James Machin on Weird Fiction

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. Categorising a text as ‘horror’ has—rightly or wrongly—all sorts of negative baggage. Horror can be cheap and nasty. Horror can be exploitative trash and ‘torture porn’. Fantasy fiction can be twee nonsense about new-age unicorns and ale-quaffing hobbits. Science fiction? All that silly stuff with lantern-jawed Aryans firing laser guns and zipping about in rocket ships? Genre labels can be misunderstood, traduced, and weaponised. Weird fiction, less so. By calling an anthology Year’s Best Weird Fiction, the reader can safely assume they will not encounter anything cheap, nasty, and rote within its pages. This is weird fiction as an imprimatur of a literary quality beyond that usually associated with genre writing.

Of course, there is some jaw-dropping snobbery furiously at work behind the scenes here. But even so, there is nothing so very terrible about using a term like ‘weird fiction’ in this way: to signal a type of genre writing engaged with horror, but not a trite rehearsal of genre conventions. The best weird fiction plays with the boundaries between realism and dark fantasy with subtlety and legerdemain. Two examples of this version spring to mind, which I will present as exemplars for this calibration of the mode. The first is Arthur Machen’s late story ‘N’ (1934), in which a “perichoresis” occurs in Stoke Newington, and reality fragments and reassembles as though one is looking at the city through a Gnostic kaleidoscope.   The second would be M. John Harrison’s short novel The Course of the Heart (1992), in which an occult palimpsest manifests in the otherwise humdrum lives of its protagonists, and the reader remains queasily unsure of the boundary between visionary fantasy and unendurable reality.

The term ‘weird fiction’ may be capacious and vague, but it does seem to be here to stay. Supernatural horror, strange, uncanny, slipstream, magical realism—call it what you want. It’s all weird.

About the author: James Machin is a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art. His monograph, Weird Fiction in Britain, 1880–1939, was published by Palgrave in 2018. He co-edits Faunus, the journal of the Arthur Machen society.

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