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Jonathan Thornton

Daphne du Maurier and the Borders of the Uncanny, Gothic, and Weird

Daphne du Maurier had a fascinating career that spanned various genres and defies easy categorization. Associated most strongly with thrillers and often classed as a “romantic novelist,” there is also an argument to be made for her as one of the 20th century’s key authors of gothic horror and the uncanny.

Over the course of 17 novels and many short stories, du Maurier produced a body of work rich with the strange, the atmospheric, and the dark. Because she was both a woman and a writer of popular fiction, she was (and still is) frequently overlooked in spite of her literary brilliance. Du Maurier wrote tightly plotted romance novels that were bestsellers, none of which should preclude them from being appreciated as works of depth with a keen interest in exploring humanity’s darker aspects, particularly with respect to gender and sexuality. It’s no wonder her work wound up being adapted by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg.

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Imagining and Understanding the Alien: Insects in Science Fiction

Insects have fascinated writers and readers of SF ever since the genre’s early days, when Earthlings battled bug-eyed monsters in pulp magazines and low-budget B-movies. Insects provide the perfect template for alien biology. Companion animals tend to be mammals like us—we generally find it quite easy to relate to our cat and dog, so whilst cats and dogs have frequently served as templates for alien creatures, as an audience we are more ready to humanise them, to find them cute.

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Radical, Wild, and Wise: Angela Carter’s Subversive Fantasy

 “The most difficult performance in the world is acting naturally, isn’t it? Everything else is artful.”

—Angela Carter, from “Flesh and the Mirror” (collected in Burning Your Boats)

Angela Carter may be best known among fans of SF and fantasy for The Bloody Chamber (1979), her collection of feminist reimaginings of fairy tales, but her entire oeuvre is bursting with explorations of the SFnal, the gothic, and the fantastic. Though Carter is rightly regarded as one of the key literary authors of the 20th century, she should also be remembered as one of the era’s most adventurous and uncompromising fantasists. Even at her most realist, as in early works like The Magic Toyshop (1967), she is fascinated by the uncanniness of puppets and dolls, the spaces that the theatre opens up for the unreal to spill into our world, and the way that we can never truly know other people’s internal lives. Over the course of Carter’s more fantastical works, her flare for the gothic combines with surrealism and apocalyptic landscapes, folklore and fairy tales, the beautiful and the grotesque, to create a unique take on the fantastic that remains unmatched thirty years after her death.

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A Readers’ Guide to the Finnish Weird in Translation

In her 2011 essay “Weird and Proud of It” (published in the journal Books From Finland), Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo coined the term “suomikumma,” or Finnish Weird, to refer to a new strain of speculative fiction being produced by herself and her Finnish peers. In stark contrast to the realist strain of mainstream Finnish literature, these writers were producing work that Sinisalo describes as having a “diagonal” approach to “genres… hybrids of these genres, and genres that don’t have any other name.” She identities common features of the Finnish Weird as including “the blurring of genre boundaries, the bringing together of different genres and the unbridled flight of imagination.”

Since then, the term has enthusiastically been adopted by editors like Jeff and Ann VanderMeer and by writers and fans of Finnish speculative fiction as a useful way to talk about the unique, inventive, and distinctively Finnish work produced by these writers. In the interim, the genre has only grown in stature, with Finnish writers like Sinisalo, Emmi Itäranta, and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen winning awards and accolades in English, and the Helsinki Science Fiction Society producing a magazine in the lead-up to Finncon to introduce English-speaking SFF fans to suomikumma and its practitioners.

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Poetry, Myth, Darkness, and Humour: The Worlds of Roz Kaveney

Roz Kaveney is a wonderfully talented writer, poet, and critic, and a tireless activist. She has written insightful critical works on a wide range of popular culture, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Nip/Tuck. She has written reviews and criticism for The Guardian and The Independent newspapers. Her debut poetry collection Dialectic of the Flesh (2012) was shortlisted for the Lambda Award. She has a new poetry collection, The Great Good Time. She has published her translations of Catullus’ poetry, which boldly capture the originals’ romanticism, wit, and sexual explicitness. Along with Neil Gaiman, Alex Stewart, and Mary Gentle, she was a core member of the Midnight Rose Collective, which released a series of shared world anthologies published by Penguin.

[What unites all of Kaveney’s work is her formidable intelligence and her razor-sharp wit.]

Pirates, Punks, and Quests: The Transgressive, Transformative Slipstream Novels of Kathy Acker

“How can I do this? Begin.
Begin what?
The only thing in the world that’s worth beginning: the end of the world.”

(Pussy, King of the Pirates, 27)

Punk feminist author Kathy Acker (1947-1997) was one of the most influential and daring writers of postmodern experimental fiction of the 20th century. Although her work isn’t usually thought of as science fiction or fantasy, throughout her career her work engages with SF, fantastical, and speculative fiction tropes in bizarre and unexpected ways. Like fellow experimental writers William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon, Acker is a writer whose work sits in dialogue with, and is frequently influential on, the field of SF without necessarily being SF itself. In an influential 1989 essay, Bruce Sterling called this kind of writing “slipstream,” which he defines as “a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality… a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel.”

