It’s a Weird Summer at WFR

Haralambi MarkovHello weird readers. I hope you’re having a good summer. New content this summer has been quite sporadic at Weird Fiction Review due to vacations, workshops, and other events. Despite the lack of pieces we’ve posted this summer, we’ve had some tremendous works. We’ve featured some great stories including “When Raspberries Bloom in August” by Haralambi Markov, “A Hard Truth About Waste Management” by Sumanth Prabhaker, and “Mutation Planet” by Barrington J. Bayley. Also, we continued our 101 Weird Writers series with an excellent piece on Saki by Leif Schenstead-Harris.

Be sure to check those out and we’ll be back in September. We have some new fiction stories and new nonfiction pieces by weird writers who have contributed articles about some of their favorite authors and works. So stay tuned!

Our Journey Through Strange Ornithology Continues

Wilson's_Bird_of_Paradise_BestDear beloved weird fiction fans, we will be continuing our exploration of birds for the next week. In typical Weird Fiction Review fashion though, these aren’t be normal, run-of-the-mill sparrows, bluejays, and robins. No sir/madame! These are very curious creatures from ghost birds with bizarre calls to legends of spirits that have taken the form of birds.

Weird Bird Fortnight is our second special this year after weird seas/voyages week. Originally, we had intended to do a week of birds as well but we ended up with a total of six stories – five of which are new to WFR and most of which have not been published online. This week, we’ll be wrapping up with three more stories. They include:

  • “Bird Walks in New England” by Michael Blumlein
  • “The Hide” by Liz Williams
  • “The Din of Celestial Birds” by Brian Evenson

Birds have occupied a rather interesting role in weird fiction which in part mirrors their place in real life. They tend to be nonthreatening, although sometimes this is only by appearance; so they aren’t the monsters like we find in certain strange stories. Despite this, they tend to be strange and perhaps even a bit unsettling: they are descended from dinosaurs, have a odd presentation compared to other animals, and are one of the few creatures that can fly. Thus, it’s not surprising to find them frequently in dark fiction starting as far back as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”

We’re very excited to bring you these stories. Each is unique and original. We hope you join us as we continue our journey into strange ornithology and as we explore the uncanny feathered fliers of the Weird!

WFR’s Weird Birds Fortnight

Just yesterday, I had what I’d call a mysterious bird moment. Which is to say, observing bird behavior carries its own intrinsic value and, as an amateur naturalist, I’m continually re-inventing the wheel in a way that’s useful to the imagination and also just fun. What I saw, down at San Luis Park, was a wood stork wading through the water by the lake’s shore, with one wing extended. For a moment, I had no idea what I was looking at — both the form of the creature, which at that angle I didn’t immediately identify as a bird, and then the purpose. A moment later, I realized: bird, wood stork, wing extended. The wing, of course, was shielding the water as the bird searched out small fish or frogs. At least part of our fascination with birds is the way in which they are not mammals and yet not so estranged from us that we cannot identify with them in some way.

Birding, too, can be a great social activity for many people, even those who spend time alone in blinds or behind giant scopes, waiting for a flicker of movement. You’re still performing this activity within the greater context of something called “birding,” or maybe even a “big year.” As a child, I kept a birding journal in which I would list every bird I saw on our travels. This started in the last year of living in Fiji and continued on through coming to Florida.

These lists were full of mystery to me because when I started them I didn’t know much about birds. To some extent, too, each line with a different bird listed was a secret code for something larger and more forthcoming. Certain moments recorded tersely in my journal open up even today to form my earliest memories: A unique kind of kingfisher in Fiji, a silhouette of a heron in Australia, and, most horrifically, a lolling lump tossed up above the reeds in Kenya, then disappearing again — tossed up, disappearing. It turned out to be a baby ostrich in the clutches of a lion. It’s hard to forget that image.

Birds can be both sympathetic and sinister in fiction because of their quality of seeming both like and unlike us. A person described in fiction as “birdlike” can embody the creepy movement of a Maribou Stork stalking prey or the frothy stillness, the feathered turbulence, of a Great Horned Owl on a tree branch. A birdlike person can be frail or powerful, friendly or menacing. Even a casual question on Facebook about favorite bird stories can elicit dozens of responses, evoke dozens of moods.

beakdoctorWhen it comes to weird fiction, you might assume that the sinister aspect of birds would be most prevalent, and it’s true that evocative imagery of this nature lies at the heart of stories like Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor” and classics like Du Maurier’s “The Birds.” But for the next fortnight, you’ll find evocations of birds that are more complex, and reflect, I think, the ways in which we revere and admire birds.

