I used to think I wrote Weird fiction. Now, I realize I have a lot weirder to go.
I still remember the first time I read Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer—it was in my junior year of college for a class called “Imagined Worlds,” a class which I would have gladly sacrificed an arm to get into if I hadn’t made the first cut (luckily, no amateur limb removal was necessary). Back then, the concept of “weird fiction” was not yet a twinkle in my eye. But it was about to be.
The first paragraph of the book happens to be a passage that changed the course of my writing forever (or at least, so far):
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.
If I had been reading a paper copy of Annihilation, there’s a good chance I would have ripped out the first few pages in a fit of wild passion and eaten them. I was literally astounded—I had never read anything like that before, the perfect balance between the matter-of-fact and the utterly bizarre, all with a side of creeping dread. Not to mention that all the primary characters in the book were women, another factor I had scarcely found in any book that wasn’t about women. Unfortunately, I seemed to be the only person in the class who felt that way; no one else seemed so attracted to the strange balance of pragmatism and horror and surreal, a tower that plunged into the earth. The main character feels her world resonate with images and associations she can’t explain, the surreal growing out of the ordinary like a grotesque mushroom. As the characters move into Area X, our sense of a concrete place—and as a result, our sense of reality—is utterly destabilized.
This quote from William J. Hugel’s article Developing Weirdness Through Cartographic Destabilization in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation sums it up perfectly: “Rather than being a form in which the reader finds a sense-of-place in the literature, weird authors use signifiers of dislocation and disorientation to convey a unique sense of weirdness.” (The entire article is really fascinating if you’re also a fan of Annihilation!)
(Also, a slightly embarrassing confession: I still haven’t read the other two books of the Southern Reach Trilogy. I’m totally going to, I swear, but how could they compare to the awesomeness of the first?!)
It was only after reading Annihilation that I first heard the label “weird fiction,” and I was instantly enchanted with it. What kind of fiction is it? Oh, you know—it’s weird. The genre itself embraces a word which some people might consider an insult. Along with implications of the uncanny, “weird” also carries with it a sense of alienation. Weirdness is often off-putting, rejected by the mainstream, inherently incompatible with normality. As a weirdo myself, I’m all for it.
What’s got me thinking about junior-year epiphanies again is a story I stumbled across in a Year’s Best SFF anthology: “The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Despite the fact that it’s currently mid-January I’m going to go ahead and call it one of the best stories I’ll read all year. This was one of my favorite parts:
Within the first day she is chased by an ambush of tigers which are only quarter-real: infused with a minimum of substance and a texture that suggests rather than manifests fur. Echoes of lashing tails, thump-churn against the humid wet. The one leading the hunt is more dimensional, with paws that leave deep imprints in the mud. Sennyi registers the mind behind the avatar, a woman on far-away Thotsakan, a planet whose chief exports are fabric made of leopard shadows cast at sundown and perfume distilled from the death of temporally non-linear eels.
Honestly, I would swear my life to this paragraph. None of this incredible imagery is ever expanded on or explained—it’s surreal, it’s mystifying, and it’s all the more powerful for it. But if I think about how I would have reacted to reading this story back in junior year of college, before ever reading “the tower, which was not supposed to be there,” I have to admit myself: I wouldn’t have liked it. I wouldn’t have got it. And the thought of being unprepared to connect to such an amazing story is honestly horrifying.
Since reading Annihilation, my palate for strange fiction has grown exponentially; in the same year I was introduced to Jorge Luis Borges, who in turn led me to the rest of the magical realists; in a used bookshop in Olympia I happened across a little collection called Jagannath, and suddenly I was reading James Tiptree Junior and Octavia Butler, Angela Carter and Joyce Carol Oates. At the same time I worked to write some weird fiction of my own, pushing stranger ideas and imagery until I too could contribute to the genre that had captured my imagination.
Or at least, that’s what I thought I was doing.
While editing a series of old science fiction and fantasy stories I wrote last year, I noticed that what worried me more than anything else was that my stories would be too confusing. Whenever I send something to a beta reader, some of the biggest questions I have is always the same: does this make sense? Do you understand what’s happening? Every time I introduced a fantastic element, I found myself immediately rushing to explain and justify its presence. No matter how weird my original concepts were, by the end of the story they felt practically mundane.
I had been raised on SFF that insisted on explaining itself, a tendency that had been engrained deep into my writing instincts. And honestly, those elaborate explanations can be great too—some of the best fantasy I’ve read has held itself to strict and complete rules, bringing their worlds to life by showing how even the most unimaginable elements fit into a pattern, a set of laws which assure us the world is logical and therefore real.
Weird fiction does something different. It creates vivid, livable worlds by refusing to go into detail. Understanding what’s happening becomes optional. The fiction refuses to clarify itself, and thus we’re forced to simply accept it. It throws you off balance, and keeps you that way—and that sense of underlying fear is one of the things I love about it. But weird is not just horrifying; it’s also elevating, even beautiful.
And that’s the kind of thing I want to start striving for in my own writing; to free myself from the human tendency to explain the inexplicable. Loft goals, I know. But after all, it’s still January; what better time to shoot to overachieve?
Wow, this post got long. And to think, I was planning on also recommending and reviewing some of my favorite weird short-stories. Another day.
How about you, dear reader? Do you enjoy weird fiction? Got any recommendations?