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Ann and Jeff VanderMeer – The Weird (2011)

01/16/2014

I spend such little time reading the old year’s-best anthologies (for the sake of my own sanity) that this blog just languishes most of the time. To try to counteract that, I’m going to start reviewing other material here, and also move some older reviews here from goodreads, which seems like it might be dying off (like blogs aren’t). To start this process off, my stupidly long story-by-story comments on the VanderMeers’ outstanding compendium of the weird. I wish I had taken some of the reviews a bit more seriously, but what can you do? At least I managed to write up each story for this one, which I have managed to do with exactly zero of the other fantastic anthologies I’ve read since.

 

Alfred Kubin, “The Other Side” (excerpt), 1908 (translation, Austria)
Set somewhere on Earth in the fictional city of Pearl, this story featured an interesting juxtaposition of a straight-forward, almost newsprint-esque voice addressing the successive plagues of sleeping sickness, animal infestation, and non-organic decomposition that overtake the city, culminating in the protagonist’s appeal to the lord (?) god (?) leader (?) of the city for some sort of explanation for the misery all around him. The sense of entropy and fantastical meta-recognition on display here brought to mind Viriconium pretty strongly. I liked this enough that I plan on searching out the complete novel. 4.5/5

F. Marion Crawford, “The Screaming Skull,” 1908
This was a very enjoyable ghost story about an old man living in a haunted house he inherited from his cousin after said cousin murdered his wife and then passed away. There was nothing really surprising or, ahem, weird in this one, and I’m not entirely sure why it was included (particularly after the Vandermeers made the point in their introduction that only a few ghost stories were weird enough to include?). I did enjoy the way it was presented: the narration is the protagonist’s half of a conversation with a visiting friend, whose responses are answered but never quoted directly. This story introduces the theme that several others touch on in this anthology: the acceptance or understanding of the un-/super-natural, as the narrator’s refusal to accept this occurrences as proof of a murder lead inexorably to… well, you know. 4/5

Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows,” 1907
An intensely atmospheric story about two men on a camping trip in a swamp on the Danube who stumble onto some sort of nexus of interdimensional horrors. The focus is on the intersection of the natural world and supernatural forces and the inexplicable awe-inspiring weirdness of each, with a narrator who spends a lot of time ruminating on the effect of such on the human mind. Slow and longer than it needed to be, but the mood is pitch perfect and the build to the climax is truly creepy. 5/5

Saki, “Sredni Vashtar,” 1910
The boy Conradin lives with his cousin Mrs. De Ropp, who takes a certain enjoyment out of making him miserable. Conradin’s only enjoyments in life are toast and the two pets he keeps hidden in a shed in the garden: a chicken and a ferret. He’s scared of the ferret, though, and becomes more and more worshipful and fixated on this creature that he begins to view as his very own protective deity. This ferrety god of violence and suffering’s name? SREDNI VASHTAR!
Most interesting was the fact that the weird aspect of this story was quite possibly an entirely rational and ordinary event. 3/5

M.R. James, “Casting the Runes,” 1911
Ok so this is a story about a guy who is SO MAD about negative reviews of his books and rejections of his conference proposals that he curses people with his dark nefarious arts. Ho hum. Again the theme pops up of the inability or refusal of the human mind to come to terms with such eldritch occurrences, although not so explicitly dwelt upon as it was in “The Willows.” 2.5/5

Lord Dunsany, “How Nuth Would Have Practiced his Art Upon the Gnoles,” 1912
Nuth the burglar is the best burglar of all the burglars, but his bumbling apprentice is not up to snuff, so of course the two embark on a scheme to Robin Hood some giant emeralds from the gnoles, who appear to be fairies/elves/menacing little folk of the forest (and not hyena-esque gnolls, although the gnoles do appear to be their namesake). This was a good setup and I thought it was going in a different direction based on some of the narrator’s comments on the antagonism between the propertied classes and Nuth’s reappropriations, but it turns out that this is a very short story (as are the following two) and I was somewhat disappointed. It did have a great final line, though. 3/5

Gustav Meyrink, “The Man in the Bottle,” 1912 (translation, Austria)
A decadent-ish (as in the literary tradition) story of a decadent (as in the lifestyle) masquerade ball – combination that I could not care much less about. I imagine most of the titles and names were supposed to mean something to me, but they didn’t, and this one overall felt rather short and inconsequential. The first miss of the collection. 1/5

Georg Heym, “The Dissection,” 1913 (new translation by Gio Clairval, Germany)
Another very short one, correctly identified by the Vandermeers in their introduction as more of a prose poem than a story, which contrasts the replaying of the happiest memory (ies?) of a cadaver with the messy end of his remains at the hands of a team of doctors. Much creepier and more atmospheric than anything else since “The Willows.” 3/5

Hanns Heinz Ewers, “The Spider,” 1915 (translation, Germany)
Oh hey women are like spiders who ensnare and then kill their mates, get it? zzzz 2/5

Rabindranath Tagore, “The Hungry Stones,” 1916 (India)
This was fine but unlike, say, “The Willows” which has stuck in my head in a big way, I don’t think it will have any kind of lasting impact. In this first piece in the book by a non-Westerner the titular stones are the building materials making up an ancient palace built by a Persian Shah, now used as a residence by a humble collector of wool duties. The house, though, misses the former days of excess, and begins manifesting itself in the dreams of the narrator. It’s better than that summary makes it sound, although it has an awkward framing narration (as do so many of these older stories!) and ends kind of mid-stream.
Also, an off-putting number of references to the dainty feet of fair maidens…? 3/5

Luigi Ugolini, “The Vegetable Man,” 1917 (new translation by Anna and Brendan Connell, Italy; first-ever translation into English)
You will never guess what the protagonist of this story finds himself turning into after an encounter with a mythical plant deep in the heart of the Amazon. A few creepy moments but overall another kind of inconsequential short piece.
Minor annoyance: a Brazilian addressing a countryman in Spanish. 2.5/5

