Navigating the Bleeding Edge—Series Conspectus
‘Nü Weird? What’s that?’ Smudging Sci-Fi, Horror & Mystery
A journey into the lurid and ineffable borders of fiction, as a published New Weird author pokes at and explains the various heirs to the grand horror tradition. Navigate the mysterious mélange of not-quite mapped terrain comprising the strange children of Sci-Fi, Horror, and other genres and the tropes therein.
I can still remember the first time I heard the words New Weird. I was at a convention, and one of the folks who had read my work introduced me to someone as a New Weird author [ 1 ]. Now, while I was many things, weird and new both being accurate at the time, masterfully knowledgeable about genre is not one of the things I was. Those of you who have seen me speak at conventions will recall my spiel: “I write sci-fi, fantasy, steam punk, superheroes, space opera, and apparently accidentally write horror… much to my publisher’s dismay all at the same time.” Upon being told I write said milieu, I decided to go find out what label had just been stuck to me.
As it turns out, once I both looked up the official definition and delved into some of the books, the label wasn’t far from what I’d previously introduced myself as. Authors such as Brian Lumley, Michael Swanwick, Charles Stross, and Neil Gaiman are among those who formed my tastes and informed my own work. Since then, while I don’t introduce myself as a New Weird author, and I don’t set out to write New Weird, I acknowledge many of my books might well fit that category.
Now, at this point a few of you are nodding along, because you already know what this gestalt term is; hopefully, this and future articles in the series will entertain, give you a few enlightening turns of phrase to describe the term to others, and possibly introduce you to a few authors you hadn’t previously read, nor realized were “New Weird”. The rest of you, of course, are still saying, “Other than a hodgepodge of other genres, what is New Weird?”
Defining an All-Encompassing Genre Category
To start, New Weird is a genre of fiction, specifically a subcategory of the perhaps overly broad “speculative fiction.” It’s often seen as a combination of several different genres, and it contains elements of all of them: science fiction, horror, fantasy, and thriller [ 2 ]. From fantasy it pulls three major factors, which are the existence: of some form of supernatural power, the existence of worlds beyond what we can perceive with our limited senses, and the existence of beings that exist in those worlds and use that power as naturally and easily as we exist on a sidewalk and walk to the local grocery store [ 3 ]. From its Sci-Fi roots, it inherits a penchant for explaining those powers, places, and persons in a concrete, plausible fashion. At times this is hard sci-fi from the edge of our current knowledge, and other times it is pure handwavium. But even in the latter case it’s usually intended to be well-crafted in order to stand up to some scrutiny, as opposed to the “just ignore it and move on” philosophy adopted by some authors who enjoy using the presence of “it exists because it needs to” to move their plot lines along [ 4 ].
Those two disparate heritages—the fantastic with its frequently fuzzy edges and the scientific with its dedication to detail—often bring about clashes between the authors of the two parent genres; in the worlds of the New Weird, however, it is the fusion of these two which creates the connections to the third and fourth genres mentioned above. The first connection is what occurs when light shines on the elements of the unnatural; tension builds as the reader’s mind tries to fill in the blank spaces to make the whole somehow more familiar, only to be stymied time and again as yet more details deny that connection. That tension provides a level of suspense normally only seen in dedicated thrillers, with the climax or payoff coming when, at some point, whatever unnatural thing the author has created stands fully unveiled [ 5 ].
This unveiling, of course, makes the final genre connection: horror. While many types of horror are represented within this territory, including instances of body horror and gore, most of those are ancillary to the key, central connection between the New Weird and horror: existential dread. One of the central common aspects of all New Weird literature is the ability to make a reader question that which is real. If, according to Stephen King, the horror genre can be broken down into revulsion, or the gag reflex when one tries to fully digest the thing presented; horror, or the initial feeling of shock when something beyond our ability to comprehend is exposed [ 6 ]; and terror, or the growing fear as one realizes that horror and revulsion are waiting right around some metaphorical corner, then it focuses on a particular style of terror [ 7 ]. Specifically, New Weird literature presents something, whether it is a person, a place, an object, or even an idea, which is so far beyond a reader’s present understanding that their mind rejects it as incompatible with reality [ 8 ].
