The short story is by far the most popular form of weird fiction — after all, when an idea or situation becomes familiar, it ceases to be weird. Thus, we find the landscape of strange literature littered with short story after short story — some good, others bad. With thousands of potential new short stories being written each year, it’s nothing short of a herculean task to weed through them all and find the best ones. Michael Kelly and Laird Barron have undertaken this chore though with the inaugural volume of a new best-of series, The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One.
The series follows an interesting format in that each year, a new guest editor will join the project. For the first year, series editor Michael Kelly chose Laird Barron, a well known and well respected name when it comes to weird fiction. The anthology opens with an informative foreword by Kelly. I was rather disappointed to hear that many publishers did not respond to Kelly’s requests for material. I hope that the success of this first entry might remedy this.
The next chapter, “We Are For The Weird,” is a introductory essay by Barron on what sorts of parameters define the weird tale and what makes a story worthy of inclusion into this best-of collection. It also gives some background to Barron’s life and his admiration for weird writers like Algernon Blackwood. The name itself is a clever play on name of the short story collection by Robert Aickman and Elizabeth Jane Howard, We Are for the Dark.
This is then followed by a opening chapter by Simon Strantzas called “The Nineteenth Step” which served as the introduction to the anthology Shadows Edge. This narrative is reminiscent of the introduction of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood in terms of both function and excellence. From there we begin to dive into a series of weird tales starting with Tremblay’s “Swim Wants to Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks” which chronicles a meth addict’s encounter with sea monsters. Tremblay has been on my radar since I first read his work in The New Black. Tremblay is followed by the humorous scifi adventure from A. C. Wise, “Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron,” which gives a few nods to past weird writers.
Then came one of my favorite entries, “The Year of the Rat” by Chen Qiufan, a futuristic scifi story that describes a weird battle between Chinese soldiers and genetically engineered rats. I was rather impressed by both Qiufan and his translator, Ken Liu, a writer who sometimes translates Chinese fiction. I think story affirmed why anthologies are essential: to help readers discover new authors and works outside their normal periphery. Another standout in the book was “Olimpia’s Ghost” by Sofia Samatar, who recently won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and British Fantasy Award for Best Novel. It weaves a rather interesting narrative through a chain of correspondences from a young girl who has dreams involving E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Der Sandmann.” It starts out innocent enough but soon descends (or ascends?) into the realms of weird. In terms of weirdness, Jeff VanderMeer’s “No Breather in the World But Thee” was weird even by weird fiction standards and served as the final entry to the anthology.
On the creepier, darker side of the weird fiction spectrum, Scott Nicolay deftly crafts a modern Gothic tale in the “Eyes Exchange Bank” that recalls Poe’s writings. Nicolay’s debut collection has received a lot of praise and it’s easy to see why. In addition, there was also a story from Kristi DeMeester, which managed to be both short and creepy; Richard Gavin’s tale “A Cavern of Redbrick,” which features the ghosts and jinns as part of a horrific family drama; a story about Emily Dickinson from Jeffrey Ford, which worked out well even though I was initially a bit skeptical; “Fox into Lady” by Anne-Sylvie Salzman that featured a weird sort of birth; and “Furnaces” by Lisa Llewellyn, about a young girl from a small town where things aren’t what they seem.
Some of my favorites in this collection came from authors I had not read before. Damien Angelica Walters presented a fragmented story involving two lovers in “Should I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?” In “The Krakatoan,” Maria Dahvana Headley crafts an interesting family story told through the viewpoint of an astronomer’s child. Karin Tidbeck’s story “Moonstruck,” which also centered around a celestial theme, follows a child whose mother is obsessed with the moon. Finally, in “The Girl in the Blue Coat” by Anna Taborska, we get an interesting ghost story set in Poland during World War II.
There were also some solid stories from authors I was well acquainted with like John Langan, Joseph S. Pulver Sr., and W. H. Pugmire. Overall, I was pretty impressed with Barron’s and Kelly’s ability to balance out established weird writers with some of the newer and lesser known voices.
The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One leans slightly more towards the darker end of the weird fiction spectrum, but it does so without sacrificing the unique prose that has been a mainstay in the tradition. Certainly, the variety of stories is one of the book’s strengths. In the end, I think it’s a very satisfying anthology that should appeal to fans from those new to weird to even some of the more erudite. Without a doubt, the series has much promise. It should be interesting to see how next year’s volume with Kathe Koja at the helm will compare.