Your Weirdness is Political

Illustration for a remarkably prescient 2013 production of Ubu Roi. Iida Lanki, http://cargocollective.com/scoopbrook.

A Note from the Editor.

Since the November 9th election, I have been trying to make some measured sense of what it means, and what it will mean. I still think the greater part of that answer is ‘we don’t know.’ I want to offer a smaller message, though, to devotees of weird culture.

If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself wondering whether world events render a love of monsters and noise and strange combinations of words frivolous, superfluous. If, perhaps, the blossoming of the weird over the past few years was that of a hothouse flower, a form of cultural indulgence only possible because a small slice of the population existed in a state of self-satisfied comfort.

You may wonder, in short, whether we should all put down our fantasy tales and start reading political science.

And the answer is: Absolutely not. Because weird culture is resolutely political, down to its bones.

Kafka, probably the weirdest of them all, has left us one of the most profound critiques of modern life we have. The Dadaists, much more self-consciously political, gave birth to a long line of resistant absurdism that, consciously or not, all experimental artists continue today. William Burroughs’ vampire sex-aliens and time-travelling shootists carved out a space for the truly, polymorphously queer.

The politics of strangeness takes many forms, but at heart it is about the resistance to all forms of authority, all forms of identity, and all forms of fear – three words whose contemporary relevance are inescapable. Of course, this resistance doesn’t take the form of fist-shaking, of confrontation. The weird is about subversion, escape, troublemaking, trickery.

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At the most abstract level, there is the weird’ s hostility to language itself, from genre’s crude gestures at the unknowable, to formalist rejections of linearity and sense. Alfred Jarry’s 1896 Ubu Roi inaugurated anti-language as the mode of resistance, setting its satire of authority and hate in a patois of slang, puns, and word-play that highlighted the hollowness of despots.

Take, also, the weirdness of Samuel Beckett, from whose blasted landscapes and inarticulate, deformed heroes Ligotti draws his soul. Beckett was active in the French Resistance, and his writing was just as anti-authoritarian as his life. He was the bard of ignorance, of broken words, of failure and darkness. That exposure of the holes in the world, of human frailty and ignorance, is the political essence of the weird. What Kafka spelled out more clearly is there in Beckett in elemental form – that all claims to rightness are ultimately illusions, and crimes committed in their name are never justified.

The assertion that the world is unknowable and our own efforts ineffectual can, of course, also be fuel for the authoritarian. Beckett manages to salvage not just a difficult beauty, but a certain nobility from the ruins. That is one way of facing the terror of universal nonsense without reclining into true nihilism.

The counterpoint, some might say, is Lovecraft. His xenophobia and fear of change sometimes seem to invite the destroying hand of the Old Gods. But as I’ve written elsewhere, Lovecraft’s abject revulsion towards difference and change contained an inevitable fascination with them – as many forms of racism do.

How to live with the unknowable. That is the question that humans have always faced. We have struggled to paper over the void of existence with religion, with power, with myth, with science, with racial scapegoating, with material plenty. Look at that list and you’ll see that these efforts inevitably fail, to various degrees.

That doesn’t mean we should simply become friends with darkness, acquiesce to despair. Rather, we must look the void in the face. Understand its presence, and even its attractions, and try and make a life with that knowledge in hand.

That is the therapy of the weird, and its politics. Contemplating strangeness, dread, non-sense, and non-being is an inoculation against existential dread. And perhaps it can blunt our seemingly genetic impulse to hoist up tin-pot lords and empty banners and fictional Races to shoulder the threat of nothingness on our behalf.

On Lucius Shepard, The Novella, and Weirdness

A young Shepard, perhaps as he would have liked to be remembered.

I’ve become moderately obsessed in the last few months with the writer Lucius Shepard. I was lucky enough to hear his name dropped on a weird fiction podcast, I’ve actually forgotten which, maybe Cromcast. I was initially underwhelmed when I had a look on Amazon – almost none of his work is in print, except in ebook editions whose design makes them seem, frankly, just short of amateurish.

