Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly (eds) – Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 2 (2015)
Moving from the first volume, curated by Laird Barron, to this one, overseen by Kathe Koja, I find that, for the most part, the tendencies I set forth for the fuzzy set of “weird fiction” mostly hold true. This is good because I definitely don’t have it in me to try anything like that again. Part of this, I have to admit, is me being a contrarian sick of the explosion of listicles and think pieces and articles on weird fiction these days, which possibly hit rock bottom with this article, which somehow recapitulates the standard tactic of pointing to weird fiction as “the genre that transcends genre” without ever using the word “weird,” in favor of the bland-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness “the new fantastic… evinced by the ways in which something deviates from a normativity.”
Where Barron’s selections last year tended to align with my suspicion that weird fiction is just a specific subset of horror, Koja’s choices tend more toward (dark) fantasy with a whimsical sensibility (more Link than Ligotti, let’s say). This difference in approach is apparent even from their introductions: Barron references Blackwood’s “The Willows,” while Koja’s touchstone is the quirky town Riddle from the sort-of-Bob-Dylan-biopic I’m Not Here. Koja’s selections, too, are less likely to riff on classics of the genre, concerning themselves instead with folktales (more kappa than Cthulhu… I’ll stop). The main difference from my schema from the first volume (look, I’m doing exactly what I said I wasn’t going to do) is the lack of what we might call a pessimistic epistemological shift – these stories tend to be more concerned with relationships and the personal/insular and conversing with monsters. They’re all still tonally dark, though, focus on some sort of liminal intrusion, and tend toward a knowledge/ignorance binary rather than a good/evil binary.
This last was the most striking theme of the collection to me, linking it closely with VanderMeer’s Southern Reach/Area X books (I assume most of these stories were written/being written before that trilogy was published, making this a similarity in zeitgeist rather than aping the commercial success of those books, although it will be interesting to see how this plays out in next year’s stories). A “meme,” before the word became a meaningless bit of internet ephemera, was an idea or custom that spread from person to person in a viral manner (a concept introduced by Richard Dawkins), and both VanderMeer and some of the stories here (especially Ballingrud and Carroll) are concerned with exploring the possible horrific implications of this idea. I have to assume said zeitgeist has to do with the post-modern information economy, perhaps especially as that relationship parallels that of Lovecraft et al’s with the emerging industrial economy – maybe we could even ruminate on the spread of the “weird renaissance” as a real-life application of memes and dangerous knowledge, eh?
It bears pointing out that most of these stories are by women – good for Koja and Kelly for putting together a genre anthology that just happened to work out that way without it being explicitly designed as such. This crop of authors is also an impressive assortment of up-and-comers, many of whom I had never even heard of before, and with only one recurring from Barron’s volume. It seems that the system of rotating guest editors will keep this series from becoming stale or predictable (as will the impossibility of strictly defining “weird fiction” for that matter). This, like Volume One, is an excellent collection of stories, whether or not you buy the idea that weird fiction is a genre or field in-and-of itself.
A small quibble: there’s a certain modern aesthetic sensibility (particularly prevalent with online publications?) and which I tend, possibly unfairly, to associate with workshopped fiction – an over-reliance on metaphor, a love of single-sentence opening/closing paragraphs, the omission of certain articles and connectors – that a lot of these stories are guilty of, but clearly I am in the minority in finding it irksome at times.
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
Noirish horror set in New Orleans with a (seemingly) standard weird fiction protagonist “seduced by old books” – how could I not love this one? The underworld (of crime) intersects with the underworld (of Hell) when a mobster wants to steal the titular artifact from a small-time crook operating out of the swamps. Things get gory, and the unknowable cosmic horror of Hell is excellently conveyed. Shares with the Southern Reach trilogy not only the marshy, Southern American setting, but also a concern with language/knowledge as a vector of awful change (“Maybe language is over” / “It’s the language that hurts”). Feints in the direction of Etchison’s “The Late Shift” at one point, which I appreciated. I’ve had a copy of North American Lake Monsters on my shelf for ages, and this story makes me feel shameful about not having read it yet.
“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll
The Wendigo, a personification of cannibalism and the frigid north which originally haunted tribes of the Algonquian, has a long pedigree in weird fiction. In Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” it was an unseen monster that kidnapped and impersonated its victims, while Alvin Schwartz’s retelling left the creature itself offstage and replaced the impersonation with a pile of ash. Norman Partridge’s “The Hollow Man” centered on the monster as some sort of reptilian beast that physically possessed its victim, and now Carroll has moved past a separate monster at all into the meme of “wendigo psychosis” (a real thing) introduced by means of a mysterious cylinder dug up by an Arctic research team. For all of them, the wendigo is a stand-in for “the dread of nature,” and it’s noteworthy that nature is also mostly kept off-stage here, with the ambiguously-gendered protagonist’s diary entries (titled by number of days since the station lost contact with the outside world, and presented achronologically) all taking place within the walls of the station itself. Carroll also folds in inspiration from Who Goes There (1938, which became The Thing (1951), and then The Thing (1982), and then The Thing (2011)). A variety of possible explanations are proffered for the cylinder, but it doesn’t really matter where it came from, does it?
