(Top photo: The shipping container cranes at Felixstowe Port in Suffolk. Photo: Chris Radburn PA Archive/PA Images)
The simplest way to distinguish between the "weird" and the "eerie", the late Mark Fisher writes, is to think about the difference between presence and absence. Weirdness is produced by the presence of "that which does not belong". It shouldn't, or couldn't, exist – and yet there it is. Think of the montage techniques of Surrealist art or the fact of Donald Trump's Presidency.
Eeriness, however, is produced when something is absent: "We find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human." Think of an empty housing estate, its residents "decanted" by the council to make way for luxury flats, cranes rotating silently above. Weirdness abounds at the edge between worlds; eeriness radiates from the ruins of lost ones.
Fisher's short book of essays, The Weird and The Eerie, is developed from arguments he made on his iconic K-Punk blog, and looks at how the weird and the eerie work their way through popular culture. Like so much of his writing, it is lucid and revelatory, taking literature, music and cinema we're familiar with and effortlessly disclosing its inner secrets.
The first chapter displays his profound sensitivity to the architecture that structures the sci-fi/horror world. Weirdness makes itself known through an Escheresque array of doors, portals, entrances and exits, because it has to do with "that which lies beyond standard perception". Fisher leads us through H.G. Wells' short story "The Door in The Wall", which is about a politician who becomes fatally obsessed with a green door in West Kensington, discovering a surrealist paradise of panthers and magic technology on the other side. This idea of weirdness-as-transition is developed in a discussion of David Lynch's rabbit-warren set design in Inland Empire and the simulated small-town America of Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint. Even if you're not familiar with the texts he references, he evokes their moods so well that you don't feel lost.
One of the best essays is on post-punk band The Fall, whose music is "grotesque" in the proper sense, synthesising human and non-human forms into a gruesome whole. The Fall create a "tissue of allusions", singing about "men with butterflies on their faces" and making a thick montage of literary references and self-referential sounds, like the hiss of recording cassettes. In a memorable interpretation, he describes their 1980 album Grotesque (After the Gramme) as an act of counterfactual history. Fisher asks:
"What if rock 'n' roll had emerged from the industrial heartlands of England rather than the Mississippi Delta? The rockabilly on 'Container Drivers' and 'Fiery Jack' is slowed down by meat pies and gravy, its dreams of escape fatally poisoned by pints of bitter and cups of greasy-spoon tea."
What's fundamentally weird about The Fall – what doesn't belong about them – isn't just the form and content of their music, but their very existence: according to "official bourgeois culture and its categories, a group like The Fall – working class and experimental, popular and modernist – could not and should not exist". Here, weirdness is an act of existential defiance against the idea that sophisticated art is only for elites.
The second chapter is on the eerie, which, for Fisher, is fundamentally about "the problem of agency". A bird's cry is eerie "if there is a feeling that there is something more in the cry than a mere animal reflex or biological mechanism". Stonehenge and the statues at Easter Island are eerie because we're not quite sure who made them and what set of beliefs made them meaningful at the time. This leads to the following thought: "Confronted with Easter Island or Stonehenge, it is hard not to speculate what the relics of our culture will look like when the semiotic systems in which they are embedded have fallen away". The archetypical image of this is when Charlton Heston discovers the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes – it was Earth all along! Eeriness estranges us from the political settlement we call reality; it allows us to see it as temporary and changeable.
One purpose of radical politics and writing is to de-naturalise society, to show that it is governed by artificial forces. Fisher implies that the weird and the eerie can play a role in this. He writes that "capital is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, [it] exerts more influence that any allegedly substantial entity".
As capital migrates across the world it leaves traces of the eerie, both in its abandoned factories and the new, postmodern forms it takes. This becomes clear in Fisher's haunting description of the Felixstowe shipping container port in Suffolk: a vast automated system of "inorganic clangs and clanks". Observing it from the surrounding countryside, he notices an "eerie sense of silence" despite the noise, since "what's missing [is] any trace of language or sociability".
As for the weird, in traditional fantasy novels magical worlds like Middle Earth or Narnia operate according to a relatable realism. In contrast, the weird fiction of David Lynch or H P Lovecraft makes all worlds seem unrealistic by "exposing their instability, their openness to the outside". To be confronted by the weird is to realise that "the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete" when it comes to understanding the world. It is an exhilarating feeling of newness, not unlike revolution.
Fisher – who passed away last month – is best known for his hugely influential book Capitalist Realism, which is about how capitalism, and especially neoliberalism, tries to exhaust the ability to imagine coherent alternatives to it. As such, he often returned to the question of the future in his work. What are the conditions for thinking beyond the "eroded present" that capitalism gives us? How might we know when something different is around the corner?
These questions hang over the final essay in The Weird and The Eerie, which looks at Joan Lindsay's 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. In the book, a group of girls at a repressive private school in Australia go on a day-trip to the desert. During a picnic, four of the students – Miranda, Edith, Marion and Irma – decide to climb Hanging Rock, "a geological relic from deep time, a time that preceded the arrival of human beings by many millennia". On top of the rock they realise they have crossed some sort of metaphysical boundary and fall into a deep sleep. When they wake, Marion is overcome by the desire to get rid of all her "absurd garments", and some of them cast their restrictive corsets aside. The clothes don't fall to the ground, however, "but float in mid-air at the side of the Rock". Marion and Miranda later pass through a "hole in space", which leads to an otherworldly terrain, and never return.
The mystery is unexplained, but what really interests Fisher is their act of crossing the threshold. The girls have to disavow worldly attachments, their restrictive clothes, to pass through, but not all of them muster the courage to do so. The "delirious allure" of Hanging Rock is precisely this enchanting, yet threatening, promise of something radically different to the way things are.
The future will be weird; the future will be eerie; and embracing it will involve a transcendental shock with something extraordinary.
Mark Fisher's 'The Weird and The Eerie' is out now on Repeater Books. There is a memorial fund for his family here.