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So what is 'weird fiction' anyway?

The Weird Tradition

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Dec 20, 2007, 6:45pm Top

Okay, any time I've seen on of these 'clarify a genre' thread, it always devolves into just about anything, no matter how wide from the field being able to fall under whatever genre we're talking about. But I still thought I'd try here.

The question, what exactly would you say is a Weird Tale?

For me, it's got to be 'horror-tinged' and somewhat supernatural. So for (a modern) example, most of what Bentley Little writes could be classified as weird fiction, but your average Dean Koontz thriller would not. Joe R. Lansdale's supernatural stuff would be weird fiction for sure.

Most sci-fi would not be weird, neither would most fantasy (which is written in the J.R.R. Tolkien mode). For sure not the Robert Jordan/Terry Goodkind stuff. But a lot of the Warhammer/Warhammer 40K tie-in books that I have read could be classified as weird due to their focus on battling the forces of darkness in the form of elder dark gods from beyond.

What do you guys think?

Dec 21, 2007, 10:17am Top

The Weird Tale? I'd generally apply the description of this very group:

"Focusing on the unique group of writers who famously wrote for WEIRD TALES, UNKNOWN, ASTOUNDING, and other pulp magazines, including Manly Wade Wellman, Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, and others.

Side trips into earlier influences such as Poe, Hawthorne, Machen, Dunsany, and Hodgson are also encouraged!"

I'd include later works by some of these authors, especially Fritz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, and Robert Bloch (look for his Strange Eons!) along with some more recent stuff by the likes of Ramsey Campbell and Brian Lumley.

I'd be careful to exclude a lot of those authors who are simply doing "tributes to Lovecraft", or those who are staying firmly in the horror genre. There is a slightly antiquated, yet wholly enjoyable, world view in the genuine weird tale that no longer exists for contemporary writers, except as a kind of literary template.

Basically, I'd say the Weird Tale is dead - Long Live the Weird Tale!

Dec 21, 2007, 12:08pm Top

Well, I'm going to play Devil's Advocate because even though I think ken's description is solid, I think it's good to have alternate definitions to play with.

The weird tale is a story of the intrusion into mundane existence of forms of being or knowing different enough that they call into question the validity of consensus reality.

From here I would diverge into those works that reassert consensus reality, those that attempt to assert a greater yet still coherent reality, and those that leave reality cracked perhaps irreparable.

For the first, I'd say any work that disavows the supernatural through scientific explanation.

For the second, I'd include works such as The Exorcist or Dracula that resolve the supernatural through religious explanations.

For the third, I'd include the more traditional writers such as Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as modern authors such as Thomas Ligotti and T.E.D. Klein.

Of course, there's slipperiness between those categories.

Ken, I don't remember if I've asked you this before, but would you include Ligotti and Klein? I think they're solidly in the tradition and definitely not just doing pastiche.

Dec 21, 2007, 12:41pm Top

CarlosMcRey - an interesting definition in general, but reading it, Philip K. Dick comes to mind as someone who does something very similar (undermining consensus reality beyond reassertion through a new form of explanation). However, I don't know that I'd include him in the Weird tradition. Any thoughts?

Dec 21, 2007, 1:07pm Top

Beschrich - Well, that is a toughie. I think there's definitely an emphasis in the weird tale that calling the nature of reality into question is in some way disturbing, which is why most weird works also qualify as horror. I don't know if perhaps that should be explicit in my definition or not, but I think that's one of the aspects that distinguishes Dick from, say, Lovecraft.

I'd say Dick is pretty close, and he certainly was influenced by Lovecraft. Given, a lot of his stuff starts from a reality that's rather fantastic. I would segregate out works of fantasy or sci-fi where the "mundane reality" isn't anything like ours.

Dec 21, 2007, 1:29pm Top

I would say that Philip K. Dick definitely does not belong in the 'weird tradition'.

But to Carlos I would say that Robert E. Howard's Conan and Solomon Kane stories do fit (they were published there after all) yet they don't really fit any of your definitions.

ken10, I can see why you say the weird tale is dead, but as you and others have said folks like Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, Karl Edward Wagner and T.E.D. Klein sure do fit the weird tale pattern.

