Weird Reading Update

For the book of weird fiction (which I may have alluded to once or twice here) Ann and I are now in that phase of further testing that comes before final and last decisions, with over six hundred thousand words chosen.

The interesting thing is how “the weird” as opposed to just “weird” has manifested itself and guided our choices. This isn’t to say there isn’t just plain old “weird” fiction in the anthology, but that the dominant tracks we are collecting do first and foremost deal with “the weird” in the sense of the supernatural–sometimes horrifying, sometimes transcendent. From that main thread, other elements come into alignment.

Certain types of SF-horror have the right feel, even with no supernatural element. A few stories are immersed in the weird while not partaking of it. Some commercial horror clearly has communication with the weird and some does not. Certain “Twilight Zone”-type stories enter into honest transactions with the weird and others do not. Certain “literary” stories enter the weird and certain pulp stories don’t. As mentioned in a previous post, zombies/werewolves/vampires are being de-emphasized, along with subtle ghost stories.

Some lost classics breach the surface monstrously and slowly sink from sight while others remain in mind and vision for days after and must thus be assimilated.

We noted too many stories set in Venice, which, apparently, is menacing by default. We ignored almost all stories in which the “fantastical” element takes the form of a hunchback or dwarf. We also ignored all stories that reference other stories to a distracting degree; most of these constitute a form of fan fiction. Similarly, we haven’t taken anything that could be described as “postmodern” or “winking” at the reader. Given that we had so many stories to choose from, we ignored any classics that didn’t seem to “read modern”–i.e., no Cotton Mathery stuff.

Certain decisions have been very difficult. For example, we finally chose Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” over stories like “The Metamorphosis” and “The Country Doctor” because we feel it more accurately portrays one thread of the weird prevalent throughout the twentieth century better than the more overtly fantastical stories (it also feels more relevant).

Stories like Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” seemed murky on a first encounter, then came into sharp focus after our other reading, and were no-brainers to include (thanks, Eric). A strong strain of Japanese weird is clear throughout the twentieth century, and we hope to chart that progression with an unbroken chain of evidence dating back to 1918. The role of surrealists like Leonora Carrington in carrying forward the weird is also important.

In some ways, we want echoes and in others we do not. Certain later stories amplify and riff off of earlier stories in ways that work. Others, in that context, didn’t seem to add anything. (A good example: Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”, about a boat ride up the Danube, eclipses the later “Three Miles Up” by Elizabeth Jane Howard, also about a boat ride, in such a way that we couldn’t include the Howard. However, Blackwood’s piece works nicely with a Jean Ray and another piece; this may certainly be seen as heresy, we know.)

Many authors we love who write fantasy and horror but do not really engage the weird will not be represented while some writers who rarely write “horror” have one or two stories saturated in the weird that fit perfectly. (That said, the great thing is that the research for this book will mean less work on future volumes, including a possible dark fantasy volume we may be doing.) The extreme creepiness of certain stories, like “The Specialist’s Hat”, became much more evident in the context of other reading–as did connections to the work of Shirley Jackson and Joanna Russ. The dark humor of Thomas Ligotti’s work demonstrated interesting variation of tone, and brings out reader awareness of this element in other chosen stories.

A couple of novel excerpts that felt important will make the cut, including an extended excerpt from Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side.

And that’s all, really, I can say at this time. Examination of the evidence continues. At this point, we are very tired and moving very slowly in our last decisions as a result.

Comments

  1. Theo says

    Have you considered any Robert Walser short stories? He was a major influence on Kafka, and some of his shorts, like “The Festival of Flowers” might really suit.

  2. says

    Theo: Do you mean “Flower Days”? That one doesn’t really work. We’re looking at some of his others. Trying to track down original publication dates since our cut-off is 1908 and we prefer to think of the stories in terms of their first publication, not translation into English. Then, also, getting hold of a translation can sometimes be more difficult than imagined. But we’re working on it.

  3. says

    The other thing we’re getting excited about is possibly doing a surrealist-absurdist overview of the last 100 years. That would then put some of Kafka’s work in a different context.

    Jeff

  4. says

    I keep wondering whether there will be any Steven Millhauser in the volume. His short stories are really wonderful, and, I think, very much of “the weird.” But truly, even 1/2 million words must feel like too few around now. It’s clear to me that this book will very much need to be in my library!

