Weird fiction is widely considered to be a subgenre of speculative fictional works which were written during the latter parts of the 19th and early 20th centuries and which encompass tales of the supernatural, the macabre, and the ghost story. Much of these works were similar to the Gothic Horror genre but also often combined various elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Literary scholars would also, later, come to include tales of Cosmic Horror into the classification. When it comes to the historical origins of weird fiction there are perhaps but ten original, and somewhat obscure, masters of the macabre.
We shall start with none other than one Howard Phillips Lovecraft of Providence, Rhode Island, perhaps one of the better known masters of weird fiction. There is probably no other author, except maybe Poe, whom would become the unlikely grandfather of such dark and twisted tales of horror. Lovecraft had, of course, been heavily influenced by other masters before him, but with the help of his prodigy, August Derleth, he would steal the spotlight for at least a century to come. Lovecraft was perhaps best known for his story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ which would inspire both a movie and game adaptation. He was also well known for having conceived the idea of a fictional grimoire of esoteric and arcane magics, known as the ‘Necronomicon’, which would be featured as a prop device in several other works of fiction and even in well known cult horror films like Sam Raimi’s ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy.
Next up is Arthur Machen, another master of the macabre, whose novella ‘The Great God Pan’ would be considered one of the best works of horror ever written in the English language by none other than the modern literary horror giant Stephen King. Lovecraft himself bowed to it and noted it as a truly magnificent piece of horror fiction. Machen was a Welsh author and a mystic whose other works often involved elements of arcane terror and abstract horror. His other works of note would include ‘The Three Imposters’ which included three separate, but interwoven, tales of decadent and chilling horror.
Algernon Blackwood is among the best authors in this genre and was acknowledged far and wide, during his lifetime, to be an astounding and prolific writer of uncanny horror. Blackwood wrote a multitude of short stories and numerous novels during his lifetime. Two of his better known works are ‘The Wendigo’ and ‘The Willows’. Blackwood lived his life steeped in research of the occult and the supernatural but was also an avid outdoorsman who loved spending time in the Canadian wilderness where he spent some part of his life.
Many of the abovementioned authors were inspired and influenced by the works of Lord Dunsany, an writer of supernatural and dream-like fantasies. Dunsany’s works would also be hailed as the inspirations for legendary fantasy writers like J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. Dunsany was actually the 18th Baron of Dunsany Castle in Ireland, his real name being Edward Plunkett. His most elaborate works are probably those which involve tales taking place in his invented world of ‘Peg
Äna’, a world with its own geography, history, and pantheon of gods.
Another well known author of Gothic Horror and Ghost Stories, Sheridan Le Fanu, could also be considered one of the many earlier masters of Weird Fiction. Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu is best known for three classic works; ‘Carmilla’, ‘The House by the Churchyard’, and ‘Uncle Silas’. Sheridan Le Fanu wrote mysteries as well as chilling tales of haunting ghosts, bloodthirsty vampires, and even demonic monkeys.
Let us turn now to consider the works of C. L. Moore or, as she was better known to friends and family, Catherine Lucille Moore. Regarded mostly as an American writer of science fiction and fantasy, many of her tales could easily fall under the category of Weird Fiction. Two of her serials appeared in the well known ‘Weird Tales’ magazine involving the galactic exploits of an roguish space adventurer called Northwest Smith and the other involving captivating tales, involving one of the first female protagonists and heroines of sword-and-sorcery fiction, Jirel of Joiry. Moore would go on to write many other tales as well, including the well known classic ‘Mimsy Were the Borogoves’ which would inspire the making of the film ‘The Last Mimzy’.
Another obscure writer of Weird Fiction is none other than M. R. James. Montague Rhodes James was an English medieval scholar best remembered for his various ghost stories which are regarded by many as to be the best crafted in the history of the genre. By abandoning the Gothic cliches of his predecessors, M. R. James wrote frightening supernatural tales set in more realistic contemporary settings, while maintaining his own archaic influences, and his works are often considered to be the origins of the ‘antiquarian ghost story’. His unique storytelling formula is also used to classify other tales in the genre, called ‘Classic Jamesian Tales’, which include classic elements and style found in his writings of the supernatural.
Finally we come to the author Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who is considered to be the first major female writer of science fiction and fantasy in the United States. Writing under the pen-name Francis Stevens, she wrote a myriad of highly acclaimed fantasy stories, and has became the uncontended inventor of the Dark Fantasy genre. Her most famed works are the dystopian novel ‘The Heads of Cerberus’, ‘The Citadel of Fear’, and one of Lovecrafts favorite pieces, ‘Claimed’. Francis Stevens would also go on to write many other novellas and stories as a means of supporting her family. While many of her stories are a combination of fantasy and science fiction, some of her other tales could easily fall under the Cosmic Horror or Weird Fiction genre and she could very well belong amongst the original masters of the macabre.
For any fan of classic horror literature, I highly recommend any of the abovementioned authors as sources for further research and reading. All of their works have contributed to the horror genre as we know it today and have influenced many of our modern writers of terror -they should not be overlooked nor forgotten.