So I grew up reading A LOT of fantasy – Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Tolkien (of course), Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis, anthology after anthology. I finally got to a point where it seemed every fantasy novel I read would inevitably diverge into a trilogy. The last few pages would lie before me, but I would begin to suspect that the plot lines would not be wound up. I would page to the end and see those dreaded words – “To Be Continued.” “Noooo,” I would want to shriek like Luke at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
So I stopped reading fantasy for a while. In my grad school days my reading was taken over for a time anyway – mountains of assigned reading, none of it remotely fantastical. After that I read what I tend to term “straight” fiction for a while – contemporary fiction minus dragons, spells, wardrobes to another world, or anything weird at all.
But I had to go back to the weird stuff. It called to me, tugged at me. And while I was gone, the fantasy of yesteryear had morphed and twisted into wonderful new shapes. There’s a school of writers now that are sometimes called “The New Weird” (Conjunctions has termed them “New Wave Fabulists,” but that’s rather a mouthful) or slipstream writers. These writers encompass a wide range, everyone from China Mieville to Aimee Bender to Jeffrey Ford to Jonathan Carroll to Elizabeth Hand to Jeff VanderMeer.
What seems to be a common denominator with these writers is a blurring of genres, combining elements of what used to be termed strictly fantasy with those of science fiction, horror, or both. These writers blend and meld together disparate components to create strange new shapes. The result is a surreal, anti-twee atmosphere. If delicate elves start scampering about in one of these stories, chances are they’re soon going to sprout fangs.
I’ve found a lot of these writers inspirational. One of the tippy-top ones is Kelly Link, the author of two seminal short story collections, Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners. Stranger is Link’s first collection, but I actually read Magic first. Reading Magic demonstrated to me how strangeness can be woven into a story in subtle ways, surprising the reader with the resulting twists and turns.
For example, the story “Lull” begins with a group of men playing poker. Palindromes are mentioned, forwards-and-backwards music plays on a cassette, and then they request a story from a phone sex worker. This story has the requested elements of the Devil and a cheerleader, who is living her life backwards. She’s already had kids, been married – now she’s moved back in with her parents. She’s tunneling back to the womb. But right now, she’s just played spin the bottle and is in the closet with the Devil.
“Tell me a scary story,” the Devil says. “A funny, scary, sad, happy story. I want everything.” He can feel his tail wagging as he says this.
“You can’t have everything,” the cheerleader says, and she picks up his paw and puts it back on the floor of the closet. “Not even in a story. You can’t have all the stories you want.”
True, that. But “Lull” does give quite a few different tales within its structure, all wound around the concept of how time moves and the comfort of story. The next tale concerns one of the poker players and his estranged wife, who’s learned how to clone herself. Then Ed, the poker player, starts to tell his wife a story. Then we loop back to the Devil and the cheerleader. Then back to the poker players – the phone sex worker’s throat is getting scratchy. Like concentric circles created by the splash of a stone into a pond, story moves backward and forward in “Lull.”
The story “Magic for Beginners” tells of a riveting television show called The Library. A group of teens are dedicated fans – but the thing is, they’re on a television show themselves, called The Library. Here again, story and “real life” are intertwined. “Stone Animals” concerns a family who have just moved into an isolated house. Gradually, objects such as the soap in the bathroom and the TV set become haunted – the family members can’t use them anymore. The haunting slowly but surely grows throughout the story, until each member is isolated in their own world. And “The Hortlak” is about two teenage boys who work at a convenience store frequented by zombies. One of them has a crush on a girl who works at an animal shelter and gives car rides to doomed dogs. The zombies don’t attack, they just…exist.
The weirdness in these stories is thoroughly integrated into the fabric of recognizable “real life.” This strangeness can be thrilling, or chilling, but it’s always unique and can take you by surprise in wonderful ways. I’m a huge fan of Kelly Link because of this, and I’m hoping she publishes a novel in the near future.
How about you – what do you think of the concept of New Weird writers? Do you like any of these writers? I’d love to hear your thoughts.