Thursday, December 18, 2014

Weird Fiction By Any Other Name?

A recent post by Simon Strantzas in Nightmare Magazine's H-Word feature and then a retort to that post by A.W. Henry led me to consider whether there's a substantial difference between the categories of "weird fiction" and "strange fiction." Strantzas contends that revelation of a cosmic variety functions as weird fiction's hallmark while microcosmic implication of otherworldliness stands as strange fiction's defining characteristic. I think he points to an intriguing division in the genre -- one we should certainly explore further. But I wonder: is this division truly one of qualitative difference between subgenres or might it be one of quantitative difference within the genre of weird fiction itself?

Consider: a writer like Robert Aickman -- potentially an author of "strange fiction" is clearly utilizing a subtle, nuanced hand in stories like "The Hospice" or "The Cicerones." He's not trying to blow you away with monstrosities of epic proportion nor is he explicitly laying bare any new ontological precepts. Unlike Lovecraft or Hodgson or Clark Ashton Smith or any number of the other writers who are usually mentioned as weird tale practitioners, Aickman does not present his reader with a reality that is mind-bogglingly unorthodox. Yes, some weird things happen, but the whole of the universe isn't depicted as a hostile or uncaring place, as it often is in the work of Lovecraft and cosmicist fictioneers of his ilk. Instead, Aickman localizes the weird. He sets it within a specific personage or a discrete physical edifice or a singular event and then shapes the remainder of the narrative as a working through of that weirdness. Do Aickman characters end up in the throes of existential revelation as a result of their glancing acquaintance with the outre? No. They have no great epiphanies nor do they launch into any grandiloquent or disturbing summations of humanity's place in the celestial dance. Instead, Aickman's characters are unsettled -- they now know that something in their conventional conception of reality is faulty, but what that something is remains unknown and out of reach. The framework of reality is shown to have substantial cracks running through its beams, but the entire structure has not yet collapsed in upon itself.

With this in mind, I'd contend that Aickman and "strange" writers are engaged in the same project as Lovecraft and "weird" writers: they're all attempting to show us that reality is not as it appears to be or as we normally perceive it. They're all rebel angels taking up arms against prevailing modes of thought and understanding. It just happens that the Aickman lot -- the "strange" lot -- does so on a more microcosmic stage. These writers don't explicitly extend their weird fiction into the stars or to other dimensions, but the implication is clear that the events of their stories may, indeed, have significance as staggeringly monumental for the nature of reality as any event in a cosmic weird tale.

Thus it is that I believe the "strange" is a quantitative rather than qualitative difference of "weirdness." I think the strange tale is the weird tale, but on a smaller, more self-contained scale. Where weird uses 300 foot-tall space monsters, strange uses isolated motels where no one acts quite the way they should. Where weird uses futurescapes populated by beings entirely alien from humanity in every conceivable way, strange uses run-down carnival booths where we might catch a glimpse of something beyond our understanding. Both want to burst the bubble of epistemological and phenomenological orthodoxy -- one just happens to do it with a grenade while the other does it with a pinprick.  

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