15 – July 2019

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Area X – The Weird and the Anthropocene


Paperback editions of Jeff VanderMeer's Area X – The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority & Acceptance. © 4th Estate, London


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What’s Weird about Giant Flying Bears?

Gry Ulstein1

By 2019, there is general consensus that Jeff VanderMeer is one of the spearhead writers of twenty-first-century weird fiction—by some called the New Weird. VanderMeer’s arguably most influential work is the 2014 Southern Reach trilogy, which, supported by the movie adaptation of Annihilation in 2018, has been lauded for its engagement with ecological issues and put the weird on the literary map in a way that both reinforces and resists the rising popularity of H. P. Lovecraft and the Old Weird. The renewed interest in and reappropriation of Lovecraft’s iconic cosmic monsters to represent environmental issues, as seen in for example Timothy Morton’s “Cthulhu-like” hyperobjects and Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene, has recently driven several scholars to suggest that Lovecraft’s themes of human insignificance, deep time, and cosmic dread speak to the twenty-first-century apocalyptic mentality.2

Morton claims that the Anthropocene “binds together human history and geological time in a strange loop, weirdly weird,”3 and therefore argues that ecological thought itself is weird. This weirdness, however, has evolved beyond Lovecraft via writers like VanderMeer and in part due to the conventionalization of Lovecraft’s creations in popular culture. Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock might argue that the Anthropocene brings with it “the very Lovecraftian awareness of the looming specter of a sudden apocalypse,” but as Stephen Shaviro points out, these days Cthulhu typically “does not inspire cosmic anxiety, but fan camp admiration.”4

The weird’s central destabilization of the human is a shared theme across older and more recent weird narrative, and the “fan camp admiration” and pulp fiction status of the Old Weird has doubtlessly paved the way for the New Weird. But it has also motivated New Weird writers like VanderMeer and China Miéville to challenge Old Weird tropes (such as existential dread as an end in itself; the male scientist narrator; anti-humanism; purple prose), and experiment with ways of addressing existential anxiety via “a new sensibility of welcoming the alien and the monstrous as sites of affirmation and becoming.”5 New Weird writers engage with topics like postcolonialism, race, gender, and ecology more frequently and more explicitly than their Old Weird forerunners.

VanderMeer’s work stands out as particularly salient with regards to the weird’s ecological outlook—the Southern Reach trilogy and the novel Borne (2017) especially. Benjamin Robertson, in the first monograph on VanderMeer’s writing, claims that Borne is one of VanderMeer’s “most explicitly political statements about climate change to date.”6 But, while Robertson seems convinced that Borne is weird, other reviewers struggle to place the novel comfortably in one genre, mentioning categories like sci-fi, myth, fable, dystopia, weird, and fantasy.7 There is a tension between the weird as entertaining, subculture genre fiction and the weird as a “serious” literary mode able to express anxieties about the status quo. This tension complicates the weird’s ecocritical potential.

Ever since Lovecraft’s infamously elusive definition of “weird” as a “certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces,” genre slippage and resistance to definition have marked the weird and arguably remain its dominant features.8 Still, many influential definitions of the weird seem almost willfully vague. Miéville emphasizes “awe, and its undermining of the quotidian”, an “obsession with the numinous under the everyday” as the heart of the weird, and Mark Fisher, similarly, “a sense of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here.”9 The weird, also according to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, “is as much a sensation as a mode of writing”; it makes people resort to “‘I know it when I feel it.’”10 These attempted definitions leave us with the idea that “weird” is impossible to render in a textbook; rather, it is a phenomenon, an atmosphere, or a sensation that must be experienced. The weird does something—or suggests that something can be done—to the audience, something dreadful, cosmic, or ineffable.

On the one hand, the slipperiness of the weird as a literary mode might be one of the qualities that makes it apt for expressing the unreliable, “hybrid world of the Anthropocene”—as discussed above.11 But if Morton is right that ecological thought is fundamentally weird, it suggests the weird as an ontological access-point to the kind of multi-scalar thinking which Morton and many other contemporary scholars promote. On the other hand, then, how does this weird-as-ontology stand up to the ever-elusive weird as it is represented in literary research, where it is often described as a sensation or an atmosphere? If Borne is an “explicit statement about climate change,” does this “statement” do more than merely highlight the conceptual inflation of climate change beyond human understanding? What does Borne contain that is valuable for ecological thought—and to what extent does the weird have anything to do with it?

