Your Weirdness is Political

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

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.