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Tentacles & Geometry | The Odd History of Weird Fiction

A tentacle that doesn’t belong, an angle that doesn’t add up, an indescribable being that shouldn’t exist; I’m sure most of you have been influenced by weird fiction, just as you’ve been influenced by detective stories or westerns. Even if not conspicuously, in subtle ways. A movie rooted in literary origins, a video game with antagonists based on an old book, or a podcast taking inspiration from older works; all of these things betray the profound impact of weird fiction, despite how niche of a genre it appears on paper.

Since I’ve already explained the weird and the bizarre, it’s time to see them in action. As someone who’s always kept an out for the stranger things in the world, this genre is right up my alley. It often features a conspiratorial narrative, one I’m sure most cryptozoologists and ufologists would find very familiar. To see our understanding of the world flipped on its head; these works embody the life of an investigator, dealing with one confusing paradigm shift after another, unsure of what’s even real, feeling crazy, trying desperately to make sense of it all.

In whatever capacity you’ve become acquainted with this genre, many of its developments will likely surprise you. It’s become astonishingly popular, yet no one seems to know about it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. Today, we’re learning about the odd history of weird fiction.

How It All Started

Scarcely a soul in our society can go without hearing about the literary exploits of Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, he really is that good, and I do recommend giving him a try. In addition to detective fiction, the psychological thriller, poetry of a musical cadence, and love stories revolving around terminal illness, Poe pioneered what we now recognize as weird fiction. This new direction of horror and fantasy departed from the more conventional supernatural elements, or at the very least employed them in innovative fashions.

That being said, even stories like Dracula began featuring stranger twists than older works of fiction. This is hardly surprising, as novels are defined by their novelty, and so adding new twists and turns to transfix bibliophiles has been broadly in-fashion since the beginning. However, I would not be the first to argue that Poe and those who took inspiration from his strange style often delve into much darker depths than more mainstream monster media. It’s all the rage for authors to make new vampire lore in their fictional universes, but weird fiction is something different.

Instead of traditional ghosts, someone may be haunted by the appearance of a dead relative until dark forces drive him to ruin. Instead of werewolves, the city may be crawling with canine humanoids that lurk out just out of sight. And of course, we have the tendency for the story to be told through the lens of insanity, and we’re left to wonder if anything supernatural happened at all. While popular media may stray from its roots, it isn’t terribly common to see it toy with ambiguity, and it’s even less common to see it happen subtly.

The Birth Of Cosmic Horror

The most recognizable name in all of weird fiction, unsurprisingly, would be that of H P Lovecraft, so much so that the term Lovecraftian is almost synonymous with the genre. Much like Poe, there was significant variety in his published works. Many were more akin to traditional gothic horror and science fiction, although weird fiction constitutes the majority. He was responsible for the genesis of the Cthulhu Mythos, a loose series of disjointed works by various authors with no consensus as to canon.

Lovecraft was already drawing from previous works in the genre, such as when making literary references to The King In Yellow, now often considered to be part of the Cthulhu Mythos itself. The borrowings didn’t stop there, not by any means. Various writers made nods to the works of each other, in what can only be described as an early example of a shared universe. This style of continuity, lacking any central direction, has become considerably popular in recent decades, and there are many internet fandoms that are entirely crowd-sourced. More on that later.

What was particularly novel about Lovecraft’s works was their attitude. His central theme, and personal philosophy, was that humans were a faint beacon of reason in an otherwise cold and uncaring universe. (Talk about bleak!) The destruction of mankind and everything we’ve ever worked to achieve was inevitable, and our capacity to even comprehend the situation is limited. Thus, the central antagonists of his works are beings that are truly unknowable, and their motives are inconceivable. They are not evil, as the very concept of human morality is foreign to them. They tread the line between religious and scientific in origin, at once both dark gods of some half-familiar mythology stirring in the depths of the human subconscious and alien beings of a distant world that inhabit dimensions unlike our own. In short, they are very weird indeed.

I would argue (uncontroversially) that one aspect of genre is setting, and by corollary the elements that flavour the setting. For example, gothic horror is set somewhere dark and moody, and tends to have appropriate monsters to match the mood of the setting. An old castle, spooky but regal? Perfect for a well-dressed vampire or a lady ghost. Traditional sci-fi horror may take place in space or a laboratory, and the antagonists might be aliens or experiments gone wrong. But what about a story set in a vast, unexplored universe full of monstrosities that circumvent scientific understanding? It’s the perfect opportunity to slap far too many appendages on something that was here long before we were.

The Reinvention Of Lovecraftian

While Lovecraft’s works were filled with mystery, ambiguity, and a multitude of strange circumstances that defied the sensibilities of educated society, everyone these days just thinks about the tentacles. While tentacles were definitely a staple of weird fiction’s monsters, and Lovecraft’s were no exception, in many works it comes across more as a kind of set-dressing, with unknowable eldritch gods reduced to final bosses to add some flavour to sci-fi action horror. While these stories can be very fun, and it certainly makes for a compelling video game, it’s not the same thing Lovecraft was going for.

