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Simon Strantzas and Michael Kelly (eds) – Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 3 (2016)

10/11/2016

The third entry in Undertow Publication’s impressively consistent annual series. If Laird Barron’s Volume One focused on downtrodden Ligottian pessimism and Kathe Koja’s Volume Two tended more toward the dark fantastic of Kelly Link or Angela Carter, Simon Strantzas’s picks are more likely to labor under the long shadow of Robert Aickman. I don’t want to overstate the differences here – any of these stories would feel at home in any of these volumes to date, but the individual tendencies are clear. I imagine some would use this to point to the genreless, anything-goes character of weird fiction, but I maintain (and note that Strantzas says much the same in his introduction here) that “weird fiction” is a useful shorthand for a subset of supernatural or uncanny horror.

In terms of the Aickmanesque qualities: many of these stories are about hapless travelers, vacationing in communities or spaces they don’t understand (even as they feel, because of some past connection or misplaced nostalgia, that they ought to), caught up in hazily inexplicable circumstances (but not quite the apocalyptic darkness of the aforementioned Ligottian strand). There’s a tendency away from resolution, not least because we don’t know exactly what should be resolving – the new world in which we find ourselves isn’t rational enough for that. The irruption of weirdness, in other words, is less a sharp dividing line here than a hazy seeping-in of uncanny elements just irrational enough to upset both the protagonist and the reader, even if neither is exactly sure what’s wrong. Aickman’s own “The Strangers” provides two closely-related examples of the kinds of liminality he and his followers are particularly concerned with: the “sinister intermediate states between living and dying” and “the relationship between dream and non-dream” (which “No-one, we must remember, has ever been able to define”). It follows that the dangers that the protagonists face in bridging these states tends to be more psychological than physical.

A continental divide also separates Strantzas’ choices from the previous two: of the 19 stories here, eight are by Europeans, and three of the American authors set their stories in Europe. “The Strangers” is the centerpiece of the collection, while Brian Evenson’s entry is reprinted from a volume of stories inspired by Aickman’s example (and edited by Strantzas). All were originally published in English, and this volume is, frankly, a very white affair. We know from the Fireside report that a reprint volume like this doesn’t have a lot of stories by people of color from which to pick, but I still think we can do better than this. It would be great if Undertow brought in a person of color to act as guest editor for Volume Five (Four already being underway and overseen by Helen Marshall) – I think Sofia Samatar or Craig Gidney would both bring interesting perspectives to the table. That said, the series continues to have a relatively-equitable split between men and women (in terms of both authors and guest editors), which is commendable.

The stories, not presented in alphabetical order this year, appear to have been very loosely paired thematically (unless that’s just me imposing some sense of context) and are as follow:

“Rabbit, Cat, Girl” by Rebecca Kuder. First published in XIII: Stories of Transformation, Mark Teppo, ed.
A fragmentary, Kelly Link-ish story (what with its quirkiness and its authorial asides) about a ghost, maybe, who is a composite of the three titular entities, perhaps, or at least two of them. A very sensory story, redolent of nature and full of vibrant colors and the narrator’s need to be touched. Feelings of heat recur throughout (hint, hint).

“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” by Nadia Bulkin. First published in She Walks in Shadows, Silvia Moreno-Garcia & Paula R. Stiles, eds.
What if the Colour Out of Space was… Yellow (Wallpaper)? In Lovecraft’s story, a meteor strike leads to the wife of a farming family losing her mind and getting locked in the attic by her distraught husband. Here, the wife is the protagonist, and the husband (an asshole to begin with) the one being affected by otherworldly forces (at first). Bulkin also moves Lovecraft’s story from Massachusetts to Nebraska and ropes in Midwestern doldrums (both geographic and marital), modern concerns about Big Agribusiness and organic farming, and cleverly makes neighbor Ammy Pierce into Ambrose Pierce (although shouldn’t that be Amprose?). The climactic awakening is beautiful, although shifting the focus into the attic and away from the farm means that we miss out on some of Lovecraft’s most worthwhile effects (I wouldn’t argue with someone suggesting “Colour” was his best story). A great story, but that title is inexcusable.

