by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
So, by now, if you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you would have realised that my upcoming release Tasmanian Gothic is a bit of a strange beast – part Gothic, part grimdark, certainly dystopian, and very weird. Weird, in this sense, isn’t a pejorative, or even a mere adjective, but one of my favourite genres/modes of fiction.
What is weird fiction?
Like Gothic and grimdark fiction, ‘weird fiction’ is a difficult one to define – perhaps the most difficult. China Mieville, author of ‘Perdido Street Station’ (among countless others) and one of the modern titans of the genre, is on the record as defining it as:
Compounding this ‘slipperiness’ is the fact the term itself didn’t appear until the 20th Century and has already evolved (mutated? metamorphosed?) into two distinct branches: the Weird of the 20th Century and New Weird of the 21st Century. (Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, other modern titans of the genre, locate the split at the conjunction of three key events: “Lovecraft’s passing in 1937, World War II, and the wide-spread translation of Kafka into English in the 1940s”. [Weird Fiction Review]).
It’s almost fair to say that the genre’s impossible definition is one of weird fiction’s most defining characteristics. And the inherent paradox of that statement is also right at home in this genre. So much so, that many critics, authors, and academics of the genre default to a fallback definition of ‘you’ll know it when you see/feel it’.
Origins of a genre: A Gothic schism
Despite the nebulous definition of weird fiction, most agree that the genre originated from Gothic beginnings. And part of finding a definition for weird fiction is in the ways we disentangle and distant it from its parentage.
Kevin Corstorphine, Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Hull and Program Director in American Studies, argues: “Weird fiction, broadly, is a type of storytelling that attempts on some level to product the effect of horror and may or may not adhere to Gothic conventions built up over time. In its tendencies to embrace elements of speculative and science fiction, it actively engages with the implications of developments in science while at the same time going beyond and making them strange” [‘Weird Fiction in the Twentieth Century’, in S. Ni Fhlainn, & B. M. Murphy (Eds.) (2022), Twentieth-Century Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press]
The introduction of science and science fiction into otherwise Gothic stories is a major step in the development and distinction of weird fiction, almost as if the supernatural fantasy in Gothic fiction was replaced by paranormal science in weird fiction:
Take, for example, this wonderful review of Brian Catling’s ‘The Erstwhile’ by Michael Moorcock: “Again we meet a variety of wonderful, often bizarre, characters: a woman impregnated by robots, a troubled young Cyclops corrupted by life in the decaying European colonial city on the edge of the Vorrh, an ancient family of half-human Bakelite robots, Blake and, in Bedlam, Louis Wain, the mad cat painter.” [New Statesman]
The use of paranormal, fantastical science – an uncanny science that defies the natural order and becomes wildly imaginative – allows for what Corstorphine characterises (in relation to Poe’s ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1845)), as “the marriage of [the] more usual psychological terror to a more existential sense of the weird.”
The short story in question centres on a hypnotist who puts a man in a trance at the moment of death, observing with scientific fascination as the subject (the titular Valdemar) states “I am dying”, and then “I am dead.” Keeping him in this extended state of death and hypnotism for months, the ‘physician’ finally wakes Valdemar to question him. “In between trance and wakefulness, Valdemar begs the narrator to put him back to sleep quickly or to waken him. As Valdemar shouts “Dead! Dead!” repeatedly, the narrator starts to bring him out of his trance, only for his entire body to immediately decay into a “nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putrescence.” [Wikipedia]. So influential was this tale in the development of weird fiction, that Lovecraft used it to argue Poe’s “permanent and unassailable place as deity and fountain-head of all modern diabolic fiction” [via Corstophine in Twentieth-Century Gothic]
It is no surprise, then, that weird fiction found its early inspiration not only among Gothic texts, but in the horror science fiction texts that emerged at the end of the 19th Century. This period in history – the fin de siecle – was “widely thought to be a period of social degeneracy, but at the same time a period of hope for a new beginning, [whose spirit] often refers to the cultural hallmarks that were recognized as prominent in the 1880s and 1890s, including ennui, cynicism, pessimism, and ‘a widespread belief that civilization leads to decadence’.” [Wikipedia]
The impact of the fin de siecle in literary circles saw themes of degeneration and anxiety “expressed not only through the physical landscape which provided a backdrop for Gothic Literature, but also through the human body itself. Works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) all explore themes of change, development, evolution, mutation, corruption and decay in relation to the human body and mind. These literary conventions were a direct reflection of many evolutionary, scientific, social and medical theories and advancements that emerged toward the end of the 19th century.” [ibid].
And, in this, we find what Mieville calls “the locus classicus of the ‘haute weird'” – a place where the uncertainties around scientific discoveries, experimentations, and their implications, allowed for a fantastical speculation that, when paired with the degeneration, anxiety, and cynicism of the fin de siecle, led to dark imaginings.
