in society.
I did the best thing I could think of in the situation. I cribbed something I’d heard from Ben Markovits, a lecturer at Royal Holloway: that the purpose of teaching creative writing is, on the one hand, to help students to become published (in the best cases) — but in all cases, regardless of the quality of the writing, it is to help students to become better witnesses to the world. I have thought hard on that maxim since I first heard it. We are all witnesses of the world. The tools of storytelling can help us, in this respect: they help us to understand our world, to observe it, to process it. This is a fundamentally imaginative act and it is an act with great power — the power to witness.
We are living in an apocalyptic moment and we have a duty to be witnesses. We have a duty to observe, to imagine, to speculate, and to create.
Weird fiction is a genre that knows about the apocalypse.
It is a genre used to dismantling the status quo and exploring what lies beyond the margins of what is known in the world. It is genre obsessed with bringing to light what wishes to remain hidden and dealing with the consequences of that revelation.
The rules of reality have changed. This is an age in which it seems impossible to count on shared assumptions. Gary Dunion on Twitter cleverly captured the zeitgeist by pulling together a number of headlines he had read recently:
- Suspect in North Korea killing “thought she was taking part in TV prank”
- Robert Mugabe could contest election as corpse, wife says
- German parents told to destroy doll that can spy on children
His caption? Season 4 of Black Mirror is coming along nicely…
The Twitter account for Black Mirror states: “Our job is to explain what’s happening to you as best we can.” As we have seen, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. I can only imagine the problem is going to get worse.
When Lovecraft talked about his short stories he imagined fear to be at the heart of the process of discovery and revelation. He said:
These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.
In this respect, weird fiction seems a perfect vehicle for exploring our present moment. For it does seem to us, I think, to many of us, anyway, that time is out of joint; are we moving back to the happy utopia of the 1950s? Are we moving toward the dystopia of 1984? Are we returning or progressing? We do not know. We cannot decide. And the possibilities are not so much divergent as layered overtop of one another. We are existing in multiple moments at most, in multiple times at once.
And it is scary.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, in their introduction to The Weird compendium recognize the murky taxonomy of weird fiction writing:
Because The Weird often exists in the interstices, because it can occupy different territories simultaneously, an impulse exists among the more rigid taxonomists to find The Weird suspect, to argue it should not, cannot be, separated out from other traditions.
Weird fiction then is used to this strange overlapping, this occupation of simultaneous moments at once. It is a revelatory mode of writing, an apocalyptic mode of writing.
This volume was edited with the assistance of a group of students from my university who read through the solicited stories, made recommendations, debated the value of individual pieces and applied — and often questioned – the definition of weird fiction to them. Though the final selections were my own, our conversations shaped my thinking. One particular definition resonated strongly with me. It came from Marian Womack, a spectacular Spanish short story writer and translator whose work has appeared in a previous volume of this series.
We have a long tradition of [the Weird] in Spain, and this only increased during the dictatorship as new symbolic ways of communicating ideas were rehearsed in narratives (cinematic and literary). This kind of fantasy, in which “something is not quite right”, lends itself very well to Gothic sensibility, with its convoluted use of language and its tormented heroes. And then there is an element of irrationality built into the rational and, coming from a Spanish background, I interpret this as surrealism, for me this is a major element I recognize in weird writing, and one that is present in my own understanding of the weird.
Her response pointed away from, not toward, Lovecraft; it sketched out other directions for inquiry, other crises, other narratives, other points of view than those in which weird fiction has been traditionally grounded. Yet her definition struck me as capturing the essence of the weird tale, the embedding of irrationality within the rational: a way of writing which uses the one to expose the other, to make the reader realize that all supposedly rational systems are inherently irrational.
In thinking about the state of the genre, I’m reminded of an article written by a provocative critic, Jonathan McCalmont, who traced the history of the resurgence of weird fiction in the twentieth century. In particular, he focused on several months in 2003 in Britain when the TTA Press message boards were alive with a great discussion about the nature of the “New Weird”. The discussion was prompted in part by the success of Miéville who published The Scar in 2002 and received critical acclaim in the British Fantasy Award and Locus Awards of 2013.
