Weird #59: “The Belonging Kind” by William Gibson and John Shirley (1981)

At this point, there are enough stories to create a subcategory of weird fiction in the VanderMeer anthology that I have labelled “first date weird tales.” Perhaps this reflects the spell-binding role that romantic infatuation—usually heterosexual love from the male perspective—plays in many traditional weird tales.

In Ewers’s “The Spider,” infatuation feeds into a love-death nexus that results in suicide. William Sansom’s “seldom-found woman” turns out to be a succubus with bhoot-like qualities. Mervyn Peake’s “Same Time, Same Place” also produces a disquieting mood by feeding off anxieties about encountering someone new and attractive.

William Gibson and John Shirley’s short story “The Belonging Kind” continues the “first date” trend. Like the tales mentioned above, it plays on social anxieties related to love and romance.

Coretti is a linguistics lecturer who is “a kind of stutterer” in the way he dresses and ums and ahs when he talks to women. His object of infatuation is a unique woman who is the archetypal bar girl: “she swam through the submarine half-life of bottles and glassware and the slow swirl of cigarette smoke … She moved through her natural element, one bar after another.” One might say the bar scene is her natural habitat.

When Coretti asks if he can buy her a drink, he stutters his question. She repeats it in a mocking, yet flirtatious way. Antoinette—the bar girl—seems nervous to be asked, but she actually takes him up on his offer.

No sooner does Coretti get his hopes up about where the night might go, however, than she suddenly leaves the bar.

Coretti trails after her. Essentially, he becomes a stalker, following her. However, his fascination with her becomes better justified when he sees her transform while crossing a street: her hair turns “white blond” and her dress, shoes, and body change too as she sheds her skin like the husk of “some fabulous animal.”

Antoinette walks from bar to bar around town, everywhere from clubs to discos, and never wears the same body twice. She sheds her outer skin each time, not only her clothes but also her form changing from bar to bar. Coretti follows her all night, growing more certain something unexplainable is happening.

Coretti becomes obsessed, the alcohol from his many bourbon shots never quite ever reaching him. He admires Antoinette for bringing a sense of belonging to every bar she meets, whether it’s a high-class club, a disco, or a gay bar. While he is stalking her, he is also trying to figure out just what she is and find a way to let her know that he alone, an “outsider,” knows her secret: that she is far more than human.

(As an investigator following an individual through a crowded city, Coretti also faintly reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s protagonist from “The Man of the Crowd,” a prototype of the detective story.)

Eventually, Coretti boldly jumps in a cab with Antoinette, fearing immediate, harsh, and possibly violent rejection. However, she lets him ride all the way to her motel. Any human woman would have obviously rejected him—he’s a stalker—but Antoinette is not simply human. She has her own motivations to bringing him to her private haunt. Besides, she makes him feel like he … belongs.

What appears to be a stalker’s wish-fulfillment fantasy becomes a surreal nightmare when Antoinette’s partner unlocks a door with a piece of bone that projects from his finger, opening the motel room. There he faces a variety of people from bars all over the city staring back at him. They open their eyes, “all of them simultaneously, the membranes sliding sideways to reveal the alien calm of dwellers in the ocean’s darkest trench.” He screams and runs away.

Coretti suspects the woman—and her partner, the ‘belonging man’—are not human but rather a kind of organism adept at surviving within “man-made structures,” a camouflager “like a chameleon or a rockfish.” This continues a theme seen in several stories so far of fantastic entities camouflaging themselves within the modern urban fabric.

The story ends when Antoinette calls him back. They meet at the bar and share drinks, touching fingers. Tentacles reach out from her index, and suddenly “he was two men: the one inside fusing with her in total cellular communion, and the shell who sat casually on a stool at the bar.” He mates with her in this bizarre way, and afterward feels fulfilled, “like a real human being.” In other words, she makes this poor, sartorial stutterer feel as if he belongs to the human race.

Gibson and Shirley create a metamorphosing creature that can cure isolation and alienation when they interact (and mate) with humans, all while surviving in an environment that is belongingness. In contrast to some truly bleak weird tales, this story seems almost wholesome. I found the “belonging kind” even resemble the gemein, a genius loci from Charles de Lint’s Newford stories. It’s worth noting de Lint was writing his pioneering urban fantasy around this same time in the 1980s. Still, however, there is a note of disquiet: the unsettling implication that Antoinette and her ilk have colonized our world, pursuing their own survival goals and using human beings as a means to it.

Next week I will read M. John Harrison’s “Egnaro” (1981), a story that, as its title suggests, can be read two ways.

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