AUGUST 12, 2017
READERS OF ALL preferences and persuasions should know by now that there’s currently a renaissance of weird fiction; Shadows and Tall Trees (S&TT) has become one of the go-to venues for keeping abreast of one of the most important genres of our time. Shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award, this anthology series of original fiction regularly highlights the authors and stories at the top echelons of New Weird literature.
Before reviewing Shadows and Tall Trees 7, however, I want to outline the origins of this remarkable anthology series. S&TT first appeared in 2010 as a journal featuring original fiction, nonfiction, essays, and reviews. It kicked off with a story from the late and very much lamented Joel Lane, aiming for annual publication of quiet, literary genre fiction: “Fiction that is offbeat and eclectic; dark, bizarre and psychological.”
From issue six onward, Undertow Publications shifted the format to what editor Michael Kelly calls “a yearly trade-paperback anthology and eBook” without nonfiction content. The change occurred in the summer of 2013, and after this, the intervals between volumes became much longer. As one of the plaudits in S&TT6 observes, Shadows and Tall Trees “comes on like the wendigo, or a will-o’-the-wisp,” and this might also describe the publication’s intermittent appearance. S&TT6 appeared in the spring of 2014, and three years have elapsed between that anthology and the current one. That delay has nothing to do with shortage of good material — as the quality of the stories in both S&TT6 and S&TT7 attests — but it does show how crucial independent and small presses are to the current development of the New Weird, and how even the most important projects can be beholden to the economics of independent publishing.
The strong indie roots of the New Weird shouldn’t imply that it’s a peripheral or incidental genre; on the contrary, New Weird fiction appears to have become as important and influential today as the New Wave in science fiction and fantasy was during the 1960s and 1970s. New Weird writers are following the earlier generation of New Wave luminaries into film and other media adaptations, giving us successors to The Final Programme, Blade Runner, A.I., and The Prestige. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s breakthrough 2012 compendium The Weird was a milestone for the genre’s popular recognition, and the film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is due for release in 2018, with Natalie Portman in the lead role. Meanwhile, Laird Barron’s short story “–30–” is also being adapted for film.
Before scrutinizing the strengths, and limitations, of the New Weird genre, I’d like to give a fuller welcome to S&TT7. Its 19 stories come from both new and established authors, some familiar from a handful of journal publications and others with many books to their credit (Simon Strantzas, for instance, who contributed “In the Tall Grass,” is an established New Weird editor and author). The entire issue consistently showcases strong prose, particularly when it comes to metaphor and evocation.
Many of the stories, or at least the weirdness of them, hinge on death, bereavement, or loss. A murder victim’s childhood friend is dogged by fans of a cult movie about the murder case. A man finds that houses are disappearing from his neighborhood in the same way as memories vanish from the brain of an Alzheimer’s sufferer. A dying poet visits a supposed hospice where nonagenarians get pregnant. A bereaved woman acquires a son who is also a tree. A widow joins a group of anthropophagic squatters in the cemetery where her husband has been interred. A former teacher is visited by the revenant of a sickly boy who died on his watch. Steve Rasnic Tem, one of S&TT7’s most distinguished contributors, noted in a recent interview that his story, “The Erased,” reflects on “how strange it is to be so mortal, so impermanent, while our minds seem capable of imagining ‘the forever.’” As one of the story’s protagonists reminds us,
Today’s headline is “We Die.” No amount of gyrating or singing, no matter how many people you shoot down from your rooftop, no matter how much money you steal from the poor, no matter what higher office you hold, you will, eventually, be erased.
As this overview indicates, S&TT does not often explore the whimsical, humorous, or warmhearted weird. In S&TT7, Rosalie Parker’s “The Attempt” comes closest to this, followed by Harmony Neal’s pointed, acerbic “The Triplets.” Even in these cases, however, the weird’s horror roots are as plain as those of the arboreal beings in Strantzas’s “In the Tall Grass.” In S&TT2, Michael Kelly noted that,
From the beginning, my goal was to illustrate that horror wasn’t a pejorative; that it could be thoughtful, entertaining, and literate. Why? Because horror has a bad name, often deserved. Many of the so-called horror magazines feature lurid covers, and badly written stories whose chief objective is to shock. That’s not horror. Worse yet, it’s a disservice to the readers.
Kelly clarified in S&TT3 that his intent was not to denigrate horror: “A well-wrought horror story is a potent thing, lingering in the mind long after the tale has ended.” Looking back from the current edition of S&TT, Kelly explains that,
the first volume was my attempt at an answer to the various mediocre and dreadful (in the worst sense) volumes of horror that I felt were being published. There are still too many bad books being published; as series editor for the Year’s Best Weird Fiction I see them.
