Tag Archives: Weird Fiction

John Darnielle, Universal Harvester

Sometimes a book clearly does not belong to a genre, but works so much like that genre it seems to belong in spirit. Take John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester. It has the story-shape and uncanny affect of weird fiction despite not, in the end, containing anything weird. And though it draws from the horror-fiction end of the genre more than the Borgesian, there’s nothing horrific about it; it is, instead, gentle and compassionate. It’s weird-fiction adjacent.

(I almost don’t want to say that much… I don’t usually worry about spoilers here; I’m writing responses to books, not the kind of book reviews you’d read beforehand to gauge your interest. But I so rarely go into a novel not even knowing what kind of story it’s telling, and that feeling of discovery is amazing, so if this novel sounds interesting just go read it. This essay will still be here when you’re done.)

Universal Harvester starts with Jeremy Heidt, a video rental clerk in Nevada, Iowa, in the 1990s. Customers are coming in perturbed; they report uncomfortably strange scenes spliced into their copies of Targets and She’s All That. Jeremy, his boss Sarah Jane, and their customer and enthusiastic investigator Stephanie (a teacher who maybe finds small-town Iowa a little boring after the University of Chicago) play back the tapes and see short, inexplicable flashes: the inside of a shed, people wearing canvas sacks over their heads, a woman fleeing a farm. Sarah thinks she recognizes the farmhouse.

Universal Harvester tells its story with the tools of found footage. Appropriately for a book about a video store, it’s a cinematic genre.[1] The point of found footage is that it’s incomplete. Most movies assume the camera is omniscient; it knows the whole story and can show the audience any part. The found footage camera narrates from inside the story. It asks us to reconstruct the story from incomplete data and a limited point of view. It’s often said of horror movies that what the audience doesn’t see is scarier than what it does: the images in the viewer’s imagination are wilder (and more specific to that viewer!) than anything the filmmakers could come up with. A good found footage movie extends this principle to the narrative logic. The story in the gaps is more uncanny than what’s on screen.[2]

Universal Harvester’s narrator seems omniscient. It tells us about Jeremy’s job and home life, how he’s considering a new job in Des Moines. About how his mother died, and his father’s tentative new relationship. It tells us what’s going through his head at times. Oddly, it also tells us things that could have happened prefaced by phrases like “in some versions of this story.” Did Jeremy have an argument with his father? Did he get a job at a soil-testing lab, or stay longer at the Video Hut? When a personal pronoun slips out it confirms what we already suspected: the narrator is inside the story. The narrator knows Jeremy pretty well but what we’re reading is, in places, just a version of his story, reconstructed from available information.

Adding to Universal Harvester‘s aura of found footage is a documentary feel helped by its strong sense of place. Nevada, Iowa is a real town, not far from where I grew up. Contrary to popular belief Iowa isn’t all rural; I’ve spent my entire life in university towns, so Jeremy’s culture isn’t mine. But I know enough to tell Universal Harvester has the atmosphere right. I recognize the characters’ affect, their reticence, the way the favorite topic at family gatherings is who’s moved where. The geography’s right, too; Darnielle seems to know the area from more than Google maps.

There’s a second horror influence contributing to Universal Harvester’s aura of the uncanny: folk horror, or whatever the American equivalent of folk horror might be (I’ve seen good arguments that it exists). This is a novel of rural landscapes, odd rituals, and new religions born from old, in this case not a European pagan revival but a Christian cult. The cult figures into the middle of the novel, which jumps back a couple of decades to tell the story of a woman who joins a seedy strip-mall church and disappears with it when it flees town, leaving behind a confused husband and daughter. They hire a detective. The daughter grows up following the cult from town to town, scanning the ever-increasing piles of surveillance tapes for some sign of a mother who, even after the cult leader is arrested and the last few members deprogrammed, never turns up again.

What happened to her? Well, there are different versions of that story.

