The Year’s Best Weird Fiction project has quietly been gathering quite a volume of buzz on its way to Volume 1, which is due out shortly in October. For one thing, it’s edited by Laird Barron, himself one of the best current practitioners of this not-quite-genre. And it doesn’t hurt that its list of authors include a wish list of his peers: Jeffrey Ford, Simon Strantzas, Joseph S. Pulver Sr, Scott Nicolay, John Langan, Richard Gavin, and W. H. Pugmire, among others. Also, it comes from the very estimable house of ChiZine Publications, already producer of some fine anthologies from Ellen Datlow and Michael Kelly, among others. Their strapline, “Embrace the Odd,” makes a marvelous tag for a feast of weird, and they put my reviews on their masthead, so what greater recommendation could you want?
So what is all this weird? Well, Michael Kelly in his Foreword puts it that, although “speculative in nature, chiefly derived from pulp fiction in the early 20th century,” weird fiction, “at its best, is an intersecting of themes and ideas that explore and subvert the laws of Nature,” But it “is not specifically horror or fantasy. And weird fiction is not new. It has always been present.” In this new series, he explains, “each volume of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction will feature a different guest editor.” And Laird Barron, in his introduction with its wonderfully Aickmanesque title, “We Are For the Weird,” appeals to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” as “the greatest weird tale of them all,” and as you’d expect given that prototype, and this editor, the anthology cleaves towards “the darker side of the weird.” There’s no intrinsic requirement for the weird to be dark and horrific, but most of these stories are, and some of them very.
That’s not to imply too much uniformity in this collection, which ranges far and wide. There’s sly fantastic humor, as in A.C. Wise’s “Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron.” There’s self-referential stylistic experimentation, as in Joe Pulver’s “(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror …” There’s something like poetic fantasy, as in Sofia Samatar’s “Olimpia’s Ghost” and Karin Tidbeck’s “Moonstruck.” There’s almost straight steampunk, in John R. Fultz’s “The Key to Your Heart is Made of Brass,” which would make most rivals in the sub-genre weep tears of rust in envy. There’s something close to Ballardian science fiction, in Michael Blumlein’s “Success.” There’s perhaps the oddest, most fascinating extended critique of Emily Dickinson’s work you will ever read, in Jeffrey Ford’s “A Terror.” Almost all of these titles have appeared elsewhere: some in magazines or websites; others, such as Anne-Sylvie Salzman’s “Fox into Lady” or Scott Nicolay’s grimly erudite “Eyes Exchange Bank,” in book form. But if you’ve read them all already, then you’re very lucky, because they do deserve to be among the “Best.”
For me, the single crispest, deftest, most effective distillation of the weird in this volume is Simon Strantzas’s “The Nineteenth Step.” You wouldn’t expect a simple piece of domestic carpentry to literally open an ontological abyss under your feet, but in a series of understated progressions (steps, even …), it does. It’s a great introduction to a great volume and what looks more than likely to be a great series. Weirdly recommended.