Weird Questions

by John Holbo on March 20, 2018

Having grumped about Annihilation, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel [amazon], I’d like to make a post in praise of that author’s anthology work.

A couple years back, while working up a syllabus for my ‘Science Fiction and Philosophy’ class, I considered The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by the VanderMeers) [amazon]. I didn’t adopt it. I went for this one [amazon]. But I liked it. It achieves escape velocity from the Anglosphere, as it were. Stuff from around the world, not just usual suspects. For teaching purposes I wanted more usual suspects but, as a reader who has read all that, I discovered new stuff and enjoyed it. (It’s not that the usual suspects are excluded. But even the choices of stories by the big names seem uncanonical. That’s fine.)

I just got another big book edited by the VanderMeers, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories [amazon]. It looks great! Like Big Book they’ve worked to achieve global coverage, not just the usual English language, mostly American/British names. I’m looking forward to expanded horizons. I am a bit puzzled by the decision to exclude titles from before the 20th Century. This is stated in the Introduction, not on the cover. I feel one should get a bit of The King In Yellow in there, since it is of a piece with 20th Century stuff they’ve included. The earliest here is Alfred Kubin and Algernon Blackwood. I don’t mind. I can roll my own LeFanu, thank you. (LeFanu coined ‘weird fiction’, I think, so there would be a logic to starting with him?) But, like I said, it’s huge. 750,000 words. 20th Century will do fine, thanks.

While I’m on the subject I have two weird questions for you. (I did a joke survey about Annihilation, so I’ll do a semi-serious one this time.)

1) Do you think at least some Lovecraft stuff is SF?
2) Do you think of ‘weird’ tales as being distinct from ‘supernatural’ stuff, on the one hand, and ‘horror’ on the other?

Kindly take 10 seconds to record your responses here. (Feel free to leave qualitative critiques of my survey design in comments!)

A few of my own thoughts about these questions under the fold. (But I don’t want to pollute your responses unduly, so maybe respond first?)

I do not think of Lovecraft as an SF author at all. Even when there are, like, minds in jars, and aliens from beyond the stars.

Maybe if I had asked, not ‘is some Lovecraft stuff SF?’ but ‘do you ever think of Lovecraft stuff as SF?, or ‘do you ever think of Lovecraft as an SF writer?’ I would get different responses?

It’s sort of clear to me why I feel Lovecraft is not SF … but it’s still kind of weird that I feel this way. Here is Jeff VanderMeer, quoting Lovecraft’s rather well known semi-definition:

A ‘weird tale’, as defined by H. P. Lovecraft in his nonfiction writings and given early sanctuary within the pages of magazines like Weird Tales (est. 1923) is a story that has a supernatural element but does not fall into the category of traditional ghost story or Gothic tale, both popular in the 1800s. Instead, it 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.

It does seem critical that what happens is … well, weird. Possibly incomprensible to the human mind. But the idea that the truth about the universe could be too vast, awful and inhuman for our tiny minds seems like it ought to be on the SF menu as one ‘things man was not meant to know’ option among many.

So why does Lovecraft seem not-SF? Four possibilities:

1) it’s the style.
2) it’s the emotional tone.
3) it’s that some of the stories have, like, ghouls in them. Those stories seem a lot like the others, so probably none of it is SF.
4) In an alternate universe, “The Color Out of Space” is an SF classic by an SF master. No very good reason our universe is not it.

Here’s a passage from I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft [amazon], by S.T. Joshi.

Amazing Stories was the first authentic science fiction magazine in English, and it continues to be published today. Lovecraft remarked wryly, “The magazine certainly lived up to its name so far as I am concerned, for I really hadn’t the remotest idea the thing would ‘land’. I guess the pseudo-scientific camouflage near the beginning was what turned the trick.” Scientific romance of a sort had been featured in the early decades of the century in Argosy, All-Story, the Thrill Book, and others, but Amazing was the first to make a coordinated effort to print material of this kind — material, too, that was fairly sound in its scientific premises. During its first year, when Lovecraft subscribed to it, it also attempted to draw upon what editor Hugo Gernsback perceived to be the literary origins of the field by reprinting Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and other “classics.” When these reprints ceased, Lovecraft found the new work not sufficiently interesting to warrant purchasing the magazine.

