The New Weird: As terrifying as Kafka on LSD

fantasy book reviews Jeff and Ann Vandermeer The New Weirdfantasy book reviews Jeff and Ann Vandermeer The New WeirdThe New Weird by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

It’s easy to imagine two different readers reacting in opposite ways to The New Weird. One might find it delightfully odd; the other might find it as terrifying as Kafka on LSD. And a third might find it delightfully odd because it’s as terrifying as Kafka on LSD. Certainly, no one is likely to find it boring.

The New Weird is a well-organized anthology, with a short, useful introduction; a section entitled “Stimuli,” containing older selections (though not very old; the oldest piece, by Michael Moorcock, has an original copyright date of 1979, while the Thomas Ligotti selection was published only in 1997); “Evidence,” stories published mostly in this millennium and intended to demonstrate precisely what New Weird is, or was; “Symposium,” short essays by three writers and shorter commentary by European editors; and “Laboratory,” a communal story by “some of our finest fantasists generally not identified as ‘New Weird.’” Each section has its own points of interest, though the last is of dubious value; as discussed below, some writers even seem to be mocking the assignment, though perhaps that is merely a matter of style.

Which brings us back to the definitional problem. In his introduction, Jeff VanderMeer quotes M. John Harrison asking whether New Weird “is… even anything.” It is VanderMeer’s thesis that the popularity of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station in 2000 crystallized a shift in traditional weird fiction — from the sort written by H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, which ultimately became modern-day horror fiction — to a new type of supernatural or fantastical horror fiction. The twin stimuli for the shift were the New Wave of the 1960s and the “unsettling grotesquery” of 1980s horror, such as Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. The difference was that this new type of fiction surrendered to the weird, without ironic distance, using “rough-hewn but effective plots featuring earnest, proactive characters.” VanderMeer suggests that this work was not particularly subtle and therefore considerably more accessible to readers than its influences had been. Some writers of work identified as New Weird, like Miéville, also argued that it had a specific political component, particularly in opposition to globalization and global corporations. Others, like Steph Swainston, found political categorization too limiting, finding instead a sort of spiritual meaning in the use of New Weird. It wasn’t long before those authors writing the work most identified as New Weird came to deny the label, particularly as their work continued to grow and evolve. VanderMeer contends that none of them ever wrote anything that was much like what they’d written before “for the most part” – neatly setting aside the fact that a number of these writers, like Harrison, Swainston and Mieville continue to write books set in the universes they originally defined as New Weird. VanderMeer implies that New Weird was essentially a moment in time, a marketing category, a way of shaking up the field that has made it possible for writers to come up with “their own wonderfully bizarre and transgressive recombination[s].” Ultimately, VanderMeer comes up with what he calls a working definition of New Weird:

New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects – in combination with the stimulus of influence from New Wave writers of their proxies (including such forebears as Mervyn Peake and the French/English Decadents). New Weird fictions are acutely aware of the modern world, even if in disguise, but not always overtly political. As part of this awareness of the modern world, New Weird relies for its visionary power on a “surrender to the weird” that isn’t, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica. The “surrender” (or “belief”) of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text. (xvi)

It’s a good definition, and largely supported by the stories the VanderMeers choose to fill out their anthology. If I were to tinker with it, it would be to emphasize that world-building seems to be especially critical to New Weird, more so than to traditional science fiction, fantasy or horror. Place is primary to character, and place tends to shape events more than characters do.

The first story in the anthology demonstrates this primacy of place in New Weird fiction. M. John Harrison’s “The Luck in the Head” is a complex and very strange story set in Uroconium, “an indifferent city.” This tale of the anniversary of Uroconium’s liberation from the Analeptic Kings and its current rule by the incredibly ancient Mammy Vooley is one that seems to begin in the middle, as if there is much untold, leaving much work to the reader’s imagination, leading one to wish she could unhinge herself from reality to follow the goings on. Ardwick Chrome, the protagonist, is seeking relief from disturbing, senseless dreams that torment him as he lies strapped to his bed. The convoluted plot has Chrome attempting to stop his dreams by assassinating Mammy Vooley at the request of an insect woman, and all flows into ever increasing strange and random changes. No doubt it is weird; it is also repellent. It is not a story to enjoy, but one to be distantly admired as the work of a vivid imagination.

Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities,” is a more accessible story, but no less weird. This tale strikes me as unlike much of Barker’s work, lacking the vulgarity of his Mister Be Gone or the must-look-away images of his Hellraiser films. It is about an unusual festival conducted by two Eastern European cities, and a tragedy that befalls them. This story is alive with the oddness of cities truly becoming their populations, and the descriptions Barker writes stay vivid long after the pages fall closed.

“Crossing Into Cambodia: A Story of the Third World War” by Michael Moorcock is a more dubious choice for a “weird” tale, striking me more as a straightforward vision of the evils of war in the wake of Vietnam (and, even more so, Iraq, though Moorcock was writing while George W. Bush was still decades away from his Supreme Court victory, much less “Mission Accomplished”). That may be a matter of timing, though, for sometimes reality has a way of catching up with the weird in ways we don’t appreciate.

Who can resist a story that begins, “It was a cold morning, two days before Jape Day, and little children were eating the eyeballs of corpses in Blood Park”? Simon Ings treats us to uncanny horror combined with gruesome humor, in “The Braining of Mother Lamprey.” Kathe Koja’s “The Neglected Garden” tells a tale of unrequited, obsessive love and horrible indifference as a woman becomes a part of her former lover’s garden. Thomas Ligotti once again demonstrates the importance of place to weird tales in “A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing,” a short tale of almost poetic language about a metaphysical parade that closes out the “Stimuli” section.

