Testing the Weird

I might as well give up and admit it–chances are there are going to be a lot of posts on weird fiction here while Ann and I work on this big book of, erm, weird fiction. It’s a good outlet for what’s an intense, satisfying, at times frustrating, and epiphanal project. The book will cover roughly a century, from about 1910 to the present-day. I see it as primarily post-WWI to 2009, but there may be some slight slippage. It’s not a best-of, per se, in that a true best-of for a century seems to me a ludicrous idea, but it’s also not just a history of the weird through fiction, in that we’re uninterested in including something solely because it has been dubbed “influential,” or as loose a group of stories as a “treasury”, which is often another way of saying “these are just my favorite favorites.”

In past posts, I’ve mostly described the grinding process of trying to read everything, in part to blow off steam from some tight deadlines. But there’s a lot of process here, too, which I haven’t mentioned. We’re more or less testing the weird, and setting up some limits and parameters to give the anthology focus while not being so intent on focus that it means excluding some things that our gut tells us should be in the anthology. (Two definite areas outside of our mission: straightforward fairy tales, no matter how grim, and horror fiction, predominantly from late 1980s/early 1990s, that has not even a whiff of the inexplicable.)

Nothing we’ve read has come to us as a given, for one thing. Even classic stories should always be re-evaluated, and then tested against lesser-known material. Some people have said to us, “Oh, you have to include so-and-so or what’s-her-face.” We’ve ignored those types of impulses and instead just looked at the evidence. In some cases, the classics hold up quite well. In other cases, stories we once loved come off as second-rate in the cold light of reading a century’s-worth of material.

What is incontrovertible to us, in re-reading stories and encountering them for the first time, is that some classics do not suffer close inspection, and that some authors considered minor have, either as part of a larger body of good work or as one brief spark of genius, written stories that deserve further exposure. Nor is literature, as some think, a matter of evolution. There are troughs and peaks, periods of amazing imagination and periods of the amazingly dull (through which veil certain authors blaze all the more brightly). You cannot say a story written today is inherently better than one written in the 1920s, nor even that it will necessarily be more progressive. One of the most embarrassingly dated, supposedly classic, stories I’ve read comes from the 1990s, by a female writer. This may be more true of weird fiction than most because in either containing or encountering the inexplicable it tends to eschew those markers of an era that most frequently date a story. (Or, conversely, you could say that the weird tale has occurred most frequently within certain distinct modes, so that the shorthand we expect from it is comfortably present in earlier versions.)

There is also the issue of type, in addition to theme. Is a fiction by Saki or Dahl inherently inferior to one by Joyce Carol Oates just because the latter is more story than tale? The answer is no–each has its own particular type of leap toward perfection–and for this reason one area of balance is between the short, sharp shock and the longer, more lingering approach. Modes of fiction are also important. Surrealist and Decadent traditions have influenced a host of weird writers from the 1920s to the present day. The fruits of these traditions tend to be under-represented in most anthologies of weird or horror fiction, as are those non-English-speaking countries that have strong traditions of weird fiction (some, though, do not, and no wishing it was otherwise will change that fact).

We find ourselves asking questions. Is this story clear or murky? I don’t mean in the sense of an invisible or opulent style. I mean more in the sense of seeming in focus and readable. Is this story an echo or an original, and if an echo is this echo better than the original? Is this story compelling in terms of plot? In terms of character? Does this story adhere to its own internal logic throughout the narrative, even if it’s a dream-logic? Does this story seem universal or is it weighed down by annoying signifiers that tie it to a particular period? And, of course, is this story truly weird? This last question is perhaps the most subjective, but there’s something to saying you react to a story with your heart, head, and gut.

These are only a few of the issues and questions that Ann and I have been discussing as we read. Usually, I will read during the day, acting as a kind of scout, picking out interesting stories for Ann to read when she comes home at night. She then has the opportunity to re-read everything in the book, in addition to whatever I marked, and sometimes reversals occur. (For example, she found a Leonora Carrington story I’d missed that was vastly superior to the one I’d pointed out.) On weekends, this process reverses itself: Ann’s reading material first and passing it on to me.

