It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Undertow Publication’s Year’s Best Weird Fiction series. Each year we’ve interviewed the guest editor—our first interview was with both Laird Barron and Michael Kelly, then we interviewed Kathe Koja, and last year we spoke with Simon Strantzas. This year is no exception. Today we have an interview with guest editor Helen Marshall along with the introduction she penned for the series’ fourth volume.
Helen Marshall should be familiar to fans of Weird Fiction Review — she has contributed articles on Stephen King and Kelly Link. She’s an author of fiction as well. Her second collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After (2014), won both the Shirley Jackson and World Fantasy awards. Marshall has a PhD in Medieval Studies and currently serves as Lecturer of Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England.
I’ve been working on a novel entitled Everything That Is Born, which is forthcoming from Random House Canada in 2019. It builds on my love of weird fiction and follows a seventeen-year-old girl named Sophie who lives in a version of Oxford devastated by flooding and disease. For the children in that world who are diagnosed with a mysterious condition, death comes to mean something else — an irresistible ushering towards transformation. After her younger sister drowns, Sophie resolves to steal her body from the morgue. Yet as Sophie watches her slow transformation, she discovers that perhaps there is hope after all — if she can be brave enough and strong enough to go after it. The novel springboards off my interest in catastrophes, modern and medieval, and attempts to find connections between the various crises we’re facing now and those of the Middle Ages, when the Black Death killed close to fifty percent of the population of Europe.
I know you did a postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford in which you studied literature during the Black Death. Can you tell us more about your interest in the Black Death? Since disease has often been a theme in weird fiction, do you feel like your interests in the Black Death and weird fiction are related?
I became interested in the Black Death, in part, because I had expected there to be a clear link between the trauma of the catastrophe and the literature of the period. In Italy, for example, you have Boccaccio’s Decameron being set explicitly in the midst of an outbreak, with a group of nobles retreating to the countryside in order to tell stories to distract themselves. But in English literature I found a curious absence. Certainly, it does change the way literature is produced and the way in which writers (and others) are educated but it doesn’t leave the same kind of traces in the text themselves. Disease does have a link with weird fiction, I think, because diseases change us. They remind us that we live in our bodies and of how fragile our bodies are. And so my novel is interested in ways in which disease comes to figure within weird fiction, both as a cause of catastrophe and as a cause of change.
Since you’re a teacher, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on how you would teach weird fiction if you were to teach a course on it. How would you structure the course? What pieces would you include?
In fact, I have proposed a module along these lines for the MA in Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin, which will also be adapted for the writing module in our new MA in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The module I teach next term, called “Writing the Apocalypse”, takes its inspiration from Junot Diaz’s article “Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal” which argues the apocalyptic event must “in its disruptive moment clarify and illuminate ‘the true nature of what has been brought to end.’ It must be revelatory.” This module uses a number of “weird” cross genre texts to interrogate the nature of the revelations that a crisis can expose. Some of the texts we’re looking at include work by Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, Margaret Atwood, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. There are other writers I’d love to teach and have put on various syllabi: Etgar Keret, Kelly Link, Aliya Whiteley, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Paul Tremblay, M. John Harrison, Nalo Hopkinson, Usman T. Malik, Indra Das, Nina Allan, Shirley Jackson, Robert Shearman, oh all sorts. But this gives you some indication of the kind of writing I like. I’m interested in blurring the line between realist and non-realist fiction, genre and experimental fiction, and showing the value of both modes in revealing the strangeness of our world.
You moderated a panel at WorldCon 75 called “Rise of Weird Fiction.” Can you give us a brief synopsis of this talk?
I would say that my introduction to The Year’s Best Weird Fiction lays out my thinking on this and that much of the panel explored definitions of weird fiction, its history, and where it might go now.
Kathe Koja purposely didn’t read the first volume while Strantzas did read the previous volumes. Did you read any of the previous volumes? Why or why not?
I didn’t set out deliberately to read through the previous volumes though I had read a number of them before Mike Kelly talked to me. One of the strengths of The Year’s Best Weird Fiction as a series, I think, is that each editor has space to come to his or her own definitions of the weird. There is a huge scope for personal taste in this, particularly because the weird exists at the intersection of a number of traditions, genres and modes. I would expect my volume looks quite different from previous volumes for exactly that reason.
The lineup for YBWF4 is very diverse. The stories come from authors from all different walks of life and backgrounds. This has been a somewhat controversial topic in weird fiction and I was wondering how as an editor and academic you think we should value diversity against other merits like the quality of a story’s prose.
I think it is a mistake to set up diversity as a category that seems to be opposed to quality of prose. The problem is that stories are considered good for a variety of reasons: technical skill, freshness of voice, participation in a tradition, manipulation of tropes, surprise, comfort, familiarity. Beyond a certain point, choice is about taste and so the argument that a more diverse list means lowering quality for some stories simply doesn’t hold true for me. There are more people writing and submitting stories than ever. There is no lack of quality short stories!
