Miles Smith

An early discussion of my dissertation on the Weird

While they should not end with him, all accounts of the Weird must begin with H. P. Lovecraft (Fisher, 2017; Ulstein, 2019). The Weird has historically referred to a literary genre that emerged from the American pulp magazine Weird Tales during the 1920s and 1930s, the most famous contributor of which was Lovecraft but also hosting names such as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Robert Howard (Luckhurst, 2017). These stories were a mutation of Gothic conventions (as embodied by Edgar Allen Poe) drawing in elements of the pseudo-scientific and what Lovecraft (1925) described as ‘cosmic fear’:

“The true weird tale must have 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”

Luckhurst’s ‘straight story’ of the Weird, based in the canon of Lovecraft’s 1925 self-defining Supernatural Horror in Literature, traces a line from these inspirations to a constellation of publications which formed a blossoming web of co-inspiration and intertextuality over the interwar period. Luckhurst then narrates a dip into obscurity from the late 1930s onwards, following the death of Lovecraft and the mismanagement of Weird Tales, before a resurgence and commercialisation that began in the 1960s. This ‘Cult of Cthulhu’, with “Elder One plushies” and “T-shirts”, is perceived to have cheapened the Weird and has threatened to ossify the genre. Despite this, the Weird, existing under the sometimes-title of the New Weird, has quickly broken forth from ossification under the watch of M. John Harrison, China Miéville and the Vandermeers. This New Weird stands in contrast to the traditional or ‘Old’ Weird, for it holds central two sentiments. First, while the Old Weird under Lovecraft possesses a deathly fear of an encroaching non-human ‘Other’, a motif irretrievably rooted in racial and imperial hatred (Kneale, 2006; Kneale, 2019; MacCormack, 2019), the New Weird rejects this heritage and urges us to engage in efforts of multi-species sympoiesis and to ‘stay with the trouble’ as equals alongside our non-human kin (Haraway, 2016). Second, the New Weird places an emphasis on ambivalence: towards not only our aforementioned kin (ambivalence, in this case, posing a “relief” compared to open hostility; Kneale, 2019) but to the “outer, unknown forces” that inspired such dread in Lovecraft.

This dissertation seeks not to detail at length the development of the Weird fiction genre pre- and post-2000, but to elucidate the Weird’s emerging use as an ‘mode of thinking’ and tool for critical analysis. While some individuals have consistently followed this line of inquiry since the early 2000s (the work of James Kneale stands out here), the Weird has boomed in popularity since the mid-2010s with the publication of several key texts (Fisher, 2017; Luckhurst, 2017; Greve & Zappe, 2019; Greve & Zappe, 2020) and themed journal issues (Paradoxa vol. 28, 2016; Pulse vol. 7, 2020). This dissertation attempts a survey of the emergent field of literature covering the Weird, particularly those texts that maintain a geographical or spatial perspective. In doing so, it follows Cronon’s 1993 article The Uses of Environmental History by asking the following central research question:

What use does the Weird hold in the Anthropocene?

This question rests broadly upon the ultimatum posed most notably by Ghosh’s The Great Derangement (2016; but also Strauss, 2013; Fisher, 2018): in the midst of a failure of imagination from traditional and Western modes of literature in the face of climate change, what forms of representation can effectively process and encourage mobilisation against the ‘super wicked problem’ labelled the Anthropocene (Levin et al, 2012; Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000; Bonneuil & Fressoz, 2016)).

This dissertation opens with a short consideration of the Anthropocene concept and climate narratives before engaging in a focused review of the literature surrounding the Weird. I begin with an overview of texts that directly address the Weird, outlining the characteristics that make it notable. I then propose, offering Rita Indiana’s 2018 novella Tentacle as an example, the existence of a ‘Postcolonial Weird’ that overcomes the still-felt ghost of Lovecraft. Moving on, I attempt to place the Weird as one potential component of a more-than-human turn within geography, including the possibility of ‘Weird as a verb’ (Mawdsley, 2018; Haraway, 2016; Amin & Thrift, 2018). I finish by returning to Mark Fisher and suggesting that by contextualising The Weird And The Eerie (2017) with the rest of his corpus, there is a strong case to be made for the Weird as “foremost a phenomenological tool for confronting a more-than-human world” and the ‘unknown, outer forces’ of the Earth: a tool for ‘consciousness expansion’ in the Anthropocene (Mathieson, 2019: 115; Fisher, 2018).

Post-script:

The above text is a very early first draft of the introduction to my undergraduate dissertation. I have uploaded it because I earnestly believe (to a fault) that I’m doing something quite novel here.

I had a breakthrough yesterday that the Weird’s habit of encroaching upon and disturbing assumed realities matches quite closely with the rest of Fisher’s work. First, within Capitalist Realism, in the chapter Capitalism and the Real, where he uses Lacan’s register theory to suggest that the veil of ideology can be torn through the intrusions of Reals such as climate change (the match between the Real and Weird in this context is only alluded to in his 2017 book). Second, within the compendium K-Punk, particularly in the unfinished Acid Communism, he suggests that cultural artifacts and media play a role in ‘consciousness expansion’ - as in what we can believe to be possible (an idea that also mixes with themes of The city as a machine for learning (McFarlane, 2011) and civil society as a means to generate new ideas).

As far as I’m aware, this feat hasn’t yet been done. I feel this idea helps make the common but regrettably wishy-washy sentiment within the literature that ‘the Weird helps us to envisage other futures and possibilities’ a lot more solid. By posting it here, I hope to at least form the grounds of a claim that I happened upon this particular inkling first. While this motive could be considered selfish, I hope it’s not - I just want to have been the first to something.