Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Questions for Ann and Jeff Vandermeer

Hello both! Thanks for joining us.

We’re here to discuss your latest book, The Weird, and all things weird.

 

First of all, let’s start with a big question. Can you define what you mean by ‘Weird fiction’? Is it just a state of mind/mindset?

Jeff: “Weird fiction” can be a lot of things, including stories influenced by surrealism. “The Weird” is a more taxonomically precise label for certain types of supernatural fiction and also fiction allied with the supernatural that may achieve the same effect without a supernatural element. Admittedly, this last distinction is going to be controversial, but we found weird SF stories and weird ritual stories that gave us the same feeling as supernatural weird. Definitely, though, this is one of those areas where readers will differ on what they find “weird,” and that’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as The Weird—just that it can be slippery at times.

Ann:  I like the first paragraph of our introduction as an answer to this question…A “weird tale,” as defined by H.P. Lovecraft in his nonfiction writings and given early sanctuary within the pages of magazines like Weird Tales is a story that has a supernatural element but does not fall into the category of traditional ghost story or Gothic tale, both popular in the 1800s. As Lovecraft wrote in 1927, the weird tale “has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains.” Instead, it represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane—a ‘certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” or “malign and particular suspension or defeat of…fixed laws of Nature”—through fiction that comes from the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastical tradition.

 

One of the great things about the weird fiction genre is that it is, by its very nature, undelimitable. Is this what makes it attractive?

Jeff: I’d say it’s shifty, not undelimitable. There’s some animating impulse in the style and events being chronicled, something in the way the main characters react, which points to something beyond, something that cannot be defined to the characters’ satisfaction—within the story.

Ann:  Yes, again and again, in the stories we thought of as part of “the weird,” this quality of something other, almost ghostly, came through the pages. But not in a traditional sense. The undelimitable comes from the way the stories on the whole don’t give easy answers or usual answers. You’re not necessarily going to get out of the nightmare, or even recognize that you were in a nightmare from the beginning.  However the desire to know the unknown, to seek answers and perhaps even have a bit of control over the world around us is a compelling reason to read weird fiction.

What should readers get from reading weird fiction?

Jeff: Well, excellent entertainment, for one thing! But also, again, an almost visionary sense of a world beyond that science and religion cannot completely explain. In a sense, whereas fairy tales were a way of making sense of the world in past centuries, The Weird is the twentieth century impulse to tell us instead that we can only make sense of part of it. And, of course, a lot of the best weird fiction gives the reader a frisson of uneasiness or even terror, although “the scare” may not be the primary point of the story. The Weird can be transformative—sometimes literally—and it entertains monsters while not always see them as monstrous. It strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood, and acknowledges that failure as a sign and symbol of our limitations.

Ann:  Readers should be transported out of their comfort zone into something new and different.  They should see the world changed before their eyes as they are drawn into the stories.

It has been said that the Fantasy genre has always had a fascination with the unusual. The new book begins in 1908, with an extract from Alfred Kubin’s “The Other Side”. Is this where you see it beginning as a credible, distinct subgenre?

Jeff: Kubin became involved with Kafka’s writing circle, had steeped himself in the work of Poe and Hoffman, among others, and had connections to the Decadent movement. All of this meant that this indeed presaged the modern Weird. Then when you consider that modern writers like China Mieville are very much influenced by Kubin, the connection becomes even clearer. You can also see the visionary quality of dark reverie or epiphany in his work—not the lightness of “I wandered lonely as a cloud” but the weight of, as Kubin once wrote, being “overcome…by a dark power that conjured up before my mind strange creatures, houses, landscapes, grotesque and frightful situations.”

 

Ann:  We saw Kubin as one part of the three-pronged early version of modern weird fiction. The other two are exemplified in the anthology by Algernon Blackwood, whose work influenced Lovecraft, and F. Marion Crawford, whose techniques in his ghost stories came before the more commercial weird exemplified by writers like Ray Bradbury and Fritz Leiber.  In addition, this particular excerpt seemed perfect to open the book as it provides an account of the transition from the normal into the weird.

We should perhaps mention here Weird Tales, Ann. As editor-in-chief of the prestigious magazine for the last four years, and a winner of a Hugo Award in 2009, I suspect this has given you a terrific awareness of all things weird. What keeps you passionate about the subgenre?

