The phrase “ocean of the stream of stories,” traditionally applied to a vast cycle of Indian legends, now has a new rightful claimant in the form of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s enormous new world-spanning, time-delving, mind-warping anthology of fantastika, The Weird, replenished as it is with flows from many lands and many eras. Assembled with passion, scholarship, and a clear vision, this Neptune-deep, Poseidon-rich volume establishes a non-exclusionary canon for “strange and dark stories,” a crepuscular territory dear to the heart of any lover of tales that are deranged, odd, surreal, deracinating, spooky, creepy and — well, just plain weird.
The feast begins with a lucid, playful “Foreweird” by Michael Moorcock, himself a seminal figure in the canon. Not seeking precisely to define the weird tale, Moorcock delivers an empathetic assessment of the genre’s power and allure. Bookending Moorcock is China Miéville’s experimentally jaunty “Afterweird.”
Right after Moorcock comes a well-argued introduction by the compilers, both of whom are experienced editors and historians of the field. (In addition, Jeff VanderMeer is a notable working fantasist himself and a frequent contributor the B&N Review.) Succinctly and insightfully, the husband-and-wife editorial team chart the past 100 years of this mode of fiction, its goals and toolkit, and its projected future. They promise rare wonders, and they instantly deliver.
Their very first selection, “The Other Side,” derives from a novel by Alfred Kubin, an author whom I personally have never encountered in decades of reading this type of literature. This kickoff selection — unnerving and otherworldly, still fresh and undimmed after a century — sets the standard for the rest of the treasury: a trove of timeless oddities, each one a nonpareil, yet somehow cohering together, despite their defiant heterogeneity, into a recognizable school of fiction. Within just the next 200 pages, readers will encounter such little-known authors as Georg Heym, Luigi Ugolini, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and H. F. Arnold, all with brilliant stories deserving of a wide audience. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. And in the case of many of the writers foreign to English, the VanderMeers have commissioned bright new translations.
But such a survey as this also has to include famous authors in order to be definitive, and the VanderMeers exhibit a nice eye in this regard. If you have to feature just one Kafka, “The Penal Colony” is a winner. Likewise with Lovecraft and “The Dunwich Horror” and Bradbury and “The Crowd.” Those selections do the job of limning the whole corpus of those authors. But the VanderMeers are not sticklers for any hard-and-fast guidelines, seeing that they give some worthy yet underappreciated authors, such as Jean Ray, M. John Harrison, Jeffrey Ford, and William Sansom, more than single airing. (But further thoughts on this practice later.)
By the time one reaches the 1980s, right around the middle of the book, with Michael Shea’s gruesome “The Autopsy,” the reader might feel that he or she has the mode all sussed out, and knows its tropes and conventions by heart. But the second half of the collection is as stirring as the first part, as a new generation of writers, such as Clive Barker, Tanith Lee, and Michael Cisco, manage to bring fresh sensibilities and strategies to the game. The final story, 2010’s “Saving the Gleeful Horse” by K. J. Bishop, launches the genre boldly and bravely into future glories.
A very laudable trait of the editors is their egalitarianism, their refusal to distinguish between lowbrow and highbrow, using quality and impact as their only yardsticks. Pulp authors who might even be prejudicially deemed hacks — Donald Wollheim, Clark Ashton Smith — stand elbow to elbow in eldritch solidarity with Borges and Leonora Carrington, thus constituting a fraternity of writers where the only qualification for admission is the ability to brilliantly conjure frissons of estrangement.
Ultimately, that’s what unites such a collection of disparate tales: the uncanny atmosphere and eerie emotional ambiance evoked by matters beyond our ken, by the shattering of consensual reality and placid mundane assumptions, by the eruptions into our little everyday spheres of the cosmic. One recalls Lovecraft’s famous observation about the limited powers of the human mind acting to shield us mercifully from the stark realities of the universe. The need and desire to induce this peculiar yet omnipresent sensation explains how these stories differ from straight-on fantasies or allegories or fairytales, genres that do overlap or intersect the weird to some degree. The quintessential weird story must always retain some connection to the real world. Such a tale usually employs some elements of naturalism and mimesis, for it’s in the interface between mundanity and extramundanity that the weird emerges. Any venue that is unrelievedly bizarre cannot sustain the pure weird.
Even in a volume of 750,000 words, there must necessarily be omissions. The VanderMeers lament their inability to secure reprint rights to stories by J. G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick. But also among the missing are Patrick McGrath, Ian McEwan (in his early days, absolutely weird), and Rhys Hughes. The great Sixties triumvirate of John Barth, Robert Coover, and Donald Barthelme are not at the party. Nor are any of the Fiction Collective 2 crowd: Lance Olsen, Mark Amerika, Doug Rice. Matthew Derby, and Rikki Ducornet deserve admission. I’ve always had a soft spot for Samuel Delany’s “Night and the Loves of Joe Dicostanzo.” Carol Emshwiller surely merits a nod, as does Thomas Disch (“Descending” or “The Squirrel Cage”). Omitting second selections from the double-entried authors would have allowed for a few additional names.
But these absences, and any other personal favorites a reader might name, evaporate in the majestic blacklight radiance of what has been curated. The sterling choices made by the VanderMeers cannot be faulted individually, and lamenting what they passed by is the apex of ingratitude. This landmark anthology codifies, ennobles and perpetuates a tradition old as humanity’s first Neolithic cave paintings of things that go bump in the night.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.