Weird Tales: Alistair Rennie on Archiving the Weird

Ann VanderMeer • December 30th, 2007 @ 8:35 am • Culture

Writer: Alistair Rennie
Weird Tales Story: BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl
Writer Bio: Alistair Rennie was born in the North of Scotland and now lives in Italy. He has published short fiction in Electric Velocipede and Shadowed Realms and has forthcoming work appearing in The New Weird (ed. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer), Weird Tales, Fabulous Whitby (ed. Liz Williams and Sue Thomason) and Electric Velocipede.


One of the functions of Weird Tales is that it not only acts as an outlet for weird fiction but also as an archive of weird fiction. It represents a legacy of weirdness that we can trace for all of 85 years which, given the proximity of the magazine’s existence (now), would appear to suggest that weird fiction is distinctively modern.

If weird fiction is distinctively modern, then it appears that the world has become so overly familiar that it requires a proliferation of weirdness in order to restore some kind of balance of interest between routine matters and a desire for mystery. And so, if the weird is a response to some kind of underlying (primitive?) impetus that requires us to make a mystery of the world (which needs to be created because it doesn’t exist), then the weirdness is surely an indication of human specificity (it is a value alongside other values, founded, as all values are, on illusions)–which is easy to believe in the sense that it is humans who apply the mysteries, not animals, unless we involve them in our creations as anthropomorphic conceits that put them well beyond our line of vision. A proof lies in the fact that our attempts to know the consciousnesses of animals are accomplished in human terms except in the context of science when they (animals) are made to seem so unpalatably inhuman (like the world itself) that the imagination is constrained to resurrect them as something they are not:

But this is not to say that creating a sense of mystery out of nothing is not without purpose. It is, above all, a means of demolishing the other, often poorer illusions that humans have conceived in the face of an underlying poverty of palatable truth, which is where the weird becomes a vehicle for our confrontation with anxieties we dare not face for fear of them becoming real.

I have a feeling about the weird in fiction that authors usually have no idea they’re doing it. Their intention, rather, is to be subversive of anything that strikes them as conventional (in literary, social, political or sexual values–or assumptions pertaining to moral, philosophical or spiritual correlations that have no basis in any absolute foundation). The role of the weird is not to provoke or expand the limitations of human imagination, which are embedded too much in proverbial or habitual discourses of repeated emphasis, but to rewrite them in a language of extremes. In a sense, the weird is the triumph of impulse over the proscriptive measures of creed. It doesn’t abide by conventions upon any level of its function: it is motivated by a need for warping the parameters of what is permissible within the received pronunciation of popular taste.

Beyond everything else, the weird in fiction creates mysteries where there are none in order to displace the illusions of everyday life that prohibit mysteries from taking form as equal facets, with equal value, of the human scope for creating things which, otherwise, will become delimited by banalities rather than truths, such as the ideological justifications for the war in Iraq (which are derived from platitudes and the distorted application of illusory values to real situations, such as death).

Lastly, and perhaps most obviously after all, the weird is preloaded with a will to subvert whatever strategies of human thinking have led to its designation as being weird.

The weird is only striving to be normal.
You will have noticed that all of the above is based on an assertion that, in turn, is based on a lie.

Weird fiction is not a modern form of fiction at all, but rather a quality that inheres in fiction in all places at all times, regardless of the deployment of this or that terminology (for “weird” read “arabesque”, “eldritch”, “Gothic”, “Metaphysical”, “Sublime”, and a host of other descriptive items that have acquired widespread use or critical currency). Weirdness in fiction has persisted and adapted itself to historical contingencies with an aim to undermining the ascendant values of the age in which it finds itself; and, to this extent, it is equally representative of history.

It is always fascinating to trace the genealogies of fictional types or fictional qualities not only for the sake of trivia but for the practical advantages of discovering new stories to read or be aware of. I thought I would offer 6 of my favourite examples of weirdness in fiction that are precursory to the weirdness in fiction of the last 85 years. It would be interesting to hear of any examples of precursory weirdness that are favourites of yours, in which case, please oblige me by listing them.

François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532+)

James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)

Robert Louis Stevenson, Fables (1887)

James Thomson, ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ (1882)

John Kendrick Bangs, A House-Boat on the Styx (1895)

Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books (1889 – 1910)

5 Responses to “Weird Tales: Alistair Rennie on Archiving the Weird”

  1. Anna Tambour says:

    I think that you cored the fruit with this statement, “I have a feeling about the weird in fiction that authors usually have no idea they’re doing it. Their intention, rather, is to be subversive of anything that strikes them as conventional (in literary, social, political or sexual values–or assumptions pertaining to moral, philosophical or spiritual correlations that have no basis in any absolute foundation).”

    But attempts to be weird for their own sake don’t necessarily fail in the long term, and can be taken as profoundly meaningful even and especially when the message was meant to be nothing at all, a celebration of vacuity in the name of art, or when the message was nothing at all other than no message, to seem profound. Thus Dada has turned into Art, and nonsense plays such as Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and music such as John Cage’s compositions are modern classics of the weird, but are they weird or just, um, different for the sake of it? A few years ago I met a recent fine arts graduate from the UK, whose final Work was some snapshots she took of a yellow rubber ducky on her black and white tiled floor. Since the top-selling artist today graduated with cardboard boxes that he didn’t make as his Work, a Dada movement today might have to consist of actual drawings.

  2. James Krstulovich says:

    I have to know: when is “BleakWarrior Meets the Sons of Brawl” being published? Based on the title alone, I must read it.

  3. AnnV says:

    The story will be out in mid-year, I promise. It’s a killer!

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  5. Justified says:

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