A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937
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A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937

Disgust, Metaphysics and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror

Jonathan Newell

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A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937

Disgust, Metaphysics and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror

Jonathan Newell

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About This Book

This book offers a new critical perspective on the weird that combines two ways of looking at weird and cosmic horror. On the one hand, critics have considered weird fiction in relation to aesthetics – the emotional effects and literary form of the weird. On the other hand, recent scholarship has also emphasised the potential philosophical underpinnings and implications of weird fiction, especially in relation to burgeoning philosophical movements such as new materialism and speculative realism. This study bridges the gap between these two approaches, considering the weird from its early outgrowth from the Gothic through to Lovecraft's stories – a 'weird century' from 1832–1937. Combining recent speculative philosophy and affect theory, it argues that weird fiction harnesses the affective power of disgust to provoke a re-examination of subjectival boundaries and the complex entanglement of the human and nonhuman.

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IN H. P. LOVECRAFT’S short story ‘Cool Air’ (1928), the nameless narrator moves into a converted brownstone in New York. Alarmed by an odour of ‘pungent ammonia’, he investigates: the source of the chemical spill is the enigmatic Dr Muñoz, his upstairs neighbour.1 Despite the strangeness of the chemical baths that the doctor takes, his proximity proves life-saving when the narrator suffers a heart attack and lurches upstairs in search of help. Upon meeting the strange, reclusive man, the narrator is instantly but unaccountably repelled, nausea stealing over him despite his desperation: ‘as I saw Dr Muñoz in that blast of cool air’, he tells us, ‘I felt a repugnance which nothing in his aspect could justify’ (p. 133). Returned to health by Dr Muñoz, the narrator slowly befriends the curious and ‘and even gruesome’ (p. 135) physician. As the story progresses, it is revealed that using techniques of extreme refrigeration Dr Muñoz keeps a mysterious malady at bay, relying on what at first seems to be some combination of medicine and unusual cryonic science. As time passes, the physician hints at forces sustaining him beyond those explicable by science, speaking of how ‘will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself’ (p. 133). But all is not well with the good doctor, for all his cooling technology and mysticism: he dwindles, eating less and less, talking often of death. An unpleasant odour develops in his apartment that has nothing to do with his constant chemical baths.
Then, one day, ‘the horror of horrors came with stupefying suddenness’ (p. 136): the refrigeration machine breaks. Dr Muñoz alerts the narrator to his need by thumping on the floor and cursing in ‘a tone whose lifeless, rattling hollowness [surpasses] description’ (p. 136). Kept in a tub of ice, the physician is rapidly declining, and there is a hint of ‘fiendish things’ in the air as the stench intensifies (p. 137). The narrator goes out to find workmen to repair the doctor’s machines but returns to discover the apartment in disarray. The only trace of Dr Muñoz is a ‘terrible little pool’ and a few ‘nauseous words’ of ‘noisome scrawl’ on a paper ‘hideously smeared’, as well as a ‘dark, slimy trail’ leading from the note to the couch ‘and [ends] unutterably’ (pp. 137–8). The words reveal that Dr Muñoz had persisted in a state between life and death despite having ‘died’ years before. His liminal state presents a host of ontological paradoxes, inviting the reader to question the boundary between life and death, human and non-human, consciousness and world, spirit and matter. What seems to be a story about speculative technology turns out to be a story that is also about speculative metaphysics, about the possibility of some horrific vitalism, life sustained by the power of the will rather than the operation of organs. Such philosophical speculations are not illustrated using the dry, detached tone of the metaphysician, however, but with expostulations of growing repugnance finally culminating in an awful confrontation with the doctor’s horrifically deliquescent remains.
‘Cool Air’ was rejected by Weird Tales for the intensity of its disgusting content. Lovecraft credits the inspiration of the story to ‘The Novel of the White Powder’, an embedded tale in The Three Imposters (1895) by Arthur Machen, one of Lovecraft’s literary heroes.2 Machen’s story, in turn, owes much to Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’ (1845). Both predecessors of ‘Cool Air’ are tales of putrefaction and necrotic slime, the horrific, undifferentiated sludge of decay; both also deal with ontological paradox and the breakdown of normally sacrosanct categories. ‘Cool Air’ and its fictional forebears dwell with both disgust and fascination upon things beyond the limit of thought: what it is like to be dead, what happens to consciousness after death and the mystery of thinking matter. Such stories are speculative portals, vortices through which realities otherwise unthinkable might be imagined. They seek to propel readers vertiginously into the realm of the unknown.
In Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), Lovecraft himself tells us that what he calls the ‘true weird tale’ must have ‘something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule’. He insists that in weird fiction
a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.3
A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832–1937: Disgust, Metaphysics and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror takes Lovecraft’s suggestion seriously to argue that weird fiction, through the means of an aesthetic experience generated by a form of disgust, allows for a moment of what the philosopher of art Carolyn Korsmeyer calls ‘aesthetic cognition’, a visceral aesthetic encounter allowing for queasy re-conceptions of reality. Beginning with the weird’s forefather, Edgar Allan Poe, this study traces the twisted entanglement of metaphysics, aesthetics, affect and weird fiction through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, considering along the way the attempts of weird authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson to stage encounters with the unthinkable through the intuitively unlikely conduit of aesthetic disgust, before returning finally to Lovecraft and his own weird writing.
This book is not a comprehensive survey of weird or gothic fiction through the approximate century it covers. While it does deal substantively with figures who have often been neglected in weird scholarship – both Blackwood and Hodgson are surprisingly under discussed given their influence on later authors – it primarily addresses authors of what we might think of as the ‘weird canon’. The choice to focus on these authors allows the study to consider specific works at greater length, and avoids duplicating the efforts of works like S. T. Joshi’s exhaustive, multi- volume Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012) or David Punter’s multi-volume The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (1996).
For Lovecraft, weird fiction is a ‘composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation’ (p. 18). This book is an anatomy of that body and cartography of unholy dimensions, a gazetteer of the unfathomable, with Poe, Machen, Blackwood, Hodgson and Lovecraft for guides. Like the demonological grimoires of Johann Weyer and Jacques Collin de Plancy it is also a bestiary, a book of monsters and monster theory. Indeed, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s third thesis on monsters in his essay ‘Monster Culture (Seven Theses)’ – that ‘the monster is the harbinger of category crisis’, a creature ‘suspended between forms’ that refuses ‘to participate in the classificatory “order of things”’ and resists ‘attempts to include [it] in any systematic structuration’4 – in many ways serves as this study’s theoretical starting point, alongside China Miéville’s contention that weird fiction is an iteration ‘of a long, strong aesthetic and philosophical tradition, one endlessly obsessed with questions of the Awesome, a beauty that is terrible and beyond-kenn-or-kennableness’, its ‘teratology’ renouncing ‘all folkloric and traditional antecedents’.5 Monsters in weird fiction break down the schema human beings use to make sense of the world, suggesting a cosmic outside always hovering just beyond the familiar world revealed by our senses. Absolute differences of essence are obliterated by the enmonstered reality that the affects of weird fiction convey. In other words, the monsters of the weird are uniquely useful to think with – and such thinking is inextricably wrapped up in feeling. Weird revulsion, I suggest, creates aesthetic encounters which help us to think about the unthinkable.
Gothic tumour
What exactly do I mean by ‘weird fiction’? The term is as categorically slippery as the realities it so often describes, originating with the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, whose tales of occult detectives, demonic monkeys and adolescent vampires often qualify as ‘weird’ in the sense that I use it here. Joshi stresses weird fiction’s nebulosity, noting that ‘if the weird tale exists now as a genre, it may only be because critics and publishers have deemed it so by fiat’.6 Despite the fuzziness of its borders, I side with Joshi in distinguishing the weird from the gothic and want to resist the urge to completely subsume the former into the latter. While Joshi’s objection to the umbrella term ‘gothic’ as employed by critics like David Punter is essentially historical, mine is primarily aesthetic and philosophical. I imagine the weird as a tumour of sorts growing out of the gothic – composed of the same tissues but unfamiliar, alien and yet not-entirely-so, at once part of its progenitor and curiously foreign to it. A literary excrescence, weird fiction shares many of the same tropes and trappings as its eighteenth-century host, including a fixation on negative affect. Where the gothic primarily generates what Ann Radcliffe calls ‘the gloomy and sublime kind of terror’, accomplished through a ‘union of grandeur and obscurity’ – a giddy Kantian thrill in which the human subject’s power is glorified – the weird revels in less rarefied forms of horror, derived not from the subject-affirming power of sublime fear but from the subject-dissolving power of disgust.7 While there are certainly gothic works that turn the stomach (The Monk in particular comes to mind), the disgust precipitated by weird fiction emanates from a specific source – the non-human world, what philosophers have called the world-in-itself. This book interprets the weird as a speculative and affective negotiation of the real, in its most elemental sense.