Ann:  I am constantly being surprised by something new in this subgenre.  I never get bored reading and selecting the best fiction I can find to share with the Weird Tales audience.  Also, for that magazine and some of our other projects I can extend the definition outward to include a variety of weird material that’s not focused on “The” Weird.

And you, Jeff?

Jeff: I think the quality of the imagination, the originality of the monsters; the sense of experiencing something not experienced before…all of it grounded in typically obsessed or driven characters. The fact that you can still write weird fiction and have it be relevant and connect in a universal way—and because it by this point insists you have read widely across a range of authors.

Based on your dates in The Weird, the subgenre is about a hundred years old. How important was Weird Tales to begin with in 1923?

Ann:  It was the only place where this type of fiction was being published.  If Edgar Allen Poe had lived during that time period, his work would have found a welcoming home there.  At that time all other fiction being published had a more realistic bent, or in some cases was exploitive and sensational.  If you wanted something else (or if you were writing something else) you were out of luck until Weird Tales came around.  This was also the time when the pulps were so popular, however the themes were more with detective, mystery, adventure, etc.  There were several magazines that came after Weird Tales, publishing similar types of stories, such as Amazing Stories (1926), Wonder Stories (1929), Horror Stories (1935) but Weird Tales was there first.

And authors? To many, weird fiction is characterised by Lovecraft and Ashton-Smith from the 1930’s. Who else should be considered from that time as contemporary equals?

Ann:  At that time, in terms of the pulps and Weird Tales, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, E. Hoffman Price, Otis Adelbert Kline, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mary Elizabeth Councilman, Seabury Quinn, Henry Kuttner.

Jeff: In our anthology, the 1930s include Margaret Irwin, an English ghost-story writer, the Belgian phenomenon Jean Ray—definitely the equal of any weird writer ever—Bruno Schulz, who is another amazing writer, and such one-offs as Robert Barbour Johnson and Hagiwara Sakutoro, both of whom only produced one classic story…but what stories they are!

How has the subgenre evolved since 1923? How important is it now?

Ann: It started off as a form of entertainment and,although it continues to entertain readers today, has evolved into more serious fiction, the type that is studied in universities and colleges; analyzed and discussed.  It will always be important because each new generation of writers (and readers for that matter) will bring their own perspectives and sensibilities to weird fiction.

Jeff:  And it’s that the stuff published early on that’s lasted is now being re-evaluated as literature. Not to mention you had Kafka’s fiction finally available in wide translation in the late 1940s, and he’s kind of weird’s magic realist. With Kafka you’re already in a dream or nightmare when you start the story—you’re already enveloped by the weird—and what follows in the story takes the form of dreamlike logic. So that material became an influence on English-language writers suddenly. The rise of “commercial weird” in the form of the Bradburys and Blochs, and also in the form of Daphne Du Maurier applying a more accessible gothic weird touch to this kind of fiction. Some of the New Wave in London also added their two cents, and you can’t forget the New Weird at the start of this century.

Which tales in your extensive collection would you say have been the most important to the weird group?

Ann:  In date order  I’d offer up “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood, “The Hell Screen” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft, and “The Hospice” by Robert Aickman, …gosh I don’t know – hard to narrow this down.

Jeff: It’s a difficult question. There’s the issue of innovation versus what’s been most influential, I suppose. Shirley Jackson’s star has been on the ascent for a long time. Angela Carter helped bring a surrealist’s slant to the weird. Dennis Etchison found naturalistic horror paths into the weird. Then you have behemoths like Clive Barker and Stephen King who totally changed the landscape.

Jeff, I read that you have claimed in the past that the Horror genre was a development from weird fiction, not the other way around. Some may be surprised by this. Care to explain further?

Jeff: I don’t recall saying that, actually. But in terms of the modern publishing category of “Horror,” it more or less was created by the popularity of Stephen King’s naturalistic approach to writing supernatural novels.  Naturalistic horror doesn’t have as much in common with The Weird, as it’s often pushing against the supernatural element or the more outré influenced on The Weird. Contemporary serial killer tales, for example, can’t really be classified as part of The Weird. The same with the Splatterpunks, with exceptions like S.P. Somtow’s Vampire Junction, which could be seen to be influenced by the excesses of the Decadents, who were very invested in the grotesque, body horror, and influenced writers of The Weird, albeit in different ways.  The Weird’s relationship to Horror can be seen as an intersection, a subset in one direction or the other, and an ongoing conversation.

