Literary scholars recently seem to think they’ve invented a new genre: weird literature. It’s partly an outgrowth of the increased popularity of science fiction, dystopic fiction and zombie stories–that sort of thing. Scholars also point to the restitution of the writing of HP Lovecroft (USA, 1890-1937), which seems to define this genre. I don’t have a problem with any of this (having been asked to contribute to a volume on the subject), but it’s worth pointing out that weirdness in narrative is nothing new, dating back at least to Cervantes’s Don Quixote, credited with kickstarting the modern novel in 1605. Don Quixote’s problem (the character’s “real” name was Alonso Quijano) was his inability to disentangle reality from fiction and his insistence on attacking the world as if it were an adventure tale from the chivalric tradition of “knight errantry.” This conflation of real and unreal is the foundation of weirdness–a treatment of those aspects of life that are illogical, oxymoronic, absurd and random by imagining a context in which everything is off-kilter.
In an earlier post about realism and reality, I opined that realist literature helps us humans make an incoherent world seem coherent. It takes a universe we can’t possibly apprehend in its entirely and allows us to address it as human-centered. It’s a huge leap of imagination–the leap that makes any art worthwhile. Weird literature, in a leap almost as huge, does the opposite. It imagines what we humans can’t apprehend about the universe through our senses. Which is why this genre routinely incorporates horror and madness, two perfectly human reactions to the ungraspable and unthinkable.
Some of my favorite weird fiction, however, does not strictly qualify as tales of horror or madness. Looked at properly, they’re pretty mad and horrible, but not in the conventional sense. The most prominent of these among American writers is Shirley Jackson (USA, 1916-1965), whom I’ve also mentioned in an earlier post. Jackson’s milestone contribution to both weird and horror fiction, The Haunting of Hill House, is considered the model for contemporary horror stories. (This requires setting aside Edgar Allan Poe, but we’ll let that go for now.) Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery,” fits perfectly into my idea of the weird: the presentation of a completely realistic scene in a supposedly typical American small town, culminating in a single, inexplicable, horrific event that makes sense only to the town’s inhabitants–and not to Jackson’s readers. But some of Jackson’s best writing comprises gentle domestic tales (from her posthumous anthology, Just an Ordinary Day) that are head-scratchingly weird but not exactly horrific.
I can think of quite a few other nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers who were capable of this sort of genteel weirdness. E.F Benson (UK, 1867-1940), best known for his “Mapp and Lucia” comic series, wrote some great “crank” stories that are very weird indeed. Uruguay’s Horacio Quiroga (Uruguay, 1878-Argentina,1937), who is capable of blood-chilling horror, also wrote some very weird, but very touching, love stories. The most interesting example I’ve encountered recently is Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America. This novel does not fit the orthodox definition of weird literature, but it does fit my definition: the use of realist technique to explore the unthinkable. The novel reads like an autobiography–in essence, it is the biography of Roth’s own family life in the 1940s in Weequahic, the middle class Jewish enclave of Newark, NJ that figures in much of his writing. But this autobiography takes place in an alternate Weequahic, in an alternate USA, in which Franklin D. Roosevelt has lost his bid for a third term as president to aviator-hero Charles Lindberg. Lindberg, infamously anti-Semitic, launches a plant to Nazify the US that turns idyllic Weequahic into a Jewish hell.
This brings me to the present. Aren’t we now witness to a weird alternative reality, currently being spun in realist rhetoric, that could result in a contemporary national hell? An attempt to make sense of the world by people who cannot apprehend or accept the world they live in? An attempt that could ultimately descend into mayhem for all of us? You see, it works both ways. If authors of fiction can create weird worlds to help us comprehend the one we inhabit, then so can denizens of our world, when confronted with a reality they cannot accept, create a weird narrative to refuse that reality. Weirdness and horror can be, and often is, a collective endeavor.