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What is the "New Weird" – and what makes weird fiction so relevant to our times?

The surrealist fancies of the “New Weird” find elegant expression in The Erstwhile by Brian Catling and The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville.

In these days of alternative facts, perhaps alternative-world stories can lead us closer to the truth than conventional social novels. These two books are great examples of what the critic John Clute calls “fantastika”. Both are wholly idiosyncratic and very impressive. They are about as serious as you can get while remaining absorbing as fiction. The poet, sculptor and painter Brian Catling is professor of fine art at the Ruskin School in Oxford, while China Miéville is a fantasy fiction writer as well as a former parliamentary candidate who has published Marxist essays and is a co-founder of Left Unity. Both books show a sophisticated enthusiasm for the surrealists and their predecessors, and both are fascinated by magic and shamanism. And thankfully, neither novel has a juvenile or pseudo-juvenile protagonist, nor is there an elf or dragon in sight.

Brian Catling’s The Erstwhile, like the work of Mervyn Peake, is outside genre. The stand-alone centre novel in a three-decker, it is even better than The Vorrh, the volume that preceded it. If the book has a significant influence, it is Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, which has inspired surrealists, absurdists and symbolists, including Breton, Cocteau, Dalí, Boris Vian, Robbe-Grillet, Borges, John Ashbery, Foucault and others, since 1910, and it is from Roussel that Catling takes the endless forest known as the Vorrh. At its centre he locates the Tree of Knowledge, once guarded by angels who betrayed God’s trust, let Adam eat its fruit and degenerated to become inhuman brutes.

Most of these fallen angels – the “Erstwhile” – have buried themselves in the forest. A few are scattered about the world, some are deep in the earth and some have become almost human, especially in London. It is here that one Bedlamite was discovered in the Thames mud at least two centuries earlier and was cared for by William Blake, who drew his portrait as Nebuchadnezzar and whom he calls “my old man”.

Various interests outside the Vorrh need to find the Erstwhile. European logging companies, anxious to have them back to use as slaves, hire a bunch of heavily armed brutes and weirdos to take a steam locomotive into the forest, beginning a singularly ill-fated chain of events yet making a hero of Ishmael, the nearest thing to a protagonist. Others with mysterious, barely articulated motives come and go, hatching intricate plots, wreaking ancient vengeance, recalling forgotten lives and places.

Again we meet a variety of wonderful, often bizarre, characters: a woman impregnated by robots, a troubled young Cyclops corrupted by life in the decaying European colonial city on the edge of the Vorrh, an ancient family of half-human Bakelite robots, Blake and, in Bedlam, Louis Wain, the mad cat painter. The plot is complex, monumental, engrossing and crammed with original images. If you like Peake’s Titus Groan, Cat­ling’s splendid novel is probably for you.

While The Erstwhile is inspired by surrealism, Miéville’s novella is about surrealism and how transgressive art and visionary science can be perverted to serve reactionary purposes. In 1941, after the capitulation of France, people crowd the ports attempting to escape the Nazis. A bunch of surrealists major and minor and their hangers-on, petitioning for visas in Marseilles, invite a young American rocket scientist back to Breton’s villa. He is a Crowleyite magician desperately trying to get to England with a device that he is sure will defeat the Nazis. While the surrealists play fanciful games with absurd ideas and images, he uses his mysterious machine to record their inventions, which he finds irritatingly whimsical. The device is stolen and sets off the “S-blast”, an explosion of surrealist energy.

Leap forward to 1950: an endless war is being fought in Paris between the Germans and their demonic allies and various rival ­resistance groups. Thibaut, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the surrealists and their influences, is a fighter with the Main à plume, a group that uses living surrealist images to attack the invaders. The city is controlled by arrondissement and some sections are safer than others: you can lean on a lamp-post looking into sunlight in one direction and into night in another. Weapons can manifest all kinds of monstrosities and lethal whimsicalities. The Nazis retaliate with horrible creatures converted to their service or created by perverse science. And, as Thibaut discovers from a dying Englishwoman who rides Leonora Carrington’s “Amateur of Velocipedes” (half bicycle, half woman) against the Nazis, they are preparing “Fall Rot”. But what is Fall Rot? And what do the Nazi Catholic priest Robert Alesch and the Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele have in common?

The best of Thibaut’s group are ambushed and killed. With his gift for distinguishing between authentic surrealism and faux-art, and thus telling which creations are allies and which are Nazi, Thibaut fights on, joining forces with the manifestation of Breton’s Exquisite Corpse and Sam, a photojournalist who claims to be recording events for her book The Last Days of New Paris. Her camera has interesting properties. Thibaut doesn’t entirely trust her but accepts her as an ally while they continue to investigate the mystery of Fall Rot. They discover that the plans Mengele and Hitler have made for Paris are the essence of profound evil, as attractive and persuasive as only evil can be. Miéville’s subtle understanding of politics, married to his sophisticated interest in science and art, gives us a short tale that is packed with ideas and inventions.

Can there be such a thing as genuine Nazi art? Is transgressive art naturally allied with the left, and is it therefore a natural enemy of the right? What is “decadent” art? Miéville puts all these questions and arguments in the context of a page-turner whose end left me almost physically applauding.

Miéville identifies with the “New Weird” movement, a development of what used to be known as “science fantasy” – a blend of the occult and scientific speculation that was the province of C L Moore and Leigh Brackett, appearing in the most garish pulp magazines (which were my favourites): Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Planet Stories. The New Weird produces mostly urban fantasy with a moral point and, at its best, it combines the virtues of visionary fiction and horror fiction, political satire, literary fiction and even historical fiction. But is it art? That’s a question that Miéville asks and Catling answers.

Michael Moorcock’s most recent novel is “The Whispering Swarm” (Gollancz)

The Erstwhile by Brian Catling is published by Coronet (462pp, £20)
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville is published by Picador (224pp, £14.99​)

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

Troy: Fall of a City. Photo: BBC
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In Troy: Fall of a City, all the men look as if they’re in a Calvin Klein ad

Rachel Cooke reviews Troy and 24 Hours in Police Custody.

In Troy: Fall of a City (BBC One, 9.10pm, 17 February) pretty much all the men look as if they’re appearing in a new Calvin Klein ad. The exception is King Priam (David Threlfall) who, perhaps to suggest his wisdom, favours a kind of gap year uniform: long beads, mirror-work blouses and, if his hair hasn’t been washed for a few days, a head scarf.

Muscly and sweaty and always having hot sex – usually in beds with the Homeric version of high-thread-count sheets, over which some lackey cast rose petals during turn-down service – these Trojan guys really are a ton of fun: as good at conversation as at bringing Spartan queens to orgasm.

Take Paris (Louis Hunter), a character particularly suggestive of the strong whiff of Obsession. Dispatched by his father Priam to the court of King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong) and his gorgeous, pouting wife, Helen (Bella Dayne, who is going to launch a thousand ships dressed in a high-necked feathered ensemble that brings to mind John Galliano in his pomp), he was certainly ready with the important questions. “How did you two get together?” he enquired, in the same tone you or I might ask friends about Tinder or Guardian Soulmates.

The BBC has begged journalists writing about Troy: Fall of a City to avoid spoilers; apparently, we must think of those coming to these myths “for the first time”. But I’m going to take a chance and assume that New Statesman readers are already well aware that Paris’s diplomatic mission to Sparta is soon to end in disaster, his having pinched Helen right from under Menelaus’s nose. I mean, even I know a bit about the Trojan War, and I went to a comprehensive school where the six embattled souls who wanted to learn Latin had to do so on a landing in their own time (like Menelaus, they knew all about public humiliation). Though in any case, surely Cassandra’s (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) weird hissy fits pretty much give the game away. Paris has only to lift his chiton (that’s a kind of tunic – and yes, I did have to Google it) for his sister to begin shaking like a leaf.

Troy’s writer David Farr (The Night Manager) has said that in this series he is keen to explore the other side of Paris and Helen; he regards their story as one of passion and the breaking of conventions, seeing Helen as a bolter rather than as the victim of an
abduction. I guess this is fair enough: there are several versions of this narrative on which to draw. But if only he had not made it all seem so tediously 21st century.

Helen’s marital unhappiness, for instance, is signalled by her fondness for smoking the ancient Greek equivalent of Valium, as if she was a housewife rather than a queen; and when Paris begs her to leave Menelaus, he speaks not of love or even of desire, but of her freedom, her right to fulfilment. The dialogue is so richly silted with self-help banalities, we might as well be watching a Meghan and Harry biopic as a drama inspired by the greatest of all epic poems. There’s also something exceedingly creepy about its retro, soft-porny direction (by Owen Harris); every time Helen takes a shower, you half expect her to whip out a Flake.

In the opening episode of the shot-in-real-time documentary series 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4, 9pm, 19 February) the perpetrator of the crime – a man was being blackmailed for having visited a prostitute – turned out not only to be a copper, but (get this!) one of the officers on the surveillance team watching the spot where £1,000 had been left as bait. Naturally, this made for astonishing viewing; as DC Gareth Suffling was arrested, I thought at first a mistake had been made. But the real fascination of it for me lay in the fact that as a televisual coup, it was born less of serendipity than of the good and wholly transparent relationship forged between the producers and Bedfordshire Police (the series has been running since 2014). What it proved, quite brilliantly, is that hard-won trust and patience – neither of which are very fashionable qualities in journalism these days – can in the end deliver better results than what we might call a hit and run. Bide your time, programme makers, and the big reveal will be yours. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia