Tuesday, January 31, 2023

What Is Weird Fiction?

Beowulf was composed in pre-Christian times but written down only after Christianity had moved into northern Europe. The result is syncretic, that is, a cross between pre-Christian and Christian beliefs. Syncretism was and is a very successful strategy in the growth and spread of Christianity. Rather than wipe out beliefs that came before it, the Church absorbed and modified them. It's why we celebrate Christmas at midwinter.

In his last words, Beowulf mentions both Weird (Wyrd) and "the Creator." The implication is that Weird works on earth, perhaps independently of the Creator. Or is she one of his agents or angels? I can't say. Beowulf seems to have lived and died in an in-between time. But what if the inclusion of Weird in Beowulf is not fully syncretic? What if Weird and God lived side by side for some time in Europe before Weird became what people now call "God's will" or "God's plan for the world"? What if only later did God subsume Weird?

For nigh on a thousand years after Beowulf, Weird was the workings of God--"God moves in mysterious ways" is the saying--and there was a syncretism, with God on top and Weird hidden away. Weird, or Fate, and her seeming random and often cruel ways retreated behind God's will, God's plan, God's mercy, God's love. God took her place; he is loving and caring, even if mysterious. He does things for his own reasons, which may be inscrutable and incomprehensible to us in our smallness, yet are ultimately wise and unassailable. Maybe the weird fiction of the nineteenth century and after chronicles a renewed schism of Weird from God, significantly beginning with the Romantic Period and the rise of the natural sciences.

We think of the Romantic Period as a reaction to the Age of Reason. But there was no simple conservatism in Romanticism. In fact, it may be seen as a search for a third way, for a middle ground between a cleaving to tradition and a radical overthrow of the past. So maybe Weird came back only after we had begun the process of dethroning God, which seems to have been part of the program of Western thought during the nineteenth century. Then, in 1883, Nietzsche wrote that God is dead. A couple of years later, publishers began putting out books with the word weird in their titles. These were no doubt the inspiration for the title, themes, and subject matter of the later magazine Weird Tales, which began one hundred years ago this spring.

So maybe the authors of weird fiction from the 1880s to the 1920s and '30s were simply returning to the Weird of the past. Except that Weird was now embodied or manifested in dark, malign, and alien beings, entities, and forces. Weird may be cruel. She may seem arbitrary. She carries us away. But more than anything, she may actually be indifferent to what we want for ourselves on this earth. Her ways may just be matters of course. These things must be done for no reason we may know. Cthulhu, on the other hand, wishes to crush us and rule over us. He has his designs upon us. He has come into this world to stay. He is bodily, though also in control of nonmaterial forces. But I sense in him an indifference, a malign indifference to be sure, but an indifference nonetheless. In the eyes of Cthulhu, we are nothing. Beyond that, in the greater Lovecraftian universe, we as human beings are insignificant, mere specks. I don't think Weird sees us that way. Weird may carry us away, but we are not nothing to her.

Based as it is on genuine human experience in a seemingly harsh, often cruel, and largely unforgiving world, the pre-Christian concept of Weird is actually profound in its grasp of our condition. It is not the simple or savage or barbaric belief of a pre-civilized people. It may actually be a kind of stoicism, a well-developed philosophy from ancient, civilized, and pre-Christian Greece and Rome. But I sense more in the concept of Weird than simply a kind of stoicism. Weird is at work in the world. No one knows her workings. Whereas Fate may be seen as acting out some kind of moral judgment or dealing some kind of punishment against transgression, Weird is or may be simply neutral. And because of that, we have acceptance. There can be no bitterness or lashing out at her. Our fists would simply fly through thin air. We are urged not to tempt Fate. But Weird is not tempted. Nor can she be avoided. She has her way no matter what we do. As Beowulf says, "Goes Weird as she must go!"

Weird is not a force. I feel certain of that. Weird is embodied in the person of an unseen and unknowable woman or goddess. And yet there is no discrete body or physical manifestation of her. And she is not a she but something else. Weird is at work everywhere at once. Weird is also not necessarily supernatural. Again, Weird may be simply part of our existence. She is in the way we live and ultimately die.

Weird fiction involves things that are weird, uncanny, eerie--all Scottish words--also, strange, fantastic, and possibly, though not necessarily, supernatural. I'll tell you the truth: I don't know what weird fiction is. But I think I know a couple of things that it is not:

First, weird fiction is not science fiction. If there are elements of weirdness in a scientific story (or pseudoscientific story, a term that predated science fiction), then it might best be described as science fantasy rather than as science fiction. To illustrate, I think it more accurate to say that H.P. Lovecraft and C.L. Moore composed stories of science fantasy rather than of science fiction. Both wrote in the weird-fiction tradition, which seems to have come from the Old World as far back as what Jack Williamson referred to as the Hebraic-Egyptian tradition. Edgar Rice Burroughs also wrote science fantasy. Although he was not a science fiction author proper, his stories may be seen as a kind of proto-science fiction. I don't think his stories are essentially weird, though, nor do they contain very many--if any--truly weird elements. I don't think Burroughs had that kind of imagination. Likewise, John Carter is not a weird-fictional hero. He is more nearly a science-fictional hero and a proximate forerunner to the Superior Man-type hero of the 1930s and after. Lovecraft's heroes, if you can call them that, and C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith in particular are clearly not science-fictional heroes in that they are not triumphant. They are in fact weak and in the end often defeated. The difference may come from differences in personality and biography. Remember that Burroughs was a man of action and vigor, whereas Lovecraft and Moore were sickly, at least in their formative years. Anyway, science fiction can have its weird elements, but, ultimately, if it's science-based rather than weird-based, then I think it has to remain within the realm of science fiction.

