As you probably know already, this year, 2014, has been an amazing year for weird fiction — or as Scott Nicolay puts it succinctly in his article about the Weird, “we are in the middle of a Weird Renaissance.” This year, we saw weird fiction pervade everything from television to the New York Times. We saw some excellent titles from new publishers like Egaeus Press, Dark House Press, and Zagava. We also saw a new best of series, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, thanks to Michael Kelly and Laird Barron. This first volume is an amazing anthology — and a promising start to the series.
In addition to new publishers, we saw tons of fantastic original fiction. We saw a lot of great works from established authors like The Spectral Link by Thomas Ligotti to newer authors like Mike Allen’s debut collection, Unseaming. In fact, I wanted to make a list of my personal favorites from this year but I quickly amassed over fifteen entries. Instead of listing all of my picks from this year, I’ll just mention works that haven’t been covered already extensively on Weird Fiction Review or below by people who have been involved with WFR.
First, in the fall, I read two collections from ChiZine that were very different but both very excellent in their own rights. The first was Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After. The focus of this collection is Marshall’s writing; her well crafted stories feature very stylistic and very unsettling prose. From bucolic small towns to small fishing villages, the atmosphere Marshall crafts is very subtle but also very suspenseful.
The other collection, Robert Shearman’s They Do the Same Things Different There, is the polar opposite of Marshall’s. It trades in the subtle stylistic prose for dark humor and absurdity. It is every bit as good as Marshall’s collection too. It is a comfort to see such diversity in weird fiction as it’s a good indication of the spaces left to explore by authors of the Weird. It’s also a good indication for ChiZine Press who had a number of phenomenal releases this year including Shadow’s & Tall Trees and the aforementioned Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One.
Two other original collections that I really enjoyed was Scott Nicolay’s debut collection, Ana Kai Tangata, and D.P. Watt’s The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications. Nicolay’s collection contained a story, “Eye’s Exchange Bank,” that was also featured in Year’s Best. It was one of my favorite short stories that I read this year, and it’s clear that Nicolay has a promising future. Meanwhile, Watt’s collection featured a genre-bending set of stories that blurred weird fiction into the realms of surrealism and magical realism. In my opinion, Watt is at the pinnacle of both his career and modern Weird.
D.P. Watt’s Phantasmagorical Imperative was striking in its artwork. Another book this year that also featured some dazzling artwork was A Mountain Walked edited by S.T. Joshi and published by Centipede Press. The artwork almost eclipsed the fantastic stories that Joshi collects in this Cthulhu mythos anthology. Joshi states in the introduction that his intent was to show off “a vigorous cadre of younger writers who refuse to engage in mere imitation but instead use Lovecraft’s themes, imagery, and conceptions as a springboard for the expression of their own ideas.” His anthology far exceeded this goal. Another anthology I enjoyed was Infra Noir from Zagava who’s taken over some of Ex Occidente’s titles. With text written vertically and weird artwork featured alongside its stories, this weird anthology wasn’t afraid to push the bounds of strange literature.
I think this will be a year that will be remembered for a long time as the year when the Weird Renaissance hit full stride. The amount of quality weird fiction that is being produced now is staggering and the Weird is beginning to seep into other areas of fiction and pop culture. I think it’s safe to say this year is a tipping point and thus, it’s worthwhile to take stock of all the great releases that were released or discovered this year. Thus, we’ve compiled a list below of books that people associated with Weird Fiction Review this year have enjoyed in 2014. Also, we’d like to hear from you, our readers, which books you discovered this year so be sure to leave us your favorites in the comments below.
And so here’s to 2015! May it be another weird year!
- Thomas Ligotti, THE SPECTRAL LINK (Subterranean Press) – After a long hiatus that many, myself included, feared was permanent, Thomas Ligotti returned to the sphere of Horror fiction with a pair of new short stories, which are beautifully presented in this Subterranean Press volume. The tales evidence that Ligotti has lost none of his powers, particularly “The Small People”, which is an exemplary evocation of Freud’s Das Unheimliche.