Of course, many of you will know that Shepard was a luminary of sci-fi for a time. But, now that I’ve read a mid-sized sampling of his work, I find the fading of his star since then totally baffling. He was something close to a genius, and he demonstrated with blinding clarity the most profound potentials of weird fiction. His stories melded emotional depth with surreal imagery and supernatural happenings, using effortlessly beautiful and believable language to render the electrified ghosts of Vietnam casualties, a sleeping dragon casting subtle spells, a poisoned jungle plotting to save itself from destruction by man.

He manages the itself-supernatural trick of perfectly balancing finely detailed, realistic and emotionally weighty characters, substantive and propulsive plots, and unhesitant strangeness.

Shepard completely avoids cliche – none of the ghosts or dragons do quite what you expect them to. Even more impressive are the junkies and brain-damaged boxers and construction workers who themselves become implicated in the unreal, who slip into realms beyond and make that transition part of the still very real lives they lead.

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In his heyday, Shepard was hardly unknown – he won a Nebula award and a World Fantasy Award, among others. Yet his work is less visible than the latest “Cthulhu by Gaslight” schlockfest. There are several reasons for this, some perhaps inevitable and structural, but also some that fans and writers of weird fiction should pay serious heed to, if they care about the long-term health of this community.

It doesn’t help that he was an older (and now, tragically, dead before his time) writer, in a genre full of young-ish men and women who are at readings and on Twitter frantically clamoring for your attention. But he’s not, at the same time, old enough to join the mythical pantheon ala Lovecraft, Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith (the last of whom, by the way, Shepard is vastly superior to).

He was awkwardly in-between in another way. Shepard’s obituary pointed out that his taste for writing the novella helped keep him marginal. It’s the perfect length for what Shepard does, long enough to draw a reader into a very detailed dream-like world, to generate empathy for a central character, and to unfold a meaningful plot – but still lean, without, in particular, the novel’s lengthy dialogues.

It’s also, unfortunately, long been a wildly uncommercial form. Now that we live in the heyday of the edited volume, even short stories are far more marketable than novellas – a moderately successful writer and writing coach recently posited to me that 4,000 words is the most salable length for a short story. The best works in The Best of Lucius Shepard are closer to 12,000 words.

But that, I have some hope, might be changing – if not in time for Shepard’s own legacy, then at least for future fans of the novella. The rise of electronic publishing makes the physical dimensions of a book almost irrelevant. And novellas can be easily sold for the appropriate-seeming price of 99 cents or so.

(I’m actually about to experiment with this myself.  Before I had any sense that stories were things you sold, I would simply write them until they felt like they were done – which is how I ended up spending 12 years on and off trying to sell an 11,000-word story now called in night we coax things out of hidden shapes. I will be releasing it as the first Blown Horizonz publication in a few weeks – please sign up for our newsletter for updates and some upcoming giveaways.)

For another underappreciated genius, read here about M. John Harrison.

But there’s another, more deeply worrisome interpretation of Shepard’s marginality – one which might be blamed on one of Shepard’s own most important heirs. Jeff Vandermeer may be the living Weird writer whose command of the intersection of truth and weirdness is closest to Shepard’s. But it was also Ann and Jeff Vandermeer who – for a lot of very good and laudable reasons, and with a lot of laudable results – have really given life to The Weird as a genre. They’d maybe object to that characterization of their editorial project, but it’s essentially inescapable.

And genres, and their audiences, are inimical to writers like Lucius Shepard. He has been often compared to the Latin American writers of Magical Realism, and the contrast is productive. Those writers, from Marquez back to Cervantes sideways to Borges – are part of a tradition, not a genre. They have a command of a worldview, not a set of tropes. And a genre can’t be anything so nebulous or alive, because ultimately it’s a market category. A set of recycled tics and monsters and scenes and gestures. On some level, it’s a shell for mediocrity, in readers as well as writers.