Likewise, weird fiction is not fantasy, or at least it's not high fantasy. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy may have their weird elements, but they are fantasy. Like Robert E. Howard's stories of Conan, they also have elements of heroic fantasy. It seems to me, though, that the Conan stories lie within the realm of weird fiction because of their pervasive weird atmosphere. And let's remember that Howard saw himself as a Celt. Glenn Lord in fact assembled a book about him called The Last Celt: A Bio-Bibliography of Robert Ervin Howard (1976). We should also note that Conan is a Celtic name, and there are similarities between Conan and his countrymen with pre-Christian Celtic cultures and society. Although Weird is in Beowulf, she survived in the real-world realms of Celt-ism. Maybe that's another syncretism: Celts adapted Weird from Beowulf and his pre-Christian culture into their own and there it survived, only to be rediscovered in the nineteenth century, perhaps when it was needed again, perhaps when the Christian-pre-Christian syncretism began to break down and Weird was once again loosed from God.

I have written more than once that weird fiction involves Fate or Destiny as a limiting, corrective, or punitive force--maybe not force so much as outcome. We are permitted only certain things and no more. If we attempt more, we are put back in our place. The Greek notions of hubris and agon may come into play here. When we began our weird fiction book club several years ago, the leader of our group, my friend Nathaniel Wallace, asked us what we think makes weird fiction. My answer was and is that weird fiction involves a crossing over: either we cross over into other realms, or they cross over into or touch ours. Usually, there is a return or a retreat, but there need not be. The crossing over is the key. This, too, can be neutral: moral dimensions may be removed from weird fiction and it can still go about its business.

In reading about weird fiction, I have encountered two or three or four ideas again and again. One is that weird fiction crosses genres. I think that's true, but I think it has been true since the beginning. The claim of "the New Weird" to genre-crossing may very well be inconsequential. It's like inventing a new genre called "the New Western" and then setting all of its stories in the American West. Genre-crossing may very well be built into the definition of weird fiction. There's no need to keep commenting on it. And can we quit calling it "the New Weird"? If a thing is near two decades old, it ain't new anymore.

Second is that weird fiction subverts our expectations, or, as Wikipedia puts it, it "radically reinterprets" its subject matter. Again, I'll label that idea as puerile or sophomoric. Only the childish imagination--including the Marxist imagination--that exists within supposed adults believes in subversion or subversiveness, or in the idea that anything at this late date can be truly radical. What we should all know by now is that everything has already been tried. There is nothing new under the sun. The only reason that all of these things that have been tried don't still exist is that we found out they don't work and discarded them. It is the things that have been tried and found true that stick. You might call that the fundamental realization behind conservatism. Or if you want something truly radical, try Christianity and the idea that human beings are and by rights free and that we are made this way by our Creator. What he has done, no man may undo. Christianity and human freedom are the truly radical ideas and the real revolutions in our history. Marxism and all of its offshoots are merely reactionary, and in a pretty lunkheaded way, too.

Third is that weird fiction treats what is called the numinous. The numinous seems a philosophical or theological concept. I'm not a philosopher, nor am I a theologian, so I'll return to that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, which paraphrases Rudolf Otto (from 1923, the same year in which Weird Tales began) in stating that the numinous is "a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans)." That works pretty well for me: weird fiction is about mysterious things that are at once terrifying and fascinating.

C.S. Lewis also commented on the numinous. In The Problem of Pain (1940), he wrote:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told "There is a ghost in the next room," and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is "uncanny" rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply "There is a mighty spirit in the room," and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking--a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it--an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare's words "Under it my genius is rebuked." This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous. [Emphasis added.]

If terrifying equals dread and fascinating equals awe, then we have two prominent people in agreement as to what makes the numinous. I might add that Fate--but perhaps not Weird--acts as a rebuke. We believe ourselves to be so, so fine--We are geniuses! And we are forever rebuked.

Lovecraft had his say when it came to weird fiction. In "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (1927), he wrote:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. 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. [Emphasis added.]

I think you can read awe into Lovecraft's formulation of the weird tale. But his definition doesn't quite work for me. The chief reason might be that he wrote it in his typical overwrought and very pulpish prose ("our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space."). Another, though, is that he saw these unknown forces as being against us. I'm not sure that that's necessary. I don't think that Weird is against us. There may be cruelty in her workings, but that's only what we see on our end. She may carry us away, but for what purpose? We are merely human. We are not to know. In short, I believe the weird tale can be about weird forces, weird atmospheres, and weird events, but these need not be malign.

