My love of supernatural stories inevitably led to me discover the side-genre of what is now known as weird fiction. My very first encounter was with Robert Aickman’s ‘The Swords’, as in my teens I collected all the Pan Books of Horror Stories and the Fontana Books of Ghost Stories, and Aickman edited the first eight volumes of the latter. Each of the Fontana collections included a story by him – editor’s privilege!
Regarded as somewhat more respectable than simple horror, examples of weird fiction can be found in the work of Truman Capote (Miriam) and Flannery O’Connor (Good Country People), as well as many other ostensibly mainstream, literary writers. Shirley Jackson, Oliver Onions – and more recently Lisa Tuttle – have also written many superbly peculiar stories. But Aickman has come to be seen as the king of the genre – a well-deserved accolade. You can now find collections dedicated solely to weird fiction – not just the odd (usually very odd) story cropping up in horror anthologies.
Such an example is ‘Aickman’s Heirs’, edited by Simon Strantzas, a beautifully produced book from Undertow Publications. I was drawn to it because I’m such an Aickman fan, and am repelled by the majority of modern horror, which often relies too much on blood and guts and being as disgusting as possible. Weird fiction is quirky, thought-provoking, disorientating, but rarely visceral. Guts are too crude a prop for this genre.
Aickman’s Heirs is an excellent book – I enjoyed reading it immensely. I only have a couple of slight criticisms, which I’ll get out of the way first. One of the most unsettling aspects of Aickman’s fiction is that it – on the whole – features very ordinary people, in ordinary lives, who suddenly collide with the weird. Their familiar world is thrown off-kilter, reality skews like a tilted, broken mirror. In ‘Aickman’s Heirs’, a few of the story protagonists are detached from reality from the start – teetering on madness – so to my mind this isn’t exactly ‘weird’ as Aickman wrote it. Perhaps inspired by him – after all, the editor stresses in his introduction that Aickman is a one-off, never to be emulated – but borderline insane characters make it easier to write ‘weird’, and to me it’s a kind of cheating. Someone going out of their mind is not weird – simply mad. Their world might get very odd indeed, but it’s a world of their own making. In a truly weird story, the protagonists are hapless victims, who find themselves in a reality that’s fallen out of balance. The world looks the same, but it’s not. They are seeing beneath the skin of the world, or seeing through it. There might be hints that what they experience is entirely subjective, but is it? That’s the magic of the weird.
I also found some degree of self-consciousness in a couple of the tales, as if the writers were striving a tad too hard to be clever and impenetrable. Aickman’s stories always appeared effortless and the author was invisible within them. That said, all the tales here are well written, and there are some absolute gems among them. Which is far more than can be said for most horror collections that are published.
As with all the best of weird fiction, these stories reward you if you read them more than once. The first time through you might think ‘what??’, but the story has got under your skin. You want to understand it, so read it again, perhaps this time intuiting more of what might be going on. The author doesn’t tell you. It’s almost as if they flirt with you, beguiling your senses, laughing off-stage as you attempt to penetrate the mystery. You think about the story afterwards. You discuss it with friends. ‘What do you think?’ you might ask. I love that aspect of the weird. After reading Capote’s ‘Miriam’, I was desperate to talk about it with others who’d read it. The tale was almost maddening, yet utterly bewitching. I had to talk about it. To pull this off, a writer has to know their craft intimately. They must be adept with language and nuance. It’s a difficult genre to master, because in clumsy hands, stories in this vein merely become irritating rather than remaining intriguing mysteries. One of the problems of weird fiction is that there are examples within it of writers trying to be literary and obscure, but coming off as simply pretentious. Aickman was always convincing, even at his most peculiar.
Now to what I liked in ‘Aickman’s Heirs’. I particularly enjoyed ‘Camp’, by David Nickle, a tale of a recently-married gay couple on their honeymoon. Meeting a friendly elderly couple, who invite the pair to stay at their camping site, they eventually end up canoeing off into the wilds to reach this destination. And this is where their extremely comfortable, ordinary lives crash into strangeness. Reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’, the landscape here feels almost sentient and far from benevolent. Understated. Beautifully composed. The mundane is shattered irretrievably.
I also enjoyed ‘Seaside Town’ by Brian Evenson, the story of a rather anti-social man who is left stranded in a foreign holiday village by his more gregarious girlfriend. His discomfort in a strange land is compounded by the fact that the reality around him is far from certain. His inability to speak the local language only worsens his situation. In a Hitchcockian manner, he observes from his window rather than participates in events, but when he is drawn outside… The writer deftly creates a mystery that is far from solved, but I didn’t come away from it feeling short-changed or the victim of deliberate literary obtuseness – which undeniably can be a failing of the genre.