Luckily, I don’t think weird fiction is there yet. There is undeniably a lot of lazy crap out there, in fact an increasing amount of it. But the darkness could be neutered, if we’re not careful. Probably the best insurance against that is to cast skepticism on mediocre recyclings of the predictable, to continue venerating uncomfortable freaks like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco – and to add Lucius Shepard to that list.

Our First Giveaway: 1945 Edition of The Dunwich Horror!

Dunwich Horror and Others, by Bart House, 1945

Dunwich Horror and Others, by Bart House, 1945

Howdy regulars and new folks! We’re launching a giveaway for this cool 1945 Bart House edition of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. We’ll keep signups open until November 31st, then send the book to the winner – so you can keep it for yourself, or give someone a great Christmas gift!

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When you sign up for the drawing, we’ll also add you to our mailing list. We’ll send you a bimonthly content digest and newsletter, covering the world of weird fiction and culture. We’ll be doing the first one in a couple of weeks, and trying to create something that everyone enjoys, based on feedback from our early subscribers.

You’ll also get another cool treat for signing up – in a few weeks, we’ll be offering a free ebook to new subscribers. You’ll be given access to that when it goes live, if you’re already on the list.

(Also: When we pick a winner, we’ll reach out for your address so we can mail out the book.)

Capsule Review: SP4RX, Wren McDonald

SP4RX Wren McDonald Akira

NoBrow press is a generally amazing home for weird visual material in a sci-fi or fantasy vein (and now, it seems, of a line of kid’s volumes for hipster parents who want to warp their seed from birth). But they have a pretty minimalist house style, so when Wren McDonald’s SP4RX comes billed as a “stoner Akira,” it’s no big surprise that doesn’t encompass the meticulous, almost tactile virtues of Otomo Katsuhiro’s landmark work.

You might think, in fact, that “stoner Akira” is a little redundant – but Akira is more of a cheap-speed jam, with all those fine lines and hyperviolent deaths. SP4RX has a similar techno-dystopian setting, and a similar fight against authoritarian evil, but it’s all a lot more laid back. The drawings are cartoonish and approachable, though still occasionally evoking a sense of wonder at the great/awful future.  And the dialogue is of the affectless punk variety, lowercase, minimal punctuation, offhand. The sort that resists intensity.

What you get instead of that Akira intensity is a certain stoned charm, as a hacker hero and friends, including a cute/dangerous robot, work their way through a straightforward but relevant plot about class and the threat automation poses to workers. Some of the scenes are really fun, and you get to see a lot of bad guys blown up in very satisfying ways.

I could see this being a bingeworthy ongoing series, and in many ways this volume looks and feels like the setup for one (though unfortunately outside of Japan, it’s tough to pull off). The line art and simple monotone coloring would make it easy to churn out a lot of pages, and it’s the kind of thing I could zone out with on the couch for many, many hours. The current volume, at about 120 pages, really seems to barely get you in the zone before it’s over, but it’s a warm and fuzzy ride while it lasts.

Two Poems By David Z. Morris at TL: DR Magazine

We’re proud to announce that Blown Horizonz editor David Z. Morris has two appropriately strange poems out this week at TL:DR, a new literary publication run by Russell Jaffe.

Click here to read David’s poems, which are about publishing and medieval purges, respectively.

And if you like this site, David’s poems, or the general vibe of the two, we’d highly recommend you check out Jaffe’s own poetry. You can start here.

Writing Autopsy: Oh, For Fuck’s Sake, The Neon Demon

Neon Demon 2

Every week or so, we like to sit down and examine a film or TV show from a writer’s perspective, digging deep into the not-always-obvious mechanics of plot and character. Sometimes the exercise is an attempt to understand greatness. Other times – as in this week’s installment – it’s quite the opposite.

I should start things off by saying I didn’t finish Drive. I don’t remember disliking it, or particularly liking it. I just never finished it. Take that as you will.

But Neon Demon (let’s just put our cards on the table) is a pretty rough watch given the level of enthusiasm that greeted Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film. To call this one “half baked” would be an insult to collapsed cakes. Its theme is interesting, but the execution of that theme manages to be offensive and insulting. Its setting is trite, but workable. Its structure is a little weird, though not entirely broken. But the devil here is really in the details, because Refn has tried to direct a kind of horror film, but seems to have missed most of the key elements of what makes horror work.

