In the dark fantasy genre, the magazine Weird Tales holds a preeminent place. Founded in 1923, and supportive of talents as diverse as H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, and Gene Wolfe, this magazine both encourages and reflects the modern suspicion that the universe is pretty weird.
By definition, the weird (or its classy wine-sipping version, the uncanny), is something we cannot understand. Of course, that doesn’t stop our species from having an aesthetic opinion. In “Predator,” when Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) finally sees the alien’s unmasked face for the first time, his reaction is ours: “You’re one ugly motherfucker!” This issue of Weird Tales magazine takes a more appreciative stance. In particular, five of its pieces focus on the theme of “uncanny beauty.”
Stephen Segal’s moving obituary of comrade-in-arms George Scithers (1929-2010) and reviews of Victoria Francis’ “Arlene’s Heart,” Max Turner’s “Night Runner” and Thomas Sniegoski’s “Dancing on the Head of a Pin” lead the collection. Natania Barron’s evocative poem “The Wakened Image” and Ken Hite’s “Lost in Lovecroft,” interesting and erudite as usual, conclude the issue.
The issue’s cover, Alberto Seveso’s “Graziella,” is an adequate, but tame, choice. With its mosaic of composed of petals, and um, comma-shaped objects over a woman’s face, “Graziella” reminded me of the composite heads of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. But there’s an interesting difference. In Arcimboldo’s interpretation, the uncanny is imagined as being beautiful whereas in Seveso’s, we see that the beautiful may be often uncanny. It’s the difference between an ethical judgment and an aesthetic one.
Theodora Goss’ essay “Strange Faces” goes right to the heart of this difference with a quote from Roger Bacon’s essay on beauty that really deserves to be better known: “There is no excellent beauty,” wrote Bacon, “that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” Hear, hear. Poe’s “Ligeia” had led a teenage Goss to this insight, and it seems to have deeply influenced her aesthetic self. Goss writes: “In Ligeia, I had found my role model, the uncanny beauty” (p. 12). What sort of beauty is an “uncanny beauty”? One that is simultaneously “appealing and appalling.” A beauty that is in some sense monstrous. Goss ends the essay with some humorous tips for becoming a female monster.
I enjoyed her thoughtful, light-hearted essay. I was an early fan of Bacon’s insight too, as all short chubby hairy little boys probably are. But sadly, Bacon only said that irregularity was a necessary condition for beauty; he didn’t say it was a sufficient one. I’ve also met Goss, and since she neither looks, dresses nor behaves like a decomposing monster, I wasn’t persuaded when she argues her qualifications for monster-hood in the first part of her essay. It felt a bit like those scenes in ugly-duckling movies where all that stands between Now and Wow are the heroine’s thick glasses and pinned-up hair.
Besides, are Ligeia’s features so irregular that she should be an exemplar? True, she’s exotic, but exotica was in. And as critics like Helena Michie (“The Flesh Made Word”) and Anna Silver (“Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body”) have shown, pallor was also in. Rosy cheeks and signs-of-life were for maids, not maidens. Starvation and ethereality went hand-in-hand. For example, when Rochester learns that Jane Eyre was starved and schooled at Lowood, he exclaims: “no wonder you have rather the look of another world.” In short, it’s surprising that Goss identified with Ligeia. To my mind, Ligeia’s removed in time but not in spirit from the models that grace contemporary magazine covers.
Amal El-Mohtar’s “La Tarot de Gaga” is one of those stories that need a title to explain just what the hell is going on. Fortunately, there are pictures too. After some brooding, I realized it was Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” in Tarot terms, but also in a way, about her career as well. There’s the influence of Madonna (the Sun in Winter card), Freddie Mercury (the Black Queen card), and the androgynous David Bowie (the Diamond Dogs card). The Hatchling card points to the opening sequence of the video. Some cards foretell milestone events such as the Variety cover (Snow Queen), or the controversy over the simulated blood and gore in the Manchester performance (the Bloodlet card), or the final scene in Bad Romance (the Burning Bed card). So on and so forth. But hello, what’s Terri Windling’s Spine Witch doing in there? The story’s writing is another puzzle. It exerts the Masonic fascination that Egyptian hieroglyphs exert: it’s not so much what the symbols say as the fact that something just beyond one’s ken is being said. Dogs must feel this way all the time around us. Perhaps the point of Lady G, so like a Hindu Goddess in her multitude of arms and incarnations, is that she is pure symbol, connected with all referents but unattached to none. I enjoyed El-Mohtar’s uncanny story. It’s playful and cheeky, an un-cannary, a bird of an uncanny paradise, one might say. Like Lady G, this story-bird also mocks gravitas (in this case, the Tarot’s pretensions), even as it uses gravity to lend meaning to its flight. Woof.