In the evenings, every few days we will go out on the porch to smoke a cigar and drink whisky and talk about what we’ve read and about the shape of the anthology, and whether we think we’re on schedule. We express anxiety about whether we’ll be able to get the rights to the stories that we love so much that if we didn’t get them we’d be devastated. We talk about the relative merits of stories that are of equal quality, and what the inclusion of one story over the other means in terms of the tone and reach of the book. In all things, we are trying to encounter and live amongst the Evidence for as long as possible before drawing conclusions.

35 comments on “Testing the Weird

  1. Teodor says:

    Thank you for this insight into your editing process – it seems truly committed and inspired. Your New Weird anthology led me to propose a Master’s dissertation on the subject.. and while my deadline is just a month or two away from the publication of your new anthology, I’ll console myself by thinking it’ll hopefully be an apotheosis of some kind ;)

    Based on my as yet highly limited experience, the term weird fiction seems both slippery and all-encompassing; it’s hardly as ‘solid’ – commercially and culturally – as horror, fantasy, sci-fi and its subsets… and yet, it seems to take in all of these genres. Would you say that having something ‘inexplicable’ at the centre of the tale is what truly makes it weird?

    I’m also very excited by the mention of the Decadents, Surrealists, Dahl, Oates and Saki. I find it amusing how certain genre fans advocate a ‘reverse snobbery’ towards the mainstream, even if the influences are clear…

  2. Teodor: Thanks for the comment.

    It is slippery, but we do think, for our purposes, a weird story either starts within the inexplicable (Kafka’s Metamorphosis: man wakes up as cockroach/beetle) or encounters the inexplicable (most of Lovecraft). Further, though, we feel there is usually a visceral quality to this encounter or this immersion in the inexplicable. For this reason, most subtle ghost stories do not feel “weird” to us.

    Note that there are tons of definitions of “the weird tale,” especially from a horror orientation–Lovecraft, Ligotti, etc., have all tackled it–and we’re neither ignorant of nor ignoring those. But this is an opportunity to examine the evidence all over again and see if those definitions need a corollary or work fine on their own. It’s better to pretend to be a wide-eyed innocent during the initial stages of the project than someone who already knows it all.

    The other thing that this antho makes me want to do is put together an anthology of a century of Surrealist/Decadent writing, because at least half of it doesn’t fit the feel of “weird tale” and we can’t use. It’s driving me a little nuts, actually. I now see, from this reading, at least three other anthologies, perhaps 500k each. Argggh!!!!

    The genre/literary debate is a pointless one and whenever I see writers or readers getting enmeshed in it, just kind of shake my head. It’s the kind of argument that wants to put things in a cage, and in doing so a bit of their own imagination gets put in the cage, too.


  3. The only big antho of decadent fiction out there is The Decadent Reader, which I found to be rather weak – mainly due to the academic essays. But even for the “classic” decadent period, many of the important authors are totally ignored. Also, I think a lot of this sort of writing needs to be re-assessed. A good bit of very strong literature has been dubbed “unreadable” by tha academics.

  4. Yes, and reassessing for our purposes, for this weird antho, is of a very specific nature–it doesn’t include creating a little decadent city-state within the book, but instead of finding those works that overlap the weird even if the author’s main effort is focused on something else. So such an anthology is definitely needed.

  5. Teodor says:

    Brendan: I hear you re: decadent anthology… for some strange reason, I have yet to come across anything remotely comprehensive, at least within the English/English-speaking sphere (perhaps it’s different for the French scene?) – it seems to be generally subsumed within Victorian studies as a whole and never really plucked out of its context for further focus..

    Jeff: What you say about visceral interests me too… I think some of us do have an intuitive sense of what is weird and what is simply gore-for-gore’s sake, for example… but it’s the lines between these distinctions that are of note, I think. For example I’m thinking of why you chose Clive Barker’s ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ for example, as opposed to say, ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ for inclusion in the New Weird anthology … is it because the former’s gradual build up of a weird ‘space’ that then materialises into an all-out flesh festival (quite literally)?

