Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Philosophical Implications of The Weird

I will try to be concise: (Re-reading this now to edit it. I failed.)

Realized something while discussing psionics with Telecanter.

The Weird is a historical/aesthetic idea with a definite philosophical implication...

A Short History Of The Super-Human In Art and Popular Belief:

Stories and Images Meant to Educate and Entertain People In The Magic Belief System Era: (existing pre-Enlightenment, fading during the Enlightenment, pretty much dead by the 20th century)

Things and effects that are super-human (magic, elves, angels, etc.) are an organic part of the universe--not just in the sense of organically tied to nature but also tied to human ideas of morality, behavior, symbolism, fate etc. Like: A black cat crossing your path is bad luck, eating human flesh will turn you into a werewolf, a vampire can only come into your house if you invite it in, etc. Fantasy as a genre is built on this implied philosophy. In short: superhuman things care about your behavior--especially in its moral or at least symbolic aspect--and react to it.

Stories and Images Meant to Educate and Entertain People In The Technological Belief System Era: (ascending during the enlightenment, in full bloom by the mid-20th century)

Things and effects that are super-human (robots, aliens, cyborgs) are an organic part of the universe, but no more so than we are, and are not tied in any intrinsic way to human morality, behavior, fate, etc. Like: The spacefungus just wants to reproduce, Mars wants our women due to no fault of our own, The Alien is built that way to survive, etc. Most science fiction is built on this implied philosophy. In short: we're products of motiveless, amoral scientific processes and so are the rest of the wonders of the universe.


The Weird represents a transition historically (in the '30s) aesthetically, and philosophically between these two belief systems, in the words of the Man Himself:

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

The Weird:

The creations of The Weird--in it's most typical form--are consistently described as organic yet unnatural. Cthulhu is weird, green slime with eyeballs (a thoroughly 20th century idea) is weird, the Tripheg is weird, things that mix the (magic) symbolic with the (science-fiction) seemingly biologically plausible (an eel with a man's face that is blind and bloated from living beneath the water for years) are weird.

Scientific belief and traditional sci-fi don't accept this category: nothing is "unnatural"--all is explicable, and magic only accepts the unnatural as an expression of something morally repugnant. In fantasy and magic belief systems, stuff Satan made is unnatural, the rest isn't.

The weird fits neither. Whatever's going on is rarely as explicable as Satan.

Therefore the fundamental underlying philosophy of the Weird is a sort of difficult-to-categorize thing. Lovecraft is the premier example. Is Cthulhu:

A) actually bad or
B) just a big alien that doesn't care about us any more than we care about our stomach parasites?

It is purposefully left unclear*: if it is A, then Cthulhu is (thematically if not aesthetically) just a Demon, which is a fantasy idea from the era of magical thinking and we can relax into the moonlight and ravens of that romantic world, and trust that if we are good and righteous or at least obedient to the signs we will get what we deserve. If it's B, then Cthulhu is just a Big Green Monster, and we can run or shoot it with lasers.

But it isn't clear: in a million ways that I will not categorize here, Lovecraft and other avatars of the weird purposefully cloud the issue. When we summon him, are we Wrong to do it, or just Incorrect to think it's a good idea? We cannot rely on our goodness or our lasers to save us, it is an unsettling genre.

The other Weird Tales authors don't necessarily hit the weird nail on the weird head quite as hard as Lovecraft, but they all seem to partake of a certain moral/aesthetic confusion not seen in earlier heroic and horrific tales: does the hero succeed because s/he is good (or at least philosophically "correct"), because s/he is clever, or neither? Does the victim die because s/he is sinful, foolish, or both? Or neither? Is the thing encountered hostile, or just an alien predator?

In a sense, the weird is a spike of uncertainty between two valleys of clarity. When thinking Magically, we know we are in a world of symbols, and that to be human is to somehow be woven into the symbols: the Sky may want something from us, but we want something from it, so that's fair and, perhaps eventually, explicable, when thinking Scientifically, we know we are stupid, but one day we may learn. The Weird is another thing altogether: can we learn about it or not? Will it turn us evil just to learn about it? Or is it simply a phenomenon we can eventually master?

