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# Mar 20, 2012 (
12 Days of Monsters ( From the Archives
( Interviews

China Miville and Monsters: Unsatisfy me, frustrate me,

I beg you.
Jeff VanderMeer (
China Miville (1972) is an influential English writer known for revitalizing weird fiction. He has won
the World Fantasy Award and multiple Arthur C. Clarke awards, among others. Mivilles early novels
including Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002)fused the weird with body
transformation, Marxist politics, secondary world settings, and a bold style. Later novels like The City

and the City (2009) and Embassytown (2011) feature a more stripped-down approach without
sacrificing the visionary quality of the weird.
Miville is one of the guest of honor at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts
(, March 2124. The monsters theme of the conference inspired us to host 12
Days of Monsters here at Weirdfictionreview.comand I was pleased to be able to interview Miville
about monsters. I have also grafted
on, in Frankenstein monster fashion, the relevant portion of a 2008
interview published in the 85 anniversary issue of Weird Tales. That 2008 interview was conducted via
instant messenger. The 2012 section was conducted via email. Also on this site you can read part of his
afterword to The Weird compendium ( and his essay on the weird and hauntology
( (And never fearall of the great books referenced will be linked to along with all others
mentioned in our other 12 Days features, in a wrap-up post at the end.)Jeff VanderMeer

2008 What does the word weird mean to you?
China Miville: Ive been thinking about this a lot recently. Im teaching a course in Weird Fiction at the
University of Warwick, so this has come up a lot. Obviously its kind of impossible to come to anything
like a final answer, so I approach this in a Beckettian waytry to define/understand it, fail, try again, fail
again, fail betterI think the whole sense of cosmic awe thing that we hear a lot about in the Weird
tradition is to do with the sense of the numinous, whether in a horrific iteration (or, more occasionally,
a kind of joyous one), as being completely embedded in the everyday, rather than an intrusion. To that
extent the Weird to me is about the sense that reality is always Weird.
Ive been thinking about the traditional notion of the sublime, which was always (by Kant,
Schopenhauer, et al) distinguished from the Beautiful, as containing a kind of horror at the
immeasurable scale of it. I think what the Weird can do is question the arbitrary distinction between the
Beautiful and the Sublime, and operate as a kind of Sublime Backwash, so that the numinous
incomparable awesome slips back from mountains and forests, into the everyday. Sothe Weird as
radicalised quotidian Sublime.
WFR: Thats the theory side, in a sense, but expressed on a more personal level, what appeals to you

most about the weird tale?

Miville: The awe, the ecstasy. I was reading Blackwoods The Wendigo the other day, and the

moment when Defago is taken by the Wendigo and wails from above the trees this astonishing moment
of unrealistic speech, oh, oh, my burning feet of fire! This height and fiery speed!, the strange poetry of
it, I found very affecting. Of course we all have our favourite iterations of Weird, and for me it dovetails
a lot with a love of teratology, so I also hugely love when the Weird is expressed by radical monstermaking, the strangeness of strange creatures, but some of my favourite Weird Tales contain no
monsters at all. Its the awe and ecstasy that gets me.
WFR: But not necessarily epiphany? I.e., this awe and ecstasy is a cumulative effect of the story or its

what it culminates in?

Miville: I dont think I can distinguish [between] the two. I think for me the best Weird fiction is an
expression of that awe, which permeates the whole thing, but because you cant structure a story as
a continual shout of ecstasy (at least not and expect many readers to stick with you) it sort of pretends to
be an epiphany. But I think its the epiphany of realisationthat the real is Weirdrather than change or
irruptionthat something Weird occurs. Lovecraft for example is always back-projecting his mythos into
history. We dont know it, unless were one of the select unlucky few in his story, but its not that these
things have suddenly arrived to mess about with previously stable reality, but that were forced to
realisetheres the epiphany, its epistemological, rather than an ontological breakthat it was always
WFR: And thats why the best examples are short stories, no? Because you cant sustain that reverie?

Miville: I think thats trueits much harder to maintain Weird, or, certainly, ecstasy, over a longer
form. Which is why these stories are about the revelationnot because its a surprise (we expect it) but
because its a necessary kind of bleak Damascene moment. There are Weird novels and some brilliant
ones, but theyre harder to sustain.
WFR: What do you think most surprises your students studying weird tales?

