Review: The Weird

By Mason Ian Bundschuh

VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, ed. The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales. TOR/Tom Doherty Associates, LLC (May 8, 2012). 1126 pages.

Let me be forthright: If you love that which is weird, inexplicable and eerie, then stop what you’re doing and pick yourself up a copy of The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales. The hundred-plus stories chosen by editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, spanning over a century, showcase how far the tendrils – sorry – tentacles of weird fiction have reached into every literary nook and genre cranny, infecting so many writers of diverse style. In all, The Weird is a compelling and sometimes surprising collection of weird fiction.

Wait, what’s that you say? “What kind of genre is weird fiction, anyhow?”

(You do read Innsmouth Free Press, don’t you?)

As VanderMeer points out in his introduction, it is difficult to define. Sure, weird fiction can look and smell like sci-fi, fantasy, realism, magical realism, surrealism, and, of course, horror – but the thing that makes it a ‘weird’ tale is less to do with genre than feel. Weird fiction is disquieting. Unsettling. Weird fiction is where the edges of reality become frayed so that something other pokes through.

That is what you’ll find in The Weird, A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales. They aren’t tales of mere fright or gruesomeness, for those things are ancillary in the world of weird fiction. In the pages of The Weird, you will find what Algernon Blackwood calls, “The curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here on the borders of an alien world…where we were not wanted.”

The Weird is chock-full of a disturbing atmosphere of numinous dread. Any roll call will hardly scratch the surface, but let me try to paint a picture of the breadth of this anthology: It stretches from the staple writers of classic weird like H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood – to the modern peddlers of inarticulable strangeness such as Joyce Carol Oates (“Family”), and Michael Chabon (“The God of Dark Laughter”).

Considering the hundred-year span and wildly diverging authors, I was struck with how consistently excellent The Weird is: no small feat for any anthology where it is easy to put theme before style. Maybe it’s because ‘weirdness’ as a unifying trait has so much more leeway than, say, an anthology of Vampire-Mer-Unicorns.

There are plenty of superstars, such as Stephen King; Neil Gaiman; the late, great Ray Bradbury; and even George R.R. Martin. But there are plenty of writers whom you ought to have read, such as Charles Beaumont, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, and one of my personal favourites, Jorge Luis Borges. There are even a few surprises (Jamaica Kincaid’s Kafka-esque “My Mother” comes to mind.)

Be warned, however – the simple fact that The Weird spans a century and features such a diverse cast of writers means that you might not resonate with everything. Those who think the fustian archaisms of H.P. Lovecraft are the end-all-be-all of weird will appreciate even modern stories such as Mark Samuels’ “The White Hands” and Tanith Lee’s “Yellow and Red”. Others might have a hard time with the purple of Gothic prose or Pulp-era affectation. Or conversely, you might not be keen on modern literary, or slipstream, or transgressive styles. You get the idea. But at least you will be challenged and broadened as a reader, right?

At the moment, my favourite liminal tales featured in The Weird are “The Hell Screen” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “The Book” by Margaret Irwin, and “Flat Diane” by Daniel Abraham. (Ask me again tomorrow and then again next week; it keeps changing.)

The Weird is a must-have for anyone who likes stories of strange darkness that burrow under your skin and lay little eggs to hatch slowly for years to come. It is incredibly entertaining, expansive and unsettling.

Bio: Mason Ian Bundschuh is a writer, musician and troublemaker who was raised in Hawaii, educated in England, and now resides in Las Vegas (much to his surprise). He has appeared in such weird-friendly places as Crossed Genres, Wily Writers, and Innsmouth Free Press’s own Historical Lovecraft. You can stalk him at: www.MasonBundschuh.com.