Neon Demon is a film that completely eliminates suspense. It almost seems like an art project towards that goal. It’s not that you know what’s going to happen – the problem, actually, is that you don’t know enough about what’s going to happen.

Okay though, wait, rewind. Let’s start from the beginning here.

On Art Films and Abstraction

Some will certainly argue that this is not a movie where ‘writing’ should be a matter of focus. It’s an art film, people will say. And I’ll say look, having a lot of unnecessarily long takes does not make it an art film. The world’s great art films, while often not conventionally plotted, are usually incredibly well written/structured (same thing).  Holy Mountain, Naked Lunch, Drawing Restraint 9: These are, I want to say symphonies, but maybe more like frantic, jagged jazz masterpieces.

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Writer Autopsy: What’s the Matter With the Conjuring 2?

Warner Bros.

I was very late to the party on The Conjuring, but when I saw it about two months ago it scared the pants off me. (There’s nothing dignified about a 36 year old man clutching his fiancée like some sort of mystical talisman against the dark – but it’s definitely fun.) So I was happy to devote a couple of hours to the followup last week – only to be disappointed. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not that scary or interesting, even though it has a lot of the same ingredients as the first one.

But for a writer, a failed piece of work can be just as educational as a successful one. You can see the cracks – in fact, the cracks leap out at you. So here are the cracks in The Conjuring 2.

Structurally Fucked: The movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, give or take. Which is too long for a haunted-house movie to start with – but that weakness is really exacerbated by the frontloading of the haunting. We get an hour and 30 minutes of foreboding rattles and jump scares before the demon hunters show up – and that fight is the center of the story, especially since it isn’t until that conflict gets rolling that we actually gain even a hint of understanding as to the nature of what’s happening.

The long buildup might have been sustainable if there had been slightly clearer hints as to the nature or motivation of the ghost, but there just aren’t. Slight spoiler, but the ghost’s main motivation seems at first to be . . . wanting to watch a different TV channel?

Low Stakes: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but you know practically from the get-go that no one in this movie is going to die. Even after the haunting is clear to everyone, people just kind of hang around, remaining under threat. They go elsewhere if they want to sleep, suggesting that the ghost is about as threatening as a termite infestation. The exception, of course, is the ‘host’ character – but even she isn’t seen to be really in danger until a very late scene. The haunting, for her, is more of a bummer because it makes her a social outcast, than because she’s in actual danger. That’s just not a good way to generate fear.

Contrast that with the first movie, where people had a mounting plague of bruises and cuts, and oh yeah, your mom is trying to murder you. And your mom is Lili Taylor, and she’s totally terrifying.

Fake, Shallow Central Relationship: Since it’s now officially A Franchise, the Conjuring’s central duo are more important than in the first film. And nothing about them feels remotely real. God Bless Vera Farmiga, who deserves much better, but these un-flawed whitebread ghost hunters are terminally uninteresting. And their boringness makes the few moments when they express their mutual affection downright squicky – “It’ll give you something to look forward to when you get home.” Thanks, Mom and Dad.

All of which is to say that their relationship is core to the dramatic moment at the heart of the movie, when Dad Hunter decides to go into the house alone despite the danger. When Farmiga tells him, “I can’t lose you. I’m so scared,” it’s hard to buy, because they seem more like business partners and mutual beards than two people in love.

Doesn’t Question its Own Highly Questionable Premise: The movie makes a few minor gestures towards the haunting being faked, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a dramatic question, largely because the context makes doubt hard to swallow. Everyone who questions Mom and Dad Ghost Hunters’ core belief that demons love to possess children and haunt houses is depicted as a deluded, pinheaded ivory-tower academic, who is also physically weak. Dad Ghost Hunter is shown to be willing to beat someone up for his beliefs, which is, you know, proof that he’s right?

