The Seventh Sense of the Strange: Year’s Best Weird, Volume 2

Yes, we still like the Weird stuff.

Much like Michael Kelly in his foreword to the Year’s Best Weird Volume 2, I don’t want to rehash last year’s review with a definition of weird fiction. Weird fiction seems to become more popular as a genre with each year, so perhaps that’s not necessary anymore. Year’s Best Weird is a topper to what has already been a strong year for uncanny fiction: new, acclaimed story collections from luminaries Kelly Link and China Miéville made it to many year’s best lists, new novels from Gemma Files, Molly Tanzer and Paul Tremblay brought the weird to novel-length works, and re-releases of under-appreciated classics from Thomas Ligotti, Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell saw the light of day. Undertow Press itself is a great home for the Weird and its most recent original anthology, Aickman’s Heirs, will surely find some of its stories in all kinds of best-of anthologies in 2016.

Maybe, as was suggested at the Weird fiction panel at World Fantasy Con in October, the Weird really is poised to be the Next Big Thing.

While some of the original New Weird writers might now chafe against the W-word as a genre unto itself, or feel marginalized by the term, others seems to feel a bit protective of the Weird, as if a Hollywood adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation or Lit Reactor’s new (recommended) workshop, Writing the Weird, will somehow dilute the parameters of a genre that’s biggest appeal is that it is nearly indefinable.

Well, I hadn’t really read much Laird Barron until people started talking about True Detective (Remember the hot second when True Detective was A Thing?) and… so what? Perhaps years of working in publishing has lowered my bar, but I just enjoy people getting excited to read and discuss and, yeah, buy some books, not that I get to feel minutely cooler for first reading Caitlin R. Kiernan back in 1996 on a frelling Geocities website.

What I find smart about Michael Kelly’s YBW series is the rotating guest editors. It keeps the Weird from being too exclusionary. The inaugural edition, guest edited by Laird Barron, was heavy on cosmic and supernatural horror, but also had drag queens in space and steampunk automatons. Koja, an acclaimed stylist, has helped curate a collection that is also heavy on horrors, but the stories also feel more fantasy-tinged, more lyrical, and a bit more controversial.

The author of such seminal horror/Weird novels as The Cipher and Skin and, more recently, the seductive Under the Poppy historical series, Koja has what she calls “a seventh sense” of the strange.

And the strange abounds.

This is a very different beast from last year’s offering. And when I say YBW2 is a beast, I mean it; from the opening abominations mutating in a Louisiana swamp in the enjoyably off-putting noir story “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud to the river-dwelling yōkai in Isabel Yap’s “A Cup of Salt Tears,” to the mermaids and not-mermaids in Sunny Moraine’s vicious Hans Christian Andersen take “So Sharp That Blood Must Flow” and “The Air We Breathe is Stormy, Stormy” by Rich Larson, respectively, this anthology is a menagerie of monsters.

My favorite creatures were the mancuspias of Julio Cortázar’s “Headache,” translated into English by Michael Cisco and acquired by Ann VanderMeer for Tor.com. It was quite a coup for the site, but I’m not sure it got the eyeballs it deserved for a Latin American author mentioned in the same breath as Borges and Márquez. Thus I was very happy to see it recognized in this collection. “Headache” is a classic Weird tale of an estranged narrator, out of the bounds of nature and out of reality, when these beasts overcome their caretakers with a metaphysical sleeping sickness.

One of the defining elements of the Weird story is the ability for its internal logic to get under your skin, into your skull, and to remain there, like a puzzle to turn over, or a sore spot in your mouth that your tongue keeps rubbing. “Headache” complies. And so does “The Ghoul” from Jean Muno. A chilling tale of blame and bitterness and an inescapable spiral of torment, I wonder if the fact that it is also a translation of a long-late author adding another layer to its off-kilter grandeur.

My overall favorite story in this year’s collection is “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. The terse, tight prose of a woman’s relationship to herself in relation to the men in her life is a painful urban legend come to life, driving towards a conclusion that is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable.

Another favorite of mine was “Resurrection Points” by Nebula Award-nominated new author Usman T. Malik—and it’s been a favorite of many as it’s been reprinted in two other Year’s Best collections. In it, a young Pakistani boy learns the art of bringing the dead back to life from his father during a time of religious and political turmoil. What pushed this story from dark fantasy into the Weird territory was the beautifully-wrought spiral outward from a personal tale of loss towards a subversion of the universe’s natural order and the establishment of a new, frightening one. Whatever banner this story gets read under, it is, most simply, excellent. That’s enough.

Many of the stories in YBW2 make wonderful, weird companions to each other. Grief and magic unite the narrators in K.M. Ferebee’s quiet and evocative “The Earth and Everything Under” and Kima Jones’ poignant, vivid “Nine.” Fairy tales are mined in Moraine’s story as they are in Karen Joy Fowler’s disturbing doppelgänger tale “Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story.” Fowler’s distinctive story-within-a-story also nicely echoes Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” and the urban legend at the center of Nick Mamatas’ “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Another interesting mirror can be seen in Mamatas’ spectral hitchhiker terrorizing tourists on a stretch of road, a stretch of time, and the titular “stretch of highway two lanes wide” that obsesses the recipient of a neural implant in Sarah Pinsker’s stellar SF short.

I loved the commonalities between the stories, the deliberateness of this anthology’s selections, and found it fitting that Koja, herself a master of crossing boundaries between genre and literary fiction, has selected stories that do not fit neatly into the nascent understanding of New Weird. If haunted afterlives and creatures from the beyond are Weird, then why can’t research scientists suffering under a psychosis (“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll) be Weird? Why not bionic arms that are also highways in Colorado? Why not Patsy Cline’s parallel universes in Machado’s second story in YBW2, the playful, cosmic head-scratcher “Observations About Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa?”

Having already established a strong foundation for what Weird is, Year’s Best Weird Volume 2 shows us what Weird can be. More than just a cacophony of weird-for-weirdness’ sake concepts, there’s a finesse in the Weird that has to be felt more than explained. Readers looking to hone their own seventh sense of the strange and help shape the conversations to come about a genre that, Next Big Thing or not, can be found in all genres should consider this anthology essential.

Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 2 is available from Undertow Press.

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

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