But if he was hoping that he had somehow found an alternative to Weird Tales, he was in for a rude awakening. Although his later work, as it turns out, contained a fairly significant scientific element, Amazing became a closed market to him when Gernsback paid him only $ 25.00 for the story — a mere 1/ 5 ¢ per word — and this only after three dunning letters. Gernsback paid incredibly poorly and also delayed payment for months or even years. The inevitable occurred: many potential writers abandoned the magazine, and others who — like Clark Ashton Smith — published in it or in Gernsback’s later magazine, Wonder Stories (where the same financial practices prevailed), were compelled to file suit against him to receive payment. In the 1930s there was a lawyer who made a specialty of exacting payment from Gernsback. Although in later years Lovecraft briefly considered requests from Gernsback or from his associate editor, C. A. Brandt, for further submissions, he never again sent a tale to Amazing. He also took to calling Gernsback “Hugo the Rat.”

Maybe if Gernsback had just paid, Lovecraft would have written SF. That is, stuff he wrote would have been published as it, hence now it would be thought of as it?

One final note. Harry Harrison writes, in Great Balls of Fire: An Illustrated History of Sex In Science Fiction [amazon]:

During this period [the era of the pulps] dozens of subdivided categories were born, waxed, waned – then died. SF is one of the few survivors. Only in crumbling and overpriced magazines, pulp collectors’ items, will we ever see fiction magazines devoted solely to sea stories, weird stories, war stories, oriental tales, baseball players, cowboys – and what must be the most sickening subcategory of all time, the range romance.

This was written in 1977. It’s interesting that he regards ‘weird stories’ as a dead category, like range romance. Now, to be fair, he also seems to think ‘cowboys’ are dead. He can’t quite think ‘Westerns’ are dead. In the 70’s Louis L’Amour was still going strong. So maybe it was just that the magazine market for short Western tales was dead? I dunno. Probably Harrison was just writing quick thoughts to get his Sex and SF book to market, but I think there is something right about the notion that ‘weird tales’ sort of died out, for some decades, as a self-conscious genre. Even though there was The Twilight Zone. Stuff like that?

1977 was the year Stephen King published The Shining. King almost single-handedly made horror huge. Horror isn’t quite the same as weird (if you ask me.) But huge horror drags weird back up out of the depths, in respectable dimensions? Maybe I’m wrong? ‘Weird’ seems like a very strong literary brand today. It means: Lovecraftian stuff, and stuff like that.

I’m writing stuff about this stuff, so tell me what you think.



Adam Roberts 03.20.18 at 9:15 am

Speaking for myself, I fight shy of the (very prevalent, certainly) critical move to pigeonhole and define where SF is concerned. But to engage with the post: in my History of SF I make, or try to make, or try and fail to make, a case for Nietzsche as one of accelerants of early 20th-C SF: … one of the things that feeds into this (I argue, quite ancient actually) cultural mode by way of explaining why it suddenly booms in the way it suddenly boomed, 1890s-and-after. Or not Nietzsche exactly, then the popular apperception of Nietzsche. So: John Carter gets to Mars not in some namby-pamby spaceship like the rest of the herd humans, but just by willing himself there, with his powerful warrior will. So: “Superman” in the old Detective Comics. So … well lots of examples, and you take my point I’m sure, even if you disagree with it.

Lovecraft is also ‘about’ Will, I think; but it’s a pessimistic Schopenhauerian Will rather than a Nietzschean Will-to-Power. The secret of Lovecraft’s universe is a hungry and terrifying Will that devours itself, not a triumphant and joyful Will that bounds tigerishly outwards. He’s very much not a Boldly Goes sort of a writer, is he, Lovecraft.

So in answer to the question you ask, I’d say not that we should or shouldn’t pigeonhole L. with SF, but that we can I think say that what he’s doing is quite sharply at odds with what SF as a whole (broadly speaking) is doing in the first half of the 20th-Century.


MFB 03.20.18 at 9:16 am

This takes a lot of time to explain. Lovecraft goes to a good deal of trouble to make his work plausible according to its lights. I’m thinking particularly of texts like At The Mountains Of Madness; it is basically framed like a science fiction story, and very possibly influenced Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”.

