Amongst You, We Are the Witnesses of Withering: Hungarian New Weird Spatial Formations in the Short Fictions of Lilla Erdei, Balázs Farkas, and Attila Veres


SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture


Amongst You, We Are the Witnesses of Withering: Hungarian New Weird Spatial Formations in the Short Fictions of Lilla Erdei, Balázs Farkas, and Attila Veres

András Fodor

Introduction

The weird as an approach to writing presents a relatively new angle to write about reality in contemporary Hungarian literature. From its conception in 2016, The Black Aether fanzine gathered authors who incorporate the weird into their fiction. The fanzine supports and adheres to the Lovecraftian interpretation of the weird, but this paper argues that the presented authors have started to diverge from this perspective. Lilla Erdei, Balázs Farkas, and Attila Veres introduce the New Weird to the Hungarian audience in The Black Aether. The editor-in-chief editor of The Black Aether has considered the three as noteworthy authors in the Hungarian New Weird. Their methods differ from each other; however, all of them attempt to negotiate Hungarian literary characteristics with features of the English-speaking literary world. The former literary motifs function as a base that incorporates gritty realism in which (over)use of substances and apathy in political and social issues are typical responses to past and present crises and traumatic experiences, where other coping mechanisms are absent.

The Black Aether also functions as a devoted community for the Hungarian Lovecraft fans. There is another fanzine, Azilum, which was also started in 2016. It is dedicated to other weird fiction authors that are “Lovecraftian” in their stylistics. It publishes translations from lesser known contemporaries of Lovecraft, his not yet translated essays, and also contemporary weird authors such as Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, and Caitlín R. Kiernan. It compiled three anthologies dedicated to the weird fiction of the twentieth century. Furthermore, the Hungarian H. P. Lovecraft Society gathers the fans of Lovecraft and organises events to advertise and celebrate him. Galaktika, the Hungarian SF magazine, has also started to accept texts that can be considered as weird fiction.

This paper explores the changes of the spatial formations in the narrative spaces in the short fictions of Lilla Erdei, Balázs Farkas, and Attila Veres. The paper identifies spatial changes in an interpretive framework that is based on the works of Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja, but considers narrative space as a spatial system where subjects have to constantly relate to one another and negotiate their positions. The texts present non-anthropomorphic and monstrous others as the successful negotiators, who infiltrate and subvert the spatial systems.

In its conception, the GABO Publishing House decided that its anthology of Az év magyar science fiction és fantasynovellái [The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year] should follow the footsteps of Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. Their idea was to provide an opportunity for the flourishing Hungarian science fiction, fantasy, and horror scene to get published in this form, as there is a relative lack of platforms to publish short stories in these genres. This is not the first attempt to produce such anthologies: some of them are thematically connected (Hungarian folk tales in 77–Hetvenhét) or set in a shared secondary world of a role-playing game (M.A.G.U.S), or more focused on science fiction and dystopias such as anthologies that are edited by Sándor Szélesi, Tibor Jobbágy, and Tibor Fonyódi. Furthermore, István Nemes played a significant role in popularising science fiction, fantasy, and horror by compiling short fiction collections from the 1990s. There is another anthology from the GABO Publishing House that focuses on horror and weird fiction and is thematically connected to gasping. The book titled Légszomj [Gasping] was published in 2021. 

Weird Fiction in Hungary

This paper understands weird fiction as an approach to writing. In defining weird fiction, it relies on the understanding of China Miéville from the 2009 The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction where he writes, “Weird Fiction is usually, roughly, conceived of as a rather breathless and generically slippery macabre fiction, a dark fantastic (‘horror’ plus ‘fantasy’) often featuring nontraditional alien monsters (thus plus ‘science fiction’)” (510). In addition to that, this paper echoes H. P. Lovecraft’s position on weird fiction from his seminal 1927 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” which explains that the weird tale consists of:

something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the dæmons of unplumbed space. (305)

Lovecraft defines it as “‘the literature of cosmic fear’ [that] undercuts post-Enlightenment rationalism and posits instead the co-existence of other worlds and supernatural forces” (qtd. in Weinstock 179), which as Weinstock argues, “unsettles both confidence in the modern scientific method and human pretensions to grandeur” (180). Furthermore, Benjamin Noys and Timothy S. Murphy suggest that “Lovecraft drew on modern science and on modernism to craft a weird fiction that was ‘nonsupernatural.’ Lovecraft, a keen amateur scientist and an antiquarian, creates an unlikely ‘bridging’ between an idealized past and a traumatic modernity. In the process he figures a strange ‘median’ position that is at once avant-garde and anterior to modernity” (120). Already in Lovecraft, the interstitial situation of weird fiction had been established.