“Evidence” is a more difficult section of the book because so much of the material makes more sense if one has knowledge of the authors’ larger works. China Miéville’s “Jack,” for instance, is far more intelligible to a reader who knows of the city of New Crobuzon, which first appeared in Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. It’s a good story, and it can stand alone, but without the authority of the city in which it is set surrounding it, it is a lesser tale. Jeffrey Thomas’s “Immolation,” one of the strongest, darkest and saddest stories in the book, takes on new meaning if the reader is aware of Thomas’s PUNKTOWN series. Leena Krohn’s short novel Tainaron: Mail from Another City is a lovely work, and the excerpt here does not do it justice, just as “The Ride of the Gabbleratchet” from Steph Swainston’s Dangerous Offspring hardly begins to give the reader the slightest taste of her marvelous FOURLANDS trilogy. The New Weird depends so heavily on complex worldbuilding that it is difficult to convey its flavor in a short story, making the task the VanderMeers have set for themselves virtually impossible to accomplish. It takes time and much description and action to show a complete world — and many more words than will fit within the confines of a story. Indeed, most writers require more than a single long novel.

Nonetheless, several stories included here manage to convey the haunting atmosphere of New Weird. Brian Evenson does it in “Watson’s Boy,” the tale of a man who spends his days picking up keys for no other reason than that they are there and they are all he knows. The world here is small, enclosed, and easier to describe, thus fitting within a single story. Jeffrey Ford, a true master of the short form, astonishes again with “At Reparata,” a tale of a wonderful kingdom where everyone gets the title he or she truly deserves. And Alistair Rennie’s “The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines” is foul and funny at the same time, a fine last tale to evidence that New Weird is not without a sense of humor.

The next section of the book, “Symposium,” is uneven in its usefulness, but overall is likely to give a kick to anyone who has the slightest penchant for literary criticism and the future of the fantastic. This is the second “definitional” book that I know of (the first was Feeling Very Strange by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel) that has used excerpts from online discussions to try to explain the boundaries of a subgenre of science fiction/fantasy/horror — perhaps a logical outgrowth of the fact that those of us who read in these genres are those most likely to use tools like Internet message boards. The discussion, between authors, readers, editors, critics, and some complete unknowns, is thoughtful and thought-provoking, extremely well-edited to convey the best of the conversation while preserving its occasionally playful tone. Essays by Michael Cisco, Darja Malcolm-Clarke and K.J. Bishop develop the idea that New Weird is a fuzzy label, alive and changing but, as Cisco puts it, very much “the scene.” One of the most interesting parts of the book is the section in which the VanderMeers set forth the perspectives of European editors on New Weird. These editors talk about problems of translation and of the development of strange fiction in their own countries and their own languages, and of trends that have developed independently of English-language influence that have occurred simultaneously.

The least successful section of the book is the one labeled “Laboratory.” The VanderMeers commissioned a piece from a number of fantasists not commonly known for their work in New Weird, writing in a round robin. The instigator is Paul Di Filippo, who unfortunately writes as if he is making fun of the whole concept of New Weird, choosing names for characters, gods and places that echo those used by Miéville and Swainston in a way that mocks them, and situations that sound more silly than weird. One almost begins to feel as if one is being laughed at for taking this New Weird stuff so seriously. Fortunately, the writers who follow Di Filippo are not so blatant in their disregard for the form, but their contributions rarely mesh with one another, and the story never coalesces.

Finally, the VanderMeers offer an extremely valuable “Recommended Reading” section at the back of the book. Even those who consider themselves well-versed in the New Weird might find some works here that he or she has overlooked, and be happy to have discovered them. As the VanderMeers state, it is not an exhaustive list, but it is stimulating. I’ve read a number of the works on the list since my first reading of The New Weird, and while some were better than others, they certainly all added to my understanding of this marvelously odd literary movement.

The New Weirdis therefore an engaging and thought-provoking if imperfect book. Scholars of the fantastic will certainly wish to include it in their libraries, and it is a good impetus to discussion. Casual readers, however, may find it much more difficult to appreciate; still, it is a good place for them to start on an exploration of this little corner of science fiction/fantasy/horror, one where all three genres seem to be bundled into one very strange whole.

The New Weird — (2008) Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Publisher: This avant-garde anthology that presents and defines the New Weird — a hip, stylistic fiction that evokes the gritty exuberance of pulp novels and dime-store comic books — creates a new literature that is entirely unprecedented and utterly compelling. Assembling an array of talent, this collection includes contributions from visionaries Michael Moorcock and China Miéville, modern icon Clive Barker, and audacious new talents Hal Duncan, Jeffrey Ford, and Sarah Monette. An essential snapshot of a vibrant movement in popular fiction, this anthology also features critical writings from authors, theorists, and international editors as well as witty selections from online debates.

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TERRY WEYNA is spending the second half of her life as a reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, after having spent the first half practicing law in a variety of states and settings. (She still does legal research and writing for a law firm in California). Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor and writer Fred White, the imperious Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a personal library that exceeds 12,000 volumes.

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One comment

  1. One might find it delightfully odd; the other might find it as terrifying as Kafka on LSD. And a third might find it delightfully odd because it’s as terrifying as Kafka on LSD.

    I love this line.

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