Unnatural beauty: the power of weird fiction

Dr Helen Marshall

Weird fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy writing and has the capacity to make the familiar seem strange. It can help us think differently about traumas such as climate change or Brexit. Dr Helen Marshall, Director of our Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy, explains how.

A marriage of fantasy, horror and the supernatural

In a future England ravaged by global warming, children are being mysteriously killed off. A grieving teenager breaks into the morgue and retrieves the body of her dead sister. But her body is changing; bodies of the young, rather than decomposing, seem to be pupating like larvae – adapting to cope with the world’s environmental decay.

These unsettling ideas of infant mortality and human metamorphosis form part of the plot in Everything That Is Born, a forthcoming novel by Dr Helen Marshall, Lecturer in Creative Writing and Publishing, and General Director of our Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Defamiliarisation – taking something familiar from real life and placing it in a strange context - brings the world back into focus again

Helen's book is an example of ’weird‘ fiction – an amalgam of aspects of fantasy, horror, supernatural and science fiction, which she both writes and, through her work with the Centre, studies and explores. Such genres are sometimes dismissed as escapist, but Helen argues that their capacity to repackage the everyday in unfamiliar terms can help us rethink our responses to traumatic moments when the world suddenly seems to turn upside down.

For example, our response to the difficult concept of global warming is challenged in her novel. Her approach differs from some dystopian fiction which, by depicting an inevitably bleak future, serves only to endorse wider public narratives about life simply ending as the planet warms up. By contrast, Helen’s novel involves a more subtle evolution as humankind begins to cope. The common apocalyptic view of the future is something she is critical of, as it “deadens our willingness to grapple with that complex problem in a more hopeful way”.

Weird fiction uses a technique called defamiliarisation – taking something familiar from real life and placing it in a strange context. Because it jars with our expectations, we suddenly take notice of the familiar element, which we might otherwise process without thinking.

“Reality is ultimately kind of dulling. Defamiliarisation brings the world back into focus again,” Helen says. “It makes us really see things that we might overlook.”

Her own creative writing is also inspired by the literature about a trauma of 700 years ago: the Black Death. In common with climate change predictions of today, humans in the 14th century seemed on the verge of extinction. Surprisingly, English literature from that time (not least the work of Chaucer) barely mentions the Black Death’s horrors. In fact, much writing about it since has focused, optimistically, on the world its survivors made.

Pulling these strands together, Everything That Is Born uses the disruptive technique of defamiliarisation to present a vision of a future in which humans do not just succumb to climate change, but evolve and cope, albeit in unexpected ways. “A lot of it was about subverting expectations,” Helen says. “I wanted to write something that was about an apocalypse, but a fundamentally beautiful apocalypse, where we ultimately learn to see something beautiful in something terrifying.”

Helen has also used the defamiliarising powers of weird fiction to address more personal traumas. An early story, Blessed, dealt with divorce and parental love, using an absurdist plot in which estranged parents give their daughter the remains of martyred saints. Recently, she won the Exile Editions CVC Short Story Prize for The Gold Leaf Executions, which uses unsettling, historical and mythical images of gold, to address the fragility of love, loss and grief.

While Helen was writing her book, different kinds of traumas were playing out around her: “Brexit and then Trump were happening as I worked on it,” Helen says. “We were discovering that we are not in the reality we thought we were in. Weird fiction is a mechanism which allows us to deal with some of those issues.”

How it all began

In 2002, when she was 17, Helen’s father was injured in a serious accident. Her mother was away in South Africa, and she and her sister Laura had to live alone. Dependent on one another, they became incredibly close. A decade later, however, they were forced apart when Helen moved from her native Canada to England for her research.

“The emotional core of Everything That Is Born came out of that sense of going through a major transition in life,” she says. “How it feels to know your life is diverging from someone whom you care for very greatly, how scary change can be – even if it turns out to be a good thing.”

Key concept

I wanted to write something that was about an apocalypse, but a fundamentally beautiful apocalypse, where we ultimately learn to see something beautiful in something terrifying

'Defamiliarisation' is a narrative and artistic technique in which a common object or idea is presented to the audience in an unfamiliar way. One of its main effects is to give the reader cause to stop and reconsider something which they might otherwise be used to treating a certain way. “It allows you to talk about things that are happening in the real world, but get past the reader’s defences, so that they see things from a different perspective,” Helen says.

Take the plot of Blessed – a story from her first collection. In it, the ten-year-old daughter of divorced parents receives bizarre birthday gifts as they battle for her affection, including the body of the Christian martyr, St Lucia of Syracuse, and the cremated remains of Joan of Arc. Helen suggests this outlandish plot made the way in which the story addresses divorce more startling. “In a more realistic or naturalistic story, the reader might feel dulled to the situation, as if they have seen it all before,” she adds.

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