Furthermore, weird fiction remains in strong connection not just with modernist modes, but also with the Gothic. Carl H. Sederholm points out that “both the Gothic and the weird thrive on themes of excess and transgression.” He adds that “[t]he Gothic and the weird interrogate the world in ways that powerfully demonstrate human limitations both in terms of understanding our place in the world and also how we perceive reality in the first place” (165.). Sederholm continues that new weird “embraced weird fiction’s general tendency to interrogate the human experience of the world and the cosmos and added to them an interest in exploring how human beings perceive the world” (161). It jettisons and subverts the anthropocentric perspective; consequently, the interrogations “point readers toward fundamental problems of representation and reality” (164). In the case of Gothic, Ljubica Matek argues that the “Victorian Gothic domesticates Gothic figures, spaces, and themes so as to locate its horrors within the world of the contemporary reader” (17). But it is never domesticated and normalised. In overcoming anthropocentrism, weird fiction relies on two approaches through which it achieves that. On the one hand, Carl Freedman points out that weird fiction is “fundamentally inflationary in tendency . . . to suggest [that] reality . . . [is] richer, larger, stranger, more complex, more surprising—and, indeed, ‘weirder’—than common sense would suppose” (14). On the other hand, Noys and Murphy argue that based on Robert Aickman’s observation “weird fiction . . . can also pursue what Samuel Beckett called the way of ‘impoverishment’ (qtd. in Knowlson, 352), reducing our world to a ‘shivering void’” (Noys and Murphy 118). 

This paper connects the Hungarian New Weird to the Finnish Weird, a notion Johanna Sinisalo coined in 2011 by arguing that these:

Courageous writers . . . are producing touching, believable and memorable stories that can’t easily be pigeonholed as belonging to any pre-existing genre. Common features of their work include the blurring of genre boundaries, the bringing together of different genres and the unbridled flight of imagination. . . . They—or perhaps I should say we—are weird and proud of it. In fact, the trend is so clear that we should give it a name all of its own: suomikumma, ‘Finnish Weird’. (n.p.)

Jussi K. Niemelä provides an elaborated approach toward the Finnish Weird, when she proposes that it is:

an umbrella term that encompasses all diagonal, that is to say, non-realistic approaches to any story we can’t label as science fiction or fantasy without being unjust to both the author and the readers. There might be, and usually are, quite a lot of realistic ingredients in the story, but something odd happens all of sudden that sheds a diagonal light on that reality and this is where the ‘weird’ steps in. (16) 

Consequently, this paper interprets Hungarian New Weird fiction as an amalgamation of the English and the Finnish Weird with strong connection to the Hungarian literary convention. While the paper should also suggest wider implications in the relations between the Hungarian New Weird and the post-Austro-Hungarian Weird, [1] it has no space to pursue this topic in its present form. The Hungarian New Weird incorporates features of horror, fantasy, and occasionally science fiction, but presents its reality differently from realist fiction. It shares characteristics with the Hungarian literary convention such as the excessive overuse of substances (e.g., alcohol), the feeling of powerlessness by being constantly subjected to authority, and the inescapable nature of the constantly oppressive Hungarian reality. Moreover, apathy in political and social issues is a typical response to past and present crises and traumatic experiences, where other coping mechanisms are absent. Traumas are never resolved, they are kept forefront to be exploited in order to gain political power. Therefore Hungarian New Weird fiction functions as a set between mimetic and non-mimetic literature, and it also presents a counterpoint to the Hungarian literary convention as it presents alternative readings of Hungarian reality. The three authors discussed in this study introduce the impossibility of the weird in the Hungarian literary convention as a valid explanation for events in the consensual reality. The examined short stories feature another space that either reveals a more intricate narrative world than the focalizor-narrator can understand or allows a peak behind the veil of the narrative space where everything becomes insignificant, thus, both approaches to overcome anthropocentrism are present. As a corollary, this new interpretation vitiates familiarity, undermines the anthropocentric vantage point, and then introduces the feeling of estrangement and awe.

