Weird Tales: Calvin Mills on The Element of Weird

Writer: Calvin Mills
Weird Tales Story: The Stone and Bone Boy (Issue #348, Jan/Feb 2008)
Writer Bio: Calvin Mills is a short story writer and essayist. His recent work has appeared in Short Story, The Caribbean Writer, and the Tales from the South Vol. 1. He was raised behind the Redwood Curtain, and currently lives and teaches in Port Angeles, Washington.

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A psychedelic toad, a half-sized mute, a hypnotized antelope, and a Dominican child prostitute who plays the violin — what do these things have in common? They all appear in short stories I’ve written. But they are also attempts to satisfy an often overlooked element of fiction.

Writers know most of the elements of fiction by heart: plot, character, setting, tone, point of view, style, language, theme, symbolism, allegory, and image. But there is another important element that often goes unacknowledged — the “weird” element. Good writers know this. So do good filmmakers. If you don’t believe me, watch David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” or his new epic “Inland Empire.”

This element is often a fundamental building block, and therefore readily apparent in “genre” fiction. King’s “The Monkey” and Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes” build weirdness into their premises. But the weird element is not limited to the premise or the plot, nor is it limited by any genre boundaries. In “literary” short fiction, there are obvious examples of writers who embrace the weird element within a greater context of realism. Márquez, Cortázar, and Borges are all excellent examples. Think of Rosario Ferre’s fine short story “The Youngest Doll.” In this story, a young girl goes swimming in a river and is attacked by a “prawn,” which burrows under her skin and stays in her body for the remainder of the life, causing her great pain and embarrassment, and ruining her chances at marriage.

But magical realism doesn’t have cosmic dibs on the weird aspects of life either. We can even find the weird element in realism (some would even say minimalism). Writers like Raymond Carver value the weird as well. In Carver’s story “Feathers,” not only do you have a plaster cast of a crazy set of teeth as living room decor, but you have an otherworldly creature, a peacock walking around the room. In Joyce Carol Oates’ “Three Girls” we start off with a none too startling plot: two young female poets, in the early stages of self discovery. But the story takes a rather weird twist when Marilyn Monroe appears.

Weirdness is often incorporated into the actions of realistic characters. In David Jauss’ short story “Torque,” when a man’s wife leaves him, he goes out to his driveway and carefully saws his car in half. Now that is a narrative hook! In Frederick Barthelme’s story “Driver” a Caucasian suburbanite weeps with yearning for a customized set of wheels, after watching a documentary film about Chicano low-rider culture.

Weirdness is not strictly relegated to fiction. In hip newspapers we have columns devoted to “News of the Weird.” Shocking things happen everyday: the discovery of a giant lobster in Madagascar; the existence of fossilized bacteria (alien life!) in meteorites; urban myths of Chupacabra; and how about the Darwin Awards?

Weirdness also wiggles into our personal lives everyday. One day after dinner, I felt something scratching at the back of my throat. I coughed and hacked and spit up what looked like a small red lava rock. Less than a week later, I felt something sharp in my gums where my wisdom teeth used to be (this was two years after having my wisdom teeth removed). I dug around in there with tweezers and pulled out a long white splinter that looked like bone. I learned later that this is not uncommon, because they sometimes break your teeth in order to get them out, and your body slowly works the shards out. But for a while there, I felt like I was falling apart. When I felt another scratching in the back of my throat later that summer, I opened my mouth, looked in the mirror, and saw what looked like a tooth growing in the back of my throat. I kept shaking my head and telling my wife, “I’m a freak of nature. I’m a goddamned freak of nature.” I’d become something out of one of my stories. I basically wigged out — at least until I discovered the existence of the illusive “tonsillolith” in a desperate internet search.

I was relieved to discover that I was not so much a freak of nature with a tooth growing out of the back of my throat, as I was a victim of a fairly ordinary, yet disgusting reality. Further research revealed that I had a “calcareous” deposit in my tonsil “crypt”. As for the red lava rock I coughed up, that remains a total mystery.

All this weirdness left me obsessing for a time about foreign objects coming from within the body. Now you know a little bit about how this weird worm of an idea wiggled into my life. In my story “The Stone and Bone Boy” in the upcoming issue of Weird Tales, you can see how this worm wiggled into my subconscious, and was reborn, and how similar (but exaggerated) circumstances affected the family of a cuddly toddler in Segovia, Spain.

In the meantime, look around. Weirdness is everywhere. It’s in our institutions, our hearts, and our minds. We remember and acknowledge plot, character, and theme. Now let’s acknowledge the forgotten, the hidden, the obscured but ever-present element we all crave. In Austin, Texas they have bumper stickers and tee-shirts which read “Keep Austin Weird.” In the world of fiction, I say we need bumper stickers too — maybe even those cheesy mugs you get at the mall. If nothing else, take a mental note. Tuck it away in your brain. I have a repository of these strange bits and pieces myself: the arm I found on the street in front of my house after a motorcycle accident, the dream I had that came true the next day, the night my house imploded because it was struck by a tornado. This stuff is life. This stuff is weird.

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