What is “Weird Fiction”?: A Casual Explanation and Analysis of the Genre

Something interesting happened today. I had created a post on Twitter using “Weird Fiction” as the genre qualifier for my project, “The Q’taxians”. Perhaps that aspect wasn’t entirely clear based on my wording, but someone replied to the post saying that weird is much too broad a term and suggested I include my genre next time I post. At first I was a little confused because “Weird Fiction” IS my genre. It took me a moment to grasp that they hadn’t processed it that way. On the one hand, I completely understand the misunderstanding. They had translated “Weird Fiction” into just plain weird, as in, strange. Which is, indeed, a very vague, subjective term. On the other? It gave me the idea to make little post on the basics of “Weird Fiction”.

It took me a long time to nail down my genre. Prior to my initial research, I never knew the “Weird” genre existed. I kept using “Lovecraftian” which is far more recognizable. As much as I love and respect Lovecraft’s work, I thought it best to figure out what exactly his genre was because you don’t say “Tolkienian” if you’re writing high fantasy or “Orwellian” if you’re writing dystopian… Wait… Maybe that isn’t the best argument. I think the urge to find a genre and not go around saying “Lovecraftian” came from the fact that, if anything, I’d call this project “Lovecraft-lite”. I hit many of his thematic elements, but I’m not sure “The Q’taxians” is as grimdark as much of his work. Maybe I’ll work up to that, but at the time of choosing a genre to advertise under, I found “Weird Fiction” to be a very good fit.

So here’s my VERY basic and VERY rudimentary explanation and analysis of Weird Fiction as a genre. I will be sourcing much of this from the Wikipedia article, which is how you KNOW it’s going to be rudimentary. I’ll also be scattering relations between my findings and my project, “The Q’axians”, throughout as a means of making a full circle connection between this article and my decision about filing it under “Weird Fiction” as it’s primary genre.

Weird Fiction: A Brief Overview

The term came about in the late 19th century to early 20th as a means of classifying an unusual sub-genre of speculative fiction that is largely associated with H.P. Lovecraft, but, interestingly enough, he is not considered the father of the genre. That honor belongs to Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft popularized the term in his essay entitled “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. In it, he posits the following as the features that differentiate “Weird Fiction” from the overarching horror genre:

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 outer, 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 our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Supernatural Horror in Literature
By H. P. Lovecraft

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, a scholar of American literature at Central Michigan University, suggests that there is a sub-genre of “Wierd Fiction”. He mentions the idea of “Old Weird” to contrast the traditional “Weird Fiction” genre of Poe and Lovecraft, from the current modern trend of “New Weird”.

“Old Weird fiction utilises elements of horror, science fiction and fantasy to showcase the impotence and insignificance of human beings within a much larger universe populated by often malign powers and forces that greatly exceed the human capacities to understand or control them.”

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock

Weird fiction, in a classical sense, must always find a way to play on the human psyche. It must feature an unknown element, the impending feeling of existential dread, the destruction of sanity. These are primarily psychological factors that are seen as the key differences of “Weird Fiction” from standard fantasy and horror genres. The presence of malign external forces far beyond human understanding and control feed into the fear of inescapable doom that when when pitted against humans/mortals, you find a futile struggle against that which cannot be overcome. The fall to madness is inescapable.

I think most people are aware of these themes, but default to “Lovecraftian” as a genre rather than using the overarching term of “Weird Fiction”. The term itself seems to be very rare among the writing communities I’ve interacted with, but that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s just more commonly referred to and understood as “Lovecraftian”.

New Weird: The Modern Evolution of Old Weird

“Old Weird” is what is described above. It tends to be rooted heavily in the works of Poe and Lovecraft. If you’ve read any of their work, you’d see the overarching similarities in thematic elements such as existential dread, etc etc.

“New Weird” gives the genre a bit of a spin. Almost a refreshing to avoid falling into the pit of “Just more Lovecraft”.

The term was coined by M. John Harrison when writing the introduction to China Miéville’s novella The Train.

While it seems there is much debate over what exactly the term means, according to the entry on Wikipedia:

The writers involved are mostly novelists who are considered to be parts of the horror or speculative fiction genres but who often cross genre boundaries.

Wikipedia Article on New Weird

Now THAT is the genre definition that fits “The Q’taxians” very well. It’s a bit vague, but I prefer to consider it open ended. The flexibility of crossing genres frees works up from being trapped in the perpetual cycle of Poe or Lovecraft. Weird can crop up subtly in many works.

China Miéville himself, a “New Weird” author, defines the genre this way:

Weird Fiction is usually, roughly, conceived of as a rather breathless and generically slippery macabre fiction, a dark fantastic (“horror” plus “fantasy”) often featuring nontraditional alien monsters (thus plus “science fiction”).

China Miéville

Personally, I very much like this definition. It makes the connections between horror, fantasy, and science fiction very clear. All of which I’ve found to be applicable to “The Q’taxians”. The slippery descent into the macabre is a very good way of putting the feeling of everything getting progressively worse in every way.

Further genre definitions are attributed to the VanderMeer’s (Ann and Jeff respectively) both of whom are innovators and contributors to the genre. According to them, “New Weird” is:

A type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping-off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy

Introduction to The New Weird anthology. Intro written by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer.

Within the Wikipedia article that references this quote, there is a follow up contention that this fails to really explain anything about the genre, but I actually think it reveals more than is clear on the surface.