The topic under debate was the rise of a new type of writing that seemed to have links with the past — a writing to which critics had begun to apply the label “New Weird” — but the forum conversations were riven with arguments from critics and authors alike. M. John Harrison succinctly summed up the problem. A lively figure who emerged as part of the New Wave in the 60s and 70s, he had seen the dangers of labelling a movement. He felt as if the energy of the writing might well be diminished through successive waves of commercialization:
…once the New Wave parameters were codified, there was a general softening-off as second generation writers stripped out the edgier stuff. I mean, I think it’s inevitable that people seeking to understand a movement select the similarities rather than the differences between exponents. That drives you towards the mean – the main stream. New writers imitate that, & before you know it, the energy’s gone, because it lay in the creative tensions between the different exponents.
His response shows a distinct suspicion of the rise of both the conventional and commercial frameworks which have tended to define new “waves” of writing historically and which would go on to attempt to define the so-called “New Weird”. He felt that if he didn’t speak up then he would have left it to others to describe what exactly it was that he was writing. And he believed that in and of itself would enervate the work.
But in describing the discussions that took place on that message board, Jonathan McCalmont said something that struck me as a sort of remedy to this:
Every cultural entity (be it a genre, a sub-genre, a scene, a movement, or a school) is born of a particular place and time… a sudden awareness that the wider culture has changed and that the old tools are no longer up to the job.
McCalmont suggested that the New Weird encapsulated one of those moments.
But where are we now?
Much has happened in the years since those debates and there are signs that weird fiction has been codified in exactly the way Harrison feared it would be. This anthology by definition is one of those forces for codification, attempting to sum up what weird fiction is in order to assess what is “the best.” The best of what? The best of that which is mixed and hybrid, the best of that which defies easy categorization, the best of what ought to remain unnamed. So — no new labels. No New New Weird or Post New Weird. Just weird.
A year ago I would have said there was a danger that weird fiction will — or has already begun to — lose its edge, moving from innocence, to plausibility to decadence, according to the formulation of Joanna Russ, in which originally distinct ideas and voices have become assimilated to the point of stale repetition.
And yet I believe we are in one of those moments of rapid re-imagining when the old tools of writing no longer seem up to the job.
The language of weird fiction speaks to the irrationality of our present, floundering systems. Whereas these stories have typically looked outward to generate their horror, from the undeniable xenophobia of some of Lovecraft’s writing to the misogyny embraced by the slasher flicks of the 70s; but it could just as easily look inward. To be horrified by one’s self, to feel a disconnection from what is labeled “traditional” or “natural” or “essential” is a vital step toward embracing a radical empathy with what might have heretofore been labeled as Other. This is work that weird fiction can do.
The stories within this volume were published in 2016. Many of them were almost certainly written before the upheavals which I have been talking about, yet each in my mind embodies the spirit of upheaval and revelation, madness, despair, horror and also, sometimes forgiveness, accommodation and change that seem to mark our apocalyptic moment. Among these writers are many names you may not recognize, and this is, to my mind, a good thing. They are writers from different countries, different languages, and different traditions. Many of these writers may not consider themselves to be weird writers in the strictest of terms and that as well is a good thing. As the editor of a volume that sets out to define the genre I confess I have the same reservations that M. John Harrison had in 2003: that weird fiction has on the one hand become too stable, too easily recognizable, and on the other so diffuse that the term no longer has any meaning at all. There is a danger with labels, but also an opportunity.
We are living in weird times. As I write, a snap election in the UK has just shocked the nation with another upending of the pollsters’ predictions and the future seems very uncertain. In moments such as this, time itself seems out of joint. We need new tools to interrogate our present moment. We need a new language to understand it, to articulate our concerns, our hopes, our dreams — our possibilities. The writers within this volume have been, first and foremost, witnesses to their world. Their stories suggest a new language, not only for weird fiction, but for a contemporary fiction that looks for new answers in unexpected places.