WYRDO is a Glass column obsessed with finding the weirdest kinds of literature available! From not-quite-infinite poetry to unbound books and beyond, this is the place for the most deranged writing you’ve (probably) never heard of. This edition is about the NEW WEIRD.
Weird fiction is a tricky topic, and not just because it’s a bad name for a genre. These stories are sticky, gross, existential, and otherwise horrifying. Tucked between fantasy and science fiction, these stories are largely categorised by showing the horrifying scale of the universe in comparison to human helplessness; in that way, Lovecraft typifies the genre, though the genre is not itself necessarily Lovecraftian. In his own words:
“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint…of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” – H.P. Lovecraft
Got all that? No? It doesn’t matter, throw it all away. We don’t care about the old weird, we care about the new weird.
In the 1990s, British fantasy and science fiction magazine Interzone began to decline. To fill the gap during this time, writer Andy Cox established his magazine The Third Alternative (later known as Black Static). In the early days, Cox envisioned his magazine as a blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror with experimental flair. This magazine would set the stage for the rise of The New Weird at the end of the 20th century.
In the last year of the 20th century, 2000 (trust me, that really is how centuries work. Blame Jesus). China Miéville published Perdido Street Station to enormous critical success. The book is a behemoth, running all the way up to a ghastly 867 pages. That’s longer than Joyce’s Ulysses, if you believe Wikipedia. The book won the Arthur C. Clarke award and was named by Locus magazine as the 6th best fantasy novel of the century. Miéville has gone on to publish several sequels and become an — if not the — authoritative voice on the genre.
If you’ve heard of the New Weird, though, it’s probably because you’ve seen Alex Garland’s film Annihilation. It’s a loose adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s book of the same name, based on Garland’s memory of reading it. The movie was extremely popular, starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac. The book and the film, along with most of Vandermeer’s work, are often grouped into New Weird, although there’s something about that I find interesting.
In their collection The New Weird, Jeff and Ann Vandermeer provide a definition of New Weird:
“A type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticised ideals about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-worlds as the jumping-off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.” – from The New Weird, by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer
You may have noticed I’ve avoided defining the New Weird until now. It’s because this definition sucks. While it fits Vandermeer’s early work, like A City of Saints and Madmen, it does not apply to my understanding of Annihilation at all (though that understanding is enormously incomplete).
Miéville, however, has something better:
“New Weird…is a moment, a suggestion, a tease, an intervention, an attitude, above all an argument. You cannot read off a checklist and say, ‘x is in, y is out’ and think you’ve understand (sic) what’s at stake or what’s being argued.” – China Miéville
What I take from this, and from the Vandermeers’ collection as well, is that New Weird is not something to be chased, or defined. When you begin to count authors and genre tropes like beans in a jar, when that definition is more important than art, than the movement? Then, the movement is dead. To quote from Jeff Vandermeer’s introduction to The New Weird:
“The New Weird is dead. Long live the Next Weird.”
Join me in the next WYRDO column for an intro to Ergodic Literature.
Brock is an experimental fiction writer based in Meanjin. His writing writhes in the gaps between weird and weirder, with an emphasis on eutopianism. He can be found at @scholteyyy in Instagram or at brockscholte.com