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2010: The Year We Make Up

This is one of my favorite times, the liminal space between one year and the next. For most people, this time for intense thinking and planmaking runs from Christmas through New Year's, but at MIT this period is extended through the beginning of February. (Yet another reason I love it so much here at MIT.) According to MIT tradition, January is what's known as the Independent Activities Period, or IAP – originally founded (according to legend) in the 1960s as a way for students to take off and protest the Vietnam War all at once, instead of disappearing for random weeks out of the year. IAP has since evolved into a sort of micro-semester crammed in between the autumn semester and the spring semester, a month set aside for students (and faculty and staff) to enroll in courses they might not otherwise have a chance to take, to go off and tackle an externship somewhere, or to simply recuperate from MIT's normal grueling demands. (Another local legend likens an MIT education to drinking from a fire hose, which is truer than might be comfortable. This is, not coincidentally, why my friend Eitan named his new startup Firehose Games.)

I love this time not just for its interstitial nature, but because of the time it affords for reflection and planning. Years ago I launched a personal initiative called the Personal Improvement Project, or PIP (no relation to Fallout 3's pip-boy 3000, although I'm half-expecting a real one of those to show up at CES this week). This is the time of year when I mourn all the stuff I didn't get done in the previous year, and plan furiously for ways to achieve more of those goals in the year ahead. 2009 was a wonderful year, a crazy year, productive in ways I hadn't planned for, but, alas, rather unproductive in the ways that I had. Read the classics? Not so much. Get out of debt? Yeah, no. Get back in shape? Hells naw. To a certain extent, that's the nature of the universe – life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, man plans and God laughs, yadda yadda yadda.

This year, though? This year things are going to be different.

What Happened?

First, why did things go so wobbly in 2009?

For starters, in 2009 I got married. In 2010, I'm not getting married. This should help. Don't get me wrong – I loved getting married, but I love being married much more. For starters, being married is much cheaper than getting married. Further (and, perhaps, better), it's much less stressful. These are two hallmarks of a good marriage – if being married is cheaper and less stressful than getting married, you're doing something right. (Note that this most likely ceases to apply once kids become involved.)

Second, in 2010 I was racing like mad to prepare for applying for Ph.D. programs at the end of the year. Again, not so much. I finally wound up postponing applying to Ph.D programs for another year, which was an intensely difficult decision to make (at this rate, I won't be Dr. Long until I'm in my 40s), but it was the right thing to do. Being a grad student is a wonderful state of existence, but it's not a very lucrative one, and stepping right into that after just investing a bunch of money in my wedding was going to be a nightmare. So, the whole doctorate project is going to have to be pushed back until the fall of 2011 or even 2012.

Third, I took on a lot in 2009. Not just the wedding (although that was big enough), but also a whole mess of travel (Singapore, Germany, Los Angeles, Brazil, Pittsburgh, Austria, Florida, San Francisco...!), joined the Executive Board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, took on a whole mess of projects at work (including writing my first video game) and am now in the middle of launching Playful Thinking, a new series of short game studies books published by the MIT Press which I'm co-editing with William Uricchio and Jesper Juul. Woof.

So, yes – all of this meant that life in 2009 was hectic as hell, and didn't leave a lot of time for reading, exercise, and not spending money on plane tickets. Fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it – but not at all a bad thing!

It's a new year now, though, and I'm reconsidering a number of the decisions I made in 2009. (Not the marriage. I'm keeping that one.) Primarily, this year I'm planning to buckle down and do a lot less traveling for conferences. I may do some more traveling for my consulting work (which is directly tied to the whole paying-off-debt thing) but for the most part I think this is the year I really need to write. On a larger scale, though, if you'll permit me to swipe and modify a line from Hollywood, it's starting to feel like 2010: The Year We Make Contact Up.

Need A Little Time To Make Up

The primary meanings of the phrase "make up" deal with either imagination or reparation, which is why this is such a timely phrase right now – and in some kind of weird micro-macro fractal reflection, this applies not just to me, but for all of us, particularly us Americans. For me it's going to be a year of writing (imagination) and paying down debts (reparation), but the whole world is going to have to use 2010 as a year of great imagination and reparation while we reimagine what the next wave of existence is going to be like, and as we pay off the disastrous debts we've incurred during the previous wave.

Right now, it feels like pretty much the whole damn planet is wondering the same things. What is the post-recessionary global economy going to be like? Is it reliant upon new energy sources and green-collar jobs? Is it a post-oil existence? Will America decline while other countries ascend? Will our new planetary society be more of a global village, will it be more hyperlocalized – or is it, in some weird anti-Venn diagram, simultaneously increasingly both? (Based on what I've been seeing during my travels, that gets my vote.)

Those of us in the media industries are worrying about slightly different things. How will the combination of recessionary economics and new technology change the media universe? (I've been thinking a lot lately about Borders' nosedive and the well-intentioned, if ill-executed, Barnes and Noble nook.) Further, in the 21st century, does 'digital' still have any great meaning? What happens when we push past that – what is 'post-digital', and what will post-digital media, entertainment and storytelling be like? One of the things that excites me about transmedia and comparative media studies is that they may be inherently post-digital; we no longer get so hung up on the explicit divide between the analog and the digital, but examine the unique advantages and affordances of each, which enables us to capitalize upon these features as they increasingly blend together – which sure seems to be the way we're going.

