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26 - Weird Stories: The Potency of Horror and Fantasy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2016

Roger Luckhurst
Affiliation:
Birkbeck College
Dominic Head
Affiliation:
University of Nottingham
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Summary

The weird story is most commonly associated with American pulp magazine fiction. In March 1923, Clark Henneberger published the first issue of Weird Tales: A Magazine of the Bizarre and Unusual in the standard pulp format of 128 untrimmed 7 x 10-inch cheap acidic pages with bright, lurid covers. It became closely associated with the work of H. P. Lovecraft, maestro of slimy ooze, tentacular horror and degenerate back-sliders in prose marked by a breathless pile-up of adjectival modifiers and exclamation marks. ‘The Thing cannot be described – there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God!’ reads one of Lovecraft's most celebrated tales.

Lovecraft wrote long tales, rarely dynamic in narrative but instead thick with accumulated descriptions of eerie landscapes and extreme psychological states of lone male figures. The shorter length was dictated mainly by pulp concerns (his editors often cut down and streamlined his sentences better to fit the rhythm of pulp style), but Lovecraft was also very committed to Edgar Allan Poe's insistence on a heightened ‘unity of impression’ that the short story could deliver. ‘Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction’, Lovecraft declared. Lovecraft and his circle, which included prolific short story writers Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Whitehead and Robert E. Howard, perfected the ‘weird menace’ story in the early 1930s, in tandem with the emergence of the ‘horror’ film. The film-board classification ‘H for Horrific’ appeared in 1932 alongside the Universal studio adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula, but these films were often called ‘weird’ by their first reviewers. The weird story is an elaboration of the eighteenth-century gothic romance, not quite the same as gothic but a strange and interstitial form on the way to somewhere else: modern horror.

‘Weird menace’ was a capacious pulp category that stretched from supernatural tales of the vengeful dead back from the grave via grim urban noir stories of sexual threat or actual torture to exotic jungle terrors of kidnap and cannibalism. These were the mass sensation fictions of the American culture industry, the so-called ‘shudder pulps’ seeking to register thrills in the physiology of the bodies of those suffering economic hardship.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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References

Harman, Graham, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Horror (Winchester: Zero Books, 2013).
Jones, Darryl, ed., Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Ligotti, Thomas, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010).
Smith, Andrew, The Ghost Story: 1840–1920 (Manchester University Press, 2010).
Woodard, Ben, Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation and the Creep of Life (Winchester: Zero Books, 2012).
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