- The Old Weird
Something weird is going on in contemporary fiction. Something weird: neither extravagantly experimental nor sure-footedly realist, not mesmerizing, and not even that new. Its not-newness, moreover, is precisely the point, consisting of a sideways glance at the gothic residues of nineteenth-century literature or the kitschy horror of the early twentieth-century pulps. A superlative recent example of such a glance appears in Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym; Johnson’s text engages and updates Edgar Allan Poe’s longest and perhaps most notorious work of fiction, his 1838 text The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. What kind of engagement with Poe the novel provides has been a matter of some debate, with labels ranging from satire to provocation to homage.1 This is partly because of the strange relation the narrator himself has to the source text—a bibliophilic former professor of African-American literature (he’s just been denied tenure, in part, he says, because of a principled refusal to sit on the university’s “Diversity Committee,” and in part because of his turn toward Poe and “general” American literature as the subject of his scholarly interests), Chris Jaynes pursues his “passion” for Poe by convening an unlikely crew for a sea voyage to Antarctica in pursuit of the reality he’s convinced lies beneath Poe’s fiction.2
Johnson’s narrator finds himself compelled by Poe for many reasons, all of which gesture toward the category of the weird. Weird here has a broad scope of reference, but points explicitly to the genre of weird fiction codified in the early twentieth-century Weird Tales writings of the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs (of John Carter and Tarzan fame) and H. P. Lovecraft. The narrator locates in Poe a kind of ancient “fossil record” of an American “racial pathology” or its “twisted mythic underpinnings” (Johnson, Pym, 8). [End Page 631] This is a fossil record figuratively doubled, for the frozen remainder of an ancestral alien past also forms the subject of Poe’s text. What happens to these remains in literary history also attracts Jaynes’s attention, and as the ship’s crew descends into Poe’s Antarctic nightmare, the joke is a little too overt; in this version, Poe’s white monsters have the more banal needs for everyday infrastructure, and have even developed an elaborate sewer system which leads Jaynes to speculate, upon using it, about the “Lovecraftian horror within” (167). Johnson traces Poe’s Narrative through a series of “sequels,” and one of the novel’s more intriguing paratexts was a website the author developed providing helpful Project Gutenberg links through a curated literary history, including Jules Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery (1897), which Jaynes sees as a pseudoscientific attempt to contain the ambiguities of Poe’s text through rationality, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851; called “the most famous direct offspring” [emphasis mine]), and also Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936), which he claims transforms Poe’s white monster into a penguin, but not just any penguin: “A massive albino penguin, of a breed that was left there by the alien Old Ones, who had also left behind an incomprehensibly hideous tentacle monster. This creature was slimy and, true to Poe’s symbology if not to the setting, completely black” (230).3
Pym’s strategies for cataloging weirdness include this attention to a virulent and obligingly satirizable racism, an affection for the narrative pull of an ancient, alien past, and a fascination with the indifferent neutrality of the nonhuman. These strategies, coupled with the sureness that the techniques of realism are the best way to heighten a sense of unreality, allow Pym’s narrator simultaneously to observe and describe the literary history the novel claims for itself and also to enact what Steven Shaviro calls the “slightly hokey or forced” qualities that constitute weird fiction.4 The weird literary history Johnson constructs exceeds Shaviro’s, for the latter focuses primarily on the invocation of the term in the 1920s to describe the writings of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, and its more overt legacy in contemporary fiction by writers who draw upon the...