Profitability Sustainability Is King

One thing I wonder a lot about right now is whether the twenty-teens (damn, that sounds odd) will see a shift away from rampant profiteering and ridiculous, irresponsible spending and towards not just repaying our debts, but towards aiming for simpler, more sustainable levels of existence. One thing I've been wondering about for a long time is, simply, How much is enough? How does the cost of living in one part of the world compare to another? (I'm somewhat astonished to see that Boston isn't included in's map of the world's most expensive cities.) How much is a house really worth? How much is a thought really worth, or an experience, or one's reputation? How do we handle value in an experience economy, or a reputation economy? (For some insight into the latter, check out the Whuffie Bank, where you can find me at my usual handle.)

What is a model for sustaining a good, solid lifestyle with a decent amount of enjoyment, a relatively high standard of living, a sufficient amount of thought and reflection, a decent reputation, and so on?

It may be me thinking about these things because I'm in my early thirties now and am obsessing over things like families and houses and careers and so on, but it's clear that the 21st century models of success are not the same as the 20th century models. Do you have to have Gaimanesque levels of success as an artist to have a nice house and writing studio in the American midwest? Do you need to go all Hollywood and make ridiculous piles of cash to "make it"? Plus, what's an unsustainable business model for guys like me now? My model has always been to hit the trifecta of consulting-writing-academic, but given today's hyperaccelerated demands, is that still sustainable?

It's possible that the proper response (the "mind like water" response for you GTD-heads out there) to our current scenario is "less is more", or, to put it another way, "less is more sustainable." On my way into campus this morning, there was an episode of The Diane Rehm Show on WGBH where (I think) Allen Sinai, the chief global economist and president of Decision Economics, bluntly stated that we Americans have to get used to a lower standard of living. I think he may be right – as Trevor Butterworth and his 'slow word' manifesto, the 'slow food' movement, and scores of others seem to be indicating, we are on the brink of a society throwing up its hands and surrendering to the impossibility of the ever-increasing demands for more, more, more. The recession may be an overcorrection to the fiscal irresponsibilities of the last decade, but it may also be a chance for many of us to catch our breath and rethink what "enough" means to all of us. You don't need a McMansion to be successful, but you do need enough to live comfortably and, hopefully, put your kids through college. So what does that cost now? How do you get it? And how do you get it without going insane?

Making Up Is Hard To Do

Anyway, that's what I think 2010 (and maybe 2011 and even 2012) will be all about – more so than ever before, at both the micro and macro levels. How do we make up new answers to these questions, and how do we make up enough for our previous errors and indulgences to return to a more stable and sustainable footing? It's not going to be easy, but that's, again, the nature of the universe.

But life is good. And even if things get crazy, life gets better. Here's to a wonderful 2010 for each and every one of us. Onward and upward!


Free Public Lecture Tonight: Jeff Vandermeer on Transmedia
Jeff VanderMeer

In the Boston area tonight for Futures of Entertainment, or a C3-minded local who can't make it to the conference? This evening from 5-7, the novelist, anthologist and cross-media storyteller Jeff VanderMeer is giving a free, open-to-the-public talk as part of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Colloquium lecture series and the unofficial kickoff to Futures of Entertainment! The talk will last about 45 minutes, after which the anthologist, essayist, NPR commentator and CEO Kevin Smokler will lead the Q&A session.

Here’s the rundown:

Booklife: The Private and the Public in Transmedia Storytelling and Self-Promotion
Jeff VanderMeer with Kevin Smokler

Fictional experiments in emerging media like Twitter and Facebook are influencing traditional printed novels and stories in interesting ways, but another intriguing new narrative is also emerging: the rise of “artifacts” that, although they support a writer’s career, have their own intrinsic creative value. What are the benefits and dangers of a confusion between the private creativity and the public career elements of a writer’s life caused by new media and a proliferation of “open channels”? What protective measures must a writer take to preserve his or her “self” in this environment? In addition to the guerilla tactics implicit in storytelling through social media and other unconventional platforms, in what ways is a writer’s life now itself a story irrespective of intentional fictive storytelling? Examining these issues leads naturally to a discussion on the tension and cross-pollination between the private and public lives of writers in our transmedia age, including the strategies and tactics that best serve those who want to survive and flourish in this new environment. What are we losing in the emerging new paradigm, and what do we stand to gain?

A writer for the New York Times Book Review, Huffington Post, and Washington Post, Jeff VanderMeer is also the award-winning author of the metafictional City of Saints & Madmen, the noir fantasy Finch, and Booklife: Strategies & Survival Tips for 21st-Century Writers. His website can be found at

Kevin Smokler is the editor of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (Basic Books) which was a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of 2005. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Fast Company and on National Public Radio. He lives in San Francisco, blogs for the Huffington Post and at, and is the CEO of

Presented in conjunction with Futures of Entertainment 4.

The event is, again, free and open to the public – registration for Futures of Entertainment is not required. It begins at 5 PM, runs until 7, and is going down at room 4-231 (building 4, room 231) on the MIT campus. Parking on-campus is a little wonky, but there are multiple parking garages around; a better bet is likely to take public transportation. The Red Line in Boston comes straight to Kendall Square, which is right on the edge of the MIT campus. The lecture location is only a few minutes’ walk from there.


Jeff is currently on tour supporting his new book Booklife, which he describes as “a unique writing guide to sustainable careers and sustainable creativity, the first to fully integrate discussion of the role of new media into topics that have always been of interest to writers”. I just finished reading my copy this afternoon and I can personally testify that it’s full of a wide range of great stuff. Jeff splits the book into two distinct sections, one on the author’s Public Booklife (marketing, PR, social interactions and other public engagements) and Private Booklife (the actions, philosophies, emotions and other internal struggles of the actual act of writing) and both halves - plus the appendices - are packed with thoughtful insights and useful advice. For example, how do writers deal with envy - and what does Francis Bacon have to say about that? To steal a line from an old tomato sauce commercial, “It’s in there!”