This is not to say that weird tales do not reflect the culture in which they were written – only that weird fiction is metaphysically rather than socially oriented. Weird authors do not share a single, dogmatic metaphysics, either. Their speculations are often contradictory, and a consistent ontological system cannot be neatly deduced from their texts: there is no single, coherent philosophy that weird in toto encodes. One of my central claims, however, is that weird fiction attempts to access a form of reality difficult to cognise, one radically distinct from the human mind and from an anthropocentric viewpoint. I also do not want to denigrate the gothic here, or to draw a completely immutable boundary between the gothic and the weird: obviously, there are works that traffic in both gothic and weird tropes and affects, including many that I discuss here. Rather than a rigid schema that simply deems a text ‘weird’ or ‘gothic’, I want to see the two modes as tendencies within a larger literary tradition, much as Radcliffe delineates differences between terror and horror. What I am calling ‘gothic’, as distinct from the weird, is a focus on the human past and the human mind – on the depths of the psyche, the weight of history, the hauntological, the human. This is not to disparage it, but rather to distinguish it from the weird, whose focus is instead on the non-human.
A brief survey of weird fiction may further clarify some of these competing tendencies within the horror tradition – the slow metastasis of the weird, so to speak. Works like William Beckford’s Vathek (1786), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), while solidly gothic, contain glimmers of the metaphysical vistas that weird fiction would later explore more thoroughly. It is Poe, however, who I suggest that truly inaugurates weird fiction avant la lettre, fixating, as this study suggests, on stories of mental metamorphoses, cosmic entropy and putrescence both physical and spiritual. During the middle of the nineteenth century, both the gothic and the weird went through what S. T. Joshi calls an ‘interregnum’, but in addition to Poe, various authors did produce a number of weird or proto-weird works.8 Some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s texts hover between the classically gothic and the weird, perhaps especially The House of Seven Gables (1851), as do some of the works of authors like Edward Bulwer-Lytton and the Brontë sisters. Weird fiction and the gothic underwent a significant revival towards the end of the nineteenth century, as exemplified by stories like those collected in Le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly (1872) and Charlotte Riddell’s much-acclaimed Weird Stories (1882). The genre overlapped significantly with the imperial gothic emergent at the time, exemplified by texts like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1886), as well as with decadent texts and the ghost story, which often seep from the gothic to the weird, notably in the stories of authors like Vernon Lee, M. R. James, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Saki and Ambrose Bierce as well, of course, as those of Arthur Machen, one of the key figures in this book.
The early twentieth century saw an explosion of weird tales, buoyed by the proliferation of pulp magazines. Three of the authors considered at length in this study – Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson and H. P. Lovecraft – are now considered key figures of the early twentieth-century weird, alongside writers like M. P. Shiel, Lord Dunsany, May Sinclair and Clark Ashton Smith. While the works of modernist and pulp writers offer many strong contrasts – the former embodying a kind of ‘literariness’, the latter often dismissed as ‘merely’ popular fiction – in content there are surprising points of overlap, visible in the use of techniques such as stream of consciousness in the works of writers like Lovecraft on the one hand, and in the vivid, often grotesque, frequently bizarre images found in the stories of writers like Franz Kafka. The genre would continue to flourish into the middle of the twentieth century, as seen in many of the stories of Robert E. Howard, Daphne Du Maurier, Robert Bloch and Mary Elizabeth Counselman. August Derleth – a champion and friend of Lovecraft’s – and authors like Ramsay Campbell, Donald Wandrei and Frank Belknap Long produced various tales during this period that drew explicitly on Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, the loose shared universe he and other weird authors made reference to via fictitious texts, locations and alien entities. Mervyn Peake’s monumental Gormenghast trilogy (1946–59) is also a notable here – a resolutely anti-Tolkienian fantasy rendered in opulent prose, set in a gigantic and surreal castle of immemorial age. However, a certain remission – a break between the weird fiction of the early twentieth century and its later revival – can be discerned in the first decades of the second half of the century, even while its influence could still be felt in adjacent subgenres and literary movements like the new wave of science fiction during the 1960s and 1970s.
