You take your wisdom where you find it. In 2020, on impulse, I incorporated the “weird fiction” of H. P. Lovecraft, the grandmaster of the genre, into my recreational reading. I can’t remember exactly why. After all, that year was creepy enough without marinating in tales of monsters, demons, and ghoulish folk plaguing New England cities and towns. Maybe it was a form of escapism, substituting wild stories of dread for the real stories of dread that dominated headlines that year.
Or maybe it was my oddball form of virtual travel amid the lockdowns. Lovecraft was a Providence native and a resident for much of his short life, dwelling in a house just off the Brown University campus. In fact, his gravestone bears the inscription “I Am Providence.” Much of his work is set there. In 2020 the family and I went many months without venturing into that fair and nearby city, among our favorite places on the planet. Maybe fiction furnished a partial substitute.
Anyway. So it was.
That August, perchance, Naval Postgraduate School professor Leo Blanken ran an article over at Strategy Bridge inspired in part by Lovecraft’s writings. Titled “The Weird and Eerie Battlefields of Tomorrow: Where Horror Fiction Meets Military Planning,” the article draws on a literary critic of whom I had never heard, the late Mark Fisher. After reading it I downloaded and devoured a copy of Fisher’s monograph The Weird and the Eerie through the wonders of Kindle. Together these works make a useful addition to your armory of implements for thinking about martial affairs, not to mention politics and life in general.
Fisher postulates that Lovecraft and other purveyors of uncanny literature and film—sci-fi author H. G. Wells and moviemaker Stanley Kubrick also make his roster of artists—rivet readers’ attention less by making their works horrific than by making them strange. Both the weird and the eerie have to do with things outside the ordinary. The weird, says Fisher, “is that which does not belong.” It “brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the ‘homely.’”
Weirdness, then, is about presence—the presence of something freaky and possibly otherworldly in normal surroundings. Fisher, in fact, deems “the irruption into this world of something from outside” to be “the marker of the weird.” He maintains that “the weird is a particular kind of perturbation. It involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate.”
So weird fiction is as much about how human beings react to the presence of an anomaly as it is about the anomaly itself.
Nowadays, Lovecraft is probably best known for his tales of Cthulhu. According to one compilation of these stories, “the Cthulhu Mythos was H. P. Lovecraft’s greatest contribution to supernatural literature: a series of stories that evoked cosmic awe and terror through their accounts of incomprehensibly alien monsters and their horrifying incursions into our world.” These supernatural forays take place in such familiar settings as Providence or Boston, or in New England small towns like the make-believe Innsmouth, on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
So weirdness injects phenomena that are radically foreign to daily life into daily life, while weird stories are about how ordinary folk respond to these phenomena. (Typically with dismay—at least at first.) Zombie literature and films—The Walking Dead, World War Z, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to name three recent entries—probably comprise the most popular genre of weird fiction these days. Think about it. Reanimated, mindless, murderous corpses by definition do not belong in regular life and cannot be reconciled with it. Their existence defies all natural laws. Yet their menace compels the living to come to terms to something utterly beyond everyday experience in order to combat it, and try to restore some semblance of normalcy.
If the weird is about presence, the eerie is more about absence. In particular, it’s the absence of something familiar and expected—people in particular. Writes Fisher, “a sense of the eerie seldom clings to enclosed and inhabited domestic spaces; we find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human. What happened to produce these ruins, this disappearance? What kind of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such an eerie cry?” An empty or ruined house, church, or fortress is eerie. So is a desolate cityscape in post-apocalyptic fiction. Think the Statue of Liberty jutting out of an isolated beach in the old Planet of the Apes, or the ruins of Washington DC in the 1976 sci-fi flick Logan’s Run.
H.P. Lovecraft excels at weird fiction because he expertly weaves the eerie with the weird. His stories tend to start off eerie and build to a weird climax. My favorite among the Cthulhu stories—and apparently the last of his writings—is “The Haunter of the Dark.” The story follows the typical pattern. Horror author Robert Blake lives just off the Brown campus. From his study window he can gaze across Providence at Federal Hill, these days a mecca for Italian dining. For Blake it was a “spectral, unreachable world,” abounding in “bizarre and curious mysteries.”
An abandoned, decrepit church transfixes him. “A vague, singular aura of desolation hovered over the place,” writes Lovecraft, “so that even the pigeons and swallows shunned its smoky eaves.” Foliage on the church grounds remains stunted even amid the lush Rhode Island spring. That’s a quintessential eerie atmosphere. Blake makes his way across the city to Federal Hill to investigate the edifice, only to unearth evidence of past demonic practices. Worse, his presence seems to reawaken a sleeping malice of old, the haunter of the dark. Ghastly events ensue. From there the story progresses toward its weird and terrifying crescendo.
What does this all have to do with warlike endeavors? Blanken posits—and I agree—that consuming weird fiction primes military practitioners and analysts to notice weird or eerie anomalies in the profession of arms. Detecting a phenomenon is the first step toward adapting to it or turning it to advantage. Weird fiction can help us make sense of the past, survey the world around us, and potentially glimpse the future. Fisher credits World War I with ushering in a “traumatic break from the past” that allowed Lovecraft’s brand of weird fiction to flourish. Blanken examines the Great War through the weird/eerie prism, finding anomalies—things missing that should have been there, or things egregiously out of step with prewar reality—that should have been apparent to military folk at the time.
Let’s peer through that prism at the present. Doing so helps us ask good questions. Uncrewed, autonomous aircraft and ships? Eerie; no people. Artificial intelligence that learns faster than human beings, and could outwit and outfight them? Weird; machines are supposed to be our servants. Cyberspace that exists everywhere and nowhere? That’s both weird and eerie.
Or look at the ongoing Russian war on Ukraine. Imagery of Ukrainian towns or cities emptied of people following Russian air or missile bombardment is eerie. Inhabitants are supposed to be there but aren’t thanks to Russian aggression. That’s disturbing and affronts the conscience. Such images rally sympathy among Ukraine’s outside supporters, prompting them to make major outlays of funding and military implements of all types. The eerie can have political ramifications.
The Ukrainian armed forces’ ability to stand against Russia is frankly weird considering the lopsided disparity between the two combatants by any measure, whether it’s GDP, numbers of platforms and weapons, or manpower. Acknowledging the conflict’s weird character directs our attention to the importance of training, to the excellence of Western-supplied armaments, and above all, to the advantages that go to the combatant bestriding its home ground. The weak could even win. Life imitates weird fiction.
Such insights alert us to tenets of operations and strategy.
Or look at China. Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea is weird, especially considering that it’s party to a charter that specifically rules out such claims, and has been smacked down by an international tribunal charged with interpreting that charter. How do you explain and respond to something so bizarre? Photos out of Chinese cities locked down under Xi Jinping’s “zero covid” policy are eerie, as are photos Hong Kong following the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on democracy. Chinese citizens should be thronging the streets, but they aren’t. Why?
And on and on. So pick up some Lovecraft—and discover the weird and eerie around you.
Expert Biography: A 1945 Contributing Editor writing in his own capacity, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010, and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes also blogs at the Naval Diplomat.