Read and Respond: Dreams in the Lich House – ‘What is the Weird’?

In discussing the difference between ‘weird’ and ‘gonzo’, and the internal consistency of a fantasy setting, Beedo asked:

Here’s a good question, like a thought exercise – is an alien ruin in a historical Viking game different, in terms of Weird vs Gonzo, than placing it in a high-magic fantasy campaign loaded with magic items and high level wizards?

An alien ruin in a high-magic fantasy setting is just as out of place as it is in the historical Viking setting, but the place that things are in or out of is different in each of these settings, and so we notice alien-ness more in the historical than in the fantastic.

We Know about Vikings, you see; we’re taught about them in school, their existence is a matter of historical record, and we have some assumptions about how that society, that world, those people work. Consequently, we have expectations and a defined sense of what is usual and acceptable, against which it’s easier for new elements to clash and make themselves noticeable.

We don’t Know about wizards in the same way. Although we might have a very defined and detailed sense of what a wizard is, and a set of expectations concerning wizardry allowing a clash of values and subsequent loud disavowing of X example of wizardry, those expectations are far more personal. Wizardry, of the high magic fantasy kind, is off the historical record; there’s not as strong a shared idea of what’s Right or Wrong to create contrasts with, since you can’t hold up any one work of fiction and claim it’s more Right about wizards than any other.   Goodness knows people try, though, and the more people do it with one work, the more authority that work accumulates, so there’s a kind of ‘fantastical record’ out there; it’s personal, though, and still ultimately grounded in fiction, in the suspension of disbelief, and the alien ruins are less out of place in a setting that must be permitted a certain amount of that in order to function.

That said, there’s a finite amount of disbelief that any one person can suspend (I believe that more than I believe almost anything else, and call the principle Von’s Law). The presence of ‘alien’ ruins becomes more or less acceptable depending on the definition of ‘alien’ that we’re working with.  For example, some people have trouble accepting that Cthulhu is from space (having ‘seeped down from the distant star-system of Xoth’), because they’ve suspended their disbelief and bought into a historical setting with a certain amount of eldritch, inexplicable weirdness, and the notion of space aliens is either at odds with their understanding of the fantastical record (“he’s not an alien, he’s this“), or at odds with their acceptance of setting and genre (“wait, the Old Ones are all aliens?  I didn’t realise this was meant to be science fiction!”).

This, incidentally, is why Doctor Who can’t do pure historical stories any more; because the shared understanding of what’s Right about Doctor Who is that there’s a monster somewhere.  Personally, I think Vincent van Gogh’s insanity as addressed through time travel or solving a murder mystery with Agatha Christie are perfectly fascinating narratives in their own right, without the need for naked ostrich monsters or giant space wasps intent on impregnating members of the English upper middle classes (although, to be fair, that last one’s pretty interesting in its own right as well) – but then I don’t care whether Cthulhu’s from space or not, as long as he’s a bloody terrifying force of primal nightmare and not the caricature he’s been reduced to by a nerd culture that’s taxonomised and commodified him, explained where he came from and rendered him neither weird nor gonzo, but part of the norm.

The weird relies on the presence of an assumed normality, and gonzo on the absence of same.  Beedo’s ruins are weird in the Viking setting, where there’s something for them to clash with, and part of the overall gonzo-ness of the high magic fantasy, where they’re a different kind of mad, ne’er-before-seen stuff that the players/audience will probably assume is meant to be there, because – well, because there are fewer rules about what is or isn’t meant to be there!

What scares me is the ease with which we create rules; telling people that Cthulhu is an alien, or that there’s always a monster in Doctor Who, or exactly where those ruins came from.  The weird relies on the presence of an assumed normality, and gonzo on the absence of same – but it’s human nature to rationalise, info-dump, establish a mythos or canon, and ultimately normalise everything we can.

6 thoughts on “Read and Respond: Dreams in the Lich House – ‘What is the Weird’?

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  1. “This is why humans are brilliant, incisive, achieving, progressive, and ultimately dull – we can’t leave anything to be a mystery.”

    I don’t know if I can agree with you here Von. I definitely don’t want to!

    I would agree that many modern people, driven by the truth-paradigm of science, fit that mould. The modern archetype of an intelligent (and hence powerful) person is someone who has an explanation for everything, or has seen everything before and can neatly name it. If they can’t pull off either of those, they at least profess that there must be an explanation or a connection.

    The overabundance of media these days and the collective memory of the internet don’t help either. I think when you blamed nerds for castrating Cthulhu you were spot on.

    I don’t think this petty tendency to banalize is inherent in humans though, nor do I think it is the source of our genius. Quite the opposite in fact. The misconception that naming something is equal to knowing it is something I see over and over again in geek culture, as well as academia and especially science.

    What I want to say is that leaps in the dark are in fact our greatest power.

