I might as well give up and admit it–chances are there are going to be a lot of posts on weird fiction here while Ann and I work on this big book of, erm, weird fiction. It’s a good outlet for what’s an intense, satisfying, at times frustrating, and epiphanal project. The book will cover roughly a century, from about 1910 to the present-day. I see it as primarily post-WWI to 2009, but there may be some slight slippage. It’s not a best-of, per se, in that a true best-of for a century seems to me a ludicrous idea, but it’s also not just a history of the weird through fiction, in that we’re uninterested in including something solely because it has been dubbed “influential,” or as loose a group of stories as a “treasury”, which is often another way of saying “these are just my favorite favorites.”
In past posts, I’ve mostly described the grinding process of trying to read everything, in part to blow off steam from some tight deadlines. But there’s a lot of process here, too, which I haven’t mentioned. We’re more or less testing the weird, and setting up some limits and parameters to give the anthology focus while not being so intent on focus that it means excluding some things that our gut tells us should be in the anthology. (Two definite areas outside of our mission: straightforward fairy tales, no matter how grim, and horror fiction, predominantly from late 1980s/early 1990s, that has not even a whiff of the inexplicable.)
Nothing we’ve read has come to us as a given, for one thing. Even classic stories should always be re-evaluated, and then tested against lesser-known material. Some people have said to us, “Oh, you have to include so-and-so or what’s-her-face.” We’ve ignored those types of impulses and instead just looked at the evidence. In some cases, the classics hold up quite well. In other cases, stories we once loved come off as second-rate in the cold light of reading a century’s-worth of material.
What is incontrovertible to us, in re-reading stories and encountering them for the first time, is that some classics do not suffer close inspection, and that some authors considered minor have, either as part of a larger body of good work or as one brief spark of genius, written stories that deserve further exposure. Nor is literature, as some think, a matter of evolution. There are troughs and peaks, periods of amazing imagination and periods of the amazingly dull (through which veil certain authors blaze all the more brightly). You cannot say a story written today is inherently better than one written in the 1920s, nor even that it will necessarily be more progressive. One of the most embarrassingly dated, supposedly classic, stories I’ve read comes from the 1990s, by a female writer. This may be more true of weird fiction than most because in either containing or encountering the inexplicable it tends to eschew those markers of an era that most frequently date a story. (Or, conversely, you could say that the weird tale has occurred most frequently within certain distinct modes, so that the shorthand we expect from it is comfortably present in earlier versions.)
There is also the issue of type, in addition to theme. Is a fiction by Saki or Dahl inherently inferior to one by Joyce Carol Oates just because the latter is more story than tale? The answer is no–each has its own particular type of leap toward perfection–and for this reason one area of balance is between the short, sharp shock and the longer, more lingering approach. Modes of fiction are also important. Surrealist and Decadent traditions have influenced a host of weird writers from the 1920s to the present day. The fruits of these traditions tend to be under-represented in most anthologies of weird or horror fiction, as are those non-English-speaking countries that have strong traditions of weird fiction (some, though, do not, and no wishing it was otherwise will change that fact).
We find ourselves asking questions. Is this story clear or murky? I don’t mean in the sense of an invisible or opulent style. I mean more in the sense of seeming in focus and readable. Is this story an echo or an original, and if an echo is this echo better than the original? Is this story compelling in terms of plot? In terms of character? Does this story adhere to its own internal logic throughout the narrative, even if it’s a dream-logic? Does this story seem universal or is it weighed down by annoying signifiers that tie it to a particular period? And, of course, is this story truly weird? This last question is perhaps the most subjective, but there’s something to saying you react to a story with your heart, head, and gut.
These are only a few of the issues and questions that Ann and I have been discussing as we read. Usually, I will read during the day, acting as a kind of scout, picking out interesting stories for Ann to read when she comes home at night. She then has the opportunity to re-read everything in the book, in addition to whatever I marked, and sometimes reversals occur. (For example, she found a Leonora Carrington story I’d missed that was vastly superior to the one I’d pointed out.) On weekends, this process reverses itself: Ann’s reading material first and passing it on to me.
In the evenings, every few days we will go out on the porch to smoke a cigar and drink whisky and talk about what we’ve read and about the shape of the anthology, and whether we think we’re on schedule. We express anxiety about whether we’ll be able to get the rights to the stories that we love so much that if we didn’t get them we’d be devastated. We talk about the relative merits of stories that are of equal quality, and what the inclusion of one story over the other means in terms of the tone and reach of the book. In all things, we are trying to encounter and live amongst the Evidence for as long as possible before drawing conclusions.