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Mooncalves coverMiles Davis, the Prince of Darkness, made his name in the frenetic world of bebop by playing his trumpet as little as possible, emphasizing not a constant stream of notes, but the gaps between them. “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play,” he was fond of saying. Robert Aickman, who started publishing his “strange stories” not long after Davis’s first recordings were issued (1954 vs. 1945), once said that an effective piece of weird fiction “must open a door, preferably where no one had previously noticed a door to exist; and at the end, leave it open, or, possibly, ajar.” [1]

Mooncalves, the inaugural release from editor John W. M. Thompson’s NO Press, is billed as an original anthology of “strange stories.” Where “weird fiction” is typically, sadly, understood to mean H. P. Lovecraft and his cosmic horror disciples, and “horror stories” brings to mind a more generically-mainstream site of gore and understandable ghosts, “strange stories” was Robert Aickman’s preferred nomenclature for his uncanny, oneiric fiction, and so these pieces are placed in his shadow. Herein one finds twenty-three stories that open Aickman’s previously-unnoticed doors and leave them ajar, emphasizing the implicit and the unstated (or the unplayed silences, if you will) as much as the words on the page.

One of the authors collected by Thompson here, Brian Evenson—who is, if not a commonly accepted heir of Davis’s, at least clearly a descendent of Aickman’s—argued, in an excellent essay on “Doing Without”:

[b]y paying more attention to what we leave out than to how readers are going to interpret our work after the fact, we refuse to let fiction be assimilable, digestible, and safe. We keep it from being mere fodder for criticism and instead accept it as valid, vital experience.

Taking his point, I am nevertheless going to treat Mooncalves as fodder for criticism, and as a tool for thinking about the relationship between doing without and the notes you don’t play; as a door left ajar that leads to such a void, a space waiting to be filled by a reader. For my money, and particularly in the realm of weird fiction (sorry, strange stories), there’s nothing more appealing than work that lodges in your head because it leaves so many rough edges for your mind to catch itself on. (I’ve said before that the surest way to ensure I won’t continue thinking about a story is knowing exactly what happened in it.) In this way, the reader’s experience of the work mirrors the fictional narrative of the work itself: uncertainty and unsettlement catch both character and reader unawares, and neither are provided with closure or explication. To turn to a different point of Evenson’s: “So many of my characters wonder ‘Is there something wrong with me or is there something wrong with the world?’ Most of them don’t manage an answer.” Most of his readers don’t, either.

I was ruminating on this theme while reading Mooncalves and then found, to my delight, that Thompson notes in his illuminating afterword that “what always stuck to me—what comforted me in echoing my unease—were stories which, having ended, left pieces of themselves in my outstretched hands: unresolved questions, furtive gestures whose meaning could only [have] been inferred.” It’s this “misfitting thing”—what a term for the unsettlement of weird fiction—that persists and comforts the surrealist in him, and is exactly what he set out to invite his authors—who range from newcomers to the biggest names in the field (Evenson, for one), to those who are well-established outside of horror—to achieve.

I’m trying not to devote a huge amount of real estate here to generic definitions about strange stories (a relatively uncommon nomenclature) or weird fiction (a more common one) or horror (as common as it gets, when it comes to genre labels), but I think a few words of differentiation are in order. Horror, if one buys the affect theory of genre, is fiction designed primarily to provoke a variety of negative moods in the reader, most particularly (or infamously) fear. [2] Weird fiction, I would argue, is a subset of horror, and perhaps just a slightly more expansive way to say “strange stories,” wrapping in as it does formats outside of short fiction, although I would argue that’s the best way to present it. The predominant negative mood that weird fiction seeks to imbue in the reader, it seems to me, is unsettlement.

I’ve written elsewhere that we could think of weird fiction as “anti-science-fiction, fully focused on wending itself outside of what we think we know and fruiting into impossible-to-understand spaces, using the tools of the fantastic to fulfill the aims of the horrific (or, more literally, the terrific).” This last point, resting on a distinction that stretches back to Ann Radcliffe, where terror is the unsettled fear of uncertainty preceding the horror of something concrete, is an important one: the more notes-rather-than-spaces that fill the story, the more concrete the reader’s sense of that story, then the harder it is to imagine Aickman’s door opening. Roger Luckhurst, a historian of the Gothic and genre fiction, described the “waywardness of the weird” as “a matter of the slipperiness of form, a refusal to fit narrative or generic expectation,” [3] channeling “what is slippery, unpredictable and chancy in the experience of literature.” [4] We might think of “strange stories,” then, as the most “weird” of “weird fiction,” fully devoted not only to a narrative unsettling of its characters but also a meta-textual unsettling of its readers, relying on irresolution and misfitting things. As in Aickman, they move beyond (or under, or through) the standard horror dichotomy between a supernatural reading (there was a ghost!) and a realist or psychological one (the character, a madman, imagined there was a ghost!) to land instead on tales that dodge the question entirely.

