The OF Blog: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, The New Weird

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, The New Weird

weird (wîrd)
adj. weird·er, weird·est
1. Of, relating to, or suggestive of the preternatural or supernatural.
2. Of a strikingly odd or unusual character; strange.
3. Archaic Of or relating to fate or the Fates.
a. Fate; destiny.
b. One's assigned lot or fortune, especially when evil.
2. often Weird Greek & Roman Mythology One of the Fates.
tr. & intr.v. weird·ed, weird·ing, weirds
Slang To experience or cause to experience an odd, unusual, and sometimes uneasy sensation. Often used with out.

[Middle English werde, fate, having power to control fate, from Old English wyrd, fate; see wer-2 in Indo-European roots.]
Despite the seemingly precise definition cited above, "weird" is something that resists pat explanations or cute labels; it is just there, lurking at the peripheries, making the observers of it quite uncomfortable. In fiction, there have been hints of "weirdness" in the writing, places where it feels almost like a transgression to cross, because of its often alien and grotesque nature. From the beloved ruins of the Romanticists to the dank, dark corridors of an Ann Radcliffe, full of mysterious, odd, and quite possibly malevolent creations, to the rather unsettled end to the rather frightful 20th century, many writers have come to explore those boundaries that contain elements that both fascinate and repel humans. When I heard about Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's latest anthology project, The New Weird, I was reminded of a comment by M. John Harrison in his introduction to the PS Publishing edition of China Miéville's The Tain, "China Miéville & the New Weird" written in October 2002:

Good fiction should make us question our experience of the world; not to say the means by which we scaffold that experience. But it should never do this obviously. The most painfully defamiliarising gesture is the most subtle. Good fiction has an uncanny quality: and that's enough to make it "fantasy" and "mainstream" at the same time. Let's go out there, we might say, meaning, into this mainstream arena, and make readers uncomfortable. Instead of splitting hairs let's do some acts of the countermundane.
In his introduction to The New Weird anthology, Jeff VanderMeer addresses not just the history of this "movement," stretching back to and referencing the near-iconic old pulp magazine Weird Tales, but also the problems inherent in such a purposely vague and yet fitting term. Back then, there were no rigidly-defined terms such as "epic fantasy," "urban fantasy," "horror," or "hard SF." Instead, in pulps such as Weird Tales, writers might mix elements of all of the above into an alchemical brew that would leave their readers feeling in turns fascinated and uncomfortable.
All well and good, one might argue. But what makes this "weird" the New Weird? VanderMeer continues, noting that the often-political, almost-always experimental approach of the New Wave writers of the 1960s and 1970s(M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock being two prominent writers of this time period), with their appropriations of whatever "mainstream" tropes and concerns that they saw fit to use, made it okay again, after the rather rigid divisions between SF and Fantasy that occurred during the post-World War II Golden Age of SF era, to blend and blur the boundaries. In addition, during the 1980s, some horror writers (Clive Barker being cited as a major influence) began to take a more visceral, unsettling approach to Lovecraftian themes, daring to reveal much more of the hideousness of the imagined and "real" monsters than had been done before.

But experimenters rarely are accepted into the fold and by the 1990s, during a time in which the older political models seemed to be dissolving into a toxic mixture of ethnocentrism, religious fundamentalism, and rising xenophobism in the so-called "First World" nations, some writers influenced by the predecessors mentioned above began to write their own takes on the older fantasy, SF, horror, and "mainstream" tropes. This, VanderMeer postulates, is the beginning point for what later became known as the New Weird.

The term itself, he notes, is quite controversial, as even those associated with its coining, China Miéville, Steph Swainston, and M. John Harrison, later came to distance themselves from the term. Labels, after all, are tricky and confining entities that seek to bind and to standardize. But if "weirdness," this "uncanniness" that unsettles people, is such a slippery, vague word in the first place, how can labels apply? It is around this question that much of the VanderMeers' anthology revolves.