“Blood” by Robert Shearman. First published in Seize the Night, Christopher Golden, ed.
An English pedophile and his vampiric victim(izer) vacation in Paris. No stakes, but there are steaks in a mysterious restaurant, and the draining of blood doesn’t happen in the way you expect, and by the end of the story we understand that the man is facing a deservedly-awful fate, but the implication that the underage(-looking) girl is the one with agency here doesn’t sit well with me. I’m actually not sure why Shearman made this a story of pedophilia, anyway, aside from maybe just a generic desire for “edginess,” which is too bad, because this is otherwise an extremely well-written and well-constructed story, with an ever-increasing sense of alienation and uncanniness and dread. There’s some of Du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” in the nightmarish continental city, and a lot of Peter Straub’s “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine,” with its predatory couple and focus on food and circularity.

“Loveliness Like a Shadow” by Christopher Slatsky. First published in Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales.
A dense, Ligottian work in which an American sculptor flees to London after her marriage dissolves over the question of children – she isn’t positive she even wants them, but resented her husband insisting that it wasn’t an option. A mysterious face appears on the wall of her flat, there’s a mysterious neighbor who appears to be up to something nefarious, a mysterious train ride, a mysterious art show, etc. As befits a story whose title comes from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci,” paralysis, stone, hair, and severed heads/faces show up throughout. The domovoi, a Russian house spirit “more often heard than seen [whose] voice is said to be hollow and harsh,” is also an important touchstone here. Art as a way for weirdness to slip into the world is a tradition that runs from Chambers through Lovecraft all the way through Gemma Files’ magisterial Experimental Film, and Slatsky weaves this into meditations on crowds/individuals and art in the age of mechanical reproduction (if you will). There’s also a “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” homage – while this collection is lacking the antiquarian scholars and tidy resolutions of the sort James favored, his gift for conjuring dark forces just beyond the protagonist’s view, especially through the use of subtle implication, is an important geneological consideration for these stories.

“Orange Dogs” by Marian Womack. First published in WeirdFictionReview.com.
A man in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Cambridge investigates a colony of mutant butterflies and worries about his wife’s impending childbirth, a year after a previous miscarriage. Ballardian in setting (and relationship of setting to character’s psychological state), if not in tone or affect. The butterflies provide a micro version of the macro irruption here, where climate change and ensuing disasters have weirded the world, but normalcy and rationality are still dimly remembered. Womack goes out of her way to leave the wife as a non-character on the edges of the story, a choice I haven’t quite grasped yet. The one science-fictional entry this year.

“Seaside Town” by Brian Evenson. First published in Aickman’s Heirs, Simon Strantzas, ed.
Evenson’s are stories I tend to enjoy even while not fully grasping them (the one about the shoe notwithstanding). Here, an American man, resistant to change, is talked into a European vacation by a new female companion. Things are immediately weird, and just get more so when she leaves on a mini-tour of the continent (ostensibly so as not to stifle him) while he remains in their French beach resort (which she had rather mysteriously visited before). From the beginning, Evenson isn’t shy about relating travel to an unfamiliar place with dying (c.f. Aickman’s “sinister intermediate states between living and dying”), and the looming specter of the end just becomes clearer as the story progresses. That’s about all that’s clear, though. An interesting example of the protagonist/viewpoint character of a piece becoming uncanny himself as he’s subsumed into the weirdness around him.

“Honey Moon” by D.P. Watt. First published in A Soliloquy for Pan, Mark Beech, ed.
Folk horror without the folk: an English couple drives to an isolated beach cottage in Scotland for their honeymoon, which they are aware (and are reminded by the few other people in the story) should be the best days of their lives. This causes them no small amount of anxiety, particularly sexually, which segues into the horrific historical pressure of pagan fertility rites and mysterious figures and visions. The dialogue was a little iffy in this one, striving for a naturalism that it didn’t entirely achieve. On the other hand, I enjoyed Watt’s linking of the visions and the menacing landscape, where lurking figures are dismissed, perhaps a mite too quickly, as plants. This one could have easily wandered into “is supernatural stuff really happening or are these characters just crazy?” territory, and I’m glad it didn’t.

