WEIRD FICTION: When Does Weird Become Normal? (Guest Post by J.M. McDermott)

Posted by on May 6, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror | 0 comments

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Reading the latest Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross Lockheart, I was struck by how many authors are engaged in this weird fiction stuff, for such a long time, such that Lovecraftian has become a term that people use to describe things that are weird. Can something be so weird, if there’s so much of it? That unsettled feeling, does it become something that comforts, now, to the readers of this material? I was reading this hefty tome of material in a large part because I was in the mood to read something I have dubbed, mentally, as weird. It is a familiar space, where I can sit down and explore familiar tropes.

The WeirdWeird fiction is now a piece of furniture, complete with a staggering, impressive omnibus anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer that is suitable for coffee tables everywhere, and practically large enough to be a piece of furniture. There has already been something called New Weird, which seemed mostly to be comprised of new writers in the tradition of weird fiction, and there was an impressive anthology edited by, again, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Presumably, this moment in the zeitgeist has passed, and for every Laird Barron and China Meiville and Caitlen Keirnen writing on brilliantly to continue this moment of art, there are far more Jeffrey Fords and Hal Duncans who have, mostly, moved on on to other modes and movements, if they were ever truly part of the New Weird to begin with, really. How long can something continue to exist until it becomes something else? I suspect that the moment the huge compendium, The Weird (Corvus/Atlantic), came out, the movement as it was completed. What’s left is mainstream Lovecraftian stuff, like in Ross Lockheart’s excellent anthologies. It’s dark fantasy, really, walking the line between horror and fantasy. The best stories, like Keirnan’s piece against the portal in the sea, are often about as predictable as anything that has fallen into the tropes of a genre, even if they are still enjoyable pieces worth reading.

There is some unsettling thing out there. There is some unknowable thing. A community exists within a community. Non-Euclidean geometry is present. Organisms that exist in so many planes and places appear squid-like, or can be described with words like pustule, orifice, tentacle, fleshy, ichorous, aberrant, jabbering, limpid, protuberant, etc.

Consider, instead, this weird tale posted to Weird Fiction Review, called Portrait of a Chair by Reggie Oliver.  The pustules and aberrations are replaced with chairs, which are, in their way, more unsettling than an imaginary beast that wants to eat our souls. The pedestrian has become the vessel for the obscure. Because, really, encountering this force of the Other in the world does not require adjectival language, but a precise reality contrary to the expected – a surrealist reality that is revealed to be as important as our own to the narrator’s plight. Second, this surrealist piece would not be out of place in publications that have no interest in genre literature, in part because the monstrous has been replaced with chairs. I believe it was first published in a Dadaist anthology before appearing at In so many ways, it is a classic “weird tale” with a Lovecraftian narrator picking through obscure subsections of antique and uncommon histories for secret truths. The other world, when it arrives, is as violent and consuming as any trip into Ry’leh is supposedly going to be. It is, in every aspect but one, a perfect example of the weird tale. It just misses the Lovecraftian presence of the mythos.

The Wainscotting of Lovecraftian fiction has been used so much, it is a genre unto itself, and practically a shorthand. Say the word Lovecraftian and you immediately call upon a whole slew of expectations. How is that weird, now? It’s a set of furniture so familiar, we slide right in, sit down, put our feet up and rest. There’s nothing unsettling about it, now, unless we push past the old to something that is still beyond the known, unsettling, unknowable, and madness-inducing. There are other ways of seeing Weird Fiction, then, at the fringes of our life and others. The beating heart of the Lovecraftian tale is an unknowable, unimaginable presence of strange. It is like sitting across the room from a madman, and we’ve domesticated Cthulhu. We’ve made him plushy, and cute, and explored so much of his non-Euclidean geometry, there are familiar maps and trails.

There is another piece I would point to as a place to see Weird in the world. Tokyo! is a triptych of films, by legendary directors, and presents three visions of a city that both complement each other and use the surreal and the unsettling to place the viewer into a new way of seeing their own space. In one, a shut-in is pleased to see the outside world is dying away, while he has all he needs. In another, a leprechaun springs from the sewers to castigate the city of Tokyo. In another, a lost and drifting  woman eventually turns into a chair. The unsettling qualities of all three films, and the way the unimaginable and unknowable arrives, fully-formed upon the familiar landscape of this famous city reveal a future for the weird in something akin to magical realism. The abandoning of all Lovecraftian elements, all tropes and hallmarks of Lovecraft, makes these short pieces closer to what was first experienced when Lovecraft was writing. Where is your new weird edge? Where can you find the place where the unimaginable unknown stares back at you from a pale, pleased face, or a judgmental one shouting curses?

What’s next for the weird, beyond Lovecraftian post-modernism and more Lovecraftian?

J. M. McDermott is the author of five novels and two short story collections, including Last Dragon and Disintegration Visions from Apex Publications.

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