The stories we’ve chosen for our celebration of birds in fiction range from originals to classic reprints. Our showcase original is Leena Likitalo’s “Ocelia, Ocelia,” which plays with our perceptions of both birds and human beings. The story has an exuberance buttressed by sadness that I find refreshing. It also displays a wild imagination and a wisdom in knowing that imagination requires grounding in something real at times. The details about the birds, the reprise of the opening lines, the way the meaning changes — all of these things make “Ocelia, Ocelia” a unique story that I find hard to classify or to compare to other fiction.

A similar exuberance in a completely different register brings to life Greer Gilman’s “Down the Wall,” which to me dives down into the recesses of language and detail to create another unique approach that succeeds, like Likitalo’s story, in part by the boldness of its rhetoric. “Stilt-legs scissoring, snip-snap! the bird gods dance.  Old craneycrows, a skulk of powers.  How they strut and ogle with their long eyes, knowing.” Is there any possibility of a crane-crow after this not informed by those words?

The pirouetting dance begun by Gilman turns into a rough downhill plunge in Brian Evenson’s “The Din of Celestial Birds,” a kind of surreal dream of a horror story that begins with an empty cage and a memory of a feathered body and becomes ever more concrete and yet diaphanous as the story progresses. The opening in some ways seems to evoke Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” and to respond to the strangeness of that story by creating an ever deepening abyss.

You’ll also discover more traditional chills and creepiness here, of course. Claude Seignolle’s surprising “The Ghoulbird,” translated by Gio Clairval, offers up not just sumptuous prose and an interesting narrator, but an ultimately complex and harrowing supernatural element. Seignolle is seriously underappreciated in the English-speaking world and “The Ghoulbird” was a translation specifically contracted for our The Weird anthology. We’re happy to offer it here to you online for the first time.

Liz Williams’ “The Hide,” also from The Weird, seems more like a birdwatcher’s approach to the weird, owing less to the Decadents than to contemporary mainstream fiction. With its precise characterization and the way the uncanny is layered into the story, Williams’ evokes the English landscape in a masterful way and leaves the reader feeling extremely unsettled.

Some stories have less of an uncanny element. Michael Blumlein’s tale of love and loneliness. “Bird Walks of New England,” another never before available online, contains at its core a possible mis-sighting or wrong-sighting of a strange bird. This element, almost akin to the heart of M. John Harrison’s classic “Egnaro,” tells us the world we live in is odd and driven by rhythms and seasons we only see the edges of.

I hope you immerse yourself in these stories over the next fortnight, and that you appreciate their range and the different kinds of treasures on offer. And the different views of birds.

Khalida Asghar’s “The Wagon” and Fiction in Urdu

Today we are pleased to bring you Khalida Asghar’s “The Wagon,” originally published in Urdu in 1963 and translated into English by Muhammad Umar Memon. Although the story has appeared in printed textbooks and anthologies before, it has not previously appeared online. The tale can entertain several interpretations, from the uncanny to the more science-fictional or even the mundane.

As noted in the Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 4, 1984 (p. 112.), edited by Memon, “[The author] thinks that the so-called modern modes of literary expression, like surrealism, symbolism and the absurd, and ideas like existential freedom, have always been present in a very positive manner in our mystical literature. Therefore, as she says, the debate on whether these literary styles have been borrowed from the West or are basically indigenous is mostly irrelevant. The point, as she puts it, is to make use of these modes of expression in a creative way, to assimilate them, and not to take them up merely as a fashion or, worse still, as a matter of plain opportunism.” Asghar’s “short stories can be read as serialized crises of identity, as attempts to come to terms with one’s subconscious compulsions. It is more like trying to acknowledge and relate them to one’s outward, day-to-day existence.”

According to further information in the Annual, Asghar, born in 1938, disappeared from the literary scene for many years after getting married, re-emerging much later writing under her married name, Khalida Husain. Her work has appeared in many anthologies of Urdu and Eastern literature from Oxford University Press, Penguin, and others. I, for one, will be seeking out more of her work.