What I think what the VanderMeer’s are suggesting, is that setting matters very much to “New Weird” as a means of differentiating it from “Old Weird”. “Old Weird” was set to empty, isolating worlds where a subject could easily be removed or completely alienated from human influence. Isolation, in and of itself, is horrifying. To them, “New Weird” hinders on something of a more modern setting. I think according to this quote, it seems like futility and loneliness in the face of actually being in a place that isn’t any of those things is very important. Urban locations aren’t inherently isolating. They exude prosperity and hope on the outside. Those who dwell within, probably have a different perspective. Think about it, people looking in at New York City see a commerce haven. A place where buildings can touch the sky and there’s no end to the wealth and fortune to be had. A pinnacle of human ingenuity and achievement. But ask the employee of a fast food restaurant their thoughts? I’m very sure you’ll find a very different perspective. When these externally pleasing or hopeful places are used to carry a tale of dread and horror, that adds another level to the idea of being alone with one’s self in a world filled with people. What’s more terrifying than enduring something psychologically traumatizing and being unable to find help or solace when there are people all around you?

They also mention science fiction, which, I believe, is an important point shift away from “Old Weird”. Science Fiction has almost always existed in some form or another. Bright or dystopian futures. The dangers and hopes of technology. It existed before and throughout the evolution of the Weird genre. As a source of hope and despair, I feel like the addition of sci fi elements really enhances the idea of existential dread to a modern crowd.

I think the key to this spin on the genre, is the subversion of traditional sci-fi, fantasy, and horror tropes. An overarching hopeless tone, an idea of isolation in a crowd, and the idea of futility in the face of a prosperous world. A psychological antitheses to an externally hopeful setting.

The final opinion on the definition of “New Weird”, as offered by the Wikipedia article itself, is as follows:

Part of this genre’s roots derive from pulp horror authors, whose stories were sometimes described as “weird fiction“. The “weird tale” label also evolved from the magazine Weird Tales; the stories therein often combined fantasy elements, existential and physical terror, and science fiction devices.

Wikipedia Article on New Weird

I think out of everything I’ve gone over, that’s the most succinct way of looking at it. It simplifies something I think many try to over-complicate. Sure there are many facets and elements, but at it’s core “New Weird” is an evolution of the classic “Old Weird” making it more approachable to a modern audience without betraying the core psychological elements set forth by “Old Weird”. A spiritual, modern successor to the Lovecraftian genre.

Final Thoughts: “The Q’taxians” and “Weird Fiction”

I’ve stated a few times how I feel the genre fits “The Q’taxians”. I stand by an earlier revelation that I believe I should be referring to the project as “New Weird” to avoid the potential comparison or a direct relationship with Lovecraftian works.

“The Q’taxians” plays strongly with human insecurities, psychological trauma/horror, fear of the unknown, and existential dread. At it’s core, I 100% believe the genre is still appropriate to the work. It’s in the execution that I believe it drifts somewhat away from the root of classic “Weird Fiction”. Which is why the open-endedness of “New Weird” is very appealing. Combining it with the prevalent acceptance of a sci-fi element, I think THIS genre is truly the perfect fit.

“The Q’taxains” also approaches the concepts of hope and hopelessness. Hope is both a beacon of light and a source of torment. Eternally promised hope, backed by the ill will of a vile being is enough to drive a mortal mind to the edge of their sanity if not thrust them over the edge.

There is the presence of love, dark humor, attempts at understanding the unknowable, attempts at RELATING to the unknowable, and attempts at HUMANIZING the unknowable. That, in and of itself, sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, right? Well… That’s kind of my style. “Subverting Expectations” is probably my favorite trope of all time.

There are plenty of light-hearted and good spirited moments, but they always serve as a contrast to a world of nightmares lingering just outside the characters’ consciousness. Every time they find a grain of understanding, the malignant force becomes even more distant effectively eluding them. It is never fully perceived or understood, yet remains eternally present.

After this latest bout of research, I shall henceforth be referring to “The Q’taxians” as “New Weird”. The shortest definition of which is noted above as a “combination of fantasy elements, existential and physical terror, and science fiction devices”.

There we have it. The tl;dr of this entire long-winded post.

“The Q’taxians” is a work of “New Weird” fiction with an LGBT cast.

I hope you found this entry entertaining, at the very least. I’m sure there are better, more thoroughly researched sources on this and perhaps I will do a deeper dive in the future now that I’ve located some interesting resources on the topic, but for now, let this serve as my cursory explanation and analysis of the “Weird Fiction” genre.

Thank you very much for reading.

4 thoughts on “What is “Weird Fiction”?: A Casual Explanation and Analysis of the Genre”

  1. Thank you for this. Once I read your first post and saw the illustrations, I had a grasp of what you meant by “weird fiction” but I did not realize how much that genre encapsulated. Thank you for the research and sharing it.

    1. Apologies for the late response, but I’m very glad you found this little post helpful! It took me a while to figure it all out myself, so I felt like sharing what I learned would help others as well. Thanks again for reading!

  2. Not only did I learn something new from this post but I’ve also discovered a name for what is perhaps my favorite style to read and write. Thank you!

    1. That’s outstanding! I’m so glad I could offer a bit of insight. It’s been my favorite genre for years and I never even knew what it was called until fairly recently. Welcome aboard the weird train. We have existential crisises and tentacles 😁🐙🦑 (tentacles are optional. Please enjoy your stay)

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