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November 4, 2014 6:57 AM   Subscribe

The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction, by Jeff VanderMeer in The Atlantic.
posted by Sticherbeast (39 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nice! I just added VanderMeer's anthology to my to-read list. Thanks, Sticherbeast!
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:10 AM on November 4, 2014


I know I'm late to the party, but I'm just now working my way through Welcome to Nightvale, and boy howdy, is it good.
posted by gwint at 7:11 AM on November 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


I've recently been filling in gaps in my reading of H.P. Lovecraft. This post is relevant to my interests.

I'd also love to hear anyone's impressions of VanderMeer's own Southern Reach Trilogy.
posted by murphy slaw at 7:32 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Golly, the anthology sounds intriguing! Thanks for the heads-up!

I'm also surprised by the mention of Night Vale in the thread, as opposed to some of the stuff mentioned in the article; Night Vale and Lovecraft both strike me as closer to sci-fi/fantasy in that there's an in-universe explanation for most of their weirdness (posit that The Great Old Ones exist, posit that a conspiracy controls the government, etc), and I'm curious about whether the stories mentioned in the article tend more towards that or towards a more Garcia-Marquez-type Magical Realism. Like, based on the brief mention in the article, The Other Side Of The Mountain sounds like it could either be a totally bizarre spectacle of weirdness, or a sort of Doctor-Doolittle-meets-The-Triffids adventure story.

I suppose even separating out the two into discrete categories is a fool's errand, though, given the way the two can sort of bleed back and forth into each other. Sorry, I don't really have a thesis in this comment or anything, just kind of thinking aloud, as this tension between the unexplained versus the unexplainable in a narrative is something I've been turning over in my head a lot lately.

Thanks for posting this!
posted by Greg Nog at 7:45 AM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Another good place to discover contemporary weird is this new annual collection edited by überweirdmeister & Lovecraftian disciple, Laird Barron.
posted by aeshnid at 7:59 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Night Vale has so much in-universe weirdness that no explanation could cover it all. Various elder gods, portals to other dimensions, angels, multiple conspiracies by vague yet menacing government agencies, one-offs like the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your home...

Some of the weirdness hasn't been adequately described, let alone explained. We don't know what the street cleaners are, only that the best defence against them is to be already dead.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:00 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


The Southern Reach Trilogy made me want to move to the seashore or the woods.
(It's quite good, very unsettling, and weirdly beautiful.)
Adding the anthology to my to read shelf!
posted by Lemmy Caution at 8:02 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


> We don't know what the street cleaners are, only that the best defence against them is to be already dead.

That's actually the best defense against pretty much anything.
posted by languagehat at 8:02 AM on November 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


I have the VanderMeer anthology, and this article is basically one big advertisement for it - so count me unimpressed with the article.

The anthology is not bad - though I am skipping somewhat more stories than I usually do in an anthology - but I do feel that VanderMeer is trying much too hard to run with this "weird fiction" category as if it's a sudden discovery. Almost every story in this book so far would fit into the "horror" category perfectly well...

What's a little strange is that VanderMeer seems to concentrate heavily on the horror side of his "weird" category and ignores pretty well anything else. You'd think he'd be aware of this weakness and trying to distinguish his invented category.

Dunsany wrote a great deal of weird fiction - I personally love the stories in "Tales of Three Hemispheres" - and yet VanderMeer reprints one of his few horror stories. Lovecraft wrote quite a lot of weird, non-horror material - the anthology, "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" is entirely made up of these - and yet his representation in the anthology is the conventional horror story "The Dunwich Horror". Leiber was a master of the weird - "Catch That Zeppelin" is one of the most dreamlike stories I know that still manages to be completely matter-of-fact - but again, VanderMeer takes one of his more conventional horror stories.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:04 AM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


I get almost all my books at the library, which is conveniently right across the street. Even "Dance with Dragons" is something I waited for (not that GRRM's pace instills any sense of urgency).

But the Southern Reach books I had to buy. Third one was day of release, checked different bookstores, found one where the shipment had arrived but was not yet unpacked, and a guy went in back to open one of the boxes. I just had to have it in my hands that day.

For Lovecraft fans, there are a few monsters, an overwhelming sense of the uncanny, of an incomprehensible force/volition/thing where there's no Derlethian good guy / bad guy conflict. It reminds me a little of a more slowly-unfolding Colour out of Space.
posted by kurumi at 8:11 AM on November 4, 2014


I never finished City of Saints and Madmen, but I always felt like I should have.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:12 AM on November 4, 2014


I've only read VanderMeer's Ambergris stories and for what it's worth, those strike me as definitely weird fiction. Admittedly I say that because all of them gave me really bizarre dreams the night I finished them, as if I had been mentally spored.

Anyway, thank you for the post, I will enjoy looking for the works referenced and the anthology.
posted by automatic cabinet at 8:18 AM on November 4, 2014


> For Lovecraft fans, there are a few monsters, an overwhelming sense of the uncanny, of an incomprehensible force/volition/thing where there's no Derlethian good guy / bad guy conflict.

Exactly. That's why it's so, er, weird that the VanderMeers(*) selected "The Dunwich Horror", which is one of the few with an actual monster in it! Even if they wanted to keep the emphasis on "horror" they could have used "The Color Out Of Space" which has no monster or bad guy at all...

(* - I realized that the article is written by Jeff V but the book by Ann and Jeff V...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:19 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


but I do feel that VanderMeer is trying much too hard to run with this "weird fiction" category as if it's a sudden discovery. Almost every story in this book so far would fit into the "horror" category perfectly well...

Perhaps, but one of the things weird fiction and New Weird and all those all encompassing terms -- I prefer John Clute's fantastika -- try to make clear is that this isn't genre fiction, but a strand of writing that runs through all forms of writing: sf, fantasy, horror, magic realism, memetic, with the idea that a proper weird fiction story doesn't quite fit any label.

Of course it can still be codified into yet another genre next to those, but that's not the intent.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:19 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


> try to make clear is that this isn't genre fiction, but a strand of writing that runs through all forms of writing

...and that's exactly my complaint - that the anthology does not do this at all but really only covers horror stories.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:21 AM on November 4, 2014


Can someone well-versed in Night Vale point to an episode that I can listen to for free that will give me an idea if I want to devote some time to it?

Maybe better on AskMe, but it's recommended / discussed so often around here, I'm just going to throw a request out.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:24 AM on November 4, 2014


Can someone well-versed in Night Vale point to an episode that I can listen to for free that will give me an idea if I want to devote some time to it?

A number of people recommended Night Vale episodes in my Best Podcast Episode question!
posted by Greg Nog at 8:28 AM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Thanks, Greg Nog - I've got a long drive ahead this weekend, so that post actually solves two problems for me!
posted by ryanshepard at 8:29 AM on November 4, 2014


I've listened to the first ten or so episodes of Night Vale and so far it is much more Something I Feel Like I Should Like than something I actually like. There are brilliantly quotable individual lines and vignettes but it just doesn't hang together for me as a whole.
posted by murphy slaw at 8:32 AM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


I have the VanderMeer anthology, and this article is basically one big advertisement for it - so count me unimpressed with the article.

Yeah... I really, really love his writing, but he is really into promotion and sometimes it's a bit much.

(I need to get back to the Southern Reach books. I loved the first one but stalled out in the second. I love the Ambergris books, but Veniss Underground is definitely my favorite Vandermeer).
posted by selfnoise at 8:36 AM on November 4, 2014


I liked the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy a lot because it was very atmospheric and strange, but then in the second one he got a lot more plotty and explainy, which I didn't like as much. I will probably read the third at some point.

(On preview, I agree with murphy slaw that Night Vale seems more like something I should like than something I do like.)
posted by whir at 8:38 AM on November 4, 2014


FWIW I get the sense that Jeff V. wrestles with the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in a very anxiety-of-influence way in his own work: i.e., he defines himself primarily via the *differences* between himself and H.P. (which, to be fair, are significant) resulting in a kind of murder-the-father desire to rewrite the history of the genre in a way that relegates Lovecraft to the margins.

I also think it makes sense to think of The Weird less as an attempt at a sui generis invention of a new genre (though yes, I agree it's sometimes promoted that way - it's an ambitious book framed in an ambitious way) than as a targeted and timely intervention in the horror genre that, first, sidelines/excises the monsters (zombies, vampires, werewolves); second, reintegrates it with literary fiction by drawing all these connections to writers who aren't usually thought of in that way (i.e., a bid for respectability) and third, offers a kind of overarching theory to tie all the pieces together ("the genre is about the mind encountering what it can't comprehend") in a way that's destined to be argued with/torn apart/rendered irrelevant as soon as a new theory comes along.

Horror has been ghettoized for so long that it is definitely due for a literary/critical resurgence: my guess is that this will happen very dramatically and all at once when Stephen King dies and we realize that our most influential/likely-to-be-remembered-for-generations author has been working in a genre we've neglected to talk about in a serious way for the last couple of decades. It's a very ghoulish thing to say (and obviously not quite true, as I love King and will truly mourn him when he goes) but I'm almost looking forward to it because I think it'll be a really seismic and fascinating shift.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:43 AM on November 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


"Weird" aptly describes a lot of my taste in fiction, so it's interesting to look through the pieces that VanderMeer selected for his anthology. However, to a large extent he's reinventing the wheel here. Alberto Manguel edited Black Water (1983) and Black Water 2 (1994), both of which contain some amazing little lost gems as well as familiar classics. At over 900 pages each, they collectively dwarf even VanderMeer's sizable anthology, and provide enough material for a solid year of dark, savory frissons.

It's especially disappointing to see that VanderMeer doesn't cite Manguel's earlier volumes as obvious precedents, since in his Foreword, Manguel also offers one of the best concise definitions of the genre:

"Once I defined fantastic literature as 'the impossible seeping into the possible' and found an echo of that definition in a line by Wallace Stevens: 'black water breaking into reality'. It is on this sodden reality that fantastic literature flourishes. The ghost, the wrinkle in time, the mingling of dream and vigil flow into this liquid realm, a realm readers recognize as home, a place where they feel oddly familiar. It is there that readers are at their most vulnerable and there that the fantastic becomes most effective."
posted by informavore at 8:51 AM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Alasdair Gray wrote a really weird novel called Lanark. I heard about it on Bookslut.

Murakami is mentioned here, of course. He is the current fave of the weird fiction fans - not that I accept "weird fiction" as a genre. He is one of my favorite writers. His books are mesmerizing very much because of the truthism voiced in the article: that we like weird novels because we recognize that the universe we inhabit is deeply mysterious, however prosaic we like to imagine it to preserve our delicate mental health.

Murakami isn't much of a writer, though, sometimes, as the sidebar Atlantic article explains. I remember, in his latest novel, a woman arching her eyebrows three times in two pages. That couldn't be the translator's fault. Still, Murakami's worlds are deeply strange, but, ontologically, no stranger than ours.
posted by kozad at 9:22 AM on November 4, 2014


I loved the Southern Reach trilogy. Read all three in quick succession. The first book is probably the best. Certainly the creepiest and most unsettling. I keep thinking of it when I'm out with the dogs in the woods on these dark cloudy days of November.

But I also really liked the down-to-earth parts of the second book. I'm a big fan of comprehensive world building and VanderMeer went to the trouble of taking his weird world seriously. And the third book has one of the sweetest love stories I've seen. A woman-becoming-something-else and an owl living together by the sea shore, bound together by an affection which needed no words.

If you're a fan of Peter Watts and haven't read Echopraxia yet, I'd highly recommend reading Echopraxia and Southern Reach in one big stretch. This is how I spent my September reading time.

Even though they're very different, they still fit together in a wonderful way. Examining the limits of consciousness, the meaning of souls and self when one's world and form are constantly changing, and just the pure uneasiness of it all.
posted by honestcoyote at 9:50 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


posted by Sticherbeast

Eponysterical?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:59 AM on November 4, 2014


justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: Night Vale has so much in-universe weirdness that no explanation could cover it all.

I haven't gotten too far into Night Vale, but it seems like an attempt to make something that is uber-weird, dumping a bunch of SCP articles slowly added to an ever-growing community mythos to make the ultimate weird place, instead of sticking with a particular weird theme, as is the case in the stories mentioned in the FPP.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:23 AM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've listened to the first ten or so episodes of Night Vale and so far it is much more Something I Feel Like I Should Like than something I actually like. There are brilliantly quotable individual lines and vignettes but it just doesn't hang together for me as a whole.

Early Night Vale is hard to get personally invested in. It improves a lot as Cecil finds his voice as a character rather than just a narrator, and continues to improve even more as they draw in more overarching plots during the first two years.

The early episodes have some gems but it takes at least a dozen episodes to find its stride IMO.

Episode 11, "Wheat and Wheat By-Products", is a great early episode that follows the show's typical format. Episode 13, "A Story About You", is an excellent example of the great experimental stuff WTNV occasionally tries with the radio format.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:26 AM on November 4, 2014


That's actually the best defense against pretty much anything.

/me glances nervously at the necromancer
posted by ryoshu at 10:45 AM on November 4, 2014


I stopped listening to Night Vale after seeing them live. I still like it and the episodes are downloaded to my phone twice a month, I just stopped listening. The Librarian poster I got at the show still hangs above my desk at the library. I'm not sure what happened - I binged through the first year's worth and listened to A Story About You multiple times (it's the best) - but something about seeing them lived changed how I think about them as a thing.

