A recent post in SF Signal brings together a slew of weird fiction writers, anthologists, and fans to wax lyrical on their favorite genre. Or sub-genre. Or fusion of genres. And it provides a great opportunity to analyze once again what I’ve characterized elsewhere as one of the most fruitful and challenging developments in modern fiction – as well as to try to pin down the characteristics of this protean field that has its best proponents vigorously debating exactly what is weird.
As Orrin Grey, himself no mean weirdscribe, declares in the piece, “there’s definitely a weird renaissance going on right now, with more and better work being done in the field than has been done probably since Lovecraft’s time, maybe ever.” And of course the modern revival of interest in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction has a lot to do with the current popularity of the weird. However, writers and critics in this summary and beyond tend to loop in authors like Bruno Schulz and Jorge Luis Borges, and movements like surrealism and magic realism, into their definitions of the weird – which would have gone right beyond the ken of many old style Weird Tales genre authors. Grey adds: “modern weird fiction seems to overlap with and partake of other genres like fantasy and horror, but never quite mirrors them completely.”
Situating the weird in between other genres seems to be a main preoccupation of writers of and about it, and it also gets very obvious that the Venn diagram of the weird is getting as amorphous and multi-dimensional as any Lovecraftian effusion on non-Euclidean spaces. Lucy A. Snyder says: “New Weird mixes science fiction, fantasy, and horror up in a brain explosion of hybrid vigor.” Mike Underwood remarks: “What I love about Weird Fiction, especially the New Weird, is that it mashes together many of the genres under the speculative fiction umbrella and then hits Frappe. Pulp, Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror are all constituent elements of the Weird.” Constituents, but not limitations. If horror exists to scare, and science fiction to inform and to wow, weird does all of those things, and more. As Megan E. O’Keefe adds, “to me, a very large part of what makes weird fiction so appealing is just how far it falls outside of what’s become expected of fantasy.”
That freewheeling borrowing of tropes, manners, motifs, and even moods (disquiet, brooding horror, dread, amazement) from other more tramlined genres seems to be at once a lot of what the weird is about, a reflection of its world-view, and one of the secrets of its ability to unsettled the reader. John Klima says: “For me, weird fiction and the New Weird is about subversion. About taking what people expect and turning it on its ear.” Mike Allen styles the weird as “Discomfort Food,” contrasting the escapist comfort food of commercial fiction, which he condemns as “a shallow diet, a hollow diet. It doesn’t reflect what I see unfold in so-called ‘objective reality.'” And that can just as well be conventional mainstream science fiction or generic horror as chick-lit or crime. Weird writers don’t even appear ready to be trapped within expectations about the recent success of the weird. “New Weird is an artifact of an aborted movement from the early Aughts,” observes Laird Barron. “There is simply The Weird, a genre that has been with us for ages.”
To paraphrase J.G. Ballard from 1971, everything is becoming weird. Doesn’t that rather suit the world we live in? As noted weird anthologist and editor Ross E. Lockhart says, “‘Weird Fiction’ to me feels like an oxymoron. Fiction is weird by its very conceit: made-up stories about people who never existed, going to imaginary places and doing improbable–even impossible–things.” Isn’t it rather the case that fiction rooted in 19th-century conventions of naturalism – let alone the contemporary version of the novel of manners that confines “serious” literature to the pontifications, ruminations and interactions of a supposed elite – is just glaringly, obviously unequal to a world defined daily by climate change, the internet, globalization, quantum mechanics, consciousness theory, and other intellectual and technological developments that range far outside its scope. “We might have a sense of some underlying pattern, but it’s beyond our little brains,” says Rjurik Davidson, instancing string theory. And above all, I reckon, weird has learned from other genres to stimulate and engage the imagination and intellect in ways that overleap the dry, narrow sterility of realist fiction and produce intellectually engaging fiction that’s actually entertaining to read.
The world as it stands now may be often terrifying, frequently baffling, and apparently beyond rational comprehension and codification. But doesn’t all of that sound just like the various definitions of the weird? If nothing else, the weird pretty well reflects contemporary reality – just what good literature is supposed to do.