  6. Teodor: “In the Hills, the Cities” is unique for a few reasons. One, it’s definitely within certain horror traditions, but it explodes them through use of the surreal device of the flesh giants, which would not be out of place in a Decadent story (think also Arcimboldo, in terms of parts making a greater whole, which also leads to Svankamajer’s animated surreal films, and all the way through to Angela Carter’s The Curious Room, for example). In a Decadent story, though, these flesh giants would be stylized–described, probably in the kind of summary way that Borges summarily sends wonders out into the world. But Barker’s genius is to be able to literalize this idea in three dimensions and still not lose that essential quality of the visionary in “the weird” that sustains it. Too often when an idea is literalized it loses its essential power. But not in Barker’s story.

    I think, then, in part, it’s because in the Cities story, Barker is dealing with images that are real and powerful but also have a real subtext behind them–they are charged images. Midnight Meat Train, by contrast, is more traditional horror, and the gore is, as you say, just gore.

    Ann and I are both pretty sure we’ll be reprinting “In the Hills, the Cities” in our weird book, even though it was in New Weird, because the audience will be larger and different for this book, and because this is still his most potent story, in our opinion. It also, in the context of a century of weird, represents one culmination of different traditions.


  7. Teodor: I don’t think there is much in French either, anthology wise. But they do have the adavantage of having 90 percent of the original works already in their language. Generally, the problem arrises from the fact that many of the works were stamped as “bad writing” either in their own day, or after. I was sitting with a french scholar of Dumas at a cafe in Switzerland, and I mentioned that one of my favourite writers was actually Dumas fils, the son of Dumas, and the Goncourts. “Undreadable,” he declared. But, from a contemporary standpoint, I think both of them are of great interesest. In the Decadent Reader, they don’t include any of Paul Adam’s work, but in an incredibly boring essay by Francoise Meltzer refer to it as “banal”, a word which she uses for the one story included by Moréas, which seems to only be included for historical purposes – but a story which is actually the most interesting pice in the whole 1,000 plus page book…Anyhow, I could go on…. My point being that, as far as Decadence is concerned, even the so-called experts seem to have missed what made Decadence interesting in the first place.

  8. Brendan: I agree with you on this. I’m finding the most interesting decadent/surrealist stories are not the ones anthologized in places like the Decadent Reader. I’m also thinking it’s necessary because a lot of these writers are coming from a place well outside the mainstream, and they’re also taking a lot of risks. Of course, not everyone appreciates those risks, especially readers who recoil because they think everything on the page should be interpreted as real. I.e., if terrible things happen, there must be the proper solemnity and condemnation of them. So some approaches that incorporate horror and dark humor go right over the heads of a certain type of reader.

  9. Teodor says:

    Being of Serbian origin, the story already has an in-built frisson for me ;)

    But yes, that’s kind of what I was getting at myself… terror juxtaposed with complete de-familiarisation – flesh giant as utterly original monster that deserves attention in its own right, and not just as a plot device/scare tactic. And so much of Decadent writing is about sheer artistic concretisation…of freeing up form to stand on its own (multiple, if need be) feet, unapologetically. I kind of connected that to weird fiction when I was reading your interview with China Mieville, actually. Particularly the bit when you’re talking about the perils of over-interpretation… “sometimes a monster is just a monster”…

  10. There’s a question–what was your reaction to the story as a Serbian?

    And how would you translate “There’s nothing much to see here” into serbian (this is for another project).

    Yeah, I’d have liked to talk further with China about the subject. I don’t think there’s any reason not to have both things.

  11. Jeff: yes, I agree with that take. It sort of stems from the classic idea of how to evaluate art: i.e. by what moral stance it takes. I might agree with morality in books for children and the like, but as adults we everyday commit very immoral acts (even driving is one), so it seems rather convoluted to be negative towards paintings, sculpture or writing that actually has an emotional impact. …. For dark humor though, you have to read Alphonse Allais (if you haven’t already).

  12. Teodor says:

    Well, perhaps because I’ve grown up away from the country (in Malta), I was mostly just amused and vaguely flattered by the fact that Serbia’s rural areas were considered… I dunno dark, exotic enough to be employed by a master of the horror genre?