As for the translator, Muhammad Umar Memon has long been active in writing and translating fiction from Urdu. He also had a distinguished career as a scholar at the University of Wisconsin. You can find out more about him from this fascinating interview at The Short Form. Also, this in-depth review provides more context about Urdu literature, in the context of an anthology edited by Memon.

Many thanks to Anil Menon for bringing this story to our attention and to Memon for allowing us to reprint it.

***

UsmanstandardpicFor further context on fiction in Urdu, I interviewed Usman T. Malik, a Pakistani writer of weird fiction who lives Florida. His novella The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn is forthcoming at Tor.com in April of this year and he is currently a finalist for the Nebula Award.

Weird Fiction Review: Urdu exists primarily in Pakistan and parts of India. Are there regional differences?

Usman T. Malik: Yes. Several regional dialects exist because of seepage of vocabulary from local languages such as Punjabi, Bengali, Sindhi, Seraiki, Balochi et cetera. Spoken Urdu in India is called Hindi and has more Sanskrit words than Urdu spoken in Pakistan. Hindi is written in a different script, however, than Urdu, which is written in a Persio-Arabic style called Nastaliq.

WFR: Are there specific (Pakistani) literary traditions in terms of Urdu?

UTM: Historically, Urdu literature was dominated by poetry, whose early proponent was the great writer and musical genius Amir Khusro. Khusro was a mystic polymath credited with having systematized northern Indian classical music. He is also said to have invented the sitar and tabla, while at the same time produced massive amount of Urdu poetry. His influence was on both the language and its literature, and his couplets have influenced later Urdu writers tremendously.

Early prose in Urdu was mostly epics (daastan) and literary memoirs (tazkara). Short story (afsaana) and the novel came later. Mirat-al-aroos, The Bride’s Mirror (1868) by Deputy Nazeer Ahmad is usually considered the first Urdu novel.

WFR: What would you imagine are the main difficulties or issues in translating Urdu to English?

UTM: It depends on the age of the manuscript, I’d say. The farther back in time we go, the more ornate and contextual the writing becomes. For example, certain maxims that were commonplace in the seventeenth and eighteenth century don’t make much sense now. With time and misspeaking, they’ve changed – much like in English where a misspoken word used at large slowly becomes part of the linguistic canon.

Realistically and generally speaking, the two big hindrances might be deficiency of skilled translators proficient in both English and Urdu, and money. In Pakistan at least we’ve been watching a class divide wherein because of lack of standardization of education in the country, rich and upper middle class kids go to English medium schools while poor kids go to Urdu medium schools. This is problematic on several levels but in terms of literary loss, we’re losing the urbane literary ‘moderate’ who feels at home in both literatures and cultures.

WFR: Have you encountered fantastical or SF-nal works originally written in Urdu? Anything in particular you might recommend?

UTM: Urdu has a long history of fantastical literature. Two of the great epics are Daastan-e-Amir Hamza (translated into English as ‘The Adventures of Amir Hamza’ by Musharraf Ali Farooqi) and Talism Hoshruba (which Musharraf is in the process of translating). An incredible dark fiction/horror novel is Kaala Jadoo, Black Magic, by M.A. Rahat.

WFR: Do you have a favorite work in Urdu?

UTM: Several. Instead of one work, I’ll give you two poets and two short story writers: Mirza Ghalib and Allama Muhammad Iqbal (poets). Munshi Premchand and Saadat Hassan Manto (short story writers).

Weird Voyages and Strange Seas

Mysterious IslandToday marks the beginning of a week of weird voyages and strange seas here at WFR. The trope in which a plot pulls its characters to exotic locales has a long and rich history, both within Weird fiction and more mainstream traditions. It seems most often to be used for the purpose of displacing the characters and reader from the familiar, leaving open possibilities not previously available in order to reveal stranger (and often darker) truths. Joseph Conrad understood the potentially alienating power of place and used it with compelling effect in Heart of Darkness, and many Weird authors have used it in similar fashion, such as Lucius Shepard in his exotic tale Kalimantan, which appears to specifically invoke the classic Conrad piece.