A. Merritt, “The People of the Pit,” 1918
Ok, back on track. I think it says a lot that this story, which is written in the most laughably awful pulpy way, was my favorite entry in a while. Again, a framing story: two guys hiking find a horrifically mangled third guy crawling through the snow. In his lucid moments, guy #3 recounts his trip down into THE PIT, a pre-deluvian hell on Earth of extra-dimensional slug monsters and bodiless terrific entities and haunted ruins and what have you.
It just so happens that I think I can identify my three favorite aspects of weird stories:

      1. hell on Earth
      2. extra-dimensional monsters, slug-esque or otherwise
      3. haunted ruins
Excellent work, Mr. Merritt. 4.5/5

Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “The Hell Screen,” 1918 (new translation, Japan)
In which an artist whose name I forget is tasked by a lord who hates him (and whose name I also forget) to paint a portrait of Hell. The Weird aspects of the story come into play through dreams and the artist’s attempts to stage real-life visions of Hell in order to paint them – nothing actually supernatural here. There’s also a subplot about the lord’s inappropriate interest in the artist’s daughter, who seemed at first to be shaping into an interesting character, but then that went nowhere and she was reduced to a sadly typical agent-less hostage. 3/5

Francis Stevens (Gertrude Barrows Bennett), “Unseen?—?Unfeared,” 1919
The first story written by a woman – but a woman using a male pen name and featuring only men. A man and his buddy have a drink, discuss the misfortunes of a local scientist type who is commonly understood to have practiced witchcraft, and part ways. The narrator then quickly begins feeling ill and stumbles into a showroom where a crazy man shows him the crawling horrors suffusing the world invisible to the naked eye. Then it turns out that the crazy man was the scientist in question at the beginning, and also the drinking buddy had accidentally poisoned the narrator and so maybe (or maybe not) the whole thing was just a series of hallucinations…? This was a bad story. 1/5

Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” 1919 (translation, German/Czech)
Another entirely natural and yet undeniably weird story about a visiting dignitary and the horrific torture machine at the heart of the titular colony. I’m sure Foucauldian/biopolitics people have a field day with this punitive-inscribing-upon-the-body business, but I’m not going to hold that against Kafka – this was a great story about the inhumanity of modernity, even if all I could picture the whole time was Count Tyrone Rugen. 5/5

Stefan Grabinski, “The White Weyrak,” 1921 (translation, Poland)
Heroic chimney sweepers battle some sort of gremlin-y thing. Unmemorable. 2/5

H.F. Arnold, “The Night Wire,” 1926
Something goes bump in the night at a newspaper wire office when reports about an evil mist start pouring in from a town that appears not to exist. Creepy and inexplicable, I just wish this one was longer. 4/5

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror,” 1929
A bit of an odd choice for the inevitable Lovecraft entry, because while this does have some sort of unspeakable twisted horror coalescing in a decaying backwater New England town, it also has a redoubtable hero who defeats said horror and emerges unscathed. Who wants an optimistic Lovecraft story? And yet – a great one-story primer on the mythos and the Necronomicon, so I don’t know what other single story I would have preferred to see here instead, although I think “The Whisperer in Darkness” is the one that has most stuck with me. 3.5/5

Margaret Irwin, “The Book,” 1930
The VanderMeers’ introduction to this one made the point that this was one of the few ghost stories weird enough to be included in the volume. I’m not so sure that I would call this a ghost story in the first place, but if you do, then I would say like 75% of the stories (so far anyway) fit the same criteria <12/10/11: just realized I already made this point regarding the second story in the anthology. oops). “The Book” is about a book of Satanic rites that a bumbling white collar-type finds in a mysterious (haunted?) bookshelf that he has inherited, and the text of which changes to guide his business ventures, only to slowly reveal its more sinister side. No surprising developments here, but still very enjoyably creepy. 4/5

Jean Ray, “The Mainz Psalter,” 1930 (translation, Belgium)
Jean Ray, “The Shadowy Street,” 1931 (translation, Belgium)

No real reason was given for the inclusion of two Ray stories back to back, but I’m not going to complain because these were both absolutely fantastic (both senses of the word) and his stuff is very difficult to come by these days, I have now found. The former is a horrific story of seafaring and the latter is a horrific urban study, but both are surreal puzzles that seem not to have answers but which revolve around alternate dimensions and predatory invisible creatures and growing dread and terror and helplessness. Moreover many of old stories in the volume so far have relied on kind of awkward framing narratives, but Ray uses that technique to great effect. Also, I think “The Shadowy Street” is the first story in the collection to include an actual active woman character.
I’ve sort of waffled back and forth regarding spoilers for the stories collected here but watching these unfold was too much fun to ruin for anyone – find and read these. 5/5

Clark Ashton Smith, “Genius Loci,” 1933
A haunted swamp story, notable only for its exploration of the seductive effect of the weird on the human mind. 2.5/5

Hagiwara Sakutaro, “The Town of Cats,” 1935 (translation, Japan)
A prose poem about the weirdness of familiar locations when approached from a different direction. Meandering, overly introspective, and ultimately uninteresting. 2/5

Hugh Walpole, “The Tarn,” 1936
The second entry about a vengeful author, but this was much better than “Casting the Runes.” Our protagonist (it would be helpful for these reviews if I could ever remember character names but that is not something my brain is capable of, apparently) is a solitary, bitter man being visited by a much more successful author whose debut emerged at the same time as the protagonist’s – unfairly, our man feels, killing off any interest in his book. Word of this dislike reaches the antagonist, who can’t bear anyone to think ill of him, so he traipses out to intrude and tromp about on the protagonist’s precious solitude by a remote tarn. Weird and horrific hijinks ensue – this is a great example of a seemingly mundane story slowly and inexorably becoming a weird one. 4/5

Bruno Schulz, “Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass,” 1937 (translation, Poland)
So I (tried to) read _Street of Crocodiles_ relatively recently and did not enjoy it at all – I found it kind of vacuous and meandering and entirely unengaging. This, on the other hand, I absolutely loved: a man visits his ailing father in a sanatorium where time has been tampered with in order to cheat death. The father may or may not be the only patient there, the son may or may not be losing his mind, nothing is as it seems, and then to top everything else off an army invades. Another excerpt that has me interested in finding and reading the entire work. 5/5