Of course Lovecraft’s motivation is not precisely the same as that of many science fiction writers. But his primary concern is to show that there are things out there which our science does not explain. This doesn’t, altogether, rule out science per se; rather, it is a bit like the rise of quantum and relativity theory versus Newtonian physics (which interested Lovecraft greatly, though, it seems, not enough to actually look into these things directly).

I would say that a parallel could be Blish’s Black Easter; in that text Blish is taking the Christian apocalypse and treating it in a science fictional sense, in much the same way as he treated werewolves in a science fictional sense in “There Shall Be No Darkness”. I don’t think anyone would claim that Blish wasn’t a science fiction writer in this sense. Indeed, a great many science fiction writers of that era generated stuff about telepathy and other “psi” powers which, nowadays, science fiction writers probably couldn’t get away with.

I grant you it is something one can have varying opinions on. But I wouldn’t write Lovecraft off completely as a pure generator of horror stories — especially because I suspect Lovecraft believed that he was communicating something important (albeit with a stodgy and inept style).


John Holbo 03.20.18 at 9:27 am

“Speaking for myself, I fight shy of the (very prevalent, certainly) critical move to pigeonhole and define where SF is concerned.”

I agree insofar as I’m sure what the survey will show is that there is only weak consensus at best. We shall see! I agree that Nietzsche is an accelerant, here as elsewhere!


bob mcmanus 03.20.18 at 10:46 am

But the idea that the truth about the universe could be too vast, awful and inhuman for our tiny minds seems like it ought to be on the SF menu as one ‘things man was not meant to know’ option among many.

Maybe a guide to the difference between weird and SF can be found in the pulps of sword and sorcery. Whatever universe not meant to know like I care. Hulksmash! Either said incomprehensibility is too powerful and stomps us like a bug (Lovecraft, Some Ashton Smith) or we leave that stuff to the wizards and barrel thru like Conan or stealth it like the various ronans and rogues (Moore, Leiber, Vance). For the joolz.

Focus on Being tends toward religion or right existentialism. Or nihilism.

The incomprehensible aka transcendent can be the stuff of fascism. Leftists think much can be known, want to know it, and imagine knowledge more useful than not.

As far as SF goes, I like Disch: the arrested development that believes rationality rulz.


Henry 03.20.18 at 11:50 am

There’s also some politics happening that help explain the weirdness of the Weird as a category. The Weird, in its modern sense, is a retcon of genre history, an imaginary past generated by people who wanted to use the New Weird for their own purposes. The New Weird came into being as an idea on Mike “M. John” Harrison’s old TTA Press bulletin board as a way of coming back at the genres of f/sf/horror in ways that would play across them, and pull out the shared sense of uncanniness in skeins of work going across all three. For those who want to know more about that process, it’s worth reading Jonathan McCalmont’s history of the New Weird for background.

And reader: I was there in those discussions, in a supernumerary capacity (I can now reveal to the world that I am the mysterious “Someone called Henry” mentioned by McCalmont). So too was Jeff VanderMeer, but in a decidedly skeptical mode. He didn’t really like the idea of the New Weird, as best as I can make out because it wasn’t his idea and he hence felt threatened by it (quite a controlling individual, is our Jeff, or at least he seemed so back then).

Then later, when Mike, China and the other people who’d been involved in talking out the New Weird moved onto other stuff, since they’d never been particularly into creating a new genre with clubhouse, rulebook etc anyway, JvdM took over the abandoned intellectual property, published his New Weird anthology, and started retconning like crazy. There are some good stories in “The Weird,” and it’s worth reading, but definitely is also a political move in the game of genre-defining, which may or may not be your cup of tea, depending.

The good stuff for me is Mark Fisher’s book The Weird and the Eerie, which is well worth reading (I didn’t know about Fisher’s work until after he had died, which is a source of everlasting regret – just knew of him as that bloke who did the definitive piece on Burial, and didn’t know about any of the other aspects of his work. Also, Robert MacFarlane’s piece on the weirdness of the English countryside, which is utterly wonderful in the connections it pulls together – I’ve been meaning for the last year to write a piece bringing it into conversation with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which it doesn’t mention, but which suddenly assumes a very different aspect if you look at it from MacFarlane’s vantage point, rather as Edgewood turns from smiling mock-Tudor into something dark, grey and strange when you walk a couple of hundred feet around it.


