I have just received YEAR’S BEST WEIRD FICTION Volume One as purchased from Amazon UK.
Guest Editor: Laird Barron – Series Editor: Michael Kelly
Undertow Publications (2014)
Stories by: Simon Strantzas, Paul Tremblay, A.C. Wise, Chen Qiufan, Sofia Samatar, Livia Llewellyn, Damien Angelica Walters, John Langan, W.H. Pugmire, Maria Dahvana Headley, Anna Taborska, Joseph S. Pulver Sr., Jeffrey Thomas, Richard Gavin, Scott Nicolay, Anne Sylvie Salzman, Kristi DeMeester, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Blumlein, Karin Tidbeck, John R. Fultz, Jeff VanderMeer.
MY EVENTUAL REAL-TIME REVIEW OF THIS BOOK WILL TAKE PLACE IN THE COMMENT STREAM BELOW AS AND WHEN I READ IT.
The Nineteenth Step by Simon Strantzas
“…houses on the dismal November street.”
A long short short. A modern couple, house-hunting, plumps for one that needs constructive renovation, a task which should be up their street, except the steps of the stairs worryingly do not count right somehow, in a sort of mixture of Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” and Rob Shearman’s “Sixteenth Step” story. And the outcome’s sequitur gap actually makes it impossible to read the rest of this book.
Having said that, who dares, wins…
…and from those stranded steps, across that trembling gap…
Swim Wants to Know If It’s as Bad as Swim Thinks by Paul Tremblay
“It was like being in a giant dollhouse. […] eleven steps down into a basement,…”
Not a House of Leaves as such but a type of Molly’s Monologue where the stream of consciousness is a tenuous audit trail from the previous stepping into nothingness, and now grasping for some handle on events through an internet nickname’s job as a supermarket cashier, and her estranged daughter she rescues from some monstrous apocalypse … all the time wondering whether the apocalypse is real or in her head. A very impressive piece. Surely to be worth the price of this book alone.
…and tellingly from Tremblay’s “Don’t worry about nothing. Your Mom’s here.” we now reach…
Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron by A.C. Wise
“‘I know,’ M says softly. ‘Shh, I know.'”
A tale of a gang of lady boys and other glitterees volunteering to go on a Flash Gordon type adventure to Mars to neutralise some mad scientist…
Touching as well as hilarious. Original, too.
[One typo: ‘though’ for ‘thought’ on page 41, and three missing paragraph indents.]
The Year of the Rat by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu
“I thought, ‘if someone would just get a revolt started, I’m sure all of us together can whip him.’ / Everyone had thought the exact same thing, so nothing happened.”
A compelling TQFian ‘weird war’, here with rats, telling further of this book’s steps, here of evolution and mis-evolution amid ‘macro-politico-economical developments’ (cf ACWise’s ‘mad scientist’ and her later telling portrayal, as in this Qiufan, of human caring when and by whom least expected) and mass loyalties and betrayal, individualised by well-characterised students in the anti-Rodent force. This story is a classic in the ‘War with the Newts’ school of literature, with some striking rat-fighting scenes (perhaps from within the head of Tremblay’s apocalypse lady?)
Olimpia’s Ghost by Sofia Samatar
“In the long twilight, while Emil reads, I go up and down, up and down the stairs.”
An entrancingly twilit-atmospheric series of epistolary Old Vienna-connected communications, one-sided, from a woman to the man she knows as a family friend from childhood. This connects with a marionette-filled dreamworld stemming from ETA Hoffman, implicating a haunted Proustiana of unrequited love…This story is an optimum one for my taste. Especially as a few days ago I attended a live chamber performance of La Traviata (reported here) and there is some, if inexact, synergy between that experience and this story. An opera version is in fact explicitly mentioned in the Samatar.
Whence or whither doth improbable comfort cometh? “And so: to the stairs.”