Robert Barbour Johnson, “Far Below,” 1939
Another purely pulpy work, which are proving less common than I would have expected. There are THINGS living in the deepest subway tunnels under NYC, and so the government attempts to contain them by focusing the powers of science and modernity. This doesn’t exactly work out – but it doesn’t exactly not work out either. 3/5

Fritz Leiber, “Smoke Ghost,” 1941
Following “Far Below” quite well thematically, why wouldn’t modern ghosts be made up of exhaust and trash and factory soot and machinery? This I imagine was a historically important piece for the modernization of the haunting story, but the actual narrative here isn’t particularly interesting and the climax/ending kind of betrays the setup anyway. 3/5

Leonora Carrington, “White Rabbits,” 1941
Better-written (much, much better-written) than the preceding story, but kind of similarly vignette-ish and image-based. Leprous zombies and carnivorous rabbits. 3/5

Donald Wollheim, “Mimic,” 1942
To be honest, I had to look this one up to remind myself what it was about because I was drawing a complete blank – which tells you something about this piece, less a story than a quickly-jotted idea to the effect of “many other species have some sort of rival or predator that mimics them, why not humans?” 2.5/5

Ray Bradbury, “The Crowd,” 1943
Ok I spoke too soon about the lack of pulp in here, I suppose. Crowds at car crashes gather quickly… a little TOO quickly, if you ask our protagonist here. 2.5/5

William Sansom, “The Long Sheet,” 1944
Life, if you think about it, is like being trapped in a steel tunnel, with a wet sheet that you have to laboriously twist until dry in order to earn your freedom, only guards from above constantly shower you and the sheet with steam. 3.5/5

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,” 1945 (translation, Argentina)
This has never been one of favorite Borges stories and I’m pretty bummed that it’s the one that made the cut. I think a lot of that has to do with the interminable discussion of poetry in the first half? Really just about anything else would have been a better choice, although for my money “The Garden of Forking Paths” is unbeatable (also if you had asked me to guess which would be included here I probably would have said “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which does after all share with “The Aleph” the conceit that Borges-the-character is trying to root out some sort of weirdness, but what do I know). 3/5

Olympe Bhely-Quenum, “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts,” 1949 (Benin)
Kind of an inverted companion piece to the Lieber story, here instead of weird-as-symbol-of-the-modern we have weird-as-natural (natural-as-weird?), wherein a boy overcomes his fear of death by means of exposure to the spirit world. This had a folktale-ish vibe to it, and based on the shared-with-Tutuola idea of the “Bush of Ghosts,” I am going to go right ahead and assume that’s what this story was based on. 4/5

Shirley Jackson, “The Summer People,” 1950
I had confused this title with “A Visit; or the Lovely House” when I was about to read this one, and while that story would have fit the bill also, you can’t really go wrong with Jackson. This story has such a perfect arc of creeping dread and slowly-intruding weirdness – it occurs to me that intrusion, either of the weird into reality or the rational into the irrational, is a central concern for all of this volume’s selections. 5/5

Margaret St. Clair, “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles,” 1951
A riff on the earlier gnoles story with a rope salesman instead of a burglar – a perfectly 1950s update, particularly when he is reading his salesman’s manual for pointers on how to approach the client. Somehow manages to be simultaneously goofy and creepy/unsettling, the former of which is not so much my thing but I will admit that this was a lark. 3.5/5

Robert Bloch, “The Hungry House,” 1951
Another haunted house story. Maybe that intro where they said there weren’t many ghost stories was from an earlier draft of the collection? Typical setup: a young couple purchases (or rents? the story is kind of inconsistent on this) a house which has been vacant for a while, weird things happen, the backstory is filled in, typical haunted housery continues. An excellent build-up that faltered with the reveal and ensuing carnage – although reflections really are quite creepy, aren’t they? 3.5/5

Augusto Monterroso, “Mister Taylor,” 1952 (new translation by Larry Nolen, Guatemala)
There’s an interesting dichotomy here between weird-for-the-sake-of-weird stories and stories where the weirdness is a more blatant thematic stand-in… for, say, American imperialism in Latin America, as reiminaged into the commodification of shrunken heads. Bananas or coca cola as shrunken heads – that’s pretty weird, huh? 3/5

Amos Tutuola, “The Complete Gentleman,” 1952 (Nigeria)
A difficult one to evaluate. The second entry from Africa, this one, like Bhely-Quenum’s story, felt like a folk tale, which makes me wonder why we haven’t had any folk-tale-inspired stories from Europe or the US (or non-folk-tale-ish ones from Africa). “The Complete Gentleman,” at any rate, is a self-contained excerpt from Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard about a ghost (?) tricking a woman into marrying him, who is then rescued by the titular drinkard. Tutuola taught himself English, and it shows – some of the prose here reads like something you would get from google translate, but somehow it works rather beautifully. To wit: “By and by the market closed for that day then the whole people in the market were returning to their destinations etc., and the complete gentleman was returning to his own too, but as this lady was following him about in the market all the while, she saw him when he was returning to his destination as others did, then she was following him (complete gentleman) to an unknown place.” I imagine Tutuola’s work could be fruitfully read in conversation with Arrow of God – I’ll have to try that at some point. 4/5

Jerome Bixby, “It’s a Good Life,” 1953
Joy and I have been watching the original Twilight Zone for the past few weeks to really complete my immersion in weirdness, and I didn’t even realize that there were stories in here that were filmed for the show – this being one of the most (in)famous and one which I remember well from years and years ago, in which a town is severed from the rest of the world by the birth of an inhuman monster (weird-as-exclusion instead of intrusion). In the episode the child is older than the 3-year-old of the story (if I recall correctly) and physically human, but here he has purple eyes and is noticeably inhuman in shape and the whole affair is more pervasively downtrodden and depressing and really sells the idea that these people have just been broken by this monster. 4.5/5