Most any tale that is Lovecraft-esque or Howard-ian (without being a pastiche) could qualify as a weird tale to me.

I do agree with your statement: There is a slightly antiquated, yet wholly enjoyable, world view in the genuine weird tale that no longer exists for contemporary writers, except as a kind of literary template.

Dec 21, 2007, 1:34pm Top

I'm still trying to figure out what the 'weird tradition' is and I am unfamiliar with most of the authors given so far. I recognize Lovecraft but have yet to read anything by him. I was wondering if Tim Powers would fit into this? such as Declare or On Stranger Tides?

Dec 21, 2007, 1:35pm Top

Something else I just thought of. In the weird tale there is often a sense the universe is cold and uncaring. 'Evil' is often discussed, but very rarely is there a force of 'right' battling it. If anything, there are overwhelming powers of evil and a powerless little guy trying his best to escape it entirely on his own. (I think this sense of a malign universe is why I include some of the Warhammer stuff I've read.)

Dec 21, 2007, 1:40pm Top


'Weird Tradition' has to do with the old 'Weird Tales' pulp magazine. This was a magazine that focused on horror and dark fantasy/sword and sorcery stories. They had a stable of very talented authors whose stories had a sort of shared sensibility.

I'd recommend ordering a weird tales anthology to try some of these guys out. You can pick them up used online for pennies. Try looking for Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies or Weird Tales: 32 Unearthed Terrors for starters.

Dec 21, 2007, 1:53pm Top


I agree wholeheartedly with your description. In the universe(s) of these stories, many events are inevitable, or unstoppable. The Universe is almost always either uncaring or malicious in weird tales. "Cosmic Dread" is a common occurrence.

Dec 21, 2007, 3:28pm Top

"Cosmic Dread" is a major component of the Weird Tale (and works well within Carlos's 3rd definition) but it certainly isn't required. Consider, for instance, the feeling of dread in Howard's "Pigeons From Hell" which is hardly cosmic, but is just as intensely Weird as HPL's "The Colour Out of Space" is.

I find that there was a kind of general eldritch (forgive me) glamour that the finest Weird Tales had, which cannot be genuinely reproduced today. Something that existed outside of the stories and possibly resided within the authors themselves. Was it an attitude? A world view? Maybe a kind of more innocent take on what might be "out there", whether it be in lonely houses in the woods or the deepest reaches of space?

I don't want to draw any lines in the sand, but in my experience, the Weird Tale was pretty much gone by the 1980's (with exceptions)), perhaps mutating into something else entirely after that point. I would certainly include T.E.D. Klein's work from this era as being Weird - as I said, no lines in the sand, but I'm not familiar with Ligotti enough to say.

Feb 27, 2008, 12:50pm Top

but who reads Dorothy Macardle anymore? or Jack Mann? or Eleanor Ingram?

or the older werewolf stuff -Dumas, Bill, Endore, Gregory and the like?

and who's even heard of Jepson or Asbury - or even Shiel? lots of fine work lost in time . . . sigh

Feb 27, 2008, 5:22pm Top

Consider early Vonnegut, which doesn't exactly fit the sci-fi label it's often given.

Mar 6, 2008, 4:13pm Top

S.T. Joshi takes a good stab at defining horror vs weird vs whatever in the foreword to the recent collection of American Supernatural Tales.

Mar 19, 2008, 1:13pm Top

12: Me, that's who (or Hanns Ewers, Leonard Cline, Lafcadio Hearn, Ben Hecht, Robert Hichens ...).

Mar 19, 2008, 9:56pm Top

I just read a strange book called A night in the lonesome October by Roger Zelazny. If anyone else has read it, would it be considered weird fiction?

Mar 30, 2008, 2:01pm Top

I'd heard of that book before (due to a title similarity with a Richard Laymon book) but had never looked into it. It sounds like a pretty fun book!