Borne follows the scavenger Rachel during a few months of her precarious life in a post-apocalyptic cityscape full of biotechnological creatures left over by the now-derelict “Company.” The parameters of Rachel’s existence are, in the course of the novel, largely determined by two monstrous beings: Borne and Mord. Borne begins as biotech loot and becomes something close to Rachel’s child; Mord is the giant, flying bear who torments the city. Rachel’s fear of Mord varies in depth and register—from dread via revulsion or fascination, to respect, and even humor—and she uses a wide range of similes and metaphors to describe him: “a murderer light as a dandelion seed”; a “behemoth”;12 “a destroyer [military vessel]”;13 “a large, irregular globe of dark brown”; “an eclipse or a chemical cloud or my death”; “a living dreadnaught”;14 “the end of the world”; “the greater darkness,” and yet “the purest reflection of the city”;15 “God of Nothing.”16

The phrases she uses sometimes focus on a small part of Mord, but most often it is the totality of Mord that is described. It could be argued that Mord’s existence thus fulfills Fisher’s main attribution to the weird of “wrongness”: there is broad agreement among the survivors in the city that the giant flying bear should not exist, or at least should not exist there. But his presence, malevolent though it is, has also become a daily phenomenon, like unpredictable thunderstorms. In the end, Mord is just a massive bear with fading human intelligence and the bizarre ability to fly. Mord is absurd, strange, terrible, and yet, I want to argue that he is not weird. If anything, Mord is a caricature of Old Weird horror.

In comparison, consider the following passage, describing Borne:

He had abandoned the sea-anemone shape in favor of resembling a large vase or a squid balanced on a flattened mantel. The aperture on the top had curled out and up on what I chose to interpret as a long neck, sprouting feathery filaments, which almost seemed like an affectation. The filaments, with a prolonged soft sigh, would crowd together and then pull apart again like bizarre synchronized dancers … Colors still flitted across his body, or lazily floated in shapes like storm clouds, ragged and layered and dark. Azure. Lavender. Emerald. He frequently smelled like vanilla.17

Rachel tries her best to describe Borne, but as opposed to Mord, Borne has no single clear association in the real world. Borne is fractured and abstract, as slippery in description as a little bug or crumb in a glass of water, escaping human hands as they try to tease it out. Borne constantly changes his shape, texture, size, smell, color, velocity, and density, forcing Rachel to resort to “choosing to interpret” him a certain way: “I was continually being taught by Borne how to ‘read’ him, and yet what did this mean except that I was supposed to accept the impossible?”18 After a while, Borne changes Rachel’s perspective on the toxic world they inhabit: “I realized right then in that moment that I’d begun to love him. Because he didn’t see the world like I saw the world. … Because he made me rethink even simple words like disgusting or beautiful.19 But later, when Borne has grown to a massive size and started absorbing every living thing in the city, he has surpassed Mord in dreadfulness because of his elusive, slippery weirdness: “Mord was terrible and horrifying and frightening, but this new thing [Borne] could become shadow. It became what it ate. It could be your neighbor or your friend.”20 Mord is like a blunt anchoring-point by which Borne’s weirdness becomes more acute—reinforced, of course, by Rachel’s perspective as focalizer.

Rachel finds Borne entangled in Mord’s fur, and names him “Borne” in spite of herself: “Names of people, of places, meant so little, and so we had stopped burdening others by seeking them.”21 She is instinctively drawn to Borne like she is instinctively repelled by Mord. As an interesting grammatical motif related to the naming of Borne, moreover, the verb root of “Borne” is “bear.” Borne’s existence begins by being borne (carried) by a bear (large carnivore), and is borne (raised) by Rachel. Borne, in a sense, is therefore Mord conjugated, evolved. This is even played out dramatically when Borne becomes a copy of Mord to fight him near the end of the novel: Borne only wins once he discards the bear shape in favor of his own unstable, “shimmering” multi-shape.22 The whimsical grammatical connection between Mord and Borne is supported by the humorous scenes in which Rachel teaches Borne the intricacies of language:

