Saturday, January 28, 2023

Weird in Beowulf

Weird is a very old concept, possibly--or very probably--a pre-Christian concept. If we're going to talk about weird we must first understand it. I'm not sure that we can at this late date. Weird has come to us from a culture long departed from this earth. It is from a sensibility that may be alien to us, separated as we are from it, first by the intervention of the Christian era, afterwards by modernity and our embrace of science and reason. Or maybe it's not so alien, if an awareness of weird is in our eternal human nature.

In trying to understand the meaning of weird, not so much as a word as a concept, we might best go back to beginnings. For that, we have Beowulf, which dates from the early Middle Ages, was first spoken, then written, in Old English, and was finally committed to an extant manuscript at around the turn of the first millennium. If you're going to search for a word in a text, it's best to use a digital version of that text. In my search for weird in Beowulf, I have consulted a translation of the Heyne-Socin Text by Dr. John Lesslie HallProfessor of English and History at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Dr. Hall's work was published in 1892 by D.C. Heath & Company of Boston, New York, and Chicago. You will find his translation at the following URL:

* * *

In Dr. Hall's translation, the word weird occurs seven times, plus once in the glossary, where it is defined as: "Fate, Providence."

Here are the seven occurrences:

1. Beowulf speaks of what might happen to him in battle, even that he might die. In Part VII, Line 83, he acknowledges:

"Goes Weird as she must go!"

In other words, in Hall's annotations, "Weird is supreme."

And, in other words, Weird is personified--as a woman! She must be Urðr (Wyrd), one of the Norns.

2. In Part VIII, Line 22, Weird once again acts:

Weird hath offcast them to the clutches of Grendel.

3. In Part X, Lines 14-15:

[. . . .] Weird often saveth 
The undoomed hero if doughty his valor!

Doughty means "brave and persistent." The implication here is that weird as fate is not always negative. Providence seems to be a better meaning of the word in cases like this one.

4. In Part XIV, Line 42:

Weird they knew not, destiny cruel,

meaning that the men knew not what cruel fate would befall them. Here a connection is made between cruelty, as in the much later conte cruel, and weird.

5. In Part XXXIV, Lines 27-33, are these remarkable words and images:

Then the battle-brave atheling sat on the naze-edge,
While the gold-friend of Geatmen gracious saluted
His fireside-companions: woe was his spirit,
Death-boding, wav'ring; Weird very near him,
Who must seize the old hero, his soul-treasure look for,
Dragging aloof his life from his body:
Not flesh-hidden long was the folk-leader’s spirit.

6. In Part XXXVIII, Lines 61-63, come Beowulf's last words:

"Weird hath offcarried
All of my kinsmen to the Creator's glory,
Earls in their vigor: I shall after them fare."

7. In Part XLI, Lines 84-86:

So the high-minded hero was rehearsing these stories
Loathsome to hear; he lied as to few of
Weirds and of words. [. . .]

I'm not sure of the meaning here, but it may be that in recounting the events of the feuds between the Swedes and the Geats, the messenger left some things out--in so doing, he "lied"--there being so much more to tell, that is, there were more weirds and more words, a longer and fuller story left untold.

* * *

The Anglo-Saxon language often catches some grief, especially from snobbish native speakers and those of more florid Latin languages. But it has great power, witness, for example, "his soul-treasure look for." It seems to me that, for maximum effectiveness, weird fiction must reach towards Anglo-Saxon power, force, vigor, and vividness of imagery. By weaving such words of power, maybe we can revive original spirits and bring back the real meaning of weird, or more properly: Weird.

An illustration for Beowulf by Lynd Ward (1905-1985).

Original text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Weird Tales & Weird Fiction-Part Two

Get a drink and a snack. This is a long one.

* * *

Nearly a decade ago, I began a series called "Rivals of Weird Tales." In the first two installments, I covered Golden Fleece Historical Adventure, which was in print in 1938-1939. I wrote about many more titles in installments that followed. What I didn't consider at the time is that these magazines were not really rivals of "The Unique Magazine," for Weird Tales had already won that war and various publishers had already come over to its side by putting out their own magazines of weird fiction. The real rival of the weird tale or of weird fiction may actually be science fiction.

There are beliefs or belief systems behind both weird fiction and science fiction. They stand in opposition to each other, I think. As I have written before, I believe weird fiction to be conservative and about the past. It is based in a belief that that we are faced with limits beyond which we may not go, that there are things beyond our knowledge and control. One of those things is fate, also called weird. No one knows what are its true workings. Fate may also act as destiny, chance, fortune, or even doom. It may be a supernatural force. There may be other supernatural forces at work in the universe, too. And we are at their mercy. Fate punishes those who attempt to exceed the limits imposed upon us by the universe. There can be no exceeding these imposed limits and no escaping from fate.

Science fiction on the other hand is progressive and looks to the future. In the science fiction imagination, there aren't any limits. Donald A. Wollheim wrote that science fiction is based in "a belief in human infinity." What is required in science fiction and by science fiction--among writers, readers, and fans alike--is faith in an infinite future. Nothing is out of reach for us. We will do whatever we imagine. If there is Fate, she is only in our favor. Beyond that, at its extremes, there is no such thing as the supernatural in science fiction. A supernatural science fiction is a contradiction in terms. And yet Donald Wollheim used the word belief. In my discussion of his ideas, I have tacked on the word faith. Fate and faith may be similar in appearance and pronunciation, but they are evidently unrelated words. Faith and science are also unrelated.

Jack Williamson developed a concept in which he contrasted the Greek hero with his Egyptian-Hebraic counterpart. In Williamson's formulation, the utopian tradition is based in the culture and ideas of ancient Greece. In contrast, the anti-utopian or dystopian tradition comes from further east, from Egypt and the Levant. Williamson applied his concept to science fiction, putting forth the idea that H.G. Wells availed himself of both traditions during his writing life. Williamson also placed the writers of the New Wave of the 1960s and '70s in the anti-utopian or Egyptian-Hebraic tradition. That seems right to me. The New Wave seems to have been a reaction to the Superior Man-type story, or at least the typical science fiction story of the Golden Age. Williamson gave Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke as examples of authors who chose "to show men solving problems to make things better," implicitly towards a more perfect future, perhaps a future without limits.