Even on its own terms, this does much less than the first film to explore the idea that demons prey on weakness and doubt. Honestly, it could even be seen as pretty anti-feminist, since basically all the family did to ‘invite’ the haunting is to be led by a single mother.

Anyway, intellectually shallow. I had the same problem with The Witch and its dangerously-close-to-total acceptance of women as conduits of evil – though that’s a far, far superior film.

Other Minor Stuff:

Uses the exact same “crosses flipping upside down” moment as the first movie (I’m pretty sure?). Gives us a three minute montage set to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” which, sorry, doesn’t do much to actually convince me about the relationship.

AMREADING: M. John Harrison, The Centauri Device

Fantastic 70s cover art for M. John Harrison, The Centauri Device

I’ve just finished M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which I picked up for a very well-spent $12.50 from Sarasota’s pretty awesome Parker’s Books last week. It’s a great piece of work on its own, but particularly interesting to me because it was Harrison’s third novel, published in 1974 – and there’s no contemporary writer whose artistic evolution is more fascinating, challenging, and inspiring to me than Harrison’s.

If you’re not familiar with Harrison, don’t beat yourself up. He’s a very unfairly lesser-known member of the so-called New Wave of science fiction writers of the 1960s and 1970s, centered mainly in Britain, and also including Samuel R. Delaney, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock. Like Delaney, he started his career working pretty firmly in the mold of adventurous sci-fi, then went with great determination in sometimes extremely strange directions. He’s most frequently compared to Moorcock, but at his most weirdly adventurous – A Storm of Wings and In Viriconium – Harrison creates more hallucinatory worlds and more convincingly acidic characters than Moorcock, using language that simultaneously pushes the boundaries of sensibility and penetrates the truth.

What’s even more interesting about Harrison – to a writer, at least – is that after pushing things so far into the formally and substantively bizarre in the Viriconium books, he took a rather drastic turn into more subdued psychological realism, then returned to sci-fi with slightly more conventional novels like Light – which is, incidentally, a fair preview of Anne Leckie’s recently highly praised Ancillary series.

In short, he’s a master at multiple styles, and reading his mature work is a sure way for a writer to get discouraged. But what about the earlier books?

The Centauri Device is, on one level, quite encouragingly straightforward. The essence of the plot is not just spare, but clichéd – the last living member of an alien race is also the only key to operating an ancient superweapon, and several factions vie to capture or control him. The central character is also a fairly standard-issue Space Rogue, and the factions rotating around him are Space Empires, Space Rebellions, and Space Religions. It’s fun, quick, and, structurally, not particularly ambitious.

But in the details of Centauri, there are clear signs of what Harrison would deliver in A Storm of Wings six years later – strange poetry, bizarre imagery, and most of all, characters that by design don’t live up to their roles as heroes. In Centauri, that’s John Truck, the secretly-last-of-his-race who, though he shows a few flashes of concern and initiative, is for most of the novel a passive layabout, putting his greatest effort into avoiding responsibility.

But the factions battling to control Truck are even less appealing than he is, a collection of bullies and manipulative zealots. The sole (maybe) exception is a crew of anarchist pirates, who seem to have laudable motives, but aren’t able to make much of them. In short, it sounds like a space opera in outline, but it undercuts the easy good-vs-evil polarity that dumb fiction of all sorts continues to hinge on to this day. There really aren’t any good guys.

It’s just as nihilistic as it sounds – and readers who want ‘fun’ are going to be bummed right out. But it’s not joyless – what saves it, and more than saves it, is the same wealth of non-descriptive descriptions and turgid-yet-profound turns of phrase that define the Viriconium books. Here, in a particularly great example, are the dying words of one of the book’s more admirable characters:

“You were there when she bled into the dyne fields, you saw the substance of her flaring out like ritual evidence of the future. I believe she was near to her proper place, then.”

It’s not clear what this means, even in context. But there is a weight and precision here that makes it at least seem that Harrison had some sense of its meaning, was trying to point towards that meaning, worked on these words. There are tensions between them, allowing possible interpretations.

