What is Weird Fiction?

This rising genre confronts established ideas of what fiction can do.

What is Weird Fiction?

Weird Fiction. It’s pretty self-explanatory, don’t you think? Fiction that is weird. The term “weird” simply means unusual. This genre includes things that aren’t often found in other types of fiction: monsters unheard of elsewhere, dreamlike experiences, and supernatural occurrences. If something can be described as weird that often means its a little on the creepy side because things that are common, by definition, are ordinary.

But what’s the benefit from reading this type of story? What enticement does it have? Many readers know what they like, and it may not be for fans of real-life dramas or relationship sagas firmly planted in the here and now, but for those of us who like to poke at the boundaries of the imagination, Weird Fiction is where it’s at.

Early Weird

At the turn of the 20th century, some authors began to come out with things that were against the grain and odd. Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Bram Stoker (Dracula), and Edgar Allan Poe (Tell-tale Heart) are classic authors we’ve all heard of, but they’re classics because they were so peculiar for their time.

In the early days of this genre, things that were mystical, macabre, ghostly, or fantasy were “weird.” Anything from Metamorphosis (Kafka, 1912) to The Hobbit (Tolkien, 1937) were extraordinary for their time period because there wasn’t much to compare them to.

H.P. LovecraftLovecraft BN edition

Perhaps the weirdest of his day, still revered in our age, H.P. Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos. Cthulhu, pictured on the book cover to the right, is an ancient beast entombed in the depths of the ocean. Cthulhu is humanity’s most basic nightmare and is destined to be loosed on the world someday.

Lovecraft’s work had such an astronomical impact that it is quoted today as being hugely influential in the occult. His work is deemed Cosmic Horror and has theories attached to it as wild as proposing his story ideas came from other dimensions. Lovecraft’s works are an example of the genius that come from deep imagination and they serve as a baseline for some of the best works coming out even a century later.

Mid-Century Weird

The genre gets rolling alongside the golden age of Science Fiction. It still wasn’t a widely read and respected genre but SciFi was. Then, Science Fiction focused a lot on space travel, time travel, and alien beings. These elements were and are popular because they are scientifically plausible. Allowing for speculation on what is plausible opened the doors for the Fantasy genre. And Fantasy led to more extreme Fantasy.

Philip K. DickUbik by Dick, Daw 1983

Philip K. Dick was a powerhouse for books that made you question reality. Some of his books that have been turned into movies are: Minority Report, Blade Runner, and Total Recall. PKD wrote primarily in the 1960s and 70s and his themes include altered states of consciousness and transcendental experiences. His books were incredible and any author who takes a big step forward like he did provides the the rest of us with the means to further evolve the genre.

Modern Weird

What’s called “weird” has changed over the decades. Weird is no longer just Fantasy. They’re similar genres, with made-up worlds and creatures, and anything that could be called Weird is still currently shelved in the SciFi/Fantasy isle at your local bookstore, but as Fantasy has grown more popular it has become more defined. The fundamentals of Fantasy are easily recognizable today: swords, sorcery, mythological creatures, inventive lands and histories. Weird, on the other hand, is not very well defined yet. But if you’ve got a book in your hand about a guy who makes a suit out of mushrooms so he can burrow into the wood foundation of an underground prison… what is that? It’s not Traditional Fantasy, it’s not High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, or even Magical Fantasy.

The New Weird

Authors who consider themselves something else besides SciFi, Fantasy, or Horror write because they want to take the reality-bending aim of these earlier genres as far as they are able. Writers of Weird are fans of Surrealism, of dreaming states, and testing boundaries. This genre exists to challenge the limits of what humans can invent outside physicality. Weird exists at the edges of what we know is real. The Fantasy boom we’ve experience in the last two decades is doing for Weird what Science Fiction did for Fantasy fifty years ago.

Ann & Jeff VanderMeerThe Weird by VanderMeer

Founders of the blog Weird Fiction Review, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have been rooting for the Weird genre since at least the early 2000s. Jeff’s novel was recently made into the move Annihilation. He and his wife work to bring Weird to the mainstream. They’ve spotlighted authors in their anthologies and helped define this emerging field.

Imminent Weird

Weird Fiction is a highly innovative genre. Writers create the most unique components they can and use them to prove to the reader that reality goes beyond what they can see in front of them. Reading anything gifts us with vivid images; reading Weird teaches us those images don’t need to have borders. Weird has no lines.

What makes something “weird” is that it is distinctive and unparalleled. In this literary sense, Weird avoids everything that has been done before. Tropes like Zombies, Wizards, and Dragons, have been done again and again so that what was weird at one time, no longer is. So, how far can Weird Fiction go and remain unprecedented? The genre encourages a pioneering mindset. As soon as somebody has invented or discovered something, you need to go farther and do better to be original. This is a genre that has the potential to spin off numerous future genres with the invested goal of being uncanny.

Reading Weird will entertain you, no doubt, but it also has the potential to open doors in your mind. You will, hopefully, come away with a newly freed expectation of what make-believe is.

Article by Nicole Van Den EngSONY DSC
Nicole Van Den Eng is a writer who leans hard toward the strange. She worked at a used bookstore for nearly a decade, hosts ConquerBooks.com with her sister, Rebecca, and writes articles for a local magazine.
Read her fiction here

Relevant Links:
Very nice Wikipedia list of Weird authors by decade
Weird Fiction Review by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer


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