Assistant Professor of Philosophy Brian Onishi digs into the work of H. P. Lovecraft as he researches "weird fiction" and its "eco-weird" subgenre.
By: Therese Boyd
Fiction writing has many subgenres—fantasy, romance, sci-fi, historical, and so on. And those subgenres have subgenres of their own. Born out of horror, science fiction, and fantasy is “weird fiction.” One of the best-known authors of this genre was the early twentieth-century writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937). Penn State Altoona’s Assistant Professor of Philosophy Brian Onishi spent his summer as the S. T. Joshi Endowed Research Fellow in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft’s hometown, researching the author’s work.
Brian Onishi, assistant professor of philosophy at Penn State Altoona
Credit: Brian Onishi
Onishi has been frequenting the John Hay Library at Brown University, which houses the H. P. Lovecraft Collection. According to the John Hay Library’s website, “Lovecraft, the eccentric Providence author of fantasy and horror tales for the pulp magazines of the 1920’s, is now recognized as one of the seminal figures in the development of the science fiction genre.” Possibly his most famous work is the 1928 short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” a three-part short story about a mysterious, dormant creature, a sect that worships it, and lost sailors who accidentally awaken it—to their own detriment.
While research these days can be done online, not all information is accessible that way, especially with personal collections. Onishi appreciated the opportunity to read “background information and original manuscripts,” he says. In addition, there are definite advantages to being in a place where the research subject is so well known. Lovecraft famously loved his hometown and “wrote a lot of letters that describe his allegiance to Providence specifically.” The city returns that affection: “There are monuments around the city to Lovecraft, as well as a biannual convention that is run on opposite years as the Lovecraft Film Festival.”
Onishi defines “weird fiction” as “a genre or offshoot of horror fiction. I grew up reading this stuff. I like the atmospheric quality and the ambiguity it leaves the reader with. One thing Lovecraft talks about is the atmosphere, an eeriness more than a conclusion to a narrative. He was more focused on atmosphere than action.” Onishi notes a similar “eeriness” in Lovecraft’s work to his contemporary M. R. James, “who was famous for ghost stories.”
John Hay Library with the H. P. Lovecraft Memorial Plaque to the Right
Credit: Will Hart, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Researching a person’s personal papers often uncovers the bad as well as the good but Onishi doesn’t look away, saying, “I think for my work it’s worth noting his racism. Lovecraft was clearly a racist and anti-Semite.” But he wasn’t assertive about it: “People talk about him being a ‘gentleman.’ Lovecraft never acted on his racism in public but he wrote a lot about his racist ideas.”
Onishi is actually working on a subgenre of weird fiction, which he calls “Eco-Weird.” The Eco-Weird combines weird fiction with environmental thought. He explains, “There’s an exciting connection with the environmental part of it—there’s so much we don’t know. Climate change is a major driver of environmental weirdness. We’re being pulled into a mystery that can’t be closed. There are ways in which people have been horrified—any kind of strange thing you can imagine. All of these have some pull of that kind of mystery of nature and the environment.”
His writings reflect that mystery. He says, “Weird Ecologies in The Happening” (a chapter in Philosophy, Film, and the Dark Side of Interdependence, ed. Jonathan Beever [Lexington, 2020]), serves as “an introduction to the Eco-Weird and explores how [director] M. Night Shyamalan uses depictions of mass suicide as a commentary on climate change and environmental crisis.” Some of his journal articles deal with our vulnerability to natural threats, such as “Terror and Terroir: Porous Bodies and Environmental Dangers” (Trespassing Journal 6 [Winter 2017]) and “The Uncanny Wonder of Being Edible to Ticks” (Environmental Philosophy, 2021).
Despite the darkness he describes, Onishi also admits to a more positive outlook: “There’s also this romantic side we can embrace. We can see the good and the wonder and awe.” His most recent article on the subject is “Weird Environmental Ethics: The Virtue of Wonder and the Rise of Eco-Anxiety” (Northern European Journal of Philosophy, 2022).
Onishi has also co-founded The Society for the Study of the Eco-Weird (SSEW) and organized their inaugural symposium, which will be held virtually on September 30. The symposium will bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars from five different countries. Paper topics range from Lovecraft’s sense of place, to Michelle Tea’s weird feminist pseudo-memoir Black Wave, to Deadpool’s relation to ecological dead pools. Anyone interested in attending or learning more should visit the Eco-Weird site.