Usually when you pick up a short-story collection, you know what to expect: a brief or perhaps long-winded intro by the editors, followed by a bunch of stories held together by some vague theme.
But when Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are the editors, anyone familiar with their previous editorial projects, like The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, will know that expectations are made to be violated.
And violated expectations, along with all sorts of other violations, seem to be a big part of the New Weird. But exploring (if not defining) what we mean when we say that something fits into the New Weird is one of the goals of this collection, which is why the book is divided in sections: Stimuli, a half-dozen New Wave, New Horror, and other stories that show where the New Weird sprouted from; and the core of the collection, Evidence, nine New Weird stories and novel excerpts, a nonfiction section Symposium that contains part of the message-board thread in which the term New Weird was first proposed, plus three scholarly but highly readable essays and a collection of brief essays by European editors; and a seven-author round-robin New Weird experiment titled Festival Lives in Laboratory. The collection ends with a good recommended-reading list and bios on the contributors.
Starting with the most important thing: This is a strong collection for any lover of a good story, regardless of genre. I was pleased that most of the stories are by authors new to me, though some of my favorite stories were from familiar names: Michael Moorcock (Crossing into Cambodia), Clive Barker (In the Hills, the Cities), Kathe Koja (The Neglected Garden), and Thomas Ligotti (A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing) in the Stimuli section, and China Mieville (Jack) in the Evidence section.
Moorcock, of course, is well known as a fantasy writer, but his fans who have read nothing but his Elric stories may wonder at his inclusion here. Hopefully, Crossing into Cambodia which is certainly a fantasy, but one featuring cruel Cossack horsemen riding in a 1970s Southeast Asian war even more horrific than the real one, will encourage them to check out a wider range of his work and see how it all fits together.
But after thinking about the elements of that story which are shared by the others in the Stimuli section, it becomes clear the editors are letting readers see for themselves what nutrients the New Weird authors absorbed before they began writing the sort of stories featured under Evidence.
So going into that core section, readers have been prepared with the knowledge that the New Weird has drunk deep from the well of fantasy, but not the half-elves-and-heroes epic fantasy that crowds the bookstore shelves.
Instead, it is a more urban fantasy, featuring modern problems, fresh perspectives, and a less-heroic, more-realistic appraisal of its characters.
It has also sucked at the teat of horror, but refuses to deal with it as the typical horror story does, that is, keeping the horror at a distance, something alien to the characters, until they come together in cathartic climax. Instead, the worlds and characters of the New Weird unflinchingly embrace the horror from beginning to end, seeing it as the norm, sometimes unpleasant or grotesque, but often at the same time beautiful or at least necessary.
Much of the New Weird is thus strongly reminiscent of Lovecraft's dark-fairy-tale stories of the Dreamlands, rather than his more well-known tales of cosmic horror.
In the latter, the horror is often born of a sort of culture shock on encountering the alien; in the former, as in the New Weird, culture shock is a part of living in a world where the alien is something to be understood and even loved, and where being shocked out of complacency is both necessary and welcome.
And, as any China Mieville fan will have guessed, the New Weird tends to include a political and class sensibility that is barely present in the most popular modern works of fantasy. So it is fitting that the Evidence section kicks off with a Mieville story which shows this clearly, relating the story of one of the working-class heroes of New Crobuzon, Jack Half-a-Prayer, who first appeared as a minor character in Perdido Street Station.
Nearly all these stories are ones in which struggle against oppressive authority looms large, while refusing to paint that authority, or the rebels for that matter, in simple hues of good and evil. This, as much as anything else, makes the New Weird a mode of fantasy for twenty-first-century adults.
That lack of simplicity may turn off some readers. The desire for comfort reading is especially strong among genre fans like us, and these stories are the very opposite of comfortable. The tendency to coin new words and play with language makes for a dense text that forces the reader to slow down and pay attention.
The stories allow an escape into fantasy, but once there they challenge the reader to look at dark realities without blinking. Stories like K.J. Bishop's The Art of Dying call into question the whole idea of heroism and celebrity, while Jeffrey Ford's At Reparata breathes new life into the fantasy trope of the wounded king, finding salvation not in restoration of the romance of the feudal order, but in a harder, more satisfying rejection of it.
Other stories of note include the only previously unpublished story in the collection, Alistair Rennie's The Gutter Sees the Light That Never Shines. Like most of the other stories, it takes another look at fantasy cliche and shocks readers out of mental ruts by overloading the senses with bizarre, even revolting, images and ideas.
Frankly, at first I found it off-putting. The use of the grotesque can easily turn into overuse. But the story grew on me, and I was glad I gave it the chance to do so.
The Symposium section, the collection of essays and message-board discussion about the New Weird, may not be to everyone's liking, but I found the three essays by Michael Cisco, Darja Malcolm-Clarke, and K.J. Bishop to be both accessible and enjoyable. Along with VanderMeer's introduction, they do a good job of placing the New Weird in the evolution of fantasy and horror, and reveal as much about that evolution as about the New Weird itself.
Also, they make strong cases for a reconsideration of the place of genre fiction within literature as a whole, stating it more clearly and persuasively than most such arguments I have read.
The collection is not without its weaknesses. I found Brian Evenson's Watson's Boy to be slow-paced and forgettable, while the excerpt "The Ride of the Gabbleratchet" from Steph Swainston's novel The Modern World (titled Dangerous Offspring in the USA), did not work well as a stand-alone story, although its reimagining of the Wild Hunt was fascinating and made me want to read the novel.
The weakest parts are the message-board thread New Weird Discussions: The Creation of a Term, which is about as dull as one would imagine a message-board thread published in a book would be, and Festival Lives, the round-robin story that makes up the whole of the Laboratory section.
As a lit-crit teacher and researcher, I can at least appreciate the value of having a message-board thread, in which a genre was first named and seriously discussed, preserved in print, but I really don't understand why the editors chose to devote forty pages to a story that suffers from the weaknesses of almost any round-robin.
It's a bit fun, I suppose, especially for those who personally know the authors, but it has no unified voice or plot, drifting aimlessly chapter to chapter, each author wanting to take it in different directions or focus on different characters, and even fails to come to a conclusion, ending mid-story. I kept thinking that it was something that should be on the internet somewhere, but not in such an otherwise-strong collection.
But that otherwise-strong is very strong indeed, and I will be keeping an eye out for the several anthologies that the VanderMeers have in the works. Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen is going to be in the next shipment of books I order from America. Ann VanderMeer has just been named the fiction editor of Weird Tales, and that bodes very well for the magazine.