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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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So What is Weird Fiction... Really?

As the proliferation of podcasts like A Podcast to the Curious, the H.P. Podcraft, the Edgar Allan Poe-cast, and the Yog-Sothoth Podcast can attest, classic supernatural fiction has merged with popular culture. Only two decades ago, Lovecraftian fiction and classic horror were soundly ensconced in the fringe culture of death metal bands, role playing games, and goth reading lists. As they move into mainstream culture and enter common parlance, it might help the transition to clear up some basic definitions. Like weird fiction. What is it anyway?


In the 21st century the word "weird" has lost much of its 19th century connotation. Today "weird" means odd, strange, inexplicable, or even marginally quirky. It carries with it the baggage of its slang variations "weird-o" and "weird-out" which evince social awkwardness, goofiness, or tackiness. But a quick checkup on the dictionary reveals a more sinister sensibility. Derived from Old English and Norse etymologies meaning "fate" or "destiny," "weird" is currently defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as "of, relating to, or caused by ... the supernatural. Magical."


Weird fiction -- since its rise to prominence in the 1890s -- has long been the genric depository for literature that seamlessly fits the definitions of several genres of speculative fiction. If it wasn't exactly horror or fantasy, quite possibly it could be termed weird. In fact, a basic definition of weird fiction could truthfully be a story that combines elements of fantasy and horror. A broader definition would be a story that includes and merges any number of plot devices, elements, sensibilities, and tropes of horror, science fiction, fantasy, the ghost story, supernatural fiction, mythology, mystery, or Gothic fiction. Literature that includes standards from more than one of these traditions might be considered weird.


H. P. Lovecraft has long been considered the father of the genre. In his opinion, weird fiction required a sense of alien otherliness that threatened human conventions and thwarted our ability to explain or define the source of discomfort. In his groundbreaking treatise on terror -- "Supernatural Horror in Literature" -- Lovecraft explained the genre in the following terms:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Essentially, weird things make you double-take and ask "what the heck was that?!" When you read about them you didn't quite understand what they were, what made them tick. Unlike Stokerian vampires, whose rules were clear (blood = yum; old castle = good; cross = bad; stake = worst), the elements of weird tales were contained within the universe of their writers, and the rules that regulated them were at first incomprehensible. What the heck is going on in Poe's "Ligeia"? What the crap is Cthulhu? What the what is Helen Vaughn's deal in "The Great God Pan"? You might find out eventually, but only after being confounded.


Former weird fiction can be traced back to E.T.A. Hoffmann (of "Sandman" and "Nutcracker" fame) and Mary Shelley. Before them were fairy tales, myths, and tall tales. Hoffmann especially formalized folklore to make his bizarre narratives. Influenced by Hoffmann and Shelley, Poe introduced weird fiction to the Americas, where it was picked up by Fitz-James O'Brien, F. Marion Crawford, Ambrose Bierce, and Robert W. Chambers. In Great Britain the tradition reached a pinnacle of power in the 1890s where it was utilized by Oscar Wilde, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Walter de la Mare, William Hope Hodgson, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and E.F. Benson. By the time Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth had defined the genre, a century of fiction had already been generated, informing their literary methods, tropes, and devices.


To conclude, it's fitting to have two definitions for weird fiction -- one critical and one artistic.

  • CRITICAL DEFINITION: Weird fiction is a brand of speculative fiction that combines a variety of literary aesthetics from a variety of genres, including horror, fantasy, science fiction, supernatural fiction, mystery, mythology, the ghost story, and Gothic fiction.

  • ARTISTIC DEFINITION: Weird fiction is a form of story which upends human concepts of logic, rationality, and regulations -- including cliches of horror fiction -- resulting in a discombobulating feeling which threatens the security of human culture by posing otherworldly forces in malignant opposition to our conventions, expectations, and values.

And I might add a third of my own:

  • MICHAEL'S DEFINITION: Weird fiction is a type of literature that -- upon a first read -- causes the reader to ask themself "What the **** was that!?!?!?"

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