Five Weird Books for Strange Times

Welcome to your eternal, uneasy future: all rootless anxious anomie, all the time. During these stressful days, as any number of society’s institutions, relationships and philosophical verities crumble, to be replaced seemingly by inferior substitutes or by nothing at all, people begin to feel they do not belong to their new milieu, that there might even be nothing out there objectively to belong to.

And guess what? That sensation–something out of its natural place, ill-sorted, anomalous, lost–is the essence of feeling weird.

As theorist Mark Fisher–sadly deceased in 2017 at the young age of forty-eight–says in his posthumous book The Weird and the Eerie:   “As we shall see, the weird is that which does not belong. The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the ‘homely’ (even as its negation). The form that is perhaps most appropriate to the weird is montage—the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.”

Therefore, that type of literature dubbed Weird Fiction–massively but not exhaustively exemplified in the anthology compiled by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer and titled The Weird–seems to capture our confusions and anxieties of the moment better than many other types of fiction, and is currently experiencing a boom, both on the page and in the cinema. Canaries in the coal mine–or doppelgangers at your front door–writers of weird fiction seek to metaphorically chart all the ways our world can be or has been deranged: the irruptions of the irrational and incongruous into our lives.

Of course, while this might be the era of Peak Weird, the creepy sensations of weirdness and the literary responses thereto have always been around as part of the human condition. And while living authors command a large share of the marketplace and our attentions, classic works of the Weird are being rediscovered and appreciated in large numbers. The reprint series known as the “Collins Chillers” have brought out several valuable volumes in this vein, and today we consider two.

Bernard Capes (1854-1918) seems to have been a typical Grub Streeter, turning his hand to any paying job, from journalism to poetry to editing, and eventually producing some forty novels at the rate of one every four months. As is often the case with writers who unforeseeingly esteemed their naturalistic work above all else, his mainstream fiction has fallen utterly by the wayside while his supernatural fiction lives on, and a sampling is collected in The Black Reaper. We owe the information on Capes’s career and life, and indeed the very revival of his fiction, to Hugh Lamb, historian, critic and anthologist, whose informative introduction here is both charming and insightful.

Capes’s generally lugubrious prose is a type not encountered in these streamlined, demotic days, rather fussily labored and even turgid at times–as we see in “The Accursed Cordonnier.”

Rose was patently a degenerate. Nature, in scheduling his characteristics, had pruned all superlatives. The rude armour of the flesh, under which the spiritual, like a hide-bound chrysalis, should develop secret and self-contained, was perished in his case, as it were, to a semi-opaque suit, through which his soul gazed dimly and fearfully on its monstrous arbitrary surroundings. Not the mantle of the poet, philosopher, or artist fallen upon such, can still its shiverings, or give the comfort that Nature denies.

But Capes did have a flair for vivid metaphors–“as the day sucked inwards to a point secret as a leech’s mouth”–as well as an essential clarity of description and an ear for decent dialogue. Paired with his outre inventions, his language achieves some sophisticated effects that are worth the slog, and anyone who has accustomed themselves to a similar parsing of Lovecraft’s syntax (or just tolerating the grandiose style) will easily slip under Capes’s spell. In fact, the very overwrought pedestrian stolidity of Capes’s scene-setting often makes the nasty bits shine in higher relief.

Not every one of these nearly two dozen tales evoke the pure weirdness we seek, with some settling for simple supernatural frissons involving spooks. But the lesser stories are not to be disdained, and often accomplish wonders in a short space. Consider “The Marble Hands,” which combines common bonds of affection with beyond-the-grave revenge. Or “The White Hare,” which leads the reader to a certain conclusion about one woman’s nature, then pulls out the rug at the last minute, swapping guilt and innocence between two figures.

But it was in such uncanny tales as “The Glass Ball”–a snow-dome tchotchke hosts a supernatural apparition–and “The Queer Picture”–a canvas comes alive–that Capes captured the unsettling sensations of reality inverted. Perhaps the most potent instance of this is “The Moon Stricken,” wherein the protagonist, through encountering a chance natural phenomenon, gets a glimpse of cosmic horror out of Lovecraft or A. Merritt:

Suddenly my pupils shrank before the apparition of a ghastly grey light, and all in a moment I was face to face with a segment of desolation more horrible than any desert. Monstrous growths of leprosy that had bubbled up and stiffened; fields of ashen slime–the sloughing of a world of corruption; hills of demon fungus swollen with the fatness of putrefaction; and, in the midst of all, dim, convulsed shapes wallowing, protruding, or stumbling aimlessly onwards, till they sank and disappeared.

In the midst of Victorian self-satisfaction and complacency and assuredness, Capes served as specter at the feast.

