Hello folks. This is the startpoint of a new series, in which I shall be writing reviews/opinion features on all aspects of weird fiction. To do so I figured I should get at least the barest glimmers of an explanation of what ‘weird fiction’ is, straight in my head. This essay is the result of that pondering. It’s not essential reading, but hey, maybe it will give you something of an insight into my mental processes. Which are pretty weird in their own right.
What is weird fiction?
After all, the label means different things to different people. To HP Lovecraft, it meant a work involving the ‘defeat of those fixed laws of Nature’ that are humanities’ sole defence against ‘unexplainable dread’. To the modern heir of Lovecraft’s squiddity, China Mieville, it is a ‘vivid real-of-the-unreal’, a baroque grotesquerie that makes its own sense (despite the author’s uncommonly large vocabulary). To Ann and Jeff Vandermeer it is a visceral style of fantasy, taking place in invented cities and incorporating elements of science fiction and horror into itself. M John Harrison wonders whether it’s simply ‘Pick ‘N’ Mix’. The problem with all these definitions however, is that they all come from authors.
Where are the comments from the other media? Where are the contributions of Don Coscarelli, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Terry Gilliam or the entire South Korean film industry? When will Chris Hastings, Tom Siddell or Malachai Nicolle weigh in? Why has no-one from Doublefine, or the legendary Suda51, stepped up? I ask, because this is a conversation that we cannot afford to have dominated by one single medium. The weird is a phenomenon tapped into by every dramatic art form we currently possess. Webcomics, graphic novels, regular novels, video games, movies: all have their fringe of crazies. And yet, even amidst all the madness, there is a consistency of features to be seen. It is through these that I shall define weird fiction.
The first of these is a singleminded attention paid to aesthetic. This manifests in Jeff Vandermeer’s city of Ambergris, a corpse of a city consumed by fungal rot, in the colourful blockiness of the Psychonauts summer camp and in the ragtag cowboys of Manchuria in The Good, The Bad, The Weird. These are worlds filled to brim with characters of unusual appearance or mannerisms. Their heroes are only matched in their strangeness by their villains. Their religions are cryptic cults, their weapons usually cruel and definitely unusual and their monsters new shaped from nightmare. These are worlds of sheer strangeness, scoured to leave no handholds for normalcy to cling to. Weird fiction is the only genre to provide an outlet for truly unrestrained creativity, and its artists capitalise on that.
In conjunction with this, the weird also sates the artistic love of rebellion. Mieville, the heart of the literary New Weird, is the definitive noncomformist. He is a Marxist in a world ruled by democratic mammonism. He is a fantasy writer willing to denigrate Tolkien (‘the wen on the arse of fantasy’). He is a multiple award-winner, who accuses the literary establishment of ‘back-slapping generic snobbery’. For him, and for many other artists, the weird is a bucking of conventions. It’s having your sexy fantasy ladies have scarab beetles for heads rather than pointy ears. It’s having a film for kids end in the combustion of a child’s parents. It’s having a Doctor, who is also a Ninja. Rules can be broken as commentary: Mieville’s Iron Council is a Western which, rather than being about the end of idealised freedom, instead makes clear that the ideal is everlasting. But the rebellion of the weird is more than self-reference.
Instead, the aim is to provide an experience not just creative, but truly new. The weird world must be one where not only expectations of genre, but all expectations derived from reality can be and are overturned. In the worlds of weird fiction, the Antarctic is no barren wasteland, but an ancient alien colony. In such worlds, something as basic as identity is so uncertain, that you can’t be sure whether you are Douglas Quaid, or Rob Arctor, or Horselover Fat. In these worlds, C19th vampires have lasers on the moon, and aliens come to Earth in the form of Rastafarians. This is a devil-may-care style of rebellion, which, at its height, creates stories like flashfloods of gonzo energy. And yet, to reach this weird peak, one final trait is required.
See, because weird fiction is free to break every rule regarding content under the sun, it is all the more subject to the tyranny of drama. For weird fiction to deserve attention, it must feel like it makes sense. It requires character, dilemma and solution, and the solution must come out of pre-existing elements. Without these, the weird becomes nothing but a bland exercise of creative indulgence. But when it follows them, weird fiction becomes more than a story. When you can watch Elvis and JFK fight a mummy in cowboy duds, and feel like it makes sense? That’s when a story becomes more than another consumable narrative, and transforms into a waking dream.
By this then shall ye know the weird. It can be seen in extreme aesthetic commitment, a rebelliously creative spirit, and the illogical logic of dreams. It is the ultimate rejection of the notion that compelling drama depends on realism. Or is it? After all, reality hardly plays by the rules. We live in a world where a Japanese baseball team believes that they are haunted by the ghost of Colonel Sanders, and there is a Chinese tradition of post-mortem weddings. Hell, I live in the UK, a country whose ‘No.1 medium’ wants to be Mayor of Lewisham. And yet all this strangeness is logically explicable: after all post-mortem marriages are a great way to make sure loved bachelors are not lonely in the afterlife. Like weird fiction, the real world proves itself both a graveyard of expectation, and yet still rational. The characteristics of weird fiction do not make it a rejection of reality. They make it a reflection of how bizarre reality really is.