Borne: “Why is water wet?”
Me: “I don’t know. Because it’s not dry?”
Borne: “If something is dry, does that mean it’s not wit.”
Me: “Wit or wet?”
Borne: “Wit.”
Me: “Wit is in the eye of the beholder.”
Borne: “What?”
I tried to explain wit to him.
Borne: “Like grit in the eye? Is wit like dust?”
Me: “Yes, dry.”23

The humor in these scenes both breaks with and accentuates the horror in an effective way, for Borne’s true horror lies in his ability to absorb everything. To him, information and knowledge can be word-shaped or lizard-shaped or human-shaped, and one of his struggles as he becomes more ethically aware is that he cannot stop absorbing. His impulse is to kill and mimic all organic life he encounters. The humor therefore gets an aftertaste of horror, which becomes particularly striking in the scene in which Rachel catches Borne as he shapeshifts into her body, imitating her voice and chatting with her partner. Child-like, silly Borne, trying hard to be a person, becomes serious, uncanny, deadly—his personhood limited by the monstrous instincts and abilities that define him. As Borne notes in his journal, his name “means to carry something you don’t want to carry.”24 Again, Fisher’s definition of the weird as “a sense of wrongness” also plays into Borne’s weirdness, but as opposed to Mord, Borne’s emergent personhood complicates the picture with layers of contradictory emotions and affects.

The grammatical relation between Borne and Mord thus reflects the function of the weird on plot level: Mord’s overwhelming presence controls and defines the city, the inhabitants of which must bear (endure) Mord as a daily horror. Borne—the “conjugated” or evolved form of bear—absorbs and assimilates his surroundings, so that his existence is defined by absences more than presences. This makes Borne weirder, and therefore potentially more terrible, than Mord. By being borne by Rachel, however, Borne has developed a desire to be a person, and seems to have learned what Mord has forgotten: to love. At the end of the novel, Borne beats Mord by absorbing Mord entirely. Considered as figures representing the Old Weird and the New Weird respectively, this scene becomes symbolic of the New Weird’s triumph.

Mord also has moments of comedy, but these moments serve to create distance from the horror he represents rather than strengthen it. Some scenes recall cartoon-like bear behavior, such as when Mord pulls a tree out of the ground and uses “the roots to scratch his back,” after which he rolls around in the dirt: “The earth-shattering roars and yawns that emanated from him then were all about scratching a good itch.”25 In another scene, Mord climbs a building “like it was a sleek beehive…, slurping his tongue through the maze of stone and plastic to get at the sweetness of flesh and blood.”26 The image of a horror version of Disney’s Baloo or Winnie the Pooh is morbidly funny—perhaps most reminiscent when Mord loses his ability to fly: “as he came to accept this new limitation on his powers, Mord sat. Mord sat and pondered. Mord sat and pondered and swiveled his great head from side to side, surveying his domain, curious as to who would be the first to challenge him in his reduced condition.”27

The comical aspects of Mord are indicators that the horror he represents has moved away from Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. Mord’s bluntness seems a deliberate caricature of Old Weird monsters too massive to comprehend, the more so because everything is focalized through the perspective of Rachel. Lovecraft’s perpetually white, male scientist who is driven mad by the mere mention of an Elder God, is in Borne dismissed and replaced by the black, female scavenger who tries (not always successfully) to respond to Mord as nothing more or less than he is, and whose engagement with Borne is deeply personal. By extension, the representation of Anthropocene issues is also caricatured.

When Borne asks what happened to the world, Rachel is at a loss for what to tell him, as none of it seems good enough: “We didn’t try hard enough. … We had no discipline. … We cared but we didn’t do.”28 VanderMeer’s environmental critique is, as Robertson and other reviewers have noted, explicit in passages like these. And perhaps this explicitness—related to the bluntness of Mord’s horror—is not necessarily a termination of the weird, but rather an attempt to evolve it. Why must the weird by definition be cosmic in size, dreadful in atmosphere, and indifferent in its politics? Mord can be read as a response to the “fan camp admiration” of Lovecraft mentioned above, as Old Weird monsters such as Mord and Cthulhu have become conventionalized and comical, their alleged horror too clumsy or disinterested to successfully represent the terrors faced in the Anthropocene. Borne, on the other hand, engenders a complex variety of emotions and affects which, even in his unquestionable weirdness, makes him a person to Rachel.