Not long ago, I began associating in my mind the New Wave-type hero with the heroes or protagonists of weird fiction. The typical science-fictional hero--better (or worse) yet, the typical hero of space opera--is more or less a superman. Nothing is beyond his manifestly superior abilities. He is also a simple character, untroubled by moral, ethical, philosophical, or spiritual doubts or dilemmas. Very often he is a cardboard cutout. Lack of character development is one of the main literary offenses in science fiction in fact. Very often created by physical scientists, technologists, and engineers, the stereotypical science fiction hero functions like a machine. The weird-fictional hero may not be very much different in that way. After all, writers of pulp fiction aren't always the most accomplished of artists. However, the weird-fictional hero is flawed. He suffers. He is punished, humiliated, and defeated. Sometimes he is even killed. In short, he is vulnerable to fate. There are only limits for him, only finitude. If he fails to recognize limits--if he believes he can stride over the world and goes about trying to do it--he is soon brought down. He meets his fate: his weird befalls him.

* * *

If science fiction and weird fiction are rivals, and if the New Wave-type hero is something like the weird-fictional hero, then maybe weird fiction won the war and defeated its rival science fiction, at least in the 1960s and '70s. And then William Gibson's Neuromancer, a Gothic science fiction, came along in 1984 and extended the winning streak (or losing streak, depending on how you look at it) of the Egyptian-Hebraic or anti-utopian or weird-fictional hero into the 1980s and beyond. Are we still living in an era of weird-fictional heroes as the protagonists of many science-fictional milieux?

* * *

These aren't perfect parallels, but maybe weird fiction or the weird tale is ultimately an Old World type, as opposed to science fiction as an American type. We don't believe in limits in America. There is always room for 10% more growth this year, always a need and a drive for more and better. You could say that we have faith in the infinite future. Europe on the other hand is constrained. It is almost everywhere hopelessly mired in the past. It is up against limits and has to satisfy itself with small things, minor things. In our football, one team beats another by a score of 65 to 7. In European football, the final score is 1 to 0 . . . in a game that lasts two hours . . . on a playing field the size of a small country.

I was being a little facetious there, but it seems to me that there is an American-type hero and a European-type hero and almost never the twain shall meet. In The Great Escape (1963) Steve McQueen's character is held in a German POW camp. He escapes, along with scads of other prisoners. Yeah, he gets captured--he's literally snagged at the border--but it's only a matter of time before he tries again. Maybe next time it will work. And in the meantime, he plays at the quintessential American game, baseball. His Old World captors are utterly baffled by it and by him.

In contrast, in The Prisoner (1967-1968), Patrick McGoohan's character, a British secret agent, is taken prisoner and serves time in a not completely unpleasant place called the Village. Every week, or almost every week, he escapes. And every week he is returned to his prison. (He's like the British Gilligan.) In the end, it turns out he can't escape at all, for he has constructed this prison for himself. In one way at least, No. 6 is like Kaspar Hauser: although he has escaped, ultimately he is a victim of himself.

We should note that both Steve McQueen and Patrick McGoohan were native-born Americans--Steve McQueen is from my native state of Indiana. The difference here is that Steve McQueen played an uncomplicated American taken prisoner by an Old World system, while Patrick McGoohan played a much more complicated Briton who was part of an Old World system. The lesson might be that the true American doesn't fall for and can never be captured by European complexities. Marxism and similar intellectual or pseudo-intellectual systems might appeal to the European mind. To us they're trash.

* * *

The American-type hero is like the science-fictional hero, while the European-type hero is like his weird-fictional counterpart. In The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942), the hero is driven inexorably to commit his crime. There is no escaping before he commits it, and there is certainly no escaping afterwards. The book ends with Mersault contemplating his end from within the walls of his cell. Europeans remain in their cells. Americans escape from them, like Tim Robbins' character in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Clint Eastwood's in Escape from Alcatraz (1979), or Paul Newman as the title character in Cool Hand Luke (1967).

(By the way, an alternate title for The Stranger is The Outsider. Fans of weird fiction, specifically of H.P. Lovecraft, should chew on that for a while.)

In the Italian film Mafioso (1962), Alberto Sordi's character, named Antonio, returns for a visit to his old hometown in Sicily so as to introduce his northern-born wife to his family. (He has moved away to Milano, where he works in a car factory.) While in Sicily, he is tasked by the local don with the killing of a rival mafioso. Antonio can't refuse, of course. He is bound by the past. The twist is that the rival is in New York City. And so Antonio is packed into a crate and flown to the New World--America. He now has an appointment with fate.

In an American movie, the hero would find a way out. In fact, there are hints that Antonio might escape his fate as he is on his way to carry out the hit. A man stops him in the street. He is delayed. Will he figure out how to get out of this? No. He impatiently pushes the man away. He walks into the barber shop. There is his target. He carries out his task. He meets his fate, as does the man in the chair. And Antonio's life is forever afterwards changed.

Our expectations as American viewers is that Antonio will in fact escape. For the European protagonist, though, there is no way out. He is fated--or doomed--and must go on. He must carry out his task. This was, I think, a smart and intentional move by the moviemaker: to place his European protagonist into an American setting, juxtaposing the culture of the past, of that sense of obligation and fate and trapped-ness, against the uniquely American ability and freedom to escape. Or to believe that you can escape. Or to die trying, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. 

The impossibility of escape is written right into the title of Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit, from 1944. I have never read or seen a performance of that play, but reading a synopsis of it makes me think of the short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison, first published in IF: Worlds of Science Fiction in March 1967. Yes, it's science fiction, but Ellison's story is also dystopian and post-apocalyptic. You could make a case that "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" is almost weird-fictional, or a conte cruel. It was written and published during the New Wave era. It seems to fit with stories of that type and time.

In contrast to Harlan Ellison's story and its no escape, there is After Utopia by Mack Reynolds (1977), about which I wrote not long ago. After Utopia is also a post-apocalyptic and mildly dystopian story. Like The Stranger, Reynolds' story is set in North Africa. Unlike Mersault, the hero, inexplicably named Tracy, escapes--into the future. Like the characters in "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," he is faced with a problem that seems unsolvable. But he solves it near the end. He escapes his intolerable life on Earth and sacrifices himself to make things better for all of humanity. (The last living character in Ellison's story also sacrifices himself but in a terrible way. And the people he saves are saved only by death.) In this and other ways, Reynolds' hero is a classic science fiction-type hero rather than his weird-fictional opposite. In his role as a great man, he alters human history and takes on an almost Christlike quality. A curious development from a socialist author.

