Monday, 7 November 2011

Weird Fiction Review

Here’s a very promising new website which has been opened by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer called Weird Fiction Review. It is the online brethren of the Weird Fiction Review journal edited by ST Joshi. Joshi is an expert on HP Lovecraft, often seen as the godfather (although the lord knows what gods they might be) of twentieth century weird fiction, and also, in his 1939 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, one of its earlies theorisers and historians. Joshi has edited, introduced and annotated a couple of volumes of Lovecraft’s stories for Penguin Classics, The Call of Cthulhu and Dreams in the Witch House, each adding the post-title enticement ‘and other weird stories’. He’s also gathered together a fine crop of Arthur Machen’s pagan reveries in The White People (again with the ‘and other weird stories’ addendum), a collection of American Supernatural tales and two annotated volumes of MR James’ ghost stories. That all of these appear in Penguin Classics editions tends to mean that they are shelved alongside the likes of Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Guy de Maupassant or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, thus pointing to certain affinities all might have with aspects of one another’s work. Such company lends these authors of The Weird (I guess we should capitalise it to give it categorical authority) the official heft of literary acceptance, placing them within a history of literature extending way beyond the boundaries of the modern realist novel or short story of character, which have come to be viewed as an inherently superior form. The Penguin Classics also encompasses the likes of Beowulf, a collection of English Mystery Plays, The Arthurian Romances, The Sufi narrative poem The Conference of the Birds, The Niebelungenlied and Japanese No dramas after all. Plus some fellow called Shakespeare, whose plays contained many a weird and uncanny incident. Joshi’s journal would appear to offer a furtherance of this accumulation of academic weight, presenting a persuasive case for weird fiction being worthy of wider and deeper consideration.

The Vandermeers clearly think this too, and the website seeks to define The Weird as a distinct substrata of the fantastic, separate from other seams such as horror, science fiction, heroic fantasy or magic realism. It may draw on any of these, of course, and they from it. The Venn diagram of the fantastic has many interlocking circles and zones of intersection. The Weird’s very mutability suggests that it is as much about general mood and approach as it is a generic mode. The Vandermeers point to The Weird as embodying ‘the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastical tradition’. They’ve gathered many examples for their new anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories which, in its impressive monumentality, attempts a definitive delineation of the genre’s contours. It spans the years from 1907 to the present, roughly the period in which science fiction also developed from its uptopian and scientific romantic roots into the genre recognisable to all today, thus pointing to a parallel evolution. The Weird is perhaps the irrational flipside to science fiction’s rationalisation of the fantastic, its troubled subconscious. SF takes place in a universe which operates according to some assumed set of natural laws, even if some of these are invented. The Weird attempts to peer beyond the veil of the natural world or warp the material of consensus reality. And if it spurns the rationalized fantasy of SF, then its also tends to eschew the secondary worlds of fantasy, with their pastoral or sublimely Romantic landscapes. If it does create worlds separate from our own, it tends to head straight for their urban centres, finding the grimy, smoking industrial heartlands. Its cities often bear a resemblance to real world locales, past or present. For many, the teeming warrens of Dickens’ Victorian London provide the model. For M.John Harrison’s ever-changing Viriconium, Manchester and fin de siecle Paris merge, and in Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris, New Orleans, Venice and maybe a hint of Prague.

A follow up of sorts to their 2008 anthology The New Weird, the new collection dispenses with the prefix, which was useful for a time in helping to identify a new wave of fantastic fiction which revelled in its own baroque and grotesque creations and shared certain common influences. The Weird, with a few extra years hindsight, embeds these modern manifestations within a deeper history, stressing continuity more than novelty. We start off with an extract from Alfred Kubin’s 1908 story The Other Side. Kubin was also an artist, producing strange and disturbing images full of death and grotesquely distorted sexuality, and this points to the important influence of the visual arts on The Weird. Symbolist artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century such as Max Klinger, Arnold Bocklin, Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon produced pictures which drew from the darker or more vividly realised worlds of the imagination, and these are often crying out for weird tales to be spun around them. Bruno Shulz, whose 1937 story The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass is included here, was also an artist, producing a series of shadowy glass prints (etchings made in black gelatine spread on a glass plate) for The Book of Idolatry in 1920. Leonora Carrington, whose 1941 story White Rabbits is in the anthology, was another visual artist. Indeed, this was primarily how she was remembered when she died earlier this year. Her fantastical imagery was, by the middle years of the twentieth century, defined as surrealist, the contemporary expression of the Symbolists’ fin de siecle fever dreams. The visual aspect of The Weird is acknowledged on the website, with an art section which has begun with a selection of paintings by the New Orleans painter Myrtle von Damitz III, whose monstrous grotesques could have inhabited the blurred landscapes and jewelled interiors of the Symbolists.

Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows (1907) and MR James’ Casting the Runes are two well-established classics of English supernatural fiction. The central narrative conceit of James’ story was incorporated into Jacques Tourneur’s otherwise loose 1957 film adaptation Night of the Demon, whilst The Willows provided the title for Ghost Box artists Belbury Poly’s debut full length LP, with the story posted for a time at the Ghost Box website (you can now uncover a collage of photos with an accompanying extract from Arthur Machen’s The White People). The so-called hauntological music of the Ghost Box artists and their ilk (Demdike Stare, The Moon Wiring Club, Mordant Music, July Skies and others) and of new/psych/freak (take your pick or make up your own alternative) folk artists and bands carries the blood of The Weird in its veins (or its analogue circuitry), and provides a choice of possible soundtracks. Kafka’s In the Penal Colony (1919), whose inclusion in the anthology testifies to the enormous shadow which the Czech artist’s absurdist tales have cast over weird fiction, inspired another musician. Frank Zappa recommended that his listeners read it somewhere in the densely designed sleeve of the Mothers’ LP We’re Only In It For the Money. Belgian writer Jean Ray has two stories selected, The Mainz Psalter (1930) and The Shadowy Street (1931), which I’d be very interested to read having seen and greatly enjoyed Harry Kumel’s 1971 film adaptation of his god-haunted house novel Malpertuis. Jerome Bixby’s It’s A Good Life (1953) and Charles Beaumont’s The Howling Man (1959) both provided the basis for memorable episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, perhaps the finest showcase for The Weird on TV. Mervyn Peake’s Same Time, Same Place, published in Science Fantasy magazine in 1963 and posthumously included in the miscellany edited by his wife Maeve Gilmore Peake’s Progress, makes the commonplace setting (in its time) of a Lyon’s Corner House tea room seem strange and foreboding. Peake is another writer of weird fiction who was also an artist, and this story is an example of his ‘head-hunting’ (the search for interesting and odd heads, rather than just faces, to sketch and spark the imagination) transposed to literary form. You can hear the story read by Peake’s son Sebastian (or it may be Fabian) on the recently released British Library audio CD of selections from Peake’s Progress.

James Tiptree Jr’s (aka Alice Sheldon’s) stories were published as science fiction, but they were haunted by death and despair and had a raging intensity and need which tended to drive them towards a breakdown in the rational surface of the world. The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats (1976) is a typically incendiary tale which traces the development of the psychological mindset which accepts and enacts atrocities. It is also aware of its deep Weird roots, playing out an inverted enactment of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Harlan Ellison’s stories share the intensity and heightened emotions of Tiptree’s work, as well as the poetic prolixity of their titles, and his The Function of Dream Sleep (1988) brackets his deeply felt 1989 collection Angry Candy along with its opening story Paladin of the Lost Hour (one of my favourite of Ellison’s). Both show Ellison at his most affecting and powerful – the Weird with a passionate heart. M.John Harrison was a primary influence on modern writers of weird fiction, with his Decadent city of Viriconium providing the foundation upon which Ambergris, China Mieville’s New Crobuzon and KJ Bishop’s Ashamoil were built. Egnaro (1981) and The New Rays (1982) both appear in this anthology and in his collection The Ice Monkey (I still treasure my signed copy of the 1988 paperback). Egnaro, with its seedy bookshop described in uncomfortably familiar terms (I know these places perhaps too well) is one of his stories which warns of the dangers of losing oneself in fantasy, drifting apart from the real, whilst also being alert to its allure. Its narrative of a hopelessly questing protagonist searching for half-glimpsed elsewheres to escape from the disappointing present is recast in the context of Harrison’s Viriconium mythos in A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium, a story which is itself radically re-aligned by the replacement in the title and throughout of one word in A Young Man’s Journey to London, included in the Things That Never Happen collection. The New Rays is a painful but compassionate story which confronts the incomprehensible weirdness of science and technology as it suddenly manifests itself in the lives of ordinary people, offering solutions and cures which to all intents and purposes may as well be magic. It has a strong affinity with Robert Aickman’s 1975 story The Hospice (published in the collection Cold Hand In Mine), in which the strange country of death banally interposes itself amongst the shabby reality of the world. Aickman excels in conveying an immanent sense of other places and presences in the back streets, scrubby commons and rubble strewn development sites of cities and suburban residential borderlands. His stories are not necessarily frightening, but combine the ordinary with the intangibly strange to subtly disconcerting effect. Both he and fellow writer of weird tales LTC Rolt were founders of the Inland Waterways Association, set up to save England’s canal system from falling into ruination. My father in law, a transport enthusiast, has knowledgeable tomes on the canals by both. There must have been something about spending so much time around the stagnant, algae-tinted water of disused locks and the dark mouths of long, claustrophobic barge tunnels that triggered the morbid imagination.