The importance of scientific speculation to weird fiction is also explored by the VanderMeers: “As a twentieth and twenty-first century art form the story of The Weird is the story of the refinement (and destabilization) of supernatural fiction within an established framework but also of the welcome contamination of that fiction by the influence of other traditions… The Weird in a modern vernacular has also come to mean fiction in which some other element, like weird ritual or the science fictional, replaces the supernatural while providing the same dark frisson of the unknown and the visionary.” [Weird Fiction Review]
Perhaps this development is best characterised by American folklorist, Dorothy Scarborough, who wrote:
If weird fiction finds its natural home in the questions raised by scientific experimentation and the speculation on the nature and mechanics and composition of our world and worlds beyond, what does it grow in this fertile soil?
With the shadow of the fin de siecle hovering, to the point where weird fiction holds “a ‘certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread’ or ‘malign and particular suspension or defeat of…fixed laws of Nature'” [Weird Fiction Review], we discover stories of speculation and horror, or what the VanderMeer’s call “dark reverie or epiphany — not the lightness of “I wandered lonely as a cloud” but the weight of, for example, seminal early twentieth-century weird writer and artist Alfred Kubin’s sensation of being ‘overcome…by a dark power that conjured up before my mind strange creatures, houses, landscapes, grotesque and frightful situations'” [ibid].
The monster of weird fiction is a very different beast to the monster of Gothic fiction. Pungitore makes a strong case for distinction, arguing that “[t]he Gothic is stereotyped as a literature of empathetic spells, irrational magic, monsters that conform to “reliable” historic folklore and religion, and forces that can be understood and conquered with love, religion, social morality, or a kind of mawkish combination of all three. Gothic Fiction, as it is known in a most universal way, works on principles that human beings—including readers and the characters within the stories—understand and have been taught all throughout their lives. The Gothic genre seems to balance itself, work itself, on this idea of transgressions and taboos that can be bested if the transgressors, victims, or protagonists know how to put wrong back to right.” [DRM Books]
If monsters in Gothic fiction characterise the moral vs amoral (and the ‘monsters’ in grimdark fiction characterise moral ambiguity), then the monsters in weird fiction characterise moral irrelevance. Weird fiction isn’t about how we see others, it’s about how we see ourselves.
Jonathan Newell, an Instructor at Langara College in Vancouver, whose research focuses on aesthetics and metaphysics in weird fiction, horror and the Gothic, presents this compelling description: “Deliquescent corpses murmuring from beyond the grave; slimy molluscoid horrors oozing through the ancient hills; a ravenous, miles-long pig stirring in a miasmatic abyss – the pages of weird fiction teem with grotesques, a bestiary of dripping, festering, quivering monstrosities designed to disgust. Distinct from the creeping dread or ‘terror’ more commonly associated with the Gothic, weird revulsion is the throbbing heart of [weird fiction].” [UWP]
Importantly, Newell’s description helps clarify the emotional function the monster plays in Gothic fiction vs weird fiction: in the former, the monster is there to terrify; in the latter, the monster is there to disgust.
Newell goes on to ask “why disgust? Why does weird fiction return again and again to this particular, powerful, singularly loathsome affect?”, and answers the question by seeming to draw on Lovecraft’s ‘cosmic horror’ and arguing that disgust is part of the genre’s “obsessive speculation about the nature of the universe at its most fundamental, its efforts to peel back layers of reality until it gazes on the raw bedrock of the cosmos. In contrast to the Gothic’s interest in the buried histories and hidden depths of the human, the weird is preoccupied with the non-human, with the radically Outside.” [UWP]
More than just a preoccupation with the ‘other’, weird fiction is notable for seeking to define it not by defining the ‘other’ apart from ‘self’, but by conflating the two. This blurring of lines between the human and non-human, the familiar and the ‘radically Outside’, is also raised by Emily Alder – Lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, and author of ‘Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siecle’ – who argues that “for ‘supernatural’ to have any meaning, there must be a ‘natural’ against which to define it, and in weird fiction, there is no distinction”. [via Corstorphine in Twentieth-Century Gothic]
It is with the blurring of lines – and the ‘violation of the natural order’ that Lovecraft saw as profoundly frightening – that weird fiction is able to explore the grotesque and cultivate feelings of disgust. As Newell points out, disgust arises “when the self is threatened with contamination from something repulsively other”; it “exposes the permeability of what seemed stable borders, revealing them as anthropocentric conceits” [UWP].
Weird fiction peels back these ‘anthropocentric conceits’ and presents us with naked truths (even when these truths are unresolved uncertainties). And herein lies the appeal of weird stories – and an explanation of why they persist:
From the VanderMeers: “They remain universal because they entertain while also expressing our own dissatisfaction with and uncertainty about reality — and in a context wherein the monster, the strangeness, stands first for itself, has a visceral physicality that convinces us, at least while reading, of the existence of The Weird.” [Weird Fiction Review]
From Michael Moorcock: “In these days of alternative facts, perhaps alternative-world stories can lead us closer to the truth than conventional social novels.” [New Statesman]