Nobody knows you the way you know yourself. They see the pieces of your life that happen to occur in front of them. The you they know is a story they reconstruct from the fragments. The story your close friends and family know is probably pretty accurate! But the only person who knows your true, entire story is you.[3]

Universal Harvester’s narrator is reconstructing other people’s lives from the information available to her limited point of view. She’s piecing together fragments of video to find the story of a mother who disappeared. If she’s created strange rituals for herself they’re not so much attempting to reach back as out, to make connections. (Even for the mother, the cult was about connecting with something she was missing.) Universal Harvester is using weird fiction strategies to talk about the unknowability of other people’s lives, and how people reach out anyway in whatever way they know, however odd.

Most work in any genre is a bland mass of repetitious received ideas that blend into each other like gray soup. There are lots of reasons why a story might fail to rise above the general mass of forgettable oatmeal. One of the big ones is when creators never move past their first automatic assumptions about what genres, their tools, or their tropes, are for. Or what kinds of stories they could tell, whether they could be used for something new. Or whether they could bring in different tools altogether to serve the same purpose. Which is as good an argument as any for reading widely, and having a flexible concept of genre.


  1. Though I’ve read horror stories formatted as collections of documents or, especially since found footage movies took off, descriptions of in-story videos.  ↩

  2. There are a lot of terrible found footage movies out there; they fail mostly because they failed to understand this. Most of them actually have two layers of thoughtless tropes. You can tell the filmmakers copied the style without thinking about what it’s doing because they’re using it to tell utterly rote, generic horror-movie stories: clearly defined character and thematic arcs, action climaxes, downbeat endings. There’s usually a point in these movies–maybe while the characters are running for their lives; maybe, alternately, while they’re having an argument that includes some important exposition but the characters themselves wouldn’t bother recording for posterity–when the audience asks why are these people filming this? The answer being because the filmmakers couldn’t conceive of a movie without the kind of scenes only an omniscient narrator would film.  ↩

  3. Even a well-documented historical figure is, to some extent, a mystery. Like, there’s enough on Lyndon Johnson for a multi-volume biography totaling thousands of pages. But there were still unwitnessed and unrecorded moments in his life. In most of them he was probably brushing his teeth or making a cheese sandwich or something. But could some moment have revealed him to be a completely different man? Who knows?  ↩

My Best of 2010, Part Three

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms

When I review books I tend to write about theme a lot. (I hope I’m less simpleminded and reductive about it than your average high school English teacher.) N. K. Jemisin’s books have plenty of interpretive possibilities–among others, there are ideas here about power, and how it interacts with religion, and how cultures use their gods even as they think of themselves as following or living under those gods–but I must confess that when I read these what I most appreciated was their narrative drive.

I read these books at times when I was frustrated with stories padded with meaningless action, narrative cul-de-sacs, and excess exposition. (Too many recent books, and way too many movies, seem to think that unless they overemphasize and overexplain everything their audiences won’t Get It.) Attention spans are shrinking, but so many novels and films feel weirdly long, harder to sit through than many genuinely longer older works. So it’s a relief to come across novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms which earn their length. These books plunge straight into their plots, deliver worldbuilding and backstory as they go, and waste no time.

These are both “outsider caught in a world of complicated schemes and political maneuvers” books, and both sidestep one of the usual problems with this plot type: it often discourages active protagonists. It’s easy for this kind of book to resemble a stereotypical mediocre hard-boiled detective story whose narrator bounces from thug to thug, gets exposited at, and ends every scene by falling unconscious from a blow to the head. I was glad these books–The Broken Kingdoms in particular–starred narrators who had goals and were constantly making plans.

I also loved that these were two more entries in an my favorite fantasy-genre trend: series whose individual volumes are complete novels, not chunks of a 3000-page epic narrative. (In my cynical moods I suspect the epic-writers have no faith that their audience will come back unless they’re left hanging. In my case, they’re the ones I’m most likely to drop, partly because by the time I’ve picked up volume two I’ve usually forgotten the plot of volume one.)