The Call of Cthulhu game is very elegant in mechanically modelling this. You start with no knowledge of the premise of the game--"Mythos: 0%"--but the more knowledge you gain (the more fit you are to play the game) the more crazy you go (the less fit you are to play the game). The instability and the uncertainty grow and grow. You become more skilled and crazier, so those skills seem to be less and less relevant--or just more dangerous since there's always the chance you'll turn them on your friends. Surgery 90% seemed like such a good thing in the beginning. Just like science.

Magic has a dramatic logic (like a fairy tale), science has a procedural one (learn or die), the Weird might not have any. It is significant that Lovecraft stories do not always end with death or always with escape. They are not definitely horror or definitely adventure.

The Weird is a delicate balance, in a story or a game, to maintain. I groan when the laser swords come out at the end of Masks of Nyarlathotep, though I also was obscurely disappointed to hear about the space ships the Old Ones seem to (maybe) have had.

So: the weird is built on an uncertainty about whether our morality, symbols and emotions do have any meaning in this science-run universe or not. Whether any badness is actually bad or just "different". Magic knows the snake is evil, science knows it is just other, The Weird is not sure.

Boring academics will reduce this all down to anxieties about race: are they evil or just different? But I think the confusion goes farther than that, and to far more interesting places.


Now that we've spent quite some time (in art years) in a science fiction era, some authors--mostly ones who are doing that thing certain kinds of leftists do where they ask science if it can truly be its own morality--are swinging back toward The Weird. Because they want to make us unsure and unsettled about whether or not our morals and symbols can be left behind. And also because artists ALWAYS use The Magical because they are all about manipulating symbols--The Alien may be written from a science perspective, but it's big and black and slippery for psychological reasons.


The Surreal, in the classic High Art sense (which happened around the same time as the Weird Tale) is just The Weird with its connections to the Magic past and Scientific future (those two popular ideas fit for mass consumption) cut off. It is all the present. Floating Mars bars and cars with elephant heads. When the Surreal seems to rely too much on the clarity of science or magic, it ceases to feel Surreal.

So the Surreal is purer, but the Weird is more useful for games. You might not be able to understand The Weird, but at least you might be able to transition to something--the symbolic logic of Magic or the procedural logic of Science--by going through it. The second season of Twin Peaks seemed to struggle on this point: Were aliens involved? Was magic involved? Should we try to figure out what's going on before Cooper does? Or was it just Surreal?

Mandy proposes a similar division she'd call Catholic Weird vs. Protestant Weird. Protestant Weird being David Lynch and Edward Scissorhands ("clean") and Catholic Weird being Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy and Warhammer ("messy").

Some considerations for games:

-For me, psionics in D&D feel wrong unless they involve The Weird. Since the Weird is a transition between the Magical (D&D) and the Sci Fi, I feel like the Weird and the Sci Fi can exist in a world (Gigacrawler, Rifts), and the Weird and the Magical can coexist (Mind Flayers) and all three can be together (Shadowrun, and Warhammer 40k and Warhammer Fantasy sharing the same Chaos army lists--a good and rare example of the artists successfully merging the creative and commercial requirements of the situation), but skipping straight from Magic to Sci Fi (look, now I have swords for hands! It was easy!) without a certain level of Weirdness and Confusion seems like it just ruins the aesthetic effect.

-Psionic powers as an idea are Weird when they move into the zone where they overlap with psychological ideas. Like: the Star Trek guys who can just move things with their minds are not Weird. The ones who create things out of thin air because they have nightmares about them are Weird. This kind of thing uses a pseudoscientific explanation to bridge the gap between an indifferent natural world and a Magic one where the environment cares about what we think or believe.

