What’s Weird Fiction?

Weird fiction can refer to a couple of different types of literature, depending on who’s discussing which books and stories.

Classic Weird Fiction

“Classic” weird fiction is the type of late 19th Century/early 20th Century speculative fiction written by authors such as H.P Lovecraft, Robert Chambers, William Hope Hodgson, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, and Clark Ashton Smith. These stories and novels focus on the supernatural or paranormal and blend in aspects of science fiction with horror. The narratives don’t fall precisely into the categories of a gothic or ghost story.

From H.P. Lovecraft’s writings:

“[The weird tale] has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains.”

It has “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” or “malign and particular suspension or defeat of [the] fixed laws of Nature.”

From “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” by H.P. Lovecraft

“I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which for ever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.”

Examples of Classic Weird Fiction

Modern Classic Weird Fiction

Modern classic weird fiction is cross-genre dark literature inspired by the works of Lovecraft, Chambers, Dunsany etc. It’s frequently written in the style of classic stories. Ideally, this kind of fiction puts the narrative in a modern setting or alters/subverts some of the tropes found in classic weird fiction. Lovecraft, for instance, would never write a story that featured a black female protagonist fighting Cthulhu cultists, but I’ve seen several fine weird stories that do just that. And, also ideally, it is in dialog with or response to the classic stories rather than just being a rehash or pastiche.

(That said, some readers/editors/publications are looking for stories that faithfully fit in the mold offered by classic weird stories … which isn’t actually very weird to the modern speculative fiction reader’s eye!)

“The key element of weird writing [is] the symbolic function of the supernatural.”
— S.T. Joshi

Some find Joshi’s statement debatable, but it’s always worth looking at the role of symbolism in any given piece of weird fiction.

“As a twentieth and twenty‐first century art form, the story of The Weird is the story of the refinement (and destabilization) of supernatural fiction within an established framework but also of the welcome contamination of that fiction by the influence of other traditions, some only peripherally connected to the fantastic. The Weird in a modern vernacular has also come to mean fiction in which some other element, like weird ritual or the science fictional, replaces the supernatural while providing the same dark frisson of the unknown and the visionary.”
— Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Examples of Modern Classic Weird Fiction

“New” Weird Fiction

“New” weird fiction is often classified as slipstream or magic realist fiction: fiction that could pass as a regular literary story except for the inclusion of a few details of the fantastic. Alternately, it refers to richly-imagined, cross-genre tales that feature powerful, detailed world-building. I love this type of cross-genre literature; some people label it new weird and others label as something else, depending on what flavor it is. That’s the thing about really excellent stories and novels: they’re never just one thing, are they? New weird mixes science fiction, fantasy, and horror up in a brain explosion of hybrid vigor.

What do I love about new weird stories? They’re never the same old thing I read last week. They’re transgressive. They’re political. They’re prickly, edgy, cerebral, difficult. Most of all, though, I love the rich, detailed, fabulous, unabashedly weird world-building that some of the best new weird stories have to offer.

“In its purest forms, The Weird has eschewed fixed tropes of the supernatural like zombies, vampires, and werewolves, and the instant archetypal associations these tropes bring with them. The most unique examples of The Weird instead largely chose paths less trodden and went to places less visited, bringing back reports that still seem fresh and innovative today.”
— Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

The new weird takes you places you’ve never been before. They transport you. I want a book that’ll be like an overnight road trip to some strange new amazing border city with all my odd Goth friends: the car’s crammed full of conversations and arguments as the tires beneath you devour the midnight road, and that rattling noise coming from the trunk is unsettling, and that rest stop is utterly creepy, but you get to the city and there’s amazing music and architecture and food and drinks and wait, what kind of mushrooms did you say were in that, again?

New weird stories work precisely because of that loving, painstaking world-building. An author has to sell outlandish characters and story elements to his or her readers, and the single best way to do that is to ground a story in vivid, believable details. Do it right, and you’ve got a piece that’s immersive, compelling, and unforgettable.

Horror and dark fantasy readers just don’t get tired of tentacled monstrosities, madness, esoteric cults, and cosmic doom. And why should they? All that’s a heck of a lot of fun. Or it can be, provided writers are willing to come up with new, smart takes on things. There aren’t any bad tropes in weird fiction; there are just tired, unimaginative treatments of them.

Examples of “New” Weird Fiction

Weird Fiction vs. Bizarro Fiction

In my workshops, people have asked how you can tell the difference between weird fiction and bizarro fiction.

Bizarro fiction as a term was coined in 2005 by the staff of Eraserhead Press, Raw Dog Screaming Press, and Afterbirth Books. The introduction to the Bizarro Starter Kit describes Bizarro as “literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store” and says that the genre “strives not only to be strange, but fascinating, thought-provoking, and, above all, fun to read.”

There’s not a truly clear delineation between the two, and there are several writers (Nicole Cushing and Molly Tanzer spring to mind) who have written both. But in general, bizarro employs absurdism and satire and elements of the grotesque, whereas weird fiction tends not to focus on absurdism/satire. Weird fiction stories tend to use the uncanny to create an atmosphere of unease. Modern weird fiction is often literary, both in terms of prose quality and in the sense that it is in dialog with other stories and novels. Bizarro is often more cinematic and more influenced by current pop culture; some bizarro writers have been influenced more by movies and television than they have by written stories, and their fiction reflects that. And ultimately, if a story seems to be weird for the sake of weirdness rather than using the strange elements as symbolism or in service to other aspects of the narrative, then it’s probably bizarro.

Weird Fiction Magazines & Podcasts

Weird Fiction Book Publishers

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