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Red Tree

I started writing a couple of paragraphs about this, then realized the paragraphs were threatening to turn into a short essay, as much about the horror genre as about this book. I hope to finish that essay and post it; in the meantime, I’ll just say I liked the book.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future

I wrote about this around the time I read it.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

This is another book I’ve already written about.

China Miéville, Kraken

As with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I liked Kraken for the force of its story. It’s probably not China Miéville’s best novel, but he seems to have had fun writing it. The prose reads like it’s running, like it’s tripping over itself to get the ideas out–and there are a lot of ideas here: the book starts with the impossible theft of a giant squid and from there sprawls out in all directions. The pages ooze enthusiasm and some of that enthusiasm transferred to me at a moment when I was having a hard time feeling enthusiastic about anything at all.

Kraken is Miéville’s stab at the “hidden magical subculture existing in the margins of a modern city” genre. (I’m trying hard not to call it “urban fantasy,” because these days that term means at least two different things.) What distinguishes Kraken, besides Miéville’s abundant imagination, is its attitude towards magic. Sometimes these “the real world, but with magic!” stories set up a magic-vs.-science rivalry, in which “science” (or “technology”) is a mysterious force opposed to magic. Which annoys me. First, because it misrepresents what science actually is–it’s a process, not a hegemonic culture, philosophy of life, or force of nature. Second, because these stories always push us to root for magic–which is, wow, so creative and dreamy–and against science, which is cramped and closed-minded and inhuman, apparently. Anyone whose sense of wonder has ever been tripped by witty, enthusiastic science writing knows this is not an honest argument. Fantasy isn’t real, but it’s about reality, and when a story touches something real and isn’t honest about it, in a poetic or metaphorical sense, it grates.

So it’s wonderful that Kraken doesn’t prescribe any particular attitude towards magic. Maybe you’re awestruck, but it’s just as okay to think, as Kraken’s protagonist Billy does while pondering the Law of Sympathy, it’s “trite” that “a thing has power, moronically enough, because it’s a bit like something else.” Billy works in a natural history museum. He’s a tour guide, not a scientist, but he sees the world with a scientist’s eyes. Kraken,unusually for an urban fantasy, suggests that the rational, curious, investigative approach of a scientist might be as valid a way to understand a fantasy universe as it is to understand the real world.

The Comics that Scare Me

Mention horror comics and most comics fans picture something like this:

A panel from Four Color Fear.

(That’s from the recent anthology Four Color Fear. Which I will also post about at some point, although in that case the horrific bits aren’t what I intend to write about.)

As that panel suggests, most comics that get classified as “horror” aren’t so much scary as campy. Some people don’t think comics can be viscerally scary at all, and they have a point, but there’s a caveat. As Richard Cook writes in the essay I just linked to:

To the extent that “scary” refers to the visceral, immediate fears that horror movies deliver so effortlessly, the answer is yes. But if “scary” also encompasses the deeply-rooted fears and common anxieties of the readers, then perhaps there is some hope for horror comics.

A recent post at the blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics about scary moments–scary in the “anxious” sense–which snuck into ordinary superhero comics got me thinking about what comics, if any, give me the sense of creeping unease I get from good weird fiction.1 And the first answer that came was Jim Woodring’s Frank. Which might sound a little weird on first blush to anybody only vaguely familiar with Frank, because Frank looks like this:

The cover of Frank number one.

Frank’s world–dubbed the “Unifactor”–is not immediately alarming (though it gets more so the closer you look). But it unsettles me–something the merely queasy EC tradition of O.-Henry-with-gore horror comics can’t pull off. To explain why Frank is so much more powerful than Tales from the Crypt (and why I suspect the unsettling core of this work might whisper too quietly, or in too foreign a tongue, for some readers to hear) I’ll first have to describe the kind of thing Woodring does.