More than three decades on from Sterling’s original essay, the boundaries between traditional SF modes of writing and postmodern and other so-called “literary” forms of writing have become ever more porous and uncertain. As such, it’s worth looking at Acker as one of the original pioneering writers who helped to demolish the boundaries between genre and postmodern fiction. While Acker’s books may frustrate readers expecting hard SF logic and rigor, likeable characters, or even coherent linear plots, the adventurous SFF reader will find much to enjoy in her riotous transgressive punk prose, her wild DIY juxtaposition of appropriated texts across genres and tones, and her inventive and unique take on dystopian and cyberpunk motifs and themes.

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John Crowley’s Little, Big: A Fantasy Masterpiece Turns Forty

“The further in you go, the bigger it gets.”

 This August marked the 40th anniversary of the release of John Crowley’s fantasy masterpiece Little, Big (1981). Upon its release, no less an authority than Ursula Le Guin called it “a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy.” Little, Big was widely recognised as a significant work at the time—it won the World Fantasy Award, and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and BSFA Awards. Crowley had already published three remarkable novels—The Deep (1975), Beast (1976) and Engine Summer (1979)—which established him as an exciting author unafraid to bring both beautifully crafted prose and highly original ideas to his own peculiar mix of science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. However Little, Big would eclipse them all.

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Art, Myth, and Magic Come Alive in Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife

Terri Windling’s influence over modern Fantasy is incalculable. Her work as editor for Ace and Tor Books’ Fantasy lines in the 1980s and as a tireless anthologist has done so much to shape the direction of fantastic fiction, always for the better. She was behind the iconic Fairy Tales series of novels, which brought contemporary reimaginings of fairy tales by authors such as Charles de Lint, Pamela Dean, Jane Yolen, and more. Windling’s art, inspired by the folklore, mythology and fairy tales she so clearly loves, has been exhibited across the US, UK, and Europe. She is the founder of Endicott Studio—another practical way in which she has shown her support of folklore- and mythic-inspired art—and her blog, Myth & Moor, is a vibrant centre for discussion about such work, bringing together insightful essays from herself and other creatives.

With such a wealth of contributions to the genre to consider, it’s possible that one might overlook Windling’s 1996 fantasy novel The Wood Wife amongst her other accomplishments. This would be a grave mistake.

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Where to Start Reading the Work of Nicola Griffith

Since publishing her debut novel Ammonite in 1993, Nicola Griffith has won the Otherwise Award (formally the James Tiptree, Jr Award), the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, the Washington State Book Award, and no less than six Lambda Literary Awards, as well as being shortlisted for the BSFA Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Locus Award. The Bending The Landscape anthologies she edited with Stephen Pagel were landmark works of LGBTQ+ speculative fiction. Griffith’s work spans genres, from near-future speculative fiction to historical fiction and fantasy, from noir-esque detective fiction to space opera. She’s even written the award-winning nonfiction memoir And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life (2017).

Griffith’s refusal to stay still is part of what makes her such a compelling writer, yet it can make it difficult to know which one of her books is the best place for a new reader to start.

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Bold as Love: Gwyneth Jones’ Vision of the Near-Future Has Never Been More Relevant

England, in the near future. It’s Dissolution Summer—the increasingly divided United Kingdom is about to split off into the individual countries of England, Wales and Scotland, with Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland. A global economic collapse has created a whole generation of disaffected, unemployed youth. The dire effects of climate change are being felt, with huge populations displaced. The combination of economic and environmental collapse with civil unrest and the collapse of digital and physical infrastructure has led to a rise of enthnonationalistic violence. All of this may feel uncomfortably familiar for anyone following British politics, but this is the world of Gwyneth Jones’ Bold As Love sequence. But help is at hand in England’s hour of need…

Ax Preston, indie guitar hero wonderboy of mixed English and Sudanese inheritance, is ready to step up, a postmodern King Arthur with an electric guitar in place of Excalibur. His Guinevere: Fiorinda Slater, a half-Irish punk rock princess with a horrific past and a magical heritage, whose electrifying talent has catapulted her to early fame. His Lancelot: his best friend and rival Sage Pender, AKA Aoxomoxoa, techno Wizkid leader of controversial and hugely popular Aoxomoxoa and the Heads, a laddish shock artist with a surprisingly sensitive introspective side who always hides behind a digital skull mask. Gritty near-future dystopia, postmodern reimagining of Arthurian mythology, and rock and roll utopianism is far from an obvious combination, but somehow in Jones’ hands these seemingly disparate elements come together to create one of the most compelling—and disturbingly prescient—science fantasy sagas of recent memory.

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