Cartographic Destabilisation in the Weird

Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.

-Guy Debord masquerading as Karl Marx: ‘Theory of the Dérive’ in Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)

 

Cartographic destabilization creates the sense of weirdness by projecting symbols and metaphors that signify dislocation and disorientation within the literature. Language is the map in which we follow literature by and if we cannot form our own stable cognitive map in our reading of said language, our sense of place becomes disturbed and uncanny.

-William J. Hugel ‘Developing Weirdness Through Cartographic Destabilization in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

William J. Hugel has an extremely interesting essay on Student PulseLINK, in which he looks at the use of landscape as a tool to disorient the reader of weird fiction. This sense of disorientation, the destabilisation of the reader’s sense of place, is something that I have elsewhere referred to as discombobulation -an unsettling of the reader’s relationship with reality as mediated by the text, whereby the author is able to site a story within a world that is seemingly mundane yet with the map that is the text being an unreliable narrator in and of itself. As though Borge’s map had been laid out perfectly and rotated a mere one or two degrees so that as soon as one has taken a step or two the map, that with which we are most familiar, begins to deviate wildly from the territory in which we find ourselves. Which is an unsettling experience for creatures such as ourselves who use, and are so reliant upon, representation for our interpretation and communication of reality.

This defamiliarisation which occurs in some works of weird fiction seems to me to serve as an literary manifestation of the Lettrist/Situationist concept of ‘Psychogeography’ and especially the psychogeographical technique of the dérive. Psychogeography is the study of the psychological effects of the environment, built or otherwise, on the humans that exist within a given geography. The dérive is a method of geographical exploration that, through the participation in the random or semi-random dérive -or ‘drift’- through the landscape, seeks to allow the psychogeographer to experience their environment in a radically different and newly authentic manner and in doing so come to understand it and to interact with it in ways outside those proscribed by those who control and structure our environment.

In a similar manner certain works of weird fiction serve to act as a dérive through the familiar world of literature and allow the reader to engage in a radically new way with the medium.

Votu is reached by crossing a high steppe plateau of long green grass. Like a glacier, the city flows from an inaccessible source high in the mountains, and extends down onto the plain. A boundary separates the piedmont zone from the upper city, and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, nobody lives above the boundary. Looking up, the people of Votu watch as the future city arrives, having already existed from time immemorial and thus being older than the city they’ve come to know, sliding inexorably down the slope and piling up on top of them. People move into new buildings and adapt to the new streets as they cross the boundary into the habitable zone, while the older structures opposite are driven down and crushed together, collapsing to form a sort of rubbery scrim at the city’s lowest extremity. The compacted past city forms a dense integument, not unlike a callous, that makes the erection of an outer wall unnecessary along that side.

-Michael Cisco, Celebrant

In the passage above Michael Cisco introduces us to the imaginary, in the story, city of Votu which the protagonist, deKlend, learns of upon reading a geographical encyclopedia of invented countries and for which he endeavors to search. In Votu, where time runs backwards, we see an inversion in the development process of the city as the older parts of the city push aside and destroy the newer parts in which the inhabitants live. The slow, glacial, destruction of the older parts of the city is familiar to us but the inversion of the process forces the reader to consider the ways in which people have to adapt to the changes forced upon their environment by the seemingly unstoppable forces of capitalist development. In this the city of Votu is recognisable to the reader but it is also dislocated from mundane reality -a defining feature of The Weird as defined by Laird Barron in his introduction to 2014’s The Year’s Best Weird Fiction- and so the reader must engage with it from an unfamiliar -a discomfited- position.

This use of a radicalised and offset spatiality is one of the more powerful affects utilised by writers of weird fiction in their attempt to elicit unease in the reader and to open up the reader to a new literary experience in the mode of the weird. It allows the writer to present a new yet familiar world and, in doing so, gifts the reader a whole new territory to explore which perhaps allows access to a more authentically human experience than other literary forms.

Debord's map of Paris
Debord’s map of Paris
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Hinterland Out Now

My wee collection of stories is now available on the Kindle store globally. It’s £2/$3/€2,99 and has five stories. I will be releasing it as a paperback via Lulu once I’ve gotten the relevant tax shenanigans sorted out -hopefully in the next week or two. I’ll obviously post a link to that here when it is available.

To buy the ebook click the relevant link:

UK USA Canada Australia Germany France Spain Italy Netherlands Japan Brazil Mexico India

Hinterland Ebook Out Tomorrow

Whilst I was visiting my good friend Paolo(Linky) on Sunday he asked whether my stories were available on Kindle. I hummed and hawed and then eventually today thought: what the hell? Why not? So I spent a wee while this afternoon compiling the stories from this blog together into the correct format for Amazon, designed a cover, and now I’m just waiting for the review process to complete and my first wee ebook will be for sale. Scary spiders! 😀

HINTERLAND-A5

New Story: And the Filth Flows …Always

The flooding was immense. I looked through the bedroom window at the street below. The black slime that last night had begun to seep up from the drains and to flow languidly down the gutters had risen so that neither the tarmac of the road nor the grey stone of the pavement could be seen. In their place was this slow moving river of it winding its way towards the center of town.