Or this description of a spaceship in action:

Precarious and hungry, hovering on the edge of the time when its prey might come into season, like a huge fragile insect against the gloomy bulk of the earth, it spun and darted – extruding its armament and making playful threatening passes . . .

What’s really glorious about this is that you don’t have much visual image of what the thing looks like – but you have what’s better, a rich feeling of the experience of seeing it. It’s the same trick that Harrison would later pull with the superficially mundane villains of A Storm of Wings. They’re just giant insects – dying giant insects, at that – but because every description is inflected with this kind of emotional resonance, they’re deeply unnerving.

Plenty of readers are frustrated with Harrison’s combination of nihilism and verbosity, and the Amazon reviews of this are a fun read. The ending in particular is a giant Fuck You to conventional heroism. But that sense of challenge is exactly why the book is still so much more worthwhile than most of its contemporaries.

As far as what that means for a writer, trying to measure himself against the arcs of the people he admires? On the one hand, Centauri is, again, encouragingly straightforward in structure. A lot happens, but it’s all linear. My own current project is on shaky ground in that regard, with several entwining threads and an inevitable measure of jumping around through time. Which is another way of saying that discovering that linear simplicity is in itself a skill.

And, though there are those flashes of intense subtlety, a lot of The Centauri Device is written fairly straightforwardly. Overall, it’s a reminder that you have to walk before you run, and this is one of the great writers walking, with occasional sprints, trying out his legs.

The real x-factor here, of course, is Harrison’s timing. He both loved the SF of his time, and was frustrated by it. The Centauri Device isn’t just a book – it’s a strategy of a moment, which is the main reason it may still hold interest for those of you who aren’t total word nerds. Most evocatively, it’s worth considering that John Truck – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler – appeared three years before Han Solo – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler. I’m not suggesting there’s any direct influence, but the two are a product of the same moment, of a related subversion of space opera.

The big difference is that Solo redeems the archetype for tradition, ultimately choosing to serve the ‘good’ guys. John Truck has no such comforting delusions.

Though it doesn’t exactly seem to be currently in print, you can get The Centauri Device in several formats on Amazon (isn’t the future grand?). I recommend the 1974 hardcover, available for 20 or 25 dollars with shipping.



Centaur, an Excellently Bizarre Pinball Table

One of the (very few) great cultural institutions we have here in the Tampa Bay area is the Replay Amusement Museum, a collection of vintage pinball and arcade machines in Tarpon Springs. Pinball is an incredibly fun, invigorating, challenging thing, and a pretty great mental exercise – imagine, there was a time when hitting a ball against spring-loaded bumpers could be an interactive metaphor for everything from piloting a spaceship to rafting a river to exploring a haunted house.

The tables are also often stunning capsules of the creative and cultural environment of their time. They’re collections of art, sound, and language, in their way not unlike a film. There are lots of tables that are weird in various ways, but one of the weirdest has to be the 1981 table Centaur, which has a direct line to the bizarre science fiction and horror that dominated the 1970s and 1980s – and, more generally, to the grim undertones of that era.Centaur

The “story” of the Centaur table – and yes, pinball tables tell stories, sometimes elaborate ones – has the player facing off against a strange creature that’s, apparently, half orc and half motorcycle. The illustrations on the backboard and play surface are all black and white, and the costuming of the characters seems inspired by a mix of Conan/Frank Frazetta and The Road Warrior (which came out the same year, but I’m not sure whether the table came after). The artist, Paul Faris, was then just at the start of an illustrious but undersung career in video game art, which included work on Double Dragon.

The table is lit by almost entirely red bumpers and lights, giving the whole thing a powerful heavy metal vibe.

But what really makes this a pinball game worthy of treatment in a blog dedicated to weird culture is the game’s intimidating, bleak audio. The narration comes from a robotic, granulated voice drenched in reverb (provided by a dedicated sound chip – this was 1981, when this stuff took real work). And the music today sounds like abstract noise, looping and grimy and guttural. On the table at Replay, at least, the bass was so powerful I could feel it through my hands as they rested on the cabinet.

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