The following article first appeared in October 2011 at SF Signal. — The Editors
“Fancied associations should not be taken as exclusive and final meanings.” – Frederick Clarke Prescott
“This continuing presence of the weird in literature shows the popular demand for it and must have some basis in human psychosis. The night side of the soul attracts us all. The spirit feeds on mystery. It lives not by fact alone but by the unknowable.…” – Dorothy Scarborough
I know, people (especially in the community of fantastika) assert this often, but this is not some invocation of geek pride or display of dorkish bravado. I am weird. What I mean by this is that I feel that I identify with some of the essential characteristics of this word’s meanings; that the notion effects my thoughts and choices; and that the word is significant enough that I feel affective resonance for what it describes and when it emerges from my reading and thinking. It is not a matter of behavior, nor is it a self-indictment of my social skills; although I am certainly shy and sometimes awkward with others, I don’t think of that as “weird.” Some people are not adept at social interaction and everyone has a distinctive personality that may complicate their interactions with others. That is a fact of life, and that in itself is not “weird.” There is much more to what is weird than that casual, diluted usage of the term.
“Weird” is one of my favorite words, an innovation on a much older group of terms. It goes back to Germanic and Saxon words that meant “to become” or just “fate.” But this seems limiting because we think of fate as less of a becoming than an inevitable status. Both “weird” and “fate” have roots in the pronouncements of gods; the Norns were referred to with variations of this word, such as the werde sisters (and in fact Urðr is the personification of both words, her name based on the Norse cognate of wyrd). While certainly synonymous with “doom” and prophecy, the word is not about inevitability, but about supernatural, inexplicable motion, energies and patterns beyond what we can see. It comes into our language’s predecessors via weorþan: turning, winding, spinning. The foundation of “weird” is of something beyond our control coming to pass, something that can affect our future and that we can attempt to dialogue with, but that has its own logic and process.
That essence has branched out in contemporary English and given us a word with several different meanings:
1. involving or suggesting the supernatural; unearthly or uncanny: a weird sound; weird lights.
2. fantastic; bizarre: a weird getup.
3. Archaic . concerned with or controlling fate or destiny.
My Oxford Universal Dictionary of Historical Principles gives me some bridging definitions that are relevant. The noun form is explicated in that “archaic” sense of fate, or a determiner of fate, or the circumstances of one’s fate. In the remaining definitions we have these gems: “A supernatural or marvellous occurrence or tale” and “Out of the ordinary course; strange, unusual; hence, odd, fantastic.” The etymology also points to its affinity with the word warp.
What I find most germane and meaningful about this cluster of definitions is that all of them reflect a bewitched, entwined view of life, about something difficult to grasp and make sense of outside of “normal” experience but that impinges on the “normal” in a way that resists easy disengagement or explanation, an extramundane element or influence that is not blandly “magical” but that is provocative and elusive and/or perplexing. What is “weird” is simultaneously about change and a sense of the irresistable. Something “weird” is something that is not just unusual (a specific moment of abnormality), but is a dynamic impingement on asserted actuality. This applies not just to its use as a social descriptor, as a framing for metaphor, but as a conditioning ambiance for thinking and reading.
The word “weird” has a literary lineage, from the classic, often pulpy weird tales to contemporary permutations such as the “New Weird,” but for me, weird fiction is any writing that breaks the hold of realism and doubly-immerses me in its web of signification. Everyone immerses themselves once into a fiction, by accepting the words and letting their belief in the meanings of the symbols enter into their consciousness. Reading is an act both of imagination and cogitation, of making sense and creating worlds. But weird fiction pulls you into a second, deeper pool, where your beliefs are challenged, ridiculed, overthrown, or insulted.
Uncanny, bizarre, and concerned with fate, in the sense of stressing “the irrationality and impersonal character of events;” meanings collide in weird fiction, ideally provoking an energetic response, and sometimes not the one you want. I read Amos’ Tutuola’s “The Dead Babies” this morning in the just-released anthology ODD? and reacted to his description of dead babies beating people with more astonishment than I was prepared for. The story is a sort of afterlife nightmare, a folktale-mirage, a world unanchored from reality that contains things that are not describable, but that are discussed in a deadpan style. The contrast is difficult to absorb, and terribly weird. I’m still not sure that I liked the story, but it definitely created an afterglow of unease and consternation.
And that is a good thing; without our expectations being undermined we never think differently, adjust our standpoint, or discover inspiration. Some weird ideas may repulse you, some may fail to impress you, and others may be incomprehensible, but those are the risks and pitfalls of the weird, both in reading it and in doing your thinking through the notion that reality is not just open to question but that it is a temporary, contingent answer that we reify or re-revaluate frequently. The weird’s uncanniness, its marvelousness and confrontation with the imputed inevitable is an invitation to revisit our answers and periodically see them from another vantage point, through a new lens, in a different spectrum of colors. Something weird is not just something different; it is something differently conceived. It insinuates that what we find comfortable, coherent, or prosaic is an effect of agreement in a shared verisimilitude.
This does not mean that nothing is real, only that the weird puts the real to the test, interrogates its value and demonstrates that its solidity is a construct, a bounding of sense and space. What Lovecraft called “the fathomless abysses of inaccessible space which press in on us from every side” are kept at bay by limiting vision. The weird reminds us that there is so much more outside of those boundaries, that much more exists past the selected bits of the world that we apprehend and validate. Lovecraft took this to a cosmic extreme, including the fate part, but when I read a piece of fiction that even gently points out improbabilities, inconsistencies, ambiguities, or what is plainly unfathomable or impossible, I feel the nudge of the weird on my mind, and instead of being assuaged I am incited to wonder and rumination. Instead of being lulled I am disturbed, shaken from certainty, biting my lip in concentration and no longer hearing the birds outside or the buzz of my phone alarm.
This is a form of joy, this involvement with something weird. Humans can find pleasure and satisfaction in almost anything, but joy is harder to find. Rejoicing in something, feeling that you have been given something that gladdens you, feeling that you have received something of worth that becomes valuable to you in a moment of transformation from what was just acceptable or commonplace into something worthy, given an altered value from outside of the mundane, is the produce of weirdness. The creation of worth (whose root is I believe a cognate of weird’s linguistic ancestor) comes from the realization that we charge things and ideas with power gained from mystification, fabulation, and the attempt to reconcile the few true certainties of life with everything else that is enigmatic and chimerical. Thinking weirdly can show you the profound worth of something, or demonstrate that there is nothing under your feet buy an abyss. Both can bring you a joy of recognition, an ecstatic bewilderment that forces you to traverse what you know into, even very briefly, new mindscapes of consideration and speculation.
I rejoice when that happens, garner a new sense of something’s worth and its relation to what is considered real and what is not, and that makes me weird. I rejoice in weirdness because it can create opportunities for me to find unseen value in the usual and assumed. I find joy in the values its incongruous fomenting creates, in the testing of fate, in the crazy lies people tell with words and images and sounds to uncover something new or forgotten or marginalized. Even when my mind stumbles or is led astray, or my nose wrinkles because of what I just gleaned from the page, I push on because I want to see what else there is, to go deeper into dis-ease and confusion, to ascertain the worth, if any, of both what I am experiencing and what I am thinking. It is the hermeneutic spiral made of razor wire and dream-thread, often spinning very close to what is true and powerful, and daring us to feel the cuts and the grip of the weave around us and understand how much is outside of us, and how on occasion we can glean hard lessons and glimmers of beauty from it.