Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle
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Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle

Emily Alder

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Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle

Emily Alder

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This book explores how nineteenth-century science stimulated the emergence of weird tales at the fin de siècle, and examines weird fiction by British writers who preceded and influenced H. P. Lovecraft, the most famous author of weird fiction. From laboratory experiments, thermodynamics, and Darwinian evolutionary theory to psychology, Theosophy, and the 'new' physics of atoms and forces, science illuminated supernatural realms with rational theories and practices. Changing scientific philosophies and questioning of traditional positivism produced new ways of knowing the world—fertile borderlands for fictional as well as real-world scientists to explore. Reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) as an inaugural weird tale, the author goes on to analyse stories by Arthur Machen, Edith Nesbit, H. G. Wells, William Hope Hodgson, E. and H. Heron, and Algernon Blackwood to show how this radical fantasy mode can be scientific, and how sciences themselves were often already weird.

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© The Author(s) 2020
E. AlderWeird Fiction and Science at the Fin de SièclePalgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine
Begin Abstract

1. Weird Tales and Scientific Borderlands at the Fin de Siècle

Emily Alder1
Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh, UK
Emily Alder
End Abstract
Near the end of Terry Pratchett’s Sourcery (1988), Rincewind the wizard finds himself in the Dungeon Dimensions, a dark realm of “skewed images” and “weird curvature.” He observes a number of Things clustered around a hole in the fabric of reality, including one resembling “a dead horse that had been dug up after three months and then introduced to a range of new experiences, at least one of which had included an octopus.”1 Attracted to the warmth and light of the human world, these Things are not ghosts or revenants; they are unrelated to any traditional mythology, individual past, or family history. They are indifferent to human concerns (or those of any other Discworld species). Motivating concepts of good and evil, desire and revenge, or hate and compassion don’t apply to them. Their existence, like that of the Discworld itself, might be playfully explained by quantum physics and the possibility of multiple simultaneous realities, but they are also irrational creations whose shapes buckle the scientific logic of evolutionary adaptation, even if understood on a cosmic scale.
The Things of the Dungeon Dimensions parody the mythos of the Lovecraftian weird tale. But H. P. Lovecraft was not the first to manipulate the limits of reality and being in this way. In 100 Best Horror Stories, Pratchett recounts his 1950s childhood encounters with the writing of William Hope Hodgson (1877–1918), whose The House on the Borderland (1908) gripped him with the notion that
outside the shadow-thin walls of the world itself there were dreadful things, looking in and biding their time. […] it made me believe that Space was big and Time was endless and that what I thought of as normality was a 30 W lightbulb with only fivepence left in the meter and there was nothing anyone could do about it. […] It was the Big Bang in my private universe as sf/fantasy reader and, later, writer.2
As Pratchett’s reflections suggest, Hodgson’s tales mark an important stage in weird fiction. They develop the groundwork of earlier horror and supernatural fantasies in which he was well read, and to which notions of unstable boundaries to the known world and what lay beyond were nothing new. In Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), Clarke glimpses “a presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form,” and before that, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Henry Jekyll peels away the “fleshly vestment” of material existence to access the states beyond “this seemingly so solid body.”3 Earlier still, “all the attributes with which superstition clothes the being of the shadowy borderland that lies beyond the chart of our visual world” surround the enigmatic Margrave of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story (1861), while the “unearthly,” “hideous” voice of Edgar Allan Poe’s M. Valdemar, mesmerically suspended on the brink of death, profoundly affects his listeners with the “unutterable, shuddering horror” of whatever lies beyond.4 These are all tales of borderland science , using and stretching the ideas and discourses of their time to produce narratives of strange horror, although we might not necessarily call all of them “weird” any more than their authors would have.
As the examples above suggest, the early roots of the weird tale are entangled with those of gothic and science fiction . Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a good place to turn and move forward again. Frankenstein is an important example of how popular fictional forms such as the gothic romance could work with the wealth of ideas and techniques offered by science. Victor Frankenstein’s development of “instruments of life” to infuse a “spark of being” into his lifeless creation positions his efforts within contemporary interest in galvanism, electrochemistry and the possibility that a form of electricity might explain the source of conscious life.5 It also places him near the start of a respectable line of borderland scientists in fiction. However, we might label the diverse non-realist literary styles that followed Frankenstein; science is woven into their cultural history, as it is into that of more mainstream Victorian literature. The close relationship of discourses of literature and science, their mutual influences on each other, and their functions in nineteenth-century culture more widely, have been demonstrated in a number of contexts.6 This book traces one route through this terrain, examining how, by the fin de siècle, contemporary sciences and their borderlands had helped to stimulate a particular variety of speculative fiction, the weird tale.
That said, weird fiction is far from homogenous; a single description is sufficiently elusive for Michael Moorcock to suggest that “[w]hat is left after other definitions are exhausted is the weird story.”7 In fact, many of the texts I will be discussing might also be identified as fantasy, as gothic, as horror, as ghost stories , and as science fiction . The ways in which genre writing became organised by writers, publishers, and critics during the twentieth century have made such labels and their conventions familiar, but at the fin de siècle they were either non-existent or had little categorising force. The fin-de-siècle weird tale sometimes gets lost in the gaps between critical and generic categories, but it rewards examination in its own right and can offer ways to look anew at texts more commonly associated with other modes. Here, I put works like H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), Machen’s The Great God Pan, and Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) alongside rich but less well-known stories by Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, and Edith Nesbit for examination as weird tales through their shared interest, one way or another, in fin-de-siècle scientific borderlands. Broadly speaking, works by these six writers have either been identified as weird but granted little sustained critical attention, or have attracted considerable critical attention but rarely in the context of the weird.8 That situation is now changing healthily, with a number of critical studies recently published, alongside an influx of “New Weird” fictions since the 2000s.9 With this book, I contribute an exploration of the weird tale’s development at the fin de siècle through its relationships with contemporary science.
The fin-de-siècle weird has much to offer our current uncertain political, economic, and environmental moment. Weird tales, though at times reactionary, can offer radical new forms of knowledge—ecological, philosophical, and spiritual, for example—and model new sets of relations between selves and others. Timothy Morton argues that “[e]cological awareness is weird,” “twisted,” and “looping,” a distinct response to our current world.10 Eugene Thacker has proposed that horror (here more or less encompassing weird) can function philosophically as a way to meet the challenge of “comprehending the world in which we live as both a human and a non-human world – and of comprehending this politicall...

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Citation styles for Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle
APA 6 Citation
Alder, E. (2020). Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle ([edition unavailable]). Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Alder, Emily. (2020) 2020. Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle. [Edition unavailable]. Springer International Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Alder, E. (2020) Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle. [edition unavailable]. Springer International Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Alder, Emily. Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle. [edition unavailable]. Springer International Publishing, 2020. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.