I never followed the discussions on the ‘New Weird’ when they were going on across the internet, perhaps because I had never really been entirely clear what the old ‘Weird’ was, and I hadn’t really got time to go and find out at that point. It has, though, always troubled me that I didn’t, which is part of why I am embarking on this mammoth blogging project; to work my way to some sort of understanding of what ‘weird’ means, and then think about how it informs my reading of the fantastic. Somehow it feels long overdue. I’ve read fantasy for as long as I can remember but I’ve never really sat down to theorize about it before. This represents a considerable challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.
When I first started reading fantastic literature as a teenager, I think it fair to say that I liked my fantasy rather medieval and courtly (the influence of William Morris and E.R. Eddison rather than Tolkien, I think), I liked it to have a lot of plot, and I liked systematic magic. The supernatural was another issue altogether, and belonged in ghost stories, which were entirely unambiguous stories of hauntings resolved.
I think weird fiction bothered me because of what I saw as its vagueness. It involved authors such as Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and other people whose names I wasn’t sure of, and included tentacles, elder gods, possibly barbarians, and, for reasons that elude me now, muddy pools surrounded by trees weighed down with Spanish moss. In those days I did not read for mood, and I liked my secondary fantasy worlds to be neatly tidied up at the end. And that, I am sure, is the influence of Tolkien, with Lord of the Rings providing the literary gauge by which other fantastic fiction stood or fell.
And yet, remember that lake by the entrance to the Mines of Moria, ‘ a dark still lake. Neither sky nor sunset were reflected on its sullen surface’ and later, ‘Out from the water a long sinuous tentacle had crawled; it was pale-green and luminous and wet. Its fingered end had hold of Frodo’s foot, and was dragging him into the water.’ Finally, ‘The dark water boiled and there was a hideous stench.’
I never liked that short passage in the novel; when I was young, it seemed wrong, but I had no explanation for why. I look back at it now, and I can see that the tentacle has, in effect, as well as literally, intruded from somewhere else. The weather and the landscape behave in such a way as to make the reader start to think uncomfortably about the pathetic fallacy, while the tentacle … well, as the Introduction to The Weird says, ‘The story of The Weird is often seen as the rise of the tentacle, a symbol of modern weird’. It is as though Tolkien is experimenting with something he doesn’t quite understand, and somehow not quite getting it right.
Later, as Frodo and Sam cross the Dead Marshes with Gollum, Sam sees ‘dead things, dead faces in the water’ while Frodo sees ‘Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead’. Gollum describes them as ‘Only shapes to see, perhaps, not to touch’. I’ve always thought the passage through the Dead Marshes to be one of the most extraordinary sequences in the novel, up there with the ride on the Paths of the Dead, both of them better by far than that tentacle. However, it strikes me now that the dead faces in the water are a brief but successful incursion of the weird into a story that otherwise cannot tolerate that kind of oddness, something the VanderMeers describe as ‘strangely beautiful, intertwined with terror’ (xv). And indeed, the remarkable thing about the Dead Marshes is the incredible beauty of the initial encounter, before the hobbits and Gollum try to understand the nature of what they’re seeing.
I began to think about the weird and the fantastic again recently, when I read Jeff VanderMeer’s collection of occasional non-fiction, Monstrous Creatures(2010), and in particular, the introductory piece, ‘Monstrous? Creatures?’ and ‘The Third Bear’ (not to be confused with ‘The Third Bear’, his short story, although it is closely related to the essay). In ‘Monstrous? Creatures?’, VanderMeer discusses his early appreciation of the term ‘monstrous’, and how it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘monster’. It is a word I’ve always had a little trouble with; how does one use it in relation to fiction? It always seems dark and pejorative, but as VanderMeer observed, for him it was ‘the intersection of the beautiful with the strange, the dangerous with the sublime’ (ix). As I noted in a recent review of the book, it seemed to me that in saying this, VanderMeer was deliberately reaching back to Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful(1756). ‘Burke believed that the beautiful and the sublime were antithetical, but equally he believed that the imagination is moved to awe by that which is “dark, uncertain, and confused”, and derives pleasure from knowing it to be a fiction’. It is not too much of a step to link that to VanderMeer’s perception of the monstrous, as ‘[t]hings that seem to be continuously unknowable no matter how much you discover about them’ (ix), and find oneself moving towards some sense of what the weird might be about, ‘the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane’ (The Weird, xv). Burke pulls back at the last moment, with his deriving pleasure from the knowing, whereas the VanderMeers suggest that the weird ‘strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood’, suggesting that here the pleasure derives from the ongoing uncertainty but also from the potentiality of the situation. There might be more, there might not, but no one knows.
But the weird is clearly not simply a frisson of pleasure prompted by contemplating the possibilities of ‘unexplainable dread’ (Lovecraft, qtd xv). In his non-fiction piece, ‘The Third Bear’, Jeff VanderMeer describes the third bear, which isn’t a bear at all, ‘always waiting to be written so that he can leap out and devour. […] He does sometimes exist at the edges of other folktales that are not about him at all’ (Monstrous Creatures, 20). VanderMeer may be talking about folktales, but I think perhaps the weird has similar properties to the third bear, particularly in the sense of existing on the edges of things. The VanderMeers make clear that the weird involves the ‘refinement (and destablization) of supernatural fiction within an established framework’, but also, and crucially, ‘the welcome contamination of that fiction by the influence of other traditions, some only peripherally connected to the fantastic’ (xvi).
This, I think, goes some way to explaining my early dis-ease with the idea of the weird. As a teenager, I read in a very compartmentalised way, wanting more of the same or at least something similar, feeding a particular hunger. In such a search, various taxonomies of literature and marketing come into play, in an effort to define as precisely as possible what it is one is after. Taxonomies are seductive, not least because of their apparent ease of use and their capacity to solve the difficulty of finding the next reading ‘fix’. It is only later that the realisation dawns that taxonomies are not only more fragile than might be supposed, and thus liable to collapse, but that this is a good thing, and indeed a necessary thing. Part of what the weird does is to challenge taxonomies, test the boundaries for weak spots and then work their way in. As the VanderMeers put it, ‘The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing’ (xvi), and significantly, ‘can occupy different territories simultaneously’ (xvi).
Also significant is the idea that a writer isn’t necessarily a Weird writer, utterly committed to the cause in every piece of fiction, but can be someone who occasionally uses elements of the weird. As someone who often thought in terms of ‘author’ rather than ‘title’, this wilful refusal to accept a category drove me mad as an adolescent, and led to endless disappointment in my reading. Now, what seemed a failing is clearly not so much a strength as a refusal to be penned by the boundaries.
Which is probably a good place to pause and actually start reading stories …