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Transcript of Weird Fiction
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer: ‘The story of The Weird is often seen as the story of the rise of the tentacle...’
Weirdness is a post-Enlightenment condition.
Defining ‘weird’ (OED)
i) suggesting something supernatural; unearthly: weird, inhuman sounds.
ii) archaic connected with fate.
Etymology – Old English wyrd ‘destiny’, of Germanic origin.
Flow Chart of the Damned - Stephen Graham Jones
Weird fiction, by making its focus estrangement, alienation, and dread, allows for no release, makes this world already the locus of strangeness and infects the world in which the reader reads with its uncanny affect.
Defining ‘horror’ (OED)
A painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; a shuddering with terror and repugnance; strong aversion mingled with dread; the feeling excited by something shocking or frightful.
Weirdness is perhaps best defined as a combination of estrangement and dread.
The weird is a feeling, freed affect.
Mainstream Gothic horror, by revealing its objects of anxiety, closes down the play of strangeness, strictly demarcates this world and the other place of monsters
John Clute: 'Strange Stories can be seen as tales whose protagonists are snared at the moment of sighting [glimpsing the thing of horror]: innocence is lost to them; but likewise the harsh release of a passage into the reality of things, however terrorizing that reality may be to contemplate.'
Transformation of the Gothic
In the 19th century there are a number of popular Gothic forms, the supernatural tale and the sensation novel among them.
20th Century Gothic focuses primarily on the supernatural, the eldritch, on avatars of the indifference of the universe.
Noël Carrol: Gothic horror ‘presupposed something like an Enlightenment view of scientific reality in order to generate the requisite sense of a violation of nature.’
The mode is transformed by the influence of fin de siècle decadence and by the aftermath of World War I.
Joyce Carol Oates: '"Weird fiction" can only be a product [...] of an age that has ceased to believe collectively in the supernatural while retaining the primitive instinct to do so, in eccentric, atomized ways.'
Todorov: the ‘death [...] generates a new literature,’ which confronts us, ‘with a generalized fantastic which swallows up the entire world of the book and the reader along with it.’
Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: fantastic fiction of the 19th century is defined by a hesitation between a supernatural and a rational interpretation of events.
As Lovecraft wrote in 1927, the weird tale ‘has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains’.
But this is not enough to define the weird – it is true of all 20th century forms of horror.
19th century representational praxis, Empiricism, the idea the world can be known, conquered through observation, is questioned/subverted.
Todorov argues that at the beginning of the 20th century a paradigm shift brings about a different way of conceiving reality, and the 19th century fantastic dies out.
With the end of the fantastic hesitation two paths are open.
To reveal the thing of horror, present it in all its brutality.
To make the focus on the feelings of dread, anticipation, terror, not the thing that evokes them.
Flow Chart of the Damned- Stephen Graham Jones
Lovecraft: ‘The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.’
Jeff and Ann VanderMeer: ‘As a twentieth and twenty-first century art form the story of The Weird is the story of the refinement (and destabilization) of supernatural fiction within an established framework but also of the welcome contamination of that fiction by the influence of other traditions, some only peripherally connected to the fantastic.’
The weird mode has limitations:
It is difficult to sustain beyond short fictions.
It lacks the narrative force of a certain exposure to horror, to the malice of the world, there are no outcomes to its plot.
David Punter: ‘The Gothic has defined itself on the borderland of [bourgeois] culture. Sometimes […] fear of the outside in the end submits to the reassurance of contact with the interior; elsewhere the dark predominates, and the bourgeoisie loses the imaginary battles which Gothic acts out.’
Caitlin R. Kiernan: ‘Dark fiction dealing with the inexplicable should, itself, present to the reader a certain inexplicability.’
Carroll, N., 1990. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. London: Routledge.
Kiernan, C., 2005. To Charles Fort, with Love. Subterranean Press.
Lovecraft, H., 1945 (1927). Supernatural Horror in Literature, introduction by A. Derleth. New York: Ben Abramson.
Oates, J. (1997) ‘Introduction’, in J. Oates (ed.) Tales of H.P. Lovecraft: Major Works Selected. Hopewell: Ecco Press, pp.vii-xvi.
Punter, D., 1996. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day - Volume 2: The Modern Gothic. London: Longman.
Todorov, T., 1980 (1970). The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Introduction à la littérature fantastique), trans. R. Howard, foreword by R. Scholes, 2nd printing. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
VanderMeer, A. & J. Vandermeer, 2011. ‘Introduction’, in A. VanderMeer & J. Vandermeer (eds), The Weird, Kindle Version. London: Corvus.