- Amos Tutuola, MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS (Grove Press) – This 1954 novel is but one of the gems produced by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola before his death in 1997. Like many of his works, MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS draws upon the folklore of the Yoruba people. Mingling the visionary terror of the Spirits that inhabit the titular bush with the harrowing horrors of slavery and corruption, the novel sings with Tutuola’s barbed, earthy prose and a genuinely bewitching narrative sweep.
- Simon Strantzas, BURNT BLACK SUNS (Hippocampus Press) – The fourth collection by my fellow Canadian Simon Strantzas showcases his ever-diversifying talents as an author of weird fiction. From sprawling cosmicism to gritty realism, BURNT BLACK SUNS is a varied banquet of fine frights.
My newest acquisition is a book translated and edited by Jack Zipes, The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Andrea Dezso (Princeton University Press, 2014.) In the introduction, Zipes argues “that the first edition is just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimm brothers and the overall significance of their accomplishments. In fact, many of the tales in the first edition are more fabulous and baffling than those refined versions in the final edition, for they retain the pungent and naive flavor of the oral tradition.” These are earthy, marvelous tales that do not politely gloss over the fact of sexual encounters and class conflicts, as in later editions.
I want to recommend two new re-issues from The New York Review of Books. One is the marvelous, magical Krabat and the Sorceror’s Mill by Otfried Pruessler, translated by Anthea Bell (A New York Review Book, 2014.) Krabat is a teenage Wendish beggar when he is lured into the sorcerer’s mill or Black School with its mysteries and ravens and “dead stones.” Time moves as strangely there as in Faerie, and before long Krabat is a young man, still bound but a dangerous, adept pupil to his master. A few sweet, pure notes from the outside world suggest to Krabat that he might find a way to break away from his terrible apprenticeship. This magical bildungsroman gave back to me that delicious sensation of being completely lost in a story that belongs especially to childhood. Another book ostensibly for children that I dearly love was reissued by NYRB late in 2013: Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket, by Leon Garfield. If you like Stevenson and Dickens, try it! It’s full of adventure, murder, betrayal, and is fine proof (like the Otfried Pruessler book) that there’s no publisher’s category or genre in the world that matters in the end except the one called “a good book.”
If you’re thinking about a book of poems, I’d suggest Irresistible Sonnets, edited by Mary Meriam (Headmistress Press, 2014.) You’ll encounter a great number of poets interested in formal work, and you’ll find poems that range in focus from the ultra-mundane to the fantastical. I’d quote something, but I need to buy a new copy–someone walked off with mine.
My favorite 2014 nonfiction reading from the land of the weird was a slightly older book–Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, by Susan L. Aberth (Lund Humphries, 2010). While it’s not the last word on Carrington and her paintings (my margin notes sometimes argued with the author, and there’s room for a lot more discussion of her life and works), it’s an interesting book and has a good selection of illustrations.
- Thomas Ligotti, The Spectral Link (Subterranean Press) – Although the first story in this short collection, “Metaphysica Morum”, was perhaps not his best and trod pretty familiar territory, the second story, “The Small People”, struck me as more distinct and it makes this book well worth the price of admission. “The Small People” is, in my opinion, one of the strongest works that Ligotti has produced that I’ve had the privilege to read. In it are some of the anxieties and bizarre deformities that one will find in most of his works, but they are presented in a way that makes me confident that the author will continue to explore new territory for these recurring themes. The narrator of this piece lives side-by-side with a civilization of toy-like, miniature humans and finds himself consumed by revulsion for them, but much of the horror comes from his sense of unbelonging amongst his “own kind,” as he is continually beset by accusations of bigotry. Ligotti’s narrator is doubly displaced in this context, leading to much of the underlying “existential” horror that persists through the author’s work. This is a story that has stayed with me throughout the year and I intend to reread it soon.