Miville: I think for a lot of people who dont read pulp growing up, theres a real surprise that the
particular kind of Pulp Modernism of a certain kind of lush purple prose isnt necessarily a failure or
a mistake, but is part of the fabric of the story and what makes it weird. Theres a big default notion that
spare, or precise prose is somehow better. I keep insisting to them that while such prose is
completely legitimate, its in no way intrinsically more accurate, more relevant, or better than lush prose.
That adjective precise, for example, needs unpicking. If a minimalist writer describes a table, and
a metaphor-ridden adjective-heavy weird fictioneer describes a table, they are very different, but the
former is in absolutely no way closer to the material reality than the latter. Both of them are radically
different from that reality. Theyre just words. A table is a big wooden thing with my tea on it. I think they
also are surprised by how much they enjoy making up monsters.
WFR: You say theyre surprised? They think thats too childish to start?

Miville: Yes, to some extent. Its something you need to grow out of. Or your monsters are only
legitimate to the extent that they really mean something else. I spend a lot of time arguing for literalism
of fantastic, rather than its reduction to allegory. Metaphor is inevitable but it escapes our intent, so we
should relax about it. Our monsters are about themselves, and they can get on with being about all sorts
of other stuff too, but if we want them to be primarily that, and dont enjoy their monstrousness, theyre
dead and nothing.
WFR: Rightnobody likes a monster piata.

Miville: Yeahits what Toby Litt brilliantly called the Scooby Doo Impassethat people alwaysalready know that theyll pull the mask off the monster and see what it really is/means. The notion that
that is what makes it legitimate is a very drab kind of heavy-handedness.

WFR: Do you think a lot of writers create monsters, though, that they dont mean literally? I mean, do you

think writers sit down and think to themselves, when writing the rough draft, This is going to be
a metaphor for 911? Or is it just that readers and academics think they do?
Miville: Well I think this is one of the big distinctions between genre and non-genre traditions. I think,
for example, that when Margaret Atwood invents the pigoons for Oryx & Crake, part of the problem
with them for me is I think they are primarily a vehicle for considering genetic manipulation, and only
distantly secondarily scary pig monsters. I think plenty of monsters get hobbled by their meaning. The
Coppola Bram Stokers Dracula vampire had to shuffle along, so weighed down was he by bloated
historical import. None of this is to say that monsters dont mean things other than themselvesof
course they dobut that to me they do so best when they believe in themselves.
WFR: If a monster believes in itself, can it remain inexplicable within the arc of a story and still satisfy

Miville: Depends what you mean by satisfy. Im tempted to say that part of the job a monster can do
best is refuse to satisfy me, completelywhich is good, because what I want for satisfaction is a kind
of satiation, which usually translates into too much information, into overkill, into shining a light where
a light has no business shining. In other words, the frustration that I feel at not understanding everything
about a monster (indeed the weird, indeed anything fantastic) is both a sign that I am not fully satisfied
and the only way of doing this with anything approaching success, I imagine. I want to know everything,
but I dont want that desire to be fulfilled. Unsatisfy me, frustrate me, I beg you, teratologists and others.
The point is, as all my favourite writers and artists and musicians and whatever know, I cannot be
WFR: Is the physicality of a monster a sort of self-contained narrative, regardless of how it fits into to the

overall story?
Miville: This is an excellent and very provocative way of formulating something, and I think that the
answer is probably yes. Given the somatic impossibility of monsterswithout which they are nothing
their simple there-ness and specificity is indeed part of what makes them what they are, a selfcontained, if highly and, one hopes, effectively hermetic, narrative, an implied There was a thing that
was, impossibly, like this.
WFR: Vampires, werewolves, zombiesare these monsters still truly monstrous, depending on the

level of reinvention, or do you think what you said about Coppolas Dracula applies more generally?
Miville: I think monsters are resilient but I absolutely definitely think that excessive familiarity deguts
them, defangs them if you will, ba-boom, undermines their ability to i) scare, ii) fascinate through
estrangement (instead they become comforts through familiarity) and iii) fecundly mean all kinds of
things. There are fashions, and there will always be amazing inventors who will be able to do new and
astonishing things with what seem the most tired figures, so it would be a foolish hostage to fortune to
say that cant happen, but as a generalisation, certainly, I think when our monstrous figures become too
familiar, by far the most sensible thing to do is leave them alone a bit, to recuperate, so that they can
come back and be astonishing again, later. It is because one loves these figures that one should, Id
suggest, leave them alone a bit, from time to time.
WFR: In reading what is written about monsters, do you find that theres one monster in fiction thats

typically more misunderstood than others?