-The whole "Magic-is-unnatural" trope seems to reek of The Weird. When Mandy and I playtested a Weird Fantasy Roleplaying adventure and found out that Detect Magic and Detect Evil were pretty hard to tell apart in the system, it seemed like a rather keen symbol for the whole moral-confusion issue here.

-"Chaos" is a key word. Is chaos merely unpredictability (the biggest barrier to clarity in science) or is it actual moral badness? The confusion in early D&D (and in Warhammer, and in the clones) about whether or to what degree the alignment "Chaotic" just meant "Evil" is a prime symptom of the doubt at the center of The Weird. As is everything in Michael Moorcock and the other works the Chaos idea came from. I do not mean to resolve the issue, just point to it as an example of how this aesthetically Weird idea of "these parts don't fit together" and the philosophical lack of clarity almost always come packaged together.

-Since the '80s, the Japanese seem to have an easier (and sometimes oddly frictionless) time negotiating back and forth across Lake Weird from Sci Fi to Fantasyland and back again than artists in the west. It may (may) have something to do with the fact that an aesthetic of abstraction and unnaturalness are more deeply expressed in traditional Japanese art and design than in any other culture. The unnatural is totally ok. Or, if not ok, than something you might have to get used to: Akira: you're weird, deal.

*Like we are constantly told the mythos creatures don't care about us and are alien, yet everyone involved with them practices dark arts and becomes totally weak, corrupt and, basically, Pure Evil.


Zzarchov said...

I had never thought of the Weird in this manner, as a bridge of philosophical mindsets on how the universe works.

Thank you.

John Evans said...

Very thought-provoking stuff. I'll have to chew on this for a while...

Unknown said...


Paul said...

The weird is Fate. Knowledge of the future is occult—in the sense of the hidden. Your're right that it's not exactly unnatural, but it's frighteningly primal, in the way that the Greeks drew a distinction between the gods (who were powerful, but basically relatable in terms of human motivations) and older powers like the Furies or the Fate (who even the gods feared and found inscrutable).

So, Cthulhu is weird in the sense that he is fated to rise from his eons of slumber in the misty and indeterminate future, beyond the ken of man.

Weird themes are bound to emerge, as you observe, at times when the popular imagination fixates on the uncertainties of the future. The interwar years would qualify.

In game terms, an encounter with the weird would involve a perhaps hubristic attempt by man to engage with the earliest, amoral, alien powers of the universe. Any such effort should trigger the atavistic fears of the characters.

Talysman said...

Pretty much how I parse it, but in sharper focus. Would you say, then, that The Weird is Chapel Perilous/Chinatown?

I think a lot of the people who complain about magic not being "magical" are basically subconsciously aware that D&D magic (and many other RPG magic systems) are just too scientific, and magic should either be Weird or unabashedly symbolic/Magical.

Today's Captcha word: imipsy. How appropriate!

Zak Sabbath said...


I know that etymologically the word Weird is fate, but I think the 20th century aesthetic emotion attached to the word "weird" has a green and slimy aesthetic connotation which is not just window dressing. It means something else, too.

Paul said...

Absolutely, but I don't think the two can be completely separated. The connection might not be there consciously in the popular imagination, but fate/Fate is part of that feeling of dread that goes along with even contemporary weird.

huth said...

In short: superhuman things care about your behavior--especially in its moral or at least symbolic aspect--and react to it.
Naw, it's less complex than that; you can see an impersonality in plenty of symbolically-centred cultural patterns. With the werewolf example, it's not that 'human' and 'werewolf' is a category, and cannibalism is a gateway between them (like the Human and Ghoul species in CoC); humans who eat human meat are especially rapacious, and are thus going to act rapaciously. Wolves, also, are rapacious (in the non-metaphorical sense) so the two are linked cognitively. This is how we tend to think naturally, so it comes up plenty of times in pre-modern (or a-modern or anti-modern) systems of classification without necessarily a need for any causal connection (beyond 'being'ness) or personhood on the part of karma or whatever.
The 'Weird' is just the cognitive dissonance from an irruption of that connection within a framework that prohibits it. Sort of a metaphysical ghost story.

Zak Sabbath said...


uh...I don't think you're actually disagreeing with me as much as you think you are.

The idea is: werewolves represent something and that has to do with people because they were imagined by a psychological logic rather than a scientific logic.

huth said...

Or rather, in the past everybody was Catholic Weird, all the time. Or at least all the guys writing down stories.

Also, I propose a third category of Orthodox Weird: Messiness so densely structured that it appears bizarre and incomprehensible on the outside and a perfectly moving, infinitely complex structure on the inside.

huth said...

I think i'm disagreeing about the objecthood of the categories, in that 'werewolf' was a non-literal category (or rather, literally man-wolf) or that the essense of the thing was what was being described and that the accidents flowed naturally thereof...

This is probably not a helpful tangent in regards to Actual Game Stuff though.

Zak Sabbath said...


My point is there are real categories, and they are different and definitely represent people thinking in different ways.

Once people thought there were actually werewolves and that the reason they were there was part of how the universe worked.

Tom Fitzgerald said...


I have been thinking along similar lines myself. Of relevance to the Weird (historically as well as thematically) is Freud's assertion that his investigations constitute a third paradigm shift away from the anthropocentric universe of our ancestors. To his mind, Freud's revelation that humanity is subject to the bestial drives of the subconscious follows on from Darwin's idea that humanity is just another species of organism locked in a battle for survival and descended from "lower" animals, and the Copernican idea of Heliocentrism.
In this radically decentred world, with previously precious precepts stripped away (and with the additional vertigo-inducing concept of deep time to deal with) HPL, CAS and their ilk have free reign to explore the frontiers of this new world, using the old tools of the poetic imagination, but freed from the certainties of the old paradigm.

Zak Sabbath said...


well, yeah, i mean the surrealists (or at least the worst ones) were all over Freud.

Anonymous said...

Having had a rather artless education despite taking a few too many philosophy courses this simply wasn't a concept I'd ever really been exposed to. I like Mandy's use of religion as it makes the concept gel in my head. Magic = Theist, Science = Atheist, and The Weird = Agnostic.

I do wonder about the scientific certainty of Memorized spells in a Magical setting. You know you can cast spells in a fully magical setting because you'd watched for all of the omens and know this is the perfect time astrologically speaking to blow the shit out of something with a fireball. A setting where all magic users were clerics and there was a skill roll involved in casting would have some interesting ramifications. "A one?!?!? NO!!!! I forgot to properly salt the crows feathers!!"

Anonymous said...

> I know that etymologically the word Weird is fate, but I think the 20th century aesthetic emotion attached to the word "weird" has a green and slimy aesthetic connotation which is not just window dressing. It means something else, too.

> Absolutely, but I don't think the two can be completely separated.

Maybe the connection goes back to Shakespeare. The Weird Sisters deliver oracular pronouncements to Macbeth and Banquo, and when they vanish the earth itself boils where they were standing.

Telecanter said...

Sounds reasonable. Thanks. Have you seen The Fury (1978)? I think that may be a representation of hereditary mental abilities as weird.

I was also wondering today if superheroes may have changed our thinking about mental powers. I imagine before the turn of the century moving things with your mind would have seemed more weird and less like clean science.

Zak Sabbath said...


i haven't seen it.

re: superheroes
definitely. horror and superheroes are like the same material being used to achieve two almost opposite ends.

hmm....also see Be Weird Vs. See Weird in that Marvel vs. DC post...

huth said...

Once people thought there were actually werewolves and that the reason they were there was part of how the universe worked.

I don't know, i think the question of whether they'd expect a manwolf to look like a man-wolf-hybrid (instead of a man or like a wolf, or look like a man but be apprehensible as a wolf to someone like a shaman or a dead relative) (i.e. whether they expect Lon Cheney) wouldn't necessarily map to what modernists like ourselves would expect out of something weird.