Instead of allowing that rejection to stand, however, New Weird literature fills in detail after detail, forcing the reader’s mind to acknowledge the aberration as “real,” optimally doing so without actually changing the reader’s mind about the incompatibility of reality and the new information. In doing so, said literature can make a reader disbelieve some portions of reality itself, removing the “known” or “safe” feeling from commonplace items. When done right and received as intended, said literature instills a deep sense of existential dread in the reader, forcing them to question the nature of reality itself, and therefore question whether they themselves exist at all [ 9 ].
Okay, take a deep breath. If it sounds like all this is way too heavy for you to enjoy, take heart! While each of the traits I listed above are present to some degree in every New Weird work, the genre-defying authors of this loose term refuse to be pigeonholed into using some set amount of each in their work. Said literature ranges from books that almost fit cleanly into traditional horror, like Lumley’s Necroscope; to those which masquerade as fantasy, like King’s Gunslinger [ 10 ] or Swanwick’s Iron Dragon’s Daughter; and some even drop without a great deal of splashing into science fiction (Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation), steampunk (Brandon Sanderson’s The Alloy of Law), superheroes (Wildbow’s Worm) or even comedy (John DeChancie’s Castle Perilous). That last takes a big dose of fantasy and a dash of science fiction to craft setting, keeps the thriller to a minimum of suspense needed to maintain interest in the plot, and only presents the horror of existential dread as a reader exercise in fridge logic [ 11 ], instead focusing on using the unknown and unexpected as key elements in making with the funny.
You’ll Know It When You See It
So said media is penned by authors who refuse to be pinned down, can take on almost any guise imaginable, and may or may not be listed as “New Weird” when you go looking for them. How, then, does one tell if a piece of art fits in the New Weird or not? Believe it or not, the answer is simpler than the old saw about pornography (“I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”). Most New Weird works, besides touching on some of the genre ground listed above, have a few frequently used conceits or tropes.
One thing you’ll see in many New Weird stories is a multitude of universes or parallel worlds, sometimes with distinct—if similar—laws of physics, other times with completely different rules in each of the worlds included. Whether those are presented as alternate timelines, parallel worlds, alternate planes of existence, or supernatural realms, the common theme embraced by New Weird is that if this is not the only reality extant, then our understanding of reality is as incomplete as the scale of the realities we’ve yet to experience.
Another common thread is the idea of blurring genre itself. In some cases, this might be as simple as gunpowder and lasers making a cameo in a fight dominated by wizards and dragons. In others, dread Cthulhu waltzes with Gojira to electronic dance music played by elves and Martians. Of course, it’s not always quite that over the top, as seen in more somber, brooding builds to suspense, with assembled casts from different “walks of life”. The common thread between all of these, though, is that the mixing of genres is done in a way which leaves the reader less able to predict which storytelling tropes will dominate while still allowing them to think they can.
This plays right into another theme seen in these works: deconstruction. The genre is particularly suited to taking irrational occurrences which nonetheless happen time and again within a genre and turning them on their heads, whether by making them not happen, by making them happen and then not ignoring the consequences which the rest of the genre conveniently ignores, or even in extremis by creating a world wherein something which is irrational in the “real” world makes perfect sense in the world described in the story (I’m looking at YOU, Kill La Kill). Again, by making us rethink what we know as “common sense,” the New Weird puts us in that mental situation where the commonplace becomes unknown, and therefore at least a little exciting [ 12 ].
Now, where are we seeing these “blends” the most? Where are people—typically—first exposed to the concept? I have friends who say the origins are in a certain variety show from the ’60s (and those who look to that show’s roots), and others who say that webcomics enlightened them as to this whole, new term (though not always directly). We won’t always ask where a facet of New Weird started or when it got popular, but reception is relevant to further production.
The final theme I’ll go into today that shows up in many, if not all, New Weird works is the “mind screw.” as you might have guessed based on the stated effects of the aforementioned themes. Whether intentional or not, whether driven by one of the three prior listed commonalities or not, New Weird works almost always contain at least one thing that will leave you scratching your head, wondering if you really understood it, completely misunderstood it, or if it was ever something that was intended to be understood at all [ 13 ].
Of course, just like with the mix and match of genres, individual New Weird authors will mix and match whichever of these common features works best to make their own stories fit together in their own ever more unique fashions. At the end of the day, if you’re looking for something familiar, comforting and homey, just like you’ve read before but with new proper nouns, New Weird is definitely not for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something that delights in turning convention on its ear, and in doing so might just turn your own worldview on its ear, you may have found just what you’re looking for.