Julio Cortazar, “Axolotl,” 1956 (new translation by Gio Clairval, Argentina)
Axolotls are odd little creatures, huh? 2/5

William Sansom, “A Woman Seldom Found,” 1956
I guess the corollary to my Merrit-inspired list of things I like in a weird story is that the #1 thing I do not like is the WEIRD WOMAN story [ed. note: by which I mean those stories in which a male protagonist becomes captivated by some mysterious and fetishized woman]. This one ended up being better than I expected, but where “The Long Sheet” left me interested in reading more Sansom, this did not. 2/5

Charles Beaumont, “The Howling Man,” 1959
Twilight Zone #2 – Beaumont actually wrote a number of the episodes in the first season, and although this one wasn’t televised until some time later, it fits the schema established pretty early on for most of the episodes – you have some normalish folk(s), some weird stuff happens to them, and then some really weird stuff closes it out. The story being recounted here took place some years after WWI, when the protagonist’s tour of Europe was cut short by a fever, landing him in a monastery to convalesce. Things, however, are NOT AS THEY SEEM. This would have been a better story had the central mystery remained ambiguous. 3/5

Mervyn Peake, “Same Time, Same Place,” 1963
An obnoxious young man meets a mysterious woman and immediately of course they are madly in love; then their impending nuptials are ruined by his discovery of her DARK SECRET. See “A Woman Seldom Found,” although this turned out just as badly as I expected. 1/5

Dino Buzzati, “The Colomber,” 1966 (new translation by Gio Clairval, Italy)
Here we are – a folk tale-ish story from Europe: a young man wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps as a sailor, but on their first voyage together he spots the colomber, a sea monster invisble to everyone except its chosen target (and, conveniently, her/his blood relatives) whom it relentlessly pursues to the death. Impressively melancholy and with an actually enjoyable twist. 4/5

Michel Bernanos, “The Other Side of the Mountain,” 1967 (new translation by Gio Clairval, France)
Oh man – nevermind about the previous story being melancholy. This is, I believe, the most consistently oppressive story of the bunch, although our two heros somehow maintain a dogged insistence that hope and salvation are always somewhere over the next rise – or, uh, on the other side of the mountain. This started as a good, horrific story of a marooned ship with a mutinous crew, and then all of a sudden it was an excellent story about the mysterious intrusion (ah!) of the protagonist and his father figure, the ship’s cook, into a weird and nightmarish land full of once-living statues and red sand and a red sun and carnivorous plants and an ominous heartbeat issuing from the Earth itself. This descends into an almost-nihilistic commentary on the futility of human effort in the face of the indifference of the universe, and I can’t recommend it highly enough – this is up there with the Ray selections as my favorite new-to-me works. 5/5

Merce Rodoreda, “The Salamander,” 1967 (translation, Catalan)
“The Salamander,” like “Axolotl,” is a story about the transformation/identification of a human with a small amphibian creature, and didn’t make much of an impression on me. 2/5

Claude Seignolle, “The Ghoulbird,” 1967 (new translation by Gio Clairval, France)
Less of a re-told folk tale and more an examination of what a modern man might make of running headlong into an extant folk tale – an urban man, moreover, running into a rural folk tale. Dreams play a big role once again, and then there’s a twist not altogether disimilar to that of “The Colomber.” 4/5

Gahan Wilson, “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Could Be,” 1967
An updated version of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” I imagine this would have meant something to me if I was at all familiar with Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” 2/5

Daphne Du Maurier, “Don’t Look Now,” 1971
A famous story of a British couple who have recently lost a child and are on vacation in Venice to try to get over it only to find themselves running headlong into the weird spirit world; a classic of psychological horror that was the basis for a beloved (by those people who love that sort of thing anyway) movie – and, frankly, a bit of a bore, with a climax/reveal that was inadvertently hilarious and off-key. 2/5

Robert Aickman, “The Hospice,” 1975
Weird-as-stand-in-for-the-discomfort-of-travel. This one-about a man who runs out of gas in the middle of the countryside and finds himself at a mysterious inn for the night-I expected to have a standard disappointing reveal at the end, but, lo and behold, it did not, everything remained vague and mysterious and ominous and creepy and… weird. The whole thing is very dream-like and indefinite and full of “perhapses” and “maybes” and subtle implications and misunderstandings, as when the protagonist first arrives and is promptly attacked by a cat – or, at any rate, a smallish creature which scratches his leg and then flees. He figures it must be a cat, so that is how he names it and describes it to others, although it did have fiery eyes, and was silent, and seems to have inflicted more damage than a cat would have… The whole story is full of these seemingly portentous (and yet ultimately unresolved or even unresolvable?) weird intrusions that contribute to an overall feeling of unsettled anxiety without ever entirely tipping the story over into outright otherworldliness. 5/5

Dennis Etchison, “It Only Comes Out at Night,” 1976
Weird-as-travel-fatigue. A husband and wife are driving across the American Southwest, and find an unspeakably awful rest stop. Who hasn’t been creeped out by a rest stop in the middle of the night after driving for hours before? Just lightly touched with exhaustion and unease at the beginning and then ratcheted up bit by bit until the nightmarish ending. Apropos of very little I can’t stop thinking “It’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night… mostly.” 4.5/5

James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats,” 1976
Vivisection labs are creepy, no? 2.5/5

Eric Basso, “The Beak Doctor,” 1977
Basically the same premise as the first story in this volume: a plague of sleeping sickness has overtaken a mysterious city. Basso is, I guess, pretty much the cult godfather of modern American avant-garde Weird, so I am probably about to get kicked out of the club for admitting that I find his stuttering, shattered prose style to be pretty much unreadable. I might come back and try again later, but this is the only thing so far I just couldn’t read. 1/5

Jamaica Kincaid, “Mother,” 1978 (Antigua and Barbuda/US)
A series of vignettes about a mother-creature and a daughter-creature undergoing a variety of transformations together while the daughter attempts to understand her place in the world outside/alongside her goddess-like maternal figure. Beautiful and dreamlike but with an undercurrent of anger and, at times, ressentiment. 4.5/5