Think of this as unease passing through Aickman’s opened door from character to reader and therefore escaped into the real world. Does it even need to be said that this kind of narrative precludes a happy ending, because a narrative that can be resolved that way has already set itself up to be assimilable, digestible, and safe? We’re dealing here with weirdness not as metaphor or vacuous scare, but as the anxiety of life as something ungraspable, an irruption of something utterly destabilizing into the world.

Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t moments in Mooncalves of what anyone would recognize as horror—I’m arguing that strange stories are a subset of a subset of the genre, after all. For example, Evenson’s own entry, “It Does Not Do What You Think It Does,” is an abstracted tale of some horrific standbys: murder and hauntings. Two men happen to sit next to one another in a diner attached to a roadside motel. One admits to the other that he is haunted by a nocturnal voice that repeats and repeats in his ear: “It does not do what you think it does.” The man has no idea what that means. The reader, of course, doesn’t either, not any more at the end of the story than when it’s first introduced. The story opens with, “At the time he had been traveling all night, the man admitted, or nearly so.” Because of the utmost precision of Evenson’s sparse language, the reader is immediately struck by the unclear subject of “or nearly so”; the most legible interpretation is that he had been traveling nearly all night, but what if it’s the admission that’s nearly so?

Things only get more unsettled from there. Evenson plays with the traditional ghost-story dichotomy of natural vs. supernatural (“There had to be a natural explanation, a way to make sense of it,” the other man tells the narrator; “I could tell he didn’t really mean it,” the narrator tells the reader). The weird voice established, the story leans into horror, although it’s always at a remove: the narrator, having dropped a few hints throughout his telling that he was fleeing something, admits to having just burned down his childhood home while his abusive foster parents were trapped inside. The other man might never know the cause of his nocturnal torment, but the narrator knows precisely why he wakes with the smell of smoke tickling his nostrils every night. “Not knowing would be so much worse,” he proclaims, but we can tell he doesn’t really mean it.

Evenson places an emphasis on sensory confusion and narrative uncertainty, which percolates throughout many of the other stories as well. Rather than tell us the other man lifted a cup, for example, Evenson’s narrator notes that “I did not hear him lift the cup, but that does not mean he did not lift it.” That this is an auditory uncertainty is additionally emphasized not only by the disembodied voice, but also through a distorted relaxation tape and the possibility that the sound of the road has “become detached” and is now haunting the man.

Was that what had kept him awake? The sounds of the road no longer taking place in the road but here, in his head? Yes, he told himself, thinking that convincing himself of that would be enough to allow him to sleep. But even as he told himself yes, he knew he did not believe it.

Similar journeys into the horrific by means of the strange await the reader in Lisa Tuttle’s “The First Wife,” which is, perhaps, a ghost story without a ghost. A woman is shocked to hear that a man to whom she was briefly married in New York decades before has purchased a possibly-haunted house in her small Texas town. Their marriage itself was haunted by his first wife—not dead, but not exorcized from his house, either, the haunting rendered as jealousy of the living, rather than an unresolved memory of the dead (perhaps). There’s something of Edith Wharton’s “Pomegranate Seed” in the mounting dread of the story and its uncanny turns, particularly in a fantastically unnerving scene where the first wife shows up wearing the main character’s face for Halloween. Unfortunately, the inconclusive ending—the passenger seat is abruptly empty during a climactic car chase—abruptly dissipates the mounting tension into cliche, displeasingly anticlimactic rather than intriguingly unresolved.