* * *

In After Utopia, there is a science-fictional fantasy of escape. In this case, the fantasy is an escape into the future--an obvious absurdity fit only for the escapist imagination. In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce (1890), there is another fantasy of escape, but the protagonist is literally snapped back into reality. Bierce's tale is ultimately weird-fictional--and devastating in its hewing to real human experience and real states of the imagination. In the end, the protagonist meets his weird. But does he deserve it? Probably not. Perhaps Bierce's tale is a conte cruel after all. And what of Bierce? We don't know his fate. Maybe he went out like Butch and Sundance.

* * *

There is no escape in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) either. Written by an Old World writer and taking place in an Old World setting, George Orwell's bleak novel ends in the bleakest possible way. Its hero, such as he is, is utterly humiliated and defeated. In the end, nothing and no one is saved.

In the current Airstrip One, the real-world country formerly known as the United Kingdom, there is also no escape. A few years ago, an infant named Charlie Gard was kept prisoner in his home country and not allowed to leave to receive medical care. The idea, I guess, is that we are all the property of the State and only the State gets to say where we can go. A few weeks ago, a woman named Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested in Birmingham, England, for praying in her own head. She committed a literal thought crime. She could be imprisoned for it. Maybe her jailers will turn the rats loose on her like O'Brien did to Winston Smith. That'll show her. Anyway, Orwell warned us. Instead of taking it as a warning, though, we're using Nineteen Eighty-Four as an instruction book.

* * *

You can make a case that Superman is a science-fictional hero, whereas Batman is weird-fictional. Both are threatened in their youth, and while Superman escapes his fate--destruction with his parents and planet--Batman does not. He must forever remember the murder of his parents. He must forever seek vengeance after them. He is so fated. Superman is literally superior. His creators were inspired by science fiction. Batman on the other hand is a mortal man. I feel certain that he rose out of the pulp-fiction, weird hero-type stories of the 1930s. Superman wears bright colors and flies out of lofty skyscrapers. He rises up to become himself. He's ready for a Technicolor world. Batman dresses in gray and black and lives in a cave. He descends in order to take on his bat-identity. Film noir is the place for him.

Superman inhabits a science-fictional world. His city is Metropolis, a name straight from the Greek. In contrast, Batman lives in Gotham City, a dark and gloomy place (in the movies it always rains there), a name from the Dark Ages and most recently from the Old English. Gotham City is named for a people who sacked Rome, that pinnacle of antiquity. Gothic is a word often used to describe weird stories. The Gothic romance was a reaction to eighteenth-century onslaughts of reason and rationality. Batman has come out of passion and murder. Superman, on the other hand, is a product of science and reason.

* * *

In Star Wars (1977), Carrie Fisher, a thoroughgoing American, played an Old World character, complete with a faux-British accent. She may be a senator, a title used in a republic, but she isn't addressed as senator. Instead she is the subject of an empire and is called by an Old World title, Princess Leia. Her tormenters bear Old World-sounding titles, too, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin. Princess Leia is languishing in her cell without hope for escape when two rough-and-ready Americans arrive. One is a farmboy from some podunk place.* The other is a worldly rumrunner in a souped-up spaceship. (In American Graffiti, Harrison Ford drove a hotrod. In Star Wars, he drove an even bigger hotrod.) They rescue her of course and their escapades begin. You could say that Princess Leia starts out in Star Wars as an Old World character. Over the course of the movie, she becomes more American. By the end she's in open rebellion. The two suns of Tatooine will soon set on the Galactic Empire.

*Like Clark Kent, Luke Skywalker is from the hinterlands. Later films reveal him to be a kind of Superior Man, like Superman, with hidden powers and a hidden personal history. Rescued from destruction, he was placed in the care of two bucolic characters. Like Superman and Batman, he is orphaned. Unlike them, he is twice orphaned.

* * *

Science fiction allows for escape. In weird fiction, there is no escape, or no permanent escape. Outer space is the usual medium of science fiction. Originally pitched as "wagon train to the stars," Star Trek begins in its prologue with these words: "Space--the final frontier." The title of Gerard K. O'Neill's book from 1976 is The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. Wagon train to the stars, the final frontier, the high frontier, the far frontier: we think of outer space in terms of our own history, of exploring and going beyond frontiers. In Europe, frontiers are borders between countries. You have to wait there while the man studies and eventually stamps your passport. In America, frontiers and borders are of the imagination. They are meant to be pushed outward or crossed outright. You don't have to wait. You just go.

If things go wrong in America, we can always escape, we can cross our borders and frontiers into new places. Things will be better there, or certainly no worse than they are here. John Dillinger (another Hoosier) was famous for his escapes. He always had his eye on the nearest state line. Dillinger tried to escape in the end. He came out of a Clark Gable picture and made a run for it. The FBI shot him and he died ignominiously, facedown in an alleyway. Bonnie and Clyde were always on the run, too. They were shot to pieces, significantly in their car. Will Rogers famously quipped, "We'll be the first nation in the world to go to the poor house in an automobile." It's either that way or the Bonnie and Clyde way--or the Thelma and Louise way. In Paper Moon (1973), there is a race near the end to cross over into Missouri. In contrast, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn wants out of the place. With outer space available to us, we can do like Huck did and "light out for the territory." Science fiction, with outer space as its medium, is perfect for the American imagination and the American way of life. It's the road novel and the road picture of the future. Through it and into it, we can escape--or at least we think we can.

Or maybe escape is a childish fantasy. Maybe the Europeans have it right after all. Maybe we all must run up against limits and face our weird.

C.S. Lewis wrote his famous Space Trilogy. Regarding childish fantasies, the last book is subtitled "A Modern Fairy Tale for Grownups." Despite that word space in the title and despite the trips to other planets made inside, I would submit that Lewis' trilogy is not really science fiction, or at least not mainly science fiction. We might better think of it as a reaction to science fiction, especially the naïve progressivism and utopianism of H.G. Wells. In Things to Come (1936), written by Wells, men reach for the stars, seek to escape to and conquer the stars. In The Space Trilogy, the stars and other planets are off limits. No escape is permitted, for humanity--Earth, the Silent Planet--is under quarantine. We are confined here because of our fallen nature. C.S. Lewis' word for us in our fallen state is bentRemember now that our word weird comes from a presumed Proto-Indo-European root *wer-. It means "to bend."

Batman vs. Superman, World's Finest #143, August 1964.

