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Weird Fiction Is Alive

Weird Fiction Is Alive
07 May
9:18

“Weird
fiction,” a term coined by the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu and popularized by
H. P. Lovecraft, became a self-serious genre during the twentieth century and
the first years of this one. In the hands of Samuel R. Delany, China Miéville,
and Octavia Butler, it has taken on Borgesian solemnity, straying from
Lovecraft’s haunting but minimal formulation: a “certain atmosphere of
breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present.”
But two recently released books—one old, one new—show us that those “unknown
forces” do not have to remake the entire world in order to be weird. Our
littles lives are strange enough.

Belly Up, a debut story collection from Rita
Bullwinkel, runs on a similar kind of shuddering mirth. Like Aickman, Bullwinkel
writes very intimate and small lives filled with the details that make daily
existence absurd, which are then shot through with thought experiment. “By the
time my daughter came of age,” the story “Hunker Down” opens, “the economy was
so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was
to buy her a bra.” The parents post a Craigslist ad for a breast-holder, and
Mark fits the bill. Once Mark’s hands are gnarled beyond repair, the parents
replaced Mark with Evan, with the first employee training the new one. “The two
of them, Evan and Mark, could be seen before dawn in dutiful practice—hunching
over in the dark, cupping air and pacing the length of our lawn.”

BELLY UP: STORIES by Rita BullwinkelA Strange Object, 192 pp., $14.95

When
an author paints bourgeois life with such attention and care only to rip it
open with the supernatural, they do something different than the Gothic
thrill-peddlers of old. Novels like Dracula,
The Mysteries of Udolpho, or Frankenstein often drew upon the
material of ordinary life, either by using epistolary forms or simply beginning
their narration in the normal world. But each is powered by a desire for the
sublime. Death and magic are romantic old subjects. And Gothic novels,
especially the older ones like Walpole’s medieval-flavored The Castle of Otranto (1764), often looked backwards in time.  

Aickman
is not Gothic because his stories contain no romance and no serious interest in
the past. The stuff of the past rears
up—devils, bodies from the grave—but the setting is almost rigorously boring. His
ambitions are smaller, less philosophical, and more amusing. We can see
Bullwinkel as an inheritor to Aickman’s particular strain of weird fiction.
She’s not alone: Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2017 story collection Homesick
for Another World
 
also rubbed the prosaic against the disgusting and the
magical. Ordinary life is boring, all these writers show, and that is precisely
where the horror lies.

Both
Moshfegh and Bullwinkel are literary writers, MFA-holders. Aickman didn’t go to
university at all. But Bullwinkel and Aickman share important interests:
ecclesiastical horror, ghost stories, the grotesquery of ordinary romance. A big
difference lies in their treatment of children. Aickman looks back on childhood
as a sort of conventionalizing process that hampers adult imagination, such as
a scene in “Marriage” of the boys “at the Grammar School, when forbidden to
speak in detention.” But Bullwinkel uses children’s eyes to see madness.

In
“Nave,” the story that seems to be Belly Up’s soul and the inspiration for its title,
the narrator says her father told her that “our church had a belly.” It was
called the nave. “When we went to church I brought it things I thought it would
like,” she writes. “I stuffed almonds in my pockets and gummy bears in the
backs of my shoes. I whispered things to the floor, sure that the nave could
hear me. I said, ‘I know you must be hungry because all the adults bring you is
money.’” 

The narrator of “Nave” crams her offerings into the church’s floor, imagining that a ravenous being lies below. Both Aickman and Bullwinkel perform autopsies on hidden entities that lie just under the surface of daily existence. Is that hungry spirit god, the devil, some mythical creature, or simply our own hideous human nature? By refusing grand stakes and instead conducting funny fictional experiments, Aickman and Bullwinkel get closer to the truth; closer to describing whatever lives under the floorboards. 

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