Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.

Edgar Allan Poe, Eleonora (1842)

WEIRD FICTION, by its very definition, is difficult to define. As opposed to other genres — which one could argue are defined by a set of shared elements (or tropes) — weird fiction is both a blending of these various elements, a rejection of some, and an often dark thematic tone. As one of the oldest genres of speculative fiction, its early days were not defined by what pieces of the landscape it adopted, but rather by eschewing certain elements of established movements and setting out to create something that hadn’t been seen before.

THE BIRTH OF MODERN LITERATURE

Our journey to understanding weird fiction should start well before its inception. To understand why the genre has such nebulous traits, one must understand just how different modern literature is from what came before, and how early in this evolution the genre was born. Over the course of human history, stories evolved from folklore and fables to sweeping mythologies, heroic epics, and political dramas; much of this told via oral traditions or theatrical presentations. Producing a hand-written manuscript was costly and time consuming, and thus they were available only to a select few. As of the 18th century, mechanical printing had been around for just over two hundred years. As the availability to disseminate the written word to the masses grew, so did the literacy — and literary curiosity — of said masses.

The Adelphi Club, Belfast (1783) by Joseph Wilson
The Adelphi Club, Belfast (1783) by Joseph Wilson

By then end of the 18th century, the industrial revolution had resulted in a growing middle class. With this came a population with leisure time and disposable income, and this caused a rise in demand for more stories to read. Enter: the novel. At first, Elizabethan prose and French heroic romances grew in popularity. Then, many novels started telling contemporary stories. Elements of everyday life were explored during these times, often showing middle-class characters struggling with difficult situations and moral quandaries. In the 19th century, the prevalence of exploring the mundane gave way to a growing popularity of romantic novels such as Jane Eyre (1847, Charlotte Bronte) and The Scarlet Letter (1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne). Along with these new forays into romantic fiction came an offshoot imbued with supernatural elements, later to be known as gothic fiction. 1

A note on Romanticism:

The terms romance and romantic are used a few times here, but this is not to be confused with the modern usage of the word. Rather than focusing on relationships, the classic romances and 19th century romanticism instead focused on exploring the importance of emotion and imagination alongside reason and order in understanding our place in the world. 2

Barbarians at the gates

The Sack of Rome by Évariste Vital Luminais

Many are familiar with the term gothic in its modern connotation, but to understand its origins we must again delve into history. The term is derived from the Gothic peoples, such as the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. These were Germanic tribes who migrated across Europe during the 4th and 5th centuries, fleeing threats such as climate change and the Huns. Notably, Alaric of the Visigoths is renowned for the sacking of Rome in 410 CE. This term later came to be used for a style of architecture which became common across Europe, notably in cathedrals, from the 12th to 16th centuries.

Likely playing on the popularity of the term at the time, and hearkening back to its origins, Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story in 1764. In the novel, the castle itself comes to life — seemingly possessed by the supernatural — and attempts to kill a number of guests. The use of the word ‘gothic’ here was intended to hearken back to the medieval age. In fact, the author included a preface claiming the story was a lost manuscript from 1529. (Think of a modern found footage film, such as The Blair Witch Project, being passed as actual documentary footage rather than fiction.) Of course, this wasn’t the case. Despite cries of outrage when readers learned the tale was a contemporary piece of fiction rather than a historical artifact, there was soon a yearning for more tales of supernatural thrills. Over the next few decades, several other authors presented works of romantic fiction with a supernatural spin. Likely because of Walpole’s use of the term in his own title, this new niche of novel eventually came to be called gothic fiction. This style often included a gloomy atmosphere, a sense of dread, and elements of the supernatural. Through the nineteenth century, the form grew in popularity. Some of the most memorable novels of the time both followed and expanded upon this movement, such as Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818) and Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897). Considered by some to be the master of the genre, however, was Edgar Allan Poe. 3

SOMETHING IN THE DARKNESS LURKS

Poe’s work is often held as an exemplar of gothic fiction. Between 1827 and 1850, he published a number of poems and short stories. He also worked as an editor for several literary magazines, and as a literary critic. He is regarded for setting a foundational precedent for the structure of the modern short story, both pioneering and heralding the use of style in writing in an “art for art’s sake” approach, and as the founder of the modern horror and detective genres. 4

Edgar Allan Poe
U.S. Signal Corps, National Archive, Washington D.C.

There were certain elements of Poe’s gothic fiction that bucked the norm, however. Up until this time, most selections from the movement used elements of the supernatural — such as spirits, folklore — such as vampires, or some other sort of external threat. Much of Poe’s work eschewed these devices and delved into more introspective terror; often eliciting feelings of existential dread or questions of sanity versus insanity. There were also elements of science fiction in some of his work. These would go on to be hallmarks of what would eventually be known as weird fiction, and Poe is regarded by some as the progenitor of the movement.