- Robert Shearman, They Do the Same Things Different There (ChiZine) – By turns horrifying and hilarious, Robert Shearman’s short fiction is always worth a read. Best known perhaps for his work as a writer for Doctor Who, Shearman is very capable as a writer of his own dark speculative tales and I think he deserves more attention. Ellen Datlow selected “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” (included in this Shearman collection) as part of her “Best Horror of the Year” series, and that seems as good a place as any to start.
- Hannah Berry, Adamtine (Random House UK) – Although originally published in 2012 in the U.K., this title didn’t become available to U.S. stores until 2014. This is a strange, creepy graphic novel with echoes of Robert Aickman. A train mysteriously becomes stranded in the middle of the night and most passengers have disappeared. Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds concerning other strange disappearances that may be perpetrated by someone acting as a messenger from some strange, otherworldly force. The art is rendered beautifully and many panels are as genuinely creepy as anything you could find in a well-constructed shot from a horror movie, while the story itself is tightly told and leaves just the right amount to the imagination. I finished this book feeling perfectly unsettled. I loved the author’s previous work as well (Britten and Brülightly), a surreal and darkly comic riff on the hard-boiled detective novel.
- Dennis Detwiller, Delta Green: Tales from Failed Anatomies (Arc Dream Press) Before Charlie Stross got into the game, Delta Green redefined the Cthulhu Mythos for the modern day. These are stories for the generation that sat up nights to watch the X-Files, where the Cold War was a running joke that was over almost before they knew it, but whose lessons still haven’t been fully learned and digested today. Now, in an era where surveillance is rampant and the dissemination of secrets is easier than ever before, Detwiller’s cloak-and-tentacle tales remain more relevant than ever before.
- Jeffrey Shanks (Ed.), Zombies from the Pulps! (Skelos Press) We may have reached Peak Zombie, but sometimes it pays to go back and remind ourselves where the infection first took hold. Zombies from the Pulps! is a collection of some of the earliest walking-dead stories from the era of Black Mask and Weird Tales, when tales of Haitian voodoo first started trickling into the popular culture and corpses first shambled into unholy mockery of life from the Victorian-era ghost stories to the four-color horror pre-Code horror comics. Shanks’ has assembled quite the lineup, including H. P. Lovecraft, Henry S. Whitehead, Seabury Quinn, Ray Cummings, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, E. Hoffmann Price, Henry Kuttner, Robert E. Howard, and Manly Wade Wellman – as well as more obscure and rarely reprinted pulpsters.
- Nick Mamatas, The Nickronomicon (Innsmouth Free Press) There is an awareness that comes with being a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos, a familiar feeling when your eyes scan across the familiar names and you know that yes, once again you’re in a Mythos story, and as weird as it might be you have the comfort of knowing who the players are, and probably have a better sense for what’s at stake and what’s about to happen than any of the characters do. It’s refreshing when jaded brains are jolted out of complacency be something fresh, new, and different, and Mamatas is the writer that thinks outside of the hypercube. While I’ve very much enjoyed his Lovecraftian novels Move Under Groundand The Damned Highway: Fear and Loathing in Arkham (with Brian Keene), short stories are where Mamatas does his best work. This collection delivers.
I’m wildly behind on reading for 2014, but amazingly enough, I did manage to sneak in a few books that were actually published this year. These are the ones that stuck out for me.
- The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine. A novel re-telling the story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses in the era of speakeasies and prohibition would have caught my eye even if I didn’t already love Valentine’s writing. Like the best fairy tale re-tellings, this one digs deep beneath the surface of the source material, turning sketched-out characters who aren’t even given names in the original into living, breathing human beings. The relationship between the twelve sisters is the novel’s lifeblood. It’s often heartbreaking, the way family only can be, but it is always real. The glitter of the dresses, and the glamour of the dance halls makes a wonderful backdrop, but it’s Jo and her sisters that really make this novel sing.
