Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Weird, The Strange, and The Missing Ingredient by Todd Vick

 Recently I was reading The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies (Vol. 7 No.2, 2014). The last article was a book review written by REH scholar and biographer Mark Finn titled Less an Archive, More an Agenda. The book under the microscope was The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. This book is a monster at 1126 pages. The forward is written by Sci-fi/Fantasy author Michael Moorcock. It is loaded with excellent stories from a wide variety of authors between 1908 to 2010. Even so, Finn declares the book to be "less a historical celebration of the genre of the weird tale and more an international corrective to the archive of such narratives." (Finn 172) 

The list of included authors to this massive anthology is, to say the least, staggering; names such as Lord Dunsany, A. Merritt, Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Robert Bloch, Daphne du Maurier, George R.R. Martin, Ramsey Campbell, William Gibson, F. Paul Wilson, Clive Barker, Octavia E. Butler, Harlan Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, Poppy Z. Brite, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, Tanith Lee, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Jeff VanderMeer, and dozens more. As you can see the list is filled with high caliber, quite popular writers in the weird fiction, horror, strange, and dark story genres. The subtitle is correct in its claim to be a compendium. It is certainly that. But, as Finn points out "there is one name that is conspicuously absent in this otherwise grand collection: Robert E. Howard." (Finn 173) I would also add that neither is Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Robert W. Chambers, Hugh B. Cave, or August Derleth. 

Even so, according to Finn the omission of Robert E. Howard was not an oversight. No, it was a deliberate omission. Finn reported that he actually spoke with Jeff VanderMeer stating "he [VanderMeer] did not want any of Howard's more racially-charged work in a collection that included work by people of color and by people of various nationalities." (173) When Finn asked VanderMeer why he did not select stories by Howard that were not "racially-charged, such as Worms of the Earth, or The Tower of the Elephant", VanderMeer's response was merely he did not consider those. Finn offers his response to all this in his review. Read his review in that particular issue of The Dark Man to find out exactly what Finn says (feel free to use the link I provided above). In fact, I would recommend anyone reading this article to certainly read Finn's response. What I intend to do here is provide my own response. My own commentary on two main concerns I have with Jeff VanderMeer's response to Mark Finn.

VanderMeer's response to Finn is a bit disheartening. I'm left wondering if he even gave much thought to his reply to Finn. VanderMeer's answer seems to evade the question leaving us to ponder if perhaps he simply does not like Robert E. Howard or his work, or he has not read enough of Howard's work to gain a complete appreciation for one of the pioneers of early 20th century weird fiction. Even so, to create a compendium as large as this and not include Robert E. Howard is a strong indication that the VanderMeers have a serious blind spot in their reading list—something Finn also pointed out.

What's more interesting is the reasons (there are two) that Jeff VanderMeer claims he omitted Howard. First, he told Finn that he did not include Howard because of his racially charged works. VanderMeer explained that this compendium contained people of varying color and nationality, so he wanted to avoid any works that were racially charged. Prima facie I respect VanderMeer's reason for not wanting to include racially charged works in this particular volume. I can truly see VanderMeer's concern here, especially since the volume does include a wide variety of writers from various ethnic backgrounds. But that leads me to this question; if VanderMeer is omitting racially charged works due to the compendium's vast ethnic diversity, then why include any writers who are racists at all (e.g. H.P. Lovecraft)? I'll briefly discuss this question a little later.

Second, after VanderMeer's first answer, Finn inquired why he did not consider Howard's other non-racially charged works. VanderMeer's response? He simply did not consider them. Howard clearly has alternative works that could easily have been included. Finn suggested two—Worms of the Earth and The Tower of the Elephant—but there are others: The Horror From the Mound and Old Garfield's Heart. While the latter two have some minor stereotypes in them, they are certainly not racially charged and definitely worthy of consideration.

Here are my thoughts about VanderMeer's two answers to Finn's questions. With regard to the issue of race featured in stories by writers who wrote during a time when racist attitudes were different than ours; back then these attitudes occurred in fiction. In fact, they were fairly common. Of course, we live in a day an age where ethnicity, nationality, and race are in the forefront of our minds. We are more careful about such issues than previous generations. But there was a time when this was not the case. Writers like Agatha Christie, Fyodor Dostoevsky, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas De Quincey, Mark Twain, H.P. Lovecraft, and many others made obvious and subtle racist remarks in their stories. So how should we respond to such racial features in these older stories? Should we eliminate them from current collections or compendiums? Here's something to consider.