Text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, January 20, 2023

Weird Tales & Weird Fiction-Part One

The weird tale is a form, an old form to be sure. Weird fiction is a literary genre of more recent development, as all fiction is when compared to tales, ballads, legends, and so on. In the twentieth century, there became a kind of theory of weird fiction. H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) seems to have been its chief theorist. I think Farnsworth Wright (1888-1940) played his part as well. Now there are weird fiction studies and weird fiction journals.

There were weird tales--tales of fate--long before they were so named. Originating in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, weird fiction is, again, a more recent development than is the older and more traditional weird tale. Weird fiction as a named or circumscribed genre, eventually with some kind of literary theory behind it, seems to have followed close on the heels of the writing and publication of the stories that make up the genre. In other words, the works came first, then they were thrown together into a named genre. That's how it seems anyway. But how did it all develop? I can't say for sure. All I can do is offer some bits of evidence gleaned from newspapers and literature, i.e., the results of searches I have conducted on line and in one lone book--a children's book called Weird! The Complete Book of Halloween Words by Peter R. Limburg (New York: Bradbury Press, 1989). I can't say that any of the following makes for a first. All I can say is that these are the earliest instances that I have found of the terms weird tales or weird taleweird fiction, and weird (or the weird) as a noun in newspapers and in literary works, all from the late eighteenth and early to mid to late nineteenth centuries, and all from a time when literature for the masses was on the rise.

Weird Tales & Weird Tale

Earliest Use of Weird Tales in a Newspaper:

From the Manchester Times, March 25, 1843 (p. 4) in a review of The Story-Teller, or Table-Book of Popular Literature, A Collection of Romances, Short Standard Tales, Traditions, and Poetical Legends of All Nations, etc., edited by Robert Bell (London: Cunningham and Mortimer, Publishers, 1843). Specifically, the reference is to "the ballads and weird tales of Germany."

(This may be the same book as: The Story-Teller, Or, Minor Library of Fiction, A Collection of the Choicest Tales, Legends, and Traditions of All Nations, etc., Volume 1, edited by Robert Bell [London, 1833].)

Earliest Use of Weird Tales in a Novel or Romance:

From Cranford (1851-1853; 1853) by Mrs. Gaskell (Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell). From Chapter IV:

The room in which we were expected to sit was a stiffly-furnished, ugly apartment; but that in which we did sit was what Mr Holbrook called the counting-house, where he paid his labourers their weekly wages at a great desk near the door. The rest of the pretty sitting-room--looking into the orchard, and all covered over with dancing tree-shadows--was filled with books. They lay on the ground, they covered the walls, they strewed the table. He was evidently half ashamed and half proud of his extravagance in this respect. They were of all kinds--poetry and wild weird tales prevailing. He evidently chose his books in accordance with his own tastes, not because such and such were classical or established favourites.

(Here is an instance of the frequent association of the words wild and weird.)

Earliest Use of Weird Tale in Prose in an American Newspaper:

In "A Plea for Mendota," correspondent Alice Fay, writing from the shores of Fourth Lake, Wisconsin, recounted a "weird tale," told to her in a vision by the spirit of an American Indian woman, this in a letter to the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison, Wisconsin, August 21, 1856, page 3.

(Note that fay, meaning "fairy," is from the word fate.)

Earliest Use of Weird Tale in Verse in an American Newspaper:

In a poem called "Sending for God" by Mrs. Brooks in the Weekly Atchison Champion, Atchison, Kansas, November 12, 1859, page 1.

Earliest Use of Weird Tale in the Title of a Novel or Romance:

Bruar Castle: A Weird Tale for a Winter Night by Cecilia M. Blake (C.E. Weldon, 1867).

Other Early Uses in Newspapers of Weird Tales or Weird Tale in Reference to Literary Works or Authors:

  • In reference to "The Enchanted Hare of the Ardennes" by an anonymous author; in Bentley's Miscellany, CCXLI, 1857.
  • In reference to the Scottish poems "Tamlane" and "Kemp Owain"; 1858.
  • A newspaper item referring to an unnamed "weird tale of a haunted house," in actuality a reference to "The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain," a novelette by Edward Bulwer-Lytton published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, DXXVI, August 1859. Note the Scottish place of publication. "The Haunted and the Haunters" was reprinted in Weird Tales in May 1923. It was the first in a series of reprints called "Masterpieces of Weird Fiction."

  • In reference to: Sir Rohan's Ghost, A Romance by Harriet Prescott Spofford (1859, 1860). Harriett Prescott Spofford (1835-1921) was an American author. She is in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, in an entry that you can access by clicking here. I don't know when and where the story is set, but Rohan is a Celtic surname, originally from Brittany. The word itself is similar to rowan, another name for mountain-ash. Rowan is a word used in Scotland and northern England. The rowan tree is said to have magical powers.
  • Other references, some to real-life tales of death and fate, 1851 and after.

Use of the terms weird tales and weird tale became more common as the nineteenth century went on. In 1885, Scribner and Welford of New York, New York, and John C. Nimmo of London published Weird Tales by E.T.A. Hoffman. Ten years later, the Henry Altemus Company of Philadelphia began publishing various editions of Edgar Allan Poe's Weird Tales. These were popular editions. I suspect they sold well, and it may have been that by the early years of the twentieth century, no one would have puzzled over the meaning or shrunk from buying and reading a collection of weird tales. It seems to me that the negative connotations of weird came later, after the original meaning of the word as "fate" or "destiny" had fallen away. Now weird is thought of in the sense of "that weird guy over there . . . ," and nobody wants to get near him or the word weird.

* * *

Before going any further, I would like to write about Cecilia M. Blake, who has nothing on the Internet in the way of a biography:

Cecilia M. Blake (ca. 1825-?)
Née Cecilia McKenzie
Aka Mrs. Blake
School Mistress (Perth, 1851), School Principal (Seton Castle, 1861), Annuitant (Pitcaithley House, 1871), Proprietor (Private school, 1881), Annuitant & Authoress (Gartartan Cottage, 1901)
Born ca. 1825, Perthshire, Scotland
Died 1901 or after, presumably in Scotland

Cecilia McKenzie was born in about 1825 in Perthshire, Scotland. She married Thomas Whittet while still quite young. Afterwards she married John Chalmers Blake, with whom she had a daughter, Cecilia Hill Blake, born on March 16, 1855, in Eastwood, Renfrew, Scotland. Cecilia M. Blake was a teacher, school principal, and school proprietor. Annuitant is in reference to her status as the receiver of an annuity, possibly as a widow.