- Kaleidoscope edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein/Long Hidden edited by Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older. This is a two for one recommendation, not because these books are interchangeable, but because they are similar — and similarly successful — in their aim. Both anthologies are the result of crowdfunding projects and seek to bring diverse stories by often marginalized authors, about often marginalized characters to the forefront. Long Hidden focuses on history and the stories we don’t hear — the stories told by women, children, and people of color — that are left on the edges and unfairly dismissed when most narratives are written. Kaleidoscope is aimed at a YA audience, but broader in its focus, encompassing fantasy, science fiction, and everything in-between. Both anthologies are filled with gorgeous stories with rarely a misstep in either, a rare thing for any collection.
- Maplecroft by Cherie Priest. Since this is Weird Fiction Review, I should include at least one Weird work, right? The premise of Maplecroft — Lizzie Borden Fights Monsters with Her Axe — could very easily have descended into silly camp. This novel caught me off-guard with its heart, as another story that places sisters front and center. Lizzie and Emma’s relationship is broken and messy and painful, but there’s love there as well, and a sense of strength that comes from two people standing together against the world. All of this is wrapped in a surprisingly brutal package, containing some truly creepy, effective, and horrifying scenes. Overall, the novel strikes the perfect balance between history, family, and the Weird.
- THE SPECTRAL LINK by Thomas Ligotti. It’s been too long since we last had some weird fiction from Ligotti. It would be a mistake to regard these two long stories as just a vehicle for his increasingly popular (with fans who also happen to be antinatalists, at least) worldview of total pessimism. I enjoyed the two novellas in this collection immensely. There are some brilliantly realised blackly comic episodes as well as some truly disturbing metaphors in both of the novellas. The Master is still at the top of his game.
- FOR THOSE WHO DREAM MONSTERS by Anna Taborska. The first collection from a highly talented and young Anglo-Polish author. Wicked black humour, a poetic sensibility and emotionally powerful narratives are all in evidence here, as is horrible folklore and a superlative sense of strange genius loci. The most remarkable feature of the book though may well be Taborska’s insight into human psychology and her highly polished authorial voice.
- BURNT BLACK SUNS by Simon Strantzas. Undoubtedly the collection of the year. Strantzas development as a writer of weird fiction continues and he improves with each new book. The tales herein are diverse, stunning and grim in their cosmic dread. “One Last Bloom” is a modern weird fiction classic.
- The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications (Egaeus Press), by D. P. Watt. Watt’s supernatural tales are a treasure. The stories here are a melange of influences — Vernon Lee, Ewers, Machen, M.R. James, Kubin — but Watt’s own style and sensibility cuts through, like the snick of a scythe. This is heady stuff. Watt is at the forefront of today’s weird fiction stylists. Macabre but never morbid. The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications is required reading for the weird fiction aficionado. And, as always, Egaeus Press has produced this in a gorgeous volume.
- Burnt Black Suns (Hippocampus Press), by Simon Strantzas. This is the fourth collection penned by Simon Strantzas, and it is his most ambitious work to date. The impressive thing about Strantzas is that each collection is a different flavour, a different texture. His stories linger. Even when he is at his most visceral, as he is here, he is an elegant wordsmith. And his stories seemingly offer up new insights upon re-readings. These are damaged souls in damaged environs, yes, but they are people we know all too well. People like us. And that’s why Strantzas is among the top practitioners of weird fiction.
- Here With the Shadows (Swan River Press), by Steve Rasnic Tem. Tem is a prolific writer of short fiction, but unlike other prolific authors the quality of his tales are always of the highest order. He’s a craftsman, a stylist, and a natural story-teller. Here With the Shadows presents us with a number of exquisite ghost stories and supernatural tales that leave liminal impressions and a faint, queer unease. Ghostly residues, as it were. These little literary soupcon’s are must-reads.
Other Notable Books: Mercy and Other Stories (Tartarus Press) by Rebecca Lloyd; The Lord Came at Twilight (Dark Renaissance), by Daniel Mills; Gifts For the Ones Who Come After (ChiZine Publications), by Helen Marshall; The Sea of Blood (Dark Renaissance), by Reggie Oliver; Letters to Lovecraft (Stone Skin Press), edited by Jesse Bullington.
