When The New Weird came out in early 2008, Ann and I frankly expected much more of a firestorm. It’s not that we wanted one–it’s that the original arguments about the term had been so polarizing, with some writers and critics refusing to even look at the term seriously after a time, that we expected some kind of primeval roar of disapproval.
Instead, the book sold well, received mostly excellent reviews, and sometimes created a lively but measured debate. Readers sent in approving emails, and many twenty-something writers who had not encountered the authors included also let us know through blog entries and by emails that they appreciated being able to have this “weird” stuff all in one place.
Many also pointed approvingly to the anthology’s structure of Stimuli, Evidence, Discussion, and Laboratory, which we’d painstakingly worked on to allow both general and academic readers to enjoy the book.
Perhaps the best praise came in a recent email from Junot Diaz, who told me he has taught the introduction to The New Weird at MIT.
At this point, with the anthology having been out for more than a year, and with a resurgence of weird hybrids appearing from publishers, I thought it appropriate to post the introduction here. It previously appeared in print form in the New York Review of SF. I hope you find it of use.
- The New Weird – “It’s Alive?”
The â€œnew weirdâ€ existed long before 2003, when M. John Harrison started a message board thread with the words: â€œThe New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything?â€ For this reason, and this reason only, it continues to exist now, even after a number of critics, reviewers, and writers have distanced themselves from the term.
By 2003, readers and writers had become aware of a change in perception and a change in approach within genre. Crystallized by the popularity of China MiÃ©villeâ€™s Perdido Street Station, this change had to do with finally acknowledging a shift in The Weird.
Weird fiction â€” typified by magazines like Weird Tales and writers like H. P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith back in the glory days of the pulps â€” eventually morphed into modern-day traditional Horror. â€œWeirdâ€ refers to the sometimes supernatural or fantastical element of unease in many of these stories â€” an element that could take a blunt, literal form or more subtle and symbolic form and which was, as in the best of Lovecraftâ€™s work, combined with a visionary sensibility. These types of stories also often rose above their pulp or self-taught origins through the strength of the writerâ€™s imagination. (There are definite parallels to be drawn between certain kinds of pulp fiction and so-called â€œOutsider Art.â€)
Two impulses or influences distinguish the New Weird from the â€œOldâ€ Weird, and make the term more concrete than terms like â€œslipstreamâ€ and â€œinterstitial,â€ which have no distinct lineage. The New Wave of the 1960s was the first stimulus leading to the New Weird. Featuring authors such as M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, and J. G. Ballard, the New Wave deliriously mixed genres, high and low art, and engaged in formal experimentation, often typified by a distinctly political point of view. New Wave writers also often blurred the line between science fiction and fantasy, writing a kind of updated â€œscifantasy,â€ first popularized by Jack Vance in his Dying Earth novels. This movement (backed by two of its own influences, Mervyn Peake and the Decadents of the late 1800s) provided what might be thought of as the brain of New Weird. The second stimulus came from the unsettling grotesquery of such seminal 1980s work as Clive Barkerâ€™s Books of Blood. In this kind of fiction, body transformations and dislocations create a visceral, contemporary take on the kind of visionary horror best exemplified by the work of Lovecraft â€” while moving past Lovecraftâ€™s coyness in recounting events in which the monster or horror can never fully be revealed or explained. In many of Barkerâ€™s best tales, the starting point is the acceptance of a monster or a transformation and the story is what comes after. Transgressive horror, then, repurposed to focus on the monsters and grotesquery but not the â€œscare,â€ forms the beating heart of the New Weird.
In a sense, the simultaneous understanding of and rejection of Old Weird, hardwired to the stimuli of the New Wave and New Horror, gave many of the writers identified as New Weird the signs and symbols needed to both forge ahead into the unknown and create their own unique re-combinations of familiar elements.
Nameless for a time, a type of New Weird or protoâ€“New Weird entered the literary world in the gap between the end of the miniature horror renaissance engendered by Barker and his peers and the publication of Perdido Street Station in 2000.
In the 1990s, â€œNew Weirdâ€ began to manifest itself in the form of cult writers like Jeffrey Thomas and his cross-genre urban Punktown stories. It continued to find a voice in the work of Thomas Ligotti, who straddled a space between the traditional and the avant garde. It coalesced in the David Lynchean approach of Michael Cisco to Eastern European mysticism in works like The Divinity Student. It entered real-world settings through unsettling novels by Kathe Koja, such as The Cipher and Skin, with their horrific interrogations of the body and mind. It entered into disturbing dialogue about sex and gender in Richard Calderâ€™s novels, with their mix of phantasmagoria and pseudo-cyberpunk. It could also be found in Jeffrey Fordâ€™s Well-Built City trilogy, my own Ambergris stories (Dradin, In Love, etc.), and the early short work of K. J. Bishop
and Alastair Reynolds, among others.
