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A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937 by Jonathan Newell review – is disgust at the core of weird fiction?

So-called “genre” fiction has had, since its inception, an issue with defining itself. Even the word itself is vague, coming from the same root as the less-flattering description “generic”. It implies a mass of different types, clustered together haphazardly and cowering beneath the monolithic purity of the much more proper literary fiction.

Is Alien a sci-fi film or is it, as I’ve previously argued, a piece of gothic horror that just happens to be set in space? Is Frankenstein gothic horror or is it actually sci-fi that was written before sci-fi as we know it existed? Is sci-fi even a genre of its own? There are certainly valid arguments that sci-fi is more accurately a kind of fantasy or that they are both sub-sets of the even more nebulous genre of speculative fiction. There are equally valid arguments that horror, like comedy, isn’t even a genre at all but more properly a mode, a description of the manner in which the story is presented. 

The more closely we look at these definitions the more we see the cracks and overlaps between them. Some inter-penetrate, some maintain a cautious distance. Some shift back and forth, oscillating between states. And flowing noisomely through the gaps, like some kind of strangely bubbling lymphatic fluid, is weird fiction.

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Weird fiction is something that its readers will immediately recognise, yet find hard to describe.  Like Potter Stewart famously announced when delimiting the bounds of the obscene: we know it when we see it. Weird fiction absorbs elements from other genre fictions as it needs to. Much of Lovecraft’s more famous work is not far distant from pulp detective noir, whilst William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki is very much an occult Sherlock Holmes. Films like The Thing and the Dead Space series of video games make the link between sci-fi and weird fiction’s obsession with the terrifying unknown explicit. Weird fiction, if we bring writers like Kafka or Beckett into the fold, even extends its tendrils into literary fiction.

Weird fiction, we realise, is a kind of category error; it appears to belong to one genre – whether horror, gothic or sci-fi – but it truly belongs to none of them. And if there’s one thing humans (and indeed reality itself) doesn’t like then it’s things not being where they’re supposed to be.

Which is where Jonathan Newell’s A Century of Weird Fiction steps in. Newell’s suggestion is that it is specifically this category error that creates weird fiction’s distinctive appearance. Weird fiction, Newell argues, is like other genres but it is not them; in one notable sentence Newell admits that “I imagine the weird as a tumour of sorts growing out of the gothic – composed of the same tissues but unfamiliar, alien and yet not-entirely-so, at once part of its progenitor and curiously foreign to it”. There is a word for the emotion we feel when we see things in places they shouldn’t be and infecting those places with their presence, when we see bodies erupting from or irrupting into other bodies: disgust. And it is disgust, Newell argues, that is “specifically important for the weird”. Weird fiction’s lack of distinct category is not a failing but its very reason for existing and disgust is its defining factor because “disgust is centrally concerned with boundaries and borders”.

It’s a convincing argument. After all, as Newell tells us, weird fiction is very often concerned with bestiaries of “formless, shapeless things, indeterminate creatures, chimerical monsters” and scenarios where “necrotic hands burst forth from grave dirt, dragging us down into chthonic chaos”. For the large part of the book Newell goes on to discuss ideas of disgust in the work of five weird writers: Poe’s breaching of the ultimate boundary between life and death; the amorphous oozes and slimes that “vomit forth” from the work of Arthur Machen; Algernon Blackwood’s blurring of human and non-human, the “non-conscious intentionality” of matter; William Hope Hodgson’s horror of hybridity, whether it be human/plant or human/animal; and Lovecraft’s “cosmos of endless, illimitable monstrosity, a cosmos irrevocably contaminated”. Each chapter piles disgust on disgust and no page is free of “slimy tendrils” or “violation, contamination”. 

To delve too deeply into each of these chapters would dilute much of the disgust I believe Newell wants us to feel as readers but two specific elements particularly stood out for me as interesting.