George R.R. Martin, “Sandkings,” 1979
What is this doing here? This is the first story not set at least in part on Earth (I am aware of at least one other story in the volume on a secondary world [Jeff VanderMeer’s own], but I am leaning at the moment toward the idea that the weird story is more properly a Lovecraftian study of intrusion. More on that later though). It is also entirely science-fictional, rational, and un-weird. It also shares a plot with the movie Gremlins. 1/5

Bob Leman, “Window,” 1980
I was annoyed with this one for a while because it seemed predicated on this stupid nostalgia for the simpler good old days of the 1880s – a picture-perfect example of which is seen through the titular one-way window created by a military experiment gone awry – when all of a sudden whammy! Horrific weirdness intrudes once again and flips that scene on its head. I shouldn’t have spoiled that for you, it was so effective because of the lack of dread or ominous buildup, but I’m not so sure anyone is still reading this endless rambling review nonsense anymore anyway. 4/5

Ramsey Campbell, “The Brood,” 1980
Based around an almost-word-for-word recreation of the novum (is that the accurate term to rely on for weird horror stories? Probably not) used in Wollheim’s story: some sort of parasitic bat-like monstrosity that mimics and feeds on human beings. Where Wollheim was content to write little more than “hey what if there was some sort of parasitic bat-like monstrosity that mimics and feeds on human beings?” Campbell actually writes a story with a plot that has that question reverberating throughout behind the scenes. Until it explodes (ah… intrudes explosively?) into the foreground, of course. 4/5

Michael Shea, “The Autopsy,” 1980
A coroner arrives in a small town in the wake of a mysterious mining accident in order to conduct the autopsy. With the help of the local sheriff he slowly pieces together the events surrounding the accident and it’s all wonderfully grim and ominous and slowly building in weirdness and then there’s an alien and oh my god the blood and the gore and the dismemberment… so much dismemberment. Body horror/splatterpunk is not my thing, but this was a well-written story. 3/5

William Gibson/John Shirley, “The Belonging Kind,” 1981
Somehow, a story about social anxiety and fitting in that isn’t totally obnoxious. 3/5

M. John Harrison, “Egnaro,” 1981
It’s funny the threads you pick up on when stories are mashed together like this. If I had read them in different books I probably never would have associated “Egnaro” and “The Belonging Kind,” but back to back like this, you’re struck by their common use of weirdness to examine social malcontents. Harrison, of course, is such a crank that his story is more an attack on escapism. Here, though, much more than in Viriconium, it’s a self-conscious and almost wistful turning away from a beloved pastime. 4/5

Joanna Russ, “The Little Dirty Girl,” 1982
Like the Martin piece, I’m not entirely sure that this belongs in this collection – it’s too optimistic for the tone of everything else, I think, and I wouldn’t use the words “creepy” or “ominous” or “weird” to describe it at all. It’s the story of a very-thinly-disguised Joanna Russ stand-in who begins to have run-ins with a little dirty girl who isn’t entirely real or alive throughout a wonderfully realized Seattle. Unlike the Martin story though this was beautiful and lively and, come on, it’s Russ, so it gets 5/5

M. John Harrison, “The New Rays,” 1982
In which an unnamed woman, suffering from some unnamed incurable disease, arrives in an unnamed town to undergo a treatment that involves some sort of recently discovered rays emitted by some sort of blue gelatinous beings that might be clones, or at the very least gooey doubles of specific people? It’s all very vague and rather dream-like and, fittingly, there’s no resolution or explanation for much of the rather melancholy goings-on. 3/5

Premendra Mitra, “The Discovery of Telenapota,” 1984 (translation, India)
Another dreamlike escapade – one wonders how intentional these pairings were on the part of the VanderMeers. Written in the second person: you are exploring a little-known and possibly unreal location known as Telenapota (shades of Egnaro), when you encounter two residents who have a problem, which you solve, and then forget about upon waking. 3/5

F. Paul Wilson, “Soft,” 1984
Post-apocalyptia in which a bone-melting virus has reduced most people to puddles of skin. Ew. Ended sooner than I wanted it to. 4/5

Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild,” 1984
More body horror, in which a group of renegades from Earth have ended up on a planet inhabited by monstrous intelligent bugs who give the humans safe haven, in return for which the humans allow the bugs to use them as walking egg incubators. Butler is on record as insisting that this story is not about slavery, and there’s certainly more of a two-way symbiotic relationship here, but it’s still difficult not to read that way when confronted with the bugs’ emotional manipulation of their human “family.” Again, secondary-world science fiction that is certainly creepy and unsettling (and gross) and a great story, but weird in the sense of this volume? I’m not so sure. 4.5/5

Clive Barker, “In the Hills, the Cities,” 1984
The first story to feature a same-sex couple, who are honeymooning through the remote countrysides of Eastern Europe when they stumble upon a bizarre ritual whereby two rival towns each bind all of their denizens into competing giant composite humanoid monsters. Things go awry. 3/5

Leena Krohn, “Tainaron,” 1985 (translation, Finland)
I’ve been meaning to read this novel for ages, and it did not disappoint. The text is presented as a series of letters from the narrator (identified by most reviews of this book as a woman, although it was never specified as such that I noticed) to an unresponsive correspondent. S/he is writing from an extended stay in the city-state of Tainaron, populated matter-of-factly by human-bugs and characterized by an ever-shifting geography, and this weirdness suffuses everything and permeates the goings-on, but the letters themselves are all very introspective and self-reflective, turning with the seasons of the city into more and more melancholic territory until both city and narrator prepare to enter hibernation/stasis. 5/5

Garry Kilworth, “Hogfoot Right and Bird-hands,” 1987
Science fiction, but in a way that seemed less out of place, mostly because it’s just the replacement of a wish-fulfilling fairy with a request-granting robot. Said robot helps an old woman alleviate her loneliness by removing her unnecessary appendages and making twisted pets out of them (i.e. her feet become pig-things, her hands are joined together into a bird, an arm becomes a snake, etc). You will be surprised to learn that things then go awry. Inventive and creepy and an original idea, unlike… 4/5