“The Marking” by Kristi DeMeester. First published in Three-lobed Burning Eye #27.
Like her “Like Feather, Like Bone” in Volume One, this is a very short story about a mother and a daughter. This time we share the younger woman’s viewpoint, who briefly recounts a lifetime of hunger and bruising and body horror (in ways that recall traditional horror tropes of transformative monsters like werewolves and vampires without actually being either) before being taken to an altar of the Great Worm by her predatory mother. DeMeester likes to strip her stories down to the bare minimum, and while I do enjoy them, I think they would benefit from a bit more breathing room.

“The Strangers” by Robert Aickman. First published in The Strangers and Other Writings.
Having saved this review for last, it feels almost superfluous given how many times I’ve mentioned Aickman’s bag of tricks in the rest of this review, but: a man attends a twilit charity event with a friend, where the latter succumbs to the charms of the woman giving the party, and the former flees after he’s had enough of the fish-eyed audience and strangely mechanical pianist and dissolute dancer/magician providing the evening’s entertainment. The repercussions of his choice reverberate ominously throughout his life. There’s some cold and snow, somewhere, and some ghosts, and a motley crew of what might be vampires – people who are, at any rate, caught in those “sinister intermediate states between living and dying” (in a village dominated by giant cemeteries, even). This piece was published for the first time last year, more than three decades after Aickman’s death, and while it perhaps could have used a bit more revising to tighten it up a bit, it’s still a more-than-worthwhile piece. I’m no expert, but I think this sort of unreliable first-person confessional is outside of Aickman’s usual style? This prefigures Gene Wolfe in some surprising ways. At any rate, an interesting initial feint at being a club story, but that turns out just to be the impetus for the narrator to write down his story (the fuzziness of this plot line being something that, I think, could have been strengthened).

“The Guest” by Brian Conn. First published in The Bestiary, Ann VanderMeer, ed.
A short piece written in second person simple future (uniquely, in my experience, I think) about hauntings(?) experienced by people throughout the world when mysterious guests show up with disastrous – but quirky! – results. Let’s say Kelly Link meets Stephen Millhauser (“Phantoms” in particular), but with more ennui.

“Julie” by L.S. Johnson. First published in Strange Tales V, Rosalie Parker, ed.
In 1749, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had sex with a woman kept by a crooked Reverend, in 1761 he published the massively successful romantic novel Julie, or the New Heloise, and in 1778 he died after being attacked by a dog. Around these facts, Johnson weaves an occult alternate history, postulating that the book was based on conversations with the woman (our protagonist), who was so despondent and enraged by the usurpation of her name and agency and lovelessness that she was transformed into a dog by the witch goddess of rage and rabies. Written out like that it sounds a little trite, but this is a harrowing and deeply sympathetic story about misogyny and poverty and hypocrisy. As befits the importance of dogs here, a great deal of focus on scents. Lines between fiction and reality are confused and crossed, but only within the world of the story – there’s never any breaking of the fourth wall by Johnson herself.

“The Devil Under the Maison Blue” by Michael Wehunt. First published in The Dark #10.
A white girl in the South communes with the ghost of a recently-deceased neighbor, an old jazz trumpeter who had been her only friend since she and her widower father had moved in to the neighborhood. As much as I love stories at the intersection of jazz and dark fiction, this one manages to pack in a number of notes I’m not fond of: friendly ghosts, sexual abuse, and a Magical Negro. An argument could be made that the girl and her father are not explicitly white, but given how many times the narrative emphasizes the jazzman’s blackness…

“Fetched” by Ramsey Campbell. First published in Horrorology, Stephen Jones, ed., as “Nightmare.”
Weird as losing one’s spouse to age. A retired couple make their way to a valley that the husband fondly remembers from his childhood. They find a maze of bungalows blocking the view, full of obstructionist villagers (whose confused wordplay with the couple is a delight), vandalized posters regarding a missing dog, and street signs that they initially assume have been similarly vandalized to have the first syllable of “Valley” removed. A fantastic example of forcing the reader to connect the dots on her own without being so obscure as to be vacant of meaning. The couple’s reason for going on the trip deserves a wry chuckle.

