Scott Nicolay

Ana Kai Tangata

Category: Stories from the Borderland (page 1 of 5)

Stories from the Borderland #20: “In the Avu Observatory,” by H.G. Wells

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

—Walt Whitman, “When I heard the learn’d astronomer”

Please visit Michael Bukowski’s blog to see his artistic interpretation here.

Michael Bukowski and I have been creating these illustrated essays for long enough now that a distinct set of interrelated themes has emerged. Paramount among said themes is the recognition that a deeply entangled yet entirely center-less corpus of Weird Fiction began its accretion well over a century ago, and certainly long before anyone thought to tease out any sort of canon for it from the vast warp and weft of genre and mainstream fiction within which it remains woven, and from which it extends into cinema, comic books, and many other popular media. In form it is like unto Blake’s vegetative Polypus, one of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomes, or perhaps even a hyperobject à la Timothy Morton, too massively distributed in time and space for any single person to see all at once. The project of delineating the neglected parameters of this almost unviewable structure provides the raison de combattre for our struggle with the real, as well as with those critically restricted notions of a Weird Fiction canon that bottleneck somewhere during the Farnsworth Wright-era of Weird Tales.1

Attendant upon that understanding are other ideas, and though most of these date back to our original planning discussions, our research and discoveries here have enhanced, expanded, and refined all of them over the last several years to a far greater extent than either Michael or I anticipated when we began. Our current selection highlights the importance of several of these themes, in particular:

  1. 19th and 20th century science fiction is rich in Weird Fiction, and the two forms broadly coextend throughout their history and share common roots
  2. The true Weird monster exists outside of any human ontology or telos2
  3. Weird Fiction has had a central obsession with cryptozoology3 since long before either concept had a name

Thus far in Stories from the Borderland we have demonstrated the first point through explorations of High Weirdness in the works of such iconic science fiction authors as Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, James Tiptree Jr., and J.-H. Rosny aîné. The second theme is one we have explored in depth from our very first installment, wherein we showcased Joseph Payne Brennan’s signature tale of amoeboid horror, “Slime.”4 As for the cryptozoological fixation of Weird Fiction, though the featured creatures in many of our story selections certainly could be read as cryptids, our first explicit foray in this direction came last year, when we examined Lady Rosa Campbell Praed’s 1891 tale “The Bunyip,” about a legendary creature of great cultural significance in Australia. The date of Praed’s genuinely and organically Weird contribution makes clear the deep roots of our subject. Indeed, it predates our current selection, which first appeared in the Pall Mall Budget for August 9, 1894,5 by several years.

Continue reading

Stories from the Borderland #19: “The Believers” AKA “Do You Believe in Ghosts?” by Robert Arthur, Jr.

don’t know if we need all this history, or the whole exquisite corpse thing—just call it ‘spontaneous collaboration’ or something?”
—Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer
“each thing i show you is a piece of my death”

“Many miles away something crawls to the surface…”
—The Police
“Synchronicity II”

Please visit Michael Bukowski’s blog to see his artistic interpretation here.

If you are reading this at home, please join Michael Bukowski and me in a simple collective experiment…a “spontaneous collaboration,” if you will. Walk over to your nearest bookshelf (or reach over—as long as I am in my own house, at least one bookshelf is nearly always within reach) and pick out the book on that shelf you have had the longest. How much has it aged since the first time you held it? How much have you? How much smaller in relation to your hands is it since that time? Do you remember how that book came into your possession? Was it a gift—perhaps from a former lover or a now-deceased loved one? Was it one of the first books you ever bought with your own carefully saved money—perhaps even the very first such (and if not, do you still have that first one)? Was it a special discovery you made in some funky-musty used bookstore that you visited only once during a particularly memorable and life-changing journey? Maybe you found it—in the street, in a pub, or in an empty classroom, where it sat in the corner for several weeks, unclaimed, before you finally decided it that it was better off with you and stuffed it hastily into your pack. Perhaps you stole it (exactly how many books have you stolen? Send us a letter, we won’t tell…operators are standing by).

How vivid and extensive a network of associations does that book evoke when you hold it in your hands? When you open it, do you suddenly “see some wasps caught in a sunbeam, smell cherries resting on the table”? Or do you have no idea how that book came to stand on your shelves, know only that you have had it for longer than you can clearly remember?

Now look at all the books on that particular shelf. Run your eyes over the spines and for each one ask yourself whether you remember when and where it became your own. How many associations are on that shelf? With how many people, places, events, and times are you entangled through those two or three dozen titles. How many of those connections are far removed now in space and time, how many gone forever, how many ghosts? How much sadness? How much joy? Conversely, how many books are on that shelf whose origins remain complete blanks to you, as if they leapt into existence and into your home ex nihilo?

Two of the oldest books on my shelf are a matched set: The Windward Books editions of Ghosts and More Ghosts and Mystery and More Mystery, both by Robert [A.] Arthur [Jr.] (November 10, 1909 – May 2, 1969). I am certain I have had this pair of volumes since the early seventies…but I can’t say for sure where or how I acquired them. Most likely they were a gift from my parents, possibly for Christmas or my birthday. Continue reading

Stories From the Borderland #X.1: “The Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet” by A.E. Van Vogt

This special installment first appeared as an exclusive debut for Unwinnable Monthly #84 (2016). Please visit Michael Bukowski’s blog to see his artistic interpretations of Coeurl here and Xtl here.