Many anthologies give little more than a brief introduction by the editor(s) of whatever theme(s) that the anthology seeks to explore. Here in The New Weird, the questions raised in the introduction are underscored by how the VanderMeers have divided their book. In the first section, "Stimuli," the reader is introduced to seminal stories such as M. John Harrison's "The Luck in the Head" (originally published in 1984 as part of Viriconium Nights), Clive Barker's "In the Hills, the Cities" (published first in 1984 in the collection Books of Blood, Volume I), and Thomas Ligotti's "A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing" (1997 publication, In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land). In each of these stories (and others that I neglect to mention above), there are a few common elements. The settings are very vivid, sometimes set in another "world," sometimes in a very recognizable contemporary Earth. The language of the stories focuses heavily on how the narrator/characters interact with their environs, which often differ from the characters' "norms." It is a classic "Man versus the Environment" clash in part, but there is much more to it than just that. In these stories, the reader can expect to find all sorts of unsettling situations or implications based on plot events, all designed to heighten any unease that the reader might hold. As an introduction to the influences on the latter styles, these stories work very well together.

In the second part, "Evidence," there are reprinted stories by Miéville, Jay Lake, Jeffrey Thomas, Steph Swainston, and Jeffrey Ford, among others. In these tales, the earlier tales' atmospheric settings and unsettled narrative reactions is married to an even closer attention to language and "real-world" concerns. Miéville's "Jack," set in his New Crobuzon universe, explores the machinations of a totalitarian state and the usefulness for that regime of having mythical hero-opponents such as Jack Half-a-Prayer oppose it. Miéville's descriptions of the Remaking process, of how Jack is eventually caught, and what happens to his snitch all serve to focus our attention not just on the wonderfully described situation, but also on how our own political systems are fraught with corruption and how complacent many citizens can be in light of such potential governmental abuses. Although the other stories in this section are not quite overtly political (or Marxist) as is Miéville's, they too have their moments in which the "weirdness" presented often hits a bit too close to home for our comfort.

But as well-written and presented as these stories were, one of the key selling points for this anthology in my mind was the third section, "Symposium." Here the VanderMeers have reproduced the opening salvos of a landmark 2003 discussion that originally appeared on The Third Alternative forums (now archived here) as well as publishing reprinted and original essays on the New Weird theme by Michael Cisco, K.J. Bishop, and a series of non-English language editors from Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe on the impact that such a movement as the New Weird has had in their countries, both in the selling of translated fiction as well as on native writers. It is in this section that the questions presented in the introduction reemerge and take center stage. The reader witnesses the debates over the terminologies employed, the questions over the efficacies of even having such a label, and so forth. For me, it was this section that made this anthology much more than the sum of its parts.

In the final section, "Laboratory," there is a writing project in which authors not often associated with the original New Weird movement, are presented with a story beginning written by Paul Di Filippo and are asked to riff off of that intro, using their own understandings of what "New Weird" might mean. This collaborative exercise on the parts of Di Filippo, Cat Rambo, Sarah Monette, Daniel Abraham, Felix Gilman, Hal Duncan, and Conrad Williams is a very striking look at how the techniques employed by the New Weird writers have influenced those whose stories at first glance might not be associated with such a movement. It was an interesting way to end the anthology and one that will take me multiple reads before I will feel comfortable presenting a cogent discussion of its themes and elements.

Perhaps that was one of the points of that exercise - to shake readers such as myself from our comfort zones and make us contemplate things that are often baffling, sometimes repulsive, but almost always imaginative and vivid. In this, the final section fits in well with the previous three and hints at what may lay ahead in the field. Defined precisely or not, the New Weird certainly has had a major impact on writing both inside and outside the narrowly-defined genre limns. This eponymous anthology does an outstanding job in presenting the New Weird in all its unsettling, vague, weird glory. Highly Recommended.

Publication Date: February 1, 2008 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Tachyon Publications


Robert said...

I'm really looking forward to reading this :) It's quite a lineup, although can you believe that I've never read any China ;)

Larry Nolen said...

It is indeed quite the lineup and these are, for the most part, exemplary stories of theirs that were chosen. And once you read "Jack," I highly suspect you'll go out and buy his books, as it really captures the "flavor" of the Bas-Lag novels.

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