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) is revered today as the author of naturalistic tales for young readers (The Railway Children, etc) and a raft of hilarious fantasy novels (Five Children and It, et al) that have stayed more-or-less perpetually in print. Driven initially to write out of dire economic necessity, she became an accomplished artist willing to turn her hand to many things. That she was in her spare time affiliated with the infamous occult society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, might be an early clue to her additional propensity for the less brightly lit precincts of literature. This second Hugh Lamb production, In the Dark, introduces us to Nesbit’s creepy apparitions and incidents that intrude into well-lighted drawing rooms for massive effects.

In contrast to Capes’s fusty sentences, Nesbit’s prose feels almost completely contemporary with our twenty-first-century colloquial modes. She can conjure up domestic arrangements, business settings, public venues with a few deft strokes, establishing the total reality of her mise en scène before very gradually introducing the aberrations and traumas that define Weird fiction. At times she resembles Saki or Clark Ashton Smith in her cruel elegance.

Her most famous supernatural piece, “Man-Size in Marble” suitably opens the volume. In the death of an innocent woman at the hands of a purposelessly malicious revenant, the reader deduces that Nesbit held the universe to be a generally malign and unfair apparatus, and this judgment can be upheld throughout the book. A lurid tale like “The Three Drugs” feels almost like the Vincent Price shocker Theatre of Blood. “The Mystery of the Semi-Detached” manages to evoke Ballardian wrongness of place in just a few pages. The protagonist of “The Five Senses” gets a series of Wellsian revelations that rip the reassuring veils from life.

He held the syringe with a firm hand, made the required puncture, and braced himself for the result. His eyes seemed to swell to great globes, to dwindle to microscopic globules, to swim in a flood of fire, to shrivel high and dry on a beach of hot sand. Then he saw, and the glass fell from his hand. For the whole of the stable earth seemed to be suddenly set in movement, even the air grew thick with vast overlapping shapeless shapes. He opined later that these were the microbes and bacilli that cover and fill all things, in this world that looks to clean and bright.

This last sentence presages Lovecraft’s famous observation:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Perhaps the oddest tale here is “The House of Silence,” in which a burglar is undone by the preternatural and labyrinthine dimensions of the house he seeks to burgle. But the dreamlike narrative hints at allegorical meanings. Is the burglar Everyman, and the House our mortal lifespan, from which we can take away nothing when we exit? Nesbit’s clear-eyed dispassionate evaluation of our circumscribed human condition amidst menacing dark infinities is bracingly chill.

By the time of the pulp era, the Weird tale had become commodified and canalized in such magazines as, well, Weird Tales. As with all genre wall-building and territory-staking, this phenomenon had both good and bad effects. It crystallized and fostered an audience and a set of tools and a corps of allied writers for this kind of work. But it also introduced formulas and cliches.

The most famous trio from this milieu are major names nowadays: Lovecraft, Howard, Smith. Many writers better known for their science fiction–Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber and Edmond Hamilton–dabbled in the Weird. But a handful of authors with substantial careers in this vein have sunk into obscurity. One such is Seabury Quinn (1889-1969), a fellow who combined copious fiction writing with a day job that was perhaps most apt for a writer of the uncanny, a lawyer and legal scholar specializing in “mortuary jurisprudence.”

Quinn’s most famous creation was the occult detective Jules de Grandin. In ninety-three adventures, spanning the years 1925 through 1951, de Grandin became one of the most popular offerings in Weird Tales. These adventures are being reissued in big fat compilations, helmed by editor George A. Vanderburgh.   The third of five, The Dark Angel, reaches us now, with an evocative and knowledgeable introduction by Darrell Schweitzer.

Quinn is a writer worth rescuing from the archive: Even ninety years onward, his stories are eminently enjoyable, with a zip and zest and engaging verisimilitude that lesser works of his day lacked. He could conjure up eerie menaces with the best of the pulpsters, achieving a kind of Grand Guignol horror, and could propel his characters rapidly through non-cluttered plots, employing the deft device of first-person narration by de Grandin’s pal and Watson, Dr. Trowbridge. His stories also exhibited an eclectic, cosmopolitan, and multicultural (for the times) mix of villains and heroes, themes and motifs. Despite most of them taking place in de Grandin’s home base of Harrisonville, New Jersey, the recounted backstories allow him to span the globe. As with any franchise, he relied on repetitive touchstones–the comics doings of an Irish cop, the gruff camaraderie between de Grandin and his friend Inspector Renouard–but each adventure involves much that is original as well.

The majority of the stories in this collection do not precisely fit the definition of the Weird that we are pursuing: fiction that is destablising and surreal, with anomalous effects. The sentimental ghosts in “The Ghost Helper.” The abnormal relic in “The Bleeding Mummy.” The transmigrating personas in “A Gamble in Souls.” However effectively scary these tales are–and they do provide plenty of spookery–they remain a bit old-fashioned, rooted in a world where normalcy is the baseline and always returns.

