‘The Weird: A Compendium Of Strange And Dark Stories’ is a gigantic, award-winning anthology of short stories whose subject matter falls within the sub-genre known as ‘weird’ fiction. The editors, husband and wife team Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, both have extensive knowledge of this particular type of fiction, she as a former editor of ‘Weird Tales’ magazine and he as both an author and editor of such stories.
The first thing you notice about this book is its size. Its eleven hundred pages contain three quarters of a million words, corralled into one hundred and ten stories chosen to illustrate the history, development and diversity of weird tales. The stories are ordered roughly by publication date, with the earliest having been published in 1907 and the last in 2010. The vast majority of them are standalone short stories, although some are extracts from longer works. The sub-title of the book labels it a compendium and, although it does not pretend to be a comprehensive collection of all weird tales ever published, it does provide an extremely useful cross-section of the material published over the last hundred years.
So what is ‘The Weird’ as a genre of fiction? In their introduction, the VanderMeers quote H.P. Lovecraft’s definition. According to him, a ‘weird tale’ is ‘a story that has a supernatural element but does not fall into the category of traditional ghost story or Gothic tale’. The rest of their introduction qualifies and expands on this introduction, while the fascinating foreword and afterword by Michael Moorcock and China Miéville respectively, provide alternative ideas on what ‘The Weird’ does or does not mean. For now, I’m happy to stick with what Lovecraft said.
As someone who has read some but not lots of weird fiction over the years, this anthology was a revelation. It clearly demonstrates that ‘The Weird’ is not purely the preserve of old white Anglo-Saxon authors but has been written by women and men living on every continent across the Earth. One of the many services which the VanderMeers have provided to an Anglophile audience is to commission original translations into English of several stories, bringing material that may have been unfairly neglected to new readers.
Given the size of the book, it is clearly not possible to comment on all or even most of the stories contained in it. Instead, I have highlighted below a few that caught my eye for one reason or another. I hope this small cross-section will give some hint of the breadth of coverage of the anthology.
The earliest published story in the book, Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’, came out in 1907. This creepy and unsettling tale follows two men on a canoeing holiday down the Danube. When they stop for the night in a marshy area surrounded by willow trees, they soon start to worry that something supernatural is trying to get them, although neither wants to believe it. Blackwood ramps up the tension slowly but surely from the first page to the last, creating a real feeling of dread.
Some of the later stories in this anthology pay tribute to earlier ones. A good example is Margaret St. Clair’s 1951 story, ‘The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles’, an amusingly written warning to salespeople everywhere that some customers are more trouble than they’re worth. The Gnoles of the title are supernatural creatures which originated in Lord Dunsany’s 1912 story, ‘How Nuth Would Have Practices His Art Upon The Gnoles’. Here, Britain’s greatest house burglar decides to attempt the ultimate robbery by breaking into the Gnoles’ house in the woods to steal their prized emeralds. Dunsany does a great job of ramping up the tension in the final third of the story, as we wait to see who will triumph. Both stories are compact triumphs which marry horror with humour.
It is easy to make the assumption that mainstream writers do not write genre fiction. It was therefore a surprise to me to find out that the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore had written weird fiction. ‘The Hungry Stones’, published in 1916, tells the tale of a man sent to collect cotton duties in a remote part of India, whose pay and conditions include the right to live in an abandoned local palace. It turns out to be haunted by the ghosts of the princes and princesses whose romantic intrigues animated palace life many years earlier. Each night, he enters this fantasy world and it is only when he belatedly realises how much of an obsession this has become, that he tries to escape. But can he? This is a wonderfully vibrant and subtly sinister tale, full of sounds, smells and tastes which bring the dream world of the palace to life for narrator and reader alike.