“Headache” by Julio Cortázar
I’m conflicted about the idea of using the year of translation as a basis for inclusion/placement in anthologies as opposed to year of initial publication, but c’est la vie – I’m also surprised there was fiction of Cortazar’s yet to be translated into English. This is a story of mancuspias, some sort of bird-mammal creature, and their caretakers, and I finished it absolutely certain that “mancuspias” were an entry in Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, but apparently they were not. Now I’m not sure where I would have heard of “mancuspias” prior to this and find myself in my own real-life meta-weird story.
Written in first-person plural from the point of view of the caretakers, whose increasing headaches and sense of vertigo mirror the health of their flock (herd?) and their increasingly precarious standing as commercial farmers (it doesn’t get much more topical than precarity, I have to admit). The vertigo, indeed, is literalized in the bizarre spinning about of the mancuspias. Throughout, a kind of agitated unease continually bubbles beneath the surface.
“Loving Armageddon” by Amanda C. Davis
A very short story about a woman who loves a man with a “hand-grenade heart” and the danger she faces when he could blow up at any time. Again, a variety of possible explanations are offered and discarded, which is a common tactic in modern weird stories, but here the very multiplicity of the stories is what comforts the narrator. Carroll’s “All it needed was our stories” gives way to “Whichever story she needs right now, so she can love him.”
“The Earth and Everything Under” by K.M. Ferebee
Birds begin to erupt from the ground, carrying within them letters written to our protagonist, a hedge witch, by her husband, who was executed for being a hedge witch. He, in some sort of underworld/afterlife, becomes increasingly feral/wolf-like, while she makes her peace with his passing and grows closer to the local sheriff (this growing closer being conveyed in an excellently understated way by Ferebee), eventually removing the spells on her house which had been placed “to keep out what needed keeping out, and keep in what needed keeping in.” Mentions Woodbine, which is a real town in Georgia, but possibly also a Davis Grubb reference. This could easily have been unbearably twee, but it worked for me.
“Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story” by Karen Joy Fowler
A common trick for weird fiction/horror is to end a story with an unresolved conflicting interpretation between the supernatural and mental illness – let’s call this the Oliver Onions trick: we know Elsie is dead, but why? Less common (probably because it’s much more difficult to pull off) is the de la Mare/Aickman tactic where the lack of resolution is compounded by the reader’s confusion about what it is that did or did not perhaps happen. This is an example of the latter, and an excellent one at that. A pair of binary opposite twins are left by their academic parents with a babysitter, who may or may not be taking the place of their mother, and at the twins’ insistence tells them the story of a changeling (complete with magic cradle and a debt with unforeseen consequences) which may or may not have something to do with the two of them.
“The Girls Who Go Below” by Cat Hellisen
As a counterpoint to “Nanny Anne,” an example of the first type, but it’s subtle about it. Another sister binary, this time with a few years between them (I took the younger for ~12 at first and was not really convinced when she was revealed to be 16), vacation with their aunt in South Africa. Things are safe, and therefore boring, until a neighboring boy (from a family rumored to have fairy blood) comes between the two, at which point things get messy. I liked this one on a structural/narrative level (because I enjoy narrators who don’t beat you over the head with their possible unreliability) and appreciated the musical themes, but the prose crossed the line for me a few too many times (ie “We kiss until I learn what a heart tastes like.”).
“Nine” by Kima Jones
At the Star Motel (because “the North Star Motel” would be too obvious to white folks) in Phoenix, three women cater to African Americans partaking in the Great Migration. One of them, Tanner, another protagonist with an ambiguous gender presentation, has been confined there by the juju of an old lover, and the others have fallen into the same trap. The witch sends her sons one-by-one to try to bring Tanner back, and the story is concerned with the death of the ninth and final of them. The idea of human calculus and trade haunts this story, but Jones also touches on gender and sexuality and motherhood, and that most integral of horror themes, the weight of the past on the present.
“Bus Fare” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
An entry in Kiernan’s long-running series starring Dancy Flammarion, albino monster hunter, who here encounters a werewolf at a bus stop in the South and engages her in a battle of riddles. Old-fashioned and pretty straightforward – a good story, but I prefer Kiernan in her more devious/shifty mode.
“The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy” by Rich Larson
A roughneck seeking to escape his pregnant girlfriend and abusive father finds refuge in the lonely world of an offshore oil rig (thematically, we’re concerned here with why people choose to live in darkness and murk). One night he finds a mysterious woman in the water, and we start to do that suggest-and-discard-possible-explanations thing (mermaid? no. selkie? no. wait, yes.) but that ends pretty quickly and the story takes a hard left turn into a surprisingly sentimental conclusion.