Magazines like Andy Coxâ€™s The Third Alternative, my wife Annâ€™s The Silver Web, and, to a lesser extent, David Pringleâ€™s Interzone and Chris Reed/Manda Thomsonâ€™s Back Brain Recluse â€” along with anthologies like my Leviathan series â€” provided support for this kind of work, which generally did not interest commercial publishers. Ironically, despite most New Weird fiction of the 1990s being skewed heavily toward the grotesque end of the New Wave/New Horror spectrum, many horror publications and reviewers dismissed the more confrontational or surreal examples of the form. It represented a definite threat to the Lovecraft clones and Twilight Zone dÃ¶ppelgangers that dominated the horror field by the mid-1990s.
The publication of MiÃ©villeâ€™s Perdido Street Station in 2000 represented what might be termed the first commercially acceptable version of the New Weird, one that both coarsened and broadened the New Weird approach through techniques more common to writers like Charles Dickens, while adding a progressive political slant. MiÃ©ville also displayed a fascination with permutations of the body, much like Barker, and incorporated, albeit in a more direct way, ideas like odd plagues (M. John Harrison) and something akin to a Multiverse (Michael Moorcock).
MiÃ©villeâ€™s fiction wasnâ€™t inherently superior to what had come before, but it was epic, and it wedded a â€œsurrender to the weirdâ€ â€” literally, the writerâ€™s surrender to the material, without ironic distance â€” to rough-hewn but effective plots featuring earnest, proactive characters. This approach made Perdido Street Station much more accessible to readers than such formative influences on MiÃ©ville as Mervyn Peakeâ€™s Gormenghast novels or M. John Harrisonâ€™s Viriconium cycle.
The truth of this accessibility also resides at the sentence and paragraph level, which in MiÃ©villeâ€™s case house brilliant, often startling images and situations, but do not always display the same control as those past masters. (By MiÃ©villeâ€™s own admission, and not meant as a pejorative here.) Yet, by using broader brushstrokes, MiÃ©ville created much more space for his readers, a trade-off that helped create his success. Ultimately, MiÃ©ville would also serve as an entry point to work that was more ambitious on the paragraph level. In a neat time traveling trick, one of his own touchstones, M. John Harrison, would benefit greatly from that success.
Quite simply, MiÃ©ville had created just the right balance between pulp writing, visionary, surreal images, and literary influences to attract a wider audience â€” and serve as the lightning rod for what would become known as New Weird.
But MiÃ©ville wasnâ€™t alone. By the time Harrison posited his question â€œWhat is New Weird?â€ it had become clear that a number of other writers had developed at the same time as MiÃ©ville, using similar stimuli. My City of Saints & Madmen, K. J. Bishopâ€™s The Etched City, and Paul Di Filippoâ€™s A Year in the Linear City, among others, appeared in the period from 2001 to 2003, with Steph Swainstonâ€™s The Year of Our War published in 2004. It seemed that something had Risen Spontaneous â€” even though in almost every case, the work itself had been written in the 1990s and either needed time to gestate or had been rejected by publishers â€” and thus there was a need to explain or name the beast. The resulting conversation on the Third Alternative public message boards consisted of many thousands of words, used in the struggle to name, define, analyze, spin, explore, and quantify the term â€œNew Weird.â€ The debate involved more than fifty writers, reviewers, and critics, all with their own questions, agendas, and concerns.
By the end of the discussion, part of which is reprinted in this anthology, it wasnâ€™t clear if New Weird as a term existed or not. However, over the next few years, with varying levels of enthusiasm, MiÃ©ville (and various acolytes and followers) promulgated versions of the term, emphasizing the â€œsurrender to the weird,â€ but also a very specific political component. MiÃ©ville thought of New Weird as â€œpost-Seattleâ€ fiction, referring to the effects of globalization and grassroots efforts to undermine institutions like the World Bank. This use of the term â€œNew Weirdâ€ was in keeping with MiÃ©villeâ€™s idealism and Marxist leanings in the world outside of fiction, but, in my opinion, preternaturally narrowed the parameters of the term. This brand of New Weird seemed far too limiting, unlike the type envisioned by Steph Swainston in the original message board discussion; her New Weird seemed almost like a form of literary Deism, a primal and epiphanal experience.
The passion behind MiÃ©villeâ€™s efforts made sure that the term would live on â€” even after he began to disown it, claiming it had become a marketing category and was therefore of no further interest to him. Despite MiÃ©villeâ€™s lack of interest, by 2005 the term â€œNew Weirdâ€ was being used with some regularity by readers, writers, and critics.
