A Hint of the Alien: The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One

It seems strange that there’s been no official Year’s Best Weird Fiction anthology before this inaugural, crowdfunded volume, co-edited by series editor Michael Kelly and special guest editor Laird Barron and published by Undertow/ChiZine Publications. Reading through this finely-curated collection of short stories and novelettes, it’s clear that the Weird is all around us. And it’s really, literally, quite awesome. But it’s not new.

The popularity of this subgenre, if you can call it that, waxes and wanes every decade or so and has for a long time, from early masters like Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft to contemporary authors whose names are often associated with the New Weird—think China Miéville and Caitlín R. Kiernan. But the weird never really goes away; it just travels through fiction wearing other genres as a disguise. Call it horror, dark fantasy, slipstream, or just plain ponderous.

In his introduction, Kelly says he read upwards of 3,000 stories. In his introduction, Laird Barron, himself a enjoying a great deal of acclaim for his own collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, offers a guiding principle that helped whittle that giant pool down to the very best: “My sense of a weird tale is that it contravenes reality in some essential manner; that it possesses at least a hint of the alien; and that it emanates disquiet or disorientation.”

Knowing that, and being familiar with Barron’s own thematic style, some stories fit this nebulous definition better than others. But that’s what makes weird fiction fun to some and frustrating (or ponderous) to others. It’s very subjective. One person’s Weird is another person’s regular old ghost tale. The stories in this collection have a decidedly dark bent overall, which horror enthusiasts should particularly enjoy, especially this time of year.

Apocalypses abound; sometimes on a grand scale, as in the militaristic SF story “The Year of the Rat,” written by Chen Qiufan and translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu. Some are more domestic, like the punchy opener from Simon Strantzas, “The Nineteenth Step,” as some very wrong angles vex a couple trying to flip a new house.

The best apocalypses are huge and personal. Two stories stand out here: “Furnace” by Livia Llewellyn, a searing story of mothers and daughters and lost potentials and rage and “Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks” by Paul Tremblay, one of my favorite pieces in the collection. It’s another story of mothers and daughters, and a Lovecraftian apocalypse, and the narrator, a troubled addict, made my heart ache. It’s easy to see why Tremblay is often included in lots of Year’s Best collections and I’m hugely anticipating his forthcoming novel A Head Full of Ghosts.

Lovecraft looms in more stories, too, most overtly in “(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror” by Joseph S. Pulver Sr., but also in “A Quest of Dream” by W.H. Pugmire and the tense and evocative “Bor Urus” by John Langan. While I find much Lovecraftian fiction too hung up on tentacle trappings and purple prose, The Year’s Best selections avoid those worn narratives and focus more on unsettling, original imagery and hints of grander cosmic mayhem.

The otherworldly intrudes upon the mundane in several ghost stories. My favorite in this category is the slow burn of “Olimpia’s Ghost” by Sofia Samatar, 2014’s Crawford Award winner. In it, a young woman’s dreams become tangled in the life of a fictional character from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.” (Not a work I’m familiar with at all, and I suspect I was missing tons of subtext, but the story was strong on its own merits.) “The Girl in the Blue Coat” by Anna Taborska was another excellent ghost story about a journalist delving into the history of war-torn Poland. Emily Dickinson becomes a specter of sorts when Death stops his carriage and asks her to use poetry to lift a dangerous curse in Jeffrey Ford’s “A Terror.” (Originally published on Tor.com.)

Aside from Samatar’s story, I wouldn’t have thought of these others as Weird, per se, just… really great ghost stories. Like how Qiufan’s story about genetically engineered super rats read more like straight SF. As for the well-written, disturbing musings of an automaton facing imminent death in “The Key to Your Heart Is Made of Brass” by John R. Fultz: who got steampunk in my Weird fiction!? I definitely wouldn’t have picked the madcap space opera allegory “Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron” by A.C. Wise. A dozen drag queens going to Mars to fight monsters is not nearly weird enough for me and it was a big tonal shift in the table of contents. Humor is even more subjective than a sense of the weird, it seems.

That said, it’s commendable that there are so many different flavors of weird contained within the collection. That’s kind of the point—this isn’t a strict horror, or Lovecraftian, or fantasy anthology. And I was surprised to find a steampunk story I actually enjoyed.

The last noteworthy category of The Year’s Best Weird Fiction is notable for its uncategorized strangeness. “The Krakatoan” by Maria Dahvana Headley is a Hollow Earth story about the child of an astronomer figuring out where someone who doesn’t fit into traditional social roles might belong. Secrets teem beneath the Earth’s crust and observatories examine stars and woman-eating volcanoes. It’s a creepy story, with sad implications, and one that gets better with a second reading. Headley’s easygoing voice grounds the narrative admirably.

What I love about anthologies is the rabbit hole they send me down, as I enjoy something from an author I haven’t read before and go off in search of more. I want to seek out more work from Richard Gavin and French writer Anne-Sylvie Salzman. Her Cronenberg-esque weird birth story “Fox Into Lady.” will stay with me for a long time. I wish there was more translated fiction included, because it’s always fascinating to see what’s weird in different markets.

The weirdest of The Year’s Best is saved for last and it’s from Jeff VanderMeer, who along with his partner Ann, edited the most exhaustive, definitive, comprehensive doorstopper compendium of uncanny fiction, The Weird. He’s also the author of the recently-completed Southern Reach trilogy, a compelling work garnering accolades from the mainstream press.

A master of the style and a renowned teacher of craft, “No Breather in the World But Thee” defies any simple plot summary. I believe everyone can and should read it differently. I pictured it as: Downton Abbey is terrorized by a giant mansion-stomping monster and the upstairs people get eaten and Thomas gets turned into a bloody sack of bones that must crawl to the edge of a river. Forever. In a cycle of perpetual untimely demises. Really. I don’t know what to say, other than it gripped me immediately and the string of sentences pulled me along in such an insidious way, I had to know what happened next. And then I had to read it again.

Weird-with-a-capital-W is more of a gut feeling than a genre and it definitely isn’t for everyone, especially the squeamish. While I love a good old-fashioned, well-crafted genre tale, my favorite kinds of stories are those even rarer good ones that earn their eyeball kicks and leave me with goosebumps and a lingering sense of existential dread. Different strokes. It’s an extremely hard feat to pull off—my goosebumps and existential dread are different from yours—and I’m grateful that Kelly and Barron have assembled such a broad collection that hit so many right notes for fans of this kind of story.

Barring a very few entries I really didn’t enjoy and won’t name, my only complaint about this anthology is that since Laird Barron edited it, there’s no Laird Barron story in it. It’s a similar double-edged sword that will hang over the forthcoming second volume guest edited by Kathe Koja. As a fan of her considerable contributions to dark and darkly sexual weird novels (see: Skin, The Cipher) I can’t wait to read what she saw in fiction this year.

And I do hope there are future volumes, since it seems to be contingent upon sales of the first. While hunting down the weird is its own kind of fun, it’s even more fun to point those unfamiliar with the genre to an anthology like The Year’s Best Weird Fiction and send them down their own very strange rabbit hole of discovery. This would be a welcome addition my bookshelf every year.

Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 1 is available now from Undertow/ChiZine.


Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering book reviews, gaming news and TV, including Game of Thrones. She also reviews Hannibal for Boing Boing. A student of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ workshop, her short fiction has appeared in ChiZine. Follow her on Twitter @tdelucci

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