Cecilia M. Blake, also known as Mrs. Blake, was the author of:

  • Glenrora: Or The Castle, The Camp, And The Cottage (1864)
  • Bruar Castle: A Weird Tale for a Winter Night (1867)
  • Cecile Raye: An Autobiography (1868)
  • Among the Water Lilies (1895)
  • Tephi, An Armenian Romance (The British Girls Library, date unknown) 

I don't know the date or place of her death. It's worth noting that she was a native of Perthshire, in which Birnam Wood and Dunsinane Hill, mentioned in Macbeth, are located.

* * *

Weird Fiction, plus Weird (or the Weird) as a Noun

Earliest Use of Weird Fiction in an American Journal or Newspaper:

In reference to a story called "A Christmas Reminiscence" in the New Orleans Crescent newspaper, Christmastime, 1868, as "a strange, weird fiction." The story, by a pseudonymous author calling herself Hagar and originally in The Crescent Monthly magazine, concerns Voodoo or Voudou. In the story itself, reference is made to "that weird woman Juba."

Other Early Uses in Newspapers of Weird Fiction in Reference to Literary Works or Authors, 1860s through 1880s:

  • In reference to The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851).
  • In reference to Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1842).
  • In reference to Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo (1866), specifically in reference to a fight with a giant octopus.
Earliest Use of Weird as a Noun in Verse:
  • In "Her Answer" by Robert Burns (1795).
  • In "Hic Jacet Robin Maroun" by R.H.A., a poem in remembrance of the poet, in the Chester Chronicle, Chester, England, September 28, 1810, page 4:
"hear Robin's weird, wi' trickling tear-- 
He's sunk to ruin."

A glossary to go with the poem defines weird as "fate."
  • Peter R. Limburg's book led me to a search of the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. I found six instances of weird in Shelley's complete verse, including in his long poem "Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude" (1815, 1816). In every instance, weird is used as an adjective, including in this striking line from Canto 9 of "The Revolt of Islam" (1818): "Some said, I was a fiend from my weird cave." I also found weird in Keats' poem "Lamia" (1820), where it is also used as an adjective.
  • "The Weird of the Douglas, A Metrical Tale" in Taits Edinburgh Magazine, No. 49, January 1838. Scottish surname, Scottish place name.

Some Uses of Weird (as in the Weird) as a Noun in a Novel or Romance:

  • The Weird Sisters, a Novel by William Lane (1794).
  • In Bannockburn, A Novel by John Warren (1821), a character called "the weird woman" speaks:

     "Carry the corpse away!" said a hollow voice, "and cry the coronach! The weird is run--the raven croaks--the black banner flies! Oh, happy, happy hour! Vengeance! vengeance! Hour of vengeance! I hail ye--fa' whare ye may!"

Does the weird woman address Fate--"fa'"--when she cries, "I hail ye--fa' whare ye may!"?

  • The Weird Woman of the Wraagh, or, Burton and le Moore by Henry Coates (1830).
  • From Ralph Wilton's Weird by Mrs. Alexander (Annie French Hector, an Irish/British author, 1871):

"Ah ha, lad!" said Moncrief, in his unmistakable Scotch tones, "you must just 'dree your weird.'"

The meaning of this traditional Scottish expression is to accept and surrender to one's fate.

  • Wyllard's Weird, a Novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1885). 

The concept of weird fiction as a type, category, or recognizable literary genre seems to have developed in the 1870s or 1880s, certainly by the end of the 1880s. For example:

"Nothing in real life has equalled these Whitechapel murders, the only approach to them is to be found in the weird fiction of Edgar Allan Poe." From "The Whitechapel Murders" in the Spokane Morning Review, October 3, 1888, page 2.


"We have received from the publishers [Vizetelly & Co.] the latest additions to this library of weird fiction--The Golden Tress and Thieving Fingers." (By Fortuné du Boisgobey.) From the Hampshire Telegraph and Naval Chronicle, April 9, 1887, page 9.

So, weird fiction as a category or genre predated science fiction by four decades or more. And of course the first weird fiction magazine, Weird Tales, came before the first science fiction magazine.

* * *

You must have noticed by now three patterns in the use of the expressions weird tales, weird tale, weird fiction, and weird or the weird as a noun:

First, there is without a doubt a connection of weird and the weird to Scotland. That is to be expected, as weird is a word that fell out of use in English but persisted in the Scots tongue, most likely, it seems to me, because it persisted in the Scottish psyche or worldview. Weird returned to English, first by way of Shakespeare's Scottish Play, afterwards--though not exclusively--by its use by Scottish authors or in reference to Scottish authors and their works. The Irish may have saved civilization, but the Scottish saved the weird.

Second, and perhaps with some real significance, women authors--Mrs. Gaskell (1851-1853), Alice Fay (1856), Mrs. Brooks (1859), Cecilia M. Blake (1867), the pseudonymous Hagar (1868), Mrs. Alexander (1871), Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1885)--were early users of these expressions in print. That makes me wonder: Is there something in the female psyche or the female experience that is more open to the idea that the weird, or fate, is active in human affairs? Or is there a simpler explanation, for Alice Fay and Mrs. Brooks at least, namely, that they picked up on the term weird tale by reading Cranford? As for Mrs. Blake, she was a native Scotswoman born in the country of Macbeth and of the original Weird Sisters. Maybe the weird never left her consciousness, just as it never left that of her countrywomen and countrymen, as it did in the rest of the English-speaking world. As for Mary Elizabeth Braddon, her novel is set in Cornwall, another of the Celtic regions of the British Isles and the European Continent. In any case, the weird was saved and we have it today.

Third, related to the second, there is more than one "weird woman" in the works I have catalogued here. These may be descended from Shakespeare's Weird Sisters. More likely, the Weird Sisters are descended from an older type, personified in the Fates but also in the more common and familiar type of soothsayer or fortuneteller. The weird woman goes beyond the soothsayer or fortuneteller, though. She seems to be a type that has been lost. We should bring her back. There is a movie called Weird Woman, by the way. Based on the story "Conjure Wife" by Fritz Leiber, Jr. (Unknown Worlds, Apr. 1943), it was released in 1944 as a part of the Inner Sanctum series of movies.

To be continued . . .

English artist Sybil Tawse (1886-1971) illustrated a later edition of Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Those illustrations led me to this one, entitled "The Sirens of Anthemovsa." Once again, the women are in threes. They are reminiscent of the Fates.