Re: Freud
He was just secretly a neoromantic, trying to bestow a little grungy gothic drama into everyone's life.

Zak Sabbath said...

If you read naturalist's books from the era, you'll see detailed descriptions of fantastic creatures side-by-side with descriptions of, like, peacocks. And then there's the bible...

Gregor Vuga said...

Zak, you've outdone yourself, this is amazing.

Gregor Vuga said...

Also, I think this relates well to the whole problem of Antinomies where it becomes clear that certain concepts are beyond the scope of the human mind. Free will vs. Fate being a favourite example. There is no solution to that question, unless you already accept the propositions of one or the other.

The weird wallows in that space in between, the paradoxical, the unclear, when both options seem absolutely true (but can obviously not be).

You mention the point where all Cthulhu cultists become irrevocably Evil in worshipping him, but even that is unclear. Are they evil because they worship him or worship him because they are evil. Either way they seem to treat him like a magical being, like satan, or god, yet he seems to behave like a scientific animal on all accounts: he doesn't care.
It is Science meeting Magic full on. On one hand you have the petty, naive, silly human notions of magic (worshipping Cthulhu, conducting ceremonies etc) being completely ignored by these sciency, sterile things from space, on the other hand you have Lovecraft continuously tell us that our own science is a lie, and has these very magical things shatter our worldview. The interplay makes it weird.

Adam said...

Magic knows the snake is evil, science knows it is just other, The Weird is not sure.

Seems a little soft to me. It's not so much that the Weird isn't sure, it's that the Weird suggests that it's impossible to know or, maybe, that something stranger is the case: the snake (all of reality?) exists in some sort of bizarre superposition, simultaneously other and symbolically embodied.

As an aside, no wonder Grant Morrison writes for DC. A Weird writer for a Weird universe. said...

inspiring and thought-provoking as always...nice!

I think that "weird" in the sense of "in literature-weird" you could just label "terror". A method first used in gothic novels, a technique to evoke a feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes a horrifying experience. As opposed to "horror", a feeling of revulsion that occurs AFTER something frightening is experienced.

So weird in this sense is just a literary technique of playing with the readers anxieties by a) merely hinting at the unspeakable or b) by making it unexplainable by science or even magic.

Lovecraft would thus be a mixture of terror and horror...weird AND revulsing (the horror element when encountering a towering monstrosity...)

Paul said...

Maybe the connection goes back to Shakespeare. The Weird Sisters...

@troth, the "weird sisters" usage goes back several hundred years before Shakespeare, and refers to the Fates. Will boosted it for the witches. It was around Shakespeare's time that "weird" made the jump from noun to adjective. Weird didn't come to be a synonym for strange until the mid nineteenth century. We can probably blame Shelly for that.

I don't want to clog-up Zak's forum quoting from the OED, though, when he's clearly talking about this in terms of literary genre. That said, it might be worth thinking about the Romantic's sublime as a counterpoint to the weird of the weird tale.

John said...

Good thoughts all around, Zak. I agree that Psionics can be saved if they're made Weird - change the source and explanation. I also have issues with the cleric class in a Weird game, because the 'power source' for the class is so Supernatural-Magical; it's not insurmountable, for the same reasons as Psionics, its just another facet that needs to be tweaked to fit the tone. (I liked to be reminded that the word Romantic aptly describes that supernatural worldview).

Zak Sabbath said...


i disagree entirely. i think the appearance of horror and terror are issues of technique and storytelling, not genre assumptions. and, naturally, i think "the weird", as i'm defining it here, is the genre i'm defining here, not a substitute for another word.

after all, weird tales need not be horror/terror stories--jack vance

Anonymous said...

> The "weird sisters" usage goes back several hundred years before Shakespeare, and refers to the Fates.

Lover of Norse mythology, I know about the Norns and how they parallel Shakespeare's witches. What I was pointing out is the connection between their prophetic role in Macbeth and the "slimy aesthetic connotation" Zak was talking about. The Weird Sisters were clearly identified with both Fate and weird aesthetics.

They aren't precisely the kind of weird Zak outlines above, but they come close. They still harbor a suggestion of darkness as a moral consequence, that Zak identifies as "magical" thinking.

squidman said...

probably the best clarification of the term Weird i've ever seen. bravo!

Unknown said...

I'm curious where you'd fit works such as Infinite Jest or Canticle for Lebowitz or Cat's Cradle. The sort of science fiction that is so metaphorical/allegorical as to not really fit in the typical analytic SF mold. In none of these (except maybe CfL) does the world really weird by your definition, but each seems to have some weirdness to the overall effect of the book. Or are these just examples of the fact that artists always exist in a world of manipulating symbols and genre-wise do not display the weird?

If I'm understanding you right, books such as House of Leaves, China Mieville's and Haruki Murakami's fiction, and even some of Neil Gaiman's fiction could be considered weird to differing but significant degrees (regardless of their technical/artistic merit)? I like how you've defined this a lot, and want to make sure I understand it well enough to apply it before going around spouting off about it.

Zak Sabbath said...

Never read Canticle, but Cat' Cradle and Infinite Jest, while possessing surreal and sci-fi elements, try not to bathe the mood of the work in their glow. The mood is the sharp, social, relatable mood of contemporary literary fiction and so I think they kind of fall elsewhere.

Delta said...

That's really good. said...

thats why I called it "literature-weird". We can meet in the middle, since horror an terror are in fact genre assumptions but literary ones at that... see: Gothic Novel of Terror, Gothic Novel of Horror, Radical Novel...etc. So those, what you called "issues of storytelling", were genre defining - beginning in 1764 with what people think was the first gothic novel: the castle of otranto.

Baseline: Just wanted to add that the "weird" as you described it, reminded me of that literary definition of terror in classic gothic novels... ;-)

huth said...

But a medieval scholasticist is operating under a fundamental assumption of human interrelationship with the cosmos; that the human, while not being the *centre* of the cosmos (and here's the tension between hebraic sources and platonist sources) is at least an integrated part of it, repeating in its psychological faculties the structures that spawned it. even a skeptical scholasticist has to operate from a position of apologia for the classical sources instead of outright rejection.

This might even be a too-reflective explication; the *lack* of explication or meta-analysis of classificationism of this super-stew of things would, if anything, be the signpost of the most efficatious of this kind of... paleopsychology. cognitive archaeology. whatever.

Zak Sabbath said...


when i say "magic worldview" that's what i mean.

and it was different how people thought later.

and it involved thinking made-up monsters were real.

Anonymous said...

First, yes. Thank you. I think this is smart and useful and true.

Freud strikes me as a deeply Weird writer. In fact, by writing up human consciousness and motivations in the paradoxical, contradictory way he did I'd label him one of the great Weird writers, one who made the Weird aesthetic experience widely available. Is there a better synonym for this kind of Weird you describe than the uncanny/unheimlich? (and then there's the fact that the heimlich translates to "secret," not "familiar," so the world is composed of secrets we hold and that unassimilatable stuff we cannot hold).

Moby-Dick also seems like a really Weird work to me: the whale, the sea, the hunt, the obsession, the source of same, the reaching into human history and mythology and finding echoes everywhere of this self-destructive struggle. I've thought before that Moby-Dick is the ur-Cthulhu novel, its centre a sucking hole in our gaze. I nominate Herman Melville for your cohort of Weird authors.

And now I'll be a sciency historian dick and say I'm not sure how people really thought way back when, but anyway it seems to be important to us, now, to see them as magical thinkers. And maybe that's a door into the Weird too.

Zak Sabbath said...


I am talking about the "feel" of the writing. Freud's writing feels like feverish nonfiction to me, though the unheimlich is indeed a twin or relative of The Weird as described here.

Moby Dick is--like most books you find on the "literature" shelf--too devoted to surprising you to fit the genre distinctions i'm making here. It moves from funny to encyclopedic to epic to heroic to adventure fiction. The sense of a consistent mood seems to define genre fiction for me far more than the presence or absence of any specific element.

On older cultures, I think to be all PC and say:
"it seems to be important to us, now, to see them as magical thinkers. " is a gigantic cop out.

We know these people's stories and we know what it was like to believe them because we were all children once. Plus all anthropology (and all science, period) from The Golden Bough on up is useless unless we can actually make observations and draw conclusions. Time and time again in the stories we here, moral and symbolic causes lead to supernatural effects.

In fact, here in Hollywood, there are people who STILL think that way, babbling on about Karma and shit. Happens every day.

richard said...

Fair enough. I find myself arguing a lot against the idea that there's any such thing as the modern-against the idea that we stand alone in history as demystified rationalist beings escaped from cyclical time and superstition in the light of capitalism and all that. I tend to think we're probably not so different from everyone else, right down to the fact that we tell ourselves stories about what we're not. Your reply makes me think we probably agree more than we disagree.

richard said... fact, maybe these are just modes or genres of thinking, rather than historical periods as such. But I do think the psychological/psychoanalytic aspect of the Weird around the turn of the century was new art.

Zak Sabbath said...


we don;t "stand alone" but:

Almost all people used to think moral and symbolic behavior had gross physical consequences.

Now we know it doesn't. If we're smart.

That's not the end of history or ignorance but it is a real and undeniable difference. If it wasn't, none of the science that powers the computer you're typing on would work.

Anonymous said...

...on the other end of your point, you identify 3 aesthetics or feelings here, the magical/egocentric, the scientific/heliocentric (world-centric?) and the Weird. The first one has a frisson of wonder to it, right? What can magic do, what is it, why do we matter in the world? We can feel wonder because we think there's something familiar locked away inside the mystery, but there's also a kind of terror born of responsibility, because if you don't dance the dance just right you'll fall off into the abyss. The scientific has a frisson of despair or reduced expectations (in a godless world you fundamentally don't matter except to you) but also promise - that nothing is really out of reach if you just put enough work in: that you're launched on a more correct, or at least more controllable, path than the magical, and that it might show you things other than yourself in a mirror. The Weird creates an intriguing but unsettling frisson: as the uncategorizable unknown it's repellant/attractive.

So I have 2 questions:
(1) why is it attractive? Why do we like Weird tales? Is this property of Weirdness different actually from the attraction of magic or science, when first encountered, before the mystery is gone? Doesn't magic fade, once you get to tie it down at all? Is there some promise about the Weird, that its mystery will never wither? (Is this what mystics are up to?)
(2) are there other narrative frissons we could play with? Because RPGs at their best seem often to promise that mysterious frisson of the magical, but are we neglecting a bunch of others that would also be enjoyable? And/or, more depressingly, is all this on the same playing field as the political-intrigue frisson offered by Brazilian soap operas or the sympathetic drama frisson of protagonists in danger in a movie?

Oh, BTW: richard and richardthinks are both IDs of mine - sorry for mixing it up.

Jeremy Deram said...

Great article Zak. It made me think about a lot of things I had never considered.

huth said...

(uuugh why am i still writing this a week later) I guess what I'm trying to get that is, since not-real in both cases means different things, there's a difference (differance?) between what 'real' is supposed to be in either sentence.

Zak Sabbath said...


If you want me to understand or believe you, you are going to have to be a lot more clear than that.

charles mark ferguson said...

Zak this is the best thing of yours I've read. And you'd set the bar plenty high before.

Sean Fallon said...

I know I'm late to this party, but this did get 're-blog checked' today.
Anyhow, I was wondering if you considered the Lit Crit notions of the Uncanny in your thinking about the Weird; it doesn't all get reduced to race.

what the wiki sez:

Thanks & keep on thinking about the box.

Zak Sabbath said...

yes, das unheimlich