The un-rendering of romantic relationships and sexuality also percolates through Briar Ripley Page’s surreal fable “December Story,” an Angela Carter-esque story of love and haunting and physical change. An epistolary story of two ex-lovers, one a trans man undergoing further transformations, it’s an apt opener for the anthology. Thomas Mavroudis’s “Sundered” also toys with queerness in a heteronormative society, wherein a closeted man—only ever half-present for or half-invested in his heterosexual marriage—finds his wife mysteriously cloven in half physically. A particularly blood-soaked entry, it uses a mix of horror and disassociation to distressingly show the mix of misogyny and affection the protagonist felt for his wife, unknowing and undeserving. Suffused with regret and (false?) contrition, the story rests on an unsubtle foundational metaphor between split allegiances and literal splitting, but it works nicely (it also has a surprisingly hopeful ending, the generic culpabilities of which are outside the bounds of this review, but that the reader will find bear thinking about). Mavroudis’s is a new name for me, but I look forward to finding more of his work: there were some great turns of phrase here that nicely just destabilize things, my favorite being “I just want to go back to sleep, or the thing I do that is not being awake.”

Something bloody and horrific also underlies Adam Golaski’s “Distant Signals,” but again the horror is always kept at a narrative distance from the reader, existing in the vague hinterlands between resolution and incomprehension. Protagonist Lem, laid off from his job, estranged from his ex, and orphaned by the pandemic, finds himself occupying his childhood home, trying to posthumously understand his parents—a pair who were always somewhat uncanny, strange, and disconnected even when Lem was a child. The jumpy rhythm of the prose (“‘You’ve contributed so much. You’ll find work lickety-split. I’ll write you a stellar letter of recommendation.’ Lem, numb, asks no questions”), and unexpected excursions into second person (“eyeball a few titles, written in your father’s hand”), combine with the odd VHS recordings that his parents produced for the titular show to create a slow seepage of unsettlement rather than a sudden irruption. It’s a story that perfectly captures the eerie repetitiousness of life in the early days of the pandemic, the recontextualization of day-to-day life that such a massive shift required (and which is rendered now even more disconcerting in retrospect, with the virus still rampant and in such tension with the constant refrain that we’ve moved on from it).

“Distant Signals” uses weird sensory details in a similar fashion to Evenson, eerily divorcing them from the objects being sensed—if any are there at all, as in “The fireplace, he’d often thought, is like a T.V. The fire and the shadows it casts, a show.” A page later: “Stare into the fire. Listen to the wood burn. Smell wood smoke … It’s windy—a gust enlivens the embers, swirls ash against the screen, and wails like the ghost in a children’s Halloween program.” This disconnection leads easily into riffs on uncertainty and deception, of self and of others, of character and of reader, as does most effective weird fiction. Lem would “tell himself, I am in my bed and I am not in any danger. The problem with this mantra was he did not wholly believe it to be true.” As in Evenson, the story builds to an awful catharsis and horror-at-a-remove: Lem’s parents, while ignoring their own child, had killed the child actor who had starred in their home movies. Faced with the evidence of this crime, unable to delude himself any longer, “[f]or all of quarantine, Lem stays-at-home and watches Distant Signals. Studies each episode in the hope of learning what went wrong. Helicopters fly low. Food rots. Thousands of people die every day.” (“Stays-at-home” is a perfect example of the rhythmic complexity Golaski exhibits in the piece, the hyphens drawing the words together into a triplet lively enough to rise above the fugue of the rest of the paragraph.)

This vein of sensory trickery that underlies this story’s sadness and disconnection, anomie and loneliness, also runs through a trifecta of stories so perfectly linked it seems almost impossible they weren’t written in tandem: Meghan Lamb’s “Mirror Translation,” Christi Nogle’s “Night, When Windows Turn to Mirror,”  and J.A.W. McCarthy’s “Seldom Place.” (The third of these is separated from the other two in the book’s sequencing by Glenn Hirshberg’s “DestinationLand,” a George Saunders-esque satirical piece that feels out of place in this collection, written in the kind of non sequitur conversational tone that I find robs many of Hirshberg’s pieces of gravity).

The Nogle piece traces a woman’s attempt to find her father in their labyrinthine, ever-changing home. “Think of a home as a fear-management device, one that can malfunction spectacularly,” as Nogle once put it. The protagonist’s persistently cyclical forgetting and remembering of details, parsimoniously sprinkled into the narrative perception, reminds me of Gene Wolfe’s short fiction (among the highest compliments I can give), most particularly bringing to mind an inversion of the man-at-work of “Forlesen” (1974), embodied here as a woman-at-home trapped in Sisyphean domesticity, attempting to make dinner while simultaneously exploring their labyrinthine home, weak calls from her missing father always coming from the distance. The title, indeed, hints at this disconnection, with the glass of the house’s windows, that should look into the outside world, turned instead inward. This is a story full of sharp, seemingly innocuous details: Nogle proves herself here an adept of what Matt Bell called, in a discussion of Brian Evenson’s work, “consecution”: “consecutive steps of an action presented in sequence, with each individual step rendered in high detail.” It’s a tactic useful in slowing the reader down (there isn’t, on a zoomed-out level, a lot that happens in this story) and, perhaps more importantly, in providing an avalanche of details which draw attention, by omission, to the space between them—to what the narrator isn’t telling you. (“I always listen to what I can leave out,” to quote Miles Davis again.)