Reading ‘The Dying Season’ by Lynda E Rucker, I felt the author must have visited a holiday village as described in the story. There’s an authenticity to the detail. I could imagine the writer, perhaps as a child, finding in this very mundane setting of identical cabins a kind of terror – the uniformity becomes sinister, disorientating. The uniform shacks are like traps to snare the unwary. And what exactly did happen in the cabin next door? It’s apparently abandoned, hasn’t been lived in for years, yet the protagonist, on her arrival at the place, hears the voice of child within. We also find some ‘living odd’ in a couple of the characters – something Aickman often included in his tales. The protagonist might be Mr or Ms Ordinary, but then they meet someone who is patently ‘other’, and cannot walk away from this meeting unchanged. In ‘The Dying Season’, we’re not sure whether the only other apparent inhabitants of the holiday village are just mannered Goth types, striving to be wacky and unconventional, or something distinctly more unsettling – creatures with masks. They are liars with ulterior motives, certainly, but… This story has no end. It stops, but is far from finished. And the fact you don’t discover what happens next is more terrifying than actually being shown. Deft, assured. A fine example of the genre.
It’s interesting that the three examples above all involve protagonists being on holiday, drawn away from their day to day lives. Holidays are supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable, yet in all these cases the opposite proves true. Holidays, you might end up thinking, are treacherous. Anything can happen when you step outside your ordinary existence of job, home and familiar territory. You liberate yourself in a way that perhaps also makes you vulnerable. You are unhitched from the mundane, floating free. But into what?
As for my favourites, there are three. I’ll mention first ‘Two Brothers’ by Malcolm Devlin (but I like all three stories equally). On the one hand it concerns a boy whose (slightly) older brother has been sent away to school. The brother who returns for the holidays seems strangely and unsettlingly different. And what the protagonist William stumbles across in the woods during his brother’s visit implies the change is sinister, perhaps unspeakable. On the other hand, the story spoke to me of a child losing a friend, or in this case a brother, to looming adulthood. (I wrote of this myself recently in a story called ‘The Violet House or Songs the Martyrs Sang’, which is to be published in a collection called ‘Splinters of Truth’ by Newcon Press next year). While reading ‘Two Brothers’, you feel that sense of loss and bewilderment. Is it simply that or…? That is the playful nature of a story of the weird.
My next favourite is ‘A Change of Scene’ by Nina Allen. Again, featuring two women on holiday from their normal lives, but in this case following bereavements. Both are widows, and the meeker and more malleable Iris is taken by the still glamorous and vibrant Phrynne to a Norfolk town where Phrynne spent her honeymoon. Iris soon notices inconsistencies with Phrynne’s recollections of the past – deliberate lies or simply because of a faulty memory? These women have a history, and Phrynne holds a hurtful secret, which when it comes out and despite Iris’ best efforts to be ‘nice’ can’t help but anger her. The atmosphere is both dreamy and fizzing – if such traits can exist alongside each other. The weird creeps in with beautiful subtlety, like mist off the sea. Something once happened in this place.
I’ve always loved Lisa Tuttle’s work, and her story here ‘The Book That Finds You’ is another fine example of her deft hand. It concerns a young writer and enthusiast of weird stories, who comes across an author no one appears to have heard of – J W Archibald. She finds a battered old paperback in a second hand store and is entranced by the contents. Archibald’s work is described as being much like Aickman’s. Eventually, the protagonist finds what she believes to be a soulmate, a fellow enthusiast, who not only knows of the collection she found but owns more work by Archibald. It’s difficult to say more of this story in a review because the weirdness doesn’t really start to creep in until after certain things happen that would certainly be plot spoilers. Suffice to say our heroine collides with the strange on a visit to Archibald’s home country. Fiction bleeds into reality, but not in a way you’d expect.
As well as the favourite stories I’ve mentioned above, all the pieces are good reads, even what I considered to be the weakest of them – and after all, that is down to taste and preference. Other readers might prefer the more hallucinatory stories.
I’m at present compiling an anthology of weird fiction with Paul Houghton, who’s a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies at Staffs University. We’re both huge fans of the genre. But the majority of submissions we’ve had in are simply horror stories. Despite our – we thought – carefully worded brief for contributions, some authors don’t quite seem to ‘get’ what weird fiction is. A vampire is not weird. A serial killer is not weird. Supernatural, yes, horrible, yes, but not weird. These tropes are simply too familiar. A writer of the weird looks for the unfamiliar in everyday situations and people.
Any writer who wishes to dip their toes into weird fiction should read ‘Aickman’s Heirs’ to see how it’s done well. I’m delighted that discovering this volume has led me to writers I’ve not read before, which means there will be more books for me to discover and devour. To assist in this aim, Undertow Publications have other fascinating titles I’m keen to read, among them ‘The Year’s Best Weird Fiction’ (one volume 2014 available, with 2015 to come), and also ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’ which was and is an annual anthology. Sadly, not many of them remain in print. I noticed from the Undertow web site that a few of their list are available as eBooks. I really hope the earlier volumes of ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’ are eventually released in this format too. As a publisher myself, I hate to see books go out of print completely, especially when I have a hankering to read them!
Here’s a link to the site: http://www.undertowbooks.com/