With Borne, VanderMeer makes an effort to accommodate themes like love, friendship, personhood, and motherhood, testing the boundaries of the weird by balancing moments of classic horror against moments of pure comedy. These themes and the horror-comedy tension also reinforce the environmental critique at the heart of the novel by shifting the locus of the weird from the cosmic to the personal; from the undifferentiated, indifferent whole to diversified fragments of care for humans and nonhumans alike. By pitting the weird subtleties, slippery nature, and emergent personhood of Borne against Mord’s caricature of cosmic horror, VanderMeer suggests a need for reframing the category of “weird” in response to the ecological crisis. VanderMeer thus entwines his reimagination of the weird with an attempt to rethink the position of the human and the relationship to the nonhuman in the twenty-first century.


  • 1While working on this article the author received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement no. 714166).
  • 2Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy After the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 63; Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 2; Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, “Introduction,” in The Age of Lovecraft, ed. Sederholm and Weinstock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 3; Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, “Interview with China Miéville,” in Sederholm and Weinstock, Age of Lovecraft, 237; Benjamin Noys and Timothy S. Murphy, “Introduction: Old and New Weird,” Genre 49, no. 2 (July 2016): 117-34; Roger Luckhurst, “The Weird: A Dis/Orientation,” Textual Practice 6, no. 31 (2017): 1056.
  • 3Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016), 8.
  • 4Sederholm and Weinstock, Age, 34; Steven Shaviro, “The Weird’s World-System,” Paradoxa 28 (2016): 257.
  • 5Noys and Murphy, “Old and New,” 125.
  • 6Benjamin Robertson, None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 5.
  • 7Laura Miller, “Jeff VanderMeer Amends the Apocalypse,” The New Yorker, 17 April 2017.
  • 8H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” (1927), in H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction. (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2011), 1043.
  • 9China Miéville, “Weird Fiction,” in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Mark Bould et al. (London: Taylor and Francis, 2009), 510; Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater Books, 2016), 15.
  • 10Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, “Introduction,” in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, eds. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (London: Corrus, 2011), xiv.
  • 11Luckhurst, “The Weird,” 1056.
  • 12Jeff VanderMeer, Borne (New York, NY: MCD, 2017), 4.
  • 13VanderMeer, Borne, 43.
  • 14VanderMeer, Borne, 60.
  • 15VanderMeer, Borne, 111.
  • 16VanderMeer, Borne, 235.
  • 17VanderMeer, Borne, 43.
  • 18VanderMeer, Borne, 93.
  • 19VanderMeer, Borne, 56.
  • 20VanderMeer, Borne, 207.
  • 21VanderMeer, Borne, 7.
  • 22Marco Caracciolo, “Weird Shimmers,” in this double CLUSTER.
  • 23VanderMeer, Borne, 48-49.
  • 24VanderMeer, Borne, 189.
  • 25VanderMeer, Borne, 153.
  • 26VanderMeer, Borne, 159.
  • 27VanderMeer, Borne, 199.
  • 28VanderMeer, Borne, 166.


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Area X

Sophie Pluim

Poster illustration for the symposium Area X – The Weird and the Anthropocene on the 17th of May 2019, Ghent


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The Weird and the Ineluctable Human

Kahn Faassen and Pieter Vermeulen

1. Ineluctably Weird

It is a commonplace that the weird is an unstable and unruly category. The weird resists the traditional iconography of the vampire, the ghost, or the zombie, and instead stages “indescribable and formless” monsters.1 It avoids the stale emotive protocols of the gothic, horror, and fantasy, and rather inhabits “the interstices of other forms.”2 This intractability also pertains to the historical trajectory of the weird: a lot of ink has been spilt tabulating the differences between the so-called Old Weird and the New Weird, with the best of these accounts showing a recent shift toward a less horrific and more benign attunement between human and nonhuman lives.3 In this brief intervention, we want to track a parallel trajectory that, we believe, is more problematic. The Old Weird, we argue, was overwhelmingly marked by a covert dialectic in which the human and the nonhuman contaminate but never fatally undermined one another; indeed, the inability of the human to abolish itself was part of the point. In contemporary ecological mobilizations of the weird, by contrast, we observe a tendency to celebrate the weird as a feature of a disanthropic world—a world in which human agency has been absorbed by nonhuman forces. Such a complacently posthumanist attitude not only inhibits a productive engagement with the socioeconomic forces that cause and perpetuate the ongoing ecological crisis, it also misrepresents the peculiar force of weird writing. China Miéville has noted that H.P. Lovecraft’s writing “is a surrender to the ineluctability of the Weird4; our point is that, both in terms of politics and literary form, such a surrender always implies the ineluctability of the human in the context of the current ecological crisis. And if weird writing knows this, critical elevations of the weird at times tend to forget it.

