Cartographic Destabilisation in the Weird

Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.

-Guy Debord masquerading as Karl Marx: ‘Theory of the Dérive’ in Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)

 

Cartographic destabilization creates the sense of weirdness by projecting symbols and metaphors that signify dislocation and disorientation within the literature. Language is the map in which we follow literature by and if we cannot form our own stable cognitive map in our reading of said language, our sense of place becomes disturbed and uncanny.

-William J. Hugel ‘Developing Weirdness Through Cartographic Destabilization in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

William J. Hugel has an extremely interesting essay on Student PulseLINK, in which he looks at the use of landscape as a tool to disorient the reader of weird fiction. This sense of disorientation, the destabilisation of the reader’s sense of place, is something that I have elsewhere referred to as discombobulation -an unsettling of the reader’s relationship with reality as mediated by the text, whereby the author is able to site a story within a world that is seemingly mundane yet with the map that is the text being an unreliable narrator in and of itself. As though Borge’s map had been laid out perfectly and rotated a mere one or two degrees so that as soon as one has taken a step or two the map, that with which we are most familiar, begins to deviate wildly from the territory in which we find ourselves. Which is an unsettling experience for creatures such as ourselves who use, and are so reliant upon, representation for our interpretation and communication of reality.

This defamiliarisation which occurs in some works of weird fiction seems to me to serve as an literary manifestation of the Lettrist/Situationist concept of ‘Psychogeography’ and especially the psychogeographical technique of the dérive. Psychogeography is the study of the psychological effects of the environment, built or otherwise, on the humans that exist within a given geography. The dérive is a method of geographical exploration that, through the participation in the random or semi-random dérive -or ‘drift’- through the landscape, seeks to allow the psychogeographer to experience their environment in a radically different and newly authentic manner and in doing so come to understand it and to interact with it in ways outside those proscribed by those who control and structure our environment.

In a similar manner certain works of weird fiction serve to act as a dérive through the familiar world of literature and allow the reader to engage in a radically new way with the medium.

Votu is reached by crossing a high steppe plateau of long green grass. Like a glacier, the city flows from an inaccessible source high in the mountains, and extends down onto the plain. A boundary separates the piedmont zone from the upper city, and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, nobody lives above the boundary. Looking up, the people of Votu watch as the future city arrives, having already existed from time immemorial and thus being older than the city they’ve come to know, sliding inexorably down the slope and piling up on top of them. People move into new buildings and adapt to the new streets as they cross the boundary into the habitable zone, while the older structures opposite are driven down and crushed together, collapsing to form a sort of rubbery scrim at the city’s lowest extremity. The compacted past city forms a dense integument, not unlike a callous, that makes the erection of an outer wall unnecessary along that side.

-Michael Cisco, Celebrant

In the passage above Michael Cisco introduces us to the imaginary, in the story, city of Votu which the protagonist, deKlend, learns of upon reading a geographical encyclopedia of invented countries and for which he endeavors to search. In Votu, where time runs backwards, we see an inversion in the development process of the city as the older parts of the city push aside and destroy the newer parts in which the inhabitants live. The slow, glacial, destruction of the older parts of the city is familiar to us but the inversion of the process forces the reader to consider the ways in which people have to adapt to the changes forced upon their environment by the seemingly unstoppable forces of capitalist development. In this the city of Votu is recognisable to the reader but it is also dislocated from mundane reality -a defining feature of The Weird as defined by Laird Barron in his introduction to 2014’s The Year’s Best Weird Fiction- and so the reader must engage with it from an unfamiliar -a discomfited- position.

This use of a radicalised and offset spatiality is one of the more powerful affects utilised by writers of weird fiction in their attempt to elicit unease in the reader and to open up the reader to a new literary experience in the mode of the weird. It allows the writer to present a new yet familiar world and, in doing so, gifts the reader a whole new territory to explore which perhaps allows access to a more authentically human experience than other literary forms.