This sensation of the weird is described by Mark Fisher as it “is constituted by a presence—the presence of that which does not belong” (103, emphasis in the original). Fisher declares that the weird allows “us to see the inside from the perspective of the outside” (10). He asserts that the weird spurs the “fascination with the outside, . . . which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience” (7). In the context of narratology, the diagonal perspective of the weird provides the interpretation of the narrative space that it “is ripped and unfinished. Moth-eaten, ill-made” (“Afterwierd” 4447). This lack of wholeness is noticed in the construction of narrative space. These apertures remain concealed as long as the anthropocentric vantage point is in a power position in the construction of the spatial formation of the narrative space. Once the anthropocentric vantage point can no longer establish its power position in a form of complementary distribution, through the prism of the weird “the world is always-already unrepresentable, and can only be approached by an asymptotic succession of subjective pronouncements” (“Weird Fiction” 512).

Spatial Formations

The interpretation of narrative space is through language, which formulates different spatial relations and mediates everything through them. This paper interprets the relation between weird fiction and language based on Farah Mendlesohn’s taxonomy. In her book, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Mendlesohn identifies and then concentrates on “the means by which the fantastic enters the narrated world” (13). The platform for these processes is language. I understand “rhetorics” in the Mendlesohnian sense of the word, which is a narratological viewpoint, a specific locatedness through which the focalizor-narrator attempts to make sense of the fictional reality of the narrative.

Subjects with agency participate in the construction of narrative space. This composition consists of three elements: place, space, and their corollary, the spatial system. The narrative space forms a spatial system that is a constantly ongoing negotiation between place and space. Each subject with an agency functions as a place; its position within space has to be negotiated. Place is subordinated to space and is interpreted as a meaning-making element of space. I interpret place “as experiential, or as tied to the human response to environment,” therefore, “place is integral to the very structure and possibility of experience” (Malpas 31, emphasis in the original). Space and the spatial system are subjected to negotiation as their constituting subjects’ social and political power allows them to be. Otherwise subjects are jettisoned from them, they experience nothing, and are rendered as others. The spatial system is the result of the negotiations of its participating subjects. 

The success of the negotiations into space depends on the subject’s place. Political and social preconceptions play a significant part in the success. Places maintain space through the negotiation of its constituting subjects. These debates are “political in every way: governed in favour of particular interests, biased in their affordances and allocations, shot through with calculative logics and mechanisms designed to distribute unevenly, and arenas of considerable power struggle” (Amin and Thrift 207, emphasis mine). From the viewpoint of the subject, the spatial system becomes apparent after the successful negotiation of place and its insertion into space. The social and the political negotiation reveals the social and political dimension of the spatial system.

The subject’s realisation of the spatial system stems from the change of social and political framework that is identified as the Lefebvrean notion of representations of space. Lefebvre describes them as they “are tied to the relations of production and to the ‘order’ which those relations impose, and hence to knowledge, to signs, to codes, and to ‘frontal’ relations” (33). Edward W. Soja in Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places identifies a part of the spatial system with the same functions, which he terms “Secondspace.” He explains it as it is a “regulatory and ‘ruly’ discourse,” a representation “of power and ideology, of control and surveillance” and “also the primary space of utopian thought and vision, of the semiotician or decoder, and of the purely creative imagination of some artists and poets” (67).

The ultimate part of the spatial system is the lived space that “is the dominated space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate” (Lefebvre 40). Lefebvre identifies representational space as part of “space [that is] . . . directly lived through its associated images and symbols” (ibid.). It “overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects” (39). On the one hand, representational space originates from the interpretation of the Firstspace through the lens of Secondspace. Consequently, it is both material and theoretical. On the other hand, it surpasses this identification and invites, as Soja argues, “all other real and imagined spaces simultaneously” to come together in Thirdspace (69). My interpretation of Thirdspace is that it is both abstract (imagined) and manifested (real) part of the spatial system; includes “subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and unconsciousness, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history” (Soja 56–57). The Thirdspace becomes infested by the sensation of the weird. The impossibility becomes possible that is realised in the successful negotiation of entities from the other space.

Hungarian New Weird in the GABO anthologies

Lilla Erdei’s first book came out in 2003, titled A ​halálművés [The Death Artists], her second one was published in 2007, A ​Nap gleccserei [The Sun’s Glaciers], her third in 2008, A ​vendég [The Guest], and the last in 2009, Veszélyes ​helyek [Dangerous Places]. She writes short fiction, poems, and novellas. She studied comparative literature at the University of Szeged, focusing on dystopias. Moreover, she has been publishing articles in relation to the topic of her PhD studies. In her interviews, she mentions Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and H. P. Lovecraft as inspiration. [2]