Sybil Tawse is not in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. That seems like an oversight that should be corrected. I had not heard of her before finding her illustrations on line in my preparation of this series. An Irish blogger and artist named Dara Theodora featured her on her Wordpress blog on June 20, 2018. You can see what she posted by clicking here.

Universal Pictures released Weird Woman in 1944. I haven't seen this movie, but descriptions indicate that the title character is considered a witch. That may be based on an interpretation of Shakespeare's Weird Sisters as witches. In doing the research for this article, however, I have found that the original "weird woman" seems not to be a witch at all. Instead, she seems to be a teller of the weird, or fate, of a given person or persons. The word weird was once almost lost. Now it seems the original meaning of the word has been lost instead. And because of that, the weird woman as a type has been lost. Like I said, we should bring her back. First, though, we need to understand the original Anglo-Saxon or Celtic or Scottish concept of weird or the weird. If we can reach that kind of understanding, then maybe we can bring back the weird woman, not as a stock character or stereotype but as a fuller character. Before that can happen, I guess, we have to back away from our current worship of materialism, atheism, and Scientism. We also have to learn once again to respect women. And before we can do that, we have to acknowledge that there is only one, inviolable definition of woman, only one category woman--and you don't have to be a biologist to know what they are. All of that seems like a pretty tall order at this late date.

In thinking and writing about all of this, I am reminded that Weird Tales had an especial appeal to women--authors, poets, artists, readers, and fans. Editor Dorothy McIlwraith served longer than anyone but Farnsworth Wright as editor of the magazine. That seems fitting. Maybe the unseen host of Weird Tales should have been a woman all along. As for Dorothy McIlwraith: she worked in the United States and was born and educated in Canada, but her family was originally from Scotland. Her associate editor Lamont Buchanan was also from a Scottish family. They, the Buchanans, had at least one weird tale in their Scottish past.

Original text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, January 16, 2023

What's in a Title?-Part Three


According to the Online Etymology Dictionarytale is from the Old English talu, meaning "series, calculation," also "story, tale, statement, deposition, narrative, fable, accusation, action of telling." Its origins are in the presumed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root word *del-, meaning "to recount, count." It's curious that a word that we think of as referring to talking and telling also refers to quantitative things. But if a tale is an accounting of events, one by one, in series order, then maybe it's not so curious after all. And if someone asks you to tell about a series of events, he might say, "Please recount for me what happened." Tell and talk are related words. Tell has its own quantitative uses, such as in telling time or bank teller. Curiously again, tally, referring sometimes to a count or sum, is unrelated to tale, despite their similarity in appearance. (Word and weird are also unrelated, despite the magic or glamour of words and despite the possibility that a man's fate must be spoken.)

I still have, from a long time ago, my copy of A Handbook to Literature by C. Hugh Holman (4th ed., 1980). I have looked inside for a definition of tale. Unfortunately, it's not very helpful. There's more to it than this, but the basic idea is that a tale is "[a] simple narrative in prose or verse without complicated plot." (p. 440) I like the "simple" part, also the uncomplicated plot part. Those seem to me among the essential characteristics of a tale. I'll once again offer "The Basket" by Herbert J. Mangham, from the first issue of Weird Tales, as an example of a tale. Simple, brief, and direct, "The Basket" can be read and absorbed in almost no time. Its effects on the reader are likely to be more enduring.

In his handbook definition, Holman wrote: "Formerly no very real distinction was made between the tale and the short story." I would like to work with the idea that there are actually distinctions, however. After all, the magazine is called Weird Tales, not Weird Stories. (Its more conventional companion magazine from 1938 to 1954 was entitled Short Stories.) I think it was called Weird Tales for a reason. As I wrote the other day, I think the magazine was named after a late nineteenth-century collection of Edgar Allan Poe's works. However, there may be more to it than that. I'll start with etymologies.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, story is from the Old French estorie or estoire, meaning "story, chronicle, history." Story is originally from Late Latin and comes from presumed PIE roots, *wid-tor-, ultimately from *weid-, "meaning 'to see,' hence 'to know'." Tale, then, is an Old English word, whereas story is Latinate. There will be more pairs like this in a while.

I'll assume that tale is an older word in English than is story. But is it an older form? More to the point, is there a cultural or historical difference between tales and short stories? Well, we talk about folktales, fairy tales, and tall tales. All are simple forms, all are old, and, significantly, I think, all are made by and for common people. We also have The Canterbury Tales, a collection in Middle English from the fourteenth century. Although Chaucer's tales were written down, the work itself is a series of tales that are told by a number of characters, some high, some low. In any case, in order to be complete, tales would appear to require a teller and a hearer, just as, perhaps, fate must be spoken.

So, I interpret the tale originally as a spoken form, a traditional or folk form, meant to be told and heard, the teller and the hearer being together in the same place and at the same time. On the other hand, I think of the short story as a more recent literary form meant to be read, perhaps in solitude, the author or storyteller being distant from the reader. Tales can be told in the absence of every kind of technology--every one but fire, that is, if the tale is to be told at night and to best effect. The short story, however, being a form that is read rather than heard, requires the more advanced technology of printing. And if it is to be a popular rather than a high or midlevel literary form, it must be mass produced for a mass-literate readership. And that readership must have enough disposable income to buy books, magazines, newspapers, and so on, if they are to enjoy printed stories. Only in the nineteenth century did mass technology, mass production, mass transportation, mass education, mass literacy, mass culture, and mass media begin to allow for that kind of thing. It's no mere coincidence that story magazines began to take off in the nineteenth century or that the first pulp magazine appeared in 1896, at the same time, by the way, as two other popular forms of storytelling, newspaper comics and commercial motion pictures.

By the way again, fiction and print are also Old French words from the Latin, also ultimately from presumed roots in PIE. Writer and author are split in their origins, the former being an Old English word, the latter Latinate.

So, weird, tale, tell, and writer are Old English words, while story, printfiction, and author are Latinate. I have to assume that, as such, weird, tale, tell, and writer are older in the English language than are their Latinate counterparts. Science is also from the Old French and before that, from Latin, ultimately from PIE. That fact fits nicely here with a building thesis.

The tale is an older form than is the short story. Some tales are so old that we don't even know who first told them or who revised them along the way. The identity of the author--even the very concept of author--is relatively unimportant in regards to the tale. The identity of the author of a short story is an essential part of it, though. People read even the worst stories by Lovecraft or Hemingway, specifically because they were written by those men.

