Friday, March 12, 2010

Of Weird and Wonder

Media of the fantastic, it seems to me, has two primary modes for evoking encounter with the numinous. I've been thinking of these, of late, as "weird" and "wonder."

Okay, in one sentence that's probably more lit-theory words than a guy with a biology degree should be allowed to use in a day (even on the internet) but indulge me, dear reader...

"Weird" we sometimes think of as a genre, as in "weird fiction" or "the weird tale" (or Weird Tales). HP Lovecraft adopted the term from Sheridan le Fanu, and defines it in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature":

"The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. 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."
As ST Joshi points out--and as a review of weird fiction reveals--weird can pervade several different traditional genres: horror (of a couple of different stripes), fantasy, ghost stories, and science fiction. A related form is the French literary genre of fantastique which is about supernatural incursion into realist narrative.

I think this gets at the key to weird. It's about things which are unnatural (or perhaps suggest a radically different interpretation of nature). The occurrence of these events is often transgressive or surreal. They can be used to evoke horror, or unreality, or decadence --maybe all three--depending on the context. I think this is perhaps succinctly analogized by one of the character's in Machen's "The White People": " awful it is. If the roses and the lilies suddenly sang on this coming morning..."

Weird is the Garden of Adompha, the city of Xuthal, the Horla, and The King in Yellow. It's also the Gray Caps, fungoid overlords of Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris, and the red-curtained room with the oddly speaking dwarf in Twin Peaks.

"Wonder" encompasses what, in the discussion of science fiction, is called "sense of wonder," and in comic books is called "mad ideas." It's about the rush of understanding--or often just confronting--a novel concept, or an old concept in a radically new context. It's a response to encountering the sublime--at its purest its the sense of awe. It's an experience of the supernatural in a context of reverence, in the literal sense of greater than nature. As Damon Knight wrote, it's "the widening of the mind's horizons, in no matter what direction."

Wonder hasn't been identified as cleanly in the literature as weird. It really comes into its own in film where visual effects (special and otherwise) combine with calculated musical selection to push us in its direction.

Wonder is Lothlórien, Shai-Hulud, and "My God--its full of stars!" It's Jack Kirby's New Gods, Avatar's flying mountains, and Gaiman's Dream confronting Lucifer Morningstar in Hell.

While weird evokes the paranormal and "negative" qualities, wonder evokes the transcendent and "positive" qualities.

An interesting question, I think, is can these sensations be evoked in gaming?

Certainly, I feel like weird can. I think since the earliest days of the hobby, adventure writers and creature designers have groped for it. The blogosphere is full of efforts to bring it to bear, many successfully. I think its more than a matter of aping nineteenth century gothic lit, or 1930s pulp fiction, though. Some of those elements are too familiar. Borrowing of ideas from newer sources like fiction of the New Weird, the films of David Lynch, or some foreign horror films (euro- or j-) will probably do the trick. Kenneth Hite's works on gamemastering horror would also probably prove instructive.

Wonder is a bit tougher. Without visuals, it hinges on appropriate description--which is tough to do off the cuff and without knowing where the audiences' heads are going to be at the moment the description is delivered. The comic book approach of "mad ideas" where there's less focus on the centerpiece scene, and more on a flood of the "impossible" (or at least the kind of trippy) to create a similar effect. If you can't describe the city in overview in such a way that your player's are in awe, you can whittle them down with a lot of "smaller" amazing things as they're coming into town. The risk, of course, is in overdoing it, and making the interesting things too common-place.


Jim Shelley said...

I think the closest you can get for a literary antecedent for Wonder fiction is the Literary Nonsense of John Hoskyns, Henry Peacham, John Sanford, John Taylor and of course Lewis Carroll. Of late, I've been wondering about the influence on Literary Nonsense on such works as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. While there may not be a direct connection, as those stories fall more squarely in the realm of Fantasy, (especially CCBB) there are some elements of Literary Nonsense in them.

As you might imagine - Syd Barrett, of Pink Floyd, was a big fan of Literary Nonsense. When one considers the psychotropic tunnel scene in Willy Wonka, you can see how influence from the genre found a home in the hearts of the 70's generation (and later in people who might be emulating the mind-altering explorations of that generation, like Grant Morrison.)

Trey said...

@Jim: I think you have a point in some of the structural relation ship (use of surrealist or absurdist elements) but I think the intention of literary nonsense and the "mad ideas" school is quite different.