This malfunctioning fear-management device similarly drives McCarthy’s “Seldom Place.” Rather than being a passive locus for a haunting, the house at 2714 Seldom Place is actively haunting its neighborhood, infecting its neighbors with mold and anomie in three queasy, perceptive character studies of deteriorating relationships and loneliness. These sections are offset by demeaning, italicized directives, perhaps from the house itself, while the narrative is saturated with relentless self-critiques. The three viewpoint characters are a woman haunted by the inertia of her loveless hetero marriage, a man haunted by animals whose lives he couldn’t save, and a woman haunted by her internalized homophobia that prevented her from publicly acknowledging her wife before the latter’s death. All three hammer home the atomization of their neighborhood, the other houses infected by 2714 Seldom Places “sinking into weed-choked lawns with their crumbling facades and sagging foundations, their roofs blanketed in lichen as if the land itself were swallowing them”—even as the haunting site thrives, ordering itself on the disorder of its victims. McCarthy’s story might be, if you can excuse the reach, Nogle’s fear-management metaphor extended to the realm of the home-owner’s association.

Expanding that conceit even further, for Meghan Lamb’s protagonist—a sick, naive American expat in Hungary, miserable, cold, and alone—home isn’t at play at all, with an entire foreign-to-her city acting as the malfunctioning site of unsettlement. The tone of the story is similarly cold, with the urban landscape and a toxic friend the protagonist has made online wending into language with a particularly deep sense of uncanny wrongness. “The sounds of an unfamiliar language—known words blending into unknown—seemed a pleasant fog in which her fears evaporated” during the expat’s first year in Hungary on a scholarship, but now “that fog—deep-drenched in fear—rises in thick, sulphuric clouds, up from the alleys, from the grates, the pipes, the drains,” saturating the city. Like Golaski’s, Lamb’s prose is wonderfully rhythmic, full of fragments and repetition. But “Mirror Translation” is also, and perhaps surprisingly, one of the only stories in the anthology to experiment with typography and layout as a mechanism for irruption. As with McCarthy’s protagonists, Lamb’s struggles with a litany of wrongness centered on physical self-critique (“Hair: bad. Eyes: bad. Tits: bad. Belly: bad.”), mirroring her increasingly paranoid place in the world at large.

Paranoia, of course, often ends up being justified in these stories, and Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Privacy,” placed later in the book, shares the Nogle-McCarthy-Lamb trifecta’s insistent pulse of anomie and loneliness and homes gone wrong. Like much of Tem’s recent output, it’s about aging and grief and the anxiety of loneliness, here tempered with a hefty dose of paranoia delivered in Tem’s perfectly matter-of-fact prose style (“It was a little on the cold side, in both temperature and style. He didn’t love the house, but he felt adequately contained within its walls.”) A hermit, anxious about the safety of his home, is assailed by the intrusive noise of the outside world—sometimes traffic, sometimes construction, sometimes inexplicable whisperings—when suddenly everything stops: “He had a notion things had stopped everywhere to take a breath.” Like “Distant Signals,” “Privacy” is very much a story ensconced within the pandemic era, but here this isn’t explicit, and is rendered instead in metaphor and zeitgeist, through this universal halted breath, mysterious surveyors outside his home, the surreal flattening of the outside world, and a mass of refugees, their murmuring “reminiscent of the late-night vocalizations he used to hear while attempting to fall asleep, a litany of lamentations and complaints, a cataloging of suffering.” Ontology collapses and the world becomes unknowable and uncontrollable, until the hermit finds a sense of catharsis—and play, even—in using gargantuan earthmover machines to destroy his own home, unhousing the refugees once more.