Miville: Its anecdotal, but I regularly see Frankensteins monster described as a warning against

scientific hubris, an alarum about Tampering With Things That Should Be Left Alone. This I think is
quite wrong: I think it is a story about what happens when one fails the (still at the time of writing) radical
enlightenment by failing to take social responsibility for ones actions and interventions. If its a warning,
its a warning about turning ones back, out of cowardice, on what one creates, not about creating it in
the first place.
WFR: Can you share with us any monsters from your reading of the past couple of years that youve

found particularly interesting?

Miville: Its a fraught question of theory and taxonomy as to whether ghosts can be counted monsters,
but if one allows it, the strangely haunted house of Helen Oyeyemis White Is for Witching astonished
me. Vilm Flussers ludicrously misrepresented Vampyroteuthis infernalis from his philosophical
rumination of the same name had me laughing at the theoretical chutzpah and utterly questionable
theoretical claims pegged on the teuthic heuristic at times, but Id be lying if I said I hadnt enjoyed
reading it. The animate fur stole in D.K. Brosters Couching at the Door sort of amazed me. Various of
the more vermiform of E.F. Bensons monsters, from short stories. I remain staggered by the ancestral
beast-presence-thing in Marion Foxs Apes-Face I read it a few years ago, but reread it last year, so
am counting it. The unseen aliens in Jane Gaskells A Sweet, Sweet Summer. Also, talking of still-toothy
vampires, her light-phobic mod in The Shiny Narrow Grin. I liked the organic oddities extruded by
bureaucratic satanists in Philip Challinors Beelzebub. Rather enjoyed the giant crabslong time
before Guy N Smithin Neil Bells Who Walk in Fear, though the book also includes one of the most
genuinely unpleasant sadistic stories Ive read. (I loved his Life Comes to Seathorpe enormouslyand
theres some odd monsters for youso was rather stricken by the nastiness of that other book.) All the
deeply strange angels and devils in Wyndham Lewiss The Human Age trilogy. Cliff Twemlows giant
pike in, well, The Pike. Bertram Mitfords giant spider in The Sign of the Spider (another reread, just as
amazing the second time). The Japanese yokai (someone gave me a book).
Im quite sure there are lots more, but thats some to be going on with.
WFR: Finally, if you had to wind up on a desert island with any monster in fiction, which would prefer to

be stuck with? And which would you be horrified to find there with you?
Miville: I cannot answer this. I want monsters to surprise me. If I come up with a candidate companion,
it doesnt deserve to be considered monster. Out of fidelity to its monstrosity, I cant say.
Readers are encouraged to imagine a monster that might surprise the author
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10 replies to China Miville and Monsters: Unsatisfy me,

frustrate me, I beg you.
1. # Mar 20, 2012 at 7:52 pm (
Nathan Rosen ( says...
Triumph at last! Ive been saying for years that Frankensteins sin was in abandoning his creature,
not in creating it, but nobodys ever wanted to listen to me. Validation of my theories from such
a luminary as Miville feels wonderful.

2. # Mar 20, 2012 at 8:36 pm (

Dr. M. ( says...
I like that perspective on Frankenstein. Great interview(s).
3. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 3/21/12 - SF Signal A Speculative Fiction Blog
4. # Mar 21, 2012 at 12:32 pm (
Lyndsey Jane ( says...
I loved the spooky house in White is for Witching. It was interesting to have the house/monster be
the narrator.
5. # Mar 22, 2012 at 12:32 am (
SpaceHobo says...
The comment on Frankenstein really hit home for me. Id only ever seen snatches of various
Frankenstein films, but never watched the whole thing and never really enjoyed monster movies
much (aside from Alien).
From my reading of A Modern Prometheus in high school, all I was left with was the sense that Dr.
Frankenstein was a brilliant scientist but a terrible father. And this wasnt some sort of allegorical
lit-crit faffing about, but a pretty literal reading of the text. If anything, hes a cruel man for not
making more.
6. # Mar 22, 2012 at 12:36 am (
Angiportus says...
Thirding the appreciation for your interpretation of Frankenstein. Im so sick of science-o-phobia,
or whatever the word is.
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8. Pingback: Geek Media Round-Up: March 26, 2012 Grasping for the Wind
9. Pingback: Other Things: The End of Our 12 Days of Monsters Celebration | Ann and Jeff
VanderMeer | Weird Fiction Review (
10. Pingback: Bookmarks of the Week: From Literary Nomads to the Slipstream | Portable Homeland

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