2. The Weird, in Theory

One place where this ineluctability is forgotten is in Benjamin Robertson’s recent study of the fiction of Jeff VanderMeer, None of This Is Normal. The weird is a key category in Robertson’s interpretation of VanderMeer’s project. This project commendably aims to push beyond the all too humanist remainders of the Old Weird, which, Robertson submits, still linger in VanderMeer’s early work. It is through the figure of Area X in the Southern Reach trilogy that VanderMeer’s work finally moves beyond the “residual humanism”5 of that early work and the “residual anthropocentrism”6 of the Old Weird. Area X operates “beyond the human sensorium,” in a realm where notions such as experiencing, registering, and understanding no longer matter, and thus it intimates a reality without humans.7 VanderMeer’s writing, for Robertson, achieves “an encroaching indistinction” beyond mere difference: “Area X manifests a radical difference, an adifference or abdifference.”8 What disappears, in Robertson’s VanderMeer, is the tension between the human and the nonhuman—a tension that has yet, we show in the next section, historically been the site where the weird operates.

What also disappears is an even remotely recognizable conception of politics. Area X’s indistinction, Robertson writes, equals a “liquidation of antagonism” that “bespeaks a weird politics outside of the Western anthropocentric politics based on the distinction between such differences as friend and enemy.”9 Yet at the end of the day, this so-called “weird politics” is no politics at all. Take Robertson’s description of how VanderMeer’s “fantastic materiality” redefines our sense of reality: it “has no truck with preconceptions of what reality is” and actively “modifies the world” in order to “introduce to a world without predetermined notions of reality the means by which to change it.”10 This contorted sentence repackages VanderMeer’s work of ontological (re)description as itself a significant political action. Paul Rekret has shown that New Materialism—the most important critical toolbox for Robertson’s book—has a tendency to posit a continuity between ontology and ethics, in which a relational ontology comes to stand for an ethically appropriate attitude of attention and attunement; in this gesture, Rekret writes, New Materialism neglects “the material constraints differentially mediating relations between human and nonhuman natures.”11 In his recent The Value of Ecocriticism, Timothy Clark makes the related point that it is illusory to think that merely imagining an alternative ontology will somehow decisively address the ecological crisis—as if the causes of the crisis are not first of all a matter of economic and political power relations, rather than of bad ways of thinking.12 Celebrating the indistinction between the human and the nonhuman is then not very useful—indeed, we argue below, it is not even weird. To appropriate Marx’s famous dictum: weird writers have only imagined the world in various ways; the mistake, however, is to mistake such imagining for change.

A second (and last) example of a dehumanized weird can be found in the diarrhoeic prose-poetry of Timothy Morton. The weird is, for Morton, as much a verbal tic as it is a technical term (Hyperobjects uses the term 40 times; Being Ecological 42 times; Dark Ecology 94 times—partly because Morton has decided to inflict the category of “weird weirdness” upon the world). Weirdness, for Morton, is a stable ontological feature of objects; in keeping with the tenets of object-oriented ontology, Morton emphasizes that things are irreducibly themselves, and that their essence withdraws from human access and relation. Weirdness, Morton writes, “means that we acknowledge that things (human bodies, quasars, spoons, slime molds and chalk) are not simply constructs made of other things—whether those other things are smaller (atoms), larger (processes), relational or correlationist (history, economic relations, the subject).”13 Weirdness is the overriding feature of an ontology Morton calls “[e]ssentialism minus the metaphysics of presence,” in which in all things “there is a weird essence that is and is not its appearance.”14 This weirdness, we learn, “resides on the side of objects themselves, not our interpretation of them.”15