But The Devil’s Bride, the only de Grandin novel and fully reprinted herein, is another matter. Its atmosphere of paranoia, Huysmans decadence, and layers within layers of conspiracies perfectly evokes the kind of trademark uncertainty and free-floating fear that writers from Chesterton to Heinlein, Dick to Pynchon have capitalized on. It resembles another pulp franchise, The Spider, in its vertiginous appeal.

A beautiful young woman named Alice Hume is kidnapped under peculiar circumstances. De Grandin and company eventually learn that her unique heritage has caused her to be swept up in a global tide of End Days Satanism-plus.

“Each one of these young girls I find she [sic] has enlisted in this strange, new army of the freed. She has attended meetings where they made strange prayers to stranger gods, and—eventually she ends a cast-off plaything, eaten with drugs and surfeited with life, in the little, infamous Blue Houses of the East….

“Last year the Union of the Militant Godless, financed by the Soviet government, closed four thousand churches in Russia by direct action. Furthermore, still well supplied with funds, they succeeded in doing much missionary work abroad. They promoted all sorts of atheistic societies, principally among young people. In America on the one hand they gave much help to such societies as The Lost Souls’ among college students, and on the other they greatly aided fanatical religious sects which aim at the abolition of innocent amusement—in the name of Christ. Associations for making the Sabbath Day unpleasant by closing of the cinemas, the shops and all places of recreation, have received large grants of money from the known agents of this Godless Union.

“In Paris, London and Berlin again and yet again churches are despoiled of sacred plate and blessed vestments, the host is stolen from the altar, and every kind of sacrilege is done. A single instance of this sort of thing, or even several, might be coincidence, but when the outrages are perpetrated systematically, not once, but scores of times, and always at about the same time, though in widely separated places, coincidences become statistics. There can no longer be a doubt; the black mass is being celebrated regularly in all the greater cities of the world; yet we do not think mere insult to God is all that is intended. No, there is some central, underlying motive for this sudden and widespread revival of satanism. One wonders what.”

Eventually de Grandin and company find the Red Priest at the heart of the cult and we experience with them a whirlwind of violent confrontations, reversals, and seeming defiances of death itself, with a gruesome crucifixion of a traitor to the Red Priest’s cause tossed in as a parody of sacredness and a foreshadowing of the cruel excesses of the WWII era. The hero’s ultimate triumph, always in doubt, has the feeling of merely a temporary staving-off of the Long Night in this weary vale of violent, selfish, amoral revolutions.

Having published her first story only in 2005, Priya Sharma has taken until now to amass a volume’s worth of her tales, but the wait has been amply repaid. The sixteen items in her debut collection, All the Fabulous Beasts, show her to be a young adept at stories that specialize in eerie transformations and dead-end lives broken beyond repair. Her occasional resonances with certain literary ancestors show a deep knowledge of and reverence for the Weird, which she extrapolates along her own special vectors.

In “The Crow Palace,” a woman and her sister seem locked in a pavane of dependency, with one woman seemingly normal, the other cursed. But a stunning last-minute revelation undoes our expectations. Theodore Sturgeon’s famous “Bianca’s Hands” could be paired neatly with “The Anatomist’s Mnemonic” and its fetishistic, deranged protagonist. The account of a barren woman rendered fertile by a Rumplestiltskin-type visitor, “Egg” is equal to the off-kilter sardonicism of the late lamented Kit Reed. And Neil Gaiman’s American Gods might feature “Pearls” as a lost episode.

Sharma loves the haunted, classical imagery of the sea and its creatures, and this motif shows up in three tales: “Fish Skins,” “The Rising Tide,” and “A Son of The Sea.” In its telling of a Westerner suborned by a foreign culture, “The Englishman” evokes and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Thomas Disch’s “The Asian Shore.” Body-horror–Sharma is a doctor whose intimate knowledge of human physiology puts her in the same boat as Dr. Michael Blumlein and his work–crops up in “The Nature of Bees.” And the concluding story, “Fabulous Beasts,” a Shirley Jackson Award finalist, gives us a woman’s gradual acceptance of her true bizarre hidden nature, bringing to mind the darkly elegant stylings of Kathe Koja.

Having plainly assimilated the teachings of all her literary mentors, Sharma has developed a distinctively tight-lipped yet somehow lyrical style that does not rely on pyrotechnics to achieve its considerable effects.

I reviewed Michael Cisco’s amazing first book, The Divinity Student, upon its initial publication in 1999–nearly twenty years ago. In that time, Cisco has gone on from strength to strength, all under the radar of most readers, even those partial to this exotic mode of fiction. In that period he has become the Weird’s Secret Weapon, a kind of planet-buster or nova bomb of Weirdness. His newest, Unlanguage, represents some kind of quantum leap in concentrated existential unease.