“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado
A mature (in every sense of the word) and deeply feminist retelling of the folktale of the woman with a ribbon/scarf tied around her neck, which stems from Washington Irving’s “The Adventure of the German Student.” (I had assumed for no real reason that the folktale preceded the Irving, Machado told me otherwise, and I defer to her). Here, it is just a sad fact of life that women have ribbons tied about their person, and men needle them about it. The narrative covers most of our protagonist’s life, and is interspersed with blackly humorous asides (both instructions for reading the story aloud and other Alvin Schwarz-by-way-of-Angela-Carter folktales about women). The antagonist (if that’s even the right word to use) isn’t so much malicious as he is banally inconsiderate, and watching their son follow in his footsteps is fantastically depressing. Like “Loving Armageddon,” a story about the dangers and difficulties of women in a patriarchal society as they deal with the men who love them even as they push and pull them apart.
“Observations About Eggs From the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa” by Carmen Maria Machado
As promised, one-sided dialogue from a man on a plane whose liminal/apocalyptic unveiling of the world takes place through a variety of human interactions with (mostly chicken but occasionally dragon) eggs. Particularly Link-esque and full of excellent lines and thoughts, but lacking the emotional punch of “The Husband Stitch.”
“Resurrection Points” by Usman T. Malik
Religious strife in Karachi erupts around a young man who is coming into his own as a kind of Gramscian organic intellectual who uses a “biocurrent” to heal the afflictions of poor locals. The city, like the diabetic limbs of his patients, is rotting and festering, and parallels are drawn between him and the Prophet Isa (Jesus). “Someone once told me dust has no religion.”
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” by Nick Mamatas
The tourism economy takes hold in Lovecraft country (Rehoboth, Massachusetts), centered on the local myth of a phantom hitchhiker. Told in second person from the POV of the cosmic horror itself, a risky tactic that pays off handsomely here. Perhaps, in some ways, a rural New England take on Fritz Leiber’s megapolisomancy?
“So Sharp That Blood Must Flow” by Sunny Moraine
A nightmarish reenvisioning of the end of The Little Mermaid (“This was not her ending. And she sees no reason why she should take it gracefully.”) – I’m sure I would have appreciated it even more if I was more familiar with the source material, but this was dark and morbid and lyrical in a way that spoke to me nonetheless.
“The Ghoul” by Jean Muno
Also nightmarish and oceanic, but in an entirely different way. Our narrator, introduced as “just a witness” and then essentially forgotten about for the rest of the story, follows a man on a beach (that most liminal of environments, locus of the “rapture of borders”) who follows a cry for help from a woman in a wheelchair who is also the titular monster- this echoes a similar encounter he had with the woman decades ago. This time, she leads him to the avian Fates, who tear him to pieces. Perhaps a vision of a pseudo-Sisyphean kind of Hell, although that might be too reductionist a reading.
“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” by Sarah Pinsker
A farmer in Saskatchewan gets set up with a cybernetic arm after losing his in a combine accident. While his parents (also farmers) are progressive technologists, he is more of an atavist. He begins feeling sure that his arm wants to be/knows it is a road in Colorado until he has to get a new brain chip because of an infection. Weird/novum as the yearning for belonging/being elsewhere.
“Migration” by Karin Tidbeck
William F. Temple’s “Forget-Me-Not” (1950) is a neglected classic of weird-ish science fiction, a cold open into a confusing and alienating Gnostic universe (in the form of an underground complex), all of the broad strokes of which are echoed here. Where Temple trips himself up by conforming to mid-century generic expectations in the form of the reveal/explanation (even as it was an understated one for the time) and especially the need for an Empowered Individual protagonist, Tidbeck sustains a surreal, beautifully mysterious atmosphere full of unsettling and uncanny details. I sometimes try to resist my natural tendency to catalogue similarities to other works in these reviews, but this kind of uncertain-spatial-weirdness resonates with some of my favorites: Michel Bernanos’s “The Other Side of the Mountain”, Gene Wolfe’s “Forlesen,” and Steve Rasnic Tem’s similarly circular “At the Bureau.”
“Hidden in the Alphabet” by Charles Wilkinson
In Algeria, perhaps, a man known only the Auteur lives years after his prime as an arthouse director disintegrated into pornography – this began, we learn through bits and dribbles of inferences and vagaries, with a pseudo-incestuous film about his son and niece (whose POV alternates with the Auteur’s) made when they were adolescents, and which prompted them into an actual incestuous relationship, perhaps, for which they are now seeking revenge, perhaps (there’s also an aside about the Auteur slamming his son’s hand in a door, and also that the son has faked his own death). Vengeful dissolution here echoes “The Ghoul,” but I never thought this one cohered enough to justify what plot there was.
“A Cup of Salt Tears” by Isabel Yap
A Japanese woman with a dying husband encounters, in a bathhouse, a kappa who once saved her when she was a child and has now returned for her love. Men as monsters again (“And don’t let them touch you, darling. I am telling you this for you are often silly, and they are cruel; do not let them touch you.”) and, again, folklore, this time riffing on aging and beauty.