Tuesday, August 13, 2013

DM's Field Guide to Dark Fiction - Weird Tale

Posted by LD Keach on Tuesday, August 13, 2013

pulpicanous fantasicae  
order: Tales of Terror

Common traits – An elusive species to pin down, a Weird Tale is simply a story that is hinged on the idea that this is not the world you know. It can involve anything from cosmic witches to metaphysicist prophets, parasitic changelings to homicidal pineal glands, and generally it whips up Fantasy, Sci Fi and Horror elements into an uncanny mush. Outright scares and gore tactics are not necessary for a Weird Tale's survival; however, in order to live, it needs to create a sense of unease, otherness, or a nagging feeling that the laws of nature have somehow been terribly broken.

Historical sightings – The Weird Tale emerged at the turn of a troubled 20th century, when technological developments and the seeds of globalization had people questioning their place  in the world. Writers such as HG Wells, Mark Twain, Franz Kafka and other heralds of the literary establishment created stories that re-wrote existence in a weird fashion: Well's War of the Worlds (1896) was a classic progenitor of Sci Fi with a thick vein of Horror pumping through it; Twain's stories "The Great Dark" (written 1898) and "The Mysterious Stranger" (1910) were both extrapolations on the horrific nature of the universe; Kafka easily made readers regret being alive. Among this boom of troubled fiction came Robert W. Chamber's collection of short stories called The King in Yellow (1895), which is widely quoted as being inspiration for a little-known author at the time, Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

Thankfully, there was this little-known magazine around to help little-known Howard get his eldritch vision of the world out to audiences—in 1923, Weird Tales was founded to deliver fiction that was speculative and alternative, challenging the notions of Western literature and Western existence at the same time. It was through Weird Tales that audiences were introduced to the worlds of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian right along with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, but it's said that the term Weird fiction wasn't official until Lovecraft used it in his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927).

Continuing the tradition, many writers in midcentury years wrote fiction that has been labeled Weird, from literary darling Shirley Jackson to Twilight Zone creator Rod Sterling, giving way to a contemporary clutch of Weird artists, such as China Miéville, Clive Barker, Ramsay Campbell and Thomas Ligotti. Movements have begun to classify a millennial take on Weird Tales, called New Weird, which at first glance seems to be an updated urbanization of the fantastical world building traditions Lovecraft and his contemporaries made popular.

Modern habitats – In modern publishing, a Weird Tale is treated very similarly to Cross-Genre, Slipstream or any blending of the speculative triumvirate Fantasy-Sci Fi-Horror—and generally the less gore, the better. The roots of the genre are entrenched in the idea of the uncanny which, according to Freud, means a feeling one gets when seeing a thing that is at once familiar yet foreign; this is why a lot of modern Weird fiction gets classified under Urban Fantasy, Modern Fantasy, and Soft Sci Fi. Weird fiction's fixation on uncanniness lends well to dark speculations on the terrible nature of existence, but Texas Chainsaw-style running amok is not going to be appreciated here. (Unless you're Clive Barker; then you can do what you want.) Some good places to spot this creature in the wild are the modern day Weird Tales (no kidding!), Apex, and Shimmer Magazine.

Related: Supernatural Horror, Cosmic Horror, Cross-Genre, Slipstream

See also: Introduction