I read and reviewed the next story here a week or so ago, and this is what I then wrote about it:
[[ Furnace by Livia Llewellyn
“…here forever, unchanging in the antiseptic amber of our fixed memories.”
Forgive me if I am even more personal when describing my reaction to this perfectly richly ripe – on the brink of endless decay – concerto in amber: where the young girl is, for me, its oboe soloist, seeming to give retrocausal birth to my earlier thoughts on a (as the VanderMeer WEIRD book’s core) Forever Autumn and on a (more Ligotti-orientated) Perpetual Autumn…and her grandfather’s mapping with biro seems akin to my dreamcatching or gestalt real-time reviewing – and this story has now become a strong candidate to represent my dreamcatching’s clinching or optimum dot or point … I can give this story no greater compliment. And its coda movement hints at that very Ligottus knot “…pulled into unwanted existence by the strings of someone else’s desire” and at this book’s earlier river with these words: “river in which I am always and only her little girl, eternal and alone.” ]]
Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us? by Damien Angelica Walters
“…and I have a knot in my chest that won’t go away.”
A yearning story in short steps. Straightforward in one sense: love, death, loss, regret, recurrent haunting by dead one. The leaving of photographs as part of that haunting works quite well and lessens the straightforwardness. But, for me, essentially predictable with a slightly pretentious aura.
Bor Urus by John Langan
“The details were fairly incoherent, but the gist of the theory I assembled was,…”
I don’t think I have ever read before such a compellingly substantial story with long chunky paragraphs, perfect geometries of textured text stretching like some of Proust’s down the page, with a reader’s sensed satisfaction at their strong presence, their creative confidence, the instinctive knowledge of the irresistible nature of the story’s ending, the certainty that loyalty to people and words are equally sacrosanct, whatever the risks or lacks of concentration which may impinge in the meantime. This is that story.
Extreme weather events are both comforting and frightening. Families, too, with their loyalties, betrayals, your own conviction in doing what is right, your parallel weakness in sometimes doing what is wrong. There is no point in rehearsing the events in this story for this review. There is something bigger about it that haunts its edges, bigger than its mere plot. Bigger than anything I can say about it. It just is.
STATEMENT: As is common with all my reviews, I should confirm at this point that I am not reading the main and author introductions by the two editors until completing the fiction works. However, I have already glanced at the copyright acknowledgements and noted that the stories used seem to be predominantly North American published. I would recommend, for future volumes of Year’s Best Weird Fiction, that, if they haven’t already done so, the editors should consider the enormous amounts of Weird Fiction published each year by Zagava / Ex Occidente Press and by the reliably frequent Black Static magazine, just to name only two such potential sources.
I have made some more comments and suggestions about this subject on my other blog HERE.
A Quest of Dream by W.H. Pugmire
“And then I had a hunch, and trotted down the winding steps of the ancient tower.”
Following the power at the edge of the previous story, this engaging story is the power at the edge itself, adeptly blending – with tinges of the film Fantasia – CATHRianisms and CASianisms (see here for my review of the ST Joshi Penguin book of Clark Ashton Smith) together with Decadent Literature and Oscar Wilde as well as a slant upon one’s duty for responsible dreaming and whether to influence others to edge nearer to the dreamlands. An acquired taste that I have now acquired. I am perhaps thus duly influenced nearer to such rarefied matters conjured by Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire…
“They love the light of our plump moon on their rubbery hide,…”
The Krakatoan by Maria Dahvana Headley
“…my second mother, the hippie one who’d thought that astronomy and astrology were the same thing,…”
The phenomenon of the solar system (MY solar system, as this story’s young protagonist’s father says) and what makes astronomy tick are indeed perhaps only there to make us humans tick via astrology. If so, this astrology is by means of the preternatural power of synchronicity rather than by cause-and-effect, I believe. Also I have noticed that when walking toward the sea front from down a side road where I live, the wind turbines on the distant sea’s horizon at the far end of this side road seem much much bigger than when I actually reach the sea front itself and when I am nearer to them. And so I can quite believe that by creating a volcano, perhaps like Dreyfuss in CE3rdK, not only can one use this volcano, when inside it, as an observatory for seeing the stars in the sky more clearly but also for reversing the process and looking down into the volcano and see the stars more clearly at the earth’s core (where stars and the sun also happen to be in my own novel). Meanwhile, this story, as bolstered by these and other factors, is a very resonant portrait of a young girl who we originally think of as a boy, with three mothers replaced by Xs on her father’s wall, and there is a striking vision, by dint of the aforementioned optical effect, of the women close to her after their death or disappearance. Some of this, such as the man building volcanos and destroying real observatories, has the feel of the ageing ethos of Steve Rasnic Tem fiction (and this is intended as a big compliment to Headley from me). It is an accretively unique story and I look forward to reading more from this author.