In an April 13th, 2015 article from The New Yorker titled "Reading Racist Literature", Elif Batuman discusses her experiences with what she thought was racist literature toward her own people, Turkish Americans. She sites that she first ran into a racist remark in the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. As Batuman puts it, the one passage she remembers "most clearly is this conversation between Connie, Clifford, and the Irish writer Michaelis:
“I find I can’t marry an Englishwoman, not even an Irishwoman…”
“Try an American,” said Clifford.
“Oh, American!” He laughed a hollow laugh. “No, I’ve asked my man if he will find me a Turk or something…something nearer to the Oriental.”
Connie really wondered at this queer, melancholy specimen." (Batuman "Reading Racist Literature")
This seems innocuous enough, right? Sure it does, if you are not a Turk (or Irish, English, or American for that matter). But the Turk in this list of groups is singled out as "Oriental" and considered a "queer, melancholy specimen." At the time this novel was written, these types of remarks were not even considered racist, or out of the ordinary. But to a Turkish American reader 70 years later, there it is all over the page. Batuman goes on to detail other works that she considered racially charged, giving details behind the circumstances of her encounters with them. And what was her final response to all this?
"These encounters were always mildly jarring. There I’d be, reading along, imaginatively projecting myself into the character most suitable for imaginative projection, forgetting through suspension of disbelief the differences that separated me from that character—and then I’d come across a line like 'These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children' (“The Brothers Karamazov”)."
     "But I always moved on, quickly. To feel personally insulted when reading old books struck me as provincial, against the spirit of literature. For the purposes of reading an English novel from 1830, I thought, you had to be an upper-class white guy from 1830. You had to be a privileged person, because books always were written by and for privileged people. Today, I was a privileged person, as I was frequently told at the private school my parents scrimped to send me to; someday, I would write a book. In the meantime, Rabelais was dead, so why hold a grudge?" (Batuman "Reading Racist Literature")
This is true for most of the older 19th & 20th Century stories. There is particular kind of racial history there, a particular social structure, and a way in which people acted toward others of different races. Batuman points out that 100 years from today, society will look back at us and find something offensive about what we wrote, the way we behaved, etc. Cultures move and change, views move and change, it's a fact of life. So, Batuman's conclusion?
"How do you rehabilitate your love for art works based on expired and inhuman social values—and why bother? It’s easier to just discard the works that look as ungainly to us now as “The Octoroon.” But if you don’t throw out the past, or gloss it over, you can get something like “An Octoroon”: a work of joy and exasperation and anger that transmutes historical insult into artistic strength." (Batuman "Reading Racist Literature")
Racially charged works can be works of joy, exasperation, and elicit anger that "transmutes historical insult into artistic strength." Also, historical context and a realization that these authors are actually writing about their own time periods in which various things occurred that we today might find repugnant are important things to consider. For 21st century readers historical accuracy can be more highly valued than political correctness when reading previous generation's history and fiction. Political correctness can, at times, work for us in the 21st century as we are dealing with our own moral, political, and racial issues. But to take what we think now and force it on a previous generation that had no such ideas is not only anachronistic but quite wrong headed. So for Howard to write stories that are racially charged is simply an indicative feature of his history, his time.

As the editor of the compendium, VanderMeer is well within his right to not include Howard's racially charged works. I will not fault him for that decision even though I think Batuman provides a good explanation as to why these works should still be read and enjoyed. Even so, consider this. By including any racist author, such as H.P. Lovecraft, VanderMeer has, to a certain degree, contradicted himself in his response to Finn. How so? Anyone who might find the stories that were included by H.P. Lovecraft enjoyable, and thus turn around to read more of Lovecraft's works on that basis, will inevitably end up reading one of Lovecraft's more racially charged works. Did Jeff VanderMeer think this far ahead when he chose to include racist authors's works that were not racially charged? Once again, if race were truly the issue, then the omission of any racist author from the volume would be the consistent thing to do. But for the sake of argument, let's just set aside the issue of race and turn our attention to VanderMeer's second response to Finn: the dismissive consideration of Howard's non-racially charged works.

