When I began writing Mysterium Weird Fiction Roleplaying I had to think about what I meant with “Weird Fiction” in this particular context. The text below is my attempt at an answer. Of course, the list of suggested media elaborates the answer further.
A Game of Weird Fiction and Paranormal Mysteries
Mysterium is a weird fiction roleplaying game where ordinary people encounter the paranormal and the unknown. Here we will try to define what we mean by weird fiction for the purposes of this game.
In his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature HP Lovecraft proposes the following understanding of the weird:
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.
In the same text, Lovecraft writes that ”The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. The known world is a small circle of light surrounded by a great unknown darkness that can hold any kind of threat. But the unknown can also be tempting and intriguing, offering new possibilities and experiences. In another essay, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction, Lovecraft suggests this perspective:
I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.
The power of the unknown and the strange is strongest when fear and attraction are both present. This double nature of the weird was identified by the theologian Rudolf Otto in his classic work The Idea of the Holy where he expressed a view of the sacred that characterized the encounter with the numinous Other as mysterium tremendum et fascinans – a mystery that both repels and attracts, terrifies and fascinates.
Mark Fisher writes, in The Weird and the Eerie, that these notions are two aesthetic modes that share a preoccupation with the strange, a fascination with the outside, that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition, and experience. Both modes exist at the crossroads between supernatural horror, science fiction, and fantasy. The weird is that which does not belong; it is a mode of liminality, it is about the encounter between the familiar and the unknown.
The existence of the weird presupposes normality, a recognizable mundane world into which the unknown outside can intrude. The eerie is concerned with the opposition between presence and absence, existence and non-existence. The question of why there is something when there should be nothing, or why there is nothing when there should be something, means that the eerie is tied up with questions of agency. What kind of agent is at work here? Is there an agent at all?
In the introduction to their anthology, The Weird, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer talk about the protagonists of weird narratives. The description is eminently applicable to the player characters of this game.
Usually, the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the unusual that they become obsessed with the weird. Whether It exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss, they may decide to unsee what they saw, but still they saw it.
This is the premise of any campaign in Mysterium. How do the player characters act when confronted with the strange forces of the outside, the suspension or defeat of the fixed laws of Nature? Are they consumed by fear or seduced by fascination? Do they turn their backs and run, or do they leap into the unknown? And what are the consequences of their choices?