The Girl in the Blue Coat by Anna Taborska
This is a stylish, poignant story of human loss, told from generation to generation as filtered by memory, about the ‘ghetto liquidations’ in Poland during the second world war, with well-characterised relationships, a work that is really a ghost story with its eponymous heroine reminding me of the haunting quality of the red coated girl in Schindler’s List. I very much appreciate this accomplished, compelling story for what it is, but failed to understand why it is classed specifically as ‘Weird Fiction’ in this book’s particular context, but congratulations to the author for her story being chosen as among the Year’s Best Weird Fiction.
(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror… by Joseph S. Pulver Sr.
“words. dreams. words. words, lost and found…and melted.”
Ostensibly, an experimental work that — regarding responsible dreaming and its masters, mentioned earlier in this review — edges us ever nearer to such immersion and retrocausation by the dreamlands as summoned by what I see as Weird Fiction in general. To whomsoever this tribute of a story is aimed, this experiment is not an experiment at all but a carefully crafted threnody direct into my soul (for want of a better word) rather than via my consciousness. It is, I infer, about eventual love and caring that arises with page-turning surprise from unexpected sources – the gestalt so far of this whole book, I propose.
Light from Darkness, to the sinuous accompaniment of constructive literary and musical atonality.
In Limbo by Jeffrey Thomas
“At nineteen, working in that boot company, he had been befriended by an Armenian man in his forties.”
As this fifty-something long-term unemployed protagonist, who now has no structure to his days, looks back, that was an act of plain friendship by the Armenian man, I infer, with no other motive. The protagonist’s wife died of cancer years ago. Who’d expect anything now, but plain nothingness till the end of his days? This is indeed a compelling, page-turning, ostensibly ‘end of the world event’ scenario, whereby all electricity and communication vanish – and then static and darkness like smoke# start to infiltrate the apartments where he lives. Those tenants at arm’s length from each other until thus threatened… Who’d expect help from wanting to urinate, who’d expect help from what he thus sees in the bathroom mirror…
# I believe Weird Fiction, if it is truly Weird Fiction, has a preternatural overall ‘cloud’ beyond the knowledge and control of those writers who wield it. This has come out often in my gestalt real-time reviewing, beyond my own control. Only a few days ago I read a book, particularly a story in it entitled ‘Outside Interference’ that I reviewed here, riven by static and smoke.
A Cavern of Redbrick by Richard Gavin
“It is the dead of night and Michael is returning to his bed after relieving himself. She stands in the hallway,…”
As well as that quote obliquely reflecting the ending of the previous story, this accomplished, but, for me, otherwise run-of-the-mill, ghost story does, cleverly positioned as it is, also contrast with the foregoing book’s general theme of loving care issuing from unexpected quarters with, here, an apparent betrayal from someone expected to give loving care as well as elicit respect…the boy’s grandpa.
