[Book Review] An Unsystematic Articulation of the Weird and the Eerie: A Beautiful, Insightful Collection of Readings by Mark Fisher


An Unsystematic Articulation of the Weird and the Eerie: A Beautiful, Insightful Collection of Readings by Mark Fisher

Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. Repeater Books, 2017. 134 pages. US $14.95. Includes bibliography but no in-text citations.

In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher sets out to describe what it is about certain kinds of literature and films that create “a certain kind of disquiet” (9). Toward that end, he argues for two affective categories (which can also be narrative modes)—the weird and the eerie—related to but distinct from the uncanny. After a brief discussion of what constitutes the uncanny—Fisher follows Freud, attributing to the uncanny the “strange within the familiar, the strangely familiar, the familiar as strange” (10, emphasis in original)—Fisher provides an exploratory hypothesis of where the weird and the eerie are located. He writes, “the major cultural examples of the weird and the eerie are to be found at the edges of genres such as horror and science fiction, and these genre associations have obscured what is specific to the weird and the eerie” (8). His project, then, is to re-situate the weird and the eerie as apart from genre, as modes that can attach to anything, and then to articulate what distinguishes those modes, how they operate, and what they can do.

Fisher begins with a discussion of the uncanny, defining it, marking out what ground it shares with the weird and the eerie, and then differentiating between the former and the two latter. Fisher says that what the uncanny shares with the weird and the eerie is a “preoccupation with the strange” (8). He specifically argues that it is the strange, rather than the horrible which drives all three modes, that it has to do with “a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience” (8). As part of his project, Fisher attends to the need to justify why the weird and the eerie are separate from the uncanny, rather than synonyms (which is how Fish acknowledges Lovecraft uses them). Fisher admits that what kept him from exploring the weird and the eerie sooner was “the spell cast by Freud’s concept of the unheimlich” (9), and readers can infer that part of the impetus for his quest to explain that “certain kind of disquiet” is his dissatisfaction in the explanation that Freud proposes; Fisher calls Freud’s reduction of the unheimlich to “castration anxiety” “as disappointing as any mediocre genre detective’s rote solution to a mystery” (9).

Fisher situates the uncanny, the weird, and the eerie not just as affects, but also as modes of “perception” and even “of being.”[1] The idea that Fisher intuits here is that the weird and the eerie can be encountered anywhere; one need not make an “eerie movie” in order for the eerie (or the weird) to manifest in it. It just happens, and that possibility of encountering it anywhere, unexpectedly, leads to the feeling of anticipation and dread that sometimes feeds into definitions of all three modes. Fisher then becomes more philosophical, arguing that the real difference between the uncanny and the weird and the eerie is in how the former and the two latter treat the “outside.” Fisher says that the uncanny (often harnessed in a “certain kind of critique”) operates by “always processing the outside through the gaps and impasses of the inside” (10); he argues that the weird and the eerie “make the opposite move,” that they “allow us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside” (10).

Fisher never gets overtly political in this book, but the reader does not have to look far to see how these ideas could be picked up by more political critics. Fisher himself was a deeply active cultural theorist, and his readings throughout The Weird and the Eerie brush right up against political themes, such as when in his reading of the British punk rock band The Fall he muses that The Grotesque’s constitutes a weird thought experiment that asks the listener to reckon with a world in which rock and roll “emerged from the industrial heartlands of England rather than the Mississippi Delta” (35). His criticism engages honestly and directly with the texts he examines, while still maintaining the cultural inflection , striking a good balance between engaging with existing theory and making his own readings. He displays a strong knowledge of psychoanalytic and cultural theory, especially Lacan, Delueze & Guittari, as well as highly current developments in New Materialism a la Jane Bennet and “vibrant matter,” which Fisher combines with Freud in order to spin out an argument for an “eerie Thanatos,” a disturbing proposition that life is not distributed among all matter, but that nothing is alive.

Fisher’s style of argumentation could charitably be described as loose. This is both what makes this book so wonderful as well as what prevents it from achieving its stated goal. He combines brilliant, insightful readings of cultural artifacts—stepping effortlessly between novels, movies, architecture, landscape, and even punk rock music—with maddeningly indistinct distinctions between the weird and the eerie. His definitions seem clear at first (though I felt that his chapter “Approaching the Eerie” gave short shrift to defining the eerie as distinct from the weird), but Fisher seems to dart around without much structure to his definitions and wider argument. The reader finds himself nodding and going along with his narration, thinking “yes, this feels right,” but when laying the book down realizes that the distinctions Fisher makes between the weird and the eerie aren’t sustained across his readings. Part of the problem is that Fisher offers several different definitions of the weird and the eerie that don’t seem to have much to do with each other.

Broadly, they fall into how the weird and the eerie enter into discussions of the “outside” along with more general questions of “agency.” The former is most commonly connected with his discussions of the weird, the latter with the eerie, but Fisher doesn’t keep to his distinctions. For example, he reads Tim Powers’ novel The Anubis Gates as “an extended weird tale” (40), attributing the weirdness of the novel to the effect created by the “sense of anachronism” and time paradoxes that “plung[e] us into … ‘strange loops’ or ‘tangled hierarchies’” where “cause and effect” are “fatally disrupted” (40). He generalizes this particular manifestation of the weird to a more general weird, musing “all paradoxes have a touch of the weird about them” (43), in that they involve an incursion made from some “outside,” into a place where it recognizably does not belong (temporally this might manifest as the future in the past, the past in the future, the eradication of any stable present). But then he reads Alan Garner’s Red Shift as eerie, and cites the same sorts of temporal problematics: that “time ‘itself’ has been traumatized” (96).

In the same chapter, he reads Nigel Kneale’s Quartermass and the Pit as eerie because the big reveal is that the aliens everyone assumed we were trying to protect ourselves from had always already been a part of us, proved by the discovery of archeological remains of Martians on Earth, who must have bred with proto-humans to save their own species. In this case,  Fisher seems to argue that the unquietness comes from the realization that the Outside was always Inside, that the Strange Thing was not out of place but that it was in exactly the right place, with the disruption coming from a weird warping of our conception of what the right place and things are. This, however, is an argument for the weird, not the eerie.

Similarly, Fisher characterizes montage as a form most closely relating to the weird (11), and yet in his unsettling reading of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin attributes the eeriness of sections of the film to the fragmentary nature (“eerie ellipses”) of some of its most disturbing scenes. What differentiates eerie ellipses from weird montage? I can’t say. Too often, Fisher’s connection back to the eerie comes in the form of a vague references to the “eerie power of landscape” (97), or by simply asserting that “ultimately … it is the feeling of the eerie that is dominant” (76). The eerie tie just seems tenuous too often. At other times, particularly in his conclusion to the final chapter (on Joan Lindsay and The Picnic at Hanging Rock), he is able to sum up his eerie connection quite beautifully.

The overall impression is that Fisher is right that the eerie is distinct from the weird, and that we can perhaps know it when we feel it, but I’m not sure he quite carried off his stated project. Part of the problem might be that he uses too many examples to illustrate his argumentation of the eerie in great depth. In the end, read this book for highly insightful readings of strange texts, rather than any systematic approach to the eerie. But do read it.

[1] I am reminded of Jack Morgan’s essay on the Gothic mode, which suggests the existence of a “horror way of living.” [Morgan, Jack. “Toward an Organic Theory of the Gothic: Conceptualizing Horror.” Journal of Popular Culture 32, no. 3 (Winter 1998): 59-80.]

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