  5. says

    Millhauser’s a good writer, but the couple of times we’ve tried to acquire stories from him it’s been a tortuous process so we decided to beg off this time.

  6. says

    “At precisely that moment when reason seeks to recover the subject and repress the numinous, the weird is activated, amplifying the uncanny and assuming a corporeal form, either becoming a god (or god-thing), or splintering into multiple agents which generally manifest as expressions of the grotesque and carnivalesque.” – I’d like to meet the *genius* that wrote that… ;)

    From what you’ve been posting Jeff, I’m very interested to read your definition of the term. I like that you’re sticking to a concept of “the weird” and not weird fiction in general. Very exciting.

  7. says

    Seth: Like I said, we are, but with exceptions. That’s our main thread, but other stuff spurls off of it.

    We’re convinced that “just weird” is often part of “surrealism”.

  8. says

    There’s an aspect of certain monsters being expressions of “the weird” whether they exist in a supernatural context or not. Does this equal heresy? Perhaps.

  9. says

    That bit about a possible surrealist-absurdist view of the past 100 years about gave me a litgasm, considering how fascinating I find the cultural history of the 1914-1939 period to be. Would love to see what stories you and Ann would choose to reflect this. There certainly is much in the Weimar and early Nazi times that would have to have some fascinating surrealist counterparts.

  10. says

    We would love to do such a book, and will be proposing it to a few publishers. We’re sick over some of the stuff that doesn’t fit our brief for weird but is related to it, and such a retrospective would be very close to my heart.

  11. says

    The other thing we’re getting excited about is possibly doing a surrealist-absurdist overview of the last 100 years.

    I’d read that.

  12. says

    Pitched the right way, I could see such a book drawing all sorts of coverage, especially if it were to come out around June 2014 and had tie-ins to World War I. But I’m biased; that conflict was such a cultural/social/political/military mindf**k (for the children) that it’s only now that the anarchists/terrorists have recovered their twisted sense of sanity.

  13. says

    Agreed. Only anthology I can think of that size are the Norton Books of Literature that are used in several college classrooms. Maybe someone could use this anthology for teaching as well? Is it structured for that?

  14. says

    That would be a dream project. Of course, this weird one is, too.

    I’m glad you get to do dream projects, even if they try to kill you in the process.

  15. Jeff VanderMeer says

    It is interesting, isn’t it? Although to be fair it’s probably the deadline killing us more than the project. Usually you’d have 18 to 24 months to complete a project like this. From acceptance to completion here is about four months. It’s required working 18-hour days for the last two months, and making best possible use of the internet. But I’m confident that we came to the same place we would be at after 18 months in a normal scenario. Give or take a story or two.

    Jeff

  16. says

    I, for one, would adore to see this anthology in high school and college classrooms.

    One of the greatest limitations of the almighty Nortons is their attempts at being everything kind of makes them nothing.

  17. says

    Cool on reading how stories you’re choosing reflect and have conversations with one another. I love stories that do that, that don’t live in a vacuum, but rather talk to other stories, enrich themselves and the original story, have arguments with them, etc.

    Another good story that riffs on another good story is Kelly Link’s Water Off a Black Dog’s Back which riffs on Flannery O’Conner’s Good Country People (and I riff on them both in the story Glass Coffin Girls)…

    But water off a Black Dog’s Back is one of those quiet stories that haunts you, that kind of stays with you. And when you read it in tandem with Good Country People, you see an argument taking place….between themes and ideas.

  18. Conor says

    I’m glad you chose In the Penal Colony rather than The Country Doctor or the Metamorophosis. I think my favorite Kafka is the very short Poseidon.

  19. GabrielM says

    Am glad you’re including “The Willows”. If I had to choose my favorite piece of short weird fiction it would probably be Machen’s “The White People”. I read it every few years and it always unsettles me out on some level. “There are the white ceremonies and the green ceremonies and the scarlet ceremonies, but the scarlet ceremonies are the best.” Brrr….

  20. says

    GabrielM-
    OOOOH I love Machen’s The White People. I read it when I was 8 and I wanted to go and travel to the strange country the girl wrote about in her journals. It disturbed and excited me at the same time.

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