Mar 30, 2008, 4:24pm Top

I would suggest Library Thing author Robert Shearman's book Tiny Deaths as very good weird fiction. It's a book of short stories that include a man sharing a room in hell with Hitler's dog and a girl reincarnated as an ashtray. I don't think you can get much weirder.

Oct 31, 2018, 2:46pm Top

Here is a cool and candid collection of handy thoughts on the topic. How did I miss this earlier? Oh, because it was buried under a decade of dust! Still helpful, still relevant.

Nov 1, 2018, 3:54am Top

>3 CarlosMcRey: As a counter to Dracula and Exorcist, I'm not inclined to think of either as being weird, since there's nothing particular strange about a vampire or an individual possessed by a demon or Satan or what have you. Even if the explanation isn't scientific, there is still an explanation. It seems to me that "weird" fiction is more likely to fall into the category of inexplicable, and that any resolution at all sort of counters the idea.

I attach "weird" to the emotion, like Iv'e been "weirded out." The phrasing might be relatively recent, but I imagine the sentiment is not.

Nov 1, 2018, 8:44pm Top

This article from the new Sight & Sound, about French cinema's dilemma is defining fantastique films, mirrors our "what is weird fiction?" discussion in many ways. Maybe it even goes some way toward actually defining the weird. Could "weird" and "fantastique" somehow be two sides of the same coin?


Edited: Nov 2, 2018, 3:07am Top

If fantastique in the narrow sense is essentially characterized by ambiguity, surely much weird fiction is too unambiguously supernatural to qualify.

Fantastique in the wide sense appears to be the same as "speculative fiction" in its wide sense, encompassing all non-realist fiction. This latter it has become fashionable to label as fantastik in Swedish, particularly works that don't obviously fit in any narrower genre, presumably after the French.

(The narrow definition of "speculative fiction" would be that subset of science fiction that restricts itself to disciplined extrapolation from known physical law. I've met people who insist this is the One True™ definition, but it seems to be fairly rare; WP doesn't seem to know of it, frex.)

ETA: Actually, the WP page on "Speculative fiction" includes this line:

However, some writers, such as Margaret Atwood, continue to distinguish "speculative fiction" specifically as a "no Martians" type of science fiction, "about things that really could happen."

Despite the apparent implications of "continue", there is no previous mention in the article of such a usage.

Edited: Nov 2, 2018, 4:30am Top

Margaret Atwood explains her thoughts on Speculative Fiction vs. Science Fiction, concerning her own books and marketing thereof. She speaks to a female interviewer from Penn State about; mythology/folk tales/bible, attending university in Canada in the 50s/60s which was very different than university in the USA, why Canada must be different from France/UK/USA (historically), etc.

Unsure if this hits the mark, but I found it interesting and helpful, as I am in the midst of The Blind Assassin currently. The spec vs. sci is at the 14min30sec mark.


She outlines the fact that in France, she never gets the question posed to her about the spec vs. sci category, since they use a term … un roman d'anticipation … a novel of anticipation, to include her stories. Speculative Fiction is for book buyers who found her novels on sci-fi shelves and were disappointed at the absence of aliens, spaceships, other worlds. Much like a fantasy novel without dragons.

Nov 2, 2018, 4:20am Top

My recollection from reading about Atwood was that one half called her Madd Adam series science fiction, while another called it speculative fiction. Not sure who was who.

My introduction to speculative fiction was through submissions to genre-esque magazines and it seemed to be used as a catch-all for anything not realistic. So, sci-fi, fantasy, magic realism, weird, bizarre, surreal, etc.

It does make sense, given the name, that speculative fiction would relate to "realistic" works in the way that magic realism does.

Magic realism (and I had to research this), for those not familiar with it is any fantasy sort of story that has even the tiniest possibility of being true. For example, Lord of the Ring would be fantasy, because it'is a different world with different entities and divinities running around, while Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia would be magic realism, since, though really really improbable, the stories *could* be true. The door to Narnia is in a wardrobe, and the Wizarding world of Harry Potter is simply being hidden from us.

