Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Weird: Fugitive Fictions/Hybrid Genres

Academia. Grrrr! I'll say no more than that, other than note that recent experiences had been such that I really was not looking forward to attending The Weird conference (hosted on by Birkbeck college's Institute of English Studies at Senate House in London). As the day of the conference approached, this turned into simple indifference - even though I was down to present a paper (on 'Weird Occultures and Lovecraftian Modernity') during the first session of panels. My initial intention - influenced by the likelihood that I would have to go into work later that afternoon to sort out some frustrating HR stuff (an eventuality which, thankfully, did not come to pass) -  was to get in, give the paper, and get out as soon as possible.

Fortunately, my rather skewed expectations that this was going to be yet another typically dry and self-congratulatory academic gathering were swiftly undermined. And, indeed, my supposition that it would be a lit crit dominated event were also misplaced. Whilst lit crit was understandably well represented, the organizers had made a real effort to reflect the 'hybrid genres' part of the conference title by inviting speakers to debate manifestations of 'the weird' in varied media contexts including music, film, gaming, as well as in occultism and with regard to its impact on the wider culture. Of note were some really interesting pieces on landscape and space in weird literature, the weirding of time in M.R. James and Nigel Kneale, the weird in computer gaming, and a very favourable piece on Dunsany-influenced drone-metal - a genre I was previously unaware of. In any case, the paper in question has now encouraged me to investigate the musical stylings of popular beat-combo Bong:


It was also a great opportunity to meet with friends old and new: Steve Dempsey (GB Steve over at who furnished me with a personally signed copy of the Shotguns v. Cthulhu anthology (cheers Steve); Gwilym Games of the Friends of Arthur Machen (who gave a cracking talk on Machen and witchcraft), noted fortean chap Mark Pilkington, and the inestimable Mr. Steve Wilson, veteran of the London pagan moot scene. Also great to finally meet Christopher Josiffe, who also presented a fascinating paper on reading Kenneth Grant as fiction (we were on the same panel), enthusing me to revisit Grant's work in the near future.

I was very happy with my talk (one of the best I've given for a while, I feel), although it did suffer from an overabundance of academese (something I tend to be very critical of in other people's work - see below!) amidst presentations which were for the most part clear, concise and more notable for their engaging theoretical perspectives than for political grandstanding or academic obscurantism. Even so, I think I did manage to explain my position fairly clearly and (for once) think I did a pretty fair job at fielding questions - notably an insightful one from Benjamin Noys (whose own presentation on Savoy Press' notorious Lord Horror I unfortunately missed).

Roger Luckhurst also gave a fascinating keynote on the significance of the corridor in weird fiction (much more interesting than it sounds, although tiredness due to insomnia the night before didn't quite permit me to take in all the details of his argument). As far as I could tell, S.T. Joshi was absent from Luckhurst's talk...Joshi's keynote opening keynote speech, whilst interesting, didn't really offer much new by way of what we've come to expect, and was largely a reiteration of chapters on Poe and Lovecraft from his Unutterable Horror. As a fellow attendee noted, Joshi's talk was very descriptive, and offered very little in the way of analysis. Indeed, this has been my issue with Joshi in recent years who, unlike Lovecraft scholars such as Burleson and Price, seems to ignore completely contemporary bodies of social, cultural and literary theory with regard to his subject matter, and instead remains hidebound to an almost 19th century (and rather puritanical) model of scholarship and literary criticism (as well as what makes for 'good' literature). In this respect, his now infamous criticisms of Luckhurst do seem rather trite and outdated. That said, Joshi's contribution to keeping Lovecraft's memory and fiction alive is immense, so I still retain the utmost respect for him (especially with regard to his editorial and biographical work). And I think I've said before, Joshi always seems much more personable in the flesh than does his rather irascible on-line presence.

Even though I was flagging for the better part of the day (due to the aforementioned insomnia), I ended up supping a reviving  pint or three with Christopher and Mark Pilkington (whose gave a great presentation earlier in the day on Sidney Sime, and author of one of my all-time favourite ufological books, Mirage Men) at the end of the day as we discussed Gef the talking mongoose (the topic of a book Christopher is currently writing), John Keel, the state of current ufology, Lovecraft and Kenneth Grant, and other matters no doubt of deep esoteric import. On the matter of Sime, the Dover edition of Dunsany's Gods, Men and Ghosts with illustrations by Sime has pride of place amongst my Dunsany collection.

The upside of all this is that the conference has re-enthused my interest in academia and research  -  this event seemed, very much, to be a 'my kind of people' thing - particularly in its inclusiveness. The downside being that this is leading me to further question my current positioning within the field of anthropology: a discipline which I don't think I really understand anymore; within which I feel rather marginalised; and one in which I feel increasingly constrained by the apparent institutionalised requirements of the discipline to frame any kind of writing or research in a profoundly politicised manner (and the content of my paper for this conference was certainly shaped by this). For some academics (especially social scientists), a statement of this kind will be anathema and no doubt seem like a betrayal of all that academia stands for. But sometimes I just want to listen to someone telling me about the religious dimensions of Dunsanian drone metal without this having to relate to some worthy poststructuralist critique of capitalism.

Be seeing you.

1 comment:

  1. Justin-- Thanks for reporting on the event for those of us too far away to go ourselves. Makes me wish I was there even more than I had before!