Cars and pedestrians alike made their way through the early morning haze seemingly not noticing the dramatic change to the street through which they passed. I wondered how they could be unaware of the viscous filth that pulled and sucked at their feet, that fouled the tires of their vehicles spraying their chassis’ with the grim substance.

The house was empty. It had been for years. Years since my daughter Kate had left home for her own life and, before that, since Alice had been taken from us. It had been so for years; yet now, faced with this strange and horrid phenomenon outside, I felt the loneliness more than ever. Since those first days after Kate left, those first days without either of the girls –without my family I felt the need to talk to someone –to anyone. To ask why they were not more perturbed, more caring, of the effluence which was now flooding the street. How could they bear to walk through it, to even drive through it?

The houses of Elderslie Road are old red brick Georgian terraces. Front doors opening directly onto the street but elevated by a couple of small steps. The blackness was flowing below the top of the first step, surely they must notice? It is only because of this tiny elevation that the horrid looking stuff was not flowing beneath doors and flooding the houses. At the rear of each house are more steps than in the front which lead down into the back yards so if the flooding was the same in the back then, at least, it would not have come into the kitchen. For now.

The full story is available in my mini collection Hinterland on the Amazon Kindle store. (LINK)

And the Filth Flows Always by Lee Culloty

Strange Fiction?

This is a really interesting article over at Nightmare Magazine by Simon Strantzas. I don’t particularly agree with it in his definition of what constitutes a weird tale (I prefer Mieville’s notion of the uncanny vs. the abcanny) and he seems to take cosmic horror as the defining feature of the weird tale rather than it being a facet of the weird.

“Weird fiction of this[the pulp adventure] sort seems to have had its birth in America, bursting onto the scene from Lovecraft’s pen. The exploration of the cosmic indifference (at best; malignance at worst) melded with the adventure story suits the mindset of the new world, whose mythology gravitates to philosopher-explorers.”

I don’t even think HPL would agree with this as he seemed to place himself into the wider cannon of the weird along with Machen, Blackwood, et al.

In the article Strantzas tries to delineate the ‘strange’ tale from the ‘weird’ tale. A distinction that I’m not sure is possible with the definitions that he gives.

“These are tales where the otherworld isn’t as much known as it is hinted at, and rather than explore the philosophies of our shared existence, the strange is more interested in the psychology of our individual lives. If the weird is cosmic, the strange is micro-cosmic, investigating the universe within our psychological existence.

[…]

It’s these feelings of disconnection that form the primary power of the strange tale, and from where it draws the bulk of its emotional power. Real life moments of loss, despair, and depression wreak a certain kind of havoc on us and can quite literally distort our comprehension of the world as we experience it. In many ways, this distortion and that of the strange’s dream-logic overlap, allowing the strange to become a proxy and providing readers the opportunity to directly confront their turmoils. That being said, it would be irresponsible to suggest the readers are then able to prevail against these forces, for with the strange no one really comes out ahead. Those that survive are ultimately scarred by the experience—which may be the most realistic and lifelike of all horror’s punishments. Existential wounds follow both the protagonists and the reader long afterward, which plays in stark relief to the weird and its sudden onset of temporary madness in the face of the impossible.”

Now to me this seems as though it would fit squarely within the realm of the weird tale as written by Schulz, Kafka, Cisco, and others. It sounds, to me, like Strantzas is describing weird fiction as influenced by the surrealist movement.

I don’t know, perhaps we do put too much emphasis on the cosmic horror aspect of the weird (which is no surprise being as HPL looms so large in the field) which may, or may not, be to the detriment of the wider weird. Personally I find the diversity of the weird to be extremely appealing. I love being able to slip from one tale of epic cosmic terror to a more subtle tale that teases at the frayed edges of what it is to be human.

Either that or I should, perhaps, not think about these sorts of thing before I’ve had my morning coffee…

New Wave of the Weird?

A bit of a stream of consciousness ramble in response to a really interesting piece on Teleread:

Writer Paul StJohn Mackintosh has a fantastic little article on Teleread contrasting the New Weird with the New Wave of Fantasy/Science Fiction that emerged in the 1960/70s. The New Wave of Fantasy/SF was politically aware, experimental, and pushed at the boundaries of genre that were just then beginning to solidify into the forms in which we know them today. A phenomenon that appeared to have had its last gasp in the cyberpunk explosion of the 1980s. He lays some of the blame for this seeming stagnation in the realm of F/SF at the feet of Hollywood and its attendant marketing machine. The explosion that was Star Wars and the ensuing product branding and marketing acted as a barrier in genre, ‘sentries on the walls of the sci-fi ghetto‘ as StJohn Mackintosh puts it, serving to brush aside and exclude those who would seek to push at those genre defining walls.

It is the opinion of StJohn Mackintosh that Dark/Weird Fiction and Cosmic Horror have stepped up to fill in the gap left yawing by Science Fiction. That it is now the Weird that is the playground for imagination that Science Fiction once was. I do believe that he is right in this. As Science Fiction and Fantasy have become ever more mainstream over the last 30+ years they have become more strictly defined. The Weird, on the other hand, defies such strict definition. Stories of the Weird can sit squat on the outskirts of any of the readily existing genres or outside of genre conventions all together.

What does it say about our society and our time that the genre best suited to it, which is producing the most striking and imaginative writers, is rank with despair, nihilism, terror, cosmic doubt and anomie, and pure and simple horror? Well, try putting a Gernsback– or even a Kurzweil-style spin on 9/11, Iraq, the GFC, Wikileaks, ebola, etc. What kind of faith can even the lay public retain in progress, science and technology that not only have failed to stop Al Qaeda and ISIS, but have even produced climate change and global warming? Let alone an America that has ceased to believe that progress is its ally.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that much of the Weird is shot through with nihilism, terror, and despair I think that there is more to the reason for the Weird’s ascendancy as the playground for the literary imagination. 

I have written before about how the First World War was a point of cultural rupture that inspired the modernists, both high and low, and which ushered in an age of great ideological conflict. An all pervasive dichotomy  defined as capitalism/communism or east/west. We see a similar dichotomy in the work of HP Lovecraft with his horror being about both the rupture as the world changes and the dichotomies of known/unknown, natural/unnatural, civilised/non-civilised, human/non-human, WASP/non-WASP. These early works of the Weird, of Cosmic Horror, are rather illustrative of the emergence of, what would become, the global stalemate of the ‘cold’ conflict between the USSR and the USA. Over the course of the 20th Century the conflict changed from being an ideological one, as the USSR evolved into a state-capitalist mode of production, into being a conflict between two competing forms of the same economic model. It was capitalism fighting with itself about how it worked best. 

It was in this context that the New Wave emerged as artists reacted to the potential ‘hot’ conflict between these two monolithic entities. They had to find new ways to express this cultural paradigm. 

The world has again changed dramatically over the last two and a half decades. The fall of the Eastern Bloc, the events of 9/11 and the various conflicts around the world which have come in its wake -Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc- and the increasingly apparent effects of man made climate change(me from the 1990s says “I bloody well told you so”) have reshaped how we perceive our world. No longer is the threat to our civilisation an easily understandable conflict between two powers. Now there are so many factors at play it can be difficult to keep track of them all.

In Syria we have the rise of the, initially US backed, Islamic State who we are told are bad guys, and they most definitely are, yet those who are doing the best job of resisting them are the PKK who are also, we are told, bad guys. (Incidentally there have been some extremely interesting developments with the PKK and their move towards libertarian municipalism and away from left leaning nationalism) We have the increase in natural disasters caused by climate change, the resulting increase in migration. We have the rise of right wing racist organisations capitalising on the increase in migration. We have the economic cluster-fuck that is being exploited by the various ruling classes of the world to tighten their grip on their respective societies through the implementation of austerity measures. We have the increasing frequency of revelations of corruption and outright bastardry in the establishment. Chaos rather than simple conflict is the order of the day. 

It is because of this emergent obviousness of the chaos that is the world that the Weird has become the playground for those wishing to play in the literary laboratory. Science Fiction and Fantasy have become so constrained by their marketing that it becomes near impossible to use these forms to explore the constant flux and rupture of life in late capitalism. The Weird allows for near complete freedom in the artist’s approach to interpreting and presenting the world to itself. A freedom that was once enjoyed by F/SF in the time of the New Wave writers.

It isn’t simply the despair and nihilism that runs through the Weird that allows it to act as such a powerful tool for authors in the present age. It is the wild abandon with which authors can approach a theme that mirrors the chaos and turmoil in which we find ourselves. We no longer see the progress of humanity as being anywhere evidenced; perhaps this is because so much recent technological development of late has been personal -the mobile phone/pc, the internet, medicines. These things are all subtle and hidden from view. They may have changed the world but they haven’t put people on the Moon. Now we see chaos and disorder – The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere | The ceremony of innocence is drowned | The best lack all conviction, while the worst | Are full of passionate intensity – where once we saw ourselves as part of a grand narrative.

This doesn’t, however, necessitate despair or nihilism. It does however necessitate the need for an approach that is free of the constraints of genre which have developed over the last half a century or so. The new paradigm needs a new literary tool kit. The Weird is that tool kit.

NaNoWriMo

Shouldn’t it be InaNoWriMo really?

I’ve decided to give NaNoWriMo a go this year and use it as a bit of a fun way to drive myself through the first draft of a story idea I’ve been kicking around for a year or so now. The story is, mostly, set in Glasgow and focusses on a young, working class, single mother. She experiences a tragic encounter with the supernatural and finds herself struggling both with the aftermath of the tragedy, the supernatural forces behind it and her own position as a proletarian woman. Kinda like a blend of traditional Cosmic Horror, New Weird and just a dash of Social(ist) Realism. 🙂

I’ve been thinking of it as a series of three novellas which can either stand alone or be stitched together as a longer narrative. This will be part one of Marie’s Story.

I’ve set up a word count tracker in the left hand sidebar to try and egg me on to get my daily count done. Should be fun.

nanowrimo-nov03-2012