For VanderMeer to tell Finn he didn't even take the time to consider other non-racially charged works by Howard is really not an answer to Finn's question. At best it's dismissive. This is especially strange given the fact that Robert E. Howard was a pioneer in the realm of weird fiction. Moreover, the back of the VanderMeers compendium reads:
"From Lovecraft to Borges to Gaiman, a century of intrepid literary experimentation has created a corpus of dark and strange stories that transcend all known genre boundaries. Together these stories from The Weird, and among its practitioners number some of the greatest names in twentieth-and-twenty-first century literature. (VanderMeer, Back Book Cover)
How does Robert E. Howard not fit into that description, especially given the fact that he set new trends in weird fiction by not only mixing tropes when no one else was, but including specific elements in his various weird stories that no other author had ever done before? The Horror from the Mound is a prime example of a "dark and strange story that transcends all known genre boundaries." Howard's work is, by definition, what the VanderMeers claim they are including in this compendium. But I'm left wondering why Jeff VanderMeer did not even consider Howard's other non-racially charged works. His response is void of a genuine answer leaving me to conclude that perhaps VanderMeer may simply be biased against Robert E. Howard and his work.

Regardless of VanderMeer's response to Finn, I highly recommend the compendium. It is well worth the price for all the great material that is included. And, it is one of the better collected volumes of weird stories in print, despite the glaring omission of one of history's pioneering weird fiction writers.


Batuman, Elif. "Reading Racist Literature - The New Yorker." The New Yorker. N.p., 13 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 June 2015.

Finn, Mark. "Less an Archive, More an Agenda." The Dark Man: The Journal O Robert E. Howard Studies 7.2 (2014): 172-74. Print.

VanderMeer, Ann, and Jeff VanderMeer. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. New York: Tor, 2012. Print.


Anonymous said...

Finn's depiction or your depiction of his depiction is inaccurate and stated inaccurately. Also, the antho covers roughly 1910 to 2010, so some of what you call omissions aren't. They were writers who wrote their fiction or the best of it before 1910. Some of Howard's work would be considered fantasy or weird swords and sorcery, and will be read in that context when we do a big fantasy anthology. Others on your list we'd consider to have done their best work in horror, not weird fiction, and would be considered if we did a big volume of horror fiction. - JeffV

Anonymous said...

Also, the antho is edited by Ann VanderMeer as well. Your omission of this fact, rendering her invisible, and of her opinion, speaks volumes. JeffV

Todd B. Vick said...

Hello Jeff,

Thank you for your response. If my commentary (or reaction) to Finn's book review is inaccurate, please help me to understand then, why you actually left Howard out of this compendium. Why was Howard omitted?

Second, the only two authors I mention in my list in this article that do not fall between the time frame you list in your comments are Poe and Kipling. A very minor point, but I do see that they did not fall in that time-span.

You are correct, some of Howard's works are considered fantasy and/or weird sword & sorcery, but, Howard wrote all kinds of weird fiction including horror, fantasy, westerns, and even weird boxing stories that would all fall under the weird fiction category. I mention that not only to respond to your comment, but also to say that weird fiction is weird fiction regardless of its genre.

I'm not sure what you mean by your comment: "Others on your list we'd consider to have done their best work in horror, not weird fiction, and would be considered if we did a big volume of horror fiction." What others? Do you mean Hugh B. Cave & Chambers?

Lastly, while I did not mention Ann by name, I did, several times in my article write The VanderMeers (plural) indicating she was involved in the editing process as well. But I'm curious, how does my not mentioning her by name speak volumes about me when I am mainly addressing your response to Finn?

Also, I appreciate your volumes, especially this one, quite a bit. I think this volume is fantastic. But, to leave Howard out just seemed odd. That was my concern in writing this article. I will always recommend this book and others edited by you. I genuinely do appreciate your work. I also look forward to any other volumes you edit (or write) in the future. Cheers!