Last year saw two major publishing events in the field of Weird Fiction. The first, and the one that garnered the most mainstream column inches, was the publication of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy –Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, which saw The Weird being thrust into the mainstream as it never has before. The second major event was the publishing of Michael Kelly and Laird Barron’s ‘The Year’s Best Weird Fiction’. This is the first, to my knowledge, explicitly Weird Fiction anthology* to be released since the Vandermeer’s tome ‘The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories’ was released in 2011 (following on from their 2008 anthology ‘The New Weird’). The reason that this release is so important is that it pushes the literary experimentation with the weird to the forefront without focussing on the work of any particular author. We have seen a glut of anthologies of work based on the Cthulhu mythos over the last 10 years or so, with their number increasing seemingly exponentially as time goes on, and anthologies based on the work of weird writers R.W. Chambers, Arthur Machen, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barorn, and a forthcoming collection based on the work of Robert Aickman. All of which is utterly fantastic but can not expose the reader to the wild experimental creativity that defines(?) the weird. This anthology does just that and it does it brilliantly. Another reason that this publication is so important is that a book that contains a wide variety of works, some of which are at the very edges of the weird, has sold enough copies within but a few short months of release that volume two has already been put together. Viva la weird!
*There is of course the wonderful ‘Women Writing the Weird’ anthology from Deb Hoag, also released in 2011, but that -as the name implies, only featured female authors and therefore couldn’t represent all of the best weird writing of that year.
Of particular note in this collection are Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us? by Damien Angelica Walters, and The Girl in the Blue Coat by Anna Taborska.
‘The Year’s Best Weird Fiction’ is published by Undertow Press in paperback and for e-readers things like that there Kindle device.
Table of Contents(Titles link to reviews)
The Nineteenth Step – Simon Strantzas
Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks -Paul Tremblay
Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron – A.C. Wise
Year of the Rat – Chen Qiufan
Olimpia’s Ghost – Sofia Samatar
Furnace -Livia Llewellyn
Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us? Damien Angelica Walters
Bor Urus – John Langan
A Quest of Dream – W.H. Pugmire
The Krakatoan – Maria Dahvana Headley
The Girl in the Blue Coat – Anna Taborska
(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror – Joseph S. Pulver Sr.
In Limbo – Jeffrey Thomas
A Cavern of Redbrick – Richard Gavin
Eyes Exchange Bank – Scott Nicolay
Fox into Lady – Anne-Sylvie Salzman
Like Feather, Like Bone – Kristi DeMeester
A Terror – Jeffrey Ford
Success – Michael Blumlein
Moonstruck – Karin Tidbeck
The Key to Your Heart Is Made of Brass – John R. Fultz
No Breather in the World But Thee – Jeff Vandermeer
The Nineteenth Step by Simon Strantzas
The opening salvo in this volume comes from Canada’s Simon Strantzas. It is a fitting opener for this volume as it exemplifies perfectly, and succinctly what is, to me, one of the defining thrusts of Weird Fiction -that our understanding of the world in which we live is limited and fragile. A young couple, Mallory and Alex, just setting foot on the bottom rung of the housing ladder, have their perception of The Real splintered by something so simple that it probably would have remained unnoticed by most. By the lucky ones.
The final line of this story also makes want to both slug Mr Strantzas and buy him a pint at the same time. Well played sir, well played.
Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks by Paul Tremblay
Next we have Paul Tremblay’s look at drug addiction and self perpetuating cycles of abuse through the lens of meth addiction, motherhood and kaiju. Following the nameless protagonist, who is also the titular Swim, as she endures the pressures of being a small town pariah and drug addict and the longing to be with the daughter denied her by the courts and circumstance.
This is very much a stream of consciousness/modernist story that draws the reader directly into the confused mind of Swim.
Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron – A.C. Wise
A bizarro tale of a squadron of interplanetary trans action heroes sent to chew gum, smash gender norms, and high kick trans-fetishism in the teeth. All whilst looking utterly fabulous.
Not really sure what more there is to say about this other than it actually had me laughing out loud at points. Completely unsubtle metaphors are used, abused, and then glammed up. This is a fabulous feminist tale that would horrify TERFS and MRAs in equal measure.
Year of the Rat by Chen Qiufan
Translated by Ken Liu this military SF story has more than a passing similarity to Catch 22 in its examination of the futility and absurdity of military organisation. It also has some rather scathing things to say about the relationship of the average proletarian to global capital.
I’m definitely going to be looking out for more of Chen’s work.
Olimpia’s Ghost – Sofia Samatar
An masterfully crafted faux 19th Century homage to E.T.A. Hoffman told through a series of letters from a young woman sent to a young man with whom she was once infatuated. It speaks of the madness of art, of poetry, and the arrogance and proprietariness of the ‘man of science’ who eschews the lustiness of youth and of life for a pursuit that he will one day regret.
Furnace – Livia Llewellyn
This is one of the stories I was really looking forward to as I absolutely adore Llewellyn’s sensual prose and I’m a huge fan of Thomas Ligotti and as this tale comes from Joe Pulver’s Ligotti tribute anthology -The Grimscribe’s Puppets, I was highly anticipating something magical. I wasn’t disappointed. This tale of the strange degradation of a small town as rot and decay sets in captures Ligotti’s corporate horror period work perfectly yet still retains Llewellyn’s voice. Anyone living in a town facing the ravages of austerity capitalism will find this story set unsettlingly close to home.
Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us? – Damien Angelica Walters
“Inside each grief is a lonely ghost of silence, and inside each silence are the words we didn’t say.” The opening lines of this piece of experimental prose perfectly encapsulate the sense of loss and longing that permeates this short tale. Walters’ story is disjointed and disorienting and disturbing. Fabulous.