The obvious problem here is how we can apprehend a weirdness that remains inaccessible to us. While the weird essence of things remains inaccessible, Morton turns to the aesthetic faculty, the human ability to recognize beauty in the appearance of objects, to somehow create a rapport between the human and the nonhuman object, thereby providing “evidence of the wrongness of solipsism” through a “weird coherence between me and a thing that isn’t me.”16 This recourse to the notion of the beautiful is a staple of theorizing about the weird: for the VanderMeers, for instance, the weird is marked by “the strangely beautiful, intertwined with terror”17; for Miéville, the weird is a beautified and defanged sublime which no longer “undermin[es] the quotidian” but seeps into a reenchanted everyday reality.18 Morton’s take on the relation between the beautiful and the sublime is slightly different from the VanderMeers in at least two ways. First, if for the VanderMeers, Miéville, and others there is a lingering tension between the beautiful and the sublime, for Morton, the sublime is fully subsumed by beauty: the sublime is “[w]ithin beauty, not opposed to it”; it is “the active ingredient of beauty.”19 Second, Morton emphasizes that beauty, like weirdness, is a feature of the nonhuman world, and not an aspect of the relation between the human and the nonhuman: “beauty,” we read, “just happens, without our ego cooking it up. The experience of beauty itself is an entity that isn’t ‘me.’ This means that the experience has an intrinsic weirdness to it.”20

If, as we argue, the human is an ineluctable part of the weird, Morton—like Robertson—shifts the emphasis squarely to the nonhuman world. Given the influence of Morton’s work on a lot of ecologically attuned humanities research, and given that None of This Is Normal is bound to become a touchstone of VanderMeer scholarship—if only because it is the first book on the author!—it seems important to assess what we lose when we let go of all human residues. For one thing, the exclusive emphasis on nonhuman agency leads to a dedifferentiation that implies we all exist in a conveniently non-hierarchical soup.21 As we noted before, this downplays political and economic power relations. A second and related problem is that the weird wild world of isolated objects “swim[ming] about” in perfect self-sufficiency without need of what Morton calls “a reality adjudicator” (i.e., a human subject) is not quite what weird fiction delivers.22 The valorization of openness, attunement, attentiveness we find in New Materialism and also in Morton and Robertson sits uneasily with actually existing weird fiction, which does not quite reproduce the ecstatic openness of the human subject to the nonhuman other. Indeed, the subversion of the human/nonhuman binary which makes weird fiction such a cherished subject in the study of the nonhuman world is presented in actual weird texts as fraught and complicated.

3. The Weird, In Literary Practice

Old Weird fiction abounds with fantasies about transcendence and nonhuman becoming. Whether we consider Arthur Machen’s enduring obsession with what he termed the “withdrawal from the common life,” the panpsychism of Algernon Blackwood’s wilderness tales, or William Hope Hodgson’s imaginative forays into other dimensions, the preoccupation of Old Weird authors with sublime limit experiences is readily apparent.23 We argue that these reimaginings of human and nonhuman boundaries are ineluctably anthropocentric, caught up as they are in all too human concerns about subjecthood and attunement to the other. If we consider Old Weird stories from a narratological angle, we likewise see that in order for weird stories to properly register as weird, they require the use of a human focalizer and/or narrator. The one thing that distinguishes the weird from customary horror stories, as Lovecraft famously noted, is “a subtle attitude of awed listening,” which suggests that a necessarily human affect (fear, awe) is an essential condition for these stories to work.24

As such, weird fiction becomes a literature of wonder and re-enchantment as well as horror, ever circling around the problem of human cognition and the inaccessible in-itself of objects. Yet this choreography between the human and its others has less to do with the ambient attunement of the beautiful than with the irruptive force of the sublime—even if the weird often sustains that force beyond the irruptive moment. Typically, the presence of an unknowable other ruptures the status quo and puts into disarray the cognitive framework of the all too human focalizer. When we fast forward from the Old Weird to the Southern Reach trilogy, we see that the organization’s director, when confronted with the seemingly marvelous, has to remind herself that “this moment is the same as every other moment, that it makes no difference to the atoms, to the air, to the creature whose walls breathe all around [her].”25 Contra Morton and Robertson, there is no sentimental recasting of nonhuman agents as ontologically weird and wonderful, but an emphasis on human affect and the recognition that this human reference point is essential for the generation of the weird effect/affect. The punchline of the weird remains invariably that the nonhuman was always already here with us (“There is nothing but border. There is no border”26) and that the crisis of the apparent “irruption into this world of something from outside” is, in retrospect, seen to be merely an effect of the limitations of the human mind.27