    1. Point of order; I don’t agree with the line you quoted either, which is why I edited it out. It’s funny how I don’t notice these things until I’ve hit PUBLISH, isn’t it? That said:

      A leap into the dark is generally made by someone carrying a torch – that’s a very dodgy metaphor, but I hope you can perceive what I’m driving at with it. Discoveries are made by people who can’t be having with mysteries.

      The problem with preserving mystery is that it leaves one at the mercy of that which is mysterious. That’s a great place to put people in for an entertainment experience, but I’d argue it’s a less great place to put people in in terms of pretty much anything else.

      That said, slapping a name on something and squashing it into one’s own taxonomy, equating reductionism with understanding – that’s lazy thinking, and bad science. I see a lot of that around the humanities and social sciences too, and detest it. Not for nothing do I hold that the three most important words a teacher can use are “I don’t know”. I just think that there needs to be some thinking about whether the sub-clauses is “but let’s find out” or “but let’s assume”. In most circumstances, I prefer the former, but not always.

  2. Wow, I replied too quickly! I do the same thing too, I try not to edit too much after publishing, but I just can’t help tweaking things . . .

    I think we might be talking about two different things. To continue the metaphor as I meant it: it wouldn’t be a leap in the dark if you had a torch! I was trying to say that our greatest strength as human beings is acting even when we aren’t sure what to do or what we’re facing. Unlike animals or machines we aren’t limited to certain pre-arranged routines in our responses to the unknown.

    I agree with you, the mysterious is great for entertainment, and I often shake my head sadly at the modern tendency, especially in so-called geek culture, to act like a know-it-all child and ruin the fun by saying “pff, I’ve seen that before.” I think I may have read some similar lament on Porky’s Expanse.

    But I also think the darkness and mystery has an important function for adults. It teaches us humility, which is a pretty useful thing.

    Re: science, I’m in philosophy and I’ve been reading a lot of neuro-ethics stuff lately. It makes me groan every time I see someone with enough letters after their name to know better equating brain signals with some mind state. “See those red areas on the scan? That’s Jane’s fear. We now know that “fear” is nothing more than activity in the hippothalamo-whatsamajigga. How exciting!”

    Facepalm. I believe that’s the expression ;)

    1. I feel the metaphor is falling down slightly at this point, to be honest. :p

      I agree that we’re capable of moving into the unknown. I believe that we do so because we want or need to know the unknown. Does this clarify matters at all?

      While I occasionally enjoy a spot of “been here, ‘s Lord of the Rings, innit?” at the expense of particularly derivative and run-of-the-mill work, I agree that the tendency to reduce everything to the Known is embarrassing.

      There is humility in knowing there are mysteries we can’t solve right now. There is – or should be – opportunity in that as well. We do tend to see knowledge of something as ownership and authority over it, though – I think there’s room for humility in exploration, where there has hitherto been conquest and destiny and such.

  3. Yes. Early 20th century anthropology is all about category formation – how different cultures do it & why is the basis for culture (which in a nice cyclical bit of defining is pretty much “that which humans might do differently in different places/traditions”). Category-making is a basic part of how we deal with the world.

    For this reason, I think both the Weird and gonzo are perpetually on the brink of disappearing/erasing themselves: both assume some normal world of restraint that is being deliberately violated in this particular case. Both depend for effect on surprise and confusion. But surprise and confusion disappear when you assimilate the thing that causes them. It’s bound to happen, I fear, unless you keep surprising in different ways, violating implicit rules by which your world works, tearing up social contracts. Which you can do for a while, as long as you invest equal effort in establishing those contracts. In some sense this is what happened to modern art: now we know that anything goes. So……. what to do? The shock is gone. It’s hard to find meaning or value in anything anyone does because it lacks a cultural context.

    there’s not as strong a shared idea of what’s Right or Wrong in fantasy

    true, that, and by design: everyone has their own ideal fantasy. The category name has local variation built right into it. So I fear fantasy is one of the worst places to try to build the Weird, because you don’t know, except by long, explicit exposition, what fits and what doesn’t. Horror actually has a tighter ruleset: it tends toward the set-dressing of gonzo, but it always has the same destination. Imagine a horror story that resolved into a romcom. Although maybe that’s recent Scooby Doo movies…

    1. Yeah – that constant drive toward finding something new and surprising is vital to sustain the fantastic over time. That’s partly why the stock fantasy setting irritates me so much; after a while the whole business ceases to be fantastic, because the Rules are taken for granted, and developments are judged in terms of their acceptance of or deviation from those Rules. The weird is only possible in the kind of fantasy that cleaves to those Rules like a slathering barnacle and is so banal that it’s become the normal from which the weird can be defined. I might even go so far as to say that the weird in fantasy is only possible when the gonzo has left the building…

      I’m now trying to imagine a Rob Zombie film that’s scripted by Richard Curtis. It’s surprisingly interesting.

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