Sam Gafford’s NAMELESS WORDS: ‘Examining Weird Fiction’

“Episode 1 in which Doris Gets Her Oats”


English: Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tale...

So just what the hell is “Weird Fiction” anyway?

It’s a question that really only seems to bother writers and critics.  Well, maybe booksellers as well because they need to know where to put all the books.  But it’s not something that really occurs to those of us who are fans and readers of the genre.  Why?  The answer is similar to the infamous definition of obscenity given by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964: “I know it when I see it.”

We don’t really need to have it explained to us or partitioned or compartmentalized.  We know “weird fiction” when we see it.  It doesn’t matter if it’s vampires, zombies, werewolves, Cthulhu or Leatherface (with a chainsaw in the parlor), or something else, we know what it is.

And, thankfully, it’s all around us.

Now I could sit here and amaze you with my knowledge of the history of “Weird Fiction”.  I could talk about how this genre has basically existed since man first told each other stories around a fire at night.  But you know all about that already, don’t you?  Just like you know all of the major writers and all the essential texts.  You’ve done your homework.  You’ve read Lovecraft and Poe and the modern writers but, like some gnawing hunger, it hasn’t been enough and that’s why you’re here… to learn still more.

Weird Fiction is one of those things that just goes back and forth.  Some years it’s popular, other years it’s kinda forgotten but it’s always there… lurking in the corner.  Many critics have made connections between the popularity of Weird Fiction (or “horror” as they like to keep calling it) and national uncertainty.  Certainly when a society is feeling nervous about the future it becomes easier for them to accept such concepts.  The 70s was a time of great social unease after the devastation that was Watergate and the economic recession.  Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Weird Fiction began to gain in popularity during that time and hit a peak in the 1980s that it has yet to reclaim.

But the problem with anything reaching high levels of popularity is that you get an awful lot of junk as well.  Theodore Sturgeon’s law of “ninety percent of everything is crap” certainly plays true in this field and especially in the 80s when basically anyone with access to a typewriter was pounding out dreck as quickly as possible in order to cash in on the boom before it died.  These were the endless mass market paperbacks with names like “The Whatever-ing” that still make up the bulk of the horror paperback sections in used bookstores today.

Part of the problem is the fact that what makes good “Weird Fiction” is completely subjective.  Someone might think that the latest zombie opus is the greatest thing ever written by anyone, anywhere.  The fact that I find zombies to be boring, uninteresting and completely drained as a genre is besides the point.  To them, that is the epitome of what “Weird Fiction” should be and that’s perfectly fine.  “Weird Fiction” shouldn’t be the same thing to everyone all the time because what scares people isn’t the same for everyone all the time.

Not to mention the fact that our outlook changes over time as well.

The stories that scared you as a child have little power over you as an adult.  Similarly, the tales that unnerved you at 20 will not have the same impact when you read them at 50.  Trust me, I’ve tried.  At 20, H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic indifference resonated with me precisely because I was a young adult with feelings of insecurity and insignificance.  Today, while those feelings haven’t entirely gone away, the things that affect me have gotten more personal in nature.  My cosmic outlook has dwindled to an individual focus.  Long since consigned to man’s universal insignificance (and thus, my own), I find myself more concerned with the here and now and those things that threaten that personal well-being.  Life has a way of changing your viewpoint so that the things you thought used to be important fall away while other concerns, which you never bothered with before, take center stage.  So you seek out new stories that reflect that change and speak to you in entirely new and different ways.

Which is my roundabout way of saying, dear reader, that we may not always agree on what makes “Weird Fiction”.  To you, it may be zombies.  To another, it may be psychotic slashers.  Still a third might state its Lovecraftian horrors.  All of these answers, and many more, are exactly right.  It is that diversity that makes “Weird Fiction” such an astounding genre.

There is literally something for everyone in “Weird Fiction”.  You can be like myself and prefer the classical authors like Lovecraft, Machen, Poe, Blackwood and Hodgson.  Or you can embrace newer writers like Kiernan, Barron, Ligotti and others.  Your focus can be individual like Stephen King or cosmic like Lovecraft.  Your tastes can run from literate to modern.

In many ways, this genre we know as “Weird Fiction” is even more powerful than mainstream literary fiction.  Despite the often fantastic backgrounds or plots, the stories (in the end) are about people and their struggles against not only horrors but themselves.  Like it or not, horror is a part of life.  We experience horror on virtually a daily basis whether dealing work or stress or relationships.  Fear invades everyone’s life even if we don’t recognize it.  Is fear of a giant Cthulhu entity that much different than fear of illness or cancer?  We deal with our fears through reading “Weird Fiction” and, in this way, we come to grips with it and hopefully overcome it.

In the end, there is no definition of “Weird Fiction” because we create it ourselves.  It is many different things to many different people and each one is as valid as the rest.  So if anyone ever asks you, “So just what the hell is ‘Weird Fiction’ anyway?”, just smile and say, “I know it when I see it.”

–Sam Gafford



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