Without such finitude, there would have been no suspense, and without suspense, there would have been no weird affect—just cosmic soup that goes untasted. The transformation of the biologist into a nonhuman entity in the Southern Reach trilogy is a case in point. Upon seeing her horrifying double, Ghost Bird concludes: “Nothing monstrous existed here—only beauty, only the glory of good design.”28 Ghost Bird’s status as—by this stage in the story—a fully nonhuman focalizer causes the weird effect to fall flat, and the biologist becomes just another creature, well-adapted to its different environments, “from the lungs that allowed this creature to live on land or at sea, to the huge gill slits hinted at along the sides, shut tightly now, but which would open to breathe deeply of seawater.”29 This is Morton’s world, and it is Robertson’s world, but it is not weird, if that term is to retain any attachment to the history of the genre. In light of the tradition of the weird, the scene feels like a cop-out. Earlier on, Ghost Bird asks herself if she will let herself be constrained by the limits of the human imagination. Here we find the voluntarist attitude of openness towards the environment that Robertson and Morton celebrate but that is foreign to the tradition of the weird: “human beings couldn’t even put themselves in the mind of a cormorant or an owl or a whale or a bumblebee. Did she want to ally herself to such a lack, and did she have a choice?”30 In the confrontation between Ghost Bird and the biologist, Acceptance answers these questions, and the novel is poorer—or, at least, less weird—for it.

In the Old Weird, even in stories that do effectively employ the weird mode, the brush with the monstrous sublime rarely leads to a true nonhuman becoming—to transcendence or a dissolution into ecstatic indifferentiation. Rather than being freed of human subjecthood and dissolving into a cozy intimacy with other forms of life and non-life, of objects and hyperobjects, these stories confront the characters with their own exegetic drive, even as they show that drive to fail. Despite the unavoidable posturing of the narrators about the unspeakable nature of what they are about to describe, the narration doesn’t come to a stuttering halt when confronted with the radical novum, but instead doubles down on its attempts to describe this novum in terms that relate to its human observer. This “logorrheic schizophony” never crystallizes into clear mental images that allow the human focalizer to hold on to their illusion of mastery, but nevertheless acts as a kind of disenchanting failsafe, preempting the threat of dissolution that confronts the human by discursively cushioning the blow.31

We are never more plainly confronted with our ineluctable humanity than during the final crisis of the weird, when we are left with language, but this time with a language that doesn’t get the job done anymore. Thus we see the narrator in Blackwood’s “The Willows” blanch and draw back before the numinous forces of the island, which he evocatively describes to be “as large as several animals grouped together, like horses, two or three, moving slowly,” even though his travel companion perceives them as “shaped and sized like a clump of willow bushes, rounded at the top, and moving all over upon its surface—‘coiling upon itself like smoke.’”32 Likewise, the narrator in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” describes the Old God as follows: “If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.”33 Even though categories and taxonomies fail, language doggedly carries on, confronting its users and readers with the inadequacy of their conceptual understanding as much as their inescapable and indefatigable drive to keep trying to make the world relate to them.

4. The Weird and the Ineluctable Human

We observed before that weird writers have only imagined the world in various ways, and that it is misguided to mistake such imagining for change. On our reading of the Old Weird, it emerges that the weird has always known this. It has always been about the overreach of human mindedness believing itself capable of transcending itself—into nothingness, or into a changed world. The weird, in other words, is not a conduit beyond the human. It is an unsettling experience that reminds us that cognition and imagination alone do not make a better world. If the weird is an injunction to go out and change the world, it is so only because it registers the impossibility of changing it without making one’s hands dirty.

