Exploring the Cold, Desolate Cosmos: Weird Fiction—Past, Present, and Beyond.
The Weird Renaissance. We hear that phrase thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean? A renaissance is generally defined as a situation or period of time when there is a new interest in something that has not been popular in a long time; or: a period of new growth or activity. The meaning we are most interested in here follows the second part of the definition rather closely. Weird Fiction, and its slightly younger, meaner sister Cosmic Horror, have never really been unpopular among its practitioners. Coined by The Outer Dark host Scott Nicolay, The Weird Renaissance is used to set aside the explosion of new weird fiction and cosmic horror that has happened beginning around year 2000. Repackaged, reformatted, whatever you want to call it, its presentation has been streamlined into other genres in the past, especially when the work in question has that ‘genre-bending’ quality many readers seek out. Today, this former sub-genre of Horror Fiction is breaking the chains that bind it to venture out on its own in the world, no longer walking quietly through the wild, but roaring and thrashing into reader’s imaginations everywhere, blowing minds and taking no prisoners.
It’s easy to get lost in labels and genres. We like classifying things, separating items for their uniqueness while grouping others together for their similarities, and no one understands this better than those that publish the books. Labels and genres are not for writers; they are tools used by readers to guide them to easily find what they want to read. But what of those works that defy classification? It would be very easy to label those stories WEIRD and print that on the spine of a book above the title, but that is a slap in the face of the writer who painstakingly toiled on the page to create a piece of work that hopefully defines, or redefines, what Weird fiction has to offer. Equally unfair is to believe Weird Fiction and Cosmic Horror are in anyway interchangeable terms meaning the same thing. Nothing could be further than the truth. While most Cosmic Horror falls directly into the Weird category, not all Weird Fiction can be described as horrifying, especially those tales that embrace the awe and wonder of all that is natural and supernatural.
Weird fiction and Cosmic Horror have been constantly evolving since the beginning. Some scholars say that our earliest epic tales, such as Beowulf, were actually weird tales originally handed down orally, then over time, written to preserve the story for those that follow. Other writers, such as Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang, possibly fall into the Weird without a single instance of supernatural aspects in their stories, especially in such stories of his as ‘To Build a Fire’. Since it remains in a constant state of flux, ever evolving and changing with each distinct voice that explores it, Weird fiction remains elusive to hold in our grasp.
Perhaps that is the allure of the genre—that the definition allows for so much room for writers to play with the boundaries. While that might explain why so many writers as of late have fallen under the spell of the weird tale, it only partly explains why it has suddenly become so popular with readers. To understand why this is happening, it is important to examine our society and how it relates to the universe right now. Never before has society seen so much emphasis on the ‘self’, the ‘individual’, and how individuals have a greater need to have their footprint go as deep as possible into the face of the world now more than ever before. Celebrity worship is at an all-time high, so while individuals are striking out to make their mark, they are influenced by those they align with the most, the people who have already struck a chord with society, who have paved the way and left the road wide open for others to follow. Whether its athletes, scientists, actors, writers, even politicians, people want to be like these celebrities. They want their own moment to shine, to bask in the limelight. If anyone can do it, why can’t we? Of course, people should aspire to greatness, no one is arguing this at all, but often the price of such notoriety is very heavy on the psyche. Self-doubt and hatred, insensitive demeanor, a general sense of narcissism, all come into play when the pressure of self-importance becomes too much to bear.
If society’s greatest need is to make our footprint on the world as visible as possible, then it makes perfect sense that our greatest fear is that everything we do is insignificant, that the universe doesn’t care how far we can stretch out that fifteen minutes of fame we take for granted.
In the long run, we’re all going to die anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.
Such a fear that our own demise is inescapable, and that the universe we so shrewdly attempt to manipulate cares not for us at all, is enough to drive people mad. We push those thoughts out of our heads, ignore them, toss them under the rug, out of sight, and we press on, stomping harder and harder. Yet, no matter how hard we try not to think about it, the truth remains: the universe resists our manipulations, cold and uncaring. This feeling of dread and unease at our own inevitability is the very thing that draws readers to Weird Fiction. Reading horror allows us to face the things that scare us the most with the convenience of a safety net right underneath. It is the same for Weird Fiction and Cosmic Horror, allowing us to examine our deepest fears safely in the comfort of our own homes, as though there’s actually a safe place to question our existence.
As long as we continue to attempt to figure out the meaning of life, there will be Weird Fiction. The universe is so great, so unfathomable, that it remains the constant quest that can never end, and we tremble in awe at its revelations, fully aware that we are truly not alone. Cosmic Horror aligns with us that hopelessness in the face of self-importance. Call it nihilistic, destructive, or whatever, the question remains, unanswered.
What this all means is that the future of Weird Fiction and Cosmic Horror has never looked better. So many writers are breaking the chains of their previous genre bondage to step into the spotlight and proclaim loud and proud that yes, they are Weird, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. Scott Nicolay, host of The Outer Dark and an excellent writer of the Weird and Cosmic Horror himself, says he is “less interested in the unreliability of a narrator than in the unreliability of reality.” This is perhaps where we stand with Weird Fiction today, that we don’t want to read about people we can’t trust as much as we desire to see how people deal with a reality that’s revealed itself as unstable. Isn’t this as close to answering the meaning of life as we can get without having our minds explode?
Friedrich Nietzsche said that if we stare into the abyss long enough, we will see the abyss staring back, and eventually, we will like what we see. He also said what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, but maybe that doesn’t apply when we are faced with the universe.
This monthly feature will attempt to provide readers some guidance as they navigate the desolate nightmare lands of Weird Fiction and Cosmic Horror, and that begins with a careful look at those who paved those pathways both from the past, and right now. Much has been written about H.P. Lovecraft, the name many envision when thinking of Weird Fiction, so we shall place his work aside to look at the roads less traveled. Though he may have made Weird Fiction and Cosmic Horror popular, Lovecraft certainly wasn’t the first to write it. Others before him cast a wide net to ensnare our imaginations long before he scribbled his first notes. Next month, we will look into the world of one of the giants of Weird Fiction, Algernon Blackwood, author of such classics and ‘The Willows’ and ‘The Wendigo’. Until then, keep exploring.
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