The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction

From Leonora Carrington to Haruki Murakami, disparate writers tap into something universal when they channel the bizarre.

In volume one of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series, the 1984 story “In the Hills, the Cities” describes how the citizenry of competing villages lash themselves together to form giant human figures as tall as skyscrapers, which wage bloody war upon each other in remote valleys. In Georg Heym’s 1913 story, “The Dissection,” a dead body in an autopsy room “quivers with happiness,” revealing a form of hidden life. Contemporary Finnish writer Leena Krohn’s novel, Tainaron, is told in letters from a nameless correspondent visiting a city lit by the glow of its residents: intelligent insects. The titular character of Haruki Murakami’s “Ice Man,” indeed made of ice, is changed in subtle yet powerful ways by a trip to a frozen land.

This is the realm of the uncanny, sometimes known as the weird tale, or literature of the strange. A country with no border, found in the spaces between, it glimmers and glints in such disparate sources as the work of Helen Oyeyemi, parts of Deborah Levy’s novel Beautiful Mutants, those stories of Jamaica Kincaid labeled “New Gothic,” and, in a more expected context, the eldritch darkness of the Mines of Moria and the Marshes of the Dead in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

There’s a power and weight to this type of fiction, which fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected, and in that space we discover some of the most powerful evocations of what it means to be human or inhuman.

I thought I understood the world of weird, surreal fiction long before I co-edited the anthology The Weird with my wife Ann from 2010-11. I thought I knew, but didn’t, because creating a thousand-page tome covering one hundred years required my reading over four million words of fiction. The experience changed me fundamentally, in ways I’m only now beginning to understand.

For a fiction writer, editing an anthology offers multiple lessons. You learn directly from the stories, but also from the lives of the writers and from the process of acquiring the stories. The information you gather seems more like intelligence, because you’re often a detective trying to solve an inexplicable case. Estates degrade; obscure stories are hard to track down; authors, wounded by the past, mislead. To be told that an estate representative is in a coma and must expire or recover before reprint permissions can be granted is to discover the Kafkaesque in what you assumed would be boringly contractual. To contemplate sending a friend from a Mexican circus on horseback down the coast to Leonora Carrington’s house to secure story rights makes you wonder if the worldview of the writer whose work you covet has begun to colonize the editorial process.

The intel begins to take on an almost luminous quality—hidden linkage and lineage interwoven with literary resonance to reveal a greater, deeper sense of the complexity of the world. Confusions of writer and work become inevitable and can even be clarifying. Sidetracked by Angela Carter’s nonfiction, I found the same fierce intelligence and sense of humor that inhabits the sentences and paragraphs of her fiction. In that confluence, I cannot separate one thing from the other, nor do I want to. Sometimes you need the life entire.

Many weird writers, especially before our modern era of the ultra-professional, were indeed odd, and sometimes akin to outsider artists. The stories that surround them are fraught with eccentricity, the disreputable, and tragedy. The great Belgian writer Jean Ray, convicted of embezzlement, needed the catalyst of a prison stint to craft two of the twentieth-century’s greatest tales of the unknown, “The Shadowy Street” and “The Mainz Psalter.” Austrian writer and artist Alfred Kubin, whose 1909 novel The Other Side features a whole city transported to Central Asia and a dissolving of the border between the real and the unreal, was forever being re-made by his hatred of his father and the aftershocks of an early seduction by an older woman. Even Franz Kafka, staid by comparison, was described by his friend Max Brod as a shy, seldom-seen moon-blue mouse.

Too many unique, marginalized writers committed suicide, died penniless, died alone, died obsessed, or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The great Polish writer Bruno Schulz was shot on the street during World War II, leaving us with two remarkable but slim volumes of rich dream-stories mythologizing his childhood. One, The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, is about an afterlife that tries to reclaim the past. So it joins the mulch, the thick substrate, that at some point manifests in one’s own stories, biography rising in altered form indistinguishable from fiction … and yet the lineage is there, the ghosts true hauntings.

