WHY I WRITE WEIRD FICTION

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

Have you ever wondered why they do it? Not how--I don't mean how writers of the weird craft their wares--but why; why that, as opposed to "regular" stuff. Perhaps it sounds ridiculous for me to bring it up. I do it, so it probably shouldn't seem such an odd matter to me. Quite correct, it doesn't, to me, and yet I keep hearing these probing questions or pointed comments hurled at authors of the strange, often to the famous, once in a while at me. That happens enough to, very occasionally, make me wonder if there is something here that requires explanation. Of course I'm only authorized to speak for myself, which is mainly what I intend to do now.

I could climb up on my high horse and proclaim that no explanation is necessary. Haven't others done so? They point out that for much of literary history, compositions of the weird were the norm, and that so-called mainstream fiction--stories about conventional, commonplace, or "real" life--is what needs logical justification. I suppose that's one way to deal with the question, and maybe it's generically true, but that isn't my answer. I didn't become a weird writer as part of a movement, or historical trajectory, to make a statement, or any of that rot. I know exactly how it happened to me, and I'm going to tell you about it.

You won't be told here that my case is typical. As I will note later, there is evidence that my pattern of development isn't unique. However, I insist on avoiding any claims to a global argument. This one is all about me.

Phase I

When I was less than a month old my parents took me to my first movie. Of course they went for their own reasons, but they had to haul me along, so I was there, and "exposed." The show that night was the film known in America as The Horror of Dracula, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. That's how it began.

Or was it? Can such influences imprint themselves on an unformed mind? Well, over the next few years that initial stimuli received massive encouragement. My parents, you see, were aficionados of weird, mainly spooky, entertainment. They indulged in The Twilight Zone, Thriller, The Outer Limits, and I was right there with them. Also fond of old movies, they relished the countless TV screenings of the creepy Universal offerings from the '30s and '40s. I recall nothing from that dim era of my life, but must suspect subliminal effects on my brain.

I think that so because, by the time the gray cells knitted together I was hooked on the fantastic. I avidly watched Lost in Space, then Star Trek. 2001: A Space Odyssey bowled me over, although I didn't understand a bit of it. My reading, so soon as I surpassed the Dick and Jane stage, turned into bizarre channels. The first proper book I remember reading is Arc of Venus, a juvenile Sci-Fi story. In short order, probably via movies and Classics Illustrated comic books, I discovered and went nuts over the seminal SF novels of H.G. Wells. Interestingly, Jules Verne came later, and never impacted me the same way. I guess his stuff wasn't wild enough, for I mainly enjoyed the adventuresome aspects of his famous tales.

Phase II

Up until about the age of twenty I was chiefly a science fiction guy. Inspiration was obvious to me even then, for that was the heyday of the space program, I was keen on astronomy and the sciences, and such avid interest naturally funneled my pleasurable pursuits. I read everything in the SF vein I could get my hands on. In those days I owned a paperback collection the magnitude of which still astounds me. I drank in all the big boys--Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, etc.--and a whole bunch of the others, old and new. I was as acquainted with the pulp nuggets of the Golden Age as with the latest, hot off the press stuff, and all of it thrilled me. It would never have occurred to me then that the emphasis of my tastes would change.

Yet the seeds of my development were laid during this phase, the period when, if anybody asked, I proclaimed the primacy of science fiction. Competing interests nudged me in different, if somewhat similar directions. Spooky movies still loomed large. Most of the comic books, collected well into my teens, were of the scary variety, like House of Mystery or Tales of the Unexpected, among too many others to track. I must have been primed to lurch a different way, despite the moral certainty of my then position, requiring only a gigantic impetus to propel me into a fresh and stranger circle.

Phase III

This actually commenced incrementally about the age of twelve, when I stumbled across a really, really crazy story, in some anthology I've forgotten, by an author I'd never heard of and whose name slipped out of consciousness at the time. Frightfully eerie and moody, it struck me most for the fanciful quality of the language, head and shoulders above most of the fiction I imbibed in those days. Later (it seemed a long time, but it wasn't) the chance piecing together of data--the gift of a story collection from a friend, and shortly the rediscovery of that impressive story in another book--revealed all. That powerhouse tale was "The Shadow Out of Time," and the author was H.P. Lovecraft.

In my early twenties I picked up the Lovecraft volumes from Arkham House, and from that launching pad I blasted off onto the trajectory which, by and large, I still maintain. Weird tales became my meat and potatoes, as they still are, a development likely set in stone. Soon enough I was reading all the popular contemporary stuff pouring into the book stores, and there was just as much then as now. Interestingly, my craving for such wavered at whiles, much of it striking me as lackluster, trendy, and unimaginative. I might not have continued in that line, were it not for the teachings of the Master.

An incredibly useful tool in my literary growth was Lovecraft's "Supernatural Horror in Literature," as I began to mine that for worthy reading tips. Well, through him I hit the jackpot. Lovecraft led me to the royalty of the creepy and the strange. Thanks to him I investigated, to my profit, the other enduring big boys: Clark Ashton Smith, M.R. James, M.P. Shiels, William Hope Hodgson, and the rest of that illustrious fraternity.

