Weird literature has a long history.
Since the caveman first crowded around the fire, man has told horror stories. The times change and people change but the effect remains the same. We want to be scared.
Psychologists will give many different reasons why this is so. Some will say it’s because we’re seeking vicarious thrills which we can safely enjoy from our chairs or beds. Others might state that it enables us to conquer our fears by facing them. In the end, the ‘why’ doesn’t really matter. We like to be scared.
Now, what exactly scares us has changed over the years. Once it was medieval castle ghosts or tales of vampires and werewolves. Then it became witches, demons and the devil in his various guises. Lovecraft took our attention to universal viewpoints, focusing on humanity’s ultimate worthlessness. Starting around 1959 with Robert Bloch’s Psycho, our thoughts centered once again upon ourselves as we fear for physical safety with the question that our neighbor could be a homicidal maniac.
This was a trend that was already being explored in other media such as 1951’s film The Thing from Another World or 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers where anyone among us could be a monster. Political commentary cloaked in entertainment which nonetheless reflected the social climate of the time. It revealed that what we feared the most was each other and ourselves.
But the goal of weird literature has always remained the same: to scare us.
Writers have been trying to determine just how to do that ever since that primordial campfire and, obviously, they have developed different solutions.
Lovecraft felt that:
“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of out, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are out only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the deamons of unplumbed space.” (“Supernatural Horror in Literature“)
Noted ghost story author M. R. James had this to say in his essay, “Ghosts, Treat Them Gently!” (1931):
“Setting or environment, then, is to me a principal point, and the more readily appreciable the setting is to the ordinary reader the better. The other essential is that our ghost should make himself felt by gradual stirrings diffusing an atmosphere of uneasiness before the final flash or stab of horror.”
Like Lovecraft, James descries the more blatant form of horror featuring more bluntness:
“Of course, all writers of ghost stories do desire to make their readers’ flesh creep; but these are shameless in their attempts. They are unbelievably crude and sudden, and they wallow in corruption. And if there is a theme that ought to be kept out of the ghost story, it is that of the charnel house. That and sex, wherein I do not say that these Not at Night books deal, but certainly other recent writers do, and in so doing spoil the whole business.”
Perhaps these quotes show more about their author’s preferences than anything else. One cannot imagine Lovecraft or James writing anything close to Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities” or “The Hellbound Heart” (source of the Hellraiser films). Clearly different things scare Barker than scared Lovecraft or James.
Now there’s a pretty wide divide between these types of writing. Lovecraft represents more of a ‘detached’, ‘unemotional’ style whereas Barker is far more ‘visceral’ and ‘personal’ in his work. But that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. I enjoy both writers for different reasons because, like good musicians, they strike different chords inside me.
As readers and fans, we gravitate towards certain authors and the reason we do is because they resonate with us. Many people do not care for Lovecraft (either stylistic or thematically) while others embrace the more reality-based fiction of Stephen King. Even though, ironically, King himself has claimed Lovecraft as an influence on his own writing.
The popularity of King has a lot to do with the fact that readers can identify with the world and characters he creates. Not as many can identify with Lovecraft’s world or characters or even Poe these days. Time has made them victims of their eras which, sadly, not everyone can appreciate.
A good writer of weird literature writes about what affects them most. Again, with Lovecraft, it was the cosmic indifference of life that had the most power over him so, naturally, that is what came through in his fiction. With more modern writers, their focus is a bit different. One could look at this as a representation of the change in our culture and society which has become more insulated since Lovecraft’s time. In this “I’m OK, you’re OK” lifestyle, we are more limited in our outlooks. The shift in weird literature has gone more from the outside to the inside or the ‘person’.
And I don’t know if I’m all that happy with that!
Look, I am not often the most perceptive or acute person around. Ask my wife. This is why I often have trouble with poetry. There are times when I just simply don’t get it. And there’s a lot of weird fiction these days that I just don’t get. These are the kind of stories that tend to be so vague that you can’t really tell just what the hell is going on. They remind me of reading a Henry James story where he’ll talk for three pages about something like the clouds in the sky or the grass or you think that’s what he’s talking about because you’re really not sure just what in the hell he is talking about.
Weird literature requires more than a little style and vagueness. That uneasiness is part of what creates the mood and atmosphere. I get that. But, in the end, I want to be able to understand what happened. Far too often these days, I’ll read a story and, when it’s done, I’ll be thinking, “This is it? Where’s the rest? What the hell happened?”
A story has little to no impact if I’m spending more time trying to figure out what happened than in being frightened. Motives aren’t necessary or even thematic resolutions for that matter. But if I’m left without a clear understanding of the story then it’s failed on at least one level. It may have made me uneasy or nervous but, in the end, what’s not what I’ll remember. I want to remember being scared, being frightened, of feeling that I have to leave the lights on for the rest of the night.
But, you know, that’s me. I’m a caveman at times so just because I did get it doesn’t mean that it’s not good. After all, your mileage may vary.