Henry 03.20.18 at 11:55 am

So in answer to the question you ask, I’d say not that we should or shouldn’t pigeonhole L. with SF, but that we can I think say that what he’s doing is quite sharply at odds with what SF as a whole (broadly speaking) is doing in the first half of the 20th-Century.

There’s also the whole genre of Lovecraft-inflected SF. I don’t know whether Budrys’ Rogue Moon was influenced by Lovecraft, or whether it just feels that way when read through Alastair Reynolds, who very definitely is, but it’s “hungry and terrifying Will that devours itself” all the way down (Adam – forgive me if I merely restate things that are obvious when one has read your history, which I haven’t yet; saving it until after I get my own book out the door).


Jeff VanderMeer 03.20.18 at 1:56 pm

I didn’t like the New Weird because it wasn’t my idea? LOL. I don’t even know what to say to that, except spare me your libel.


steven t johnson 03.20.18 at 2:08 pm

“1) Do you think at least some Lovecraft stuff is SF?”
Yes, because the fantastic horrors are nonetheless a part of the fictional universe that is alleged to blend in with our own universe. That is, they are in some sense natural, not supernatural. Given that the historical progress of scientific knowledge about the universe can make one wary of saying something is impossible, the distinction is purely stylistic. After all, the proposition is read as “anything is possible…someday. Also, there are a shocking number of professional scientists and, not so shockingly, philosophers who reject a statement like “There is no magic” as scientistic hubris.

You know, the kind of reactionary rage that pretends the Enlightenment was the cause of, say, colonialism, despite the historical fact that colonies predated the floruit of the Enlightenment. (Saw that one in Abigail Nussbaum the other day!) Or the old proposition that the Enlightenment was responsible for Hitler, because—implicitly—the Counter-Enlightenment, the Romantic Movement, the liberals going over to the counterrevolution in 1848, etc., etc., etc. that, in short, history didn’t happen since the seventeen fifties. This sort of nonsense is almost diagnostic of a truly literary mind. But then I would say that because I’m not literary at all.

Clarke’s Third Law says, any sufficient ignorance will make any magic pass for science. I don’t happen to believe that’s true, at all, or physicians would never have rejected spirits and curses as the cause of illnesses. But some people do. But even the dingiest dingbat who thinks they’re writing SF writes in a different style when they think their pet notion is actually possible. For no good reason, I think of Dick’s “Oh, To Be a Blobel!” which misuses Mendelian genetics in a truly frightful way. It reads like SF, even if scientifically it’s pure fantasy.

I suppose it seems odd to treat SF as a stylistic convention, but I suggest that issues of style are directly relevant to criticism. Seeing no essential literary difference between SF and fantasy (and fable and myth and fairy tale, etc.) is to dismiss style as a subject of literary criticism, which seems to me grossly incompetent. Style matters.

The usual difficulties in definitions in literary criticism of SF seem to me to stem directly from the effort to define/redefine the Good Stuff, to manufacture a touchstone, rather than to define what is. Normative, not descriptive. It’s the dictionary maker issuing decrees. It’s the kind of thing that makes people say some things written aren’t literature, rather than saying everything written is the literature. I leave it to wiser heads to decide whether personal snobbery or a noble dedication to the ruling ideas of the day are at play.

“2) Do you think of ‘weird’ tales as being distinct from ‘supernatural’ stuff, on the one hand, and ‘horror’ on the other?”
Apparently not, since I don’t know whether I’ve ever read “weird” fiction. I once read some VanderMeer stories. I didn’t think they were notably horror. The one I remember, something about a bear that appears at random intervals and wreaks random havoc struck me as a rather dreary insistence that life, the world and everything was basically random catastrophe in the end, i.e., shit happens. I think this is an acceptable high literary genre of story, much more acceptable than a story where owners are responsible for so very many awful things. Better to blame no one! The prose style was good, but to no good effect, not on me at least.