One story that particularly creeped me out was “Frank in the Ruse Garden.” This is the story that finishes the first Frank collection published by Fantagraphics in 1994; I’m pretty sure it also appears in the big Frank hardcover and the recent Portable Frank. Like all the Frank stories, it’s told without dialogue, and it goes like this:

Portable Frank Cover Art

A leaflet in Frank’s mailbox informs him that he’s won a dream vacation. Unbeknownst to Frank it was put there Manhog, the Unifactor’s resident ne’er-do-well. Which explains why, after a long drive into a stony and desolate landscape, Frank finds a deserted cabin jutting half over a crevasse. The accommodations are ramshackle, the views aren’t verdant so much as vertiginous, and the only entertainment option is the Rev. J. Bufo’s fine book, The Case Against Art. Frank beds down and makes the best of things.

He wakes in the night to pounding and clattering. A swarm of animate hammers are whacking at the porch. Frank chases them off. They come back. Frank stuffs them into a pillowcase and tosses them into the canyon. He’s just chasing down one more that had a go at his car when he trips over a shape which rises out of the dirt to reveal a Great. Big. Momma. Hammer.

Uh-oh.

A chase scene! Lots of really scary-looking pounding from the big hammer! The hammer backs Frank up to the cliff… and overbalances, plummeting to the ravine floor like Wile E. Coyote.

As that last reference suggests, this is, in outline, all very Warner Brothers. Maybe like one of those slightly alarming Robert Clampett cartoons.2 But that’s not what I think of when I read the actual comic. “Frank in the Ruse Garden,” like all the Frank stories, like most of Jim Woodring’s work, is one hundred percent unadulterated Uncanny. Like Jim Woodring saw fever dreams we’d forgotten ages ago, and put them down on paper to remind us.

Woodring’s deep blacks and strong pen strokes have the look of and 18th-century woodcut from a book of forgotten lore. It feels like there’s more information there, revelations for readers who look hard enough and understand the context. And the night scenes of “Frank in the Ruse Garden” have a feeling of darkness and silence and aloneness that’s hard to capture in comics; I know what night feels like at Frank’s cabin, what the nothing-but-clattering sounds like. It feels real enough that, as abstract as Frank appears, I forget he’s a… well, whatever he is. He’s more or less a person.

But mostly what makes “Frank in the Ruse Garden” very much not a Porky Pig adventure is what happens after the big hammer’s last plunge. Frank sits on the edge of the ravine and stares down. In the ravine is the pillowcase, now still, and the great hammer, broken in two, its expressionless eye completely dead. Frank has screwed up. Something unusual and tremendous has gone out of the world. No matter the provocation, Frank should never have allowed the situation to come to this.

This is one of the core conflicts driving the Frank stories. The Unifactor is an animistic world of spirits and strange forces. Time and again, Frank comes in contact with numinous wonders, and fail to rise to the occasion. Frank comes upon a field of floating souls, and grabs one to use as a flying horse. Frank dives into a well ringed with eyes, and emerges mutated and warped. Frank wanders into the House of the Dead wearing a party hat, and it’s, like, awkward.

Manhog, too, tends to bite off more than he can even get his teeth around. He doesn’t just fail to rise to the occasion–he doesn’t realize there’s an occasion to rise to. Frank wanders down the wrong path because he’s looking for something indefinable, hungry for meaning; Manhog is just hungry. Usually Manhog ends up in worse shape than Frank.

The difference is that Frank is open to whatever experience has to teach him. Manhog never learns; he believes he knows everything he needs to, so his surprises are usually nasty ones. Frank knows the world is bigger than he is, it’s full of things he doesn’t understand, and he actively tries to learn to understand them. He may not do the right thing but in the end he at least learns what the right thing is, even if it’s sometimes too late.

Here’s why I find the Frank stories creepy as well as uncanny, and why “Frank in the Ruse Garden” scared me more than anything from the Vault of Horror, and why it might not scare someone else at all. Lurking under the surface of Frank are philosophical horrors, quietly unsettling ideas: “Good” is not a switch you flip. Rising above Manhog’s level is not a one-time effort, it’s an active, constant process, something you get up every morning and do. For all his good intentions, with the best will in the world, sometimes Frank is still the kind of person who can throw a pillowcase of baby hammers off a cliff. And Frank, as strange as he looks, is us.