The sculptor Callie Badorrek’s “Sirens and Gargoyles” is a one-page description of how she found her song in the stone. Her “Ariel” is a vagina monologue turned flesh, a Miss Piggy allometrically transformed. The fish-scaled, thick-lipped face with its eye slits, layered folds and breasts for horns reveals Ariel’s catastrophic history: her brother Caliban collided with her in the distant past, so they exist conjoined, island and escape, man and woman, beast and beauty, titanic plates fused by need and necessity. Callie tells us Ariel can sing like the devil. Of course she can. God may make clocks, but it takes the devil to keep time.
Paula Guran’s essay “Our Queen, Our Mother, Our Margret,” is a thoughtful and detailed appreciation of Weird Tales cover artist Margret Brundage (1900-1976). Perhaps Weird Tales should consider making such autobiographical pieces a regular feature. Guran focuses on Brundage’s covers and what she learned from them. Perhaps the primary lesson is that pictures of half-naked women can sell magazines. Guran makes loyal claims like “by and large, ‘Brundage beauties’ were afraid, but not totally daunted. Terrified, but never completely helpless.” (p. 24) But surely, after one is bound, whipped with cat o’ nine tails and made to stand in odd breast-lifting poses, the line between total humiliation and partial humiliation ceases to matter. Guran also makes the claim that Brundage’s art was subversive, because unlike most pulp art, it eschewed genuine violence. To my mind, difference in degree suggests a compromise, not subversion. I’ve no doubt Margret Brundage was a courageous artist who worked in difficult professional circumstances. But I suspect what Brundage was really subverting was the theory that artists must starve for their art. Guran tells us that in 1937, when a fine lobster dinner cost $2.75, Brundage was getting paid $90 per cover! Good for her.
Rae Bryant’s essay “Galatic Tomboy to Sci-Fi Pin Up Girl and Beyond” is an autobiographical account of the positive effect SF/F/horror movies had on her self-image. There is a lot of similarity with Goss’ essay. Like Goss, young Bryant didn’t see herself as attractive: “I was an ugly girl. Boy ugly as the term went.” (p. 28) But then she chose Princess Leia as a role model, and fantasy helped heal her wounded self-image. Bryant’s life-story is quite literally the Ugly Duckling story, because she grew up to be a gorgeous model. Life stories may or may not have triple acts and Fieldian turning points, but Bryant’s certainly does. Flipping through the channels one night, she stumbled upon a rerun of “Wing Commander”: “There I was, on the spaceship cabin wall. A science fiction pinup girl.” (p. 29) Again, this is reminiscent of Goss describing what she feels when she sees her photos in the media. But to see oneself in a movie must be a different level of shiver entirely. There is one other lovely anecdote in Bryant’s essay, but I’ll leave that for the reader to encounter. Bryant’s essay is much more nostalgic than Goss’ and it seems to suggest that for Bryant, the fantasy is in the past, a sweet memory, whereas for Goss, Ligeia continues to be an inspirational figure.
Catherynne M. Valente’s elegant story “Secretario” has the spiritually-exhausted atmosphere of noir movies like “Dark City” and “Sin City.” As is often the case with noir, “Secretario” is a love story without lovers. We find ourselves in a City where almost all detectives are men and only women are killed. The story has two narrators: the female detective Mala Orrin and her smitten male secretary. Mala speaks to us through her diaries, but we get that privilege because her secretary is reading them for us. In the tea leaves of her murdered sisters, Mala divines her fate.
That sense of City is particularly strong in this tale. One cannot imagine a Damascus without Islam, a Rome without Christendom, or a Benares without Hinduism. Old great cities are not interchangeable. They are organic, un-designed entities. But in noir, the City is artificial and inorganic, abstract and homogeneous. It is a wedge of eternal Newtonian space-time where moral questions (Is this wrong?) are reduced to aesthetics (Is this ugly? Is this cool?). There’s some supernaturalism in the story, but it is of the psychological variety and mostly inessential. Valente’s writing is riveting as always. She is able to evoke lush imagery with spare writing, and it is used to great effect here.