The question seems a little confused. The “supernatural” is a category that only has meaning in reference to what you consider as “natural.” Today, there is available a scientific materialist view. We may not always know how events transpire, or the origin and dissolution of things, but our experience has taught us that there is no magic, that in principle we, collectively, may find explanations. Or find that when we can’t it’s because of the loss of evidence, to time or entropy, not because the universe is absurd, incoherent, unintelligible, incomprehensible, etc. Those are ideological subterfuges I think, accepting the insane proposition that the universe itself could be incoherent yet we still live. The quietistic implications are too useful to reject such idiocy it seems.

As for the invocation of horror as another hand? There is literature with what we now know to be fantastic. (The merely improbable tends to be dismissed as romance or melodrama.) SF as a pseudorealistic way of incorporating the fantastic makes it a “genre” in the sense of prose vs. poetry, or drama vs. literature, or fiction vs. nonfiction. “Horror” is genre in the sense of love story or mystery. It aims to produce an emotional effect. Horror like some of Lovecraft’s can use SF style to present the horror, or horror can borrow the old tropes of (what we now know to be) the supernatural, whether vampire lore or whatever.


Jake Gibson 03.20.18 at 2:26 pm

Considering how many pulp writers genre hopped to make a living, it seems a bit of pigeonholing is being done. There is a lot of pessimistic S-F even in the Golden (gilded) Age. The dominant editors, Gernsback and Campbell were optimistic, so the darker stuff ended up in minor mags.
The Colour Out Of Space and The Whisperer in Darkness are S-F. Fritz Leiber made a reasonable case that even Dreams In The Witch House was S-F. The Cthulhu related stories are borderline, transition or mashup depending on your perspective.
I would say that Lovecraft’s later work was more S-F than Burroughs’.


AcademicLurker 03.20.18 at 2:54 pm

@5: You beat me to it recommending The Weird and the Eerie. I too hadn’t heard of Mark Fisher until just after he died.

As for Lovecraft and SF: on the one hand, if you gave people who had never heard of Lovecraft The Shadow Out of Time and asked them what genre it belonged in, I feel like I’m on pretty firm ground predicting that 9 out of 10 would say it was SF.

On the other hand, the introduction to one of the early Lovecraft collections (before Lovecraft collections became a minor industry) quotes at length from a letter to Astounding Stories in which the writer nerdrages over the fact that they’re wasting valuable page space on dreck like At the Mountains of Madness when they should be providing a venue for real science fiction (which the letter writer obviously identifies as Buck Rogers style rockets and ray guns).


William Berry 03.20.18 at 3:02 pm

Speaking of early C-20 sf, Jack Williamson deserves some kind of special award for longevity as a published writer in the field. “The Metal Man” was published by Gernsback in 1928. “The Stonehenge Gate” was being serialized in “Analog” in the early aughts (I think I might still have those stashed somewhere).

Not much of a writer, really but, nevertheless, he persisted.


William Berry 03.20.18 at 3:05 pm

Maybe I should have mentioned that “The Metal Man” was the first story in the “Oxford Book of Science Fiction” short stories, which I started reading, coincidentally, around the time of the serialization of “The Stonehenge Gate”. I was like, WTF! Is this the same fellow, publishing across damned near a century?


William Berry 03.20.18 at 3:06 pm

No, not the first. The first was Wells’ “The Land Ironclads”.


Ben Robertson 03.20.18 at 4:34 pm

Hi, first time, long time.

Genre construction is always backwards looking until it isn’t. Mieville’s short essay on the weird (I think in the Cambridge Companion to SF) offers a nice way of thinking about all of this. The original haute weird (~1880 – ~1940) in some cases did not know they were writing weird fiction per se (MR James, for example) or wrote without knowledge of the codifications of sf/fantasy/horror that were taking place at the time. Thus the weird, in addition to whatever specificities it possesses, often comes across as an innocent “blending” of these genres. The New Weird (or the new New Weird) is the conscious remixing of these genres after their purification. This seems especially conscious and explicit in Mieville, and more implicit in VanderMeer. KJ Parker, Swainston, Gilman, and others also exist on this axis at various points.