  1. Well, relatively recent. Check the date and compare it to this post, and you’ll see just how long it takes me to write a thing these days. ↩

  2. I’m grateful I didn’t see “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” until I was an adult; as a child I’d have had nightmares for weeks. As it was, I was more than sufficiently freaked out by Tex Avery’s “The Legend of Rockabye Point.” ↩

M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

Any classic ghost story anthology worth the tree-pulping will have something by M. R. James. Usually it’s “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” or “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” It’s almost never “Wailing Well.” “Wailing Well” is not one of M. R. James’s all-time best stories. Nevertheless, it has its good points.

The Premise

A troop of Boy Scouts are camping in the countryside. Their scout leaders warn them not to enter the area marked off on their map by a red line. This works as well as you would expect.

Where to Find It

“Wailing Well,” written in 1927, wasn’t included in James’s four original collections but is available in the Penguin Classics volume The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Stories. There’s also an etext of this story at Gaslight so you might as well go read it before continuing.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

“Wailing Well” doesn’t begin like a horror story and continues looking unlike a horror story for what feels like a long time (though actually only a few paragraphs). Continue reading M. R. James, “Wailing Well”

The Uninvited Face

Cover Art

Casting around for ideas to get myself blogging again, I thought I might bow to October’s zeitgeist and devote the month to the horror genre–or at least to the part of the genre I like: the part that’s uncanny, not gruesome, and sometimes a little old-timey. I plan to cover ten underappreciated stories or movies. (Or more, if I can swing it. I briefly thought of going for 31, but in my current state of distraction that’s just a little overambitious.) Most will probably not be as long as this essay.

I’ll start with “The Uninvited Face,” a short story by Michael Asquith, because, damn, this one really is obscure. I had no idea how obscure until I tried researching it: as far as I can tell (from, admittedly, just Google and Google Books) Michael Asquith never wrote anything but “The Uninvited Face,” and “The Uninvited Face” never appeared anywhere after it first saw print in The Third Ghost Book edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith (1955). And what with the double Asquith, I’m guessing that was nepotism.

Despite that, it’s very good. (And not the only obscure but stunning one-off story in this volume. Marghanita Laski had a long writing career, but “The Tower”–briefly reviewed in The Third Ghost Book’s entry in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s Horror: Another 100 Best Books–is apparently her only ghost story.)

To save time, I’ll use a set format for these reviews–first the premise, then where to find the story, then some analysis.

The Premise

Dr. Graham, an elderly physician, recounts the story of Julian Ferris, a government scientist plagued by the knowledge that, in the Cold War 1950s, his work will be turned to no good end… and by the apparition of a friendly, but not quite human, face, which seems to be offering something Julian begins to think he should accept.

Where to Find It

As stated above, you’ll pretty much have to find a copy of Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Third Ghost Book.

Analysis (With Spoilers)

This might be the only story ever published by Michael Asquith, but this can’t be the only thing he ever wrote; the writing is too assured. If there’s a flaw, it’s that Asquith sometimes summarizes things that might have been played out in dialogue–Julian’s first description of the Face, for instance. Asquith’s style reads smoothly and he knows when and how to change it: he shifts to a fast-moving, almost stream-of-consciousness present tense for the chaotic climax.

One of the few slips in tone comes when Dr. Graham tells us Julian’s father, a painter, was “a portrayer, that is, if I may speak bluntly, of the diseased, the blasphemous and the obscene.” That’s right: Mr. Ferris was (gasp) a surrealist. I bet he also listened to jazz music and hung out with beatniks! It’s not clear just how reliable a narrator Dr. Graham was intended to be. On an Occam’s-razor basis, I’d assume “perfectly.” But Dr. Graham’s inadvertently hilarious get-off-my-lawn moments affect how much I want to trust him, which affects how I read the story. More on this later. Continue reading The Uninvited Face

Widdershins, Black Spirits and White

Widdershins by Oliver Onions and Black Spirits and White by Ralph Adams Cram are collections of ghost stories available from Project Gutenberg.