Ian R. Macleod’s piece “A Concise and Ready Guide” is an etiquette pamphlet for Victorian vampires. Now, I love Victorian typesetting, the self-important tracts, the solemn assurances of the publisher, the weird ads; in fact, I relish the whole kit and caboodle of satanic mills, imperial prejudice, self-abuse and side-whiskers. But this piece didn’t work for me. It felt like an overly long Saturday Night Live skit. The basic idea is amusing, but there were few surprises in the text. The instructions for comport, dining, etc. are pretty much what one would expect. Perhaps the narrative style could have been more moralizing, hortatory and ponderous in the best tradition of Victorian rectums. On the other hand, the somewhat effete tone— Nigel Crane rather than Frasier Crane— also works.
Macleod chose to frame the pamphlet as a discovered text, and so it is bracketed with a prologue and epilogue. I had mixed feelings about this decision. True, it is a time-honored technique often used to effect nostalgia and/or credibility. However, the prologue and epilogue reveal that vampires are no longer a marginal demographic. That is a major story in itself, but the etiquette pamphlet sheds no light on this development. The frame’s narrator, a vampire, is understandably amused and nostalgic over the etiquette pamphlet. Those of us who are not vampires will probably just see two disconnected stories.
Kat Howards’ story “Beauty and Disappearance” begins with parts of statues disappearing from museums: an arm here, a child from Madonna and Child there. First confined to the inanimate, the random erasures then start to affect the living. The people in Howards’ story-world seem to think their world is improved by the random erasures. Their reaction reminded me Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Imagine a world where all that happens is what should happen, a mundane world, a world of flour prices and luggage fees, a world with chaos but without magic, and then like the first burst of the monsoon, a gusty, dust-soaked squall of weirdness, impossible to contain, impossible to domesticate. The world is re-enchanted! A palpable relief emanates from the story.
You could read the tale as a literalized metaphor, and certainly, Howards periodically intrudes to gently herd us to this reading with lines like: “Perhaps that missing space, the space between what was expected and what was seen was where the beauty was created” (p. 45). The story didn’t really have an ending, but strangely enough, it didn’t matter. Suspension of disbelief hogs all the media glory, but Howards is right in pointing out that in fiction, the gestalt principle of closure does all the real work.
Lisa Hannett’s “Sisters Under the Skin,” is about the costs of creativity. It’s been noticed before, of course. John Fowles, in his foreword to “The Magus”, wrote that artists have to “remain partly green till the day we die …callow green in the hope of becoming fertile green.” Artists can age, but we cannot grow up. Such perpetual youthfulness, this forever adolescence, comes at great cost, and in Hannett’s narrator quite literally empties her womb for her art. I am not too fond of allegories or the idea that artistic creativity demands martyrdom in a way that, say, double-entry bookkeeping is not.
My philosophical griefs aside, Hannett’s tale is a pleasure to read and has many delicate touches (for example, the references to cowls, slipcases and winding sheets, the glass hands of the narrator, the carefully chosen color descriptions, and so on). There are references to a relationship with a Durand whom we never get to meet, so perhaps this story is part of a larger work.
In Mike Aronovitz’s “How Bria Died,” Ben Marcus, a teacher who sees his students as a lion-tamer might see his lions, gets into a great deal of trouble when he loses control. Ben Marcus, as Aronovitz depicts him, doesn’t see students, he sees behavior. Of which there are two kinds: good, as in the students do what he wants, and bad, as in they don’t. Seeking control, Marcus tells his students a story, the cautionary tale of Bria Patterson, a girl who liked to skip through the school hallways. What happens next is why the word “horripilation” was invented. In fiction, American schools always come across as singularly unpleasant places, devoid of play, learning or fraternity. “How Bria died” does little to change this impression.
One problem is that the story’s writing has personality but not much individuality. The writing, like much of modern lit, is smooth and controlled, as well thought out as a lab experiment. The lack of individuality could be due to the protagonist. He’s neither likable nor unlikeable and so what happens to him at the end is mostly a matter of curiosity, not concern. But the story comes brilliantly alive in its dialogue, when we get to escape Marcus’ lion-tamer consciousness.
An aesthetic says more about the judge than the judged. In Sanskrit poetics, feminine beauty was often characterized in terms of a geese-like gait, thighs like plantain trunks, waists with three folds, and rounded breasts (with black nipples) so tightly pressed not even a lotus fiber could squeeze through. The scholar Varahamihira (505 – 587 A.D.), thorough to a fault like most academics, required the top of a thigh to be “large and arched like the back of the tortoise.” The fact we’ve begun to talk about an “uncanny beauty” suggests our species is now able to appreciate what cannot be classified. It took some courage for Weird Tales to put together a collection of stories and essays on this contentious subject. Here’s to many more.