The new New Weird is the stuff that took place after Seattle and after Perdido Street Station. As Tim Murphy and Ben Noys make clear (along with others), there was another New Weird in the 1980s that starts with Ramsey Campbell and, more importantly, Barker. It runs through Ligotti’s first works, Kathe Koja, and some other stuff going on in the 1990s. It seems to me that it is this tradition that is the real inheritor of Lovecraft and his version of the Weird. The newer New Weird seems to inherit something else entirely (or something else that subordinates Lovecraft to itself): namely a set of distinct genres Lovecraft did not necessarily know, genres whose reifications had begun to work against them and make them a bit stale. Hybridizing them (horror + sf/steampunk in PSS; fantasy + sf in The Scar; etc) reinvigorates them and also sometimes produces the feeling of weirdness we associate with the Weird “proper).

And then, of course, there is the stuff that influenced the new New Weird such as Harrison, Peake, Vance, and others in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

So we get a number of periods of the Weird:

1. The haute Weird (1880 – 1940), which can be broken up into pre-pulp and pulp eras
2. the dead period (1940 – 1980), when mostly what we get is bad Lovecraft impersonation
3. the antecedents to the new New Weird (1950 – 1980), such as Peake and Harrison
4. the old New Weird (1980 – ), including Campbell, Barker, and Ligotti
5. the new New Weird (2000 – ), which includes Mieville, VanderMeer, Swainston, and others

All of this is highly suspect, of course.

In short, all of this history is very complicated, but I think that the Weird and the New Weird (however we define) are best understood through these overlapping periods and how each period understood itself in relation to previous periods and the definitions of genre that existed at the time.

The best work on this stuff, that I know (and off the top of my head), includes:

1. Murphy and Noys special issue of Genre on “Old and New Weird” from summer 2016
2. Mieville’s essay in Collapse IV
3. Fisher’s Weird and Eerie (although it focuses more on affect, it seems to me)
4. Thacker’s Horror of Philosophy trilogy
5. Sederholm and Weinstock’s Age of Lovecraft
6. Edwards and Venezia’s China Mieville: Critical Essays
7. Mark McGurl’s essays on the “poshuman comedy” and “the new cultural geology”
8. Leif Sorensen’s essay on Lovecraft’s “weird pulp modernity”
9. the recent issue of Paradoxa on “Global Weirding” (which includes the first two peer-reviewed essays on VanderMeer)

And, fwiw, I have a book coming out on VanderMeer from Minnesota this fall that deals with some of these questions. (If it’s not cool to self-promote this way, I understand if you delete this sentence or this post).

In any case, cheers.


Ben Alpers 03.20.18 at 5:19 pm

Don’t have nearly as sophisticated a take on all of this as many in this thread do. But I wanted to pop in to say that I answered Question #1 “Yes”…though I toyed with “Sort of” before deciding that it was a cop out.

But if you had asked “do you ever think of Lovecraft as an sf writer?” I’m pretty sure I would have answered “no,” because, in fact, I never do. And I don’t he is (despite thinking that one could, retrospectively, call some of his stuff sf).

However, I’m not 100% sure why I think any of these things.


L2P 03.20.18 at 6:02 pm

IMHO, the problem is that “Lovecraft” is his own, one-person genre at this point, a combination of style, theme, stock characters, and milieu that is consistent but crosses over lots of lines. Looking at it as a whole even the science fiction elements disappear into a the general uncanny/weird disquiet he was aiming for. So “Lovecraftian” writing as a whole doesn’t seem like SF but something else.

But some of Lovecraft’s works I can’t see as anything but SF. Color out of Space and The Whisperer in Darkness I’d say are alien encounter SF. The Mountains of Madness seems well within the “old alien exploration” SF genres, like The Thing and, well, Alien itself I guess.


William Berry 03.20.18 at 7:52 pm

How about Bierce? “The Damned Thing” is rather science-fiction and damned weird, for sure.


William Berry 03.20.18 at 7:58 pm

I meant “science-fictiony”. Maybe I should just give up?


Hidari 03.20.18 at 8:41 pm

‘1977 was the year Stephen King published The Shining. King almost single-handedly made horror huge’.

If anyone cares, that’s not what King himself believes. In Danse Macabre, he argues that the ’70s horror boom began with The Exorcist (i.e. the novel), Carrie (i.e. by King) and a book that’s almost forgotten now, The Other by Thomas Tryon: in other words it’s a phenomenon of the early ’70s, not the late ’70s.