A second review of this story today here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/sylvan-dread-richard-gavin/#comment-7558
I read and reviewed the next story a month or two ago here and this is what I then wrote about it…
[[ Eyes Exchange Bank by Scott Nicolay
It’s as if “pre-coital readings of Finnegan’s Wake” — it should be Finnegans Wake without the apostrophe if you want the title as Joyce had it — represent what this story is and what Finnegans Wake is is the grey ‘construction site of a city mall’ spunk that came out afterward, except I quite like Finnegans Wake. Anyway, I really enjoyed this story, despite the sort of info dump forced in about the diss research on Poe’s stories of visual illusion, and I kind of thought of the one with the heart beating under the floorboards before the story itself did! (Honestly).
I also love the reference to Holbein (see me here). This tale of a reunion from student days did feel cloyed up with disappointments and a falling off of their other friends through sex or plain entropy represented or backdropped by the ‘bad inner space’ of new wriggly things like long shadows in derelict banks… And the pizza place and its officious waitress are masterstrokes.
“I saw Elvis at the mall last night. He was eating pizza with DF Lewis. Can’t think why they’d ordered anchovies.” – Karl Edward Wagner: ‘The View from Carcosa’ ]]
I note that ‘Finnegans Wake’ has now been corrected in this book! 🙂
Fox into Lady by Anne-Sylvie Salzman, translated from the French by William Charlton
“Comes November, Keiko returns home one evening by Meguro, along the river which laps coldly against its enclosing walls.”
I asume this is intended to be the inversion of David Garnett’s 1922 novel ‘Lady into Fox’, or rather its lycanthropic-like afterbirth? It has been many years since I read that novel, so taking the Salzman as a discrete entity, it is a very atmospheric Japanese scenario, densely evocative of a parthenogenetic birth of self within self within self… As in the mirror of the Jeffrey Thomas story, we least expect help from ourself as it is ourself who needs the help; if help it is we need, we normally appeal, through weakness, to others … but a baby or cub brought into the world can make or break its mother… Flee the lair or engulf it. Original novel spawning a story, or the latter retrocausally the former?
Jacob Wrestling With The Angel – Marc Chagall
Like Feather, Like Bone by Kristi DeMeester
“Her fingers are streaked with blood, but I do not care, and she places the feathers in my hair,…”
…as if, in this striking parable of a ‘short short’, submitting herself as a grown woman to the healing hands of some unlikely Christ figure that is in the shape of a small girl. A catharsis for earlier tragic loss of a boy offspring. As earlier with the previous story, ingesting as gestation, there as fox, here as bird…
A Terror by Jeffrey Ford
“…Me / Undoing knots…”
I think this may become one of my all time favourite stories. As an extended Brothers Grimm type fable, its words gestate… It is a Faustian bargain that the female poet makes with Death, Death who appears firstly like the White Rabbit in Alice and then takes her on a trip as if with Dorothy in Oz, and there are many disturbing moments, including the effective description of the undead boy for whom she is contracted to poeticise a counterspell to the spell his mother had cast on the boy to keep him living… It just needed three words in one of her poems that she writes inside her own tomb… It is ironic, I guess, that it is also the same spell for her to transcend her own death…
The most unlikely source for care and love: Death itself.
By each undoing of each ligottus…?
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning –
and untouched by noon –
I took this photo earlier today before reading the Blumlein novella.
Success by Michael Blumlein
“Take a leak, catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror.”