One of the great things I like about the new collection is that it shows ‘Weird’ to be a global phenomenon, from stories from 20 different countries. You have translations of some tales into English for the first time. Which of these have surprised you most?

Jeff: Only one story, “The Vegetable Man,” hasn’t appeared in English before. However, what we did is commission new translations of several classic stories, in part because some of them were last translated into English back in the 1950s or 1960s and the old translations sometimes are mired in the idioms of their time. We were lucky to have a great translator in Gio Clairval who is fluent in French, German, Italian, and Spanish to do much of this work. Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl” and Michel Bernanos’ “The Other Side of the Mountain” perhaps benefited the most from these new translations, both of which we believe are definitive. Other translations, of “The Hell-Screen,” Georg Heym’s “The Dissection,” and Dino Buzzati’s “The Colomber” also give readers useful alternatives. And in the case of Seignolle’s “The Ghoulbird,” the new translation makes all the difference in the world in understanding the power and appeal of the author’s style.

Of the many tales you include, which are your personal favourites and why?

Ann:  It’s difficult to pick favourites; in some ways I wish this book could have been twice the size!  One story that I keep coming back to is Jerome Bixby’s “It’s A Good Life.”  This story was made into  one of my all-time favourite Twilight Zone episodes, which was a major influence on my early leanings towards weird fiction.  I read this story for the first time in preparation for this anthology and was totally blown away.  Keep in mind I know this story backwards and forwards – no surprises here, however, reading the story still gave me the major creeps.  And just talking about it now is bringing that creepy feeling straight back to me.

Jeff: That’s so tough…Just being able to include work by Julio Cortazar, Angela Carter, Ben Okri, Shirley Jackson, and Jorge Luis Borges, for example—those were all my heroes growing up and huge influences on me as a writer. So being able to reprint their stories is almost overwhelming. In terms of individual stories, I love some of the more out there stuff like Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor”. But I am also a huge fan of Aickman, and I still find his “The Hospice” one of the strangest and at times absurdly funny tales of the supernatural ever written. The Michel Bernanos is one of the greatest weird tales ever written. I also loved that George R.R. Martin’s “Sandkings” held up to a re-reading. Then there are the stories you don’t appreciate until you revisit them. Like Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat,” which I love now. Murakami’s “The Ice Man” is a great story. Steve Duffy’s “The Lion’s Den.” I could go on and on. It’s so difficult to choose.

One of the features of this new collection is its variety, reflecting the range of possibilities in weird fiction. If you had to pick one story that everyone should read, would that be possible? And what would it be?

Ann:  I don’t know if that is possible – not everyone will connect with every story here.  I can give a few examples from different perspectives.  For SF weirdness, I’d pick “Sandkings” by George R.R. Martin.  For creepy classic weird, I’d select Margaret Irwin’s “The Book.”  For political weirdness I’d point to “The Long Sheet” by Williams Sansom.  For surreal, otherworldly weird I’d say “The Boy in the Tree” by Elizabeth Hand.

Jeff: For me, it would be either Leena Krohn’s “Tainaron” or Brian Evenson’s “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” from the modern era.

Are there any tales you would’ve liked to include, but have not been able? If space was unlimited, would you include Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, for example?

Jeff: It was tough to make some of the decisions on public domain material. We included pretty much everything we wanted to include, but Lovecraft was tough. Ultimately, we wanted something representative that included a lot of weird things happening. “At the Mountains of Madness” struck us as a story where the weird manifests fairly late in the tale, considering the word count, and it’s also readily available to all readers. On the one hand it would have added to our thread of “strange journeys” stories. On the other, all of our other strange journeys got very strange very quickly. There’s also some fan-boy stuff in “Mountains,” like references to Clark Ashton Smith, that violated some of our ground-rules…one of which was as few stories containing in-jokes as possible.

To many, in the last couple of decades or so we have had the so-called ‘New Weird’, a term created by M. John Harrison in 2003 which effectively saw a resurgence of Weird values. Jeff, you have said before that New Weird was a much older development – from the New Wave of SF in the 1960’s, from writers such as M. John Harrison, Mike Moorcock and J G Ballard. Is ‘New Weird’ therefore less ‘New’ than ‘Weird’? How is New Weird different, if at all?

Jeff:  In a nutshell most of “New Weird” fiction at the novel-length was about applying the weird to secondary world fiction, something not done that much or in such a concerted way, until that period. In terms of the New Wave, I think my point is that a lot of the writers in the conversation, myself included, had been influenced by the New Wave. The New Wave was a kind of cross-pollination attempt involving experimental technique, science fiction, and literary influences. So The New Weird was taking up some of the same concerns and approaches as the New Wave, except substituting an emphasis on weird fiction over an emphasis on science fiction, with Harrison, of course, being the pivot point. Harrison is really the only New Wave writer who engaged in a dialogue with or interrogation of weird fiction. So he’s kind of like how The Kinks are to music—an influencer on a lot of different modes within speculative fiction. Then you also have to remember that in the 1990s naturalistic horror in the US had hit its peak and then receded as the market became supersaturated with cheap knock-offs. So in that context the weird rising up again also seemed new, because naturalistic horror had preceded it in the marketplace.

Jeff, your books are often included as part of that Wave of New Weird, if not one of the revolutionaries. Do you both agree with that term ‘New Weird’ yourself and also being part of the movement (if we accept there has been one)?

Jeff:  As is quite evident from the message board records, I was deeply ambivalent about the term in the beginning. In part because before it could even be discussed in full some individuals wanted to create a restrictive definition that wasn’t truly accurate and also rendered invisible or marginalized writers that I felt were part of something vaguely known as “new weird.” But in travelling through Europe before we did our New Weird anthology we found that the term had become a great catalyst for discussion in other countries—and that it had in fact created a vital space for writers to get published, to become visible to reviewers, and in some cases launched whole imprints of fiction. So in that context it became clear the term was here to stay, no matter how the definition fluctuated, and we set out to chronicle it in the anthology. But the anthology is a discussion with a question mark over it. Here are the precursors, here is the evidence. Here are the arguments associated with it.

Alternatively, is ‘New Weird’ now dead, as some would suggest, or has it just evolved? Is New Weird paradoxically now less unusual and more commercial and mainstream? Is this a problem?

Jeff:  As a marketing term, New Weird definitely flared out. Basically, from a commercial standpoint, China Mieville used it as a springboard to great popularity and a few other writers, like myself, benefited from it in terms of getting books published by major publishers and continuing to have books out from such publishers.

Ann:  I don’t know if anything ever truly dies.  It continues to change and evolve.   Is it less unusual and more commercial?  I’d say no.  Instead it’s more available, more approachable.  It’s not difficult today to find truly weird fiction and it’s not behind closed doors anymore, something you hid from others.  It’s more acceptable today to read and write weird fiction (whether New Weird or Old Weird or Next Weird) than ever before.  And that, I believe, can only be a good thing.

The future: based on this book, weird fiction is alive (or at least active!) and well. How do you both see things changing in the next decade or so? Who are the writers to look to in the future?

Ann:  As the internet makes our world smaller and connects us more rapidly, I see writers from all over the world influencing each other in ways they never have before.  I see a lot more cross-pollination of different points of view: mixing it up, so to speak.  I also see a lot more participation and inclusion of women and minorities.  There will be more of a focus on translations as well, to bring us all closer together.

In our multimedia environment, weird fiction is perhaps less evil tomes in dark libraries and more active in cyberspace. You have launchedhttp://www.weirdfictionreview.com in October. What is your aim with the website?

Ann:  A forum to discuss the weird in literature, art, film, comics, music, but mostly literature.

Jeff: Yes, the idea is to provide a space for all forms of the weird and not just pockets of it or certain types of weird fiction. In a way, the site will be broader in scope than the anthology, while picking up on many of the themes and approaches exemplified by the anthology. So we’ll cover Lovecraft but also the influence of Kafka, the influence of other writers. It’ll be a non-denominational approach.

Many thanks, both, for your time.

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