Balázs Farkas regularly writes fiction and non-fiction. He reviews movies, series, and books. He won the Zsigmond Móricz Literary Scholarship in 2015. He has four books out via different publishing houses (Nyolcasok [Eights] (2013), Ismétlés [Repetition] (2016), Lu purpu (2019),  short-listed for the Péter Zsoldos Award,and Ugatás [Barking] (2020)) and two more were self-published (Embertest [Human Body] (2018) and Maszkabál [Masquerade] (2021)[). His short fiction has been accepted by literary and genre magazines in Hungary. Four of his texts have been translated into foreign languages: one into Polish, three into English. Occasionally he translates into Hungarian. His translations of Ambrose Bierce, Lord Dunsany, and W. F. Harvey have been included in Azilum

Attila Veres wrote a novel,  Odakint sötétebb (2017), and a short-story collection,  Éjféli ​iskolák (2018), which won the Perished UFO Award in 2020. His fiction has been welcomed by literary and genre magazines alike such as The Black Aether magazine and kulter.hu. He writes in Hungarian and English. His story “Méltósággal viselt” [The Time Remaining] was included in the The​Valancourt Book of World Horror Stories 1, which is among the finalists of ​World Fantasy Award. He works as scriptwriter, his script of Egy másik életben [In Another Life] (2020) won the best adapted script for TV movie award of the Hungarian Movie Award. One of his examined short stories, “A világ helyreállítása” [The Reconstruction of the World] won the Péter Zsoldos Award for a short story in 2021.

The intrusion of unknown entities into the narrative space is one of the main features of the examined short stories. The first anthology (2018) includes three short stories from the authors. Balázs Farkas’s “A nevetés íze” [The Heckler] is about a young, indecisive stand-up comedian who discovers some strange movements in the interstitial space among people during one of his routines. A visitor approaches and offers him an opportunity to get on stage in a theatre, where his show is always well-received. Attila Veres’s “Fekete talán” [The Black Maybe] presents a deconstruction of the traditional Hungarian pig slaughter. A family of three spends a holiday in the Hungarian country, where they have their one of a lifetime experience helping the locals in the slaughter. Lilla Erdei’s “A jégkorszak tanúi”[The Witnesses of the Ice Age] is set in post-apocalyptic Hungary, whose climate has changed for the worse. The protagonist escapes from the attack of this clever climate.

This paper explores two texts from the anthology of 2019. Lilla Erdei’s “A tökéletes hívás” [The Perfect Call] is a story about a young woman in her thirties, who works in a call centre, where she sells language courses. One day, she makes the perfect call. It goes awry and she starts to sense that there are other forces at work during her conversation with the customer. Attila Veres’s “Horváth Etele – A nagy kacagtató élete és kora” [Etele Horváth – The Life and Times of the Great Jokester] recalls a forgotten, yet ominously known and allegedly beloved comedian in a poorly written article format. The person has no written record, they lurk in the memory of their viewers, which results in the incongruity in the reader’s mind of being the uncanny and well-respected comedian of the previous era.

In the 2020s anthology, all three authors are included. Balázs Farkas’s “A végtelen” [Unending] focuses on the idea of transition between life and death. A solemn, unnamed city dweller has been taken by a taxi through the city to stay at a hotel and wait for further instruction to be moved to the next stop. Attila Veres’s “A világ helyreállítása” [The Reconstruction of the World] invites the reader to join in the endeavour of a community to reconstruct order in the world. It is both a follow-up of an initiation ritual and a manual how to convince and involve people to join this cause. Lilla Erdei’s “Cunciróka” [Stone Foxy] introduces the reader to the depth of odd adoration of red-haired women on an online platform. The narrative follows a young woman who investigates the sudden disappearance of her girlfriend, who belongs to that group.

The spatial formation of the narratives in the 2018 anthology suggests a typology in which the idea of other space emerges as a counterpoint to consensual reality of the narrative space. There are two approaches to the introduction of other space. The one that Farkas and Veres follow is where the narrative space is complemented by another one, a weird space from which unknown entities intrude. In Farkas’s text, the protagonist moves to that space, where he receives a liquid compressed from the laughter he induced in his audience. The narrative space consists of bars, festivals, and a theatre. All of them echoe the Foucauldian idea of heterotopias in their operating methods as they “are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (Foucault 24). In Veres’s narrative, the creatures to be slaughtered arrive from that space. Therefore, the texts present twofold movements between two spaces: from the outside to the inside, and vice-versa. Both of them incorporate the classical Lovecraftian framework, [3] where the outside intrudes to the consensual reality of the narrative space. But Farkas’s text also exceeds this by inserting the focalizor-narrator in that unknown space. The case of Erdei differs from the previous texts. She constructs a narrative space that is an other space. Its features recall consensual reality, however, narratological details point toward a radically different reality, a secondary world.