I suppose you’re aware of the theory that SF was the big genre in the 1950s and 1960s (progress, science, optimism and all that) and horror only takes off after the oil crash, when people start to doubt these things and feel sturm und drang and angst and all that.

I suppose Weird takes off when the world starts to seem increasingly incomprehensible.


Whirrlaway 03.20.18 at 8:46 pm

Cluthlu is the same as Xenu, and it’s called “Science”-tology, so checkmate! with your liberalist “categories” and stuff. It all bleeds. You’re thinking that “Science Fiction” has to be all straight-faced and thoughtful, but that would be weird: actual science isn’t like that.


Trader Joe 03.20.18 at 9:28 pm

I agree with very much of Ben @14. Maybe more succinctly – “Weird” is a thing that needs to come and go. Read a lot of weird in a short period of time and it doesn’t stay weird – it becomes just clever or clumsy or a thing that’s not enough of anything. Give it a break for awhile and some of that same stuff starts to feel weird again.

As time passes though what qualifies as weird evolves because – we just start to know better and we’ve seen it 100s of times so even if it could be weird it just isn’t. In the 1880s a head talking in a box would have been weird or reattaching severed body parts or a hologram – now that’s just so not weird, even if we might fail to appreciate its amazing.


John Holbo 03.20.18 at 10:17 pm

Thanks for some good recommendations. I have a copy of that old “New Weird” anthology kicking around somewhere. But where did it go after the move, eh? “The Weird and the Eerie” sounds interesting. I’ll have to check that out. Thanks for that timeline, Ben Robertson. That seems to make sense. Thanks for the point about King and the Exorcist, Hidari.


Gabriel 03.21.18 at 4:43 am

Re: genre definitions, I’ve always agreed with Chip Delany: any discussion about genre definitions quickly accelerates to the minute consideration of edge-cases and their inclusion/rejection, thereby ignoring the vast bulk of the genre in question. It’s better to be descriptive. Much of Lovecraft feels right at home in SF. It’s of a kind.

re: New Weird, I will also recommend Jonathan McCamont’s history. There’s a lot of evidence that it was as cynical a marketing ‘invention’ as one can imagine, and lots of writers (and readers) suffered because of the New Boys Club it created, including Steph Swainston, who has come forward about just a few of the things that happened to her. Her AMA on Reddit was enlightening.


Bruce Baugh 03.22.18 at 3:11 pm

Yes, some of Lovecraft’s stories are very much sf. He practically wrote technothrillers from time to time; he just wrote them in a prose style we don’t now associate with cutting-edge technological speculation. But he followed science news and loved to speculate, including making use of discoveries made in the year he wrote.

My contribution to discussion of recent weird fiction is to make some recommendations. :)

She Said Destroy, by Nadia Bulkin. The opening story, “Intertropical Convergence Zone”, is one of the best stories about emerging tyranny I’ve ever read, and I feel like it illuminates things refugee classmates said to me decades back about life in Indonesia (where Bulkin grew up), Vietnam, El Salvador, Nigeria, and others. Another, “Pugelbone”, is one of the best I’ve read about life as part of a hated marginalized group, and really gets at the power of weird tales to intensify reality. Just a great book all around.

Hammers On Bone, by Cassandra Khaw. Oh, hey, speaking of Lovecraft and modern weird tales….this novella is set in a modern London getting drowned in Mythos influence. The narrator is a private investigator who affects a classic noir persona because modern fads in style irritate him, and his name “John Persons” just gets more and more ironic as things go along. He’s a complicated one, he is, and along the way there’s an amazing take on the Great Race of Yith nestled alongside very human jealousies and lies.

And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe, by Gwendolyn Kiste. The first story is about a woman who’s been giving birth to birds; the last is about you the target of narration discover the neglected starlet who will destroy the universe and save you. In between, wonders both terrifying and otherwise. It’s hard to describe just how deeply this book struck into me, and how much things that started off seeming ridiculous and arbitrary took on so much weight.


alfredlordbleep 03.22.18 at 3:53 pm

Picked up a copy of The Weird in the last couple of years. Off the top my memory of reading a few initially— I give honorable mention to Kathe Koja’s Angels in Love.