Nov 2, 2018, 4:40am Top

As an old Tolkien nerd, I'm contractually obligated to point out that the world of The Lord of the Rings is supposed to be ours, just in a distant past.

In practice, "magical realism" is mostly applied to works with pretensions to be literary fiction, and especially ones by Latin American writers.

Nov 2, 2018, 4:43am Top

I remember that detail about Hobbits getting bigger at the end of the cartoon version of Return of the King. Easier not to get too much into it though. ;)

I suspect that in practice, "Speculative fiction" gets a like treatment, but I try to stick to original meanings when I can, or there really isn't a pointing in defining them.

Edited: Nov 2, 2018, 4:57am Top

My son told me that the tech factor plays into spec/sci/weird/horror/fantasy genres, which mirrors Atwood's comments about Jules Verne being the first Speculative Fiction writer, without actually intending to have that distinction. The differentiation seems to matter more to the reader than to the writer.

Nov 2, 2018, 5:26am Top

>26 WeeTurtle: I suspect that in practice, "Speculative fiction" gets a like treatment, but I try to stick to original meanings when I can, or there really isn't a pointing in defining them.

If you by "like treatment" mean it's primarily applied to works with literary pretensions, FWIW my experience is that it's not usually so restricted.

Judging by the WP article, the original meaning is simply = science fiction, which doesn't seem particularly useful.

Edited: Nov 2, 2018, 5:33am Top

References that happily apply "speculative fiction" to the genriest of genre works include the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and TVTropes.

Edited: Nov 2, 2018, 6:36am Top

This interview mentions how horror, Poe, Wells (sci-fi), Verne (speculative) all influenced her (Atwood) views on writing, but the single largest factor was WWII. This fueled her study habits, writing style, workaholic tendency, her diversity/adaptability, and her need to find hope beyond misery. Her lack of social community fueled her imagination in those early years which was critical for her choice to be a writer (at age 16) rather than follow her father/brother into a science field. Again, I found it helpful, to sort out what it was like for her in the days before Creative Writing classes told you what to do. Horror/weird/sci-fi was encouraged since it kept kids/teens free from sexual content at that time. Born in 1939, her father had survived the Depression, married, had kids, moved to the woods for research, then she returned for high school, etc. The sense of place and pattern had critical bearings on how she and what she wrote, all mirrored by the person she was/is. This feeling seems present in the writings of Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft. Machen and Blackwood were likely different in that they were part of the established 'male' order catalogue in Britain at the time. I'm still slotting in as many as possible between novels.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn2pq3SiqHc (22min)

From Weird Fiction Review: (on Blackwood) "His bildungsroman was the flight from the repressive doctrine of his father’s evangelical Christianity by means of clandestine investigations into Buddhism, the Baghavad and Blavatsky’s theosophy; from the stern discipline and claustrophobia of his schooling at the hands of the Moravian Brotherhood at the edge of the Black Forest, into the solemn immensity of the wildwood itself: ‘he saw the narrow slit windows with the vistas of enticing field and forest beyond’. His escape route would eventually lead him to the sublime elevations of the Alps and the desolate, snowy expanses of the American north. These tensions between domesticity and wilderness, between society and nature, between God and Nature, established so early, created resonances that exerted an enduring fascination over his life and dominated his work. In both he seems constantly tossed back and forth between their unresolved opposition."

Nov 2, 2018, 5:24pm Top

This idea from the article is interesting:

As a result, French fantastique films have not formed an easily identifiable, consistent body of work coalescing around certain character types, thematic clusters, narrative strategies or audience responses. To recognize the fantastique as a French cinematic tradition, it is therefore best to approach it as a mode, mood or spirit, rather than as a genre.

I think we've seen the "but is it weird?" question pop up often enough in our discussions. It's often a tough one to answer, leaving you grasping for something just out of reach, much as with French cinema and the fantastique. Todorov's "supernatural or not?" ambiguity aside, it seems that both weird and fantastique share a very similar - and elusive - "mode, mood or spirit", regardless of the media they are presented in.