Over the course of this series, it’s my intention to delve deeper into each of the facets I’ve mentioned today. We’ll take a deeper look at the individual components used to craft this body of work, from dark comedy to existentialism to unreliable narration. We’ll review more traditional presentations of the New Weird, from core examples like New Crobuzon and Necroscope [ 14 ] to pieces from the edges of this genre-defying genre, like Castle Perilous. Finally, we’ll take some time to look at some presentations of the New Weird which are as unconventional in medium as they are in content, whether it be the slight difference of the graphic novel format, or the complete deviance of the SCP Foundation [ 15 ].
So say goodbye to your expectations, and I’ll see you next time as we Navigate the Bleeding Edge.
- “Cosmic and existential horror is an inextricable part of the ‘New Weird’ gestalt.” Odyssey2049. “warrior standing looking Cthulhu,Cosmic monster, sea monster,strom bad weather ,digital art, Illustration painting.” Shutterstock. 30 March 2022, shutterstock.com/image-illustration/warrior-standing-looking-cthulhucosmic-monster-sea-1869566779
- “Contrary to initial impressions, the varying elements of sci-fi, fantasy, darkness and horror are not all present in each manifestation of ‘New Weird’. It is the balance and contrast between these disparate themes, complicating these fictions, that exemplify the term.” camilkuo. “digital illustration of fantasy futuristic science fiction floating land with alien building and waterfall in canyon valley with primates shouting in front and planet in back.” Shutterstock. 30 March 2022, shutterstock.com/image-illustration/digital-illustration-fantasy-futuristic-science-fiction-622959221
Having wandered through multiple careers, hobbies, and educational paths over five decades of life, Robert’s body of work has ranged from systems analysis, work a butcher, a baker, a professional educator, and published author. A regular speaker at PhilCon and other events, he’s been a force multiplier for community youth outreach. Steam-Funk Studios senior creative staff, his insights helped shape both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse punctuated by his dry pronouncement, “Boom.”
- Roman, Robert C. What Not to Fear. Decadent Publishing, 2011.
- Murphy, Benjamin Noys And Timothy. “Introduction: Old and New Weird.” Genre, vol. 49, no. 2, July 2016, p. 117, doi:10.1215/00166928-3512285.
- Galley, Ben. “Writing Fantasy: A Short Guide To The Genre.” The Creative Penn, Joanna Penn, 27 June 2013, thecreativepenn.com/2013/06/27/writing-fantasy.
- “New Weird.” TVTropes, TVTropes Team, 15 Oct 2020, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NewWeird. Accessed 25 Oct 2020.
- Gilks, Marg, Paula Fleming, and Moira Allen. “Science Fiction: The Literature of Ideas.” Writing World, Moira Allen, 2003, writing-world.com/sf/sf.shtml.
- Suderman, Peter. “Stephen King’s Hierarchy of Scares Remains the Best Explanation of How Horror Movies Work.” Vox, Vox Media, 7 Feb. 2017, vox.com/culture/2017/2/7/14492124/stephen-king-rings-horror-movie-scares.
- “Genre Basics—Thrillers.” Author Learning Center, Author Learning Center, authorlearningcenter.com/writing/i-have-an-idea/w/choosing-your-topic/2890/genre-basics—thrillers—article. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- Hannah. “The Many Forms Of Horror And Terror.” Tutor Hunt, Tutor Hunt, 11 Feb. 2013, tutorhunt.com/resource/4589.
- Hanscomb, Stuart. “Natural Existentialism and the Paradox of Art-Horror.” Atmostfear Entertainment, Atmostfear Entertainment S.A.S., atmostfear-entertainment.com/medias/motions/natural-art-horror. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.
- King, Stephen. The Gunslinger. Reprint, Scribner, 2016.
- “Fridge Logic.” TVTropes, TVTropes Team, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FridgeLogic. Accessed 28 June. 2017.
- “Deconstructor Fleet.” TVTropes, TVTropes Team, 2 Oct 2020. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeconstructorFleet. Accessed 25 Oct 2020.
- “Mind Screw.” TVTropes, TVTropes Team, 6 May 2020. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MindScrew. Accessed 25 Oct 2020.
- Lumley, Brian. Necroscope. Tor Books, 1992.
- “About The SCP Foundation.” SCP Foundation, Creative Commons, 19 Oct 2020. scpwiki.com/about-the-scp-foundation. Accessed 25 Oct 2020.