“Rangel” by Matthew M. Bartlett. First published in Rangel.
I have a gut-level dislike of weird/horror stories about Halloween (it’s a little too on the nose), but man, did I love this one. Like Glenn Hirschberg in “Mr. Dark’s Carnival,” Bartlett successfully uses the holiday festivities to emphasize a strong sense of place and occult harvest ritual disguised and wrapped around the everyday. Thirty years ago, a young girl went missing around Halloween, and now her brother is returning to the autumnal gloaming of New England from the home he’s made in LA. He’s always been stuck in the past, and while the present-day majority of the story is written in standard past tense, the flashbacks are related in present. This all builds to a horribly beautiful moment of gnosis, just as the ineffable just starting to shine through the cracks of the world. Maybe I’m harping on this book because I’m trying to review it now too, but Bartlett shares with Gemma Files’s Experimental Film the ability to convey something of the numinous, not just the horrific, as forces simultaneously mesmerizing and awful just start to come into view of their characters.

“Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” by Genevieve Valentine. First published in The Doll Collection, Ellen Datlow, ed.
A series of vignettes about a creepy girl with a creepier doll on a train in Southwest England, and the bad things that happen to people who sit by her. I’m sure there were lots of cultural/historical allusions here that went sailing over my head. The first vignette, about a working-class woman who had married above her station, was the most interesting, with its emphasis on language and cultural walls put up by manners and etiquette.

“The Rooms Are High” by Reggie Oliver. First published in The Sea of Blood.
A widower seeking a new beginning/return to normalcy takes the advice of a friend to vacation on the southwestern coast of England (see above) at a bed and breakfast where, everyone agrees, the rooms are high, even if no one is exactly sure what that means. The B&B is near his old school, and he hopes to enjoy the warm glow of nostalgia while he’s there, but, alas, that is not to be. The rooms are indeed high, crowned with sinister gorgon-head chandeliers, and sleep paralysis sets in again until some sort of final consummation/consumption. Even more than the Evenson this felt like Aickman pastiche, down to the faintly misogynistic unease with women and sex, here through the landlady’s daughter who becomes the object of the protagonist’s sexual fixation even despite her exaggerated dowdiness. To balance that out, we also get a run-in with an old male teacher who turns out to have been a pedophile.

“Strange Currents” by Tim Lebbon. First published in Innsmouth Nightmares, Lois H. Gresh, ed.
A man has survived 15 days on a lifeboat after his ship was capsized by… something, but the end is near. The threads of his backstory (adoption and mysterious birth parents) and current predicament are nicely drawn together as the story closes, although I was a little frustrated that it ended right as things really got interesting. The sea-as-cosmic-horror angle suggests William Hope Hodgson as an obvious forebear, along with Lovecraft’s “Dagon” and, of course, “Innsmouth” (but mercifully absent Lovecraft’s racist baggage).

“The Seventh Wave” by Lynda E. Rucker. First published in Terror Tales of the Ocean, Paul Finch, ed.
An aging woman recounts her lifelong struggle with the misguided love of dangerous things – men and the sea. After her first relationship failed she attempted to drown herself, and years later her marriage dissolves after an affair on her part revealed the underlying viciousness of her husband. She flees from the south to the Pacific northwest with her children. Things go awry – but at whose hands? There’s something of Caitlin Kiernan here in the conversational and possibly unreliable narrative voice, although the emphasis on parenthood is well outside her wheelhouse, and Rucker’s narrator tends more toward supplication than Kiernan’s contrarian voices. While I doubt that Rucker had this in mind while writing it, the context here emphasizes this story as a counterpoint to Aickmanesque works – it requires very little effort to imagine a story of that style with the ex-husband as protagonist/narrator, mystified by the actions of his Weird ex-wife.

“Little Girls in Bone Museums” by Sadie Bruce. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2015.
In a world where women, as living art/slaves, tie themselves into paralyzing knots, we alternate between a little girl adoring their remains in a museum and scenes from the life of one of the women who ends up there. This examination of women being taught to orient themselves toward the male gaze is an apt one, but I didn’t feel that the actual story was enough to anchor the conceit. Further, this is all par for the course for the characters of the story, so the only rational world being intruded into is that of the reader, which seems more like fantasy to me.

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