The texts in the 2019 anthology approach space from a diagonal angle. They highlight the importance of the negotiation of places to the spatial systems. Its corollary is always an intrusion from the outside. Both narratives rely on the movement in which an entity from the outside intrudes the consensual reality of the narrative spaces. Consequently, the spatial formation of these texts becomes weird. Erdei’s story depends on the protagonist’s linguistic acts, where she convinces her customers to buy a language course. Although in these sorts of negotiations the result is favourable, against the unknown, she cannot succeed. Veres introduces his main character as a transgressive one, providing many occasions in which this entity appears in two places at the same time. This suggests that he successfully negotiates himself into the spatial system of narrative space; furthermore, it bends the laws of physics.

In the 2020 anthology, the strategy of the authors slightly changes. In Veres’s and Erdei’s stories, the characters argue themselves to the outside from the previously known spatial formation of the narrative spaces, consequently, they move contrary to the previous practices from earlier years. All of the short stories include a non-place, a concept coined by Marc Augé, which refers to liminal spaces where all of the previously acquired identities are annulled. In these spaces there is only one power position that cannot be challenged by the characters. Farkas sets his narrative space precisely in this liminal space, in a hotel that has no distinctive marks, and from which the newly dead travel toward the unknown. The text seems to echo his previous strategy: the narrative space consists of a known space that is left behind by the protagonist to move to the threshold of the other space. The narrative space in Veres’s story signifies a conscious choice to intrude then change the spatial formations of the consensual reality of the narrative space. In the text, Veres does not specify the locality of the room that functions as a pivotal step in the process of the applicants becoming an active member of Reconstructionist community, but provides a wide array of possibilities to choose from, suggesting that the room is also a non-place that is controlled by the Reconstructionist community. Erdei’s text includes the cyberspace provided by Facebook and hints at the liminal space in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is stuck.

The Hungarian New Weird functions as a possibility to subvert and question the Hungarian consensual reality. This amalgamation of weird approaches examines the Hungarian consensual reality and sheds different light on it. These short stories present the impossibility as possible, which is realised in the successful negotiation of unknown entities from the other space into the narrative spaces. Farkas, Erdei, and Veres take different approaches to achieve the sensation of the weird. Their other spaces intrude the narrative space and overcome consensual reality in them. These narrative spaces suggest a richer, yet occasionally bleaker, Hungary than consensual reality has it.

NOTES

[1] For instance, Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Alfred Kubin, and Stefan Grabiński.

[2] József, Tomasics. “Black Aether interjúk – Erdei Lilla.”. The Black Aether, 8 Dec. 2018,. https://www.theblackaether.com/2018/08/12/black-aether-interjuk-erdei-lilla/. Accessed 28 August 2021. 2018.

[3] The language becomes disoriented and/or highly metaphorical to express the changes in the narrative space.

WORKS CITED

Amin, Ash, J. and Nigel Thrift. Seeing Like a City. Polity Press, 2017.

Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. Repeater Books, 2016.

Foucault, Michel. “On Other Spaces.” Translated by Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics, vol. 16, no. 1, 1986, pp. 22–27.

Freedman, Carl. “From Genre to Political Economy: Miéville’s The City and the City and Uneven Development.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 13, no. 2, 2013, pp. 13–30.

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Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Blackwell, 1991.

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Miéville, China. “Afterweird.” The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, Corvus, 2011, pp. 3609–617. 

—. “Weird Fiction.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint, Routledge, 2009, pp. 510–15.

Niemelä, Jussi K. “Finnish Weird from the Land of the North.” Finnish Weird 2014, edited by Jerrman, Toni. Helsinki Science Fiction Society, 2014, pp. 10–39.

Noys, Benjamin, and Timothy S. Murphy. “Introduction: Old and New Weird.” Genre, vol. 49, no. 2, 2016, pp. 117–34. 

Sederholm, H. Carl. “The New Weird.” Twenty-First-Century Gothic, edited by Maisha Wester and Xavier Aldana Reyes, Edinburgh University Press, 2019, pp. 161–73.

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András Fodor is a PhD Candidate at the University of Szeged, Faculty of Arts, Doctoral School of Literature in Hungary. He has been publishing reviews and short stories since 2010 mainly in his native tongue, Hungarian. In 2016 he won the JAKKendő Award for his manuscript collection of short stories, A mosolygó zsonglőr (The Smiling Juggler), which was published later in the same year. His research interests are spatiality, cities, the New Weird, and China Miéville.


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