The New Weird
Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Tachyon Publications, trade paperback: 432 pp., US$14.95
The New Weird begins with a ten-page footnoted introduction by Jeff VanderMeer. Later on, in the section entitled Symposium, we find critical essays by Michael Cisco, Darja Malcolm-Clarke, and K.J. Bishop, whose short fiction is also represented by "The Art of Dying." As well as the original internet thread started by British author M. John Harrison in which various writers and editors attempt to define New Weird, there are notes from several European editors. The internet discussions are well-known and oft linked to but will benefit those who are not yet in the know.
What is there to know, exactly?
A thumbnail definition of New Weird: a sub-genre which merges elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror, while being written in a literary prose style. It may include all or some of the following:
- Fantastic cities, including their bazaars.
- Bug-like monsters.
- Decadence of one sort or another.
- Strange things to eat and drink.
- A pervasive sense of (possibly metaphysical) creepiness.
- A political sensibility.
The editors and contributors know full well that the moment you've defined a subversive and groundbreaking sub-genre it's over, open to the hacks and the copycats, but they also argue that categories and definitions help to sell books. Starving writers, particularly of clever literature of the fantastic, who are unfortunately marketed on the same shelf as the unwashed hordes deserve all the help they can get. It is editors like the VanderMeers and their compatriots at Prime, Nightshade, Wheatland, Tachyon, Small Beer, and other independent small presses who are changing the face of speculative publishing by showcasing more slipstream, New Wave fabulist, and interstitial authors. Not only that, but they publish excellent anthologies I actually want to read, such as The New Weird, said by all and sundry to be the definitive anthology, much as Stirling's Mirrorshades was the definitive cyberpunk anthology. That will probably turn out to be the case, yet the VanderMeers and many of the included writers and editors are a little too thoroughly steeped in a postmodern world view to take themselves entirely seriously while they set about writing manifestos, and this is something I find greatly appealing. Nevertheless, I wish there had been a bit less in the way of copious editorializing, and a few more stories. The stories are the thing, to my mind. They are divided into Stimuli, meaning New Weird antecedents and influences; Evidence, which includes more recent examples of New Weird fiction, and the final Laboratory, in which Paul Di Filippo, Cat Rambo, Sarah Monette and other writers get together to create "Festival Lives," a bit of a send-up that, while fun, could possibly have been omitted in favor of more stories in Stimuli and Evidence.
The six stories in Evidence were mainly published in the eighties, except for Michael Moorcock's 1979 "Crossing into Cambodia," dedicated to the Russian writer Isaac Babel. Moorcock's wonderful tale brought to mind Goeff Ryman's multiple award-winning novella "The Unconquered Country," which I first read in Interzone in 1982 and which I much prefer to "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter," Ryman's more recent Cambodian story. Both Moorcock's piece and Ryman's novella discuss, among other things, what often happens to young women in countries at war. In Moorcock's story it's the depressing usual, while in Ryman's they grow weapons in their wombs, which is a pretty New Weird idea itself, although that story is not included here. This is not a criticism, as I can only imagine the contortions the VanderMeers went through to put together their short-list.
I first read M. John Harrison in early '80s Interzone too, and his "The Luck In The Head" is also included in Stimuli. I was glad to read it, as it caused me to reflect that his strange cities have influenced my own. Kathe Koja is the only woman writer included in Stimuli, with her story "The Neglected Garden," in which an angry young woman attaches herself to the backyard fence where she begins to sprout flowers and foliage, garnering further abuse from her boyfriend, this time in the form of herbicides. That may sound funny, but described in Koja's lissome prose, it's elegantly Goth, and honestly horrific.
Thomas Ligotti's "A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing" is a gentle metaphysical nightmare. Its 1997 publication date also makes it the most recent of the Stimuli stories. Clive Barker's "In The Hills, the Cities" describes a nice young gay couple traveling through Eastern Europe to work on their relationship. In Yugoslavia they stumble upon a strange rite in which rival cities build giants harnessed together out of human beings which fight one another to the death. In Barker's hands this implausible idea becomes persuasively creepy, yet at the same time, comedic. Simon D. Ing's "The Braining of Mother Lamprey" follows an apprentice mage in a future world where magic has superseded science, apparently to no great gain, as Ing's rival wizards seem more interested in using their magic for nasty purposes than, say, for creating world peace. We root for young Ashura as he navigates his strange city trying to save his winsome pregnant girlfriend Foxtongue.
