When it comes to putting labels on movements in fiction, the ‘New Weird’ has always been ill-defined, to the point where an anthology entitled ‘The New Weird’ devoted almost fifty pages to various critics discussing what they thought it was. For me, the label is exemplified by China Mieville’s New Crobuzon books: a fantastic urban in which many strange creatures and customs collide – and not the usual races like elves and dwarves, but lesser-known mythological beings and flat-out inventions. There’s a layer of grime over everything, as if the story is wallowing in the filfthy underbelly of fantasy. There are often grotesque distortions of the human body.
That’s the sort of thing I imagine, at least. You might say that’s a highly restrictive category of fiction I’ve just described, and I’d agree with you. If New Weird is ever going to be a useful category (and I suspect it’s five years too late for that) it would need to be a good more inclusive.
That being said, today’s story fits my definition perfectly.
Urban environment: check. The City of Thrills is an aborted geometry of narrow streets, decaying arcades and dim-lit porticos. A shambles of buildings lean simultaneously in all directions. The mangled brickwork and shoddy masonry interact as if by accident rather than design. Depictions of naked revellers, cosmic symbols and chimerical beasts adorn the lower portions of each edifice, adding an unexpected life and colour to the amplitude of disrepair. It is the custom of artists that inhabit the city to embellish its walls with expressions of beauty over uttermost states of dereliction.
Many collisions of strange creatures and customs: check. The story focus flits from faction to faction, as multiple agencies with varying agendas get in each other’s way. Most memorable is Whorefrost, a man whose testicles produce lethally cold semen, who likes to disable his victims with an enormous iron phallus and then rape them to death – regardless of gender – by ejaculating. (Grotesque human distortion: check. Wallowing in filth: check.) He’s being hunted by a duo of masochistic lesbian warrior nuns called the Sisters of No Mercy, who have surprising charm in the way they use profanities.
Meanwhile there’s Gutter, a filth-encrusted cannibal named for his gutting knife, who drags around a churn filled with brine and his victims’ entrails. There’s the Salon of Catastrophists, who have recently undergone a schism over what the nature of the destruction of the universe will be. There’s the Light that Never Shines, a woman who wears the skins of humans and shadows, which she absorbs.
All of these are chasing each other through labyrinthine streets and lightless shells of buildings. The story is smeared with an indelible air of grime and dirty deeds in the dark. (Atmosphere of a seedy underbelly of fantasy: check.) It’s not something everyone would enjoy reading, but I think it succeeds very well at what it’s aiming for.
The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines by Alistair Rennie
Word count: 9,500
First published: The New Weird, edited by Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer, 2008, Tachyon Publications