On this reading, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy has the appeal it does not because it performs a disavowal of the human but because it inscribes itself into the long lineage of weird writers who have struggled with the human’s fatally anthropocentric and pathetically anthropomorphizing drives in the face of a world that has increasingly revealed itself to be more vast and complex—as well as more vulnerable—than previously thought. As a result, the trilogy reflects an increasing awareness of the inaccessibility of the nonhuman other—so central to the object-oriented ontology espoused by the likes of Morton, as well as the entanglements celebrated by New Materialism—without trying to weasel out of what Robertson would call the “critique or history.”34 VanderMeer’s weird does not leave the human on the sidelines. The trilogy’s depiction of the underwhelming character of Control and of the intricate dysfunctionality of the Southern Reach testify to the futility of fantasies of mastery, while human exceptionalism is time and again undercut by dangling the human over the uncanny valley of creatureliness. There are, to be sure, occasional lapses into experimental de-weirding, where the trilogy abandons the engagement with the complexity of human/nonhuman cognitive entanglement for an attempt to aestheticize and thereby sanitize otherness (most notably so during the encounter between Ghost Bird and the biologist). Yet for all that, the trilogy does not entirely opt out of the recognition of the importance of such very human forces as imagination and mindedness. We are not left with the comforting notion that we need only let go of our humanity in order to peacefully merge with what Eugene Thacker would term “the world without us” and blissfully participate in its unmediated primacy. Rather, we are faced with the realization that the contagion of the human and the real works both ways: Area X has already responded to us: it reshapes our understanding of ourselves even as we trap this ostensibly untouchable thing in our words—making it weird in the process. If the trilogy offers us any political take-away at all, it is the need to accept the ineluctability of human agency and responsibility—a responsibility that is not exhausted by the work of imagination alone.


  • 1China Miéville, “M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or?,” Collapse 4 (2008): 105.
  • 2Roger Luckhurst, “The Weird: a Dis/Orientation,” Textual Practice 31, no. 6 (2017): 1045.
  • 3Gry Ulstein, “Brave New Weird: Anthropocene Monsters in Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach,” Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 43, no. 1 (2017): 71-96.
  • 4China Miéville, “Weird Fiction,” Mark Bould, ed., The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction (New York: Routledge, 2009), 512.
  • 5Benjamin Robertson, None of This Is Normal: The Fiction of Jeff VanderMeer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 116.
  • 6Robertson, None of This Is Normal, 117.
  • 7Robertson, None of This Is Normal, 120.
  • 8Robertson, None of This Is Normal, 132 and 116.
  • 9Robertson, None of This Is Normal, 121.
  • 10Robertson, None of This Is Normal, 41.
  • 11Paul Rekret, “A Critique of New Materialism: Ethics and Ontology,” Subjectivity 9, no. 3 (2016): 240.
  • 12Timothy Clark, The Value of Ecocriticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
  • 13Timothy Morton, “Weird Embodiment,” in Lynette Hunter, Elisabeth Krimmer, and Peter Lichtenfels, eds., Sentient Performativities of Embodiment: Thinking alongside the Human (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016), 19.
  • 14Morton, “Weird Embodiment,” 23 and 24.
  • 15Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 159.
  • 16Morton, “Weird Embodiment,” 27.
  • 17Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, eds., The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (New York: Tor Books, 2011).
  • 18Miéville, “Weird Fiction,” p. 510; also Ulstein, “Brave New Weird,” 88.
  • 19Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018), 13.
  • 20Morton, Being Ecological, 42.
  • 21For a rigorous critique of the disabling consequences of such dedifferentiation, see Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (London: Verso Books, 2018), especially the third chapter.
  • 22Morton, Hyperobjects, 14.
  • 23Arthur Machen, Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1913).
  • 24H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover Publications, 1973), 7.
  • 25Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance (London, Fourth Estate, 2014), 57.
  • 26VanderMeer, Acceptance, 5.
  • 27Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater Books, 2017), 20.
  • 28VanderMeer, Acceptance, 196.
  • 29VanderMeer, Acceptance, 196.
  • 30VanderMeer, Acceptance, 190.
  • 31Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 23.
  • 32Algernon Blackwood, Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), 105.
  • 33H.P. Lovecraft, H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2008), 357.
  • 34Robertson, None of This Is Normal, 59.


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Felix Bosschaert