Oliver Onions’s most famous story is “The Beckoning Fair One.” Oliver Onions’s only famous story is “The Beckoning Fair One.” Now that I’ve read Widdershins I think I know why. All writers have wells they go back to but in Widdershins Onions found one he couldn’t leave alone. He gives us “The Beckoning Fair One,” and then every second story is “The Beckoning Fair One” again, only less good.

Onions’s favorite subjects are writers and artists. He likes stories about artists driven to madness by dubious muses. “The Beckoning Fair One” is of course the best of these. The narrator of “Benlian” falls under the spell of a sculptor who is literally putting himself into the creation of an inept statue. The most fearsome side effect of Benlian’s domination is the narrator’s loss of his sense of aesthetics: the longer Benlian controls him, the better the crappy statue looks. In “Io,” to vary things a little, Onions writes about a young non-artist woman driven to madness by the Greek Gods. Her brother seems to have wandered in from the Drones Club. It reads like P. G. Wodehouse wrote a story confusing Keats’s “Endymion” with the Necronomicon.

Onions keeps returning to conflicts between popularity and greatness, which in his mind are incompatible. Genius is abrasive. Artists create popular crap, or see their good work go unrewarded. In “The Beckoning Fair One,” Oleron’s frustration with the latter situation may make him particularly vulnerable to the ghost. In “Hic Jacet” an Arthur Conan Doylishly self-loathing detective novelist struggles with the spirit of a deceased avant-garde colleague, and loses. I wonder whether Onions had nightmares about waking up to find his name in the bestseller list?


Ralph Adams Cram wrote exactly six ghost stories, collected in Black Spirits and White. They range in quality from treacly to terrifying. “Sister Maddalena” is the romantic treacle. “No. 252 Rue M. le Prince” and “The Dead Valley” are classics, and “In Kropfsberg Keep” and “The White Villa” are decent. Four out of six isn’t a bad record.

Cram was an architect and looks at everything with an architect’s eye. In one story the narrator solves a mystery by deducing, with his architectural knowledge, that a window should exist in a wall where there is none. Most of Cram’s stories are named after their settings, almost all of which are buildings–“No. 252 Rue M. le Prince,” “The White Villa.” “The Dead Valley” is set in the wilderness, but it’s still about a vividly detailed place. Every one is meticulously imagined–just the decor of No. 252 is enough to keep you up at night.

The people who inhabit these places are sketches. The real central characters are buildings. What’s important to Cram isn’t so much what’s haunting these places–we never learn exactly what’s going on at No. 252, or in the Dead Valley–as the places themselves.

Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio

The cover of Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio.

Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio is a great, odd book. It doesn’t quite fit any contemporary category. Some of these stories are folktales or fairy tales; some are the kind of “I swear, this really happened!” supernatural yarns you find in books of “true hauntings;” some are news of the weird. Pu Songling never drew these distinctions; to him, they were all Strange Tales. Penguin’s volume of excerpts from his apparently massive collection of stories mixes them as randomly as he did.

The fairy tales are the most developed as stories but the least interesting. Most involve fox sprits and attractive ghosts, and once you’ve read a few they all seem pretty much the same. Usually a minor scholar or bureaucrat—actually, these were almost the same profession—meets a beautiful ghost (or fox spirit) and has sex with her. Then he meets a beautiful fox spirit (or ghost) and has sex with her, too. In the end the scholar and the fox spirit and the ghost get together in a sort of group marriage. Pu Songling was a minor scholar himself and I think he needed to get out more.

The other stories, though, are weird—and, yes, they’ve been translated from a foreign culture and there are references and allusions I’m not getting, but allowing for that these are still damn strange. In one tale, the ghost of an elderly woman is seen inexplicably hopping around a courtyard, water spraying from her mouth. In another story a man sneezes and small animal falls out of his nose; it runs up his leg and fuses to his belly, and the story ends there, inconclusive and gnomic. To find these uncanny, surreal moments, it’s more than worth skimming through pages of fox spirits helping bureaucrats salve their mid-life crises.