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Helen Marshall and Michael Kelly (eds) – Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 4 (2017)

01/24/2020

Without much in the way of preamble, because I (and everyone else on the internet) have presented my attempts at defining weird fiction before, I’ll just say that this one veers more toward magical realism/fantasy than horror, but almost all of them were very strong stories, I’m glad to have read them, and I’m glad to have them subsumed into the greater pantheon of the weird (especially in this weirdest-of-all-years). As with all anthologies, it’s interesting to see what commonalities you pick up on in the stories that you wouldn’t have with some distance between them – there’s an undercurrent of maturation here, teenagers and coming of age and inheritances and myth-making and community.

Beating the Bounds • Aki Schilz
A psychogeography of a town on the west end of London, with some formal detours into etymology and question-and-answer formats. Strongly reminiscent of Peter Straub’s “A Short Guide to the City” (complete with a viaduct, even, which I have to assume was intentional), which is a good thing. The place, rather than the inhabitants, is the character, which is also a good thing. This story was a good thing.

Red • Katie Knoll
After a mammological epigraph about velvet-antlered does, we open on a mythical, matriarchal village centered on mothers/weavers, the girls of which are our first-person plural narrator. Blues and reds predominate, and indeed blood is of the utmost importance in this story about girls coming of age, which strikes some of them as a literal transformation into antlered does. Knoll muses on violence and agency and liberation and authenticity in a communal setting (there are no names or individual characters to speak of). An absolutely beautiful story, to be read in concert with Karin Tidbeck’s “Moonstruck” from YBWF #2, several of Marshall’s own stories, and Nancy Holder’s unjustly-unknown “We Have Always Lived in the Forest,” which I will continue to shoehorn into as many reviews as I can.

The Blameless • Jeffrey Ford
Ford is a frequent contributor to these anthologies, and justly so – he is a superb craftsman who excels at this sort of story, modern fables and character studies that are lighthearted until they aren’t. A couple have received an invitation to an exorcism at their neighbors’, a casting out of their teenage daughter’s banal “sins” (a recent fad, we’re told), that goes wrong when the titular priest proves not to be up to the task. Putting this next to “Red” was an inspired choice – entirely different approaches to similar themes of teenage independence and rites of passage.

Outtakes • Irenosen Okojie
A London woman finds out her boyfriend has been cheating on her and cancels their trip to the Mediterranean, kind of. Impressive moments of surreal, Aickmanesque travel told in a strong, personal narrative style held back by jerky dialogue and a, well, dissatisfyingly Aickmanesque resolution. An abortive, later-in-life coming-into-one’s-own tale.

The Dancer on the Stairs • Sarah Tolmie
A woman finds herself jerked from one dystopia to another after she falls asleep in a world much like ours and wakes up in a Gormenghastian stone palace, confined to a huge staircase (how liminal!) until she figures out the mores of her new home, which revolve around honorary sums of money and arbitrary strictures regarding the circumstance’s of one’s birth. She makes a home for herself after learning to communicate through dance, and the inadequacy of words and importance of alternate means of communication provide ways for Tolmie to comment on disability (seemingly ASD, specifically). A wonderful story.

I Was a Teenage Werewolf • Dale Bailey
Exactly what the title suggests, the story of an outbreak of lycanthropy in an American high school circa 1960 or so. Bailey treats his campy subject matter seriously, elevating it to a meaningful tale of teen rebellion and suspect populations (and told in the first plural from their point of view, even).

In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro • Usman T. Malik
The most straightforwardly traditional “weird tale” of the bunch, in which an Americanized woman in Pakistan shepherds her students through a fieldtrip and Taliban attack pinning them at the titular ruins. This is a very physical story, rooted in the pains of the body and replete with migraines, cramps, and blood, which all culminate in a tantalizingly-sketched surreal biological city.

A Heavy Devotion • Daisy Johnson
A conversational narrative with a mother whose son has become some kind of messiah figure, dragging her into a life of celebrity even as she loses her memories and access to language. Packs a lot of depth into a few pages and would seem to share a lot of DNA with A. C. Wise’s equally delightful “The Poet’s Child.”

The Signal Birds • Octavia Cade
In an alternate WWII, we follow some of the Wrens, British women whose metal wings allow them to pick up radio signals. They’re contrasted with German brood mothers and Cade has some interesting things to say about motherhood and othering and isolation, but the story as a whole failed to grab me.

Angel, Monster, Man • Sam J. Miller
In 1987, three gay men (one Jewish, one Catholic, one Episcopalian) create a fake persona to whom they can attribute the posthumous work of all of their community members lost to AIDS. Things spiral out of control – think Fight Club if it was about something that actually mattered. Three sections trace the stories of the three friends and the monster’s phases of creation, destruction, and desecration (or corruption or co-optation) – angel, monster, and man, if you will. Formally, rather Millhauser-ish, but more emotionally charged than his work tends to be; an incandescent story of rage and grief.

Breaking Water • Indrapramit Das
In Kolkata, a man takes in a drowned woman after the dead rise, and becomes a guru to a misbegotten flock – that’s how he sees it, anyway. His story, told in the third person, gives way to the first person account of a journalist interviewing/shepherding the mother of the dead woman, less than thrilled about her departed daughter’s new status as the guru’s wife. Rot abounds on the physical, mental, and even social level in the form of misogyny and domestic violence (the cause of the woman’s death). This festering is in common with Nathan Ballingrud’s equally-unsettling “The Good Husband” (and Ballingrud’s larger concerns with parenting and family), with some of Caitlin Kiernan’s slipperiness about it as well.

The Kings with No Hands • Johanna Sinisalo
In a post-apocalyptic Europe, our protagonist stumbles across a group of chimpanzees riding bikes. Things get weirder from there. An example of the surprisingly-wide canon of anti-dolphin works, along with Upright Citizens Brigade, The Simpsons, and Souls in the Great Machine (a bizarre Australian novel that has, I have to assume coincidentally, an almost identical reveal/novum).

Waxy • Camilla Grudova
It’s taken me a long time to finish my review of this book and a large part of that is due to trying to figure out how I felt about this story. It takes place in an unspecified time and place, reminiscent of the early 20th century but off-kilter and highly stylized – it’s easy to picture as a not-quite-right claymation sequence. Everything is formalized; women work in Factories and support their Men who take Exams for money after reading Philosophy Books. Not having a Man is a mark of shame, pregnancies are often a death sentence, and children an unaffordable luxury – but then, so are contraceptives. Grudova excels at setting the scene and mood here (her use of color is especially spectacular), and I am usually a sucker for darkness, but this was such a parade of misery (especially the climax) that it seriously wore me down.

Breakdown • Gary Budden
Our narrator relates a memory of his(?) dad, a longhaul truck driver making a delivery from the UK to the continent when his truck breaks down and he stumbles across something unsavory in the Black Forest. Conversational, ruminative, short and sweet.

The End of Hope Street • Malcolm Devlin
One by one, the identical houses on a small suburban street in England become unlivable. The tradition of the unlivable house (not quite the same as the haunted one) is a fantastic one, boosted here by the fact that Devlin is considering an entire community falling to death or facing the uncertainty of migrating to a new home (and the stress of others taking them in). A sadly-timely examination of immigration and xenophobia.

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