Lucius Shepard, “Shades,” 1987
… this one, a post-Vietnam War ghost story about veterans and journalists who spend most of the story drinking and punching each other and fighting over who is the most macho, and then there’s a shitty example of sexual violence that killed what little interest I had left in the story, and which was more along the lines of what I would have expected from… 1/5

Harlan Ellison, “The Function of Dream Sleep,” 1988
… Harlan Ellison, whose story I expected to hate because Ellison’s work and I historically do not get along but… this was pretty good. No sexual violence at all, but instead a bittersweet story about an aging man’s grief over the deaths of various of his friends – channeled, of course, into an intrusion of other-worldly weirdness. 4/5

Ben Okri, “Worlds That Flourish,” 1988 (Nigeria)
I bought a copy of The Famished Road on the strength of this story, a surreal and dream-like exploration of a town falling apart and the protagonist’s flight even further from reality and into the land of death. This, “Family” below, and “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts” above could all be read interestingly in conversation with one another, I imagine. 4.5/5

Elizabeth Hand, “The Boy in the Tree,” 1989
More science-fiction-y weirdness. On reflection I think my problem with that is that, unlike contemporary/”real world”/whatever weird stories, with science fiction we are set up from the get go in trying to wrap our heads around the novum, and so the intrusion of the weirdness is not so much shocking or unsettling as just another layer removed from (added to?) the real world. This is about an autistic woman being used in a top-secret science facility to empathically remove dreams from people, or something. Anyway then it turns out there’s a ghost and some twin incest for no reason and I’m afraid we’re moving into 1990s-style black-leather-trench-coat-goth-“take-that-mom-and-dad” edginess. 2/5

Joyce Carol Oates, “Family,” 1989
Unlike the two stories that bookend it, a convincingly creepy depiction of an unsettling and amorphous family witnessing the dissolution of reality around them. Kind of post-apocalyptic inasmuch as society is also kicking the bucket, but in a more surreal vein than most and perhaps involving faeries (or some kind of foundling/family-member-replacing not-quite-humans). I have enjoyed everything of Oates’s that I’ve ever read (admittedly limited to one novel and a handful of short stories) and always mean to read more but then I track her works down at the used book store and there are dozens and dozens of different volumes to choose from and it’s much too overwhelming. 4.5/5

Poppy Z Brite, “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood,” 1990
Absinthe and wearing sunglasses indoors and transgressive sex and grave-robbing and edgy underground goth rock clubs and androgynous sexy boy vampires and this all just reeks to me of trying so, so hard. 1/5

Michal Ajvaz, “The End of the Garden,” 1991 (translation, Czech)
I don’t know, a guy hears a brawl and intervenes to save a woman from a komodo dragon only to realize the lizard needed saving from the human and then some other weird nonsensical things happened and I remember thinking it was a bit lackadaisical about women being subject to violence but I don’t remember exactly why and that, I suppose, tells you how much of an impact this story had on me. 2/5

Karen Joy Fowler, “The Dark,” 1991
In which we are given a setup where a family disappears while camping, perhaps leaving a son to be raised by coyotes, who is perhaps later found by the protagonist, an expert on diseases, and relocated to a hospital, where he perhaps turns out not to be the same child, and dies, or perhaps where the CIA kidnaps him in order to train him to rescue American soldiers engaged in underground warfare against the VC during the war. That summary sounds rather dismissive, I think, but I actually enjoyed this story a lot (I certainly appreciate those works which remain mysterious and open to interpretation) and it had some interesting ruminations on the history of plagues scattered throughout and I really should read Sarah Canary some time. 4/5

Kathe Koja, “Angels in Love,” 1991
Look, here’s a weird thing: demon sex! Isn’t that edgy? 1/5

Haruki Murakami, “The Ice Man,” 1991 (translation, Japan)
Based, we’re told, on a dream Murakami’s wife had, and that’s how it reads. A woman marries a man covered in ice, and they move to the South Pole, and he’s a dick to her. I’ve always liked Murakami’s novels more than his short stories. 3/5

Lisa Tuttle, “Replacements,” 1992
In which a man encounters a disgusting, hairless, otherworldly and yet distinctly mammalian creature in the street and stomps on it. Then he realizes his wife (to whom he is kind of a dick) has brought home a different example of the same species. Soon many other women he sees have them also, including his secretary, whom he promptly berates for bringing it to work, causing her to leave and take a job with The Women’s Press (!). Also these things have a parasitic relationships with their mothers hosts, and the protagonist is eventually told, after issuing an ultimatum (“me or it”) that it’s time for him to leave. Is this an overly essentialist setup or a worthy commentary on the gendered expectations of society towards parenting? I’m leaning towards the latter. 4/5

Marc Laidlaw, “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio,” 1993
A riff on photography and souls and the crime scene of Diane Arbus’s suicide. I imagine this would have meant something to me if I was at all familiar with photography or Diane Arbus. 3/5

Steven Utley, “The Country Doctor,” 1993
In which a native son returns to a deserted town (about to be flooded by a newly-erected dam) in order to observe the disinterment of the cemetery. Another example of subtly mounting creepiness: our protagonist alludes from the beginning to a corrective brace on his foot, which one attributes to some sort of strain or break until we find out it’s a lifelong ailment attributable to the increasingly muddled gene pool of this small town and then the corpse of a long-dead country doctor is exhumed and the protagonist and the anthropologists the readers all are subject to some disturbing surprises. 4/5

William Browning Spencer, “The Ocean and All Its Devices,” 1994
In which a weird family has an annual stay at an entirely normal Oceanside hotel. I do love weird stories about the beach/ocean, and this one was set in Wilmington, not too far from here, and had an enjoyable juxtaposition between the whitebread family owning the hotel and the supernaturally-beholden visitors. Also the titular devices remain unexplained and shrouded in mystery and only barely intrude into reality – this I like. 4/5

