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A while ago my fancy was taken by a newish collection called The Weird by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer. It had a good line-up of weird fiction old and new, so I ordered it, but somewhere along the line I made a mistake and a different Vandermeer book, The New Weird, came instead. After roundly cursing the editor for calling both books such similar names, I forgot to send the book back for a refund in time and so I figured I might as well read it.

The New Weird appears as a cross between a fiction anthology and a manifesto for the eponymous type of writing. In brief, the "New Weird" is meant to be a mix of fantasy, horror and sci-fi with a literary bent, which seeks to defy convention and basically weird the reader out, instead of adhering to cosy genre cliches. The book is divided into 5 sections, each with pretentiously scientific names. "STIMULI" comprises six stories by writers considered to be forerunners of the New Weird. "EVIDENCE", the largest section, is made up of stories by current New Weird writers. "SYMPOSIUM" is a bunch of essays about the genre and "LABORATORY" (God who invented these headings?) is a round-robin, i.e. a novella to which seven authors have contributed a chunk.

This all seemed rather self-important and offputting, but your humble moderator rolled up her sleeves and went into battle regardless. It helped that the first two stories were by writers I love. M John Harrison, who is considered the Daddy of the New Weird, contributes 'The Luck In The Head'(1984), a tale of political skulduggery, ritual and treason set in his fictional Uroconium. With its outlandish imagery, political concerns, lashings of grime and references to fin-de-siecle art and Decadence it was ahead of its time and has certainly inspired a lot of the recent New Weird writers. However, I though it compared poorly with his stories from The Ice Monkey and his novels. His writing is elegant, as usual, but it lacks cohesion even if you don't go in expecting everything to make sense. Perhaps reading more of his sci-fi novels would help. The next story, Clive Barker's In the Hills, the Cities is a real dazzler, however. I can say that it's about a gay couple of varying degrees of sexual repression who encounter a very strange village while touring Eastern Europe, but really it's impossible to describe in a few words. It was first published as a horror story, but is good enough to feature in any anthology of any kind, including "literary" ones, and I hope it will have attained the status of a classic a few hundred years from now (though nothing is certain with predictions like that, God knows.) In the 80s Barker was (and is) a much-needed antidote to the crashing heterosexuality and heterosexism of horror fiction, and the human body is as fluid as gender in his fiction. He certainly deserves a nod from the new boys and girls and I was very happy to see him here.

With 'Crossing Into Cambodia' Michael Moorcock appears as a representative of the 60s and 70s "New Wave" of sci-fi, which fuelled the famous New Horizons magazine. His story is set in an unending world war in the future, with all the jollity that suggests, and is probably the closest thing this collection offers to a conventional dystopian sci-fi narrative. I couldn't help feeling that something a bit more experimental could've been chosen to represent this category, but it's not too bad, especially in view of what comes after. Simon D. Ings 'The Braining of Mother Lamprey' is a forerunner of that strand of New Weird that is preoccupied with the secretion of bodily fluids, and the plot is completely silly, giving the whole thing a childish quality that could be described as "playful" and "irreverent" if you were a moron. Kathe Koja's 'The Neglected Garden' is an early example of the feminist impulse in weird fiction. This almost invariably expresses itself as a magical realist plot where a woman takes revenge on a poor-quality boyfriend by undergoing a translation into a horrific entity or haunting. It's a very well-ploughed furrow by now, and I really wish there could be a wider array of expressions of feminism in weird fiction, but it's good writing and of course Koja was ahead of the game by some years when she wrote this. Thomas Ligotti is another writer who sits squarely in the horror section, as opposed to sci-fi, and the spooky small-town surrealism of 'A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing' is a good introduction to his work, if you haven't read any before.

But what about the new kids on the block? Well, it is only fitting that China Mieville should kick off the "EVIDENCE" section, since his novel Perdido Street Station trilogy was for many people the ground zero of the New Weird as a commercial publishing phenomenon. Mieville shifted serious units and rang the changes for fantasy fiction. His story 'Jack' is based in the same world as Perdido Street Station, New Crobuzon, and again we have a dystopia where the government can order criminals to be "Remade" in terrifying and often inexplicable ways. It was pretty good fun and you don't really need to have read the novels to enjoy it.

As it turns out, the New Weird is very big on dystopia, as the rest of the stories in this section show. Jeffrey Thomas' 'Immolation' is a Mieville-like critique of unbridled capitalism, but it lacks the poetry and wit of Mieville or Harrison and ends up feeling more like a left-wing or anarchist rant than a proper story. And I say that as a devout Socialist, so God knows how much this would annoy a more right-wing reader! Of course, left-wing critiques are needed after decades of Heinlein, Haldeman and their ilk, but this collection's apparent obsession with tyranny starts to get boring after a while. Jay Lakes' 'The Lizard of Ooze' has the big bad boss as a lizard with an entire town living in its mouth, but fails to really make enough of this premise, though more bodily fluids abound. The collection reaches its nadir with Brian Evenson's 'Watson's Boy', yet another surrealist nightmare world in which a young boy burdened with his own bodyweight in keys travels through an Escher-like landscape of apparently infinite corridors and doors, with no obvious purpose or end in sight. But predictably, his Daddy's very mean to him. This is weird fiction at its very worst - pretentious, boring and lazy. It exemplifies the fact that writing surrealist fiction is like playing tennis with the net down - there are no rules, so anything goes, and anything can be really dull to read about. It does have memorable imagery, but I suspect it's only memorable because it's bludgeoned into you in a repetitive manner. And imagery alone never made a story.

