Book Review: The Weird
edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Tor Books, 2012
“Because The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing,” contend Ann and Jeff VanderMeer in the Introduction to their stupendous new anthology The Weird, “the most keenly attuned amongst us will say ‘I know it when I see it,’ by which they mean ‘I know it when I feel it’ – and it’s a fitting beginning for an array of stories like this one, where the primary effect is to disturb, to slip below the reader’s rational responses and play directly on their emotions, especially dread and foreboding. The 110 stories and excerpts presented in these double-columned pages want nothing more than to subvert expectations and scare. The ultimate Hallowe’en anthology has arrived on the very doorstep of summer.
The range of this volume is nothing short of staggering. The VanderMeers appear to have read everything in the vast and constantly-growing body of weird tales, and their Table of Contents, arranged chronologically, has a refreshingly large number of stories and excerpts from the earliest days of their sub-genre. Anthologies of this type will always have something by M. R. James (and this one does too), but invariably they’ll be paired with names far less familiar to an English-language audience, such as Polish writer Stefan Grabinski’s lurid 1921 story “The White Wyrak,” which opens with the seemingly mundane problem of a blocked chimney:
The chimney was wide, navigable with ridges, and thickly packed with soot. Here at the bottom, right beside the door, layers of easily flammable ‘enamel’ glowed with a cold metallic luster in the faint light coming from the top of the chimney.
I threw a glance upward – and shuddered.
Above me, several feet beyond the blade of my hatchet, I saw in the half-light of the flue a snow-white being staring at me with a pair of huge, owlish yellow eyes.
The creature – part monkey, part large frog – was holding in his front claws what seemed like a human arm, which hung limply from a corpse, vaguely outlined in a twisted shape next to the neighboring wall.
The little chill of that moment when the narrator comes face-to-face with the creature in the chimney derives from its directness, and such open encounters are the path chosen by roughly half the authors in this anthology. The other half practice the indirection and creeping implication of the art form, as when the narrator of Lord Dunsany’s 1912 story “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles” describes – or rather, refuses to – the fate of the apprentice thief hoodwinked into trying to steal an enormous emerald from vicious forest creatures:
… the unearthly silence gave way, as it were with a grace, to the rapid screams of Tonker as they picked him up from behind – screams that came faster and faster until they were incoherent.
And where they took him it is not good to ask, and what they did with him I shall not say.
Figures from world literature crop up frequently in these pages, from Rabindranath Tagore painting a surreal, claustrophobic dreamscape in his 1916 story “The Hungry Stones” to Ryunosuke Akutagawa (of “Rashomon” fame) crafting a discreet, almost pointillist nightmare in “The Hell Screen,” to Kafka and his typically verbose 1919 excerpt “In the Penal Colony.” No collection of supernatural fiction can, alas, be considered complete unless it hauls in H. P. Lovecraft (here represented by his 1929 story “The Dunwich Horror”), although in the company of so many first-rate and far less self-indulgent authors of the same genre, this most revered of all horror authors stands revealed as a plodding plotter who loves to telegraph his surprises. Any genre should be spared the strainings of such frustrated would-be Tolstoys (this one also features Joyce Carol Oates, as usual painfully slumming), especially when it has so many true delights to offer, such as Fritz Leiber’s great 1941 short story “Smoke Ghost,” in which our hapless narrator quickly loses his ability to distinguish illusion from reality and opts for the only surrender he can think of:
The thing was in the doorway. The voice was no longer solicitous but moronically playful, each sentence ending in a titter.
‘Why, Mr. Wran, why have you come up here? We’re all alone. Just think, I might push you off.’
The thing came slowly toward him. He moved backward until his heels touched the low parapet. Without knowing why or what he was going to do, he dropped to his knees. The face he dared not look at came nearer, a focus for the worst in the world, a gathering point for poisons from everywhere. Then the lucidity of terror took possession of his mind, and words formed on his lips.
‘I will obey you. You are my god,’ he said.
Also included here, the dark gods be praised, is the thrillingly terrifying 1979 short story “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin, who’s since gone on to become the grand pooh-bah of the epic-fantasy crowd. “Sandkings” is a perennially satisfying reminder of a time when Martin could do small-scale work as well; it’s the story of a man who foolishly installs a gigantic habitat in his home for exotic ‘sandking’ insects, who at one point infuriate him by sculpting mocking versions of his own face onto their sand-castles, prompting the narrator to open the habitat and use an antique sword to wreck the creatures’ work in a response perfectly mixed of anger and fear:
He was preparing to slide the cover back in place and move on to a second castle when he felt something crawling on his hand.
He screamed and dropped the sword, and brushed the sandking from his flesh. It fell to the carpet, and he ground it beneath his heel, crushing it thoroughly long after it was dead. It had crunched when he stepped on it. After that, trembling, he hurried to seal the tank up again, and rushed off to shower and inspect himself carefully. He boiled his clothing.
The sense “Sandkings” conveys – the sense of being slowly, ineluctably trapped in a nightmare – comes as close as anything to being the defining characteristic of the Weird. It’s mercilessly, perfectly evoked in this anthology in such stories as Haruki Murakami’s matter-of-fact “The Ice Man” (1991) or Marc Laidlaw’s expertly disturbing “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio” (1993) or that modern masterpiece of the genre, Finnish writer Leena Krohn’s great 1985 novella “Tainaron: Mail from Another City.” In these and other stories, readers will find whole worlds – dark and unnerving worlds – remorselessly anatomized, and if they’ll be confronted with pro forma inclusions like Stephen King (an admittedly less-stultifying-than-usual thing called “The Man in the Black Suit”), they’ll also find not one but two stories by the mighty M. John Harrison.
Of course any long-time reader of the genre will have gripes – even anthologists of such awe-inspiring competence as the VanderMeers must expect that. Clive Barker, for instance, has written many things much stronger “In the Hills, the Cities,” the story included here. And although it’s heartening to see the consistently under-appreciated Lucius Shepard included in these pages, his story, 1987’s “Shades,” is far less gripping than 1990’s “The All-Consuming,” which he co-wrote with Robert Frazier. And it’s a shame that even readers as inclusive as our present editors continue to ignore the sublime John Collier.
(Equally a shame that in his Afterword, extremely talented novelist China Mieville decides to do his best post-modern pub-ranter imitation: “Fate is inexorable. Sometimes cruel, desserts wrought not always according to our own mortality, but part of something utter and total. The Wyrd is perhaps not holy, but it is whole-y.” Sigh.)
But such quibbles are minuscule things in the face of over 1100 pages of such extraordinary entertainments. Tor is offering the book simultaneously in both paperback and hardcover; my advice: buy one of both, the hardcover for home, the paperback to lug around with you everywhere, turning every bus-stop and waiting-room into a weird echo-chamber full of misshapen things lurking just out of sight, scaring yourself silly with images that follow you into your dreams, letting out a strangled little scream when a friend interrupts your reading with a hand on your shoulder. This is a once-in-a-lifetime anthology, something to be savored and re-read on any number of sleepless nights – and if those nights weren’t originally sleepless, The Weird will certainly make them so. And you won’t want it otherwise.