Lovecraft sent geologist William Dyer on a famous Weird voyage to one of the strangest and most farflung places accessible to mankind, Antarctica, at which he discovered many profoundly unsettling truths in At the Mountains of Madness. Likewise, the sea provides one of the loneliest settings one can find, and it remains perhaps the least robustly understood part of the planet to this day. One might even consider the lack of stability beneath the feet of such voyagers as a figurative way of examining the instability of the world in a Weird tale. Perhaps this is why William Hope Hodgson set so many of his stories there, away from the hope that might be provided by civilization and the stability of known geography and dry land. Numerous tales in The Weird turn on similar premises: Jean Ray’s nautical tale of terror, “The Mainz Psalter,” Leena Krohn’s fantastical travelogue, “Tainaron,” and Michel Bernanos’s “The Other Side of the Mountain,” itself inspired by the author’s trips to Brazil.

The act of waking up under an unrecognizable sky holds the power to instill a sense of wonder in us all, and wonder (whether the disquieting kind or otherwise) is at the heart of Weird fiction. To examine just how rich the tradition of the weird voyage is, throughout the week we’ll be bringing you several of these tales, both classic and new:

Each of these pieces deftly examines the unfamiliar locales of the world and our place within it in masterful fashion. Next time you travel, travel Weird.

Celebrating Alfred Kubin’s 1908 Novel “The Other Side”

The Other Side Alfred KubinThis week on Weirdfictionreview.com, we’re revisiting our coverage of Alfred Kubin, and his masterpiece The Other Side (1908), about a strange city and the dream-like events that occur there.

I talked more about my enthusiasm for this novel on NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowledge this past weekend. The Dedalus edition of The Other Side was reprinted late last year.

There are several interesting facts about the book and the writer.

  • The Other Side has a cult status partly because it’s long been a favorite of a variety of writers and artists. It would be hard to believe, for example, that Mervyn Peake had not read Kubin prior to writing his Gormenghast novels. I would be willing to bet the great Angela Carter had also read Kubin, along with Leonora Carrington, before writing her novel The War of Dreams, also titled The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.
  • Kubin had been commissioned to illustrate a book of Edgar Allen Poe novellas by a Munich publisher in 1907.
  • Not long after publication of The Other Side, Franz Kafka read and enjoyed it, and then later used elements from it in the creation of his own The Castle. (Kubin might have been aware of Kafka’s early work, as well.)
  • Kubin also created illustrations for the influential early German SF novel Lesabendio by Paul Scheerbart, among others.

Kubin was a wonderful example of a writer and artist who had very fine control of technique, but also allowed his subconscious to lead his creative expression. The result is unique in fiction — and in art.

Remembering Aickman at the World Fantasy Convention

This year’s World Fantasy Convention in November should be especially appealing to fans of the Weird. First of all, the 2014 convention will be celebrating the centennial anniversary of weird fiction author Robert Aickman’s birth in 1914. At the WFC, there will be four panels dedicated to Aickman: Ghost Stories Without Ghosts, Ringing the Changes: Robert Aickman, Gender Issues and Sexuality in Robert Aickman’s Fiction, and The Great Author You Are Not Reading: Robert Aickman. There are some big names heading up these panels too — Peter Straub, S.T. Joshi, Simon Strantzas, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and more. Also, they’ll be showing a 13-minute movie adaptation of “The Cicerones” and a new 45-minute documentary on Robert Aickman put together by Tartarus Press. Tartarus posted a trailer for “Robert Aickman, Author of Strange Stories” earlier this week.

For those new to Aickman, Robert Aickman was an author of he called “strange stories.” He wrote over thirty of them in his lifetime. Aickman had a huge influence on weird fiction. His tales masterfully created a feeling of dread and the atmosphere was often a main focus of each story. His stories were beautifully constructed with prose that could rival other great writers like Vladimir Nabokov. The BBC recently presented a program in June about Robert Aickman which serves as an excellent introduction to Aickman. And R. B. Russell also posted a five part series of videos from a recent conference called “Intrusions: Looking after Aickman,” which is rather informative for fans both new and old.

