Making Sense of “The Weird and the Eerie”
By Roger LuckhurstMarch 11, 2017
The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher
You have probably heard of “the weird” by now, but you may not quite know what it is, or why so many genre critics, cultural theorists, and philosophers are keen to engage with it. It might once have been quarantined as a subgenre associated with sullen Goths and all those arrested-adolescent readers of H. P. Lovecraft, but it has long slithered free of those confines, and now leaves a trail not just straight across the internet, but on the page and in mainstream TV shows and movie screens.
Writers of the New Weird in Britain, like M. John Harrison and China Miéville, briefly rallied to this banner in 2003 before morphing into something else (although the critics still lumber around with the term). Philosophers such as Graham Harman and Eugene Thacker have proposed a “weird realism” — a rival term to “object-oriented ontology” — that replaces Husserl or Heidegger with Horror. One of the early signs of this shift was Mark Fisher’s own symposium on Lovecraft and Theory at Goldsmiths College in London in 2007. In film, David Lynch was always “wild at heart and weird on top,” from his early animated short films up to Inland Empire. On TV, True Detective was pretty weird, with its echoes of Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow and dark nihilistic mutterings lifted from Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of this Planet: The Horror of Philosophy Volume 1. Stranger Things was quite weird, although a little too soft-focused and retro to be fully paid up, but The OA was definitely out-and-out weird. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy of books (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, all of which appeared in 2014), so far the major achievement of the American translation of the New Weird, will hit mainstream cinemas with Alex Garland’s film adaptation in 2017. Best get weirded up.
Fisher’s guide to this terrain is an excellent place to start your orientation. The book displays his signature knack for reading popular culture (principally music, fiction, and film) in an expressive, demotic way that is still vigorously political and philosophical. Somehow, Fisher magically renders post-Lacanian, post-Žižekian Marxism and the radical anti-subjectivist philosophy of Gilles Deleuze entirely accessible. Only Fisher can enthuse about old Quatermass TV shows in terms of their “cosmic Spinozism” and still (mostly) make sense. With typical disdain for cultural boundaries, Fisher moves crab-wise from Lovecraft and H. G. Wells to the impenetrable mumblings of punk band The Fall; obscure Rainer Werner Fassbinder TV shows from Germany; Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky films; Nigel Kneale TV series from the 1970s; the music of Joy Division; The Shining; the unclassifiable fiction of Alan Garner and Christopher Priest; Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary avant-garde SF film Under the Skin; and surprising appearances of Margaret Atwood’s early fiction Surfacing and Christopher Nolan’s portentous quantum SF blockbuster Interstellar (which receives a great defense).
This book is more than just a road map to this kind of material, however. It is an important critical intervention, because it intends to carefully delineate a spectrum of sensibilities, the nuances of feeling that span the uneasy or unnerving: that feeling of being off-kilter, of wrongness or free-floating angst. The weird and the eerie are, for Fisher, key points on this spectrum. In this sense, the book continues Fisher’s investigations in his previous book, Ghosts of My Life (2014), where he built on Jacques Derrida’s punning idea of “hauntology” in his lectures called Specters of Marx (1993), in which the French philosopher argued that to be is precisely to be haunted — doubled, shadowed, monstered, othered, the subject coming into being as such from the very beginning.
Gothic criticism, of which there is a vast boiling vat these days, has been rendering down the ectoplasmic energy of “spectrality” into sound bites for 25 years, while critics seem to arrive pre-loaded with cookie-cutter cribs from Freud’s “The Uncanny,” in which they laboriously explain yet again that the term unheimlich means rather more literally the unhomely in German, but that the “homely” is housed inside the “unhomely,” the outside in the inside, the strange in the familiar. Right at the start of his book, Fisher acknowledges that Freud’s unusually chaotic essay is full of brilliant possibilities but ends with an interpretation “as disappointing as any mediocre genre detective’s rote solution to a mystery.” This wonderfully provocative dismissal sets Fisher up to articulate an alternative set of terms outside ossified Gothic criticism and dictates the wholly new conceptual structure of his book.
The uncanny, Fisher says, puts the “strange within the familiar” and “operates by always processing the outside through the gaps and impasses of the inside.” In other words, for all its interest in boundary breaches, it is still centered on the self. The weird and the eerie work at this from the other direction, Fisher suggests: “they allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside.” The weird is a disturbing obtrusion of something from the outside in. It is the insidious intrusion, the confounding juxtaposition, the thing found in the wrong place. As Lovecraft put it in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” the weird is “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces.” Lovecraft’s fictions, at their evocative best, are about a steady dethronement of anthropocentric models. This explains the embrace of Lovecraft’s weird realism by philosophers challenging phenomenological paradigms, or leaning toward the radical end of “Thing Theory,” where things escape routine imprisonment inside the implicit hierarchy of the subject/object binary.
The eerie, however, is Fisher’s original extension of this idea. He takes the eerie from lazy, everyday usage and gives it conceptual rigor: places are eerie; empty landscapes are eerie; abandoned structures and ruins are eerie. Something moves in these apparently empty or vacated sites that exists independently of the human subject, an agency that is cloaked or obscure. He wonders: What kind of thing makes an eerie cry? Because it rises up from the outside, and remains there, it resists simple hermeneutic interpretation.
In many ways, this echoes work by the nature writer Robert MacFarlane, who wrote an evocative essay in the Guardian called “The Eeriness of the English Countryside,” which explored M. R. James’s obliquely menacing rural hauntings and the contemporary revival of “folk horror” in British fiction and film, such as Ben Wheatley’s film A Field in England (2013), the music of P. J. Harvey on Let England Shake (2011), or Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel The Loney (2014). MacFarlane had been led here, in part, by Fisher’s writings on hauntology and by the soundscape on the crumbling East Anglian coastline that Fisher created with Justin Barton, called On Vanishing Land.
