Tip of the Quill: A Journal
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.

FROM HORRORISM TO TERRORISM: THE NEW WEIRD, THE NEW HORROR AND THE WAR ON TERROR

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 Tor.com, 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.