Elizabeth Hand is another writer who is well aware of her literary antecendents, and draws both on the art of the Decadents and Aesthetics and on the ancient rites, myths and beliefs of the Classical and Pagan past in order to replenish the world with dangerous enchantments. The Boy In The Tree from 1989 draws mythic archetypes from the human mind in a manner akin to Robert Holdstock in his Mythago novels. In her afterword to the story as printed in her 1998 collection Last Summer At Mars Hill, Hand acknowledges the influence of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, noting the synchronicity with which M.John Harrison’s similarly inspired story The Great God Pan came out at the same time. Hand’s story was adapted to form part of her first novel Winterlong which, with its otherplanetary setting, is an example of science fiction and The Weird combining to mutually beneficial effect. Angela Carter and Tanith Lee both provide variations on their latterday fairy tales in The Snow Pavilion (which only saw the light of day in the 1995 collected edition of Carter’s short stories Burning Your Bridges) and Yellow and Red (1998). Tanith Lee, in her short stories, seems to be one of the writers who most closely approaches Carter’s style, the lush, poetic prose which traces its descent from Decadent literature – heirs to The Savoy and the Yellow Book, Baudelaire and JK Huysmans. Michael Chabon’s The God of Dark Laughter (2001) elevates Coulrophobia (the morbid, irrational fear of or aversion to clowns) to the level of a dualistic conflict of cosmic proportions. The anthology could equally have included his Lovecraftian pastiche In The Black Mill, included in the collection Werewolves in their Youth and written as if by his authorial creation August Van Zorn. Chabon cunningly fooled the literary world into feting him as the next great American writer with his first two novels, which followed the accepted patterns of the coming of age story (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) and the tribulations of the conflicted artist narrative (Wonder Boys), before revealing his generic proclivities with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, Gentlemen of the Road, Summerland and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. His book of essays Maps and Legends their fogbound atmospheres and gaslit urban mysteries which often serve to turn phlegmatic Watson's assumptions about the normal order of the world topsy turvy. KJ Bishop closes proceedings with her 2010 short story Saving The Gleeful Horse. It’s good to see that she’s still writing (unlike Steph Swainston, sadly, who has announced that she’s packed it in and is returning to teaching). I’ve been eagerly awaiting a follow up to her marvellous 2003 novel The Etched City for some time, hoping that it wasn’t a dazzling one off. And Bishop is another author of The Weird who is also an artist, as you can see here.

The site has also launched with a couple of interviews; one with Kelly Link, of whom I was not previously aware, so I’ve already been introduced to an interesting new writer; the other with Neil Gaiman, who needs no introduction but is happy to introduce others in a generous and genial fashion. He’s always a good source for literary recommendations, and here he cites his own early Weird influences and inspirations: Lord Dunsany above all, and Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber and RA Lafferty. Asked to describe his own notion of what constitutes weird fiction, he suggests it’s ‘like a visit to a strange place – a holiday in unearthly beauty and oddness, from which you may not always safely return’. A wonderful evocation of its power to transport you from you immediate surrounds and concerns and perhaps to change your perspective on them forever. And is there such a thing as being too weird, Mr Gaiman is asked. His answer comes back immediately and unequivocally – No! Perhaps this offers a good subheading for this exciting new site: Nothing is too weird.

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