Okay so in my last blog post I described and gave examples of the southern gothic genre, similarly in this one I will attempt to explain what the genre of weird fiction is in order to demystify what I mean when I describe my upcoming book Black Flowers as “southern weird.”
Firstly, let me begin with a quick description of weird fiction that I will later expand upon. Weird fiction is a somewhat slippery term used for strange, dark stories that blend horror, science fiction, and fantasy together often exploring the limits of humanity’s knowledge or individual encounters with the unknown.
When we left off I mentioned how HBO’s crime anthology series True Detective was a good example of the more grounded, realistic side of the southern gothic with only possible hints of the supernatural. In season one, those hints at the supernatural and occult were actually writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto’s nods to a somewhat obscure work of weird fiction. Fans of the show may remember the cryptic mentions of the “Yellow King” and “Carcosa,” which sent fans off theorizing in a million different directions similar to the show’s two lead detectives, Rust and Marty.
True Detective ended up having its own explanations for these terms, but in real life these are references to Robert W. Chambers’ book of short stories, The King in Yellow, that was published in 1895. In The King in Yellow the titular character is an ominous, shadowy figure in a play that shares his name and he lives in the kingdom of Carcosa. The reader is only given brief, albeit disturbing, excerpts of the play throughout the book and it is rumored that anyone that reads the entire play will completely lose their mind . . . so pretty creepy if you ask me.
Anyway, The King in Yellow‘s importance to the genre of weird fiction has less to do with its own contents and more to do with who it later influenced, which was a writer by the name of H.P. Lovecraft. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, though not the earliest writer of weird fiction, is by far the most well-known and most closely associated writer with the genre. Lovecraft was one of the first writers to popularize the term “weird fiction” as well as one of the first to define it and explain what made it distinct from the gothic ghost stories of the old days.
The majority of Lovecraft’s stories were first published in the cheap, fiction magazines known as the “pulps,” referencing the poor quality of the paper. Pulp magazines reached their peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s with such titles as Unknown and Weird Tales.
Weird Tales is the magazine that published the majority of Lovecraft’s fiction and seemed to be the one he connected with the most. Though I have not found this explicitly stated anywhere, I suspect the magazine’s title and content might have played a big part in why Lovecraft referred to his chosen genre as “weird” since it was in the very title of the magazine. In the time period when Weird Tales was first being circulated the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy weren’t clearly defined, distinct classifications as they are today. So in magazines like Weird Tales they were often lumped together and seen as a “lower” art form separate from the “higher,” more respectable art form known as “literary fiction.”
Lovecraft’s extremely influential contributions to weird fiction include a pantheon of ancient extraterrestrial gods known as the Cthulhu Mythos (the most famous being the octopus-faced god Cthulhu) and a pessimistic philosophy known as Cosmic Horror concluding that humanity’s existence and any of its actions are completely inconsequential in a vast and uncaring universe.
Recently many modern-day critics have stated that weird fiction was merely an insufficient placeholder term for the three, now, very different and distinct genres of sci fi, horror, and fantasy. Mostly due to the fact that the publishing industry has been using these terms for decades to classify and sell certain books. Others disagree though, some readers love the thrill of the unexpected and strangeness that comes along with reading a “weird” story and writers of the “weird” enjoy the freedom that comes along with being able to blend various ideas into new forms to create original concepts and stories.
In 2012, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer compiled a collection of 110 stories by various writers spanning over a century of time that was titled The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Many have seen this massive collection as the definitive book of so-called weird writing. On a side-note, some of you may recall the recent film starring Natalie Portman called Annihilation which was based on Jeff VanderMeer’s weird fiction novel of the same name.
… So this ended up being a bit longer than I had originally planned so I’m glad I decided to split it up into two parts. I hope I did a good job of explaining what southern gothic and weird fiction are so that people can understand where I’m coming from with my own literary-hybrid of “southern weird.” In summary, I take the misfit characters and dark Southern settings of the southern gothic and combine them with all the scientific, fantastic, and horrific ideas of weird fiction.
Okay, so we’re clear as mud, right? Right! See ya next post.