There are actual characters now, not just Cecil are Carlos but the Faceless Old Woman and Tamika and a host of others, and I think that works against the show's premise by giving it to much of a personal grounding. You can't breeze by a story about all the birds flying upside down without any explanation when I know how Carlos prefers his eggs, yanno? Of course, I know I'm in the minority here - judging by the braying laugh behind me whenever a character got name dropped, I know there's a huge fan connection to these characters and it would be silly for WTNV to not give them what they want.

I think this is why I prefer my weird fiction in short story form - it feels like it goes against the goal of the genre to make the characters to real.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:32 AM on November 4, 2014


Alberto Manguel edited Black Water (1983) and Black Water 2 (1994), both of which contain some amazing little lost gems as well as familiar classics.

Both should be at the top of a list of best compilations ever.
posted by ovvl at 11:36 AM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


robocop, I hear you. I personally like the character-focus but I really can't stand the live show recordings for all the fan service and annoying fans.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:46 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'd also love to hear anyone's impressions of VanderMeer's own Southern Reach Trilogy.

Well, I'll be honest, I bought Annihilation because when I flicked through it in the bookstore, it had a kind of Roadside Picnic vibe. Actually, more of a STALKER vibe - you know, expeditions into a mysterious and dangerous unknown, nominally mundane but with horror just over the horizon.

I'd been preparing for a straight up literary horror/adventure, but it's really a surrealist work, and my own failing, I guess, is that that sort of thing has just never clicked with me very well. I put it down feeling like I'd been advised by somebody about something I would never understand, rather than had a story told to me.

It does have some good writing and some exhilarating turns of phrase, and is most of all a rather sad book about longing, but I don't know that I'll try the next in the trilogy. I do have his Anthology on my reader though, and am looking forward to trying that out.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:25 PM on November 4, 2014


A previous post on The Weird anthology, from 2011 (which prompted me to buy it at the time, although it's so overwhelming huge and heavy it has largely gone unread).

It is bloody great though, despite my weak wristed failures, and a great companion to the equally wonderful (and somewhat lighter) Book Of Fantasy that Jorge Luis Borges and others compiled.
posted by dng at 3:26 PM on November 4, 2014


There are actual characters now, not just Cecil are Carlos but the Faceless Old Woman and Tamika and a host of others, and I think that works against the show's premise by giving it to much of a personal grounding. You can't breeze by a story about all the birds flying upside down without any explanation when I know how Carlos prefers his eggs, yanno?

I had a similar issue with Night Vale, but I couldn't say whether it was too grounded, or not grounded enough - it just feels ultimately like there's no tangible reality at all, there's no way to grasp the "real" place where all this stuff is happening because it's all so fluid, and there's no possibility of dramatic stakes in a universe where incomprehensible mind-rending horror is mundane. Ultimately for all their build-up of characters, it just feels like a gag reel where the "gags" are horror/sci-fi tropes, and the thing lives or dies on the gags alone because they don't build up to a bigger reality.
posted by anazgnos at 4:33 PM on November 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


there's no possibility of dramatic stakes in a universe where incomprehensible mind-rending horror is mundane

perfectly said. applies to a lot more fiction, too.
posted by Monochrome at 5:09 PM on November 4, 2014


murphy slaw, I didn't really get into Night Vale until The Sandstorm episodes. Maybe keep going for awhile?
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:02 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


omg. Nobody is going to see this but I have to put it somewhere.

I was browsing Archives just moments ago looking for something to take my fancy, and I spotted Black Water on the shelves and grabbed it instantly based on the raves in this thread. It's signed by Alberto Manguel. Twelve bucks. Bam. Sorted. Brilliant!

Then I was mooching around a little more and came across an Aurora's Whole Realms Catalog that looked familiar, so I opened it up to reminisce. It was mine. It was my copy.

I went over to their RPG section (yes, they have one) and sure enough: 2nd edition Player's Handbook, DM's Guide, Monstrous Manual (HC version), Tome of Magic, Dragon Mountain box set, a bunch of ancillaries and supplementaries. All of them mine (except possibly the box set, which I didn't open to investigate). I knew them like I know my own skinmeats. They still had the smell to them that is bound up in my DNA.

I had sold these to the very same store (before it changed ownership) about 15 years ago. I asked the owner guy if he remembered who brought them in and he vaguely did (nobody I would know anyway) but then we got to talking about D&D and it turns out he was a massive nerdlinger in school too.

Amazing!
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:13 PM on November 18, 2014 [1 favorite]


I really feel like I should buy them back. But that is a dark path.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:30 PM on November 20, 2014


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