5 o’clock PM tonight, Thursday, November 19th, in room 4-231 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - I’ll see you there!


The Wrong Essay: From Horrorism to Terrorism.

This weekend is Readercon, one of my favorite conferences in the world and, although this is only my second, one I've all but sworn never to miss. I love the people, the panels, the bookshop (especially the bookshop) and the level of conversation that happens here, wide-ranging debates that cover everything that has to do with fantasy, science fiction, horror and other genre-esque types of storytelling.

Yesterday I had the immense pleasure of getting to meet Peter Straub, who edited a collection of short fiction last year called Poe's Children: The New Horror. This text was one of the bases for a paper I wrote for the American Comparative Literature Association conference this spring at Harvard, which was accepted but, due to a travel and scheduling snafu, was never presented. As it turns out, I'm glad I didn't, because after talking to Straub yesterday it was revealed that the book's subtitle, "the new horror", was tacked on by the marketing department to move copies and wasn't an assertion of a new movement after all - which, as it turns out, appears to also have been the case with the term "the new wave fabulists", which was tacked on to Straub's edited issue of Conjunctions. Although the panel Straub was on spoke extensively about the prevalence of dread as a mechanic in horror, when I asked if they had seen an uptick in the amount of dread-centric horror after 9/11, the answer was a largely unanimous no – although there has appeared to be a rise in the amount of ghost stories where the ghosts don't realize they're dead, which can either be read as a type of mechanic for trying to parse surviving 9/11, a la 'survivor's guilt', or as the result of such cultural blockbusters as The Others or The Sixth Sense.

I asked Straub if he would be so kind as to allow me to interview him over e-mail, which he graciously agreed to do, so at some point in the future I'll publish the results of that conversation somewhere. Until then, though, I'd like to archive my original essay here in all of its wrongheaded glory. As you'll notice, this was written A.) when I thought that I was going to be presenting at the very end of the day on a Friday night, B.) as a more-or-less transcript of what I planned to say, and C.) while I was still attempting to chart out the differences between the New Weird, the New Horror, Slipstream and Interstitial. Since writing it, I've changed my mind about almost all of it.

Let me stress that again: this essay is almost completely and utterly wrong. Still, it's that very wrongness that makes me think that it may serve as a great place to spark some Readercon-esque conversations. So have at it! Shred it, disembowel it, go to town. Perhaps some insight might be gleaned from its autopsy. For my part, I'm about to shower up and go hear John Clute speak about the possible origins of the superhero in literature.

God, I love Readercon.


Geoffrey Long
2009 American Comparative Literature Association Conference
20-25 minute lecture

I. Introduction

Hello, everybody. Thank you for coming, and I'd also like to thank the ACLA in general and Juan Ramos from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in particular for including me in this discussion. I recognize that it's been a long and intellectually rigorous day, and that my talk is the last thing standing between you and either dinner or a growler of beer over at John Harvard's, so again - thank you.

The title of this talk is "From Horrorism to Terrorism: the New Weird, the New Horror and the War on Terror." A great deal of what follows is still largely preliminary and somewhat nebulous, so please - I heartily welcome any and all feedback, suggestions and counterarguments that can help me direct this Prolegomena on a Future Criticism into a stronger direction or future research.

Since the turn of the millennium, literature and culture have both taken a marked turn for the strange. Texts like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Magaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones> all take elements of the fantastic or the supernatural and weave them into what would be considered otherwise "mainstream" literature. Meanwhile, "genre" fiction is busily attacking the same borders from the other side, with authors such as China Miéville, Peter Straub, Jonathan Carroll, and Jeffrey VanderMeer taking pickaxes and shovels to these distinctions. What is going on here?

This paper will examine whether or not it is possible to read all of this genre-bending as due to a combination of, first, 9/11 and the War on Terror, second, a form of post-millennial confusion, and third, an increased degree of comfortability with decategorization in our culture, by way of considering four interrelated new splinter groups within the larger genres of fantasy, sci-fi and horror: the New Weird, the New Horror, Slipstream, and Interstitial.

II. Possible Causes

In his introduction to a recent edition of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, one of the defining texts of what I'll be referring to as the Old Weird, the author China Miéville, one of the defining authors of what I'll be referring to as the New Weird, notes that the rise of the Old Weird was tied largely to the rise of popularity in fantasy and the supernatural following World War I:

The fantastic has always borrowed enthusiastically from premodern folklore, fairy tales, and myth, of course. Fantasy as a genre is a modern literature, however, born primarily out of the Gothic, a kind of bad conscience of the burgeoning "intrumental rationality" of capitalist modernity. "The dream of reason," as José Monléon persuasively points out (quoting the title of Goya's famous picture), "brings forth monsters." In essence, for fantasy to be fantasy, to break down the barriers that were keeping the irrational at bay, society first had to construct those barriers and thoroughly embrace the supposedly "rational".

Yet at the beginning of the twentieth century, belief in the rational suffered a massive blow on the charnel fields of the First World War. Here were the rational, modern, capitalist powers, expressing their supposedly rational interests with an eruption of mechanized human butchery unprecedented in history. The scale of the psychic and cultural trauma of the First World War is vast - perhaps even "undescribable." The war smashed apart the complacencies of "rationality" and unconvered the irrationality that eclipsed any fantasist's nightmares. How, then, could the genre known as fantasy present anything that could compare with such horror? Certainly, its stock of werewolves and effete vampires were utterly inadequate to the task.