Again, maybe personality and biography must make their entrance. Lovecraft was not properly loved by his parents. I imagine that he extended that feeling of not being loved or cared for into the universe as a whole. In addition, he may have had a personal sense of insignificance and extended that to all of us. Lovecraft was also a materialist and an amateur astronomer. I suppose that, as such, he liked Cosmos (order) and feared Chaos (disorder). He did not believe in God. He probably resisted God, who sweeps into the heart and disorders it so that it might be put right again. God rebukes our genius. Without God, there is also Chaos, though of a different kind than exists in the physical universe. We see that in our world today, which is overfull with moral and intellectual chaos. There is also fear: we live in a world of fear. And, as we are finding now, there is also insanity. Without God and a belief in God, we--all of humanity--go utterly insane. Anyway, remember that Lovecraft fancied himself a figure from the Enlightenment and greatly admired two exemplars of that period, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Gothicism and Romanticism, which are in Lovecraft as well, were reactions to Reason. How do we make all of these things work with him? Maybe Lovecraft wasn't quite what he made himself out to be. In any case, fearing Chaos is not the same as discounting it. Lovecraft knew fear, terror, awe, and madness. He wrote very effectively on weird subjects and in a weird atmosphere. In fact, building atmospheres of awe and terror was one of his special talents. A writer--and a believer--like C.S. Lewis probably had less of a problem with these kinds of things, but notice that he used--and capitalized--the word Uncanny. Remember, too, that Lewis came from a Celtic culture, whereas Lovecraft was from an old Anglo-Saxon one. They all lived on the same islands, but maybe there has always been a divide between them, like Hadrian's Wall.

The quotes, again, are from Wikipedia.

Finally, there is the idea that weird fiction is about tentacles. Weird, I know. But there may be something to it. Except that I don't think a fascination with tentacles originated in weird fiction. In fact, I think it came from science fiction. And I'll have more about that when I write about the first issue of Weird Tales and its first cover story, "Ooze."

* * *

I was reading and writing about Weird earlier this month when Weird--call it Death instead--visited us again: last year at this time, we lost a sister. Now, a year and four days after losing her, we lost a brother. I do not invoke Weird lightly. I write this in all seriousness. Like I said, I don't believe Weird to be a force, nor a body, nor a spirit. Weird may not be the proper word for it. But there are workings in this world about which we may not know, and no one can explain to me that these things have happened.

My brother had a paper route when we were kids. Sometimes I helped him deliver the Indianapolis News to the people of our neighborhood. This was in Irvington, on the east side of Indianapolis. Named for Washington Irving, it's the same neighborhood in which C.L. Moore grew up fifty years before us and the same in which the Cornelius family, the printers/publishers of Weird Tales from 1924 to 1938, also lived. With his pay, my brother bought comic books, Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conquerer among them. We read them and enjoyed them very much. We even drew our own Conan-inspired comic book called Barbarian Magazine. Later in life, my brother sought out and assembled a very good collection of Howard's works in paperback. They are still on his bookshelf.

I remember and hold on to my brother and my sister and my parents and all of the other family members and friends we have lost. Again, here are 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."

But not now. Later. I hope later for all of us who are left. Let Death go away from our door. Let it no more carry any of us away.

* * *

Tentacles on the Cover of
Conan the Barbarian

There were lots of tentacles on the cover of Conan the Barbarian. Here are just two tentacled covers. Top: Conan the Barbarian #32 (Nov. 1973), with cover art by Gil Kane and Ernie Chua. Bottom: Conan the Barbarian #45 (Dec. 1974), with cover art by Gil Kane, Neal Adams, and Crusty Bunkers. Others from the first one hundred issues include #25, #72, and #86. The images here are from Marvel Database, hence the lack of price tags and the cleaned-up images.

Tentacles are in the current art world as well. Here is a photograph by Rashmi Gill showing the raising of a sculpture called "Witness," created by Shahzia Sikander, in New York City. It's meant to honor a late Supreme Court justice. That's why she's wearing a lace collar. The hair is similar to a Hopi maiden's, but it's more like a pair of goat horns. Some people have called the statue demonic or satanic. It doesn't help that her arms look like the tentacles of the Octopus Woman who is attacking Conan on the cover above. If a male sculptor had done something like this, he would have been excoriated for mutilating the female form. Instead, I guess, this is an expression of grrl power.

Notice that the tentacles are connected to her body on both ends. They look like tubes or conduits or spark plug wires. Is she actually a machine? A cyborg? An AI? A transhuman? Is she feeding into herself, reaching into herself? Is she a multi-limbed female version of the worm Ouroboros? On November 17, 2022, I wrote a little about Pete Townshend's Lifehouse project. In James Harvey's illustration, there are tubes or feeds going into the heads of dehumanized masses of people. They look something like the image above. Or maybe these are manifold Fallopian tubes. Could she be fertilizing and impregnating herself? 

"Witness" is a well-made work. The face, head, and neck are good. But it's also bizarre and antihuman. I guess this is the state of public art in America. We must tear down images of Abraham Lincoln and put up monstrosities like this one as replacements. There will be no end to this of course. Or maybe Weird will end it.

Original text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley

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 published 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 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 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 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, 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