In the original sense, I think the tale was more nearly a folk form or something made by and for common people. The short story, on the other hand, is a higher form, made at least for the middle and upper classes, but, significantly in America, for the poor and working classes, too. Would there have been a pulp-fiction era if working men and women in America had not been literate and able to shell out here and there a nickel or a dime for a week or a month's worth of reading? There were tales in American history. Tall tales are an excellent example of that. But because our nation is in its essence democratic, we have also enjoyed at every level stories in print, specifically short stories in print, since very near our beginning. And again we arrive at that seminal figure in our literature, Edgar Allan Poe.

Tales are popular, whereas the short story is more nearly highbrow, or at least middle brow. Again, in America, high-brow and middle-brow culture has worked its way down into the lower classes and is equally available to them, even if it's in the form of barely literate or trashy pulp-fiction or confessionals or even pornography. For decades, pop culture was looked down upon by academia and other institutions of higher culture. Now everything has been turned on its head. Academia loves pop culture and despises every other kind. And every day in America, we seem to have another Alexandria of the mind: everything we hate must be burned to the ground, and would be, too, if only we could do it. I guess that's fitting in that the American imagination is very often apocalyptic.

Anyway, it seems to me that as an older form by and for the common people, the tale is more nearly conservative than is the short story, which was--at one time at least--an innovation and perhaps a product of what people call progress. Again, the magazine was called Weird Tales, not Weird Stories, even if a story like "The Call of Cthulhu" is not really a tale at all but a complex, sophisticated, and possibly modernistic short story reaching towards novelette length.

Anyway, that's all a lot of theorizing, or as my friend calls it, hypostulatin'. I'll make just two more points, both in regards to the weird tale versus simply the tale.

First, I think that an essential element of the weird tale is the weird in the original sense of that expression, meaning fate or destiny, or even by extension doom. The implication is that there are limits beyond which we cannot, must not, and may not go. That doesn't stop us from trying, but if we try too hard or push the limits too far, we will suffer our fate, and it will be justly deserved. (1, 2) That seems to me a very biblical idea. Ultimately, weird fiction may be about the Fall of Man, or the punishment and chastening of Man, as in the story of the Flood or the Tower of Babel. Science fiction, being a modern fictional form, is less likely to recognize or observe limits or to punish--or even recognize--transgression. And so we have science-fictional heroes who aspire to and may even reach godlike power, all without fear of punishment for their extreme pride and ambition. In that sense, science fiction is progressive, whereas weird fiction, as it developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, may be thought of as reactionary. It's a wonder anybody of today loves it. But then you can love a conservative or reactionary thing if you can expunge its earlier offenses. (3) You can love it as long as you wokeify it, decolonize it, Marxify it, and turn it into something exquisitely progressive. That may be what's going on with weird fiction today, just as it is in every other part of our culture. Maybe a reading of the current Weird Tales magazine would give us some clues.

Second, the weird tale seems to have been originally a spoken or oral form and only later written down or recorded. That suggests that a person's fate or weird is or must be spoken, possibly in his presence, rather than read silently and in solitude, that is, in the absence of the speaker or teller of his fate. That idea has implications, but I'll leave them be and go on with this series into different areas of investigation.

(1) There may be an exception in the conte cruel, in which a terrible fate may be arbitrary rather then deserved.
(2) Here's another by-the-way: the word doom is related to law or justice.
(3) That has happened with the World Fantasy Award, which used to be a statuette of H.P. Lovecraft but is now a sculpture of a bonsai tree making sexual advances on the moon.

To be continued . . .

Weird Tales, 1889
You can't tell it just from looking at the front cover, but here is an early collection of weird tales, Wild and Weird: Tales of Imagination and Mystery: Russian, English, and Italian, edited by Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell, Baronet (1838-1899), and published in London, New York, and Melbourne by Ward, Lock, and Company in 1889. This is the first omnibus edition, a rebinding of three previously printed paperbound books. The designs on the cover look like strap hinges. Maybe the intent was for the book to look old and weighty, like a tome, or, in the lexicon of weird fiction, a grimoire. The words wild and weird are often found in association, as they are here. But we aren't quite yet there in the formulation of the title Weird Tales, for those two component words are separated in the title of Campbell's book, one being in the main title, the other in the subtitle. Campbell, by the way, had his own wild and weird career. And note his Scottish surname: Scotsmen and Scotswomen will soon come into play in this series.

Text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, January 12, 2023

What's in a Title?-Part Two


Weird is an old word. In fact it's from an Old English word, wyrd. The origins of weird are in a presumed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root, *wer-, meaning "to turn" or "to bend." We use weird as an adjective, but originally it was a noun, meaning, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "fate, chance, fortune; destiny; the Fates." For purposes of talking about weird fiction, it might be best to reduce the meaning of weird to "fate" or "destiny." That's how I think of it, although "chance" might apply in the case of a certain kind of weird story, the conte cruel, in which characters face a cruel and arbitrary (or undeserved) fate. Conte, by the way, is translated as "tale."

The Fates are of course from Greek mythology, in which they are called the Moirai, also spelled Moirae or Mœræ, meaning "lots, destinies, apportioners." There are three of them, all women. Their names are Clotho, the "spinner"; Lachesis, the "allotter"; and Atropos, "the unturnable." Note in the names of Clothos the Spinner and Atropos the Unturnable the references again to the verb "to turn." As for Lachesis the Allotter, remember that one meaning of lot has to do with fate or destiny, as in the expression cast one's lot or one's lot in life.

Our word Fates is from the Latin, Fata, or fata, originally from a PIE root, *bha-, meaning "to speak, tell, say." That suggests a linguistic or conceptual connection between the two component words of the title Weird Tales: weird, meaning "fate," originally "to tell," and tales, or a story that is told. Maybe fate must be spoken. I should warn you at this point that pursuing the meanings and origins of words can easily lead you down a rabbit hole from which you might not return.

There are Fates in other cultures and mythologies. In Norse mythology they are called the Norns, and their names are Urðr, Verðandi, and SkuldUrðr is a cognate of wyrd, and like wyrd, it means "fate." There are suggestions that the names of the Norns denote past, present, and future. I don't know whether that's true or not, but the idea makes me think of the three ghosts of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol (1843). Men and women in threes returned in Dracula's brides in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), in the film The Three Weird Sisters (1948), and in Albert K. Bender's Three Men in Black (MIB) from the 1950s. More on another threesome will begin in three, two, one . . .