Fantasy responded nevertheless. At the low end of culture, in the pulp magazines (such as Weird Tales), weird fiction shared with surrealism a conception of modern, orderly, scientific rationality that was in fact saturated with the uncanny. (xiv-xv)

While not on the same scale as WWI or WWII, 9/11 was arguably the largest bout of such psychological trauma that America has suffered for a generation. Afterwards, "in the shadow of no towers," to steal a phrase from Art Spiegelman, America was left trying to rationalize what had just happened. Given we Americans' sudden struggle to reconcile this new reality with our opinions of ourselves and the rules that we had long taken for granted, such as the ideas that attacks do not take place on American soil, airplanes aren't weapons, and that for the most part we as a people aren't largely abhorred by the rest of the world, it's not surprising that our collective popular culture began to flail about for things to help us parse this sudden infusion of the impossible. Worse, while the Cold War was a war on Communism, at least Communism then had a clear, definable face with clear, definable borders of enemy countries. The War on Terror was much less well-defined and much more intimate - suddenly we were suspiciously eyeballing our neighbors and coworkers again, but the question now wasn't whether or not they were Reds, but whether or not they were terrorists - and we had no clear enemy to invade, attack and defeat. Going up against such a radically more nebulous idea as 'terror' was akin to declaring war on such an invisible, eternal and overpowering force as Lovecraft's Cthulu and the Old Ones. What fantasy and horror give us in general is some sense of catharsis through stories of people dealing with the impossible, and what Weird fiction provides is, again as Miéville describes, examples of dealing with such impossibilities with a sense of "modern, orderly, scientific rationality".

The second aspect of our contemporary culture that has likely set the stage for this postmillennial rise of the fantastic is, simply put, the inherent strangeness of entering into a 21st century that wholly failed to resemble the jetpacks-and-Jetsons future that we'd been sold in 1950s sci-fi. Although our current technology and global culture is changing more quickly than most of us can comfortably stay on top of, we're still a far cry from the utopian worlds posited by the World of Tomorrows found in Disneyland and the World's Fair. It's no accident that so many of our recent popular texts, such as McCarthy's The Road, have had a markedly dystopian flavor, and Barack Obama's recent campaign, if not his election, represents the desperate thirst that the American populace has for hope.

Still, the progress that we are making is reflected in the third component of this setup, a rampant rush towards decategorization. While I'm not arguing that this is anything truly new - in fact, the 'truly new' is frequently achieved by the reconfiguration of existing components into new combinations - our modern day and age is one of increasing comfortability with blurred boundaries and hybridities. Part of this is likely due to the marked push towards multiculturalism and race- and gender-equality of the last forty to fifty years, but another part is likely to be the rise of the Internet and the rise of mass global popular culture.

Genres exist in part as a function of taxonomies, enabling academics, booksellers and readers to sort works into rough categories for shelving and examination, but what the Internet enables is a much looser, messier form of sorting - due to limited space, in a library or a bookstore, a book may traditionally be shelved in one place and, thus, under one category, but a system like Amazon is freed of such spatial constraints, and thus enables books to be sorted among a much broader (and arguably much more organic) set of lines. In a rigid system, works like those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, or Italo Calvino might only be found in literature, but in a system like Amazon, such works might be more organically clustered with more traditional 'genre' works with whom they are engaged in this intercultural exchange - which is arguably the other primary reason for such genres to exist. Rather than simply sorting them under the more general banner of 'literature' in a physical library or bookstore, online works can be frequently discovered due to the form of conversation in which they are engaged. Traditionally, it took some degree of research to discover the links between the aformentioned Marquez, Rushdie and Calvino, but a young person just setting out to discover their tastes in literature in this day and age can discover such intercultural and intergenerational dialogues incredibly quickly and easily due to algorithmic recommendation systems such as those developed by Amazon and Google, or simply via the vast myriad of personal recommendations and links created and posted by an ever-increasing number of people online. Better yet, this very participatory culture enables individuals to not only seek out the most esoteric of conversations, as evidenced by the rise of such things as slash fiction or Twitter fiction, but enables them to engage in those conversations themselves almost instantly.

So, given these three things, in the abstract it is possible to see how 9/11, this post-millennial confusion and the rise of decategorization may have subconsciously set the stage for the revival of the Weird and the fantastic in the popular taste, and how the culture was ripe and ready to be sold stories of our current real world made strange. Unfortunately, the manifestation of these very same factors also make proving this hypothesis almost impossible - and, in fact, this very tendency towards decategorization makes examining the new fantastic problematic.

The second part of this paper will examine the new schools of the fantastic that are currently flourishing and engaging in this very conversation. Taking samplings of different parts of the culture has the same affect as medically sampling parts of a body - if, say, an excessive amount of thyroxine is found in the blood, then the thyroid gland has some explaining to do. Examining such an overactive thyroid gland may then in turn reveal the root cause of the hyperthyroidism, which may be an environmental cause. Similarly, examining popular culture right now shows an excessive amount of fantastic and horrific elements - so if we turn away from the fantastic-tinged mainstream literature and examine what's happening right now in the genres of fantasy and horror, we may get some inkling as to what's driving the larger cultural shift. When we biopsy these genres, what we find is four roughly similar movements engaging in a huge amount of experimentation and engaging in a philosophical conversation that proves extremely telling. These four groups are The New Horror, the New Weird, Slipstream, and Interstitial. Due to space and time contraints, I'll only delve deeply into the New Horror and the New Weird, but I'll touch lightly upon both Slipstream and Interstitial as areas that should be known about in this conversation and that should prove fruitful in future research.

