“What’s it all about, Alfie?”
Literary criticism of weird tales is, in itself, somewhat weird. It actually welcomes contributions from many who, like myself, have little to no formal training or education in the subject. Still, there are others, such as S.T. Joshi, who are not only trained in the field but offer significant contributions to the study of weird fiction. But, of course, not everyone agrees with everyone else in any field, much less literary criticism.
In his book THE WEIRD TALE, S.T. Joshi claims that the greatest writers of weird fiction must have a “worldview”: “I begin my own study with a rather odd assertion: the weird tale, in the period covered by this volume (generally 1880-1940), did not (and perhaps does not now) exist as a genre but as the consequence of a world view.” (Joshi’s emphasis.)
Joshi elaborates this further in his introduction:
“…weird writers utilize the schemas I have outlined (or various permutations of them) precisely in accordance with their philosophical predispositions… All the authors I study here (with the exception of James) evolved distinctive world views, and it was those world views that led them to write the sort of literature they did. I am convinced that we can understand these writers’ works—the whole of their work, not merely their purportedly ‘weird’ writing—only by examining their metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic theories and then by seeing how their fiction reflects or expresses these theories.”
I find this to be a very fascinating concept. Joshi is stating that the most effective weird tales are written by those writers who are, consciously or unconsciously, expounding their own philosophy. This leads to several thoughts; “what are these philosophies?”, “does the horror come from philosophies which are different than our own or similar?” and, lastly, “can this be said of writers today?”
Joshi goes on to examine six authors as well as their worldviews: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft. I doubt that anyone would argue that these writers (other than James, as Joshi notes) had personal worldviews and philosophies. The degree to which these worldviews influence their writing can be debated but it is my contention that the amount of enjoyment we derive from these writings is also reflected in those worldviews.
Take Lovecraft, for example. We are all well aware, by now, of Lovecraft’s personal philosophy of scientific materialism taken to dramatic lengths in his fiction. Like many, I found in Lovecraft a worldview that reflected my own and gave voice to my feelings of universal insignificance. As such, Lovecraft’s fiction hit a powerful note within me that resonates to this day. What is important to remember is that Lovecraft didn’t set out to write ‘philosophical fictions’ but simply wrote about those things that were important to him and which came out in his fiction.
If we consider this theory, then we should also not appreciate those writers whose worldviews are opposite from our own. I believe that this is valid not just within weird literature but indeed all literature, art and music. In many cases, I think that we tend to embrace those things which echo our own philosophies while ignoring or rejecting those that do not. In this instance, it explains why I am not a huge fan of either Robert E. Howard or Clark Ashton Smith or even Swedish Death Metal music. They simply are not part of my ‘worldview’.
Which, in a way, is symptomatic of a somewhat narrow-mindedness on my part but, I fear, I am not alone in this conceit. As much as we may say that we want art that ‘challenges’ us or makes us rethink our attitudes, we often return to those things that re-enforce the very attitudes that weird fiction is supposed to rail against.
Those authors are comfortable to us. When we read a Lovecraft story or even a new story written by many ‘Lovecraftian’ authors, we know what is going to happen. There is an implicit understanding of the worldview that will be expounded therein which is why the only truly good ‘Lovecraftian’ fiction is written by those who either share Lovecraft’s worldview or understand it enough to provide a good riff off the source material.
So what does this say about today’s writers? Can we say that Stephen King or James Herbert has a ‘worldview’? Do they have a philosophy lying behind their words? Recently, a conversation on Facebook took place that basically stated that a writer, or story, didn’t have to have a worldview to be good or effective. I could say that, in some part, this is true. A story doesn’t have to have a philosophical basis or moral point in order to be scary. We are often scared by the most basic of things; a noise in the dark, a shape in the window or an unstoppable killer with no conscious. These are the types of frights that speak to the primitive that still lurks inside us all.
But these are only surface scares. They’re the kind of fears that disappear afterwards in the light of day or after a strong cup of coffee. They don’t touch us deeply and we feel a sort of brutish confidence in being able to dismiss them so easily. It’s those horrors brought through a ‘worldview’ that have the most impact because they strike at the very foundation of ourselves. It’s these that we remember most.
Of current authors working in weird fiction, we can perhaps say that writers like Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti and T.E.D. Klein have the closest to a ‘worldview’. Even Stephen King could be counted among them as his work has revolved around the finding of horror amongst the tedious monotony of life. Considering the amount of writers who are writing weird fiction these days, it seems that there are few who we could look at and say that they have any sort of ‘worldview’. But I do not necessarily say that this is any fault of theirs but rather the fault of the type of society in which we have found ourselves today. How many people you know could actually say that they have a ‘worldview’ or philosophy of their own that is not grounded in some sort of religion or, worse yet, popular culture? When we look at what passes for much in the field of horror literature and especially movies, how much depth are we seeing in endless parades of splatter fests like the interminable SAW movies or the incomprehensible zombie or supernatural romance novels? Is it our fault because we are not asking more of our creators than these cheap, superficial scares that, in the end, are about as lasting as a fast food meal?
Socretes wrote thousands of years ago that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Perhaps now we should change that adage to be that “the unexamined writing is not worth reading.”