Saturday, August 19, 2017
Britweird / Ameriweird : A Tale of Two Weirdnesses
Over the past year I've been dipping into Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's massive anthology, The Weird, and finding many wonderful things therein. Among the high-points I've discovered so far in this big black book of "strange and dark stories," I'll mention Brian Evenson's impressive Ballardian--even Kafkaesque--novella The Brotherhood of Mutilation, Thomas Ligotti's even better--and more Kafkaesque--"The Town Manager," Octavia Butler's now widely anthologized "Bloodchild" (a major work of American short fiction in the nightmarish vein of Poe and Paul Bowles), George R. R. Martin's ultraviolent and ultimately anti-militaristic parable "Sandkings," Eric Basso's little-known but marvelously eerie novella The Beak Doctor, and William Sansom's high-Kafka torture tale "The Long Sheet." As I read through the editors' impressively international selection of tales and novellas, it struck me that weird fiction in English--the British and American divisions, anyway--displays a distinct but under-recognized transatlantic bifurcation. While the British stuff, from Mary Shelley through China Mieville, tends to express itself in 19th-century Romantic terms (magic, medievalism, quest narratives, Faustian overreaching, labyrinths literal and figurative, revolutionary politics), American weird writers tend to imagine a more Gothic world (madness, murder, rape, haunted houses, sewer monsters, the Kingly carnival of horrors, the many shades of darkness on the edge of town). This distinction might rest its tangled roots in the historical coincidence that the United States and the Gothic novel are both 18th-century creations. Whereas the Britweird baby first finds it footing and begins to howl amidst the slippery, blood-red ruins of Coleridgean and Byronic Romanticism ("Christabel," Frankenstein), the Ameriweird breathes its first awkweird gasps as a dialectical product of the Voltairean-Rousseauist Enlightenment. Like the Original Gothic ("O.G.") novels of Walpole, Radcliffe and Lewis, the American Weird deliberately spotlights everything the Enlightenment disavows. It is a fever chart of the American unconscious, an art that lingers in the darkest shadows cast by that blinding rational light. When American reason tumbles creatively to sleep (and it's impossible to ignore the fact that, as I write, America's first fascist president is doing his damnedest to dull it into anti-creative stupor and catatonia), it dreams the Goyaesque monsters of Poe, Lovecraft, Butler, King, Ligotti. Being an American, said that sometimes very weird writer Henry James (see "The Jolly Corner" and The Turn of the Screw), is a complex fate. Indeed, it's so complex that even at our most aesthetically unreasonable, we remain the inheritors of reason.