III. The New Weird, The New Horror, Slipstream and Interstitial

III.I. The New Horror

On Halloween 2008, the fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton posted an entry called "Halloween Special: Why I hate horror" to, in which she declared: "...What horror readers want is blood, right away, rivers of it, and scary stuff too, immediately, even before you care about the characters." The resulting flame war was inevitable: in the comments to her post, the novelist and essayist Nick Mamatas dryly retorted, "Ah, now I know! I also look forward to future posts in which I am told what I like in a meal, and in a sexual partner." What Walton was describing might be deemed the Old Horror, which certainly still has its place (as evidenced by the seemingly incessant SAW series of "torture porn" films), but, as Mamatas points out, it's certainly not the whole story. In fact, said Old Horror may be, if not giving way to then at least making some room for, what the horror novelist Peter Straub dubs "The New Horror" in his 2008 anthology Poe's Children.

Straub may be an excellent anthologist and novelist, but he's not much for making clear declarations. As with his 2002 guest-edited issue of Bard College's literary magazine Conjunctions, subtitled "The New Wave Fabulists", Straub sets out a few broad brushstrokes in his introduction and then lets the work speak for itself - which was primarily made up of works that treated genre subjects with a more literary approach, a la the original New Wave movement in sci-fi and fantasy from the 1960s and 1970s. In his foreword to Poe's Children, Straub follows up on Conjunctions by sharing more fantastic/horrific work of a more literary bent, describing a new current horror Renaissance led by authors such as Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman, who Straub argues have more in common with John Crowley and Jonathan Carroll than with the authors who made up the previous horror boom in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, Link's story "Louise's Ghost" centers around two adult women both named Louise who are dealing with the eccentricities of the modern world - the first Louise is dealing with a child who wears only green clothing, eats only green food, and endlessly tells tales of her previous life as a dog. The second Louise is dealing with the ghost of a large naked man who keeps appering in her apartment, but the story is less scary than it is poignant - Link is using the supernatural tropes of fantasy and horror to tell an intimate, if odd and definitely stylized, story about what it's like to be a woman in her twenties and thirties.

What separates these generations is not only an increase in the value placed upon character development over gore (spirit over splatter, if you will), but may also be a shift away from horror and towards terror, as the terms are described in the critic John Clute's 2005 short lexicon of horror, THE DARKENING GARDEN. According to Clute, terror is the revelation that the characters' normal, reliable world does not always adhere to the normal, reliable rules and actually has more wondrous and threatening creatures, places and things in it than one had imagined; horror, on the other hand, is when those threatening new elements actually make good on their threats and rend the characters limb from limb. Under these criteria, terror stories are more psychological and horror is more visceral. The authors in Straub's New Horror trip lightly along the fine line between genre and literary, thrilling the parts of the brain that quail at the concept of the unimaginable, that are disconcerted by the revelation that everything is not as it seems, that are spooked by the fear of losing their assumptions and sanities more than losing any mere life or limb.

In his 1981 textbook on the subject, Danse Macabre, Stephen King breaks down the mechanics of the genre into three tiers of effect: the lowest level is revulsion, the kind of nasty reaction triggered by the chest-burster in Ridley Scott's ALIEN movies or the very basest of human knee-jerk reactions - I mean spiders, snakes, cockroaches, and slimy things. Above that is horror, which, as King puts it, "invites a physical reaction by showing us something physically wrong". This is the kind of nasty that shows us the decapitated corpse, the zombie lover with the pretty bits falling off, that sort of thing. Above both of these, though, is terror - and terror trades on what the poet John Keats famously dubbed 'negative capability', or the capacity of the human imagination to fill in the pieces that are suggested in a text but not explicitly stated. Edgar Allen Poe was a master of terror, as evidenced in his short story "The Monkey's Paw", which King calls up as the ideal case study in terror:

"We actually see nothing ouright nasty... the paw, dried and mummified, can surely be no worse than those plastic dogturds on sale at any novelty shop. It's what the mind sees that makes these stories such quintessential tales of terror. It is the unpleasant speculation called to mind when the knocking on the door begins [and] the grief-stricken old woman rushes to answer it. Nothing is there but the wind when she finally throws the door open... But what, the mind wonders, might have been there if her husband had been a little slower on the draw with that third wish?" (King 34)

It doesn't take much of a leap to connect the rise of this psychological type of terror story to the popular mindset and psychology of America (and indeed the world) after 9/11. Terrorist warfare relies on the same basic mental mechanics as terror stories - both rip away our basic assumptions of safety and rely on the capacity of the human imagination to do the rest; arguably, both are the most effective when the actual horror (the bombs, the dismemberment) never comes, leaving us instead in a perpetual state of apprehension. This may be why the 2000s have seen not only the rise of Straub's New Horror but also the rise of the New Weird, as described by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer in their co-edited 2007 anthology of the same name.