Luckily things pick up a bit with K.J. Bishop's 'The Art of Dying'. Here we find a frank expression of the shining strand of Decadence that's been woven into the New Weird since Harrison's crew of rebel aesthetes boarded the Green Carnation and set out on a bold quest to artsy up Space. Now, recent weird fiction, both "new" and otherwise, has really taken a shine to characters based on Oscar Wilde, Bosie, Aubrey Beardsley and the like, often with dreadful results (e.g. Mark Gatiss' Lucifer Box novels and the ubiquitous steampunk.) But sometimes it can work, and although I was initially repelled by what I saw as yet another tribute to the fin-de-siecle, the sheer quality of the writing saved Bishop's story. I particularly like the beautiful imagery of the natural world - something that is badly missing from much of New Weird fiction. And what is the point of creating new worlds if you cannot point to the beauty in them? Jeffrey Ford's 'Reparata' also possesses considerable sensuous charm and wit, and it's setting - a medieval-style castle composed entirely of social misfits who use modern speech - is a refreshing change from the technological future-shock of the previous stories. The moral outlook is incredibly hokey and Capra-esque , but it's a change, I guess.

After that, things go downhill again. There are two extracts from novels, and I always hate it when extracts appear in what should be a short story collection! Neither of them really whet the appetite either. Leena Krohn's 'Letters from Tainaron' seeks to describe a strange species of sentient life with a disquieting approach to death, but ultimately elicits a sort of mental shrug from the reader since not a lot really happens. Steph Swainston's 'The Ride of the Gabbleratchet' (no relation to Neil Asher's Gabbleduck!) is also strenuously strange - in both these excerpts you can almost hear the writers grunting with the effort of making their work as disorienting as possible - and Swainston also attempts to jazz things up with humour. This is a mistake, and though the Gabbleratchet is a striking creation all it does is chase the narrator around a bit, so yeah, another inappropriate extract that would doubtless be more fun when read as part of the novel it came from. The section grinds to a weary halt with Alistair Rennie's 'The Gutter Sees the Light', another example of the "bodily fluids and genital mutilation" school of New Weird. I've got a horrible feeling Rennie is actually trying to be feminist with his depiction of two warrior-women fighting a monster that secretes freezing death-semen into all and sundry, but while traditional gender roles are certainly reversed the literary ogling of the heroines' physical attributes undermines the attempt. Again, this feels strained and the tone of daftness and outlandishness feels a bit forced.

The "SYMPOSIUM" is a rag-bag of internet forum conversations (urgh) and essays, and mainly concerns the process of cultural labelling and whether or not it is a good idea. It explores the links between the New Weird and the Old Weird, but not very well. Where are the Robert Aickmans, the Leonora Carringtons, the William Sansoms? Only a lucky few of the old guard such Borges and David Lindsay are even mentioned. I was disappointed by this section but the 'European Editor Perspectives on the New Weird' were quite interesting (Romania loves it and treats it as a literary genre; the editor representing Germany stoutly and Teutonically claims it doesn't exist at all, which made me laugh!)

Could the round-robin save the collection? In a word, no. Despite the presence of the usually-brilliant Conrad Williams, the fancifully-titled 'Death In A Dirty Dhoti' (those whimsical stylings are really starting to hurt by now)fails to impress. It's atmospheric but ultimately goes nowhere, and the various authors spend so much time focussing on creating poetic imagery that Williams, who comes last, really struggles to bring the barely-existent plot to a satisfying conclusion. It does at least focus on another culture than the West - despite the New Weird's often-stated aim of incorporating non-Western preoccupations, the overwhelming majority of the stories in this collection are occidental in feel. At best, they are culturally neutral. It appears that the New Weird exhibits the same old racism we've come to expect from genre fiction.

Yes, I was disappointed by this book. I came to it in a bad mood, but trying to keep an open mind, and I finished it in a much worse mood! The whole thing has done something I thought impossible, and put me off the idea of the "New Weird". I say this as someone who loves M John Harrison and Conrad Williams, likes Robert Holdstock and China Mieville,and so on. It is shocking how quickly the New Weird seems to have codified, how predictable the fiction is. And along with the cultural imperialism there is also the New Sexism to contend with. It is remarkably like the Old Sexism - only a small minority of the fiction here is written by women, and apart from the Koja piece the New Weirdoes, so voluble on the topic of politics in general, are suspiciously silent when it comes to feminism and gender politics (I'd like to count Rennie's awkward effort, but I really can't.) And the failure to acknowledge major pioneers of the genre really bothered me.

Oh well. Maybe the Old Weird is a safer bet. I still want to read The Weird, which has an impressive line-up, but the Vandermeers rather dropped the ball on this one. Nice jacket art and paper though! I liked the clockwork beetle.


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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