Debord's map of Paris
Debord’s map of Paris

Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One

Last year saw two major publishing events in the field of Weird Fiction. The first, and the one that garnered the most mainstream column inches, was the publication of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy –Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, which saw The Weird being thrust into the mainstream as it never has before. The second major event was the publishing of Michael Kelly and Laird Barron’s ‘The Year’s Best Weird Fiction’. This is the first, to my knowledge, explicitly Weird Fiction anthology* to be released since the Vandermeer’s tome ‘The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories’ was released in 2011 (following on from their 2008 anthology ‘The New Weird’). The reason that this release is so important is that it pushes the literary experimentation with the weird to the forefront without focussing on the work of any particular author. We have seen a glut of anthologies of work based on the Cthulhu mythos over the last 10 years or so, with their number increasing seemingly exponentially as time goes on, and anthologies based on the work of weird writers R.W. Chambers, Arthur Machen, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barorn, and a forthcoming collection based on the work of Robert Aickman. All of which is utterly fantastic but can not expose the reader to the wild experimental creativity that defines(?) the weird. This anthology does just that and it does it brilliantly. Another reason that this publication is so important is that a book that contains a wide variety of works, some of which are at the very edges of the weird, has sold enough copies within but a few short months of release that volume two has already been put together. Viva la weird!

*There is of course the wonderful ‘Women Writing the Weird’ anthology from Deb Hoag, also released in 2011, but that -as the name implies, only featured female authors and therefore couldn’t represent all of the best weird writing of that year.

Of particular note in this collection are Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us? by Damien Angelica Walters, and The Girl in the Blue Coat by Anna Taborska.

‘The Year’s Best Weird Fiction’ is published by Undertow Press in paperback and for e-readers things like that there Kindle device.

Table of Contents(Titles link to reviews)

The Nineteenth Step – Simon Strantzas

Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks -Paul Tremblay

Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron – A.C. Wise

Year of the Rat – Chen Qiufan

Olimpia’s Ghost – Sofia Samatar

Furnace -Livia Llewellyn

Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us? Damien Angelica Walters

Bor Urus – John Langan

A Quest of Dream – W.H. Pugmire

The Krakatoan – Maria Dahvana Headley

The Girl in the Blue Coat – Anna Taborska

(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror – Joseph S. Pulver Sr.

In Limbo – Jeffrey Thomas

A Cavern of Redbrick – Richard Gavin

Eyes Exchange Bank – Scott Nicolay

Fox into Lady – Anne-Sylvie Salzman

Like Feather, Like Bone – Kristi DeMeester

A Terror – Jeffrey Ford

Success – Michael Blumlein

Moonstruck – Karin Tidbeck

The Key to Your Heart Is Made of Brass – John R. Fultz

No Breather in the World But Thee – Jeff Vandermeer

The Nineteenth Step by Simon Strantzas

The opening salvo in this volume comes from Canada’s Simon Strantzas. It is a fitting opener for this volume as it exemplifies perfectly, and succinctly what is, to me, one of the defining thrusts of Weird Fiction -that our understanding of the world in which we live is limited and fragile. A young couple, Mallory and Alex, just setting foot on the bottom rung of the housing ladder, have their perception of The Real splintered by something so simple that it probably would have remained unnoticed by most. By the lucky ones.
The final line of this story also makes want to both slug Mr Strantzas and buy him a pint at the same time. Well played sir, well played.

Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks by Paul Tremblay

Next we have Paul Tremblay’s look at drug addiction and self perpetuating cycles of abuse through the lens of meth addiction, motherhood and kaiju.  Following the nameless protagonist, who is also the titular Swim, as she endures the pressures of being a small town pariah and drug addict and the longing to be with the daughter denied her by the courts and circumstance.

This is very much a stream of consciousness/modernist story that draws the reader directly into the confused mind of Swim.

Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron – A.C. Wise

A bizarro tale of a squadron of interplanetary trans action heroes sent to chew gum, smash gender norms, and high kick trans-fetishism in the teeth. All whilst looking utterly fabulous.

Not really sure what more there is to say about this other than it actually had me laughing out loud at points. Completely unsubtle metaphors are used, abused, and then glammed up. This is a fabulous feminist tale that would horrify TERFS and MRAs in equal measure.

Brilliant. 🙂

Year of the Rat by Chen Qiufan

 

Translated by Ken Liu this military SF story has more than a passing similarity to Catch 22 in its examination of the futility and absurdity of military organisation. It also has some rather scathing things to say about the relationship of the average proletarian to global capital.

I’m definitely going to be looking out for more of Chen’s work.

Olimpia’s Ghost – Sofia Samatar

An masterfully crafted faux 19th Century homage to E.T.A. Hoffman told through a series of letters from a young woman sent to a young man with whom she was once infatuated. It speaks of the madness of art, of poetry, and the arrogance and proprietariness of the ‘man of science’ who eschews the lustiness of youth and of life for a pursuit that he will one day regret.