III.II The New Weird

Like the New Horror, the storytellers working under the banner of the New Weird are categorized largely by their attempts to break out of the clichéd molds of genre, but even that broad statement may be too restrictive. If anyone knows New Weird, it should be the VanderMeers - not only is Jeff himself a practitioner, but Ann is the fiction editor for Weird Tales magazine - and their anthology lives up to its promise. It contains examples of the New Weird from such practicioners as Jay Lake, Jeffrey Ford and China Miéville, academic reflections on the subject from Michael Cisco and Darja Malcolm-Clarke, and an extensive excerpt from the 2003 message board discussion between M. John Harrison, Steph Swainston and others that the VanderMeers herald as one of the definitive moments of the term (although the very first line of the book's foreword admits that the term dates back a lot earlier). Still, the book is something of a lovely paradox - many of these components offer explicitly contradictory points of view, which enables the VanderMeers to demonstrate just how messy a term 'The New Weird' happens to be. Unlike Straub, Jeff VanderMeer gamely suggests the following working definition:

New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral, in-the-monent quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style and effects - in combination with the stimulus of influence from New Wave writers or their proxies (including also such forebears as Mervyn Peake and French/English Decadents). New Weird fictions are acutely aware of the modern world, even if in disguise, but not always overtly political. As part of this awareness of the modern world, New Weird relies for its visionary power on "a surrender to the weird" that isn't, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica. The "surrender" (or "belief") of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text.

This definition may indeed be too constrictive, given the debate that rages on only a few pages later (as Cisco jokes, "nothing could be more unenlightening or useless than a New Weird manifesto" (335)), but it allows us to see why China Miéville is so freqently considered the primary banner-carrier for this particular school of thought, despite his own efforts to distance himself from the term in later years. Miéville's books Perdido Street Station and The Scar are often held up as examples of the New Weird, both of which adhere to VanderMeer's "secondary-world" criteria, but Miéville's King Rat and even Un Lun Dun (which is ostensibly a YA book) also feel like New Weird, although they are set in our known universe. Instead of transporting the protagonist, a la C.S. Lewis, or explore a world wholly apart, a la J.R.R. Tolkien, Miéville's King Rat and Un Lun Dun start in our modern world and then reveal that the world around us is not what it seems - again, terror as opposed to horror in Clute and King's terminologies. This is why I take some issue with VanderMeer's insistence on the secondary world component of his definition - even in his own anthology, the works cited as influences frequently center upon our world made strange, but works cited as examples are almost all of a more sci-fi nature. This is clearly an area for future research.

Still, such a "true weird world revealed" characteristic isn't sufficient to qualify as New Weird - it's hard to think of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter as New Weird, and while Stephanie Myer's Twilight series may be the biggest-selling quasi-horror thing going right now, I suspect that has less to do with the newly-revealed cosmic terror of the unknown universe and more to do with being a young woman dealing with the newly-revealed cosmic terror of boys. The simplest explanation there may be that the primary flavors of those series are fantasy and romance as opposed to horror, but at a more complicated level, neither Rowling nor Meyer instill their readers with the deeply unsettling feeling that is frequently at play in New Weird works; even if VanderMeer doesn't explicitly state as much in this definition, elsewhere in the introduction he notes that "'Weird' refers to the sometimes supernatural or fantastical element of unease".

Interestingly, although Straub attempts to describe his New Horror in constrast to the splatterfests of the 1970s and 1980s, VanderMeer draws more of a straight line from horror to the New Weird, and argues that Old Weird actually serves as the ancestor to, well, Old Horror. VanderMeer argues that the lineage of New Weird goes something like this: Old Weird evolved into Old Horror, and the New Wave of the 1960s, cross-bred with the visceral, sticky 1980s horror of authors like Clive Barker, zapped New Weird into life. "In a sense," VanderMeer writes, "the simultaneous understanding of and rejection of Old Weird, hardwired to the stimuli of the New Wave and New Horror, gave many of the writers identified as New Weird the signs and symbols needed to both forge ahead into the unknown and create their own unique re-combinations of familiar elements." So, although his use of cosmic terror as opposed to visceral horror might be what set Lovecraft apart as the patron saint of Old Weird, New Weird may have no such qualms about the squelchy stuff - which, ironically, is the very component that Straub's New Horror plays down. So it's possible that VanderMeer's New Weird is actually the New Horror, and Straub's New Horror is actually the New Weird - that is, insofar as any of them agree on what is and is not New Weird, as it's difficult to note precisely what components of the Old Weird VanderMeer is saying that the New Weird rejects. If this headache-inducing carousel ride suggests anything, it's that both the New Weird and the New Horror seem to have emerged as a rediscovery of Lovecraft's Old Weird.

III.III Sipstream and Interstitial

Further complicating matters are the additional riders on this Merry-Go-Round: Slipstream and Interstitial. Slipstream, as defined by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel in their co-edited 2006 anthology Feeling Very Strange: the Slipstream Anthology, is defined as less of a genre and more of "a psychological and literary effect that cuts across genre, in the same way that the effect of horror manifests in many different kinds of writing. Where horror is the literature of fear, slipstream is the literature of cognitive dissonance and of strangeness triumphant" (xi).

