Conjunctions:39 The New Wave Fabulists

Guest Editor’s Note
Who are these people, and what are they doing in Conjunctions? Jonathan Lethem won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Motherless Brooklyn, and Harold Bloom put John Crowley’s Little, Big on his list of 100 Best Books of the twentieth century, but aren’t Gene Wolfe and Joe Haldeman science fiction writers? And didn’t Neil Gaiman become well known with a series of, um, graphic novels, the street or gutter phrase for which is comic books?

     Yes, they are, and he did, and the author of these words is, even worse, a conspicuously popular horror writer. Should you have a reflexive disdain for anything connected to genre fiction, as you very well may, issue number 39 of Conjunctions is going to represent, at least initially, something of an unwelcome aberration in the history of an otherwise honorable literary journal. Those who have just nodded in assent should turn immediately to the back of the book and read the critical essays by Gary K. Wolfe and John Clute, which ought to persuade even the faintest of hearts to persevere. Clute and Wolfe know what they are talking about, far better than I, and my conversations with them over the past few years—conversations that began at the 1998 International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in Ft. Lauderdale—have helped me understand the phenomenon this collection is designed to illustrate.

     It would be easy but misleading to account for this in evolutionary terms. That is, it is not really accurate to say that over the past two decades the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been, unnoticed by the wider literary culture, transforming themselves generation by generation and through the work of each generation’s most adventurous practitioners into something all but unrecognizable, hence barely classifiable at all except as literature. Even evolution doesn’t work that way. The above process did take place, and it was completely overlooked by the wider literary culture but it did not happen smoothly, and the kind of posttransformation fictions represented here owe more than half of their DNA and much of their underlying musculature to their original genre sources. Contemporary, more faithful versions of those sources are to be found all over the place, especially in movie theaters and the genre shelves at Barnes & Noble. Gene Wolfe, who is necessary to this volume, was producing fiction of immense, Nabokovian rigor and complexity thirty years ago, alongside plenty of colleagues who were satisfied to work within the genre’s familiar templates. Now, writers like Nalo Hopkinson, John Kessel, and Patrick O’Leary, for all of whom Gene Wolfe is likely to be what Gary K. Wolfe calls a “touchstone,” are still publishing shorter fiction in magazines like Asimov’s and Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so is Kelly Link. (Jonathan Carroll, Jonathan Lethem, Elizabeth Hand, John Crowley, and China Mieville seldom write short fiction, and we are fortunate to have stories from them.) Strictly on grounds of artistic achievement, these writers should all along have been welcome in thoughtful literary outlets.

     Some who could easily be included here are not, among them Terry Bisson, Ted Chiang, Tom Disch, Geoff Ryman, Ray Vukovich, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff Vandemeeer, Graham Joyce, Kit Reed, and Carol Emshwiller. I regret their absence. Had I approached this literary territory from the other side, I would have included Mark Chabon, Dan Chaon, and Stewart O’Nan: the latter two, especially, approach horror from the inside out, with the understanding that it is above all a point of view.

     For remarkably mature examples of the particular point of view, which has literally no points in common with the genre’s conventional definitions, see M. John Harrison’s “Entertaining Angels Unawares” and John Crowley’s limpid, devastating “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines.” These two stories give us an Angel of Death and a gracious Lucifer, and in them the world is spun helplessly toward disorder, loss, uncertainty, and grief—horror being the literature that, as if under a sacred charge, most urgently honors the brute fact of these conditions—while the stories themselves both suggest and preserve a profound internal mystery.

     I am grateful for Bradford Morrow’s suggestion that I guest edit an issue of his journal, of which I have long been a friend and supporter. Brad’s trust in this project, never in question, deepened as we went along, as did my appreciation of the dazzlingly efficient Conjunctions team, Michael Bergstein, Martine Bellen, Pat Sims, and Bill White. With a crew like that, Roebling could have put up the Brooklyn Bridge in a matter of weeks.
—August 6, 2002
New York City

Peter Straub’s works include Ghost Story (Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan), In the Night Room (Random House), and Interior Darkness: Selected Stories (Doubleday).