Weird fiction is a slippery term for a slippery category of writing. It is most closely associated with H. P. Lovecraft, and Weird Tales magazine during its 1920s/30s heyday. The delirious mixture of Gothic horror, science fiction, and fantasy to be found within the cheaply-manufactured pages of Weird Tales gave the term traction as a catch-all for writing that belonged to any of those genres, slipped between them, or bodged them together into strange new combinations. This version of weird fiction—as a marker for genre hybridity or impurity—was the one subsequently redeployed at the turn of the millennium as ‘New Weird’ and applied to the restless genre-bending experimentalism of writers like M. John Harrison and China Miéville.
With his ‘old weird’, Lovecraft certainly paved the way for this ‘New Weird’: as a convinced atheist, he had no time for ghosts, werewolves, and vampires; spooks which, regardless of the thrills provided along the way, ultimately only confirm a reassuring Judeo-Christian worldview of the ultimate conquest of evil by divine beneficence. In his most celebrated stories, Lovecraft dispensed with the supernatural altogether and replaced it with science-fictional antagonists: alien lifeforms that are utterly incomprehensible and as indifferent to the futile narcissism of the human species as the cold vacuum of the sidereal space.
However, this understanding of weird fiction does not really reflect Lovecraft’s own application of the term. In his canon-forming 1927 essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft clearly conceives of the weird as a mode, rather than a genre. It is a register of writing that engages primarily with the horrific, but rather than a horror inspired by gore or violence (revulsion), it is a horror precipitated by existential crisis; it manifests itself in an “atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” and the revelation of “outer, unknown forces” pressing at the threshold of the quotidian. The Welsh writer Arthur Machen, a key influence on Lovecraft, complained that in his own work he “translated awe, or awfulness, into evil”, but this belies the potency of his writing’s weird ambiguity: weird fiction, as Miéville has argued, can be seen as just such a “radicalized sublime backwash”. According to this version of weird fiction, it primarily concerns itself with destabilizing revelations of the adumbral numinous.
Regardless of its specific meaning (if it has one) and various applications, why does the term weird fiction continue to have such traction? Well, for one thing, it is useful. Continue reading