Some have commented on the fact that few of the names in my line-up were well-known. That’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t indicate any decline in quality in the work of the usual suspects but rather that I was interested more in writing that was on the fringe of what we consider “weird.” Weird writing is by definition marginal or fringe — or it should be — because once writing becomes mainstream then it becomes increasingly familiar. This is the problem that the horror genre has encountered. When a mode of writing is predicated on an emotion that comes in part from some element of surprise or discomfort — as weird fiction does — then it needs to reinvent itself on a regular basis. What is shocking one year can be assimilated very quickly. So the weird ought to be continually looking outside of itself for new influences and new voices.
I will say that I did need to examine my own processes pretty closely. Initially I drew up a long list that was about a fifty-fifty split between male and female writers (to the extent I could identify them based on their names). The first pass at the short list saw a large number of the female names dropped and I had to stop myself and ask why. And the answers I often came to was that the male writers were more familiar to me, I knew their names, I knew the traditions they were working in better, sometimes I knew them personally. So I deliberately went back and drew up a second short list, forcing myself to ask what elements of the story I was prioritizing and if there were stories I was veering away from simply because they didn’t fit as clearly into the tradition. Which is good, I think. Because the tradition, let’s face it, is not particularly diverse. There are plenty of women writing in non-realist modes but more of them have found success in literary or mainstream publishing. So unless we start searching out material from outside the regular stable of writers we recognize it will be hard for the tradition to change. But as new voices enter the field I suspect they’ll encourage others to follow.
Were there any trends you spotted in weird fiction while working on YBWF4? Any things you’d like to see more of or less of?
I would like to see less Cthulhu and less Lovecraft. It feels anathema and weirdly dangerous to say this, though, which says something about the depth of his influence and the commitment of writers to this tradition. When I was reading anthologies for the Shirley Jackson Awards close to half of what was submitted was Lovecraft-themed. There are many writers doing interesting and innovative things with Lovecraft at the moment — Kij Johnson and Victor Lavalle are great examples but far from the only ones! — but there’s just too much of it at present. It’s colonizing the voices of new writers. Yes, there is a test of skill in taking the themes of another writer and responding to them, innovating within a tradition, producing work that speaks back to its sources. But I do feel as if we’re in a moment where, in the words of T. S. Eliot, last year’s words belong to last year’s language. Contemporary writers need space to develop a new language and it’s difficult to do that when you’re commissioned to use someone else’s words, tropes, and themes.
That being said, I can’t fault any writer for taking a commission. Writing is hard work and anthologies can offer steady, more secure work.
Can you tell us about a couple of stories that you included in YBWF4?
It’s a book of stories that I would happily give to anyone to say: this is what I like! Some of my favourite finds were “Waxy” by Camilla Grudova. This story was published by Granta and was included in her current short story collection The Doll’s Alphabet. It is an unpleasant, deeply confrontational piece that reminds me of something of a cross between Kelly Link and Thomas Ligotti. I really enjoyed Malcolm Devlin’s story “The End of Hope Street” which reminds me in some ways of the work of Julio Cortazar and also Stephen King in its focus on small communities. It studies the lives of a group of people in the suburbs in which houses, one by one, become unlivable and the survivors must go live with their neighbours. It captures themes of migration, which are interesting to me, but also the deep discomfort of English politeness, which can be tremendously funny and tremendously sad. “Beating the Bounds” by Aki Shilz is barely a weird fiction story at all. It’s hard to tell if it is true or not. It is an odd history of Hanwell, a west London suburb, told in an experimental style. But I loved it because it questioned my hold on reality and it made a pedestrian place come alive with possibilities. Those are only a few of the stories, and readers will find in this anthology examples of nature writing, a sentient race of dolphins, exorcisms, zombies and even a Cthulhu story or two.
In both your introduction and the article you wrote on Stephen King’s “The Man in the Black Suit” you talked about how you felt unsettled over recent events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. You go on to connect this feeling with the Weird. Do you have any thoughts on why we as readers enjoy this feeling as a form of entertainment even when considering our uncertain times?
We live in uncertain times. We have always lived in uncertain times. I think what makes the weird inherently attractive is that it speaks to a part of us that knows, consciously or not, that the rules we play by, the realities we choose to agree to and normalize, have cracks in them. Increasingly, I think that putting realist modes and non-realistic modes at opposite ends of the spectrum does a disservice to both. Realism is conservative in that it tells us what we believe is real is in fact real. But it isn’t. It’s also consensual, questionable, open to interpretation, and often ignorant of other, competing narratives. We are in a moment when the consensus is beginning to shift. Non-realist modes seem to help us get a handle on this faster because they teach us the consensus was never absolute to begin with. People were excluded, people dissented. This breakdown is enjoyable at some level even as it’s also frightening. It means elements of our lives which we lacked the ability or will to question suddenly seem disputable, something we can fight back against. Breakdown gives us an opportunity to see what lies beneath, for better or worse. Increasingly what strikes me as strange about Lovecraft’s fiction is the sense that once the monstrous is encountered, the only options are madness, forgetting or death. And that in its own way is a conservative way of thinking: there are many more options. Resistance, recuperation, remembering, rebirth. This is the energy that comes from the collapse of the consensus — the possibility of change.
How has being an editor on YBWF4 informed your writing and teaching? Is it something you’d like to do again or do you prefer to focus more on writing and teaching in the future?
I loved this experience. I loved how it gave me license to read the field and to explore what lay outside of the field, as we tend to look at it. I would do it again, absolutely.