I have spoken for many years about parthenogenesis in literature, and late-labelling and nemonymity, but I see now I should have been talking about perigenesis. From epigene to perigene. This man — in synergy with his wife, she with him, then variously out of such synergy, till a new particle into his Large Hard-On Collider comes into play at the novella’s end — represents the apotheosis of the Jeffrey Thomas syndrome in the help (or love and care) coming unexpectedly from what he sees in the mirror, or does he become divided against self in this story, an equivalent Internet flamer or troll perhaps now become altruist and prophet? My own real-time reviewing of fiction books as a seeking out of the literary perigene as a preternatural gestalt, now called dreamcatching — if I may be my own version of this novella’s flaming dichotomy of a protagonist and slightly pretentious to boot — is equivalent to what he builds in the garden, never higher than the fence till it is indeed higher than the fence. Like the Langan story in this book, this novella is of genuine driving power, with no glance to either side, except to both sides of the Proustian self, and to its ultimate goal within a portrait of marital relations. I have been married to the same woman for, so far, 45 years. This novella simply is. Arising from manic Socratic dialogue and Lamarckian ambition, whither it takes you, I know not exactly where. It is not a Classic of Weird Fiction, not Weird Fiction at all, so why featured in this book, other than to co-create the book’s gestalt? It is a Classic of the Unweird for me, and if it were not for my overweening interest in ‘Weird Fiction’ and thus in this book, I would never have had the privilege to read it.
Moonstruck by Karin Tidbeck
“Alia looked at her image in the glass. The person standing there, with pigtails and round cheeks and dressed in a pair of striped pyjamas, didn’t look much like a woman.”
This shares a sense of astrology as well as astronomy with the Headley ‘observatory’ story in this book. And they make a synergy of observed and observing femininity. This one is of a girl whose first period causes some apparent globally cataclysmic event (cf the Thomas and Tremblay stories) as well as an onset of influence from herself upon the moon as well as the moon upon herself and upon her officious-seeming astronomy-tutor of a mother. A period was once traditionally called ‘the curse’ and, by the moon’s now perceived cataclysmic descent, it becomes exactly that for Alia in this story. A period, however, eventually fulfils the recipient rather than draining her, granting a new cycle, creating a new potential mother to replace the old. But, equally, this story is a soaringly visionary story of sacrifice and catharsis for its own sake. Its bodily stigmata also caused me to learn a new word: ‘regolith’.
A delightfully amoral fable.
My reference here to the Pre-Natal Epoch during my review of ‘The Moon King’ by Neil Williamson, a wonderful novel that also synergises with the Tidbeck story.
The Key to Your Heart is Made of Brass by John R. Fultz
“Struggling to hands and knees, you realise your porcelain face has been shattered.”
This is a world of multi-mineral, stone, false brilliants, ancient organic bone, metal: for me, Steampunk rather than Weird Fiction. It is so crammed with on-the-nod breeds, creeds and customs, one wonders if it’s part of a longer novel series. It is adroitly viewed from the mysteriously emotional vantage point of one of the complex cyborgs, or what we assume to be a cyborg, until the end. One wonders, meanwhile, while he doesn’t keep a spare Key to his heart under the doormat in case he loses the one currently in use. Ah, it’s one of a kind. A Beatification. Full of intrigue and blackmail, and a fine style of language, I enjoyed this story well enough. It seemed to reflect the CE3rdK building machinations of the Headley and the Blumlein, together with Tidbeck’s onset of the regolithic moon. “… the rabidity has arrived. / It swoops down upon the dark streets like some predatory bird of legend.” An inimical situation which finally creates laughter in the one thus imperilled: a thematic emblem for this book.
… from that thematic emblem we now reach, stretching from the Strantzas Steps, the explicitly ‘manic’ coda to the book’s fruitful symphony (a book that is, to my mind, gratuitously entitled Year’s Best Weird Fiction) and that is…
No Breather in the World But Thee by Jeff VanderMeer
It has been, so far in this book, like walking through an art gallery studiously inspecting the fine paintings, drawing conclusions of Aesthetics and Art History, till one reaches the VanderMeer room. Ah, a VanderMeer, you sigh, and you sit on the gallery’s seat and gaze in delightful wonder at it, forgetting all serious purpose. A load of Bosch.
“I do not believe it is a tower. I do not believe it is a tower.”
While conducting this review, I have simultaneously been reviewing JV’s Area X.
In 2011, I reviewed the VanderMeers’ massive THE WEIRD.
All links here.
Thank you. You read us well, with a keen and wondrous eye.