Furnace – Livia Llewellyn

This is one of the stories I was really looking forward to as I absolutely adore Llewellyn’s sensual prose and I’m a huge fan of Thomas Ligotti and as this tale comes from Joe Pulver’s Ligotti tribute anthology -The Grimscribe’s Puppets, I was highly anticipating something magical. I wasn’t disappointed. This tale of the strange degradation of a small town as rot and decay sets in captures Ligotti’s corporate horror period work perfectly yet still retains Llewellyn’s voice. Anyone living in a town facing the ravages of austerity capitalism will find this story set unsettlingly close to home.

Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us? – Damien Angelica Walters

“Inside each grief is a lonely ghost of silence, and inside each silence are the words we didn’t say.” The opening lines of this piece of experimental prose perfectly encapsulate the sense of loss and longing that permeates this short tale. Walters’ story is disjointed and disorienting and disturbing. Fabulous.

Bor Urus – John Langan


John Langan’s stories are always a slow burn and Bor Urus is no exception. In this story youthful fancy develops into startling obsession and realisation which fuel a potentially devastating mid-life crisis in the narrator. As ever with Langan’s work this is a superbly crafted weird tale and that’s no bullshit.

A Quest of Dream by W.H. Pugmire

Wilum H Pugmire is very much the person who carries the Lovecraftian torch into the 21st Century and one of his other stories, Inhabitants of Wraithwood, is one of my all time favourite weird fiction stories. This story is set in Wilum’s Sesqua Valley and, indeed, was first published in his Bohemians of Sesqua Valley collection. Unfortunately I’ve not read any of Wilum’s Sesqua stories and so I was rather unfamiliar with the setting. Still; I think this added to the strangeness of this story which deals with the overlapping of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and our world. This is a sumptuous story that displays well the finesse with which Wilum writes.

The Krakatoan by Maria Dahvana Headley

A many motherless girl, her astronomer father and a former astronomer neighbour who has turned his gaze towards the stars within the Earth. Both the prose style and the subject matter of this story reminded me heavily of the work of manga artist Juni Ito, which is high praise if you ask me.

The Girl in the Blue Coat by Anna Taborska

That night I had a terrible nightmare. Mindla was standing by the marsh at the bottom of the field. She was only in her underwear. She reached out to me and at first I thought she had that same sadness in her eyes, but as I drew closer, I saw that her eyes were gone.” This is definitely the saddest of the stories that I have come across so far. An investigative journalist discovers that there are those who seek to ensure that those with the power to do so bear witness for those who can not. This story is soaked in sadness, from the setting, to the subject matter, to the prose which simply and clearly depicts a world scarred by its past and haunted by its ghosts.

(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror by Joseph S. Pulver Sr

This is a beautiful tribute to the Lovecraftian author Wilum H Pugmire. Written in Pulver’s distinctive, fractured, prose style this piece of flash fiction gives us a look at a mythical Pugmire’s life and writing process.

In Limbo by Jeffrey Thomas

Horrible, horrible, horrible. This story is wonderful. An ageing man experiences loss, hope, and resignation as the lights go out. Maybe the lights are just going out for him or maybe for all of humanity, would either of these be bad things? I did love this story in its Ligottian darkness.

A Cavern of Redbrick by Richard Gavin

 

There is something about this story, of a young boy’s summer and the horrible discoveries he makes, that reminds me of Stephen King in both its setting and execution. The tale is rather open to interpretation in that whilst it’s a ghost story the other forces at play could be either supernatural or mere human madness.

Eyes Exchange Bank by Scott Nicolay

I keep on hearing great things about Scott Nicolay and going by this story every bit of praise that has been heaped upon him is warranted. Like Livia Llewellyn’s story this is set amid the deterioration of an economic collapse -though this time it is the recession of the late 1980s/early 1990s. The narrator of this story is brought by circumstance to a town that is decaying and is forced to confront the untruths upon which his life has been based. Nicolay really is a master of the weird and I can’t wait to read his collection Ana Kai Tangata.

Fox into Lady by Ann-Sylvie Salzman

 

Wow, this is a special story. It reminds me, in part, of Bruno Schulz or Stefan Grabinski though it is also very, very different to those authors’ work. This is a psychically discombobulating story of anxiety, fear, and resignation. I really want to read more by Salzman. (This piece was translated from the French by William Charlton)

Like Feather, Like Bone by Kristi DeMeester

demeester

Another lovely/horrible piece of flash fiction here. A story of mourning, sorrow, and what we do when we try to escape the inevitable process that comes with grief.

