The strange, the grotesque, the uncanny. The creepy, bizarre, and odd. What is weird? And why are we drawn to it, both readers and writers alike?
The notion of weird in literature (and art as a whole) has captivated audiences for as long as stories have existed. After all, the imagination is where such strange sparks reside. Creepy is captivating in its creation, but also its consumption. And in this valley between the real and the relative, we find a great parallax, a profound difference in understanding based on one’s subjective perspective, through which our experience is given skew, an effect we call uncanny.
Literature (and, more broadly, art) is a collaboration between author and audience, a premise and an engagement. In the act of creating, the author establishes presuppositions of truth, which the audience is challenged to confront with their own perspective. Furthermore, in the context of weird art, audiences are met with an established truth which often feels strange or wrong when compared to their idea of normalcy. That is to say, the bizarre is borne of a denial of expectations, a parallax between the world of the art and the experience of the audience.
The skeleton of our world is laws, both natural and created. These laws fundamentally shape our behavior and our perspective of reality. The laws of nature deny us from slipping through time or shapeshifting. The laws of society say we mustn’t commit murder or cannibalize. Thus, our reality is framed by what is deemed both possible and acceptable. But art isn’t reality. Art is collaboration, the aforementioned premise and engagement. Art has its own rules and its subjects have their own perspectives on what is normal, right, and just. When our perspective of normalcy is challenged by that of the art with which we are engaging, we are forced to reevaluate our perception. But when our perspective is skewed toward acceptance, we pull the curtain back on who we are at our core. This glimpse into our secret heart can be unsettling, perhaps life-changing.
Salvador Dalí famously engaged this disparity of perspectives (not only in his surrealistic artwork, but in his choice of facial hair as well). So, too, did Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte, and many others in the surrealistic, avant-garde, and Dada movements. Each artist created subjects with perspectives that challenged those of their audiences, calling for reflection on not only what it meant to be “normal” but on confronting normalcy as well.
For example, in Frida Kahlo’s 1939 oil painting “The Two Fridas,” the audience is confronted by a depiction of the artist’s self-portrait. The perspective of the subjects makes sense within the context of the artwork because it’s borne of the artist’s intent: the two versions of Frida, hearts exposed, are bound by held hands and a single arterial strand. This is their normal. The audience, however, is challenged by such a strange depiction. Seeing two versions of someone at once is contrary to reality just as a shared vein is unnatural. Thus, this disparity of “normal” is where weird is defined.
Creating art is saying this is the world I’ve made. Creating strange art adds and this is the perspective, however bizarre, of my subject. That perspective is purposely at odds with what might be deemed normal by the audience. The subject is the same in both perspectives, but within the parallax between the observed and the observer, there lies a disagreement concerning the normalcy of what is happening. To achieve this parallax, the author must reinforce the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
The true measurement of an author’s effectiveness in creating a work rooted in the uncanny is their ability to charm the reader into believing what is written. True engagement in literature can only happen if its premise is just plausible enough to warrant suspicion (though, one could say bizarro is the exception to this rule). This quality demands subtlety, a plot with nuance, a conflict that engages the reader with characters both relatable and captivating. The reader must be confronted with their own perspective if the author is to succeed. This isn’t to say that the reader’s assumptions of normalcy are wrong, but rather they needn’t necessarily apply within the created world set before them.
Establishing the plot of a story is crucial to framing its state of normalcy. Of course Gregor Samsa waking up into the body of “monstrous vermin” is strange in Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” but because its inception is so abrupt, the reader is forced to accept its reality, just as Gregor does as he struggles to continue living his life. There is no explanation, just a struggle to accept, one shared by observer and observed alike. Though Gregor seems to finally abide his new form, this acceptance doesn’t conform to the reader’s inherent perception of reality. Suddenly transforming into a giant bug isn’t normal, but it is intriguing. To successfully engage readers on this level, where presumptions meet expectations, where normal meets “normal,” an author must establish a challenge to perception, all the while subtly selling the allure of what is deemed contextually normal. The reader’s acceptance of the offered perspective isn’t wholly necessary, only the “what if…?” that forces the reader to second guess their definition of normal. This dissonance alone can conjure feelings both weird and strange.
Antoine Roquentine’s revelation at the chestnut tree in Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea” is one such glimpse into the secret heart of humankind. The effect of defining existence within our reality, of stripping it down to observer and observed and confronting it with our perception of normalcy, can be upsetting. Nauseating, even. So, too, can the challenge of being confronted by a work of art that demands we question what we hold as true. But the strange is found in that challenge. The weird is found in the “why?”
“Two-headed boy, put on Sunday shoes,” sings Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, “and dance round the room to accordion keys with the needle that sings in your heart.” This is the reality of “Two-Headed Boy.” This is its normal. It’s strange to us because of our perspective. But when we peer into the art and compare our reality to that of the song’s subject, we are confronted with acceptance, either for the perspective presented to us or our own. Which is correct? Which is real?
When our truth is juxtaposed with that of a work of art, we are forced to confront not only the truth established in the art itself, but the truth of our own reality. Our perspective is informed by our reality. So, too, is perspective established in the context of the artwork by its creator. And there we meet—reader and writer, artist and audience—to converse, to haggle, to convince, to accept the strange and weird and wonderful of our own secret heart.
Franklin Charles Murdock is a fiction writer from the Midwestern United States. Though most of his work is harvested from the vast landscapes of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, Franklin strives to spin tales outside the conventions of these genres. His work has appeared in Dark Fuse, Under the Bed Magazine, Robbed of Sleep, MicroHorror, several Dark Lanes anthologies, several A Murder of Storywriters anthologies, and various other publications. He is also a contributor at horrortree.com and co-author of Beard the Immortal on swordandportent.com. His work can be found at here. Twitter is @FranklinMurdock