- Simon Strantzas, Burnt Black Suns (Hippocampus Press). Like some kind of nightmare ink spread supernaturally across the page, these nine Rorschach’s of weird horror culminate in the collection’s titular novella, a piece so immersive and terrifying that it begs comparison to the work of T.E.D. Klein, particularly his groundbreaking collection Dark Gods. Strantzas writes with a passionate intensity that few authors can match. The apex of carefully-crafted terror.
- Smith, Ghouljaw & Other Stories (Hippocampus Press). The debut of a talented newcomer whose original tales and weird concepts break new ground. Smith is a master storyteller and literary wordsmith who concludes his fictions in the most unexpected and satisfying ways. That, and he is also one of a select few authors who has written a tale or two of what might be termed “culinary horror”. Highly palatable stuff. You’ll want seconds.
- Daniel Mills, The Lord Came at Twilight (Dark Renaissance Books). An accomplished debut of supernatural and historical wonders channeled to perfection. Mills strikes me as writer who thrills at the idea of imagining the past, someone who will stop at the side of the road to admire a lonely field, derelict house, leaning barn or crumbling chimney. He understands the dark mysteries such structures hold and is only too willing to listen to the ghosts of the past.
- The Black Dog That Ate The City, by Chris Kelso: Scottish Chris Kelso’s novel about a strange disease brought be a huge and mysterious black dog is a truly amazing tale of melancholy, terror and beauty that keeps haunting me. If you are into, as I am, new surrealistic fiction with a new weird twist, this book is definitely for you.
- The False Magic Kingdom Cycle/Your Cities Your Tombs, by Jordan Krall: This urban cut-up fiction takes on terrorism and collapsing buildings, secret medical experiments and Japanese underground films – among other stuff. Imagine David Lynch, JG Ballard and William Burroughs meeting in a snuff-movie theater, and you have a pretty good idea of what’s awaiting you: cutting edge avant-garde.
- Ascent, by Matt Bialer: If you think epic poetry is dead and that it is boring, Ascent will make you revise your opinion. Based on the 1903 Van Meter urban legend of a mysterious flying creature coming out of an abandoned mine, Matt Bialer attaches himself to the human sides of the legend and the consequences it entails. Extremely readable, subtle and intelligent, Bialer’s poem is also deeply moving and thought-provoking.
- The Horror Show, by Vincenzo Bilof: Another poetry collection that tells a full story, Vincenzo Bilof’s Horror Show is a nightmarish and beautiful trip through insanity and violence. Centered around a Nobel-prize and murderous poet that is reported missing, and an insane doctor that experiments with him, Bilof’s poems are both chilling and fascinating, blurring the limits between genres like poetry and fiction. A must-read.
- Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (HarperCollins). What can be said? I must add my voice to the growing chorus that testifies to the capacious, electric brilliance of Mandel’s post-apocalyptic Station Eleven. As the novel has it, cribbing from artistic sources from televisual science fiction to Shakespeare’s plays, “survival is insufficient.”
- Sjón, The Blue Fox; From the Mouth of the Whale; The Whispering Muse (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I’m a late-comer to Victoria Cribb’s translations of these three novels from Icelandic into English, with the latest dating from 2012. That’s no reason to discount them, however, since Sjón’s prose is both exquisitely lush and muscle-taut when the occasion calls. His stories take place on the very edge of the world where the borders between myth, stories, and cold reality are porous indeed.
- Jean Ferry, The Conductor and Other Tales (Wakefield Press). Again, this came out late last year, and so I must concede some slowness to my reading. That said, these stories have been buried in the archives of surrealist ephemera since 1950. Their emergence into the light (courtesy of translations into English by WFR’s own Edward Gauvin), is understandably gradual. Ferry’s surreal, sliver-short stories are certainly wistful explorations of loss, as Andre Breton wrote; however, they are also absolutely incendiary in their delivery and emotional impact. Claude Ballaré’s accompanying collages are the graceful accompaniment to Ferry’s dreamlike cartographies.