As it happens, those remarks reflect a current controversy in the horror and weird fiction community. A recent article by Steve Rose in the UK Guardian, “How Post-Horror Movies are Taking Over Cinema,” upset many horror writers by claiming that a new category or subgenre called “post-horror” reacts against established horror clichés: “when it comes to tackling the big, metaphysical questions, the horror framework is in danger of being too rigid to come up with new answers — like a dying religion.” Many horror practitioners objected that they were still tackling exactly those questions, and that the article was caricaturing the genre and excluding a lot of genuinely profound work in the process. However, you can’t help but notice the similarity between Rose’s approach and some of the language used to define the New Weird — often by defining it against traditional horror.
Very often, the New Weird appears to define itself by what it eschews. In The Weird, the VanderMeers cite H. P. Lovecraft in order to define a weird tale as “a story that has a supernatural element but does not fall into the category of traditional ghost story or Gothic tale, both popular in the 1800s.” Kelly praises “a burgeoning core group of writers, editors, and publishers who value an aesthetic that doesn’t pander to the base horror tropes.”
Michael Moorcock picks up on a similar theme in his foreword to The Weird, by recalling an observation that Fritz Leiber once made about his fellow writers: “All had begun writing unrationalized fiction,” Moorcock recalls Leiber saying,
having much in common with surrealism or absurdism, to discover very quickly that literary magazines wanted an approximation of realism and commercial markets needed to know why, forcing you to cook up some sort of rationalization for the events you described so that you came to see your failure to rationalize as some sort of flaw or laziness in yourself.
Based on some of the characteristics and definitions of the New Weird, I have a sneaking suspicion that some writers may have internalized the same kind of thinking as the Guardian article: that traditional horror tropes, as well as rationalization, or even structuring, of a tale become inherently associated with crass commercialism. Turn Moorcock’s argument around: what if you came to see your need to rationalize as some sort of crassness or superficiality in yourself? When combined with what Kelly styled as horror’s “often deserved” bad reputation, you can see how a generation of writers might start to feel a compulsion to write in a certain way and not in others.
I observe that tendency in many areas of weird fiction writing. Some dark or quietly horrific weird exhibits a sort of generic vagueness — the nouvelle vague, even. This type of weird fiction tends to ditch the vampires, werewolves, slashers, mummies, and the rest of the Twilight zone of crass commercial horror. But with them often goes the mythology, or structure of beliefs and expectations, that drives the motor of a plot. In some cases, that abandonment makes for a genuinely resonant, thought-provoking read — and provides the fiction a serious claim to reflect on its times. But not always.
Science fiction and fantasy don’t tend to do inexplicable. No matter how implausible or scientifically impossible their imagined worlds and scenarios, they generally proceed from clearly articulated premises, however bizarre or unlikely, to internally consistent conclusions. Even H. P. Lovecraft, progenitor of the New Weird and creator of cosmic horror, aspired toward this. World building depends on such an impulse as well as other elements often absent from the New Weird such as invented geographies, histories, and new proper names. Of course, fiction doesn’t have to be that way, but the literature of ideas often is. Imaginative literature is a productive sandbox for putting ideas to work, to see how they perform in a simulated environment.
It’s not just science fiction and fantasy that can push fiction to its imaginative limits while staying completely within the (internally) explicable. Weird fiction can do this too. Take one example of a classic weird tale — not exactly horror, not exactly nascent fantasy — with a “rationale” that is emotionally, psychologically, and imaginatively satisfying, and consistently worked through in the story: Heinrich von Kleist’s “St. Cecilia, or the Power of Music.” This story draws its unique power not from its ostensibly simple explanation of a miraculous intervention that punishes four iconoclasts but from the bizarre punishment itself, and the implication that divine justice might have used such horrible Old Testament extremes in a sectarian cause. And it also creates its effect, of course, through the unearthly power of music.
As one example of a story from S&TT7 that accomplishes a similar feat, take “The Swimming Pool Party” by Robert Shearman. Here you have a clear emotional context, actual events, and something like a specific, articulated rationale, however bizarre, which support narrative progression to a climax. Again, fiction, especially short fiction, doesn’t have to be like this. There’s plenty of room for meditations, mood pieces, and thought pieces. But a genre that aspires to be taken seriously as literature ought to be able to deploy the full gamut of stylistic and architectural resources rather than just washing its hands of some of them. And literary explication demands structure and direction; however weird or silly the premises, you progress from them to conclusions.
