We’re mere weeks away from the end of the calendar year for 2012, and it’s only natural to take stock of things from the whole year before now: things we did, saw, ate, and in this particular case, read. So, for this year’s round of reading recommendations, I solicited some favorites from contributors and friends of Weirdfictionreview.com, picking their brains to see what stuck with them the most.
For my part of things, I heartily recommend Karin Tidbeck’s short story collection, Jagannath, which has sparked my imagination like nothing else. It’s been heavily praised thus far this year, and so I wasn’t surprised to see all of our contributors either mention Tidbeck’s collection in their recommendations or privately rave about it via email.
This has been a banner year for short fiction in general, as our site founder Jeff VanderMeer states in his recent Omnivoracious blog post, and several different single-author collections are worth noting: Elizabeth Hand’s Errantry, Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees, and Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace. All of these writers are supremely talented artists, willing to bend genres and push boundaries of fiction, going into the weird, surreal, and visionary without hesitation, and should be upheld as some of the finest practitioners of not just weird fiction, but fiction, period. Another single-author collection I enjoyed from a writer who is only starting her career is Berit Ellingsen’s Beneath the Liquid Skin, which held me with its unique sensibility, blending a surreal imagination with a detailed, almost clinical or scientific eye, as it were.
One of the most surprising discoveries I made this year was Matvei Yankelevich’s brief mixed genre book Boris by the Sea (Octopus Books, 2010), which freely blends fiction, poetry, and playwriting. The narrative unfolds and doubles back on itself at equal measures as the titular character finds himself deconstructing and reconstructing his world and his own literal existence, while the Author (yes, capitalized) struggles with his own role in things. The brief play vignettes are fond of depicting scenes impossible to portray onstage, but that’s beside the point with this book, which is more than anything concerned with the theater of the mind. It’s the kind of book that seems to attract adjectives: existential, philosophical, metaphysical, metafictional. I would add weird to that list.
I’m also a fan of comic books and graphic novels, and two releases from the past twelve months bear mentioning to audiences of weird fiction. The first is Prophet: Remission, the first volume of a daringly inventive weird sci-fi series published by Image Comics. The series subverts and reinvigorates the familiar framework of a lost, lone warrior trekking through a strange landscape by casting that warrior as an astronaut, John Prophet, who explores increasingly alien worlds with increasingly alien beings and machines, littered with the detritus of past civilizations (some of which are human), as he attempts to restart the Earth Empire. The comic feels like the result of an ongoing dare between the writer, Brandon Graham, and his stable of artists — Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonogiannis — to outdo each other by thinking of the most bizarre, out-of-this-world things imaginable and then trying to depict them. Overwhelmingly, they succeed.
The second is the Eisner Award-winning A Tale of Sand, a graphic novel adaptation of an unproduced screenplay from Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, originally written in 1967, lushly illustrated by Ramón Pérez. It’s a surreal, existential chase story following one man’s escape through an endless desert from an increasingly bizarre band of pursuers, as part of a larger game for which he was unwillingly conscripted. A Tale of Sand is a rewarding read in and of itself, but it also serves as a revealing peek into the early creative machinery of Henson, who of course would go on to become famous for the Muppets, among other projects. This book reveals a similar free-flowing, fun spirit, but noticeably more absurd and uninhibited — and possibly even darker.
That’s enough from me, for starters. Let’s move on to our contributors: Kat Clay, Leah Thomas, Sofia Samatar, Larry Nolen, and John H. Stevens. They’ve given their picks for their favorites books from this year (and in some cases even given suggestions for ideal snacks whilst reading). Of course, any such list is by nature incomplete because there are always more perspectives and recommendations to be had. So, readers should feel free to leave their own recommendations in the comments below!
China Miéville, Railsea (Del Rey). It’s a difficult feat to balance philosophy and narrative drive in a novel for young adults, but I think China Miéville achieved that balance in Railsea. Sham Yes Ap Soorap joins a moletrain in search of the great white Mole, Mocker Jack. Part Moby Dick, part Treasure Island, Railsea is a rollicking adventure.
Best read with: Golden ale, mince pies and your kids.
Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts/The Brides of Rollrock Island (Allen & Unwin). Margo Lanagan’s most recent novel examines the use and abuse of women on a small Scottish island. A sea witch discovers she has the power to change the island by summoning selkies. Lanagan’s voice and use of language is really beautiful and the conclusion is quite moving.
Best read with: Whiskey, seaweed snacks and Hamish Macbeth reruns.
Graham Joyce, Some Kind of Fairy Tale (Gollancz). When Tara returns to her family after a 20-year absence, the explanations for her disappearance take on the guise of a sinister fairy tale. The book is a narrative on the nature of fantasy and how we treat those who claim to have supernatural experiences. It gets bonus points for actually being set at Christmas
Best read with: Pudding and a pint.