Firstly, Newell’s investigation into Blackwood’s use of smell, particularly in stories like The Wendigo, over horror’s positioning of sight and touch as its primary senses. In The Wendigo, the protagonists never truly see the creature which stalks them but they’re constantly haunted by an “odour of lions”; an ill-defined description but one which immediately makes the reader think of musk, sour sweat and putrefying meat. Specifically referring to the “odour of lions” invokes disgust much more than using the sight of a lion or even the feel of a lion’s coat would ever do. In fact, the specific use of odour rather than smell or scent implies a semi-homophonic link to ordure, the abhorrence of excrement. Moreso even than this, while we can choose to not look at something horrible or try and evade its touch we can never refuse to breathe, which means we can never refuse to smell. Smell is pervasive and invasive, it seeps “through the porous boundaries of the human to menace the subject’s sacrosanctity from within”. Sight, touch and hearing work at the body’s boundaries, transferring the outside to the inside. Smell and taste necessitate the passing of the outside into the inside and remind us that we are not discrete bodies passing through the world but entities through which the world passes osmotically. Indeed, smell and taste themselves are interlinked as processes and experiences in a way that can be both delightful and disgusting.

Which brings me to the second element that interested me: Carolyn Korsmeyer’s theory of the sublate. Sublation is a theory which has a long history in philosophy – for Hegel, explained very simply, sublation occurs when two inimical concepts (beingness and nothingness are an example) interact and are changed by that interaction – but for Korsmeyer, it is described as “a kind of negative or inverse counterpoint of the sublime”. So, where the sublime leaves us transfixed by the majesty and awe of extreme experiences, the sublate uses repugnance and vileness for the same ends. This is interesting as it adds an extra element to Ann Radcliffe’s theory, as argued in her essay On the Supernatural in Poetry, that terror elevates the soul whereas horror annihilates it. This makes me think of the limit experience of Blanchot and Foucault; an experience so extreme that it changes our understanding of what extremity is and, in a way, resets our understanding of what reality is.

Now, if you didn’t follow any of that last paragraph then don’t worry too much. A Century of Weird Fiction is, unabashedly, a work of philosophy and quite a dense one at that. If you don’t know Kant from Schopenhauer or have never heard of bog-standard ontology let alone the Object Orientated version then this book might be a daunting prospect. Yet Newell is no Heidegger, for which we must be grateful, and takes pains to explain the core of every philosophical aspect he discusses at least in general terms. His writing is elaborate – I had to reach for the dictionary a handful of times – but never wilfully obtuse and, in many ways, it reflects the nature of the texts being investigated all the better.

It’s a shame, undeniably, that those texts are all by white men but that is far less Newell’s fault than it is of weird fiction as a genre. The authors Newell interrogates dominate the canon of weird fiction and their selection makes perfect sense for an overview of the style, at least within the time-frame he has chosen. A further investigation into whether this idea of disgust as a central pillar of weird fiction persists in the writing of female authors – the likes of Shirley Jackson, Caitlin R Kiernan or Kathe Koja spring to mind – would be very interesting indeed as would a look at weird fiction from beyond the Western world. I believe Newell accepts this lack and, quite rightly, doesn’t shy away from Lovecraft’s racism and misogyny but rather posits this as a wellspring of his disgust, a disgust aimed at bodies and the impure interaction of bodies. Newell also refers to the theory work of a vast range of female philosophers, many contemporary. Curiously, however, there is no mention of Julia Kristeva’s extensive investigations into the abject. Kristeva specifically mentions the corpse and the mannequin, both undeniably weird entities that threaten the solidity of self, as sources of the abject and it feels like a strange omission, especially for a work concerned with disgust and “demarcations of selfhood”

Fundamentally, though, I found A Century of Weird Fiction to be an excellent and fascinating piece of work that brings a fresh position to the often repetitive world of weird criticism. Do I now believe that disgust is the core of all weird fiction? I’m personally undecided but it is an unpleasantly attractive argument and Newell has certainly been successful in his state aim of seeking to “articulate philosophical insights gleaned from the festering tongues of too animate corpses or the hungry, myriad mouths of hybrid abominations”.

A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937: Disgust, Metaphysics and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror by Jonathan Newell is published by University of Wales Press.


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