China Miéville’s essay on forbears and mascots of the Weird, “M. R. James and the Quantum Vampire,” was republished over at the Weird Fiction Review back in 2011; I finally got around to reading it lately. It’s characteristically baroque and acrobatic.
I’m putting down here some of the highlights, mostly for my own clarification and reference:
- The assertion that the tentacular is the avatar of the Weird, on the basis that the octopus is ontologically challenging (shapeshifting, armed and/or legged, both swimming and walking, etc.) and without folkloric precedent as a Big Bad Beastie. (But what about the kraken, in “[h]is ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep” [thanks Tennyson]? Could that be said to be more of a literary precedent than a pervasive folkloric element? Eh. Unconvinced; it seems like a convenient omission to me.)
- The lack of historical & folkloric precedent being another hallmark of the Weird, as opposed to the Hauntological. Hauntology is a Derrida thing and I make no claims to being a connoisseur of Derrida, but my understanding is that its principal claim is that the present exists only with reference to the past. Miéville here uses it very literally: referring to the condition suggested by ghost stories, where ghosts represent an intrusion or remnant of an actual, historical past. The Lovecraftian Weird, by contrast, invents the history, the mythology, the tradition that reemerges to disrupt the present. Being literal about that dimension at least: the horror is not that of the return of the repressed, but the return of the invented, the return of the never-was.
- That M. R. James’ work, with his beastly, insistently tactile and physical, yet historical ghosts, represents a pivot and transition between the Hauntological and the Weird.
- And witness the documentation of Miéville’s skulltopus obsession. Hah.
4 thoughts on ““Weird; Hauntological””
I had always thought that ghosts, vampires, and werewolves were weird; I guess I’m out of date. I’m not clear, though, on why James’ ghosts count as weird while other ghosts do not.
He’s using a very specific, Lovecraft-centric definition of Weird (hence I guess Weird with a capital W); I too am personally happy with the term as a catch-all for anything that feels “weird enough” to me.
But he counts James’ ghosts as almost capital-W Weird because rather than being traditionally immaterial specters, they always seem to manifest in material ways – James is so big on the creep factor of hairy, cloth-y, leathery textures. Plus there are tentacles in “Count Magnus”!
Begin with an otherworldly dream realm of fantasy, horror and science-fiction then give it an infinity of time to let it breathe and brood beneath a veil of eldritch psychedelica, and you have the alchemical genesis of the Weird tale.