There is a corner of my local Waterstones where angels fear to tread, an unholy trinity of shelves marked Science Fiction & Fantasy, Horror and Dark Fantasy. I am invariably drawn to it on my visits, enjoying reading books that are invariably stocked there. Lately there have been some additions, giving the section as a whole the look of a higgledy-piggledy Gormenghast of books: a shelf of graphic novels, a spin-rack of Manga, and even a temporary display of steampunk.
The whole area is threatening to implode under its own ever-increasing mass, and its gravitational pull is dragging towards it volumes from the general fiction shelves, the Haruki Murakamis and the Margaret Atwoods. By the same token, books that really should stay put in these sections find themselves creeping out in display bins to the more well-lit areas of the store, the Stephen Kings, the George RR Martins, the Terry Pratchetts.
Which makes me wonder… is the concept of genre as applied to this sort of fiction now so utterly fractured and disparate that it is now meaningless? The author Adam Roberts – shelved under science fiction, but with a body of work that is breathtaking in its scope – has famously identified 15 sub-genres of SF alone, in each of which he plans to write a short story.
And that’s just SF. Fantasy can be epic, high, heroic, Arthurian, comic, dark… And when it’s dark fantasy, is it can be urban fantasy, or paranormal romance, which leads us into horror, which can be supernatural, or body horror, or gothic. Some people read vampire stories or zombie stories, in themselves now sub-genres, and nothing else. Psychological horror creaks open the door to thrillers and even crime.
Book classifications are necessary, of course, but more as a marketing tool than of any real use to readers. Writers need to hook agents, agents need to sell books to publishers, publishers need to place units with retailers. Everyone knows what the short-hand of, for example, Science Fiction means in this chain, but the label is ultimately meaningless to the reader. 1984 by George Orwell tops the SF bestseller list at Amazon.co.uk as I write this; Peter F Hamilton’s starships and cosmic scale is also, SF, of course, as is Charles Stross’s Rule 34. Then again, Rule 34 is also a crime novel, and Orwell is more likely to be stocked in the general fiction section of a bookshop.
I don’t think any other genre other than the SF/Fantasy/Horror/Etc one has been as sub-divided, mutated and exploded. And this genre classifies its readers as much as it does its books. You very often hear people self-identifying as SF readers, or being labelled fantasy fans, as though they read nothing else. That rarely happens with crime fiction.
Perhaps it’s time to sweep away all these muddled, messy sub-genres and replace them, if only to accept that book classifications are necessary to keep the industry happy, with one all-encompassing umbrella category that at once identifies the broad type of book at the same time as recognising, nay, celebrating, the many forms and differences.
Were I king of the book world, I would call this category Weird. It’s not a new name – in fact, it’s the label that was given to fiction that dealt with the fantastic long before Science Fiction and Fantasy were coined as marketing classifications. HP Lovecraft wrote Weird fiction, as did Algernon Blackwood. The term has a long, illustrious history… and it’s becoming more in vogue.
“Weird” still has derogatory connotations, but now is the time to reclaim it. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) Lovecraft wrote: “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present.”
And there, in a nutshell, is your science fiction, your fantasy, your horror. Weird Tales is the name of a magazine that has been published since 1923, and which, in its heyday, brought some of the major practitioners of the form to public exposure. It had a resurgence a few years ago, and was most recently edited by Ann VanderMeer, who is departing in early 2012 following the magazine being taken over by new owners.
VanderMeer is married to Jeff, author of such Weird novels as Shriek and Finch, which for a brief moment at the turn of the century were classified, along with the oeuvre of China Mieville, M. John Harrison and Steph Swainston, as “The New Weird”. The New Weird was generally set in the make-believe worlds of epic fantasy, but drawn in tight, literary strokes more at home in contemporary fiction. The classification didn’t last long, but the spirit has.
The VanderMeers edited an anthology called The New Weird in 2008. The New Weird may be dead, but long live the old Weird… they’ve just brought out, via Corvus books in the UK, a monstrous, 1,200 page collection called, simply, The Weird, which features more than 100 authors from Lovecraft to Saki, MR James to Stephen King, Daphne du Maurier to Angela Carter to Kafka to Murakami.
The Weird anthology demonstrates as ably as anything the breadth, depth and scope of the type of fantastical literature that has burst out of its old bounds, and is as good a name as any for the sprawling mass of fiction that is spilling over from its allotted shelves into all areas of literature. Publishers, booksellers, writers, take note, the Weird is here to stay. As Hunter S Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”