When Michael Bukowski and I first hatched the concept for this project at NecronomiCon 2015, my working title was some clunky monstrosity along the lines of “Great Weird Stories Hidden in Plain Sight.” Fortunately Michael suggested Stories from the Borderland, the far more felicitous rubric under which our humble idea ultimately burst into the world. Never let it be said that the artist in this partnership doesn’t pull his weight on the prose side as well—something he managed more than once in this installment—whereas I am pretty much dead weight when it comes to the artistic end of things. Fortunately, Michael has that side covered.

Yet though the concept behind that original title has dwindled from sight like the oranges and sardines in Frank O’Hara’s famous poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” it remains operative nonetheless. Stories From the Borderland was never intended as a selection of “deep cuts.” Our mission from the beginning has been to show that many of the most important stories in Weird Fiction truly are hidden in plain sight, often in other genres, especially science fiction.

In previous installments of this series, Michael and I have examined tales of cosmic horror and weirdness by such canonical science fiction authors as James Tiptree Jr., Arthur C. Clarke, J.-H. Rosny aîné and John W. Campbell. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There” in particular—his most successful story and probably the most obvious selection we’ve tackled—has left an enormous footprint on science fiction, horror and The Weird. This time around we explore “The Black Destroyer” and “Discord in Scarlet,” a pair of closely related stories by A.E. Van Vogt whose combined impact may just be to “Who Goes There” what King Ghidorah is to Barney. The shadow of these two tales falls heavily over some of the most famous films and franchises in the speculative fiction universe. From tiny eggs, my friends… Continue reading

Stories from the Borderland #18: The Weird Fiction of Zenna Henderson

“Stevie and The Dark”
“Hush!”
“And a Little Child—”

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

Isaiah 11:6, KJV

Many are the reasons why great Weird stories slip through the cracks of whatever passes for a canon of Weird Fiction. Slip through the cracks, fly under the radar, remain hidden by a veil, obscured by clouds…choose your metaphor. Canon may not be the right word either for this thing we share, but it’s our thing, and we all need to work on it together. Here at Stories from the Borderland, we take that mission seriously. so damn the would-be gatekeepers, full steam ahead! Over the last couple years, Michael Bukowski and I have presented tales that have been forgotten and others that never became memories, formerly ubiquitous stories that haven’t seen a reprint for a generation or more, works by authors whose entire known oeuvres consist of only one or two stories, stories never translated into English, and most of all, stories hidden in plain sight that no one thinks of as Weird because everyone identifies their authors with science fiction, fantasy, or mainstream lit. Here are purloined letters of Weird Fiction, if you will, though here we are liberating what never had to be stolen in the first place.

Even in this company, Zenna Henderson is a special case. Not only was she one of a very few mid-century female authors publishing science fiction under her own name (along with Margaret St. Clair, whom we have previously featured), her approach to the genre was vastly different from most of the Campbellian “Golden Age” science fiction writers, with the exception of the “pastoralist” Clifford D. Simak, to whom she is often compared, and whose work shares a combination of rural settings and a certain tonal background with Henderson’s. I realize, though, that Simak is both fraught and apt as a reference point, in that neither author is a household name today, even in houses where spec lit maintains a hold. The fact that the most frequently invoked comparison point for Henderson’s fiction is an increasingly obscure male author should emphasize the overall uniqueness of both her work and her position in speculative fiction.1 There really was no one like her, nor has there been since (except maybe Nnedi Okorafor). Continue reading

Tales from the Crossroads #1: “Solid Objects” by Virginia Woolf

Copyright 2017 Jeanne D’Angelo

Introduction: Notes from the Artist 
By Jeanne D’Angelo

When I first started this illustration, I had no idea that the accompanying essay was going to be about Object Oriented Ontology, or even what that was. However, the opening passage struck me immediately because in it human forms are reduced to some unknowable mystifying shape in the distance. Having more of an understanding of the project now this actually seems like a perfect window into a philosophy that decenters humans and describes objects as having agency outside of our perception of them. 

The way I chose to compose this image is meant to echo just that.  The foreground/true subject of the painting is a beach littered with both objects specifically described in the story, and objects I could imagine I would feel compelled to pick up if I found them. A crowd scene as it were, with objects clustered, balanced, and woven through each other. To me, all the special objects should be conceivable and unremarkable in most ways, probably manmade refuse but which had taken on an unintended and improbable form. I think the way the story described the small patterned piece of pottery somehow broken into an almost perfect star shape was a perfect example of this type of object. We can deduce it was originally made by human hands, but what kinds of circumstances after its creation could have led to it being in this particular state?  This could be the hidden world of objects, with their own trajectories, histories and evolution, and as the story shows, their own ability to act upon human consciousness.

On a purely aesthetic level, this sort of illustration presents an interesting challenge. Often the objects we choose to depict in art are remarkable, ornate, or part of some world of symbolism. The subjects of this image and story are mysterious detritus. Something you might just kick along the sidewalk on your way to run errands. It’s interesting to consider the magical little world of street trash with as much attentive detail as you would a painting of a vase of beautiful flowers or a chest of glittering treasure.

Tales from the Crossroads #1
By Scott Nicolay

“Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore.”
—Stéphane Mallarmé, “Sonnet en X”

I allot a significant portion of my time to thinking about The Weird; to considerations of the strange and the uncanny. To cosmic horror. Those who have read any of the essays I have written in collaboration with artist Michael Bukowski under the rubric Stories from the Borderland may have already noticed this predilection. This preoccupation. This fixation. This obsession. I make no pretense that it is healthy. Continue reading

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