[Is it not lovely that JH has a taste for weird, even extending to commenters (far and wide)?]


Belle Waring 03.23.18 at 4:51 am

Beloved husband, how can you be so wrong about Lovecraft? You subscribe to the curious fallacy that an author must write only SF to ever write SF. This is weird. “The Color Out of Space” is just the most straightforwardly SF story around. “At The Mountains of Madness”? An scientific expedition goes exploring, finds apparently dead aliens, has one of their own taken and carefully dissected by now-revivified alien scientists working against them, flies over impassable peaks to find a ancient city–what do you want, even?! Are you sad that there are monsters in the abandoned city? You may recall a little movie called Alien, in which exploration of a cold, glaucous alien hall yields a monster beyond comprehension, hmmm? I like, don’t even know you, man.


Joseph Brenner 03.23.18 at 5:27 pm

Algis Budrys had a taxonomy of his own where “horror” was not a genre in it’s own right, but rather a cross-cutting trope that could appear in any genre. Does that help clarify why Lovecraft might seem inside or out?

The idea of “weird” that Lovecraft et al were pushing is essentially an expression of boredom with the conventions of various fantastic sub-genres. Re-used elements inevitably feel familiar and have a way of becoming homey furniture– ghosts and vampires and dragons all lose their edge after a while.


philip 03.24.18 at 11:20 am

Henry @5, after I watched the JS&MN TV series, and before I read the book, I read some of the posts and comments and this, from Susanna Clarke, stuck with me.

‘If anyone were interested I could in fact point to the piece of ground Mr Norrell came up out of. I could give you a grid reference. A corner of a muddy field between the villages of Blackhall Rocks and High Hesleden in County Durham. I used to wander the footpaths round there in the summer and autumn of 1992 thinking up ideas for the book I wanted to write. At that particular moment I was trying to conjure up an English magician who had a library, and then there he was. I saw him very clearly—small, nervous, librarian-like, friendless, book-obsessed.’

The whole of that East Durham coastline is being being restored after the pollution from the mining industry. The end scene of Get Carter was filmed at Blackhall Rocks, with the slag being dumped onto the beach. The chemical plant on Teesside was the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s opening scene of Blade Runner, and apparently some of Aliens 3 was filmed at Blackhall/Dawden. Zamyatin worked in the Tyneside shipyards designing ice-breakers and this did link in with We.

That inspiration from Blackhall Rocks made absolute sense to me with the link between the restoration of the environment after deindustrialisation and the restoration of English magic. Of course there is the social deprivation in East Durham that goes along side the deindustrialisation, most recently with the closure of the steelworks in Redcar. Blackhall Rocks also has its own unique atmosphere in relation to the rest of the Durham coast, the stones have an orangey tinge and the back of the beach is an orangey clay and it gives a weird otherworldly feel.


Bruce Baugh 03.24.18 at 6:37 pm

The idea of horror as a mode that can be called upon within many genres is one that has a lot of traction. David Hartwell made a great argument for it in the introductions to his wonderful anthologies The Dark Descent and The Foundations Of Fear, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any horror worth bothering with who’d argue otherwise. Laird Barron has had some really interesting Facebook posts in recent months on the ways his current noir fiction is (and isn’t) also horror, and nobody seems put out by it.

(All of this is intended as “yes, and” response to @27. Hope it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to say “Not X, you fool! It’s X, instead!”, Joseph. :) )


John Holbo 03.25.18 at 5:01 am

“Laird Barron has had some really interesting Facebook posts in recent months on the ways his current noir fiction is (and isn’t) also horror, and nobody seems put out by it.”

That’s funny, I just added a Laird Barron post to the top of the page. I’m not really aware of what he has to say about all this. I just read his stories.


Steph Swainston 03.25.18 at 4:11 pm

Yes. They retaliated to my AMA by advertising that I’d be doing another one, on April Fool’s Day. Which they advertised in Ansible:

Which I wasn’t, and hadn’t organised. So childish. Of course, it’s not Ansible’s fault, David Langford was just advertising what they told him to.


John Holbo 03.25.18 at 9:24 pm

Hi Steph, I really enjoyed “The Year of Our War” many years ago. Nice to meet you and sorry to hear you got trolled in that way.

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