‘Weird Fiction’ is not a new thing. ‘Weird’ does not fully represent a genre. You can’t go to any bookstore and ask a seller where the ‘weird shit’ is. More than anything, it’s a feeling, a vibe, an evocation of what is not within the grasp of nature as we know it. It can be glimpsing something through a skewered looking-glass, as subtle as a shadow from the corner of the eye, but it can also wear a short wick and explode in one’s face. It can be eloquent as a final love letter, or as painful as a head wound. However you want to categorize it, it’s a vast nebulous brand, and editors Laird Barron and Michael Kelly shape and illuminate the unruly ‘Weird’ tag with ‘Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One’, culling a diverse selection of strange tales published in 2013. There’s some truly wild and powerful stuff in this culmination of the bizarre, the dreadful, the sublime and the otherworldly.
Simon Strantzas ‘The Nineteenth Step’ evokes an episode of ‘This Old House’ rewritten by Ramsey Campbell. One line, that’s all it takes, and Strantzas slow-feeds the cosmic chill right through the marrow. ‘Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks’ by Paul Tremblay is a quietly evocative tale that has thunderous implications. When the behemoths rise, how secure do we all feel in our tin houses? Tremblay answers that question, evoking monsters in the mist and how we cower to safety and wait for The End. Sofia Samatar’s ‘Olimpia’s Ghost’ pays respects to E.T.A. Hoffman while adding her own macabre dimensions to the Sandman mythos. From a completely different realm, A.C. Wise concocts a spastic, psychedelic interpretation of the Space Opera in ‘Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron’. Ziggy Stardust and Flash Gordon would fit right into this kaleidoscope of spandex, glitter and laser-lit chaos. And then there is a story called ‘Furnace’ by Livia Llewellyn that caught me off guard, tripped me up, and then pulled me into an abyss of unknown terrors. It disrupts small-town reality in the same masterful way that Thomas Ligotti did with his collection ‘Songs of a Dead Dreamer.’ What starts out fairly traditional spins out of control, and gradually, the lines blur to the point where the narrative turns liquid and you nearly drown in its nebulous depths. Definitely one of the highlights of this collection.
Two of my other favorite tales were in a similar vein — where rural towns are under the grips of some nameless and supernatural apocalypse. (BTW, these aren’t your typical blockbuster end-of-the-worlds. There are no bulletproof heroes and heroines, no cute kids and snarky sidekicks. There is no posturing in a laboratory as the cast try to figure out an antidote. This is the shit that comes from the nightmares we refuse to analyze, unpredictable and broken with no tidy endings). Jeffery Thomas’ ‘In Limbo’ sets his nightmare in a semi-rural town that is suddenly surrounded in a buzzing darkness. Thomas builds the primal elements of a haunting atmosphere, all while never disconnecting from his schlump-of-a-guy protagonist, a poor soul who can’t really grasp that his world had gone dark a long time ago. In ‘Eyes Exchange Bank’, Scott Nicolay also writes about a small town, but he doesn’t inhabit it with the usual tropes. No vampires, evil children or Cthulhu cults here. What is threatening in this one is deep in the shadows, and while we are right beside our protagonist the whole time, we feel the dread chewing at the edges just outside our vision. He sets this short story in an unfinished mall, and so ingrained in the psychic landscape of American culture, this locale is no longer what it used to be. What it becomes a haven to you’ll just have to read to find out.
Two highly effective ghost stories are ‘Cavern of Redbrick’ (Richard Gavin) and ‘The Girl in the Blue Coat’ (Anna Taborska). Both are chilly remembrances of childhood, restrained and eloquent, but still, they cut deeply as we realize most childhoods are not as idyllic as we prefer to remember them. On the other end of the spectrum, John Fultz’s ‘The Key to Your Heart is Made of Brass’ is a richly textured tale as if penned by Clark Ashton Smith trying his hand at steampunk. And Jeff Vandermeer’s closer, ‘No Breather in the World But Thee’, takes an Edward Gorey framework (the stately mansion containing a cast of strange tenants who become victim to even stranger situations) and skull-fucks traditional narrative with the design of a peyote trip. Really, this is a book of apocalypses, hauntings and far-out fairy tales. There’s a whole array of lights and colors, monsters and mayhem, and the shades of the modern weird tale are very well represented by Barron and Kelly’s selections.
The good news is that Volume 2 and Volume 3 are confirmed for releases this year and the next. Kathe Koja and Simon Strantzas are on board with Kelly to curate these Best-Of collections. For now, this one is an impressive debut for what I hope becomes a yearly tradition for a long time to come. Long live the Weird.