That the term, as explored primarily by M. John Harrison and Steph Swainston, and then taken up by MiÃ©ville, has since been rejected or severely questioned not only by the initial Triumvirate but by several others speaks to the fact that most New Weird writers, like most New Wave writers, are various in their approaches over time. They are not repeating themselves for the most part. Cross-pollination â€” of genres, of boundaries â€” occurs as part of an effort to avoid easy classification â€” not for its own sake, or even consciously in most cases, but in an attempt to allow readers and writers to enter into a dialogue that is genuine, unique, and not based on received ideas or terms.
MiÃ©ville attempted to place this political element within a complex, multifaceted context, but the reality of how ideas are transmitted meant that this complexity was stripped away as the thought spread and was re-transmitted, each time more constraining and less interesting. The constant flux-and-flow of support and lack of support for New Weird in the same individuals would be taken as â€œwafflingâ€ in a politician. In a writer, it is part of the necessary testing and re-testing connected to oneâ€™s writing, as well as part of the need to continually be open to and curious about the world.
I myself reacted violently to the idea of New Weird in 2003 â€” in part because it seemed that some writers wanted to claim it, falsely, as a uniquely English phenomenon; in part because I continue to champion artistic discussion and publication of â€œgenreâ€ and â€œliteraryâ€ work within one context and continuum; and in part because it did seem limiting inasmuch as the term was most useful applied to specific works rather than specific writers (almost impossible to â€œenforce,â€ given how labeling works).
In retrospect, however, my rejection of the term seems premature â€” because as used in the message board discussion, â€œNew Weirdâ€ was just a term on which to hang an exploration and investigation of what looked like a sudden explosion of associated texts. While much of the discussion may have been surface, much of it was also incisive, rich, and deep. With less concern about holding onto â€œterritoryâ€ and control, from everyone, those discussions might have led to something more substantive.
Effects in the “Real” World
The other reality about the term â€œNew Weirdâ€ has little to do with either moments or movements and more to do with the marketplace: MiÃ©villeâ€™s success, through his own efforts and those of his followers, became linked to the term New Weird. A practical result of this affiliation is that it became easier for this kind of fiction to find significant publication. It wasnâ€™t just â€œfind me the next MiÃ©villeâ€ â€” firstly impossible and secondly corrosive â€” but â€œfind me more New Weird fiction.â€ As an editor at a large North American publishing house told me two years ago, â€œNew Weirdâ€ has been a â€œuseful shorthandâ€ not only when justifying acquiring a particular novel, but also when marketing departments talk to booksellers. Confusion about the specifics of the term created a larger protective umbrella for writers from a publishing standpoint. Many books far stranger than MiÃ©villeâ€™s have been prominently published as a result. By now, this effect may have begun to fade, like all marketing trends, but the writers blessed by its effects now have careers autonomous from the original umbilical cord.
I know that without New Weird, it would have been harder for me to find publication by commercial and foreign language publishers. This is probably doubly true for writers like K. J. Bishop, who had not already had books out by 2001. In a trickle-down effect, I also believe this atmosphere has helped decidedly nonâ€“New Weird writers like Hal Duncan, whose own brand of weirdness is much more palatable in the wake of the â€œNew Weird explosion.â€ (Inasmuch as there is a â€œGodfatherâ€ or â€œprotective angelâ€ of New Weird, that person would be Peter Lavery, editor at Pan Macmillan, who took a chance on MiÃ©ville, Bishop, Duncan, me, and several other â€œstrangeâ€ writers.)
The other truth is that even though heroic fantasy and other forms of genre fiction still sell much better than most New Weird books, New Weird writers partially dominated the critical and awards landscape for almost half a decade.
In a similar way, New Weird has become shorthand for readers, who donâ€™t care about the vagaries of taxonomy so much as â€œI know it when I read it.â€ For this reason, writers such as Kelly Link, Justina Robson, and Charles Stross have all been, at one time or another, identified as New Weird. These reader associations occur because when encountering something unique most of us grab the label that seems the closest match so we can easily describe our enthusiasm to others. (The result of both carefree readers and some careless academics has been to make it seem as if New Weird is as indefinable and slippery a term as â€œinterstitial.â€)
The effect of New Weird outside of England, North America, and Australia has been various but often dynamic. New Weird has, in some countries, already mutated and adapted as an ever-shifting â€œmomentâ€ â€” as well as a potent label for publishers. In some places â€œNew Weirdâ€ has become uniquely independent of what anyone associated with The original discussion in 2003 now thinks of the term and its usefulness. For example, in Finland you can say without equivocation that Kelly Link is New Weird. (At the same time, New Weird has largely failed to penetrate the awareness of the literary mainstream, probably because of its secondary-world nature, which is almost always a barrier to breaking out of the genre â€œghetto.”)