This is mostly due to August Derleth, an author closely connected to Lovecraft. His works took on a very different tone, more resembling a traditional creature feature than a psychological thriller. When madness was invoked, it was almost like a magic curse, akin to how the very same plot device was used in Ancient Greek theater. Characters go insane as a result of the forces they encounter, or as a resolution to their tragic arcs, not as a complication to the narrative itself. In short, I would describe this vein of art as fitting the cosmic horror genre, but with a different style.

What we have is a series of “Lovecraftian” games and films which focus heavily on the cosmic horror aesthetics, but have their own distinct narrative functions. Monsters ooze insanity like radioactive waste oozes cancer, and the cold indifference of the endless cosmos is interpreted as a gritty, high-stakes end-of-the-world fight with evil gods. It’s utterly anthropocentric, and it has a lot in common with more traditional fiction. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a compelling genre in its own right, and I actually like it better in some ways, but the originals have their own charm you don’t want to miss. You can find a great video explaining how Lovecraft is misunderstood here. If you haven’t actually read his works, I suggest you do. They’re really good.

The New Weird Is The New Normal

If Lovecraft was the biggest name in weird fiction, and his signature brand of cosmic horror was reshaped into an eldritch tentacle fest, does that mean that weird fiction has settled into a routine? Has what started as genre-defying fallen prey to genre conventions of its own? Well, surprisingly, weird fiction is in something of a renaissance. While cosmic horror is usually pretty formulaic, there are some different directions that stories started to take. Sure, they may be oversaturated with tropes of their own, but it's a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale genre. Enter the new weird.

Not only are there beings that defy explanation, the world itself is unknowable and confusing. Logic is not merely insufficient, but inconsequential. Even if you thought alien monstrosities were getting old, these stories will find a way to scare you. Monsters taken out of the comfortable context of conventional fiction. Whereas conventional monsters are either realistic or fantastical, the new weird thrives of utterly bizarre hazards intruding onto otherwise mundane reality in a way that feels remarkably plausible. If you aren’t careful, you might drive yourself into a fit of paranoia. This is the scariest horror has ever been, as far as I can tell.

Most of these works are based around the internet directly, and many are collaborative. In case you’re new to this side of the internet, I can give you some ideas of where to start: there’s the SCP Foundation, the Magnus Archives, Kane Pixels, Evan Royalty, Welcome to Night Vale, The Kirlian Frequency, and many more, especially when it comes to video games. If you’re interested in the uncanny, then I wholeheartedly recommend this wonderful genre to you…unless, of course, you scare easily.

In Conclusion

I’m sure some of you are saying, “That’s all cool Revenitor, but what does any of this have to do with cryptids?” I’m glad you asked, random person on the internet I’m imagining to make a rhetorical point. As you may know, I’m of the opinion that art is a profound reflection of ourselves. Given that weird fiction is creeping into our culture like an alien parasite, it’s no surprise that people are starting to take things like bigfoot and UFOs seriously. When our fiction exhibits a readiness to throw off the old paradigm, and embrace strange occurrences we don’t understand, perhaps our science will follow suit.

What a time to be alive! The government is admitting there are phenomena in the skies that can’t be explained with publicly available data. Conventional diet and lifestyle advice has been overturned, and more and more doctors are starting to realize it. Scientists have analyzed the dermal ridges on sasquatch footprints, and can even link individual creatures to multiple trackways.

For those of us who were willing to consider what others wouldn’t, who were pushed to the margins of society’s narrative, who were relegated to the fringes of academic interest, this is big. We were called conspiracy theorists, nutters, loons, quacks; that might change soon. I’m cautiously optimistic. While the mainstream’s idea of rapid progress is little more than a sluggish crawl, at least they’re starting to move. Maybe one day, if we’re really lucky, they’ll even admit we were right. Take care, and stay weird.

UPDATE: Thanks for reading, as always. I just wanted to go over a few things. As you might have noticed, a few of my recent posts have gotten a bit…long-winded, shall we say. That’s because these were topics I’d been working on for a while, and represent weeks or months of intensive research. I had to balance between elegance and thoroughness, and I’ve regrettably done a less-than-stellar job.

I’m still fairly new to blog writing, so I’m afraid you’ll need to bear with me as I get it all figured out. I think the best compromise would be to create an abridged version of the article that links to the full-version, so that anyone who cared to hear the finer details of the topic could do so without bogging down the main article for those with a busier schedule. We’re working on how to get that implemented, and hopefully we’ll have it up soon. Either way, the majority of posts in the future should be of a more readable length.

While we’re at it, I’ve been hearing concerns that we’d changed writers. I want to assure everyone that all articles published to date were indeed written by me. The variation in writing style is an unfortunate consequence of my personal psychology, likely driven by the presence of various psychiatric disorders. Quirks of the mind, if you will. Little about me is remarkably consistent, least of all my writing style. I apologize if it in any way impedes upon your enjoyment of this blog, but I’m not terribly optimistic that I can actually do anything about it. I do hope it isn’t too much of a bother. So anyway, thank you for your time, and I should have more posts for you every week.

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