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The New Weird
edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
Tachyon Publications, 414 pages

The New Weird
Ann VanderMeer
Ann VanderMeer has been a publisher and editor for over twenty years who currently serves as the fiction editor of Weird Tales and as a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. She is the founder of the award-winning Buzzcity Press. Work from her press and related periodicals has won the British Fantasy Award, the International Rhysling Award, and appeared in several year's best anthologies. Ann was also the founder of The Silver Web magazine, a periodical devoted to experimental and avant-garde fantasy literature. A Best of the Silver Web anthology is forthcoming from Prime Books.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Silver Web, Issue 15
SF Site Review: The Silver Web, Issue 15

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Secret Life: The Select Fire Remix
SF Site Review: Balzac's War
SF Site Review: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: Secret Life
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: The Mansions of the Moon
SF Site Excerpt: The Mimic
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

I'm sure I remember a time when anthologies were basically just a bunch of similarly themed stories brought together: the best time travel stories, the best Eskimo stories, or whatever. No more. These days it seems that barely a week goes by without another anthology that has an agenda, that is meant to work as propaganda. We are being assailed with collections that are designed to convince us that something old has been revitalised (the new hard SF, the new space opera) or that something new has been discovered (the slipstream anthology, the interstitial anthology, the post-cyberpunk anthology). If we enjoy good stories in these books, it is secondary to being convinced that this totally fresh way of looking at the genre is valid, is going to take over literature.

Now we have another addition to the ranks of genre propaganda: The New Weird. If we have to continue with these desperate attempts to convince us all of some innovative take on SF, can we at least hope that the editors will follow the example of Jeff and Ann Vandermeer. I am sick and tired of anthologies which appear to imagine that just pushing together vaguely similar stories will convince us that here is an entire new genre. Even if half the stories don't seem to bear any relationship to the stated purpose of the book, if the supposed purpose of the book is never fully explained, if no attempt is made to say how these particular stories fit the overall picture.

Perhaps the most novel thing about The New Weird is that the Vandermeers take their propagandistic duties seriously. They begin with a long, carefully thought-out essay in which they discuss the origins of the term, the possible precursors and characteristics of the style, and even whether "new weird" is an appropriate name. ("New Weird" appears to be coterminous with what Conjunctions 39 referred to as the New Wave Fabulists; one makes a link to the old Weird Tales, the other a link to Moorcockian SF of the 60s. Both linkages appear to be in equal parts suggestive and misleading.) The book also includes an extensive segment of the internet discussions that first explored the idea of new weird, accompanied by short articles giving different but generally positive views on the subject. (It is worth noting that the only voices questioning the idea of new weird are Ann and Jeff Vandermeer themselves, though that in itself is radical.) They bring together, under the heading "Stimuli," a selection of stories that laid the groundwork for new weird; followed, under the heading "Evidence," by a selection of contemporary examples, and the book concludes with "Laboratory," which consists of a round-robin story written by a bunch of writers not directly associated with new weird but influenced by it. It is a model of how such an enterprise should be undertaken. By the end, I understood what people were talking about when they discussed new weird, and I saw why these particular stories were chosen as exemplars. If I remain unconvinced, it is not a criticism of the book but rather a sign that it has done its job too well.

It quickly becomes clear that this is a book to be dipped into, rather than read straight through at a go. It is, for instance, a genuine pleasure to re-encounter M. John Harrison's wonderful Viriconium story, "The Luck in the Head." But when, a few pages later, you encounter Thomas Ligotti's "A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing" you begin to think: I've been here before. And later still you come across "The Art of Dying" by K.J. Bishop, and again you think: I've been here before. In isolation, in the context of a more varied collection, both of these stories would stand out as brilliantly as the Harrison. But here, read in such proximity, you cannot help but notice how they are playing on the same narrow range.

There is the same sense of the city as the source of unease (in the most interesting of the non-fiction pieces here, "Tracking Phantoms," Darja Malcolm-Clarke equates the city with the distended body also typical of new weird), the same affectless voice, the same alienated characters responding not to emotion but to an odd metaphysic, the same sense that every accidental encounter is freighted with psychological purpose, the same way of looking at inexplicable incidents as if they do not need explanation, the same sense that the city's passing show has been arranged purely for the edification (or more usually mystification) of the protagonist, the same casual assumption that in the face of the irrational no-one would even consider trying to behave rationally. In Kathe Koja's "The Neglected Garden," for instance, when the central character discovers that the woman he was in the process of kicking out has somehow become incorporated into his garden fence, he does not even seem to consider the idea of rescuing her. Instead he simply watches her day by day, accepting, without trying to do anything about it, that his life is falling apart as she is claimed by nature. The symbolism is gruesomely effective, but to move from symbol to story requires the characters to behave as if they have no agency, no fully developed emotional life. Above all characters invariably approach terror or death, the usual if sometimes obliquely realised outcome of these stories, not with dread, anger or even acceptance, but with a strangely intellectual contentedness. As an unlikely journalist puts it in Bishop's story, capturing precisely the etiolated metaphysic that typifies these stories: "one apprehends a strangely exquisite unfurling of energies, an unravelling of reality and the expected". What does separate new weird from most horror fiction is that the horror is an almost purely intellectual experience, not an emotional one.

It is this feeling that we are revisiting the same tightly prescribed range of literary mannerisms, mannerisms which recur repeatedly throughout the collection, that convinces me that, yes, there is something distinctive about new weird. But no, it is not rich enough or varied enough or potent enough to grow into its own sub-genre. As an aside, I have often wondered why, for example, Christopher Priest's Dream Archipelago stories have never been appropriated by the new weird lobby. Now I understand. Dark and threatening as the sexual undercurrent of those stories might be, the dread is meant to be an emotional shock not an intellectual curiosity.