William S Burroughs, Naked Lunch (Grove Press). Saying you like weird fiction without reading Burroughs is like saying you like cereal without milk. Massacres, orgies, obscenities, profanities… delightful holiday reading. Prepare to enter the drug-induced coma world of the Interzone, “A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum.”
Best read with: Your Grand Aunt Doris who’s a little hard of hearing.
James Ellroy, Shakedown (Byliner). Fred Otash, stuck in purgatory, must dictate his life story to James Ellroy using a psychic connection in order to get to heaven. There’s a great moment when Fred talks to a bug on a Las Vegas carpet in the vein of the Metamorphosis. Ellroy is best known for LA Confidential and this novella contains his signature elements but does so using a bizarre narrative twist. Is it weird or not? You be the judge.
Best read with: A $5.99 Turkey Christmas Buffet at the Bellagio.
Special Mention goes to The Weird — At the risk of brown-nosing the owners and editor of this website, it is a really great book! Perfect stocking stuffer if you’ve got a particularly large and hefty stocking.
When it comes to reading novels, I tend to lag a few years behind the times. I’m not sure if I’ve read more than three books that were actually published in 2012…but I am more on top of my comics reading list. Therefore I give you fair warning – three of the recommendations below are for stories that include pictures. (DOOM!)
Karin Tidbeck, Jagganath (Cheeky Frawg Books). No doubt this title will appear elsewhere on this list, but I honestly can’t think of a single book I would rather have people read than this one. You know a collection is brilliant when you can’t even begin to pick favorites (if pressed I’d have to say there’s a particular soft spot in my heart for “Cloudberry Jam” – but only if pressed, mind you); every story in this book is beautiful and strange and impossible to describe. So I won’t. Go read and reread them.
John Layman and Rob Guillory, Chew Volumes 1 – 6 (Image Comics). Chew is one of the most enjoyable comic series I’ve read in years and I make a point of recommending it to just about everyone and their moms. Chew takes place in a world where a deadly poultry plague wiped out a huge portion of the population. It documents the whacky shenanigans of cibopath Tony Chu, a detective for the FDA who uses his unique ability to receive psychic impressions from anything he puts in his mouth (except for beets, for unknown reasons) to solve cases — in part by eating rotting pieces of dead people. If this sounds disgusting, it is –- but in the most delightful way possible. It’s part buddy-cop homage, part mystery, part social satire and no small part gross-out hilarious.
Juan Santapau, The Secret Knots. One of the oddest pieces of fiction I’ve had the frustrating pleasure to read is this series of episodic, sporadically posted webcomics about…well, I’m not sure. According to Santapau, these are “comics about things we do without knowing why.” Childhood fantasies, fears and myths seem to be a common theme. The art is a bit reminiscent of the works of Dave McKean, but the stories are unique. Just don’t expect regular updates.
Magnolia Porter, Monster Pulse. Here’s one for the kiddies…or for anyone who thinks kids’ bodily organs separating themselves from their owners and turning into dinosaur-like monsters sounds like a pretty neat idea. (You know I’m talking to you.) Monster Pulse is another webcomic that I thoroughly enjoy, and it’s YA friendly. Of course, like The Secret Knots, you don’t have to pay to read it. But there’s something to be said for free presents. Monster Pulse updates three times a week.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer eds., The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (Tor Books). I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, but there’s no getting around the fact that The Weird gave me my most intense and memorable reading experience of 2012. Ambitious, adventurous and wide-ranging, the collection presents the weird as a constantly shifting, yet surprisingly persistent sensibility – and delivers a much higher percentage of striking and beautiful stories than any anthology I’ve read.
Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Drowing Girl: A Memoir (Roc Trade). This is the story of India Morgan Phelps – “Imp” to her friends – who struggles with love, ghosts, schizophrenia, and painting. Among other things, the novel reflects on art as a form of haunting, and the artist as a person perpetually grappling with terror. It’s a complex, intoxicating and scary book, and my favorite novel of 2012.
Margo Lanagan, Sea Hearts/The Brides of Rollrock Island (Allen and Unwin/David Fickling Books). It’s sort of appropriate that this book has two titles, given that its subject is defined by being two things: woman and seal. Lanagan spins a melancholy tale of an island where all the women are selkies. Beautiful, mysterious, and outwardly docile, the selkies long to get back to the sea, causing incomprehension and pain to their human families. Like the sea, this fairy tale has depths, containing subtle meditations on beauty, modernity, and nature.
Dubravka Ugresic, Baba Yaga Laid An Egg (Grove Press). This one came out in 2011; I read it this year and loved it. Ugresic uses the iconic witch as the entry point for a story about women and aging. The result is an exuberant pastiche featuring casinos, dementia and folklore studies. Like Baba Yaga herself, Ugresic’s novel is tough, unsentimental, wicked and weird.