Typically, though, Fisher extends these readings one stage further, giving them another turn of the screw and avoiding that retreat into twee austerity nostalgia that Fisher’s friend and contemporary Owen Hatherley has called out in The Ministry of Nostalgia. This account of the eerie is not just an evocation of post-imperial melancholia, a haunted aftermath, but something with political energy and bite. Marx, after all, reached for the language of the supernatural to grasp at the spectral substance of surplus value or commodity fetishism.
The 50 pages on the weird leads out from Lovecraft to David Lynch. Along the way, the prose stays light and deft, throwing out insights on the unease of timeslip fictions, or the dread when Philip K. Dick’s cardboard pulp worlds glitch and judder, revealing to their terrified narrators the ramshackle structure of reality. This is just what Lynch does in his late films, when the celluloid itself seems to almost judder out of the gate and the immersive illusion of cinema is continually challenged by gaps and holes, the jarring discords of un-synced sound and image. For these moments, I note, a Lacanian language of the collapse of the Symbolic Order and a glimpse of the psychotic Real behind it creeps back in — not entirely consistently. Fisher retains a soft spot for that Žižekian mode of cultural criticism that links Marx to the medium of Lacan’s “weird psychoanalysis.”
The real originality lies in the last 100 pages on the eerie. The core insight reveals the eerie as the trace of an impenetrable agency without, or some unnerving non-subjective drive that compels our behaviors incomprehensibly from within. It makes sense of these quieter emotional ranges of creeping dread or inevitable doom which Gothic criticism, screaming about body horror and torture porn, has largely failed to address. Instead of this stuff, Fisher builds another route through postwar British culture. What motivates the birds to flock together in such implacable malignancy in Daphne du Maurier’s short story, or in Hitchcock’s re-Oedipalized adaptation? What inaccessible amnesiac other hides inside the self in Christopher Priest’s fractured, eerie novels? What lies in wait in the apparently featureless landscapes of M. R. James’s “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to you My Lad” or Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land, an album composed to evoke the East Anglia of his childhood?
The most sustained readings concern Nigel Kneale’s TV work and the fiction of Alan Garner under the title “Eerie Thanatos.” Kneale, famous for writing successive TV series concerning Professor Quatermass, comes back again and again to an unease generated by obtrusions of the radically alien or other into the human. The most celebrated instance is the late 1950s series, Quatermass and the Pit, in which the archaeological discovery of fossilized Martians under London reveals humanity’s xenobiological origins. But Fisher leaves space for the lesser-known late works of Kneale in the 1970s, the effectively creepy haunted house tale The Stone Tape and the last, despairing Quatermass series from 1979, made on the cusp of the collapse of postwar Keynesian consensus and the death rattle of ’60s utopianism as Thatcher came to power.
This kind of symptomatic cultural criticism can sometimes feel instrumental — how many times have you heard a version of the complaint that Žižek is simply incapable of grasping the basic syntax of a film, mangling it to rip out its political organs? Fisher’s sensitive, sustained reading of Alan Garner’s opaque and mysterious novel, Red Shift (1973), shows that he can practice literary criticism too. Garner’s fiction implies a kind of compulsive repetition under British history, with sections based in Roman Britain, during the English Civil War, and in the present day. The relationship of these sections is left deliberately under-determined and profoundly enigmatic. In this, it is like other British fantasies of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Alan Clarke’s extraordinary film Penda’s Fen or Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, where certain genius loci collapse historical times into simultaneity.
Most Marxist critics are profoundly allergic to fantasy, with its tendency toward mythic underpinning and archetypal fixity — witness the comical contortions of Fredric Jameson to bracket off the entire genre in his book on science fiction, Archaeologies of the Future, essentially because he has decided that all hobbits are anti-historical bourgeois counter-revolutionaries. Fisher’s category of the eerie opens up Garner’s unnerving rhythms of mythic repetition to a much more sensitive reading. The eerie repetitions of Red Shift means “the reader is abducted into mythic time,” Fisher suggests, as if time itself has been traumatized and locked into compulsive repetitions, and time has slowed or clogged up. This idea characterizes that specific moment of folk horror in 1970s British culture as something much more complex than a retreat from the overtly political avant-gardism of the 1960s, inflecting that impulse subversively into the very bucolic landscapes so often used as the basis for retrenchments of Englishness in conservative thought.
There is something authentically eerie about reading a closing chapter on Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock (better known through Peter Weir’s haunting 1975 film). The text famously leaves the solution to the disappearance of the schoolgirls in the Australian outback unresolved, and perhaps unsolvable because — maybe — they have stepped through a crack in reality itself, folded themselves or been folded into an elsewhere. We are left in the wake of a vanishing, sensing an eerie present absence, a hooded figure watching from somewhere else.
Isn’t this what we often feel in the wake of a sudden death also? Mark Fisher’s book is a fitting tribute to an author who had the rare capacity to write lucidly about dark and difficult things, to find a lexicon for the interstitial, the underground and overlooked. Yet a “tribute” suggests something shaped and intentional, and I would not dare to presume that. Instead, I think of The Weird and the Eerie as one of those broken columns seen in Victorian graveyards, the emblem of a life and work suddenly and prematurely broken off. My hope is that critics will pick up and run with the eerie that Fisher has theorized here, and in that way will continue work that broke open the study of popular culture in such exhilarating ways.
Roger Luckhurst is professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.