In addition, as alluded to earlier in this introduction, many of the writers associated with New Weird and collected in this volume are already transforming into something else entirely, while new writers like Alistair Rennie (whose story is original to this anthology), have assimilated the New Weird influence, combined it with yet other stimuli, and created their own wonderfully bizarre and transgressive recombination.
This speaks to the nature of art: as soon as something becomes popular or familiar, the true revolution moves elsewhere. Sometimes the writers involved in the original radicalism move on, too, and sometimes they allow themselves to be left behind.
A Working Definition of the New Weird
Following the aftermath of all of this discussion, research, and reading, the opportunity to create a working definition of twenty-first-century New Weird now presents itself:
New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects â€” in combination with the stimulus of influence from New Wave writers or their proxies (including also such forebears as Mervyn Peake and the French/English Decadents). New Weird fictions are acutely aware of the modern world, even if in disguise, but not always overtly political. As part of this awareness of the modern world, New Weird relies for its visionary power on a â€œsurrender to the weirdâ€ that isnâ€™t, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica. The â€œsurrenderâ€ (or â€œbeliefâ€) of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text.
This definition presents two significant ways in which the New Weird can be distinguished from Slipstream or Interstitial fiction. First, while Slipstream and Interstitial fiction often claim New Wave influence, they rarely if ever cite a Horror influence, with its particular emphasis on the intense use of grotesquery focused around transformation, decay, or mutilation of the human body. Second, postmodern techniques that undermine the surface reality of the text (or point out its artificiality) are not part of the New Weird aesthetic, but they are part of the Slipstream and Interstitial toolbox.
We hope that this anthology will provide a rough guide to the moment or movement known as â€œNew Weirdâ€ â€” acknowledging that the pivotal â€œmomentâ€ is behind us, but that this moment had already lasted much longer than generally believed, had definite precursors, and continues to spread an Effect, even as it dissipates or becomes something else. (And who knows? Another pivotal â€œmomentâ€ may be ahead of us.)
In this anthology, you will find a â€œStimuliâ€ section that includes both New Wave and New Horror examples, along with work by fence-straddlers like Simon Ings and Thomas Ligotti. You will also find an â€œEvidenceâ€ section that pulls New Weird examples from pulp and the literary mainstream, from dark fantasy and from foreign language sources. To highlight just a few of these selections, China MiÃ©villeâ€™s â€œJack,â€ stripped-down and gracefully gruff and ironic, revisits the New Crobuzon of his novels, in much the same way as Jeffrey Ford revisits a proto-Well-Built City setting in â€œAt Reparata.â€ Other highlights include the Brian Evensonâ€™s Beckett-Kafka-esque take on Gormenghast, â€œWatsonâ€™s Boy,â€ the unabashed decadence of K. J. Bishopâ€™s â€œThe Art of Dying,â€ and the frenzied postâ€“New Weird grotesquery of Alistair Rennieâ€™s â€œThe Gutter Meets the Light That Never Shines,â€ a story original to this anthology that showcases the effect of combining New Wave and New Horror elements with pop culture and comics influences.
The â€œSymposiumâ€ section preserves the beginning of the message board thread about New Weird begun by M. John Harrison in 2003, along with Michael Ciscoâ€™s essay from the year after, and three pieces written specially for this volume: scholar and writer Darja Malcolm-Clarkeâ€™s â€œTracking Phantoms,â€ an exploration of her changing views on New Weird; writer K. J. Bishopâ€™s â€œWhose Words You Wear,â€ her thoughts on the effects of labeling; and â€œEuropean Editor Perspectives on the New Weird,â€ which charts the influence and permutations of the term across several different countries. Finally, in â€œLaboratoryâ€ we asked several writers existing outside of or on the fringe of New Weird to create a round-robin story that showcases, in fictional form, their own manifestation of the term. This section was never meant to be a complete story â€” more a series of vignettes â€” but the results are cohesive and fascinating.
Ann and I still have reservations about the term New Weird, but in our readings, research, and conversations, we have come to believe the term has a core validity. The proof is that it has taken on an artistic and commercial life beyond that intended by those individuals who, in their inquisitiveness about a â€œmoment,â€ unintentionally created a movement. It is still mutating forward through the work of a new generation of writers, as well.
Finally, anyone who reads the initial New Weird discussions will find that the term arose from a sense of curiosity, of play, of (sometimes bloody-minded) mischievousness, and from a love for fiction. We offer up this anthology in the spirit of the best of that original discussion.
New Weird is dead. Long live the Next Weird.