Alien Rats, Apocalyptic Nightmares, and a Horror Worse Than Ghosts: Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One

Alien Rats, Apocalyptic Nightmares, and a Horror Worse Than Ghosts: Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One

Year's Best Weird Fiction-smallWhat comes to mind when you think of “weird” literature? For me, I’m inclined to think about horror stories. But the weird, and its long tradition, is so much more. For an attempted definition of “weird” one could not do better than the following:

[The weird is] speculative in nature, chiefly derived from pulp fiction in the early 20th century, whose remit includes ghost stories, the strange and macabre, the supernatural, fantasy, myth, philosophical ontology, ambiguity, and featuring a helping of the outré. Weird fiction, at its best, is an intersecting of themes and ideas that explore and subvert the laws of Nature (p. 7).

These helpful words come from editor Michael Kelly’s foreword to the first volume of Undertow Publication’s Year’s Best Weird Fiction. As Kelly’s definition of weird makes clear, it has never fit neatly into any one category of genre. Thus he concludes that we are long overdue to have a year’s best anthology dedicated specifically to the weird.

One of the very interesting things about this proposed project is the goal of having a different guest editor each year. And one of the things that really excited me about this anthology, when I first heard about it, was that Laird Barron was going to be the inaugural guest editor. Barron is an excellent writer of horror and the weird, and personally one of my favorite authors.  See my reviews of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, The Light is the Darkness, and The Croning. But is his anthology of the weird any good?

In a word, yes.

But I have to say that after reading the first few stories that I selected I was left rather underwhelmed or disappointed. I started to think that though I love Barron’s own writing, perhaps his taste in the weird is quite different from mine. However, my perspective changed by the time I had finished the whole anthology, and here’s why.

A few months ago I did a review of Ann and Jeff VanderMeers’ excellent anthology The Weird. This was a massive collection and took me quite awhile to get through. I said there

I would not recommend reading this anthology the way I attempted: from beginning to end. An anthology of this size seems to me better suited to being parsed out in bits and pieces. I often had to lay the book down for days or weeks before returning to it — something I rarely do with a book once I’ve started it.

Shadows Edge-smallAt the time, I attributed my slow-go through that huge book of the weird to its sheer size. But, after reading this far smaller anthology of the weird, I’ve reassessed and come to a different conclusion.

Weird literature, at least for, is something that I can only take in short doses.

And here is the best explanation I can come up with: When weird literature is hitting on all cylinders — when it’s really working for me — I think it has a way of getting to me such that when I take it in small doses I find it enjoyable, but when I take it in large doses I do not.

In some ways, this is a surprising thing for me to say since I can rip through a horror anthology like nobody’s business. When horror stories are successfully creeping me out, it seems I can’t get enough.

But I think weird literature, for me, is like eating a really sweet dessert. After eating one delicious helping I love it and think I want more. But when I start eating that second helping — something of the taste has gone out of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I could’ve read Barron’s Year’s Best Weird Fiction from cover to cover in one sitting without my head exploding or committing suicide or something. But I don’t think I would’ve ended up giving it the favorable review that I’m going to give it here. For if I had read it that way, it probably would’ve completely soured on me.

Putting autobiography to one side, this is a really unnerving volume. And though there are a couple of stories that I did not really care for, Barron has a real gift for picking very good writers.

Art for “Year of the Rat,” from the May 2009 issue of Science Fiction World (China)
Art for “Year of the Rat,” from Science Fiction World (China)

The craft of fine writing is quite exemplar here, even when the particular story didn’t necessarily work for me. Let me highlight a few real gems.

“Year of the Rat” by Chen Qiufan (from the May 2009 issue of Science Fiction World, and translated by Ken Liu) is amazingly weird. There’s something about works not originally written in English that really set an English reader off-kilter. Quifan’s story does this in spades in an alternate history of China overrun with mutant or alien rats.

I also really liked Richard Gavin’s “A Cavern of Redbrick,” from Shadows and Tall Trees, which seemed like a straightforward ghost story where a little boy is haunted but the upsetting dénouement reveals a horror worse than ghosts.

There are several little tight stories within that are really effective. One example is Simon Strantza’s “The Nineteenth Step” (from Strantza’s anthology Shadows Edge), which will make you think twice before ever casually counting something again.

F&SF Nov-Dec 2013-smallBut my favorite weird story came down to a tie between Michael Blumlein’s “Success,” from the November/December 2013 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Jeff VanderMeer’s “No Breather in the World But Thee” (from Nightmare magazine).

These two stories couldn’t be more different. Blumlein’s is about a tenured professor whose research seems to be driving him mad as his fellow academic wife capitalizes (for tenure) on her husband’s work. It is by far the longest, and at times seems rather like a “normal” story. But there are some really strange turns that take place in that I still cannot quite make out.

VanderMeer’s story, on the other hand, could not be more different. It is a full-blown apocalyptic nightmare. VanderMeer is, as usual, at his best in subtly nonplussing his reader’s reactions and emotions. Though this story contains some utterly abrasive material, its real power is how it quietly alarms.

There are various other masterpieces within and a list of “runner-ups” is included in the back. I think Barron has successfully compiled an excellent anthology of the weird and I look forward to future volumes.

But, only in small doses!

Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One was edited by Laird Barron and Michael Kelly and published by Undertow Publications (an imprint of ChiZine Publications) on October 7, 2014 and comes in at 332 pages. It’s priced at $17.95 for the paperback and $5 for the ebook.

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