Evidence includes British authors such as Steph Swainton and Alistair Rennie, and I seem to remember that someone in one of the many editorials makes the point that New Weird is mainly British in origin, but this is kind of like discussing the origins of various sorts of rock n' roll, reserved for true fans with time on their hands. Here's an image: galloping horses whose flesh strips away to reveal the skeleton; these same skeletal horses continue to gallop whilst being ridden by the protag's sidekick Cyan. They regrow their flesh and plunge into the ground as well as in and out of assorted dimensions, which they are able to do because they aren't really horses but something called the Gabbleratchet. Swainton's story "The Ride of the Gabbleratchet" is a stand-alone from her novel The Modern World. It seemed at times tongue-in-cheek and this is also true of Jay Lake's "The Lizard of Ooze," also featuring peculiar cities, this time underground.
K.J. Bishop's "The Art of Dying" concerns duelist Mona Skye, whose death wish becomes fodder for both tabloids and art critics. Death as performance is an interesting idea, yet Bishop's style struck me as a little mannered, and most successful not in action scenes but when the narrator waxes contemplative, as in this lovely bit of prose: "...she fell into a sense of being as still and untroubled as the tombs themselves, as if Time were a woman and she a babe on Time's back, and Time had put her down." This same tone of sensuous melancholia appears in Jeffrey Ford's "At Raparata," and in Finnish author Leena Krohn's "Letters from Tainaron," an excerpt from her award-winning, much-translated short novel Tainaron: Mail from Another City. In spite of the insect-like inhabitants of Tainaron, the story reads not so much as New Weird but as an unclassifiable wonder, escaping definitions and sub-genres both old and new. It feels, mostly, like a very good writer writing whatever the hell pleases her most. It goes without saying that her translator has got to be brilliant as well. However, not all readers may find Krohn's work to their taste, particularly those who prefer a more traditional story arc containing the usual, in the usual proportions: setting, character, conflict, crisis, resolution. You know the drill.
"Watson's Boy" by Brian Evenson is a suffocating, heartrendingly Kafkaesque tale of a boy who lives in an ordinary apartment which is nevertheless located in a labyrinth with no access to the outside world. This story stands apart because it includes no bazaars in fantastical cities, no monsters beyond protagonist Brey's abusive father and some possibly imaginary rats, no weird public rites of mysterious origin and purpose, just a harness and a collection of keys employed to brilliant effect. "The Gutter Sees the Light That Never Shines" by Alistair Rennie is just plain hilarious, if very gory. I used to hate excessive gore but I'm discovering a new taste for it. Maybe I just need it clever and funny. Also, a small part of me would like to train with The Sisters of No Mercy.
Two more Evidence stories, China Miéville's "Jack" and Jeffrey Thomas's "Immolation" concern oppressive class structures. Miéville of course is author of Perdido Street Station, the break-out New Weird novel, describing a fantastic city and its peculiar denizens in cascading detail. I preferred "Immolation" perhaps because I've had a soft spot for Jeffrey and his brother Scott ever since I read Punktown: Shades of Grey, the sequel anthology to Punktown, which showcased stories by Jeffrey alone. There's a dark heartfelt poetry in the Thomas's work, and some of their stories make me want to cry. If I find New Weird at all wanting it's because I can't read for visuals alone, however entertaining. In spite of all the fascinating cities, interesting creatures, and languorous, warrior-like or decadent characters, too many of these characters aren't provided with enough emotional depth for us to really care, and so New Weird becomes at times just a madcap romp, if a highly literate one.
There's a little part of me that says, you didn't make me cry. Make me cry. I dare you. However this is once again a matter of taste, for it is perhaps the creepy silliness that many readers find most appealing. And while I have given more bandwidth to some authors than to others, every story herein is nevertheless worth reading; this anthology is a must for lovers of literate dark fiction. To paraphrase Bishop, it will not represent drowned hours in a person's life, unless we take that to mean drowned in a good way.
Also, after reading this anthology I had a dream in which my beautiful friend turned without warning into a Cyclopean arachnid and while this was startling to say the least, it was not an entirely bad thing, as in his new form he was able to impart metaphysical truths known by few. If one way to grade an anthology is by its ability to provide fascinating dreams, then The New Weird gets an A+.