    Apart from little things like slight geographic inaccuracies – no way would they have traversed so much ground in so short a time – and the constant references to bad roads, I didn’t really feel offended by it, or anything like that… god knows our reputation precedes us, and lavish flesh giants are nothing compared to some of the very real monsters we have spawned and harboured… heh, I’m assuming the town in which the story is set is exactly the kind of place people assumed Radovan Karadzic would escape to… turns out he was masquerading as a new age psychologist in a highly residential part of Belgrade: http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/44935,news-comment,news-politics,karadzic-found-in-belgrade

    So maybe there’s something to the literalisation aspect there… heh

    “There’s nothing much to see here” = “Ovde bas nema mnogo da se vidi” .. though it depends on context…

  13. Ha, re Radovan. Thanks very much. Context would be an ironic title for an ongoing comic strip, since clearly if it’s a comic strip there must be something to see.

  14. Teodor says:

    Should work then :) May I ask what the Serbian connection is?

  15. We’ve taken a couple of Ivica Stevanovic’s illustrations for steampunk reloaded and I’m recontextualizing them as images from a fake comic strip about an insane inventor.

  16. That’s what we do here at VanderCentral–contextualize and re-contextualize, as if we’re beating clothes on rocks to clean them.

  17. Teodor says:

    Sounds really cool, can’t wait!

    (the s in ‘bas’, btw, is a special character: Å¡)

  18. Teodor says:

    All art is re-contextualisation. Or re-anything :P

  19. I am going to re-contextualize this discussion as a giant hedgehog.

  20. Teodor says:

    Really? I thought it resembled an origami bear, myself..

  21. Filled with people?

  22. Teodor says:

    Ant constructs. Filled with little people. From the future.

  23. Beating clothes filled with little people against rocks in order to clean them?

  24. Teodor says:

    Now you’ve truly created a monster. Well done.

  25. Rick Keeney says:

    such a weird conversation

  26. Seth Merlo says:

    Ok, all I want to say is how insanely excited I am about this project – the scope, your methodology, what I expect will be an immaculately presented book (have you mentioned yet whether you’ll be bringing John Coulthart on board?). Yay!

  27. jeff vandermeer says:

    Seth: Thanks. Atlantic’s a huge commercial publisher with their own inhouse design staff, although John’s doing lots of stuff for the Lambshead Cabinet from HarperCollins and the Steampunk Bible from Abrams, but in this case there’s no art involved and at 750,000 words and over 1,000 pages it’s mostly about making it readable…and making sure it doesn’t fall apart. LOL.

  28. Add my thanks to the ones already expressed above, Jeff. This definitely sounds like a project worth anticipating, and I, like your other commenters, am impressed and inspired by the scope of your editorial methodology, which leads me to hope for an antho that could very well be definitive. Thank you, too, for the insight into your collaborative process with Ann.

  29. Well, I will cheerfully admit two things: (1) it’s impossible to please everybody, and I’m sure some will find us too conservative and others will find us too out there in our selections; and (2) even at 750,000 words there’s too much good stuff out there to include it all, especially as we want to use the length to feature a few key novellas.

    The other thing I foresee, being a realist, is people saying “What about X?” and “What about Y?” and our response being, “Great writers, but they don’t write ‘weird tales,’ in the sense we mean.”


  30. Probaly some little comment in the intro about what your scope was would pre-empt many comments of that nature….For those who bother to read intros of course.

    I think it is clear that “weird” means different things to different people. Tartarus for instance, in their selection of this sort of thing, clealy sticks closer to “supernatural”, while for others it requires actually going to other worlds. And then their are those who might consider a magic realism “weird” though very often nothing supernatural occurs.

    From what I understans, it sounds like you are trying to find some kind of balance between these places.

  31. I need to read my posts before I post…Now everyone can see what a lousy speller/typist I am!

  32. We’re not really interested in ghost stories with a tiny supernatural element at the end. We’re not interested in stories that don’t create that sense of unease you find in the best weird fiction. Some writers are not interested in doing that, and this then puts them further into another mode of writing. Which is fine.

  33. As for introductions–in my experience, introductions do not stop people from ignoring them. ;)

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