Also familiar-sounding is this:

For some commentators it is an expansive domain that includes all forms of non-realistic narrative, encompassing the wondrous, the dreamlike and the weird, fairy tales, horror and science fiction. Others like to draw a clear line between fantastique and horror, contrasting the suggestive ambiguity of the former with the explicitness of the latter.

That not-so-clear point of demarcation between fantastique and horror is something close to the question of whether or not to of include standard horror stories in a definition of weird fiction. I'm not suggesting that weird and fantastique are interchangeable terms, but they do face a common kind of genre dysphoria.

Nov 2, 2018, 9:43pm Top

Genre dysphoria: great term.

Nov 4, 2018, 6:37pm Top

It has been suggested that weird fiction should evoke a sort of religious feeling of awe, wonderment, or being in the presence of something beyond our ken. Obviously, that's a subjective reaction, but, I suspect, that's what makes weird fiction hard to define. Does a work evoke that feeling for you? You might be able to feel the author fumbling around in your brain trying to get that reaction, but, if he can't activate that part of your brain, then the story is just a supernatural story or an action story or a horror story or surrealism or an odd slice of life.

Nov 4, 2018, 7:12pm Top

>33 RandyStafford:

It's an interesting idea, but is the feeling described at all different from "the sublime"? And would that mean Weird is (merely?) a strain of Gothic that has found new means to create the responses in its readers that Mrs Radcliffe and co. could create in their original readership?

Nov 5, 2018, 3:49pm Top

>34 housefulofpaper: I was uncertain if my memory of Matthew Arnold's concept of 'the beautiful and sublime" was right. I looked it up. Given that Arnold throws fear into the emotions that "sublime" can bring forth, I'd say there really isn't much of a difference between the emotions of religious awe and the sublime.

Edited: Nov 5, 2018, 4:37pm Top

I don't have any memory of Matthew Arnold, but I associate the sublime with aesthetic ideas from German Enlightenment philosophy. The Wikipedia article on Sublime (philosophy) is hardly exhaustive, but not heuristically useless.

To me, the weird and the sublime intersect in that they both provoke awe. But the weird has an additional ingredient of fatality: a sense of hidden telos.

Edited to add: One might object that the "cosmic indifference" attributed to Lovecraft's development of the weird is at odds with "a sense of hidden telos." But I would say it's completely consistent with it. In particular it suggests that there are praeternatural and/or superhuman powers that have ends of their own which in no way take account of human desires or preferences.

Edited: Nov 5, 2018, 8:38pm Top

>33 RandyStafford:
>34 housefulofpaper:
My only way to understand the sublime reference was watching this link when researching how to define 'gothic' … at 10m:20s-14m:05s … David Punter gives examples to show effective visuals rather than a set definition. I would not think that a 'weird' short story would have that gravitas, but I am thinking of the beauty element which would be absent from a remote barren planet, but I found the descriptions in The White People by Machen hypnotic and profoundly summarized.

There are different levels or percentages of wonderment/awe/fear. Meaning, I might have a visceral reaction to a story about water, and having almost drowned as a child, my reaction would be off the charts for fear, while someone else might be moderately uncomfortable about abandonment on a lake surface or adrift on the ocean. Awe would be 30, fear would be 60 and wonderment might be only 10 percent. Give me a story about a mountain peak or the deep woods and awe might be 60, wonderment 30, and fear only 10 percent. Concept clear as mud?!


Nov 6, 2018, 3:27am Top

It ultimately feels odd to me to define "Weird fiction" as that seems counter to the point. So much of things like horror and uncertainty are also relative to the person. I looked back at the opening post again, and my response to what's listed is that "horror-tinged" is an awkward measure because not everyone finds the same things unsettling, and experience can dampen reactions to things. Warhammer 40k to me is really more Gothic Sci-Fantasy, sort of. Nothing strikes me as particularly strange because it's in a world that has strange rules. Know the rules, know the world. I feel I need to look at the writing and feel myself that is is out of place.

Group: The Weird Tradition

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