Bor Urus – John Langan
John Langan’s stories are always a slow burn and Bor Urus is no exception. In this story youthful fancy develops into startling obsession and realisation which fuel a potentially devastating mid-life crisis in the narrator. As ever with Langan’s work this is a superbly crafted weird tale and that’s no bullshit.
A Quest of Dream by W.H. Pugmire
Wilum H Pugmire is very much the person who carries the Lovecraftian torch into the 21st Century and one of his other stories, Inhabitants of Wraithwood, is one of my all time favourite weird fiction stories. This story is set in Wilum’s Sesqua Valley and, indeed, was first published in his Bohemians of Sesqua Valley collection. Unfortunately I’ve not read any of Wilum’s Sesqua stories and so I was rather unfamiliar with the setting. Still; I think this added to the strangeness of this story which deals with the overlapping of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and our world. This is a sumptuous story that displays well the finesse with which Wilum writes.
The Krakatoan by Maria Dahvana Headley
A many motherless girl, her astronomer father and a former astronomer neighbour who has turned his gaze towards the stars within the Earth. Both the prose style and the subject matter of this story reminded me heavily of the work of manga artist Juni Ito, which is high praise if you ask me.
The Girl in the Blue Coat by Anna Taborska
“That night I had a terrible nightmare. Mindla was standing by the marsh at the bottom of the field. She was only in her underwear. She reached out to me and at first I thought she had that same sadness in her eyes, but as I drew closer, I saw that her eyes were gone.” This is definitely the saddest of the stories that I have come across so far. An investigative journalist discovers that there are those who seek to ensure that those with the power to do so bear witness for those who can not. This story is soaked in sadness, from the setting, to the subject matter, to the prose which simply and clearly depicts a world scarred by its past and haunted by its ghosts.
(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror by Joseph S. Pulver Sr
This is a beautiful tribute to the Lovecraftian author Wilum H Pugmire. Written in Pulver’s distinctive, fractured, prose style this piece of flash fiction gives us a look at a mythical Pugmire’s life and writing process.
In Limbo by Jeffrey Thomas
Horrible, horrible, horrible. This story is wonderful. An ageing man experiences loss, hope, and resignation as the lights go out. Maybe the lights are just going out for him or maybe for all of humanity, would either of these be bad things? I did love this story in its Ligottian darkness.
A Cavern of Redbrick by Richard Gavin
There is something about this story, of a young boy’s summer and the horrible discoveries he makes, that reminds me of Stephen King in both its setting and execution. The tale is rather open to interpretation in that whilst it’s a ghost story the other forces at play could be either supernatural or mere human madness.
Eyes Exchange Bank by Scott Nicolay
I keep on hearing great things about Scott Nicolay and going by this story every bit of praise that has been heaped upon him is warranted. Like Livia Llewellyn’s story this is set amid the deterioration of an economic collapse -though this time it is the recession of the late 1980s/early 1990s. The narrator of this story is brought by circumstance to a town that is decaying and is forced to confront the untruths upon which his life has been based. Nicolay really is a master of the weird and I can’t wait to read his collection Ana Kai Tangata.
Fox into Lady by Ann-Sylvie Salzman
Wow, this is a special story. It reminds me, in part, of Bruno Schulz or Stefan Grabinski though it is also very, very different to those authors’ work. This is a psychically discombobulating story of anxiety, fear, and resignation. I really want to read more by Salzman. (This piece was translated from the French by William Charlton)
Like Feather, Like Bone by Kristi DeMeester
Another lovely/horrible piece of flash fiction here. A story of mourning, sorrow, and what we do when we try to escape the inevitable process that comes with grief.
A Terror by Jeffrey Ford
Normally stories that feature historical characters make me wince somewhat. Jeffrey Ford’s strange adventure with the 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson and her brush with death was however thoroughly enjoyable. I get the feeling that I may have enjoyed it more had I known more about the poet herself. Still, even without this knowledge this is a startlingly good, and weird, ghost story of sorts.
Success by Michael Blumlein
The longest piece in this collection -a novelette rather than a short story I suppose, Blumlein’s story explores academic obsession, madness, and love at the interstices of the natural sciences and how one person’s approach to their obsession can drive them to madness where another’s can drive them to success and how the two approaches are not that different at the end of the day.
Moonstruck by Karin Tidbeck
Moonstruck is an utterly beautiful and masterful fairy tale, a modern myth. An allegorical tale of a young girl’s emergence into womanhood and a mother’s fear that she is now being replaced by her offspring set against an impossible backdrop of a moon that is rapidly approaching the Earth and the home of the story’s protagonist. Beautiful.
The Key to Your Heart Is Made of Brass by John R. Fultz
This is a bewildering tale set in a post-human steampunk world where we see a member of the ruling, beatific, class being blackmailed. The vacuity of ruling class culture and the illusions of money and status are here exposed in a fantastical world that I would love to explore in greater detail. Hopefully Fultz will expand on this setting in the future.
No Breather in the World But Thee by Jeff Vandermeer
I don’t think it would be possible to have a collection of the best Weird Fiction at the moment without featuring a piece by Jeff Vandermeer. This is an extremely strange story of ‘it‘ happening again ‘like last year‘ and told as a series of vignettes merged into a single narrative. Each one told from the perspective of the occupants of a mansion that has come under attack from a huge monster which has plummeted from the sky. A fitting end to the anthology this rather post-modern piece is a fine example of both some of the excellent work that is being done in the field of the Weird and of the sheer imagination of Jeff Vandermeer himself.