Friday, 17 July 2015

Defining Weird Part I: The Need to Define


I recently took the unlikely move of making a search through the archives of The Guardian for articles on H.P. Lovecraft and the history of Weird Fiction. While not a publication that is especially hostile to the more outré forms of literature, nonetheless the divide between what they would term 'literary fiction, and 'genre fiction' is quietly but consistently upheld. Nonetheless, this can often provide an interesting source for outsider perspectives when undertaking research. One of the articles I turned up was a list of the ten best examples of Weird Fiction, compiled by China Miéville. While I admire Miéville as an author, and even more so as a critic, I found his definition of Weird fiction rather troubling:

"I don't think you can distinguish science fiction, fantasy and horror with any rigour, as the writers around the magazine Weird Tales early in the last century (Lovecraft in particular) illustrated most sharply. So I use the term 'weird fiction' for all fantastic literature - fantasy, SF, horror and all the stuff that won't fit neatly into slots."

I certainly wouldn't dispute the integral relationship that sci-fi, fantasy and horror share. As someone who would define themselves as, first and foremost, a writer of Weird fiction, however, I find it altogether too vague to say Weird fiction is basically anything that falls within the scope of these three genres. Yet despite spending a great deal of time thinking about, talking about, and occasionally writing Weird fiction, I nonetheless found myself hard-pressed to present a comprehensive definition of my own. It is this which has prompted me to set a few of my thoughts on the Weird down in writing.

In defining a term, the best place to start is with the history of the term itself (as tedious as that can sometimes be). Lovecraft's own relationship to the term is a peculiar one. He did not coin the term (openly ascribing its origins to the Irish gothic writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu), yet the term is now synonymous with his work in a way that it never was during his lifetime. Indeed, at the time of his writing, he could easily have been taken for a comparatively minor figure – a truth exemplified by the fact that he never made the cover story of Weird Tales (the magazine that defied the genre), and only once was one of his stories ever listed on its cover. That story was The Call of Cthulhu, and it was only after much argument that he managed to persuade them to publish the story at all. It is for this reason that I distrust any modern definition of Weird that sets Weird Tales as its benchmark.

Following his death, Lovecraft would not only define the term for subsequent Weird authors, but through his own writing on the subject, would also retro-actively establish the canon of Weird Fiction amongst his predecessors: Arthur Machen, Edgar Allen Poe, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and William Hope Hodgson, to name just a few.

The main problem I have found in trying to define Loveraft's work, and Weird fiction as a whole, is one that is fundamental to modern literary criticism: that a written text is never an immutable concept, that a book is never the same book between two readers, and that the death of the author is only really the beginning. Thus, what would have served as a comprehensive definition to describe Lovecraft and his contemporaries, and what they did during his lifetime, it fails to adequately describe what it would eventually become. By this, I don't mean simply the cult following his works were achieve, and the trend in Lovecraftian fiction that would follow in his wake. I refer instead to where the works of those first-generation Weird authors stand in relation to other trends in so called 'genre fiction'.

When I was first introduced to Lovecraft, I was reliably informed that Lovecraft was distinguished from his contemporaries in that he was the first to create his own terrors (the infamous Cthulhu Mythos), rather than rely on existing gothic horror tropes such as witches, vampires, and ghosts. While incorrect in regard to Lovecraft's work alone (Lovecraft would have argued this himself), this is nonetheless a fair assessment of the Weird Fiction movement as a whole, and amongst ovecraft's contemporaries, may perhaps have served as a comprehensive definition of the term. But in terms of what weird fiction would become, this definition seems to break down, begging the question: how much can Weird fiction be defined by its subject matter?

When Lovecraft was writing, science-fiction and fantasy were in their infancy, and horror had yet to expand into the multi-faceted entity it is today. During this time, weird fiction comprised elements of what all three would eventually become. Yet even when they became firmly established as genres, Weird fiction remained something distinct, in both style and content. Therefore, what defines Weird (for me at least) cannot be defined by subject matter alone. I would argue instrad, that the traits which define it from other genres have as much to do with style, form and philosophical outlook, as they do with the subject. What these comprise, however, are somewhat harder to define. Yet it is these, I believe, that must be taken into account when it comes to defining the canon of Post-Lovecraftian Weird, and which I hope to explore in subsequent parts of this series.