Artillery Row

Entering the world of Weird fiction

The short stories of the long nineteenth century through the lens of Covid-19

It is not just the tone of popular Late Victorian and Edwardian short stories, it is the position of the narrator that makes them compelling for our current predicament. The male expert enters into a space in which forces they can only just grasp intellectually gradually erode their very understanding of the world. The story could have been published in the Pall Mall or Strand magazines originally, it could have been written by a female author — E. Nesbitt wrote many such stories — or it might have been an author like Algernon Blackwood, a figure whose own biography is part-John Buchan, part-Wodehouse, who realised he had a knack not just for the uncanny but for evoking whole new dimensions.

The eerie might have been ideal for expressing the experience of a city in lockdown

This tone of the man of science — the last standard bearer of the enlightenment — moving into a world where all values are inverted is oddly the very same position that Freud assumes in his rare venture into literary criticism: an essay called “The Uncanny”, published just over a century ago. In this work, Freud uses literature to discuss a condition that has no clear example in his case history. He provides a positive refutation that the uncanny is merely the appreciation of something new. He argues that the uncanny or the ‘unheimlich’ is the sudden re-emergence of that which has been hidden; that which we would rather not recognise asserting itself uncomfortably to be considered again.

Of course, the fascinating proposition in ‘The Uncanny’ — as other readers have noted — is what Freud himself may be repressing. If “the uncanny is … nothing new or foreign, but something familiar that has been estranged only by the process of repression” then the suspicion arises that Freud’s own theory may in fact emerge from the strange stories of E. T. A. Hoffman he read as a child. It may even have existed in the more contemporary story which he scoffs at in his essay about an English couple beset by ghostly crocodiles because of an exotic table they have purchased.

Maybe what he blames on fear of castration is something bigger, more unwieldy and little to do with penises. In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher noted that Freud had modelled the very structure of his inquiry into a weird story — a man of science searches for truth in the fringes of consciousness — upon a weird story. Fisher’s own book gives a valuable distinction which further helps define the weird for us today. He sets the weird up against the eerie as a preoccupation with either presence and absence.

It is Fisher’s enthusiasm for H. P. Lovecraft’s general oeuvre and for H. G. Wells’ short story “The Door in the Wall” in particular, that abides from his book rather than the later section on eerie, in which he soft-pedals through the ghost stories of M. R. James and the psychogeographic set pieces of Tarkovsky. On the face of it, the eerie might have been ideal for expressing the experience of a city in lockdown.

However, nothing makes the psychogeographic obsession with post-industrial emptiness as futile as actual emptiness. (We might amend Fisher’s distinction and suggest that the eerie is more the fear of emptiness than emptiness itself.) No, the weird is the aesthetic of our lived political reality; our anxiety has become our governing principle. The weird is primarily how we deal with a half-voluntary interior migration. Like the great weird texts; our condition is now about the contact between incommensurable worlds. Our preoccupation is with interiors and the thresholds they present to other places.

There is no better place to be confronted with what you really don’t want to think about than in total solitude

There is no better place to be confronted with what you really don’t want to think about than in total solitude or quarantine with your close family. And in this there is a glaring analogy with Freud and the Late Victorian / Edwardian writers, who write as if they were suddenly aware of the bars on their cage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ is a brilliant example; the very wallpaper the means of a woman’s enslavement: fabulous too in the inversion of the confident bourgeois man of science as a figure of dread.

If these texts, which we might call Weird, are feminist, there is always at root a deeper lying structure of class: the particular confinement of women as a product of specific historical forces. Even a writer like Saki understood the significance of class, albeit from the side of the haute-bourgeoisie. His humour, like Wodehouse’s, derives from an impossible delicacy of manners belying something truly base. In Wodehouse the baseness is stupidity but in Sakiit is barbarism. The Weird can be funny, is funny. The ridiculous sanctity that the Victorians afforded domestic space in the 19th century had become a farce by the early 20th: reason enough to joke.

But the Weird is never that straightforward of course. Although G. K. Chesterton, in his corpulence, was often represented as a straightforwardly comic figure, he understood the complex dimensions of his day, and hence a specific aspect of ours. In his essay on humour, he writes in a language of the domestic interior and exterior that are utterly apposite.

Laughter is due not to an animal cruelty but to a purely human realisation of the contrast between man’s spiritual immensity within and his littleness and restriction without, for it is itself a joke that a house should be larger inside than out.

He watched the modern world being born with greater scrutiny than most and understood its contradictions. He noted how modernity produced universe after universe, adjacent to each other, even if as a Christian, he was a strictly one-universe guy.

The way he embraced the paradoxes of thought this produced makes him not just an endlessly compelling commentator but also a great short story writer. That the tragic is comic and the comic tragic we know implicitly from our reading of Chekhov. The great master who learned his trade as a gag writer for magazines understood too that this arrangement was perfectly expressed in vignettes. Like Chesterton, his metaphysics have an acrobatic quality. So, if our inquiry into the literature of the early 20th century was led by instinct, it paid off.

We found stories that spoke directly to us in our strange new condition. The early 20th century was a time in which a rapid advance in human thinking during the 19th century was finally brought to bear on social conditions which had hitherto been invisible as a structure. The Weird would be society’s accompaniment until something profound changed. Machine Books initially published these essays in pairs by author, throughout the lockdown, and then subsequently published them together to create an entire Book of Weird.

Because, although our historical conditions are different, our confinement is similar. In his late novel Super-Cannes, J. G. Ballard — a latter day master of the short story — used the phrase ‘microdoses of madness like the minute traces of strychnine in a nerve tonic’ to describe low-level crime in an affluent community. He could, of course, be describing the effect of his short stories; or those that preceded his.

These stories are like vaccines: interim ones until a larger solution arrives

One of the effects of lockdown has been to remove serendipity, surprise and real threat, as opposed to an invisible, frequently exaggerated one. The Weird story always has some menace to it. And we need a little menace. If we are going to imagine the threat of coronavirus with charts our only aid, why not imagine something more lucid? Closer? More terrifying? We are experiencing a supposedly momentous world historical event not as drama but as general ennui: a paradox worthy of Chesterton.

To be unsettled, for example, by a century-old fable of voluntary isolation for a bet is to remind ourselves not only that our predicament has precedent, but also — and isn’t this quite the bonus —that we can explore the real nature of our responses to the current condition. These stories are like vaccines: interim ones until a larger solution arrives.

This is a bespoke edit of the introduction from The Machine Book of Weird, a collection of short stories that explore the consequence of society’s sudden interior turn.

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