Before the term weird fiction was ever coined, other authors joined Poe in exploring ideas that escaped the bounds of traditional romanticism and gothic fiction. Notable works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that pioneered the genre include The King in Yellow (Robert W. Chambers, 1895), The Gods of Pegāna (Lord Dunsany, 1905), The House on the Borderland (William Hope Hodgson, 1908), and The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka, 1918). The common elements of these works were a blending of fantasy, horror, and science fiction (even though at the time these terms were not well established) with elements of the supernatural — but not the traditional ‘ghost story’. 5

WHAT IS THIS I SEE?

Many of these works were referred to by contemporary critics as ‘weird’ or ‘strange’. Because of the wide variety of themes and concepts explored as the movement grew, and the primary drive of including unusual elements, the terms seem to have been the best to describe this new form of literature. The use of ‘weird’ as a label, rather than a description, was cemented by H.P. Lovecraft in a 1933 essay titled “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.” In it, he expressed his ideas on the definitions of the genre:

“There are, I think, four distinct types of weird story; one expressing a mood or feeling, another expressing a pictorial conception, a third expressing a general situation, condition, legend, or intellectual conception, and a fourth explaining a definite tableau or specific dramatic situation or climax. In another way, weird tales may be grouped into two rough categories—those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon, and those in which it concerns some action of persons in connexion with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.” 6

In the early 20th century, Lovecraft and authors such as Mary Elizabeth Councilman, August Derleth Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, Francis Stevens, and Howard Wandrei would go on to further develop the movement laid out in the prior decades. Magazines such as Weird Tales — and later Strange Tales — would provide a platform for the growing genre of weird fiction; the former perhaps lending credence to the genre’s name itself. 7

Wholly established and codified by the mid-20th century — in an era where the codification of literary genres was gaining recognition due to a growing variety of movements and growing number of works being produced — weird fiction would go on to be further explored by other authors. Even today, the genre is alive and well in the form of novels, novellas, and short works published in literary journals. In an age where sub genres of speculative fiction are well-established and defined though, weird fiction still defies easy explanation. Mention genres such as military science fiction, space opera, paranormal romance, or epic fantasy; and one can easily grasp what conventions can be expected from these labels.

Weird fiction continues to be a nebulous expression that leans more towards tone and theme than the building blocks of genre tropes. Because of this, it’s hard to say just what weird fiction is. Some say they simply recognize it when it’s there. By blending fantasy, science fiction, and horror with the supernatural elements of gothic fiction; weird fiction crosses genre boundaries and reinvents them. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer may have expressed the indefinable feel of the genre best in their own exploration of the weird:

“Usually, the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the unusual that they become obsessed with the weird. Whether It exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss, they may decide to unsee what they saw, but still they saw it.” 7

A note on Cosmic Horror:

Any astute observer familiar with cosmic horror may see an overlap between that sub genre and weird fiction. Notably, the inclusion of H.P. Lovecraft — considered the founder of cosmic horror — lends itself to questions of the relationship between the two genres.

Some argue they are one in the same, but many will cite exceptions. Cosmic horror, at its most basic, is fiction that deals with the terrifying expanse of what is unknown by mankind. Due to this particular focus — and the wider scope of weird fiction — many feel it’s fair to say that while all cosmic horror is weird fiction, not all weird fiction is cosmic horror.

Learn more about this topic in Cosmic Horror: A Study of the Unknowable.


Works Cited

  1. Stefan, Tracy. History of the Novel. Pen & the Pad. penandthepad.com. Accessed 29 April, 2020.
  2. Galitz, Kathryn Calley. Romanticism. The Met. metmuseum.org. October, 2004. Accessed 29 April, 2020.
  3. Mullan, John. The Origins of the Gothic. British Library. bl.uk. 15 May, 2014. Accessed 30 April, 2020.
  4. Edgar Allen Poe. Poets.org. poets.org. Accessed 1 May, 2020.
  5. Snyder, Lucy A. What’s Weird Fiction? Lucy A. Snyder. lucysnyder.com. 12 July, 2017. Accessed 1 May, 2020.
  6. Lovecraft, H.P. Notes on Writing Weird Fiction. The H.P. Lovecraft Archive. hplovecraft.com. 1933. Accessed 1 May, 2020.
  7. VanderMeer, Ann & Jeff. The Weird: An Introduction. Weird Fiction Review. weirdfictionreview.com. 6 May, 2012. Accessed 1 May, 2020.