Comparing the New Weird with the New Wave, I couldn’t help going back to some of the classics of the latter, and the way they challenged genre boundaries, experimented with form, interrogated their age, and sketched road maps and danger zones for the future of their society. Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories, J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, M. John Harrison’s Viriconium cycle, Brian Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head, Charles Platt’s The Gas, Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories — by and large, these were hanging off the bleeding edge of traditional genre fiction by their fingernails. Many of them pass as New Weird avant la lettre, yet they managed to bridge the gap between the science fiction and fantasy genres and experimental avant-garde literature while keeping the best of both worlds.
Does the New Weird manage the same mind meld between horror and serious imaginative literature? Sometimes, at its best. But note that the New Wave did not succeed by eschewing its genre roots — it celebrated them, often deliriously. (M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device and Light are two examples, from opposite ends of his career, of almost caricature space opera, elevated to visionary surreal intensity by sheer force of imaginative prose.) Bizarro fiction is another genre or subgenre that flaunts its genre trappings with pride, while striving, according to The Bizarro Starter Kit, “not only to be strange, but fascinating, thought-provoking, and, above all, fun to read.” Again, that sounds like a prescription for good weird. If some weird fiction writers enjoy the dark and the sinister, but don’t like generic horror tropes, bizarro demonstrates the broad range of potential available for those tropes. John Langan, Nathan Ballingrud, and Orrin Grey (among others) have shown that it’s possible to write fiction which revitalizes traditional horror tropes and clichés while attaining iconic status in the New Weird.
In short, I’m concerned that too much of the New Weird is painting itself into a corner by going the post-horror route and abandoning or limiting the one resource that should enable weirdness above all: the imagination. Is there a place for imaginative literature that sidesteps all the current genre conventions and clichés? Absolutely. Does that literature need supportive and dedicated journals and presses, like S&TT7, in order to attain the visibility and recognition it can’t get through more traditional genre channels? Very probably. Should that literature only define itself negatively, by avoiding genre conventions and clichés? Perhaps not. Is there an onus on literature which does avoid those conventions to prove itself by opposing those conventions with something equally powerful? Very probably. Look at Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast cycle: an imaginative accomplishment of world building that owed very little to other genres. Yet it created a subgenre, the fantasy of manners. It’s hard to imagine Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris cycle without it, let alone Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana. And right now, where do I see that level of imaginative and intellectual vigor and inventiveness? In the work of N. K. Jemisin, China Miéville, and Neil Gaiman — all of them taking traditional genres to some very different places indeed.
Too much modern weird writing reads to me like subtly dissociative tweaks on white middle-class everyday life. That’s a shame, given that 9/11 is often evoked as the trigger event that helped the rise of the New Weird. The immediate physical, historical, existential, and ideological crisis stemming from 9/11 surely exceeds the more remote impact of World War I on the sensitive mind of Lovecraft. Yet in Lovecraft, you have barking existential delirium, insanity, apocalypse, and human extinction. But in too much post-9/11 New Weird, all you find is a quiet frisson. One reason Manish Melwani’s “The Water Kings” is such a standout in S&TT7 is its very specific evocation of Singaporean Indian society, Singaporean commercial life, Singaporean history. It concerns me that, simply by using a different setting and a different culture, his tale is already going far beyond the orbit of much modern weird fiction.
This isn’t so much a question of quiet versus loud, literary versus pulp, static versus dynamic, or vignette versus widescreen, but rather a question of ambition and focus. Consider, for example, Saki’s “The Music on the Hill,” which portrays quiet, understated, impeccably haute bourgeois characters, with a tiny dramatis personae. However, it yanks the props out from under an entire civilization and worldview within 2,160 laconic words. This is just one demonstration that writing captivating yet nonspecific weird fiction isn’t easier than writing good generic horror: it’s actually much more difficult.
To their credit, most of the authors in S&TT7 manage this in exemplary fashion. J. G. Ballard wrote in 1971 that,
Everything is becoming science fiction […] science fiction is almost the only form of fiction which is thriving, and certainly the only fiction which has any influence on the world around it. The social novel is reaching fewer and fewer readers, for the clear reason that social relationships are no longer as important as the individual’s relationship with the technological landscape of the late 20th century.
Today, you could swap out “science fiction” for “the weird” and Ballard’s argument would still be convincing. At its best, weird fiction can offer the same insights into the fractured landscape of the 21st century as science fiction offered during Ballard’s time. However, it can only achieve this if it doesn’t impoverish itself by disdaining to be anything more than the nouvelle vague. It would be a shame for weird fiction to cut itself off from the dark, twisted roots that are the source of its hybrid vigor.