The three women of fate are elsewhere in English literature, namely in Macbeth, Shakespeare's "Scottish Play." By the way, this is the four-hundredth anniversary year of its publication. The play refers to these three women as "the weyward Sisters." We know them now as the Three Witches or the Weird Sisters. They were not originally referred to as witches. As for weird, there's a way to get there from the word weyward.

Spelling was of course nonstandard in Shakespeare's time. His referring to his three women as "the weyward Sisters" gives us an idea, I think, of one possible pronunciation of weird, something like "way-ard." Wiktionary, the Free Dictionary gives weïrd as an alternate and obsolete spelling of weird. The diaeresis over the -i- of course indicates that the second part of the word, -ird, is pronounced as a syllable separate from the first. Thus weyward (or weyard) easily became weird, and the weyward Sisters became the Weird Sisters. This case for an association or transformation is strengthened, I think, in the meaning of the word wayward, for the -ward part of wayward (literally, "turned away") is from the same root as weird. "Turned to," then, is toward or towards, and so on.

Although it was originally an Old English word, weird dropped out of common usage in English. It persisted, however, in the spoken language of Scotland. Shakespeare as much as anybody may have saved it for us. (The only instances of weird I have found in newspapers before 1843 are in reference to his three Weird Sisters.) I'm no Shakespearean scholar, but I have read references to an increased emphasis on the weirdness--meaning the uncanniness or supernatural quality--of the Weird Sisters in performances of the Scottish Play during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is perhaps from those performances that weird became a synonym for uncanny, another Scottish (as well as northern English) word.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary: "By 1843 it [the word uncanny] had a general sense in English of 'having a supernatural character, weird, mysterious, strange'." During the pulp era and afterwards, there were magazines with the words weird, strange, and uncanny in their titles, all used more or less synonymously. There was even a small magazine called Wyrd. In any case, the year 1843 has come up three times in this essay. That suggests that weird, uncanny, and related words and ideas came into common usage again in the early to mid 1800s after having fallen into disuse everywhere but in Scotland during the previous couple of centuries. In other words, words that were previously only spoken in one relatively small place were finally written down for the whole English-speaking world to see and to read. This was, I think, a key development in the history of weird.

One possible explanation for the allure of this very old word is that it may have seemed new and glamorous, in an older sense of that word. (Glamour is another Scottish word by the way.) Weird may have carried with it a kind of meaning or utility otherwise lacking in the English language. It may actually have been a needful word in a century characterized by the twin advances of materialism and progressivism, and by an increasing faith in science and a loss of faith in the supernatural. In times of change and anxiety brought on by change, we very often fall back on old things. One possibility here is that weird is a conservative reaction to a science- or reason-based progressivism.

And that sets up a literary dichotomy about which I'll soon write more.

* * *

I'm not done with this exploration of the word weird just yet. It is my weird to look into these things a little further . . .

So why did weird persist in Scotland? Why do we think of it as a Scottish word? I can't say, but I can speculate:

First, Scotland is on the fringes of the United Kingdom. Old things often last on the fringes while disappearing in the rapidly moving heart of a larger culture or society.

Second, Scotland is home to traditional cultures and traditional ways. In their rush into modernity, cultures and societies leave behind tradition and folkways. Only later do they realize what is being lost. Only then do they rush in the opposite direction to preserve while they can the things of the past. There was a lot of that in the 1800s, I think. Maybe weird was saved not only by Shakespeare but also by folklorists or gatherers of traditional ways, poems, songs, and tales. Robert Burns may have been one of them. In fact, the word weird appears in his poem "Her Answer," from 1795. Significantly, it is used as a noun rather than an adjective. Significantly, that came during the Romantic Era, which was in part a reaction to the rationalism of the eighteenth century.

Third, a question: Is there a peculiar Celtic sense of fate or doom? I'm from an Old World-type Irish family. There is or was certainly that feeling among my dad's family. It's hard to escape even today. (I joke that our family left Ireland more than 100 years ago and are only now arriving in America.) In Celtic cultures kept under the thumb of their English overlords, there may have been a sense that a man is not in control of his own life or destiny. That sense promotes the feeling that nothing can be done and that one must accept one's lot in life, or, in Scottish, one must dree his weird.

And fourth, another question: Could the idea of the weird as fate have been reinforced in Scotland by the Calvinist concept of predestination?

* * *

In its presumed Proto-Indo-European root, weird means "to turn" or "to bend," or, in a more complex working out of the concept, "to become," as in "to turn into." Becoming, turning into, or being transformed is a common theme in weird fiction, for example in "The Wendigo" by Algernon Blackwood (1910). The protagonists in that story, by the way, are Scotsmen. "To turn" or "to bend" also shows up in certain expressions related to fate or destiny, for example, twist of fate or to reach a turning point in one's life. In literature there are plot twists, and in reading, page turners. This kind of thing could go on and on.

In its Old English origins, weird was a noun. Again, we use it now as an adjective, thus we get away from its original meaning. I think the intention behind the naming of "the Unique Magazine" as Weird Tales may have been to invoke the original meaning of weird, that is, as tales of the weird (fate) or tales of fateful things rather than as tales that are weird (strange or uncanny) or that tell about weird (uncanny or supernatural) things. "The Basket" by Herbert J. Mangham (Herbert J. Maughiman) in the first issue of Weird Tales is an excellent example of a tale of one man's weird, if I understand the word and concept correctly, without any resort to the supernatural.

Clark Ashton Smith was an expert at archaic words. He used them with a facility that is perhaps unique in genre fiction. There are only two stories in Weird Tales that use weird as a noun in their titles. Smith's story "The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan," from June 1932, is one of them. The other is "The Weirds of the Woodcarver" by Gardner F. Fox, from September 1944. Notorious might be the right word to describe Fox's habit of borrowing from other authors. Maybe he did and maybe he didn't borrow from Clark Ashton Smith. Anyway, all other uses of weird in titles of stories that appeared in Weird Tales are as adjectives. In this way, the so-called "New Weird" (which, being more than a decade old, isn't new anymore) returns to origins and to old things. And so we're back to the nineteenth century or before.

There is one more story to mention on this topic. It is called "Norn," and it was by Everil Worrell, writing under her pseudonym Lireve Monet. "Norn" was in Weird Tales in February 1936. Everil Worrell is the first woman to come up. There will be more women shortly.

Next: Tale.

The Norns Vanish by Arthur Rackham (1924).

Thanks to Hlafbrot for information on Scottish words.
Original text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley