The New Weird
I’ve been thinking of writing a post on the purpose of fantasy as I previously mentioned, and while I’m not there yet, a lot of the thinking has been about the subversion of traditional tropes. As a result, I did a lot of thinking about the works of people like Peake, Harrison, Mieville, and co, so I have The New Weird on my mind. During a discussion with Amanda over her wonderful review of Mieville’s The City and The City (which you can read here) I discovered that she had avoided China’s previous work fearing it would be pretentious, and I decided it would be a good idea to do a post about The New Weird for those who didn’t know what it was, or just wanted to learn more about it. There have been a lot of arguments over what exactly The New Weird entails, these are just my own personal musings, and the things that I personally enjoy about it.
The New Weird – A Primer
I’m not sure I can do this article justice because I’m not sure that there even is a New Weird, at times it just seems like a blanket term used to neatly pigeon hole stories that probably shouldn’t be put together, or for the cynical perhaps even a new buzz word for marketing. It is about as useful as the equally dreadful “New Wave Fabulists”. However, as long as the term exists and it is perceived as a genre, it is always going to be out there and confusing people who don’t know anything about it. In this particular post I will do my best to identify the influences on the genre, and the themes shared between the works considered to be a part of it. (For a more in detail and far better written discussions of the problems, see Jeff VanderMeer’s essay here)
What exactly does The New Weird mean then? Where does the term come from? What is it about? Which authors and which books are considered New Weird? These all seem to be valid questions we need to answer if we are to accurately describe The New Weird. If we break it down as a term and look at the individual parts, we are left with “new” and weird”, so we could assume that it is merely a modern form of an old genre, but while that seems to make sense it would be wrong to do so because we are talking about something that is more than just being the modern equivalent of an old genre.
The New Weird – Like The Old Weird but Newer?
We are getting ahead of ourselves though, so lets go back to the start and forget the word “new”. What is weird fiction? In Supernatural Horror in Literature , H. P. Lovecraft writes;
”The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
The weird tale then was something more than the tradition ghost or murder story, it brought something else to the story; an oppresive atmosphere, physchological undercurrents, somethin completely otherwordly and grotesque. Weird tale writers in addition to Lovecraft included Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and M.R. James among others (All of which are highly recommended for fans of supernatural horror – Ed.). Most people, even if they haven’t read his work, have an idea of some of the themes in Lovecraft’s work, distant Elder Gods, many tentacled or subterranean horrors, secretive dark cults, and insanity.
The problem is that title of the genre in this sense is already misleading. While it is undeniable that there are certain elements that we discussed that appear in The New Weird, unlike weird fiction they are not primarily horror stories. However they certainly have a “weird” element, as the stores often have an oppresive air, involve grotesque creatures, and otherworldy forces, but there is also something more than that. While we can see these weird influences then, we have to keep looking if we are to discover the new weird.
We’re Not in the Shire Anymore, Frodo
If the majority of modern fantasy is built on the back of The Lord of the Rings, then The New Weird comes from a completely different place. I’m not talking about the consolatory nature (although we will get to that and I think this point is relevant to it), but in shifting the setting from an idyllic view of nature to something darker. The rural paradise of the shire is replaced with a gritty urban landscape more reminiscent of Peake’s Gormenghast (Recommended reading for everyone – Ed.), which remains a dominating influence on the genre, as its influences fall more in the area of the fantastic, and surrealism. The New Weird is full of richly imagined and original fictional cities, from Mieville’s New Crobuzon, to VanderMeer’s Ambergris, Harrison’s Viriconium, and Ford’ City Below. Where in Tolkien industrialization is an evil that threatens his upper class rural idyllic way of life, in The New Weird it is the dominant way of life.
In The New Weird the city is a character, with its history and institutions, traditions, festivals, landmarks, and people. It is also fraught with social problems, whether it is political (like in Mieville’s work), racial, sexual, or economic. Crime is rife, and accompanied with the usual decadences on both extremes of the social spectrum. Usually dark and dangerous, oppressive and overbearing, at times claustrophobic, but at the same time it is all the characters have ever known, and it is home. There is a sense that although the city isn’t perfect, the reality of the situation is that nothing ever is, so it is still worth fighting for.
Not Your Grandfather’s Protagonist
The protagonists of The New Weird are also very different to traditional fantasy. Gone are the great warriors, wizards, and wrongly dethroned princes destined to reclaim their crown. Instead we get academics, scientists, and artists alongside historians, investigators, and priests. The New Weird protagonist is a different sort of an animal, as he can’t fight his way out of situations, his has to use his own moral compass and reason, gain or employ the help of others to make up for his own short comings, all the while trying to deal with spiralling problems that are out of his control, and sometimes even his fault in the first place.
The protagonist is usually quite flawed, but in a more human sense than the usual epic fantasy tragic flaw. He may be not particularly likable, as in the case of Cley at the beginning of Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy, or overly self involved like Audsley in Harrison’s In Viriconium, or even emotionally cold like Mieville’s Bellis Coldwine in The Scar. There are no great perfect people and The New Weird acknowledges that. More than anything the protagonists come across as utterly human in impossible situations trying to do what they believe is right to the best of their ability, rightly or wrongly. Sometimes the situation is out of their hands, sometimes the game is rigged and you just can’t win, but that is unfortunately the reality of life, but it is not completely fatalistic, just because you can’t win doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to play the game.
Jailers Love Escapism, What They Hate are Escapes
At the heart of the New Weird I feel is a movement away the tradition mechanism of post-Tolkien fantasy, escapism towards consolation, to something completely different. Gone is the quest to maintain the happy status quo from whatever dark evil or villain is currently threatening it this week, replaced by the feeling that there never was a happy status quo in the first place. In The New Weird the world sucks, and the characters are never under any illusions about that, but it doesn’t stop them from trying to change things. Empty Your Heart favourite Vera Nazarian said in a recent interview that fantasy should be about hope, and I think that there is hope in the New Weird. It may not be the happy “everything works out in the end” hope, but it is the same kind of hope you find in the work of the existentialists (Albert Camus, in particular). Sometimes a story isn’t about the consequences, it is about the choices that you make.
H.P. Lovecraft – Call of Cthulhu, Shadow of Innsmouth, At the Mountains of Madness are a few of my favourite Lovecraft stories and considered to be some of his best. Any of his weird fiction will give you some idea of the influences of The New Weird, and they still stand up as some of the best. It isn’t the greatest prose writing in literary history admittedly, and his penchant for using clumsy archaic or made up words takes some getting used to, but his work is imaginative, bizarre, and above all quite disturbing.
Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone make up the original Gormenghast trilogy, not counting the forthcoming fourth book written by his widow, or the novella Boy in Darkness. While Titus and Steerpike share the narrative, in a way the main character of the stories is the castle Gormenghast, dark and foreboding, almost deserted and insular, a monument to dead ritualism. Its influence on the genre is clear in its dark urban setting, dialectic between traditionalism and change, and the importance of the city as a character. Mieville once said the best compliment he received on Perdido Street Station was that it read like a fantasy book from a world where Peake was the main historical influence on the fantasy genre, not Tolkien.
Michael Swanwick – The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is not technically a New Weird novel, but it shares similar themes in industrialisation, politics, and the subversion of traditional fantasy tropes. It is unrelenting, fatalistic, at times nihilistic, and full of decadence and doom. This book really kicked my ass (in a good way), definitely one of my favourites, and one of the best modern fantasies without a doubt. Criminally out of print at the moment, but it is not difficult to pick up a second hand copy.
The New Weird
The New Weird, an anthology edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer is the ideal place to start as it contains a number of stories the Vandermeer’s consider to be New Weird, as well as a discussion on what the term means, and a round robin story. While the stories do tend to be a bit of a mixed bag, there are some fantastic authors and stories. My particular favourites are the ones by Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, K. J. Bishop, and Jeff Ford.
M. John Harrison – Harrison’s Viriconium stories are the oldest of the bunch, and the paint the picture of a city that is always in flux. Subversion is the name of the game, and from story to story the city is never the same. The characters change manifestly, the ruler’s change, and the situation of the city changes. People who like stories that follow a linear pattern should look elsewhere, but those who enjoy a puzzle, sniffing out vague allusions, will find something to love here. The novella In Viriconium is one of my favourites, containing a metaphysical plague, Arthurian motifs, and paintings of reality.
China Mieville – Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The Iron Council, as well as the short story Jack, are all set in Mieville’s fictional world of Bas-Lag, and deal equally as much with the bizarre as they do serious social issues. Alongside garuda, humanoid insects, and giant multi-dimension spiders, Mieville skilfully writes about workers rights, equality, exploitation, and rape. In my own opinion, he is at his strongest when, like the Greek tragedies, he conspires to place his characters in a situation with two impossible conflicting decisions. He asks difficult questions of us and very rarely gives any answers.
Jeff VanderMeer – City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: an Afterword, and Finch are all set in VanderMeer’s fictional city of Ambergris, that has a history of man on mushroom violence (as we are told by one time famous historian Duncan Shriek), and is infected by the dread that hangs over the town due to the presence ominous grey caps, and the memory of the silence, when twenty five thousand people vanished overnight. VanderMeer’s tales are wonderfully weird and terrifying, from ultra-violent festivals in honour of squids to Duncan’s sojourns underground disguised as a mushroom. Incredibly imaginative, and at times hilarious, others horrific, recommended for all.
Jeffrey Ford – Ford’s The Well-built City trilogy, which comprises of The Physiognomy, Memoranda, and The Beyond, are also considered to be a part of The New Weird Canon. They tell the story of the arrogant Cley, whose world falls apart when he learns that the science of physiognomy to which he has devoted his life is not infallible. His quest for redemption leads him back to the monstrous city Below, through memory, and the unknown lands at the edge of the world’s maps. There is also a short story, At Reparata (that is in The New Weird anthology) that is very good, and serves in a sense as a deconstruction of New Weird ideas.
Jay Lake’s Trial/Madness/Reign of Flowers series has a lot of similar themes to New Weird stories. Michael Cisco’s work is brilliant and also has New Weird themes, but I personally feel it is closer to horror and dark fantasy (and not what Waterstones thinks is dark fantasy – Ed). Empty Your Heart friend Mark Charan Newton’s Villjamur series also has New Weird elements, probably because of the admitted influence of Mieville’s work, but I also feel they have elements of the Dying Earth subgenre.
Congratulations if you are still reading by now, I didn’t expect it would be this long, but I suppose it is better to say everything you want to say than cut it short. I hope you now understand the New Weird a little better if you didn’t before, and hopefully you might have seen something in there you would like to check out. If you agree with any of this, disagree, or just have books you think I should have talked about, feel free to comment, I’d love to hear about it.
TrackBack URL for this entry: