The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher – a review

Mark Fisher’s latest – and tragically – final book The Weird and the Eerie explores encounters with the outside and the unknown in 20th and 21st century film, music and literature.

Mark’s two previous books, prolific journalism and compelling blog established his reputation as one of the most brilliant cultural critics and political theorists of the past 15 years.

Capitalist Realism (2009) named and brought into sharp focus the widespread and largely unspoken assumption that no alternative exists to prevailing neoliberal orthodoxies for ordering our cultural, economic and political life.

Ghosts of My Life (2014) developed Mark’s perception that 21st century culture is haunted by a sense of ‘the slow cancellation of the future’, the erasure of the modernist impulse that pulsed through postwar social democracy: the hope that history has a vector, and that tomorrow will be different from today.

The Weird and the Eerie is a less overtly political work, but every page is lit by the restless desire for new horizons – for the possibility of change – that was the great theme of Mark’s work.

The book was inspired by the otherworldly East Anglican landscapes Mark loved so much, and in particular a walk from his home town of Felixstowe to the Anglo Saxon burial mounds at Sutton Hoo in the company of fellow writer Justin Barton, a conversation that first bore fruit in the pair’s 2013 audio-essay On Vanishing Land.

Mark recalls that on looking out on the prospect of Felixstowe port approached from the Trimley Marshes, with its cranes towering on the horizon ‘like gleaming cybernetic dinosaurs erupting out of a Constable landscape’, a powerful sense of the eerie ‘crept up on Justin and me.’

The experience inspired this new collection of essays, which attempts to shed light on our encounters with the otherworldly by interpreting them through the two categories that give the book its title.

That which does not belong

The opening chapters advance a definition of the weird – in dialogue with writers including HG Wells, Philip K Dick and Tim Powers – as ‘that which does not belong’, experienced as an ‘irruption into this world of something from outside’.

The weird does not merely frighten: it compels as much as it repels, generating a ‘horrified fascination’ that for Mark is conveyed with particular force in the work of HP Lovecraft. The sudden in-breaking of the alien into Lovecraft’s scrupulously ordinary New England landscapes and farming communities is experienced as a wrenching dislocation, as a shocking revelation that exposes the world as we had thought it to be as a sham. But it also exerts a magnetic pull: our sense of the real, of the true nature of the universe, is expanded, even enriched.

For Mark that attitude of horrified fascination is characteristic of our response to anything that is truly new and original. It is significant that Lovecraft at the same time as 20th century modernism was breaking through:

Cubist and futurist techniques and motifs feature in a number of Lovecraft’s stories, usually as (ostensible) objects of loathing. Even if he was hostile to it, Lovecraft recognised that modernist visual art could be repurposed as a resource for invoking the outside.

A disconcerting absence

If the weird describes a shocking, sudden presence, the eerie indicates a disconcerting absence, a sense of unease that extends beyond the ruined buildings and deserted landscapes associated with Gothic literature:

The unseeing eyes of the dead; the bewildered eyes of an amnesiac – these provoke a sense of the eerie, just as surely as an abandoned village or a stone circle do.

The strength of the essays in the second half of the book suggests that this category of the strange resonated particularly strongly with Mark.

One of the most personal chapters returns to the luminous horizons of the Suffolk countryside, as interpreted through the ghost stories of MR James and the ambient electronica of Brian Eno (an ostensibly unlikely pairing that in Mark’s hands seems entirely straightforward.)

James’s tale Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904) and Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land (1982) explore an ancient, archaic East Anglian coastline that with its blasted heaths, bleak shores, echoing marshes and panoramic skies seems to exert a sublime agency of its own, for James literally daemonic, for Eno an ‘achingly alluring’ strangeness. Mark takes Jonathan Miller’s 1968 TV adaptation as something of a bridge between the two, evoking that same eerie ambience through the medium of film:

With its lingering concentration on the landscape, its brooding silences, and its long scenes devoid of much action, it was as if Miller produced something like the television equivalent of the ambient music that Eno would later invent.

Another intriguing essay finds resonances between Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing and Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Michael Faber’s Under the Skin, both of which imagine a world made strange when viewed through alien eyes.

Atwood’s story charts a voyage into a psychological and literal wilderness, the female narrator unmoored from society, marooned in the Canadian outback in a hopeless quest for a lost father, experiencing the world as if for the first time, experiencing a mental disintegration that clears the space for a new way of seeing that both disturbs and exhilarates:

I should be filled with death, I should be in mourning. But nothing has died, everything is alive, everything is waiting to become alive.

Atwood’s spectral landscapes recall the Caledonian forest through which predatory alien moves in the closing scenes of Glazer’s film, which – inverting Atwood – imagines the world from the perspective of an extraterrestrial struggling to see it as a human might.

Mark welcomes Glazer’s disorientating movie as an attempt to return to the tradition of eerie cinematic sci-fi represented by Kubrick’s 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, a tradition that by the late 1970s had been overwhelmed by the era of the blockbuster space opera inaugurated by Star Wars.

More controversially he argues for the inclusion of Christopher Nolan’s much maligned Interstellar in that august lineage, suggesting that powerful episodes such as the encounter with the watery world referred to as ‘Miller’s Planet’ recall something of the strangeness of Solaris. Where Solaris fascinates as ‘one of cinema’s great images of the unknown’ Miller’s Planet disturbs as a brutal evocation of the cold logic of a nature wholly indifferent to the desperate plight of the tiny human figures set adrift on it.

Mark acknowledges that the film’s conjecture that human love is a force capable of acting across time and space skirts with sentimentality, but he suggests that love here is re-imagined as something strange, an ‘eerie love’, a material force capable of exercising an unsuspected, unfathomable agency. It would have been intriguing to have known what Mark might have made of last year’s Arrival, another sci-fi that seeks to recover the genre’s capacity for communicating a sense of the otherworldly.

There is more in heaven and earth…

Mark occasionally interprets the eerie in political terms, suggesting that capital itself ‘is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity.’

He returns to the image of Felixstowe docks to evoke capital’s inscrutable power: with its vast plazas in which robotic cranes take the place of human labour, and its walls of containers, ‘the metal boxes racked up like a materialised version of the bar charts in Gibson’s cyberspace’, the scene evokes the market’s ghostly agency:

The port is a sign of the triumph of finance capital; it is part of the heavy material infrastructure that facilitates the illusion of a ‘dematerialised’ capitalism. It is the eerie underside of contemporary capital’s mundane gloss.

But the book’s ultimate concerns are theological rather than political, Mark’s definitions of the weird and the eerie moving in the same thoughtworld as the concepts developed by theologians to interpret religious experience.

The suggestion that the weird is the tearing of the world’s fabric by the interjection of what lies beyond is close to the theological understanding of revelation, in particular Karl Barth’s image of the incarnation as ‘the point where the unknown world cuts the known world’.

And Mark’s discussion of the eerie touches on metaphysical questions of agency, presence and absence at the heart of natural theology: why is there something rather than nothing? what is the relation between mind and matter? what is it that departs when the body dies?

As he had in Ghosts of My Life Mark refers to Rudolf Otto’s classic 1917 study of religious experience, The Idea of the Holy, a text finely attuned to the unsettling, daemonic, but irresistable character of ‘the numinous’, that which lies outside the ordinary range of experience.

But whereas the Lutheran Otto interprets encounters with the transcendent as manifestations of the presence of God Mark consistently resists attributing the uncanny experiences he explores to a metaphysical being. He comes closest to disclosing his own metaphysical position in an essay discussing the work of the dramatist Nigel Kneale, best known for the BBC’s Quatermass thrillers.

Kneale’s stories turn on the revelation that mysteries which seem to demand a supernatural interpretation can ultimately be explained in material terms, but only on the condition that we are prepared to accept that the material world is stranger than we had previously allowed. For Kneale our encounters with the transcendent reveal hitherto unsuspected dimensions of the material world.

Mark’s dialogue with Kneale refers to the New Materialist concept of ‘vibrant matter’ associated with Jane Bennett, the suggestion that ‘spiritual’ entities such as consciousness, will and subjectivity, traditionally thought as being exclusive to the sphere of human agency, are in fact distributed throughout a material universe which is more mysterious then mechanistic metaphors of cause and effect allow. Mark writes:

The condition of materialists … (our condition in other words) is of knowing that all subjectivity is reducible to matter, that no subjectivity can survive the death of the body, but of nevertheless being unable to experience oneself as mere matter. … There are ghosts in the machine, and we are they, and they are we.

Mark’s eclectic, freewheeling exploration of these nebulous questions, taking in Quatermass, Otto, Bennett, Descartes and Spinoza in the space of a few sentences, exemplifies the attitude of uninhibited intellectual adventure that makes all of his writing so exciting, that unselfconscious mixing and matching of a vast knowledge of film, TV, music, literature philosophy and political theory in an urgent quest to understand.

The Weird and the Eerie is a short book that all who love Mark’s work will not want to end: the last book in which we will be able to enjoy his intelligence, literary grace and gift for finding unlikely connections across multiple fields of knowledge. It is sobering – indeed eerie – to read it in Mark’s absence.

But the vibrant body of work he has left us, which this book illuminates and extends, ensures that Mark Fisher will always be present.

The Weird and the Eerie is published by Repeater Books.