Study of the Master's life opened further doors, acquainting me with the Lovecraft Circle. Now I read Robert Bloch, August Derleth, etc. As each path connected to a multitude of fresh avenues, I gained a broad education in the field, and a heightened love for it.

Phase IV

My fondness for heroic fantasy accrued at a snail's pace compared to these others. This puzzles me more than a bit, for by my early teens I had already dabbled in Edgar Rice Burroughs. Indeed, at fourteen I penned a Sci-Fi fantasy borrowing heavily from his Martian and Venusian stories, and shortly thereafter I dove head first into a sea of Andre Norton novels pushing me in a similar direction. I suppose the science fictional trappings held me back. Less comprehensible is the failure of a late teens' rave to steer me differently. Then it was I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I ate them up, reading them through half a dozen times. I had nothing but good to say about them, yet for seeming ages didn't build on them. Best explanation is that other works of grandiose fantasy coming to my attention then were primarily Tolkien knock-offs, which quickly palled. Subconsciously, I must have felt I'd read it all.

The final great awakening occurred thanks to the works of Robert E. Howard and E.R. Eddison. The latter author was a chance find; I learned of his existence through L. Sprague Decamp's Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy, a survey somewhat akin to Lovecraft's. Something in Decamp's description struck a chord, and in the fullness of time I tracked down The Worm Ouroboros, which in its curious fashion did for me what Tolkien hadn't. Perhaps the stars were right. At any rate, Eddison's awesomely poetic tales of black sorcery and head-bashing derring-do finally captured me. Believe it or not, it was Eddison who led me to Howard.

It sounds backwards, but that's how it happened. Of course I knew of Two-Gun Bob, read The Hour of the Dragon and a heap of Conan comic books back in the day, but I was still in SF mode then. Now I added to my library a tome of the complete Conan stories, then Wildside Press' gigantic ten volume series of Howard's weird works. More doors flew open: action, passion, color . . . imagination!

As a sideline, I've long been keen on military history, especially the more colorful periods with their knights, legions, cavalry charges and imperial guards, which surely feeds in to the kind of fantasies that attract me. Tolkien, Howard, and Eddison know how to mix up great romping combats with their magical skullduggery. In the end they were bound to make an impact.

And in the recounting, the then slides into the now. Here I sit at last, atop this vast Nibelung's treasure of the weird, joyously satisfied if greedy for more. Contained within what has gone before are the seeds of the writer I am.

But--

I didn't title this essay "Weird Fiction I Like," so I guess it's past time for getting to the point. I will, but necessarily what I most enjoy reading must tend to dominate what I write. That is the way it has happened. All of the pleasurable reads mentioned above have played a role in shaping what I do.

But what of what I do? Do I need to explain why I write at all? I don't think so, nor am I sure I can. Some people want to do it, some don't. I always did. Throughout my life, regardless of circumstances, I thought of myself as a writer. Early efforts, right up to young adulthood, were remorseless rips of what I read. During the fifth grade, at the time of a family move, I composed a trio of short stories as departing gifts for three buddies, rather silly mockeries of the style of Wells. School writing assignments I inevitably turned into fictional projects, mostly science fiction, once a detective story. In my late teens I began churning out swarms of tales at last intended for publication: many takes on favored SF authors, gradually more and more the weird. By the time I got super serious about it I was producing mainly the weird stuff, and that finally clicked. Success arrived long after I had broken out of the copying trap--the mimicry of style, I mean--and devised my own literary voice.

But, But--

Okay, to the point. Given that I would write, why do I write weird fiction? I've catalogued the influences that flowed my way from year one. Immersing myself in those stories induced happiness, first the reading, then the writing; but what is the source of that happiness? The title of this essay suggests a search for causation. Why not "Why I Like...", instead? Rather than taking the easy way out by altering the title, I'll confront the issue.

It's all about the transcendent power of imagination. That's what hooks me, that's what pushes me to create. Since I've been old enough to intelligently philosophize, I've considered the human imagination to constitute the fundamental essence of creative esthetics. Married to my anthropological training, I see it as the driving force raising man above the animal world. In the depths of prehistory primitive minds imagined useful shapes in stone and reflections of life colored onto cave walls, and ever since imagination has advanced both utility and art. Come civilized times, and many of the first written documents establish a well-developed love of imaginative story-telling. It's always there, sometimes promoted, sometimes suppressed; when unbound, history and life take on a bright aura, a rising above the mundane.

From my earliest memories, I was an imaginative kid. The foregoing sections have or haven't explained why. I do know how I thought, and continue to think, about the world. I color it with romance; I add wonder where it lacks same; I introduce delightful mystery into the humdrum.