A Terror by Jeffrey Ford

Normally stories that feature historical characters make me wince somewhat. Jeffrey Ford’s strange adventure with the 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson and her brush with death was however thoroughly enjoyable. I get the feeling that I may have enjoyed it more had I known more about the poet herself. Still, even without this knowledge this is a startlingly good, and weird, ghost story of sorts.

Success by Michael Blumlein

The longest piece in this collection -a novelette rather than a short story I suppose, Blumlein’s story explores academic obsession, madness, and love at the interstices of the natural sciences and how one person’s approach to their obsession can drive them to madness where another’s can drive them to success and how the two approaches are not that different at the end of the day.

Moonstruck by Karin Tidbeck

Moonstruck is an utterly beautiful and masterful fairy tale, a modern myth. An allegorical tale of a young girl’s emergence into womanhood and a mother’s fear that she is now being replaced by her offspring set against an impossible backdrop of a moon that is rapidly approaching the Earth and the home of the story’s protagonist. Beautiful.

The Key to Your Heart Is Made of Brass by John R. Fultz

This is a bewildering tale set in a post-human steampunk world where we see a member of the ruling, beatific, class being blackmailed. The vacuity of ruling class culture and the illusions of money and status are here exposed in a fantastical world that I would love to explore in greater detail. Hopefully Fultz will expand on this setting in the future.

No Breather in the World But Thee by Jeff Vandermeer

I don’t think it would be possible to have a collection of the best Weird Fiction at the moment without featuring a piece by Jeff Vandermeer. This is an extremely strange story of ‘it‘ happening again ‘like last year‘ and told as a series of vignettes merged into a single narrative. Each one told from the perspective of the occupants of a mansion that has come under attack from a huge monster which has plummeted from the sky. A fitting end to the anthology this rather post-modern piece is a fine example of both some of the excellent work that is being done in the field of the Weird and of the sheer imagination of Jeff Vandermeer himself.

~fini~

The Vandermeers are Coming to Town!

So this is probably the most exciting local news I’ve heard for a bit. Glaswegian author Neil Williamson has organised with Waterstones on Argyll Street to host an evening with Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. Not only that but they will be joined by Glasgow’s own Hal Duncan and Amal el-Mohtar. Excited? I think I am. 😀

The event is on the 21st of August(the day before my birthday – how perfect is that?) at 7pm. Tickets are free but need to be booked in advance by calling the store.

WATERSTONE’S GLASGOW ARGYLE ST
Thursday, 21 August 2014, 7:00PM – 8:30PM
Tickets are free, call to reserve

We are pleased to announce an evening with the talented Ann and Jeff VanderMeer who will be in conversation with Glasgow’s masters of the fantastic: Amal El-Mohtar, Hal Duncan and Neil Williamson. Join us in a celebration of the weird and wonderful world of science fiction and fantasy with some of the genre’s most talented authors.

Further Details: 0141 248 4814

The Weird comes to Glasgow, at last! 😀

A Day Off!

Three actually. In a row! I’ve not had a day off work since June 12th and now I have three of them! Wahey! I can read, I can write. Oh me oh my do I feel good. 😀

But what to read? I’ve got one hell of a backlog that has built up over the last year or so what with university, dissertation, and work. My present backlog looks a little like this, since you asked. Which you didn’t but this is it anyway.

To Finish: This is all short stories. I tend to take a collection with me to read during my commute as the 20-30 minutes on the train is normally just about right to get through a story.

The Weird – edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer

The Dark Domain – Stefan Grabinski

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

American Supernatural Tales – edited by S.T. Joshi

To Read: Books that I haven’t had the chance to dip into yet but am chomping at the bit to devour. 🙂

The Spectral Link – Thomas Ligotti

The Grimscribe’s Puppets – edited by Joe Pulver

Celebrant – Michael Cisco

Deadtown Abbey – Sean Hoade

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All – Laird Barron

I also need to be writing. Currently I have a cosmic horror story set amongst the Caledonii of Iron Age Scotland, and a post-apocalyptic Lovecraftian tale on the go. I also really need to get some more blog post writing done. On that front you can expect my half arsed attempt at an analysis of Ligotti’s Our Temporary Supervisor – which is, beyond a doubt, my favourite story from the Grimscribe himself.

So, until next time. Stay weird. 😀

 

PS: Also; BIG congratulations to Joe Pulver who’s anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets won the Shirley Jackson award for best anthology! WAHEY!

grimscribe