Leonora Carrington was a surrealist English painter and writer who lived in Mexico for most of her life and died in 2011 at the age of 94. ‘White Rabbits’ tells of a woman who moves into a house in New York and discovers that the house opposite is occupied by a rather strange neighbour who puts out bones for the raven that comes to visit her each day. When this neighbour asks the narrator if she has any rotting meat she can spare, Leonora is sufficiently intrigued to buy a cut of meat the following day and then leave it to go off. Once it is sufficiently rancid, she takes it over to her neighbour’s house as a gift, only to find out that what she wants it for is even stranger than you might have imagined. This is an extremely odd but very readable story with a satisfying and funny twist at the end.
Hagiwara Sakutaro was a Japanese poet who only wrote one short story. ‘The Town Of Cats’ is told by a recovering drug addict who likes to take long walks in the vicinity of his home in Tokyo. However, he has an atrocious sense of direction and frequently gets lost. Worse, if he returns to a familiar part of the city but comes at it from an unfamiliar angle, he will often not recognise local landmarks at all. He turns this to his advantage, using it to transform routine walks through the city into what seem like journeys to fresh new places. However, when he goes on holiday to a village which is said to be haunted by animal spirits, he finds himself in a town inhabited solely by cats. Is this his imagination going into overdrive or is the village genuinely haunted? This is a dreamlike and strangely compelling story that provides an intriguing oriental insight to the world of weird tales.
Probably my favourite story in the entire book is Neil Gaiman’s ‘Feeders And Eaters’. When the narrator misses his last train home, he goes to an all-night café to while away the hours until the trains restart. There, he unexpectedly comes across an old work colleague who tells him a fantastic story about his increasingly odd relationship with an elderly fellow resident at the boarding house where he lives. The story has a great twist ending that stayed in my mind for a long time after I finished reading. This is a genuinely scary weird tale whose realism drags you in and keeps you right in the moment, desperate to find out how it ends. I loved it.
The final story in the anthology, ‘Saving The Gleeful Horse’ by K.J. Bishop, tells of an odd fantasy world where children torture and kill friendly toy animals by puncturing them until the jewels and sweets that are contained inside them fall out. When a friendly giant decides to nurse one such animal back to health, he finds out that the only way to do so has a terrible cost. This 2009 story is written without any false sentimentality, contrasting the beauty and horror of this world with great impact and rounding out the anthology very nicely.
In addition to the large numbers of stories that may be unfamiliar to many readers, the anthology also includes many tales by well-known weird authors, including H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James, Franz Kafka, Shirley Jackson and, more recently, Angela Carter, China Miéville, Tanith Lee and Jeff VanderMeer himself. If you want to read stories by authors that you will have heard of, in addition to those you probably won’t have, this book caters for you, too.
It is inevitable in an anthology of this breadth that any individual reader won’t enjoy every story. In my case, the tales I liked least tended to be the ones where I could not understand what the story was trying to tell me. A good example is Georg Heym’s 1913 story ‘The Dissection’. This is one of the shortest stories in the book and is apparently a favourite of Thomas Ligotti. For myself, though, I couldn’t make head nor tail of this brief piece about a male corpse dreaming of his true love while a team of nonchalant doctors dissect him bit by bit. In a similar vein, I found it difficult to follow Jamaica Kincaid’s 1978 story ‘My Mother’, which tells of the difficult relationship between a woman and her mother as they love and hate each other, transform into lizards and are finally reconciled.
The only real problem with ‘The Weird’ is that its huge size is rather intimidating. It has taken me a long time to read enough of the stories to feel even slightly qualified to write this review. If you’re not planning on reviewing it, though, this may be less of a problem. It’s definitely not a book to try and read from cover to cover in one sitting but to pull out whenever you fancy a little weirdness. In any case, it’s an anthology that I will continue to dip into for years to come and I thank the VanderMeers for that.
‘The Weird’ is a fantastic anthology which demonstrates the breadth of this genre of fiction magnificently. It won the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology in 2012 and I can fully understand why. If you already like weird fiction or even if you aren’t sure about it but would like to find out more, I can’t think of a better single volume to have on your bookshelf.
(pub: Corvus Books. 1126 page large enlarged paperback. Price: £25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84887-687-3)