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Friday, July 9, 2010

Wyrd, Weird, Wired

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
H. P. Lovecraft

Weird Fiction can be weird in several ways that have nothing to do with the actual content of the story.  If you consult the Wikipedia entry, you'll get a definition of Weird Fiction that is okay, as far as it goes, but really M. R. James was mostly a writer of ghost stories more than Weird stuff, but that's a quibble.

If you consult H. P. Lovecraft's extensive essay on Supernatural Horror in Literature, either via the online version here, or here or here, or if you are ambitious and willing to fork over money for dead tree printing of this essay then go here.  However you decide to access the essay, if you read what the old dead dude from back East had to say on such stuff, you'll come away with an even keener sense of despair, alienation and a growing sense of cosmic horror in the pit of your stomach as you realize nothing he wrote on teh subject, no matter how often cited, has anything to do with how stuff is handled in the marketplace today.  And if you want to buy your books away from the computer, that's a big deal.

You could try to sort out what the folks at Weird Tales are up to in this regard, but the last couple of issues I sampled just didn't really suit me.  I'm old fashioned in some respects.  I am a big fan of Clark Ashton Smith and prefer weird stories to have some actual weirdness in them, not just weird-like subsitute and definitely not any of that weirdLite stuff. 

There is also a 'New Weird,' kind of like when a certain cola company switched its recipe, sort of.  I have re-read that entry at Wikipedia a couple of times now to make sure that I got it right, but I'm not so sure that it really explains what exactly Weird is, new or otherwise.  Not all Weird stories are necessarily urban, though they can take place in cities.  Otherwise, using realworld stuff to leap boldly into the slavering maw of the unknown, reading stuff by dead French Decadents like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Novalis, etc. is cool by me, though Valery Briusov needs to be mentioned as well--The Fiery Angel is awesome stuff.  This guy is so cool that his portrait is on stamps.  Not all that many other writers of the weird are so honored, and yet so overlooked and mostly forgotten.  Part of it is that no one can spell the guy's name right, or at least that's my theory.

When I was a kid, back when I was reading Blavatsky and suffering from recurring fevers and pneumonia every fall and winter, I made my first sale of an illustration to a small press magazine called Weirdbook.  It was a wonderful publication produced by W. Paul Ganley.  The weirdness in Weirdbook was palpable, a very real thing.  I remember reading my first Brian Lumley story in Weirdbook. It was through Ganley & Weirdbook that Titus Crow first entered the American weird/horror/dark fantasy scene.  Back then weird was used as a perjorative, it had an almost Fifties-esque connotation of non-conformity bordering on the perverse or nasty.  To be called weird back then was a major put-down, an insult.  But I never saw it as such.  Not after getting published in Weirdbook.  After that weird was just fine by me.

To me, weird fiction combines any and every element that the writer wants to, incorporates any technique, and can encompass any situation both conceivable and inconceivable--it is weird after all--and it is something that partakes of just about all other genres the way a painter like Jackson Pollock uses colors or Van Gogh used texture.  It's an approach that turns expectations arund, inverts the known and goes places that sanitized and approved commercial stuff rarely goes for fear of losing its audience.  It can be rude, vulgar, challenging and uncomfortable like an insane cat-lady riding the bus at midnight with all her cats in a tattered cardboard box leaking urine onto the seat next to her.  It can be purple prose that evokes conundrums, enigmas and paradox all in one sentence with or without a plot.  It is a way of taking the old forms of mythology, especially the once popular stuff too low-brow for academia to concern itself with it, and convert it from a sow's ear of rubbish to the gold of something special and deeply, philosophically potent.

At least that's what it could be, might be, or used to be, but I'm not sure any one definition will ever really do the job as it shifts and changes in response to people's impressions, reactions and so one.  You can't always tell the same joke a second time and get very many laughs.  You have to move on.  Grow.  Adapt.  Subvert the expectations and so forth and so on.

4 comments:

  1. You have some very good observations in this post. I feel we are on the same page with what our expectations of what "weird" should be. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Thank you for the kind words. A lot of 'stuff' has gotten bandied-about in regards to the Weird and it just leaves me cold. I'm glad to hear that you pretty much agree with my take on it. That's awesome good news to me, as I am a big fan of what you're doing with Swords & Sanity. I think that you'll like what we're doing and where we're going with the Riskail Blog...

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  3. Good essay. I think part of the reason defining weird can be hard, is that people are using it in two slightly different contexts. There may or way not be a "weird" genre, but I think "weird" is more a storytelling mode/concern/technique (I contrasted it with "sense of wonder" in an early post on my blog). So horror stories by Thomas Ligotti invoke it, as do the gothic inspired fantasies of CAS, but also some of the works of the so-called New Weird writers like Jeff VanDerMeer.

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  4. @Trey: Thanks. I agree that 'weird' is, if anything, more of an approach than a genre out-right. I'll have to look for your essay. Ligotti gets a lot of mention all over the place but I've only read one thing by him so far, so it's time to go looking for some more. VanDerMeer also gets a lot of mentions, so I'll look for more of his stories--I know that he did develop his own weird city-setting that gets favorably compared to Mieville, so there's definitely something I can learn from him, and I believe that his wife/partner is editor for Weird Tales nowadays...which sounds promising. I really miss Weirdbook though.

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