Notes on Weird Fiction 1: Initial Foray

Introduction (or Why I’m Writing This in the First Place):

This summer, whilst at the 14th International Gothic Association Conference in Manchester (and if any member of the organising staff ever stumbles upon this post, thank you for a brilliant event!), I attended a couple of panels where the term “weird fiction” came up a lot. I’d begun to hear about weird fiction as well at the previous IGA in Cholula the previous year, usually coupled with the mention of China Miéville, but to be honest I’d never really gotten quite a clear idea of what the different panelists meant with the term. This year the term was used also with reference to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) and Borne (2017); the former I had read at the time (and eventually the latter, after the conference), and I was trying to think of what made it weird fiction, as I had mentally categorised it as science fiction (a genre which I have some background with after taking a few seminars on the subject during my Bachelor’s). These notes will detail my process in trying to figure out what the term describes and its implications.

Initial Search:

The first page that appeared on Google searching the topic was from Wikipedia, which to be honest, is not a bad place (I’m not saying it’s the best either) to start an inquiry. I know that a couple of years ago, at least when I was going through school, Wikipedia was immediately lambasted by some teachers; fortunately, however, attitudes seem to have changed for the most part, and even though I would caution ever using anything directly from Wikipedia, it does often help point your investigation in the right direction. The first sentence you get is the following:

“Weird fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries” (“Weird Fiction”).

So, not surprisingly, Wikipedia considers weird fiction to be a a type of genre, however, things begin to get a bit complicated with how it places it under speculative fiction. The use of the term speculative fiction is also one that I would like to look more into, but my general first impressions from the little that I do know, is that it’s an umbrella term (I’m not going to refer to it as a genre—my own academic view of the concept will gradually be made evident as I advance in these notes) now used to group pretty much any non-mimetic writing (horror, fantasy, science fiction…); therefore, “speculative fiction” doesn’t really do much for me in terms of understanding weird fiction.

Wikipedia follows up by giving a much more helpful quote from China Miéville stating the following:

“Weird Fiction is usually, roughly, conceived of as a rather breathless and generically slippery macabre fiction, a dark fantastic (“horror” plus “fantasy”) often featuring nontraditional alien monster (thus plus “science fiction”)” (510).

In this way, weird fiction seems to be a mix of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. A hybrid genre would confirm the impressions I received when I heard people talk about weird fiction, but now I’m interested in finding out more how this genre tends to function. My approach to genre is influenced by Alastair Fowler and Rick Altman (among others), and my investigations in weird fiction will be using the framework of the latter’s notion of syntactic/semantic elements to genre. Therefore, knowing that weird fiction is a blend of horror, fantasy, and science fiction gives us plenty to play with in terms of the semantic elements. For example, for an idea of a creature in a weird fiction text we could have a murderous, evil, space, unicorn-like creature armed with lasers. However, the brunt of my investigation will most likely be focused on trying to discern patterns in the syntax of weird fiction, e.g. how does the pseudo-unicorn interact with other elements in the narrative in order for us to be able to consider it a piece of weird fiction?

Further Considerations and Questions:

However, to further complicate matters, I’ll also have to contemplate what the authors/readers perceive weird fiction to be. Weird fiction, unlike cases of more academic and theoretical genres (*wink wink* Tzvetan Todorov’s “marvelous”), actually has authors like Miéville and VanderMeer who explicitly identify their works within this genre. So, for now, I have plenty of questions:

  • Does weird fiction necessarily imply a mix of all three genres: horror, fantasy, and science fiction? For example, I can identify the horror and science fiction in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, but the fantasy component…not so much. If it doesn’t, which is the more dispensable genre(s)?
  • What elements of horror, fantasy, and science fiction does weird fiction tend to take and how does it employ them?
  • Does there tend to be one “dominant” component genre in the mix, i.e. does it tend toward horror, fantasy, or science fiction?
  • How does the early weird fiction of authors like H.P. Lovecraft differ from what has been called the New Weird of recent years?
  • Is it a genre that has been claimed/created by authors/readers in an attempt to differ from certain perspectives of more “established” genres like science fiction? For example, speculative fiction has been taken up by some authors whose notion of science fiction corresponds to a more hard science fiction take, even though other people (readers, academics, authors) conceptualise science fiction in a way that could easily accommodate weird fiction.
  • Is weird fiction a transmedial genre? I’ve heard of weird fiction exclusively in terms of written texts, never of movies or TV/series. Would films like Alien be considered weird films?

To-Read List: 

My to-read list on the subject is currently comprised of the following:

Core texts:

  • H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson (these are authors whose works I’m acquainted with, so they’ll serve as my main reference when reading about early weird fiction probably).
  • Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. 2000.
  • VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and Borne.

Theory:

  • Freedman, Carl. “From Genre to Political Economy”. CR: The New Centennial Review 13 (2): 13-30.
  • Jarvis, Timothy. “The Weird, the Posthuman, and the Abjected World-In-Itself: Fidelity to the ‘Lovecraft Event’ in the Work of Caitlín R. Kiernan and Laird Barron”. Textual Practice 31 (6): 1133-1148.
  • Lovecraft, H.P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. 1927.
  • Luckhurst, Roger. “The Weird: A Dis/Orientation”. Textual Practice 31 (6): 1041-1061.
  • Machin, James. “Weird Fiction and the Virtues of Obscurity: Machen, Stenbock, and the Weird Connoisseurs”. Textual Practice 31 (6): 1063-1081.
  • Miéville, China. “Weird Fiction”. The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Bulter, Adam Roberts et al. New York: Routledge, 2009. pp. 510-515.
  • Moorcock, Michael. “What is the ‘New Weird’—and What Makes Weird Fiction So Relevant to our Times?”. New Statesman. 12 March, 2017. Web.
  • Rothman, Joshua. “The Weird Thoreau”. The New Yorker. 14 January, 2015. Web.
  • Scholz, Christina. “Quantum Fiction!—M. John Harrison’s Empty Space Trilogy and Weird Theory”. Textual Practice 31 (6): 1149-1163.
  • VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. “The Weird: An Introduction”. Weird Fiction Review. Web.
  • VanderMeer, Jeff. “Introduction: The New Weird: ‘It’s Alive?’”. The New Weird. Ed. by VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2008. pp. ix-xviii.
  • VanderMeer, Jeff. “The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction”. The Atlantic. 30 October, 2014. Web.

Dear Reader, feel free to leave in a comment any thoughts you might want to share on the subject, as well as reading/viewing recommendations. I’d appreciate any help in my investigation on weird fiction.

Works Cited:

  • Miéville, China. “Weird Fiction”. The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Bulter, Adam Roberts et al. New York: Routledge, 2009. pp. 510-515.
  • “Weird Fiction”. Wikipedia. Web.

 

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