Writing the Weird

“The strangeness of the world at large has finally caught up with our capacity for imagination” – Ross E. Lockhart

I believe there’s some truth to the old saw, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” As I seem to be somewhat behind schedule in achieving worldwide fame as a writer of fiction during my lifetime, I am pursuing the more modest goal of leading writing workshops at Rochester’s literary center, Writers & Books. Modest in some ways; demanding in others. Critiquing is one thing; demonstrating knowledge of a genre is another. My foray in to speculative fiction a year ago forced me to do some homework so that I could, at the very least, answer the question, “What the heck is speculative fiction?” As it turned out, I never had to, not head-on anyway. No one signed up for my “Writing Speculative Fiction” course the two times it was offered. I changed the title to “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy” and nine people showed up. Apparently, people would rather write in genres they are familiar with than one they’ve never heard of.

But spec fiction is real – it’s a thing – and I managed a bait and switch in the one-day spec course, twisting the conversation and writing exercises toward the speculative. A good time was had by most. And then, after another year dwelling in the spec world and drilling down, following clues and currents, exploring rabbit holes and rat holes along the way, I found myself in the sub-sub basement of spec, a smaller and darker chamber carved out of the bedrock, called The Weird. Strange as it may seem, that’s a thing, too.

Weird Fiction

According to Wikipedia, “Weird fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction originating in the late 19th and early 20th century. It can be said to encompass the ghost story and other tales of the macabre. Weird fiction is distinguished from horror and fantasy in its blending of supernatural, mythical, and even scientific tropes.”

Think Poe. Think Lovecraft.

Contemporary weird author Jeff VanderMeer and his wife Ann VanderMeer are perhaps the leading curators of weird fiction today, having published a massive anthology (The New Weird) of short weird works spanning the last 100 years. The Weird Fiction Review is also one of their projects. This (which includes Lovecraft quotes) is from the introduction to their site:

[Weird fiction] represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane—a “certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” or “malign and particular suspension or defeat of…fixed laws of Nature”—through fiction that comes from the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastical tradition.

The Weird can be transformative—sometimes literally—and it entertains monsters while not always see them as monstrous. It strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood, and acknowledges that failure as sign and symbol of our limitations.

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.

The Weird in a modern vernacular has also come to mean fiction in which some other element, like weird ritual or the science fictional, replaces the supernatural while providing the same dark frisson of the unknown and the visionary.

The New Weird

I like weird. It suits me. Especially the “new weird,” which seems to me to be exactly the right fiction for the world we live in today. The new weird was born in the 1990s and explores a broader range of metaphysical questions, pondering the mysteries of the universe. It’s about the existential impact of confronting the unknown, which may be horror, or awe, or some other transcendent experience.

The introduction to the anthology The New Weird defines the genre as “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.”

Robin Anne Reid, from Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Overviews, put it this way: New weird fictions “subvert clichés of the fantastic in order to put them to discomfiting, rather than consoling ends.”

Fiction that Reflects Today’s World

If the world seems surreal to you these days, that’s because it is. Weird fiction is a consequence:

“Weird fiction tends to be fundamentally concerned with eliciting an effect of disquiet, displacement, and alienation in the reader… Instant access to information, images, video, and other media from all over the world has given the author two things that I think contribute to the New Weird’s even greater tendency to experiment than its forebears: 1) more source material, ideas, and perspectives from cultures that differ from one’s own, and 2) more competition in the sense that it is easier than ever to be exposed within a few seconds to the horrors of the real world, which the writer must both distill and transcend.” – Christopher Burke

The world is weird. You can’t escape it. But you can embrace it. And if you happen to be a writer, it’s a rich source of raw material, which, more than ever before, is truly stranger than fiction.

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