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Book Review: The Year’s Best Weird Fiction (ed. Michael Kelly and Laird Barron)

“The Year’s Best Weird Fiction triumphantly lives up to its title.”

YBWF

The Year’s Best Weird Fiction is a new annual anthology; this inaugural volume contains two introductions, twenty-two stories and runs to 125k words in its attempts to sum up what ‘weird fiction’ is.

As interesting as the introductions are, the weird is perhaps better explained by example, and the first story in the volume, Simon Strantzas’ superb ‘The Nineteenth Step’, does just that. It’s a story about a couple moving into a new house, and the alien and intrusive element of an extra step on a staircase at first seems slight, almost trivial. But the sense of nagging unease caused by such an impossibility builds, and the short piece ends on an answered question…

‘Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks’ by Paul Tremblay presents a possible apocalypse happening ‘off stage’ and is all the scarier for it. Tremblay’s unreliable narrator recounts events leading up to a disturbing encounter with something vast but largely unseen, and Tremblay skilfully uses the weird as part horror, part character study. A similar approach, and a similar indescribable creature features in John Langan’s exceptional ‘Bors Urus’, about a storm hunter who believes that the energy of thunderstorms thins reality.

It’s a testament to the editor’s breadth of vision that the collection doesn’t stick to the more rigid definitions of weird fiction, but it’s hard to know what to say about A.C. Wise’s ‘Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron’. Not because it’s a bad story (it’s a genuinely funny skewering of old-school science fiction tropes and gender bias) but because its sparkling, freewheeling style seems out of place amongst the other darker, more reflective stories in this collection. Another science fiction story, ‘Year of the Rat’, is a better fit; it tells of a strange conflict between young military conscripts and sentient rats. The author is Chinese writer Chen Qiufan; one of The Year’s Best Weird Fiction’s strengths is that several stories are translations into English, providing a less American/British centric focus than many anthologies.

‘Furnace’ by Livia Llewellyn is a riveting tale set in an unnamed  town that is dying off as if it were a living organism. The story tells of young woman and her relationship with her mother. Gradually, these two seemingly unconnected elements are woven together. From its evocative opening lines to a genuinely surprising conclusion that increases the impact of the story’s events tenfold, this is one of the best pieces in the anthology.

‘Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?’ by Damien Angelica Walters is a story every bit as good as its title. A moving tale of loss and grief, Walters gives the reader a ghost story as catharsis rather than horror.

‘A Quest of Dream’ by W.H. Pugmire is the anthology’s only explicitly Lovecraftian story, telling of a young decadent’s quest for entry into the dreamlands. The prose style is more fin de siècle than Lovecraftian, but well-crafted as it is it’s hard not to feel this tale is too much in the shadow of its influences. ‘Olimpia’s Ghost’ by Sofia Samatar is a more successful literary homage; it’s an epistolary narrative about a young girl who has dreams centred around E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann. ‘A Terror’ by Jeffrey Ford also has literary allusion at its heart, this time in a tale featuring Emily Dickinson as a character who meets Death. To save her own life she has to write a poem to allow a boy who has cheated death to die. For the most part Ford avoids the triteness in his premise, mainly by dint of the pungent description of the undead child.

The two stories ‘The Krakatoan’ by Maria Dahvana Headley and ‘Moonstruck’ by Karin Tidbeck have many similarities; indeed the similarities are pronounced enough to assume the editors picked the stories precisely because of the different light they shed on each other. Both are told from the point of view of children and both feature bizarre astronomical phenomena impacting on the lives of those below – dramatically so in the case of Tidbeck’s astonishing climax where the story really does live up to its title, and more obliquely in Headley’s tale of families and loss. Both are solid tales, well told and thoroughly deserving of inclusion.

The ghosts of WW2 and The Holocaust haunt Anna Taborska’s ‘The Girl in the Blue Coat’. A story about an elderly man reliving events as the Nazis occupied his home town, it provides a welcome dose of concrete, specific horror in amidst some of the more nebulous terrors to be found in the rest of the book. The author provides just the right amount of period detail to make the story work without suffocating it, and a clever use of a frame narrator makes for an accomplished and effective tale.

‘(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror’ from Joseph S. Pulver Sr is a bold experiment and will likely split opinion. A prose poem or piece of writing akin to Beckett’s later work, this piece benefits from being read more than once, although it still remains somewhat opaque.

Jeffrey Thomas’ ‘In Limbo’ is a Twilight Zone style story about a man whose already limited horizons in life are reduced further by supernatural forces. Saying too much about the plot here would ruin its impact, which is considerable.

‘A Cavern of Redbrick’ by Richard Gavin is a relatively straight-forward horror story, with a modern update and old-fashioned plot. It’s well written and features some vivid scenes, but many readers will perhaps figure out where the plot is heading before it gets there.

One of the best and weirdest stories in the book is ‘Eyes Exchange Bank’ by Scott Nicolay, a truly unsettling story about lost friendships in winter-gripped small town America; its chills build from disturbing small details to an ending shocking not just for its nastiness but for the betrayal of trust it hints at. This is one of the most fascinating and accomplished stories here; the author knowing exactly what details to include and which to leave tantalisingly absent.

In ‘Fox into Lady’, Anne-Sylvie Salzman merges modern body-horror with a fairy-tale style narrative to produce a tale both distinctive and original. Proceeding as if by dream-logic rather than a more structured plot, the story is highly unpredictable and beguiling.

‘Like Feather, Like Bone’ by Kristi DeMeester is one of the shortest pieces in the book, and one of the most effective. Too short to describe without spoilers, it features some chilling imagery that nonetheless hints at escape and freedom.

Michael Blumlein’s novella ‘Success’ is a story of two married academics, doppelgangers, and evolution theory. The story is told from different points of view as it progresses, including the diaries of both protagonists, leaving the reader constantly unsure as to the exact significance and reality of what is going on. Despite a meandering start once it hits its stride the story is compelling, and it ends with a conclusion as surprising as it is apt.

John R Fultz’s ‘The Key to Your Heart Is Made of Brass’ is another inventive cross-genre story, featuring a clockwork robot, who has the key needed to wind up his heart each day stolen. The author explores issues of class and opportunity without it ever feeling forced, and the unique setting is expansive enough that hopefully Fultz uses it as the backdrop for more stories.

It’s fitting that the final story in the book is by Jeff VanderMeer, co-editor of the vast retrospective anthology The Weird. ‘No Breather in the World But Thee’ reads like the description of a particularly bloody Monty Python animation. Quirky and off-kilter, VanderMeer’s story proves that even after reading the preceding twenty-one stories, there’s no predicting the weird.

The book ends with a section of ‘Other Notable Works of Weird Fiction’ giving the reader further avenues to explore in their pursuit of the weird. Whilst different readers might quibble about the inclusion of some stories, The Year’s Best Weird Fiction is a book that triumphantly lives up to its title. The 2015 volume has already been announced, with Kathe Koja as its guest editor. Here’s hoping the series goes from strength to strength.

JAMES EVERINGTON

Publisher: Undertow Publications
Ebook (350pp)
Release Date: 26 August 2014

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