Interstitial fiction, on the other hand, is described by Heinz Insu Fenkl in his introduction to the 2007 Interfictions: an Anthology of Interstitial Fiction as, by turns, falling "between categories" (iii), "not implicitly transitory" (iv), "[maintaining] a consciousness of the boundaries they hve crossed or disengaged with" (iv), "self-negating" (v) and transformative for the reader (vi). By deliberately and consciously situating itself in the interstices of existing genres, Interstitial art (for it embraces, if not pursues, cross-breeding with music, verse, and visuals) is inherently both experimental and unclassifiable, eternally emerging and forever outside, known only by being recognizable for what it isn't, and by its distinctively odd impact upon its audience. Which, of course, sounds an awful lot like both Slipstream and the New Weird - a fact that the VanderMeers attempt to address in the foreword to their anthology by simply sniffing that while the New Weird can lay claim to its ancestry in the Old Weird (never mind how much it seems to reject it), both slipstream and interstitial have "no distinct lineage" (ix). Further:

"First, while Slipstream and Interstitial fiction often claim New Wave influence, they rarely if ever cite a Horror influence, with its particular emphasis on the intense use of grotesquery focused around transformation, decay, or mutilation of the human body. Second, postmoden techniques that undermine the surface reality of the text (or point out its artificiality) are not part of the New Weird aesthetic, but they are part of the Slipstream and Interstitial toolbox" (xvii).

Unfortunately this isn't entirely the case - while it's true that Slipstream, like Straub's New Horror, doesn't draw upon the squishier aspects of horror, two of the stories in Feeling Very Strange do indeed draw upon horror tropes: as Kelley and Kessel describe in their intro, [Michael Chabon's] 'The God of Dark Laughter' reinvents Lovecraft, and [Kelly Link's] 'The Specialist's Hat' the ghost story". Which illustrates another point - each of these four genres tends to share a number of authors. Kelly Link appears in both the New Horror and Slipstream anthologies, is cited in the New Weird anthology as frequently considered a part of the New Weird camp, and is the recipient of the dedication of the Interstitial anthology; Jeffrey Ford has pieces in both the Slipstream and the New Weird anthologies; M. Rickert also has pieces in both the Slipstream and the New Horror anthologies; and Jeff VanderMeer himself appears in the Slipstream anthology as well as his own collection of the New Weird.

IV. Conclusions, of a Sort

Although each of these four groups go to great lengths to attempt to define themselves in contrast to the others, the simple truth seems to be that they're akin to siblings bickering over a parent's will - insofar as each of the four groups is exploring a more literary approach to traditionally genre subjects, and doing so through a mixture of revitalized traditions and new experimentation, all four have more in common than they would apparently care to admit. The only thing that all four volumes seem to agree on is that something new and exciting is going on within this space - but the question still remains: why is this happening now? And are these observances of common threads and burgeoning popularity in any way supportive of the hypothesis that all of this is due to, as I discussed in the first half of this paper, the combination of 9/11, a post-millennial unease, and an increasing comfortability with decategorization and hybridity?

In some ways yes, and in some ways no - again, the inherently mercurial and unclassifiable nature of these genres, anthologies and individual works means that getting them all to line up and support any common theme is a fool's errand. The New Weird in particular seems to buck and struggle against such a straightforward theory. VanderMeer's perhaps erroneous assertion that the New Weird must consist of stories set in an alternate universe seems to tilt more towards sci-fi and away from the cosmic nature that made Lovecraft's Old Weird stories so definitive. Rather than positing that our simple, safe world is a lie by making the real fantastic, a la Lovecraft's Old Ones of the Old Weird, the New Weird instead makes the fantastic more real. While this supports the possible culprits of postmillennial confusion and an increased comfortability with hybridity, it doesn't lend a lot of support to the idea of a shift from horrorism to terrorism. The New Horror does a better job of fulfilling all three criteria.

These are clearly areas for future research, drilling deeper into both the past of the Weird Tale (to test VanderMeer's assertions of lineage) and continuing to examine these four related testing grounds for genre-literary experimentation. It certainly remains intriguing how the fantastic is continuing to grapple with the realistic, and how the realistic is grappling with the fantastic. Even now, as we're trying to sort through our current economic disaster and straining desperately to believe in President Obama's promise of hope, even the language we use to describe our current situation is telling. Instead of another Great Depression, economists are referring to this as a "Great Correction", which is reflective of the terrifying realization that our world, again as Clute describes, "does not always adhere to the normal, reliable rules and actually has more wondrous and threatening creatures, places and things in it than one had imagined". When confronted with that realization, the human reponses are fear, wonder and hope - all three of which are currently to be found by turns in abundance in art and popular culture.

I suspect that we may already be seeing some of these elements fade as we grow increasingly comfortable with our positions in the new century, and as the War on Terror becomes the New Normal. We may already be seeing further movement away from the cosmic and a retreat towards the human-centric, as evidenced by the changed ending in Zak Snyder's 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore's 1986 graphic novel Watchmen: apologies for the spoilers, but in the original story a villain-hero deposited a bioengineered "alien" monstrosity in downtown New York City, simultaneously killing half the city's citizens and ceasing all other wars on Earth by uniting all of humnity against this fabricated common enemy. In the comic, the "alien" bore more than a passing resemblance to an enormous squid, which felt an awful lot like one of Lovecraft's Old Ones; in Snyder's film version, however, the alien is gone and the attack is pinned on a relatively more humanoid superhero. The suggestion here is that the director felt the audience wouldn't buy something so decidedly unreal, cosmic, and completely Other as an Old One, so perhaps the impact of 9/11 is wearing off, and the unthinkable is once again becoming comfortably unthinkable. Still, I suspect that our comfort with hybridity and nonconformity will remain, if not flourish - if current trends continue, our cultures will only continue to grow increasingly interwoven and interconnected, and our emerging global participatory culture will facilitate the further growth of these conversations, cross-pollinations and experimentations.