Anecdotes of my yesteryears illustrate the matter. In my youth I lived many places, typical suburban realms, yet from those I employed most of my free moments escaping into the nearest woods and fields. There was nothing objectively remarkable about those comparatively wild lands, but I made them so in my mind. I invented names and histories for them. A forested creek became the River Styx, winding amidst magical scenes. An isolated patch of meadow became the Elfin Glades. A grassy space dotted with low, umbrella-shaped trees proved to be the sinister Gnomes' Haven, and one must stay out from under those odd trees lest a frightful fate await. A number of houses served as the scenes of hauntings or psycho murders. Fantasizing went beyond the casual. Not only did I involve friends in the game, but at my instigation we chronicled the concocted horrors and strangeness via The Sims Radio Show, produced on tape recorder. In this series we spun tales of vengeful ghosts, cannibal cultists, crazed hunters... oh yes, and let's not forget the komodo dragons and killer peacocks! We didn't stop with radio. Our home-made movies presented the exploits of escaped maniacs armed with knives and hatchets, complete with remarkably grisly make-up (mostly made out of goopy food) applied to the savaged victims.

Imagination certainly relieves boredom, and for someone like me it marvelously spices life. So I kept at it, whenever sufficiently inspired, which led to major bursts of writing. Regretting the lapses when circumstances dried up inspiration, many years ago now I arrived at the critical determination: henceforth I would write, and keep writing, from this point so long as I had life and health in me. In my mind I became a professional, and in the fullness of time that became literal fact. My stories started to sell, and despite many a disappointment and heartache there's been no stopping me.

Fulminating imagination, I reckon, tends to give birth to the weird, and with my firm grounding in it the weird had to comprise the main ingredient of my writing. So it does. I love it, must write it. Write it, read it, read about it, talk about it; yes, it's always there. I'm a big traveler, still keen on wilderness scenes, and in my journeys I'm constantly creating strange scenarios based in the places I visit, just as I did as a boy. The only real difference is that now I get paid for it.

So, that's me. All these strands come together to make me a writer of weird fiction. At this stage of the game, that isn't likely to change.

Lessons Learned?

Good Lord, but I don't know that there are any. What I've described seems more a particular history rather than a grand evolutionary scheme. That's the way it happened to me, period; nothing else to understand, no more needs be said. I face a slight moral quandary, loathe to brag of my amazing uniqueness--a questionable boast--while dreading the false self-flattery of comparisons with writers I admire. I do wonder, however, when contemplating comrades of weird fiction. Do I find resonations of my experience among that select company?

Writers choose the fantastic for their literary vehicles for all sorts of reasons. Many (most?) simply follow the market; money leads. Some are attracted to certain subjects. Wells, the lover of science and social preachiness, uses his tales as a platform for both, and supernatural themes have always engendered interest. The gee-whiz factor commonly dominates: ghosts, monsters, ray guns entertain not only the receptive audience but the writer, who often begins as a member of that audience.

What of imagination as a driving force in life and literature, as a personally uplifting value? Of those writers with whom I am most familiar, at least four have it: Eddison and the Weird Tales trio Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith. Their voices ring loudly in my ears, perhaps because I hope I'm drinking from the same cup as they. Not content with material reality as totality, they treat it as a foundation upon which to erect splendid castles of imagination, and through some kind of clever authorial magic the products of imagination, fruits of entirely real neurons firing in the brain, become "true." Yes, these are purely subjective impressions; yes, another critic might point to a different set of writers; but when I read these men, I feel myself falling headlong into their worlds. What, in them, gives life to their imaginations? From my knowledge of their life histories, I see various causes. Clark Ashton Smith, driven by a masterful penchant for poetry, employs the weird as a vehicle for conveying poetic color into prose, thereby transcending the mundane. E.R. Eddison shares that somewhat, I believe, yet I think he and Robert E. Howard are motivated more by a profound historical sense, a desire to break free of temporal bonds. They really hunger for the worlds they invent, worlds a lot more fascinating to them than the thin slice of time and place they physically inhabit: lively worlds amalgamated from other lands and eras. Then there is H.P. Lovecraft, that eternal oddball, so hard to fathom by normal standards. Lovecraft, though, speaks more clearly about himself than any of them. How does he do it? Unlike the other three, he manipulates imagination coldly and clinically, preferring as a rule to devise worlds beyond rather than other. Instead of replacing conventional reality, he wields imagination as a hammer to smash it. While his colleagues take pleasurable vacation trips into fancy, Lovecraft wages guerrilla war against the here and now.

Even if negation of reality be the thread knotting them together, I find their engines of imagination to be generating power that amplifies and vivifies as well. Therefore I keep going back to them, refreshing myself in their creations. So, where do I stand in all this? I praise the imagination as they avowedly or in practice do. I work diligently to make my imagined characters (Professor Vorchek, Jacob Bleek, Lord Morca, and all that gang) and imaginative landscapes (glorious Dyrezan, Bleek's gloomy medieval era, Vorchek's faux Arizona) as artfully real as the titans of the weird make theirs. I don't claim to succeed, but I'm striving for that.

I detect some of them in me, at least to the extent that I profoundly sympathize with their literary goals. The nuts and bolts cosmos doesn't suffice for me, either. I must add to and augment it in order to reach for happiness. Through my writing, I actually achieve that. One more thing, a minor but delightful note: it tickles me enormously that, throughout life, scenery has affected me the way it does Lovecraft. Whatever else, we share that!

Now you know why I write weird fiction, maybe know a bunch more about me, too. Is any of this relevant to the reader? I don't know, but I'm a writer, and this was one more thing I had to write. Full stop.


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