Jeff Wood’s “Edge of the Forest” shares that paranoid division between the private, isolationist home and public anxiety in a subdivision menaced by coyotes. (It also echoes the Evensonian directness of Tem’s prose, although not the feel of innocence or apocalypticism.) Where Tem’s protagonist makes vague references to having had a family he’s now lost, Wood’s story revolves around the protagonist’s identity as a husband and father with a teenage daughter still in the house. The coyotes are using behavior identified by the Beau Geste hypothesis to inflate their numbers and induce paranoia and anxiety, but it’s the daughter who sets the story’s argument out explicitly: “Maybe we’re the ones pretending to be more than we are.” This might serve as a precis of the book and weird fiction at large, perhaps, deflating our pretensions of human agency and meaningfulness in the face of the cosmic horror of insignificance or Evensonian ontological collapse.

Most searingly gnostic of all, however, hinging the horror of the universe on the human search for beauty amidst suffering, is Sofia Samatar’s luminous “Contact Light.” This story takes a rather rote science-fictional setup—a penal colony on the moon—and renders it weird by means of breathtaking prose:

I’d rather they kill me, someone once said, than make me see the stars. For the stars went long, all the way down to the horizon, and very deep. If you looked, you could see your soul shooting out to join them. I kept my gaze low, picking up porous, foamy rocks with my porous, foamy body. Another man, the one we called the Mystic, said that what we were enduring out here was the slow expansion of space. In this world, all the spaces between were larger. The rocks squirmed as they did because they had more void inside them than the rocks of Earth. And we, too, had more void inside. And no matter how hard we trained in the gym, we were going to die of this ever-expanding void. Our bones were going to get holes in them, like old rags. I remembered the Mystic naked, cross-legged, impassive, declaiming from his bunk. I kept him in mind and did not look at Earth—though he himself, during our shifts in Hell, used to fix his gaze up there, on the center of all color, the Great Mother, the one human spot in the universe, the one vision it still made sense to describe as beautiful, and stare until base camp shocked him through his suit.

Achronological, lush, and deeply numinous, the story is deeply allusive—it is saturated with Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “The Moon,” the traditional Scottish folk song “Aiken Drum,” and Antoine Volodin’s work, and those are just the ones I caught!—and also strikingly concerned with the idea of horror: “horror of thingness,” “horror of lightness,” and “the horror of distance” are all mentioned as the story cycles around the disquiet of stasis and the dissociative misery of wasteful work. “No revolution, no strategy, nowhere to go.” I’m not sure Samatar is capable of writing anything that isn’t incandescent and heartrending. If I can convince you of nothing else, I hope I can convince you that this book is worth getting immediately for this story alone (and this book is worth getting for almost all of its stories).

Samatar’s tying-together of the expanding void inside and out is, perhaps, the perfect encapsulation of this book’s approach to strange stories. Steve Rasnic Tem, in discussing his own approach in an interview in Thinking Horror Volume 2 (2019), said that he thinks of “the inner world as just another aspect of the outer world, and just as essential”; here he channels that relationship between interiority (particularly with regard to secrets, suppressed and deceived) into weird fiction, which he sees as “tales of impossible happenings which at the same time manage to feel intensely true, a visionary fiction suggesting that reality is far more complicated than we thought.” This returns us to Evenson’s “Doing Without,” in which we read that fiction “is successful to the degree to which it allows readers to undergo an experience outside their immediate realm of possibility, and to the degree to which that second-level experience in turn functions in relation to the first-level experience that we think of as living.” These excellent stories fully succeed in irrupting weirdness through interpretive silences, leaving the reader to sit with what they’ve glimpsed through previously unseen doors—in narrative and life itself. Reality, that misfitting thing, is slippery and unsettling. It does not do what you think it does.

Endnotes

[1] Aickman was referring to ghost stories, in particular, but what is Aickmanesque weird fiction if not a ghost story abstracted to such a degree that the reader isn’t even sure if there was a ghost? [return]

[2] This has, in recent discussion, proved a more divisive point than I expected, and merits further discussion, although it’s outside the bounds of this essay. [return]

[3] The argument that weird fiction avoids “generic expectation” and lives at the center of a Venn diagram of the usual fantastica genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror is one that I find increasingly unhelpful, although, again, that’s an argument for another day. [return]

[4] Roger Luckhurst, "The weird: a dis/orientation," Textual Practice, 31:6 (2017), pp. 1041-1061, DOI: 10.1080/0950236X.2017.1358690. Luckhurst is here explicitly following Nicholas Royle’s emphasis on “veering,” from his monograph of the same name. [return]



Zachary Gillan is a critic residing in Durham, North Carolina. He blogs infrequently at https://doomsdayer.wordpress.com/ and tweets somewhat more frequently at @robop_style.
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