As it is a Friday night, it feels only fitting that I should leave you with a song with your heads, as both an early start on the evening's festivities and as a way to sum up what I've been talking about here. Although it was written for a different war and a different era of confusion and change, the lyrics still seem oddly appropriate given how the New Weird, the New Horror and pretty much everybody else all seem to be still trying to parse the shock of 9/11 and a new millennium that hasn't quite lived up to its promise. To paraphrase Buffalo Springfield, "There's something happening in here, what it is ain't exactly clear. I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down."

Thanks again for coming, and good night.


Days of Poetry and Punk Rock.

I have not been blogging lately. My previous post moaned about not having blogged for a month, and now this post arrives a week later. I've been reading a lot of stuff that I want to get out of my inbox (and my browser windows) and share some thoughts about, and I basically need to make more pots. More on that oddball phrase in a minute, but first up on my to-share list, courtesy of MediaBistro's GalleyCat, is the following interview with poet Eileen Myles, reflecting on the heyday of poetry and punk rock in New York in the 1970s...

That's something I miss - the sense of poetry as dangerous, vibrant, alive, cutting-edge and some basically serious shit. As Myles notes, it made a comeback for a while in the 90s, but I think we've lost it again. I think there's some technical things we could do to seriously shake that up a bit, but that's going to take some more thought.


30|09:18 Ksenia

Welcome back, old friend
Academic, translated
Tell Harry pривет

30|09:17 Noir

The blonde in black leans against the iron railing,
Exhales long and slow, whispering smoke,
A promise formed in the plume,
Tells our man what he needs to know,
What he doesn't want to hear,
And he disappears into the fog
The sound of his departure cleverly masked
By the thunder of the 9:45 Express rumbling through.
The world is blacks and grays with bits of red for emphasis,
Punctuating flowers and lives and femmes fatales,
The drumbeat set by the cocking of revolvers,
A saxophone somewhere, a clarinet in reply.
The timeworn detective shakes his head and grits his teeth,
The corpulent crime boss leans back in his chair and brays laughter,
Two thugs loom up out of the darkness like battleships or tanks,
And the women - oh, the women - lay in the heat and pout.
The ice clatters in the glasses like dice on a table,
The whiskey pours in after like a flood bearing down,
The smoke is either from cigarettes or the early morning fog,
And the screams are sirens or sirens.
What does the city want, demands the mayor -
The city wants its own back tonight, the city wants revenge,
The city wants to be heard, to be seen, to be felt,
The city wants nothing but to be standing tomorrow.

30|09:16 Salem

Air is crisp, sky is gray,
Cups of cocoa as handwarmers,
Friends in tow, leaves are fireworks,
The tall ship in harbor welcoming us to town,
Pumpkin ale at dinnertime, jelly pumpkins for dessert,
The witch is lit up in green neon and the game is on,
The bookstore sells games and movies and awesome,
A wooden book, a store of a million paperbacks,
Don Quixote watches over us as we plan our assault,
Museums and mansions and tours and terrors,
A dozen candy ghosts on sticks haunt us,
Marionettes and masks in shops by the water,
Children in costume run by screaming laughter.

30|09:15 The Next Big Little Thing

Gender is done, racism is done,
Sex and bodily fluids and carnage and the inside out is done,
What is next in art? What is left?
Let us turn inwards, perhaps,
What would it be like if urban sculptors and animators and designers
Moved on to the next bit of the cycle,
Checked the grotesque and shocking off their to-do lists
And turned their playful gaze
To the issues of the renaissance,
After all, isn't that what we need now,
A renaissance or re-enlightenment,
To see us through the great recession?
What would Leonardo Da Vinci have created in Flash?
What would Michelangelo have sculpted in vinyl?
What is the shape of happiness when semen and stains aren't involved?
Skateboards are done, the city is done,
Let us turn for the Next Big Thing to the wilds and the villages,
Let us recognize the beauty in the local hyperlocal,
Let us know what art is being made in a tiny town a hundred miles outside Vienna,
Let us see what is being made a hundred miles from anywhere,
What is being filmed, what is being written,
What is life when the headlines are gone, when the clichés are gone,
What is life beyond the chemical and the Hollywood, the Bollywood,
What is the story of the marriage that isn't driven apart,
What is the good life still good,
What is the love and peace and quietude that isn't small-town racism,
What is the wisdom of the corner store, the bodega, the spa,
These lives that aren't constant clichéd struggle but are in fact still wondrous things,
Life in cars with fast food hamburgers and iPods and conversations,
Late night joes told over hot chocolate at Denny's,
Band practice in the basement or out in the garage,
Dreaming not of fame and fortune but of being right here,
Of being in the music, the story, the art,
Of doing what they're doing and having that be amazing,
Have it be enough, how much is enough,
Is that the glory? Is that the Next Big Little Thing?

30|09:14 Puppetry

Just down the street from the Staatsbibliothek
A group of street performers in black jumpsuits and white facemasks
Are using a full-body puppet made of yellow and orange styrofoam
To deliver a form of exquisite harassment upon a poor tourist
Just trying to determine what exactly it is
That sets a Starbucks in Berlin apart from one in Denver.
The puppet bobs and weaves, waves and thrusts its hips,
Beholden to a strange determinism at the end of long spindly poles
Wielded by the merry pranksters, their identities concealed
And thus rendered safe to act out their frustration
With this invasion of foreign currency, of foreign coffee,
Americans go home, they seem to be thinking,
While the puppet itself thinks I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's not me.

30|09:13 Henry

Suspenders, stripes, beard,
Convergence or spreadable,
Miss you when you're gone.