This is a guest post from Claire Quigley. Claire is a PhD student, writing on the topic of contemporary weird fiction. Loves science fiction, magical realism, and literature with a dark subtext. Often found conducting bookish ramblings on Booktube. Follow her on Twitter @clairequip.
Weird fiction can be unpredictable. First of all, weird fiction isn’t really a strict genre. It’s essentially a blend of different genres – a melting pot of science fiction, horror, urban fantasy, Gothic literature, magical realism, and more. Weird fiction is an open system that borrows from these other genres to produce a sense of the Weird in works of literature. The Weird creates a sense of unease within its reading audience, keeping you unsettled with the thought that all is not as it seems – as if there is something dark luring just under the narrative’s surface. Another benefit to weird fiction’s genre-fluidity is it doesn’t get bogged down in tired stereotypes and stale tropes, so the reader often doesn’t know what causes this sense of dread. You often have no idea where the plot is going!
A great place to start with weird fiction is Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The series follows scientists and researchers who work for a clandestine government agency called The Southern Reach, whose purpose is to investigate a strange and mysterious wilderness known as ‘Area X.’ The first book in the series, Annihilation, is probably the most Weird because it’s just so darn creepy, but the whole series is so psychologically gripping you’ll feel compelled to keep reading the entire trilogy.
The Weird works great in short format. If you’re unsure about diving head-first into weird fiction, don’t worry. The good news is, as a Weird newcomer, you don’t have to dedicate yourself to reading a doorstop of a book because the Weird weaves its way through many short stories. The reason weird fiction works particularly well in shorter pieces is because short stories, by their very nature, are good at staying focused. The Weird is much easier to foreground in a short story that maintains one central idea, ensuring a dedication to the Weird is well-contained.
If you want to focus on one author, I would highly recommend Kelly Link. Her short story collection, Magic for Beginners is a dynamic collection of bizarre, creepy and often very funny stories that are wonderfully strange and surprising. A great story to start with is “Stone Animal,” a little novella centered on a family haunted by the postmodern world (and possibly by ghosts). Another must-read is the titular story “Magic for Beginners” about a small town obsessed with a peculiar TV show that begins to encroach on their lives. Don’t try to analyse these stories – just enjoy the crazy journey!
Weird fiction appeals to your inner teenage-self. Something that keeps weird fiction interesting is it’s the potential to be oddly funny and a little bit gross. When I read a weird fiction story, I often think, “this is so gross and strange, but I’m so into it.” So, I basically return to my teenage mind-set.
A novel that stands out is Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. This follows the life of 13-year-old Ava Bigtree as she goes through some not-s0-typical trials of adolescence. Ava’s her father desperately tries to keep open the family’s failing alligator-wrestling theme park, and her sister starts sneaking out at night to date her ghost boyfriends. This book also delivers some serious gut-punches, too.
Another awesome read is the lesser-known The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley. The Beauty is a dark novella about a society of grieving men who become infatuated with grotesque yet enticing fungoid women known collectively as the Beauty. It also expertly plays with traditional gender roles, in the weirdest way possible. This book is quite gross and disturbing, but so beautifully written you’ll be compelled to read on.
The Weird can also help you through an existential crisis. By now you can tell that weird fiction is naturally unsettling. One of the things it unsettles is our taken-for-granted view of the world. The weirdness of weird fiction makes the reader consider what it truly means to be human, because Weird stories excel in blurring the boundary between human and animal, human and alien, human machine. Weird fiction will expand your world by making you question your place in the universe – all while you eagerly await the next page.
If you want books that make you re-think humanity’s place in the cosmos, try some classic H.P. Lovecraft Weird Tales. Read “The Call of Cthulhu” and “Out of the Aeons” to discover a world at the mercy of giant demon-deities, uncaring and unconcerned with the trivial human race. Lovecraft’s stories will make you realise we are nothing more than insignificant ants in a colossal cosmic narrative.
If that sounds a bit too heavy, take a look at China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. This novel is urban fantasy with a weird twist, a narrative that winds through the lives of the industrial city of New Crobuzon. The city is a bizarre hub of hybrid creatures, unconventional mad scientists, grotesque monstrosities and women with giant beetles for heads. There’s truly something for everyone! As you can see, the Weird comes in all sorts of different flavours – I’m sure you’ll find something to suit your taste.