- William Kentridge, Six Drawing Lessons (Harvard). If you read any academic lectures this year, let it be these. If you haven’t discovered William Kentridge, let this be your introduction to his charcoal art of shadows.
- Helen Marshall, Gifts for the One Who Comes After. Marshall’s powerfully disconcerting prose can switch from sentimental whimsy to disturbing grotesque in a single sentence. She baits her snares with believable, relatable characters and powerful affect, and the reader blunders into a tightening loop of the bizarre and dread.
- Jeff VanderMeer, Southern Reach Trilogy. These are mesmerizing, harrowing, and deeply moving books. They are constantly becoming other, shifting genre, tone, style, and the reader is continually wrong-footed. The last volume, Acceptance, is an incredible bit of alchemy, which brings together the various elements of the trilogy’s plot in a way that’s satisfying, but also denies the reader any kind of definitive or ‘closed’ interpretations, leaving Area X hauntingly open and inscrutable. These books outweird the Weird, but retain a heart-rending human core.
- D.P. Watt, The Phantasmagorical Imperative and Other Fabrications, and Mark Samuels, Written in Darkness. Two powerful collections of weird stories that focus more on the transmutative than the bleak. Tales of becoming in which dread is suffused with ecstasy. Watt writes more in a European tradition of decadent mutability, while Samuels’s fictions are in the British hermetic line, but these collections make good companion pieces. Both released in editions by Egaeus Press that are compelling artefacts in their own right.
- Nicholas Rombes, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing. In Rombes powerful, fragmented fiction, a man, with deep sadness in his past, interviews Laing, a former film librarian. Laing describes a number of films he’s destroyed for their dark mesmeric power. An unsettling, deeply strange, and innovative metatext, with nightmarish implications subliminally cut in.
- M. John Harrison, ‘The 4th Domain’. A potent distillation of Harrison’s bleakly compelling corpus. There are sardonic references to Borges, seedy séances in a house by a graveyard, intimations of ancient lost civilizations, shattered lives, blood, and forbidden lore. Like the Thames at East Sheen, it has a surface scum that glisters deceptively, but dark currents lie beneath. Harrison achieves in this short story what, for most, would take an entire novel.
- C.D. Rose, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure. C.D. Rose’s odd book masquerades as a series of brief biographies of lost and forgotten writers. It’s erudite and playful, quirky and poignant. And deeply weird. There’s Borgesian absurdity and Kafkaesque nightmare here, and a couple of entries reference little-known decadent and weird progenitor, Count Stenbock.
- Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters. This novel begins in fairly conventional serial killer territory, but has weird speculative elements glued on bit by bit. At first this is barely noticeable, but the effect mounts, and, by the end, the book has become an utterly harrowing chimera, concluding on a note of utter dread.
- John Howard and Mark Valentine, Secret Europe. A slight cheat, as this book was initially released in 2012 and reissued this year. A mesmerizing collection of strange fiction. These tales cover the whole gamut of moods and tones, but are held together by setting: the backwaters of Europe between the wars, the fraying hems of unravelling empires. But the gaze is unflinching, not wistful, nostalgic. The atmosphere throughout is uncanny, but the supernatural element is largely muted, though the denouement of some of the stories will give rise to a shudder. A compelling and affecting weird travelogue.
- Cardboard Computer, Kentucky Route Zero. Not a book, but a computer game, in which the player guides characters around a surreal and beautiful Kentucky, both over- and underground, and chooses between dialogue options which range from the bizarrely upbeat to the hauntingly melancholy. The developers have described it as a magical realist adventure game, but it braids together the naturalistic, and the utterly bizarre, and can be claimed for the Weird. The first part was released in 2013, but Act III, released this year, is the most mesmerizing yet.