Jeffrey Ford, “The Delicate,” 1994
Interesting not only because it’s a delightfully surrealist/dreamlike/weird little story on its own, but for the fact that so many elements here (the Delicate itself, the name “Clay,” a man and a dog hunting devils in a wintry forest, etc etc) are elements eventually worked into Ford’s similarly delightfully surrealist/dreamlike/weird Well-Built City trilogy. 4/5

Martin Simpson, “Last Rites and Resurrections,” 1994
Both convincingly melancholic and actually funny! A man whose son has died recently and whose marriage then fell apart begins hearing telepathic voices from the bodies of animals killed by traffic, who tell him how they died. He recovers their bodies and buries them in his backyard and begins to see their ghosts. Weird-as-processing-of-grief. I looked Simpson up after this to find more of his work and discovered that he’s only ever published half a dozen or so short stories which are mostly available only in old zines. Boo-urns. 4.5/5

Stephen King, “The Man in the Black Suit,” 1994
In which a little boy meets the devil and runs away by throwing his fishing pole at the devil’s feet and tripping him. It’s… even less interesting than that makes it sound. 1/5

Angela Carter, “The Snow Pavilion,” 1995
In which a dilettante poet, stranded in the snow, ends up at a fancy-pants haunted mansion complete with ghosts and creepy dolls. Well-written but rather run-of-the-mill. 3/5

Craig Padawer, “The Meat Garden,” 1996
This might be, I think, the single weirdest story in here – like “what the hell am I reading?” weird. Science fiction(?) on a post-apocalyptic-ish(?) Earth(?) in which there is a war on between humans(?) and some plant-aliens(?) at first but then later in the story it focuses more on some sort of other bird-like(?) cyborg(?) creatures(?). The text jumps from character to character in a constant barrage of disconnected and unexplained vignettes of chaos and violence and music guns and explosive seeds and infestations – the VanderMeers mention in the intro that this story was inspired both by the first Gulf War and Padawer’s father’s struggle with cancer, and the body-horror-esque implications of the latter are definitely in full effect here (reminding strongly, I should mention, of some of Jeff VanderMeer’s more horrifying work in Amergris). Padawer, of course, appears to have published even less frequently than Martin Simpson. 4.5/5

Stepan Chapman, “The Stiff and the Stile,” 1997
I’m sure there’s a term for a story structured like a cumulative song (ie “There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly”)? Anyway this is a piece of goofy post-apocalyptic fluff about an old woman trying to get a corpse home to eat that is an example of whatever that term is. 1.5/5

Tanith Lee, “Yellow and Red,” 1998
A self-aware pastiche of the weird stories in this very volume from decades past, such that although it was written/published in the 1990s it is set in the 1950s and takes the form of a series of letters from a man who has inherited the house of his uncle (is it possible for that to be the setup of a story that isn’t pastiche at this point? ) Anyway he finds pictures of all of his deceased family members and yadda yadda there’s a monster and a sense of impending doom and madness. 4/5

Kelly Link, “The Specialist’s Hat,” 1998
I’ve always gotten a kind of twee/precious vibe from Link’s fiction, so I’ve avoided it, and this one teeters just this side of that line with its precocious motherless mostly-fatherless death-obsessed twin child protagonist, but it’s also creepy and dark and vague and mysterious, so maybe I should have given her more of a chance in the past. If I had a dollar for every time I had used the word “creepy” in this review (which is now a 21 page word document. What am I doing?) 4/5

Caitlin R. Kiernan, “A Redress for Andromeda,” 2000
Disappointing, and in a different way than the other 60% of Kiernan’s stories are disappointing – the latter being “creepy fetishization of sexual violence” and the former being “a lot of setup and anticipation for a lot of nothing.” A different and better kind of disappointing, but disappointing nonetheless – I would have much preferred to see Kiernan’s “Houses Under the Sea” or “Riding the White Bull” (when Kiernan is NOT disappointing, I should add, she is nothing short of amazingly dark and creepy). I guess it also bears mentioning that this is about a mysterious ritual designed to keep some sort of Lovecraftian monsters from invading out of the sea, and does have some great descriptions and scene-settings. 2.5/5

Michael Chabon, “The God of Dark Laughter,” 2001
More pastiche, although this one is a big more light-hearted (and more directly Lovecraftian) than the Lee – inasmuch as it takes several lighthearted elements (clowns, a pet baboon, particularly dense detectives, etc) and proceeds to make them as depressing as possible. This takes place in Pennsylvania and I imagine has a lot of shared elements with Chabon’s “In the Black Mill,” which was another great story that could have just as easily been included in this volume. Chabon doesn’t have any Weird novels/collections of this stuff, does he? He should. 4/5

China Mieville, “Details,” 2002
An unsurprisingly great addition from Mieville: a neighborhood boy brings meals to the local wise woman, who keeps herself locked in a monochrome white room – because she is supernaturally afflicted with a curse that means she sees an approaching monster in the lines and colors and patterns (ahem… details) of anything she looks at. 4/5

Michael Cisco, “The Genius of Assassins,” 2002
I am not smart enough to figure out what’s going on here I guess. 2/5

Neil Gaiman, “Feeders and Eaters,” 2002
Uninteresting and pointless ephemera. I have to say that the image of a cat that is half reduced to a skeleton, or a man left with a skeleton hand (the flesh itself gnawed off by a cannibalistic Weird Woman, naturally) is too cartoonish to be effective in a horror story. 1/5

Jeff VanderMeer, “The Cage,” 2002
This has always been my favorite piece of VanderMeer’s (well, this or The Situation maybe) and, even though it’s set in a secondary world, it’s another excellent example of slowly-unfolding horror with a protagonist who mirrors the readers of this volume in his fixation on and inability to look away from the Weird that is engulfing him. Man oh man, the final scene of this story. 5/5

Jeffrey Ford, “The Beautiful Gelreesh,” 2003
Even more than his novels, Ford’s short work appears to be suffused with dream logic and beautiful oddities, and I have no idea why I haven’t read more of it. Here we have a beautiful ever-evolving monster who sets up shop as a therapist and gives his patients the ultimate peace of being eaten, while their families are told that they have escaped to a more relaxing place. Can’t argue with that logic, can you? 5/5