K.J. Bishop, The Etched City (Spectra). I’m allowing myself one “old” book: this one came out almost a decade ago, and I read it for the first time this year. It’s a rich, surreal novel of trauma and transformation, set in a war-torn fantasy world where crime has become a kind of order. The main characters come up with very different answers to the same question: What do you do when the war is over? If you’re like me, and you missed this one: go back for it.
Laszló Krasznahorkai, Satantango (New Directions). At times disorienting, others bleak, Satantango is the translation of acclaimed Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai’s 1985 first novel. It is named after a peculiar dance, performed here by villagers who may be seeing things that could be there, believing in things that might be exist. It is a haunting, hallucinogenic novel that confronts readers with the possibility that reality as they know it (or as the characters perceive it) may be beyond their ability to grasp.
Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg). Tidbeck’s thirteen stories enchant readers with their mixture of odd, weird circumstances and vividly drawn characters. Some tales are told with wryness, while others contain layers of sadness. Yet no two closely resemble one another in form or style, with the exception of a personal, almost “confessional” tone that a few of the stories have. Instead, the thirteen stories feel more like fractured prisms from which the light is split ever so much into different spectra, creating a plethora of images and tales that tackle different aspects of human interactions with each other and the world around them. The weirdness created by this fracturing does not detract from the stories, but rather causes the reader to pay closer attention to what is transpiring; depth of theme and character thus is improved through this.
Michael Cisco, Celebrant (Chômu Press). Cisco’s latest novel might be his weirdest, most surreal novel yet. Out of the books on my list, it is the hardest to sum up in a pithy paragraph. It involves backwards-flowing time, cityscapes that are among the most fantastical since Calvino’s Invisible Cities, “natural” robots that have become deified by the people around them, and a quest that may be that of the deranged. Yet it is much, much more than that, as Cisco’s prose transforms even the more mundane narrative features into something marvelous.
Brian Evenson, Windeye (Coffee House Press). Evenson’s latest collection is his best since The Wavering Knife. The stories here contain much of the emotionally and physically violent energy that permeate his earlier collections, perhaps with more of a concentration on the claustrophobia of enclosed spaces, whether they be of human relationships or of our attempts to escape confinement from a world that is increasingly alien and incomprehensible to us. Evenson’s stories unsettle the reader, often forcing her to confront fears that she perhaps did not know lurked within her.
Jeffrey Ford, Crackpot Palace (HarperCollins). Ford’s short fictions have felt more “real” to me because of the ability of readers to empathize with his characters, many of whom are adolescent and/or suburban dwellers. Even in stories like “Daltharee,” the bottled city, there is this sense that the characters inhabit their weird environs, trying to tame them, make them something to which they could relate. Knowing that these attempts to corral the wild, the weird, the inexplicable often will fail makes these stories powerful, subtly frightening tales that linger in readers’ subconsciousnesses like a troubling, half-remembered dream.
JOHN H. STEVENS
Robert Jackson Bennett, The Troupe (Orbit). This is a coming-of-age story at the end of the world, set on a minor vaudeville circuit of the 1930s. As I noted in a review, it is “a novel that was sometimes darkly funny, often serious, and entirely fixated on the idea that, from all the days until the last, all the world’s a stage; not only is nothing as it seems, but we humans like it that way. Or, more precisely, need it that way to function.” The world if full of magic, but it is corrupt, exhausted, and costly to employ. The only constants are morality and love. Beautifully written, The Troupe is strange, delightful, and sometimes heart-breaking.
Seb Doubinsky, Goodbye Babylon (Black Coffee Press). For me, this is one of the best books to come out in the last several years. It is a tangled book, with different narrative and prose stylings brawling to be more meaningful than the others, demanding that the reader pay close attention as the characters struggle to make sense of their lives in a city that is dark, capricious, and magical. It is a bundle of stories about the lives of people struggling to make their way through a crazy world. The characters range from a philosophical police commander to a poet-assassin, but while the plots vary the stories are all about navigating the labyrinth of life; not to escape death, but to live life as vitally as possible before it finds you…
Kiini Ibura Salaam, Ancient, Ancient (Aqueduct Press). A collection of Salaam’s short stories that will make you squirm and shudder even as you want to smile or cry. These stories test the limits of genre fiction as they draw the reader into worlds that are strange and startling. Sensual and lyrical, these 13 stories explore desire, fear, and resilience as the characters encounter deities, aliens, and humans weirder than either of those entities. Entering the worlds Salaam creates is like entering an intense dream that has no rules but that shows the reader what it means to be human.
Now: tell us your favorites! What did you most enjoy reading in 2012?