During the horror boom of the 1980s and into the 1990s, many works trafficked in the tropes of the weird, including those by authors such as T. E. D. Klein, Clive Barker, Stephen King (on occasion) and especially Thomas Ligotti, whose stories of puppets, manikins, marionettes, monstrous hypnosis and the stultifying horror of the corporate workplace are perhaps especially noteworthy in their evocation of a determinist, pessimistic world view similar to Lovecraft’s. The weird has undergone a recent and vibrant renaissance in the twenty-first century as the so-called New Weird, whose key figures include China Miéville (also cited in this work as a theorist of the weird), K. J. Bishop, Laird Barron, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Tanith Lee and Jeff VanderMeer. While consciously in the tradition of the original weird, the New Weird frequently incorporates elements from science fiction, urban fantasy and secondary-world fantasy, often taking place in wholly invented universes, and inflecting the weird with a contemporary and politically radical sensibility.
While weird fiction is typically ‘supernatural’ or ‘preternatural’ in character, I argue that despite (or, indeed, through!) its supernatural elements, it is engaged in a form of unorthodox realism. Quite distinct from the social realism or literary naturalism of late Victorian novels striving to depict everyday life with faithfulness to social reality, weird fiction estranges readers from mundane existence while remaining faithful to a deeper, profoundly asocial reality. The curious realism of weird fiction thus finds its closest cognate not in the various literary realisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but in philosophical realism – and especially in the recent philosophical project that has come to be known as ‘speculative realism’.
The weird world-in-itself
A philosophical return to thinking about the world-in-itself, speculative realism originates with Quentin Meillassoux, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman and Ray Brassier; it now includes additional thinkers like Timothy Morton, Levi Bryant, Ben Woodard and Eugene Thacker. Positioning itself against both a naive realism presupposing we might have unmitigated access to the world-in-itself and against what Meillassoux terms ‘correlationism’, upholding the ban on metaphysics established by Immanuel Kant, under which ‘we only have access to the correlation between thinking and being’, speculative realism strives ‘to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for the past two centuries is impossibility itself: to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not’.9 In The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant scathingly observes that
in metaphysics we have to retrace our path countless times, because we find that it does not lead where we want to go, and it is so far from reaching unanimity in the assertions of its adherents that it is rather a battlefield, and indeed one that appears to be especially determined for testing one’s powers in mock combat; on this battlefield no combatant has ever gained the least bit of ground, nor has any been able to base any lasting possession on his victory.10
To move forward, Kant argues, we must distinguish between phenomena – the world ‘as it appears’ – and noumena, or things-in-themselves. The minds of human beings utilise a priori categories of...

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Citation styles for A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937
APA 6 Citation
Newell, J. (2020). A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937 (1st ed.). University of Wales Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1433282/a-century-of-weird-fiction-18321937-disgust-metaphysics-and-the-aesthetics-of-cosmic-horror-pdf (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Newell, Jonathan. (2020) 2020. A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937. 1st ed. University of Wales Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/1433282/a-century-of-weird-fiction-18321937-disgust-metaphysics-and-the-aesthetics-of-cosmic-horror-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Newell, J. (2020) A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937. 1st edn. University of Wales Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1433282/a-century-of-weird-fiction-18321937-disgust-metaphysics-and-the-aesthetics-of-cosmic-horror-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Newell, Jonathan. A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937. 1st ed. University of Wales Press, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.