Thomas Ligotti, “The Town Manager,” 2003
Weird-as-commentary-on-the-presidency-of-GWB? The residents of this town, through no actions of their own, witness a variety of town managers come and go, the last of which resides in a shack on the outskirts of town and sends his murderous directives out by means of almost-illiterate scratchings on pieces of wood. Also dreamlike, although in a much more ominous and less sedate manner than the Ford (which is pretty amazing on Ford’s part that he wrote a piece about a man-eating monster that manages to be kind of peaceful and soothing, hm?). 4/5

Brian Evenson, “The Brotherhood of Mutilation,” 2003
In which the protagonist, on several different occasions, mutters or thinks something along the lines of ”Jesus, God” and vomits or stumbles away or refuses to look at whatever hideous thing is taking place in front of him, which sums up the reader’s response to this dark, dark, dark undertaking – which is, nonetheless, suffused with dialogue that tends to an utterly black humor that I, for one, love. Kline (look, a name! that is how … not enjoyable, exactly, but effective or noteworthy this story was) was a detective until, in some often-referred-to-but-never-entirely-sketched-out-episode, his hand was chopped off. Forced out on a pension, he is kidnapped by two men to help solve a crime. The men are members of a cult who hack their body parts off to prove their devotion to God, or maybe just their devotion to the brotherhood because if I recall correctly God actually has very little to do with it. Evenson (famously raised as a Mormon only to be kicked out of the church and his family after his work was deemed too dark and heretical) uses an exceedingly spare and, ahem, clinical prose to force his readers into much the same headspace as Kline, who never has any time to pause and catch his breath or collect his thoughts as the narrative jumps and lurches and he’s pulled deeper and deeper into the machinations of the cult. Where body horror is more concerned with the act of violence itself and the fluids and gore and guts exposed by such, Evenson focuses on what is left of the bodies (and minds) afterwards. 5/5

Mark Samuels, “The White Hands,” 2003
A meta-weird story in which a pair of academics are researching a (fictional) long-deceased writer of weird tales. So far, so good. But wait – the writer turns out to be some sort of Weird Woman vampire and they are in love with her and zzzz 1/5

Daniel Abraham, “Flat Diana,” 2004
A man and his daughter send out a tracing of the latter (“Flat Diana” as opposed to real Diana, see) in the mail to friends and family members and what have you in order to simulate adventures and get pictures and stories back from them, and the daughter begins to know and experience things only the flat version should or has and Abraham is a talented writer and this is, again, so far so good, and then the paper falls into the wrong hands and a stranger begins to sexually assault the picture. I can honestly say that I did not at all see that coming, and Abraham thankfully keeps the details off-screen and never fetishizes or makes explicit the violence (how pathetic is it that I have to point out appreciatively that this is that rare author who refrains from fetishizing sexual violence?), but still – did the world really need another story about a man punishing his daughter’s victimizer? 2/5

Margo Lanagan, “Singing My Sister Down,” 2005 (Australia)
I initially took this to be a post-apocalyptic story but in retrospect I think maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. A woman is being put to death for the murder of her husband (I assume in revenge for domestic violence but, you know, I just like assuming things) by being submerged in tar over the course of a day, while her family comforts her in her final moments. 3/5

T.M. Wright, “The People on the Island,” 2005
In which a man and a woman are stranded on a dreamscape-y island, along with a mysterious man-dog creature, and a number of dead (?) bodies strewn about and frozen in various poses. Or maybe a dead man and a dead woman are stranded among some living people for whom time moves differently…? That quandary (fortunately unresolved and resolutely dreamlike!) was much more interesting than the trite disintegrating-romance angle between the man and the woman. 3.5/5

Laird Barron, “The Forest,” 2007
Some images from this one have stuck with me in a big way; more so than I would have expected while reading it. 3/5

Liz Williams, “The Hide,” 2007
Hide as in “place to secretly watch birds,” (what I would call a “blind”) not hide as in “skin.” This really confused me for the first couple of pages. A student and her (?) sister and the sister’s boyfriend stumble upon a hide from which they see some ghostly black birds. I feel like there was some kind of cultural (British) referencing/symbolism going on here that just sailed over my head? 2/5

Reza Negarestani, “The Dust Enforcer,” 2008 (Iran)
Nope. 1/5

Micaela Morrissette, “The Familiars,” 2009
Again, a story I greatly enjoyed by an author I then found out has published very little – although Morrissette at least appears to be an up-and-comer, so keep your fingers crossed for great things from her. This is the story of a single mother competing with her son’s creepy invisible friend for the child’s attention – or maybe not “competing with” so much, that sounds kind of petty, but attempting to understand the child’s fixation on the friend and her own place in this relationship. I need to reread this one. 5/5

Steve Duffy, “In the Lion’s Den,” 2009
As the VanderMeers acknowledge, this is the odd example of a weird story relying effectively on modern technology (surveillance cameras) for its narrative. I had actually been struck a while ago by the lack of found footage setups in this volume, and actually both alternate Kiernan stories I mentioned above use that gimmick. This is a story of weird goings-on at a zoo, involving mostly lion maulings and phantom animals, and it was good enough I suppose but I kept waiting for a real explosion of weirdness that never came. 3/5

Stephen Graham Jones, “Little Lambs,” 2009
A group of men are inexplicably confined in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming to observe a metal structure that appeared out of nowhere and exists between dimensions or something, and which also just so happens to match the rusting iron skeleton of a prison on the East Coast that collapsed shortly before the appearance. Haunting, dreamlike, kind of Kafkaesque I suppose, and beautiful in an oddly sedate way. 4/5

K.J. Bishop, “Saving the Gleeful Horse,” 2010 (Australia)
A weird fairy tale about a troll-ish fellow who is outraged at the way piñatas are being treated by human children. I know that sounds awfully twee but it wasn’t, somehow, and it gets pretty creepy, and I wish Bishop would release another book already. 4.5/5

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