Unlanguage, as befits its theme and title, is a multivalent, intradependent text offering many paths through its thickets and scaffoldings of drunken, micro-engineered word- and world-building. But if I can reduce the project to its most simplistic outlines, it would go something like this.

The book the reader holds in his or her hands is perhaps the sole copy of a unique, transformative primer or “work book” whose subject matter is “the unlanguage of unknowing.” Each “chapter,” dubbed a “Unit,” is thus organized into a textbook-style chunk of theory and a “Reading” of a more exemplary nature. These Readings, while multiplex, mostly carry forward the narrative as such. This is the arc of our hero, who dubs himself the “Third Person.” He or she is attempting to climb out of a pit of nonexistence, a limbo state, and back into the world. They are doing this mainly by attending classes in unlanguage at an absurdist institution. This setting and theme render the book finally into a satirical or ghastly “campus novel,” a kind of Giles Goat-Boy as conceived by Baudrillard.

I think the best way to convey the nature of these three threads is by some judicious quotations.

The “unlanguage” aspect:

It should by now be clear that unlanguage articulates time and space ununiformly, by means of tenses and topencies. The consistency of tense and topency is a world system known as a mundial. Since a passage may include a variety of tenses and topencies, it is necessary to add a function indicator, called a mundive, to show the correct pathway or sequence of time and space through a given passage. The mundive establishes the mundial relations determinative for a given passage.

Mundives are partially diacritical marginal cyphers that do for writing what keys do for maps. Assembled in sequence, they can be used to create a complete map of the secret passageway unlanguage has taken. A proper understanding of mundives is essential for any reader of unlanguage. A glance at a mundive can tell the skillful reader whether the passage it marks will be a sortie, retrograde, absolutive, self-rewriting, etc.

These Carrollian passages actually begin to cohere into a kind of alternate grammar and syntax and vocabulary that could actually function, sounding like Noam Chomsky on LSD. Cisco invents the very tools that will allow us to make sense of his book.

The personal journey of the hero, who here identifies with the superior First Person:

Pairs of lights that charge at me like enraged bulls, only to leap past me with a rush of air and an empty threat. I am the would-be sucker captain whose ship made the unexpected escape, the First Person. I filched it from the teacher while he was distracted with terror and got the hell off campus. I draw a circle around my feet in the dirt with a rock that breaks—I will leave my visibility here in this circle and go on down the hill, back to the house unseen—invisibility has to be renewed constantly and using many different techniques—my image meanwhile in trust of my natal earth—start walking and go back a moment later to retrieve the rock from the interior of the circle, carry it with me—of course I can still be heard and smelled, the dogs will bark when I pass by—when I get to the other end of the secret passage, I’ll draw another circle and break the rock, become visible again, thank the earth for holding my image for me.

This quest through ever-shifting bardo realms is a kind of spiral, moving ever-upward but returning to similar points. For instance, in Unit Thirty-Six, our hero “arrived at school in a coffin like any other new patient student.” But then, in Unit Thirty-Seven, the scenario is replayed with variations:   “He first arrived at the school in a straitjacket, like any other new student patient.”

And the satirical elements:

The teacher is once again borne in dead by a small group of students and deposited in a heap in a corner. As he revives convulsively, we push our desks against the walls. The teacher oozes jerkily across the floor, disappears behind the desk, then gathers himself together and inflates into view. He touches bundles of incense to the flame of his skull-shaped lighter and sets the bundles in vases along the desk. Ribbons of pungent smoke swirl around us like jellyfish tendrils, never melting into haze.

The teacher gulps and blood splashes down his stained white chin. He croaks and begins to wheeze like a glass harmonica. The words aren’t words. We chant them. I suppose we’re in unison but I can’t follow what the others are saying. In the empty space there in the middle of the classroom, in our midst, there are suddenly people, all dressed in white. There is a curtain across the front of the room and the teacher sits between us and it, rocking back and forth, droning, hiccuping blood that lands with a clatter on the desk.

How many classes that felt exactly like this have you sat through?

In the last chapter, Unit ????, we are presented with a possible frametale and explanation for all that preceded it. Accept it or not, the book reaches a satisfying, hopeful closure. “The grading is finished. Look in the box, labelled with your name. You passed.”

Sympathetic to works by Max Barry and Ben Marcus, William Burroughs and Steve Aylett, Unlanguage depicts a destabilized interzone and mindscape that maps jaggedly onto our resent, where characters wrestle with the living virus of words to build themselves fortresses of isolation and arcadias of desire.

These tales, as varied as can be, from writers who never saw the twenty-first century and from authors who are steeped in the newest derangements of the era, all seem determined to drive home one essential lesson: we have met the weird, and it is us.