"Back then, with the visions,
most of the time I was convinced I'd lost it. There were other times, though,
where I thought I was mainlining the secret truth to the universe."
------------ Rust Cohle, True
Behind the wide facade of Speculative
Fiction twist the hedge-mazes of fantasy, brood the catacombs of horror and
gaze the far-seeing floors of science fiction. Among them, between them, are
the closets and crawlspaces of the niche, one of which -- a relatively bigger
one -- is the place of Weird Fiction, a dark storage of many souvenirs from
fantasy, horror and science fiction, though dusted with its own special charms.
The former subtitle for my new book, Too
Much Dark Matter, Too Little Gray: A Collection of Weird Fiction was actually, A
Collection of Speculative Fiction. As one prone to appreciate sprawling
ambiguity, to resist specific categorization, it’s a little ironic that I
wanted to specify further. But there was a reason for that, besides the
stodginess of “speculative”, which has none of the zany, fluid charisma
While using “weird” may sound like a
proud judgment, a literary outcast chest-thumping his identity as such, it’s
more a direct homage to the tradition of Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers, H.P.
Lovecraft and many others. Going further, it’s an accurate classification given
my vision of Weird Fiction, a subgenre that, perhaps more consciously than
other fields of speculative fiction, stirs together elements of the
metaphysical, cosmological and horrific to grimly honor the Big Questions,
remind us of our insurmountable ignorance, to pin down our squirming selves
into our rightful position in the child’s seat, to whisper, maybe in some
alien, mud-packed voice, that, hey, the world slippery and you won’t ever, ever
catch it. The world, in short, is weird.
And past all the horror, the
strangeness, that to me is a nourishing thought. Let me explain.
The moment I cemented my decision to not
pursue an M.F.A (or any academic training) in writing is vivid. While enrolled
at Otis College of Art & Design, I found in my mailbox a little
perfect-bound literary booklet featuring work by the graduate students in
fiction. I flipped it open to a random story. After wading cautiously into the
second paragraph of a painful scrutiny of eyebrow-plucking, I was done. Other
entries weren’t much better. Too many of them seemed concerned with
stereotypical, high-literary minutia, unfortunately the focus and baffling
preference of innumerable professors, awards, journals, and workshops (cough-Iowa-cough).
first sale, the story |
The Hand of Spudd
Personally, I have little interest in
quaint journalistic accounts of Malaysian transvestite violinists at the turn
of the century (yes, I made that up), or the endless slew of aptly-termed
“McFiction” featuring some cocky narrator coming of age amongst his or her
overfed, dysfunctional family. No, I prefer going head-on at the Big Questions,
going at them, as George Carlin might say, with no less than a sledgehammer.
Give me ballsy confrontations with Life, Death, the Cosmos, with Existence,
In their noble attempts at social
redemption and inclusion, many contemporary teachers of literature treat
writings in the framework of their political significance. To me, though, such
attempts seem nothing more than new forms of division. It is looking at the
grains and forgetting the shore. Does the world really need a Marxist reading
of Huckleberry Finn, complete with ten-dollar jargon? Academics are on the
lookout for the “next best thing”, the new trend in analysis, the new prism
through which to see literary works of yesterday and today. I say: what about
our shared heritage? Our shared -- and uncertain -- future? Not as any one
ethnicity, gender, party, or faction, but as an entire civilization. A species.
A collective piece of this vast Universe.
Of course, much of this material is
studied, and much of it is exhaustively considered and written about. Enter
As any fellow devotee will know, H.P.
Lovecraft -- arguably the most esteemed and influential practitioner of the
genre -- cleaned out the catacombs with his pen, defying tropes of ghosts and
vampires and expanding imaginations with interconnected tales of ancient
civilizations antedating our own, of towering alien-gods, of unseen dimensions
and humanity’s sanity-shattering smallness in an inexplicable cosmos. All this
made more impressive by the fact that he wrote in the 1920s, when so much of
that stuff was barely on anyone’s speculative radar, including scientists’. His
unknowns are truly Unknown, and will forever elude explanation.
Certainly Lovecraft’s work has
failings, failings probably more surface-level than those of other lauded
authors. He was well aware of his own wooden dialogue (hence, quotation marks
are scarce in his pages) and his prose sometimes gushes into the purple.
Nevertheless, his voice, with its richly archaic, darkly celebratory cadence,
stands alone, and will survive as long as we’re unsure what lurks “out there”.
Sadly, Lovecraft, and especially his
“Cthulhu” mythos, have become somewhat franchised, relegated to corners of the
market generally aimed at Dungeons and Dragons fans, horror enthusiasts, and
nihilistic young adults sporting black fingernails and lipstick. It is a wide
“cult following”, but nonetheless a cult following. Although some scholars have
acknowledged his importance, many see him as a troublesome bridge from Poe to
Stephen King. It is this identity that has, I’m sure, dissuaded many from
giving him a serious go. “Lovecraft? Oh, no, I don’t like that horror stuff.”
suited up, scoping “out there”|
But back up. Here we come back to the
question of Weird Fiction itself, because I don’t necessarily consider the
canon, or Lovecraft’s work, “horror”. Certainly there are horrific elements in
his work, and his career does include several standard supernatural yarns. But
in his treatment of cosmic mysteries, and the shadowed realms of prehistory,
his is more a prying curious eye, forcing us to consider those Big Questions,
to ponder notions of, and issues with, the likes of religion, biology,
cosmology, archaeology, and psychology. He sets you on the outside looking in,
a contrast to being in and looking further in to the point of navel-gazing.
This exercise of outside-looking-in, one I believe most writers of fiction
should undertake, helps in a kind of rounding out of thought.
No matter the genre in which one
writes, I believe the best, most poignant stories have at least an undercurrent
of this “larger awareness”, a perception conveying authority and
wisdom. So many stories feel constricted by their own world, characters or
concerns. Yet to read Lovecraft is to confront directly that raw Unknown that
surrounds us, that is us. To get a healthy dose of perspective: a shambling,
roaring, behemoth upswell of perspective.
I mentioned earlier that I think such
a perspective can be ultimately nourishing. In an era of economic, cultural and
political tumult, when millions of Davids the world over shout in fiery voice
against the few far-reaching, corrupt Goliaths, there is morbid comfort in
knowing that, despite whatever the megalomaniacal egos of sadistic leaders,
immoral bankers, or bribe-pocketing politicians might make of themselves, there
are impenetrable forces beyond all of them that will cast mocking eyes towards
their suited-up, gold-rimmed delusions, if they even care to acknowledge them.
Lovecraft, and the general tradition of Weird Fiction, reminds us just how
little power the powerful actually wield. After all, Goliath was, what, ten
feet tall? When the mountain-sized Cthulhu rises once more, those people will be
nothing but scrambling ants -- along with the rest of us.
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