Sometimes it seems that setting alone is sufficient to mark the story out as new weird. The models, of course, are Harrison's Viriconium and China Miéville's New Crobuzon (represented here by the story "Jack," which, lacking the space to uncurl the way his novels do, seems somehow thin fare). But there are plenty of other strange cities here, their by-ways, cafes and landmarks carefully named in a culture-free amalgam of European languages but generally not so carefully described. Here pale artists wander disconsolately, unable to take effective control of any aspect of their lives, while every festival, every eruption of life or colour into the city streets betokens some ill-defined threat. Whether anything as vigorous as "Story" can occur in such a setting seems irrelevant when the main point is to evoke mood. In the internet discussion, Steph Swainston, having claimed new weird as secular, trans-generic and politically informed (I would say that only the second of that trio is particularly obvious in these stories) goes on to say "Even the politics, though, is secondary to this sub-genre's most important theme: detail." There are, certainly, new weird stories that seem to be no more than a catalogue of oddities. "Letters from Tainaron" by Leena Krohn (an extract from her novel, Tainaron) is just such a catalogue of the oddities of the people of Tainaron. One letter, for instance, explains that they carry their homes about with them, rather, I imagine, as a snail does, a curiosity that is never so much as hinted at in any of the other letters. But in none of these letters does Krohn come close to suggesting anything as crude as a plot. Even when there is a story, as in "The Braining of Mother Lamprey" by Simon D. Ings or "Immolation" by Jeffrey Thomas, it comes across as trite or sketchy, as if that isn't the real concern of the author.

The main thing about these cities, however, is that they feel like some city we might know, but with enough differences to make them unsettling, almost dreamlike. On occasion they deliberately invert something that is an unquestioned part of our lives. In Ings's story, for instance, human ordure is not unclean, while the secretive folk who live in an immense hole in the ground in Jay Lake's "The Lizard of Ooze" evacuate in public but hide away from other eyes to ingest food. (This particular overthrow of the accepted norm has, of course, already been explored in Philip K. Dick's Counter-Clock World, where it was, I have to say, used with rather more effect.)

But some perverse city is not the only setting. Some stories seem to be new weird because the characters have been dumped in an unexplained emptiness, an absence of setting. "Watson's Boy" by Brian Evanson takes place in a maze of identical corridors. The corridors are exactly the same length, lined by the same number of doors; at each intersection there is a bunch of keys, none of which fit any of the doors. Some of the intersections are piled with dust, though there is no explanation for how the dust got there; some have been swept clean, though again there is no explanation for how this might be. There is no outside, no longing for an outside, but no purpose in life inside. The boy collects the keys, his father makes oracular statements, his mother lies in bed swathed in sheets like a cocoon. That is all, for 30 pages nothing happens. The setting feels like it should have some overarching allegorical meaning, something like one of Borges's infinite libraries; but if so, Evanson makes no effort to achieve that meaning, and even so 30 pages would be far, far too long. You long for the moral agenda, the political awareness that Swainston claims for new weird, but it isn't here. Do you want point, do you want purpose, do you want plot? Then perhaps you don't want new weird.

Swainston's evangelical contribution to the internet discussion is the closest we get to a coherent and consistent vision of what new weird is and where it might go. But around her the conversation wanders, backtracks, stutters, starts off in unrelated directions, runs into dead ends, and confuses in the way such discussions generally do. Harrison makes a rousing war cry of the need to control the naming of genres, without really making it clear who he is fighting against or, indeed, who he is fighting for. Jonathan Strahan, the voice of reason, wonders whether there is a need for all these new names, new sub-genres. (Harrison's response to one of Strahan's posts: "Why do you want us to remain in the dark where we belong, Jonathan? What might your unconscious motive be for wanting that, do you think?" is frankly intimidating: if you're not rabble-rousing for new weird you're in a notional enemy camp.) Cheryl Morgan sees it as no more than another marketing opportunity. While others see it as a form of horror fiction, a response to Tolkien, slipstream, or indeed anything they want it to be. Nor do the other non-fiction pieces collected here add much to this rather inchoate impression. The underlying message that comes across most clearly is a tiredness with the sorts of fantasy represented by sub-Tolkien clones and a desire to take back the genre, but that seems to amount to a reinventing of the literary fantastic from inside the genre rather than outside. And indeed while there is a rather over-enthusiastic love of gore and disgust, in reality little that is done here is not found elsewhere in the literary fantastic. But that is not what tends to be labelled as fantasy in the bookstores, so we come back to new weird as a marketing category.

And as with any other marketing category, there is good stuff identified as new weird (as I have done already I would sing the praises of the contributions by Harrison, Ligotti, Bishop and, with a little more hesitation, Ings) lumped in with a lot that is indifferent or even poor (Thomas, Lake, Evenson and Alistair Rennie's grotesque gore-fest, "The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines"). I exclude the round-robin story, "Festival Lives," from this consideration because it is clumsily structured and incomplete, and is intended as no more than a showcase in which various writers can try on new weird styles. That said, it probably says as much about my attitude to new weird as it does about this collection that for me the best story is clearly "At Reparata" by Jeffrey Ford, not least because this is a deliberately anti-new weird story. Its trajectory is the opposite of those around it: it does from madness to sanity, from distortion to normality, from death to life. It starts with a lunatic kingdom of pompous titles and distorted people, where the dispossessed and outcast have discovered a haven of self-respect. But a figure of archetypal new weird nightmare appears on the scene, a gigantic moth that steadily eats up all the trappings of their new life. Slowly the outcasts are forced to resume the dress and character of their old lives, but in doing so they find their bodies become straighter, and they discover in the end contentment in embracing life.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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