Happier tales do exist, though. How can I, for example, re-encounter Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s phantasmagorical 1952 novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard in the context of emails with his son, Yinka Tutuola, without seeing the work a little differently? The son relates anecdotes of such satisfaction in storytelling that the father’s work becomes transformed into something almost merry … even as four hundred dead babies encountered on the road wind up in the belly of a beast or a skeleton becomes a “complete gentleman” by assembling a body.

The macabre often hinges on the darkly humorous, a fact that becomes clearer after spending time with so many uncanny tales. You become acclimated to the darkness there, finding in it a kind of kinship, even, for a time, a level of comfort. Once you reach that point, there is more joy and awe to be found even in creepy explorations of the unknown. The legions of carnivorous lagomorphs in Leonora Carrington’s surreal 1942 short story, “White Rabbits,” are deeply unsettling but also deeply absurd. The jeweler’s precision Julio Cortazar brings to “Axolotl,” the 1956 tale of a man fixated on a salamander living in a Paris aquarium, is a delight for anyone who cares about the ways in which fiction can reveal the spiritual through specific detail—even as an ending that inverts the roles of the observer/observed remains profound and disturbing. Robert Aickman’s classic 1975 story “The Hospice” is horrific in its over-arching intent, but also cheeky in its descriptions of an absurd dinner during which guests are chained to their tables, and later portrays an awkwardness familiar to us all in misunderstandings about sleeping arrangements.

Sometimes, too, it feels as if someone or something is staring out from the text at the reader. In Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s 1918 masterpiece, “The Hell Screen,” even the simple spilling of liquid to form the shape of a snake across the floor must be interrogated for uncanny significance. More than once I was reminded of 19th-century naturalist Richard Jeffries’ statement: “To me, everything is supernatural.” Similarly, Thomas Ligotti’s 2003 story “The Town Manager,” with its cryptic messages from the never-seen manager, evokes not just a wry recognition of the absurdities of bureaucracy but also a wider modern horror of being spied on that’s made more potent because it exists within such a banal context.

Influence rises easily off the page, along with that sense of being watched. No real feats of detection or immersion are required to discover that elements in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” manifest decades later in strange tales like “The Winding Sheet” by William Sansom and Brian Evenson’s “The Brotherhood of Mutilation.”

Yet, I also began to have the sense, fostered in part by the cross-contamination of research, that around the world enclaves that never knew one another—writers who could not have read each other—still had communicated across decades and across vast distances, had stared up at the same shared unfamiliar constellations in the night sky, heard the same unearthly music: a gorgeous choir of unique yet interlocking imaginations and visions and phantoms. At such times, you wonder as both a writer and an editor if you are creating narrative or merely serving as a conduit for what was already there.

We like to think that we understand our universe, but I came away from these readings with a sense of weird fiction as a potentially powerful way in which to find the distance and the universality to grapple with the negation of that idea. There are so many contradictions in who we are now as human beings—immersed in a culture of modern technology and “progress” that still rates as primitive in the context of, for example, the way plants use quantum mechanics during photosynthesis.

Here, in what is actually our infancy of understanding the world—this era in which we think we are older than we are—it is cathartic to seek out and tell stories that do not seek to reconcile the illogical, the contradictory, and often instinctual way in which human beings perceive the world, but instead accentuate these elements as a way of showing us as we truly are. Unruly. Unruled. Superstitious. Absurd. Subject to a thousand destabilizing fears and hopes.

In Michel Bernanos’s underappreciated 1960s masterpiece, “The Other Side of the Mountain,” the characters are shipwrecked on the coast of a strange land of hostile plants and artifacts that threatens to destroy them. And yet they carry on anyway, keep trying to the end, in the face of an ever-lasting unknown. They do not look away, and the bizarre elements are tempered by a raw humanity, a pathos, that cannot help but leave you both shaken and yet strangely proud.

Such a reading experience is humbling; it humbles you as a human being, but also as a writer. It tends to strip from you any impulse that does not lead to what seems essential. It makes you not want to aspire to be good or to be great, but to be true in some small way—to be true to the underpinnings of the world, and the struggle to understand that world. This impulse is tempered by the recognition that we can never know all of it, or even most of it—and that this seeming lack is not a failing but a strength.