The Beautiful Thing that Awaits Us AllAickman’s cenntennial won’t be the only thing for Weird fans to get excited about though. There are four fantastic collections up for the award of best collection at the World Fantasy Convention. Beloved weird author Caitlín R. Kiernan was nominated for The Ape’s Wife and Other Stories – a fantastic collection that validates Kiernan’s role as one of weird fiction’s most talented living writers. Also on the short list is another excellent work by established weird writer Laird Barron called The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other StoriesPerhaps the nomination most influenced by Aickman would be the collection Flowers of the Sea by Reggie Oliver — a beautiful and well-crafted set of tales from an amazing writer. Finally, the incredible debut collection North American Lake Monsters from relative newcomer Nathan Ballingrud is nominated as well. All of the collections up for the award are superb so it should be interesting to see who gets the award. It definitely will be an amazing convention this year.

Shadows & Tall Trees: Is this the end for one of the few weird fiction periodicals?

Shadows and Tall Trees 6Michael Kelly, editor and author, started Undertow Publications in 2009 with an anthology called Apparitions, but it was Shadows & Tall Trees, the publication that came out later that same year, for which Kelly is perhaps best known. Named after a chapter from Lord of the Flies, Shadows & Tall Trees is an annual series dedicated to publishing original weird, macabre, strange, and ghostly fiction. This year saw the sixth, and perhaps final, release in June. Originally the series was offered in the form of a slim 128-page print-on-demand book until a couple years ago when ChiZine Publications took over distribution. For 2014, the yearly volume was doubled to over 200 pages and offered as an ebook in addition to a regular print version.

The journal has received quite a bit of acclaim from authors like Ellen Datlow and Peter Straub. Straub called it “a smart, soulful, illuminating investigation of the many forms and tactics available to those writers involved in one of our moment’s most interesting and necessary projects, that of opening up horror literature to every sort of formal interrogation. It is a beautiful and courageous journal.” Fans have also responded favorably; Shadows & Tall Trees, Issue 6 has a 4.55 rating on Goodreads. Many of the stories from past volume have made their way into Best Of collections as well, and the journal has received some award attention too being a finalist for British Fantasy Award for Best Periodical/Magazine in 2011 and 2013.

Shadows and Tall Trees 5But acclaim doesn’t necessarily always translate into sales. Despite the positive response that S&TT has received, the sales have been lackluster. Kelly has said that he doubts he will recoup the costs he spent on printing volume six. As a result, the series has been put on hold indefinitely. It’s understandable though as Kelly has quite a few other obligations like his new Year’s Best Weird Fiction series and an upcoming Aickman tribute anthology.

Editor Michael Kelly has stated that he hopes to revive the series perhaps one day — but of course that’s dependent upon sales picking up. Nonetheless, Shadows & Tall Trees was one of the few periodicals out there dedicated to original weird fiction. It elicited an overwhelmingly favorable response from critics and fans — many of whom cited it as one of the best anthologies of the year. So it’s damn shame to hear that it’s on hold.

Farewell to WFR.com

As some of you possibly already know, I am no longer the managing editor here at Weird Fiction Review. I’ve stepped down from my duties, and our new managing editor David Davis has stepped up to claim them. There is no doubt in my mind that Davis will carry on the fantastic reputation of this site, and he will continue to acquire and feature some of the most imaginative, intelligent fiction, nonfiction and art out there. We will still have some of the best contributors in this industry, period. And, of course, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer are still editors-in-chief.

The reason for stepping down? Life beyond the Weird, basically. I’m currently enrolled in a PhD program for creative writing and literature at a major American university. Those of you in the midst of grad school, or those of you who have already gone through it, understand how challenging it can be, especially on the PhD level. (We’ve written about Kafka on this site before; life in academia itself often feels like something Kafka would have written.) With the obvious ongoing commitment to my academics, I knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain my commitment to WFR.com as well.

I will always be proud of this site, and of our contributors and readers. Because of working for this site, I learned to be a better editor and writer, and I immersed myself in a body of literature and art that deserves to have a much bigger profile in the world at large. Our World Fantasy Award nomination in 2013 will always be a colossal point of pride for me, because it was a worthy recognition of all the hard work and talent invested by the people who worked here.

And a brief word on the topic of contributors, if I may. I sing the praises of our writers and columnists a lot, but this is the last time I’ll get to do it as an editor of this site, so to hell with it. Our contributors are, and have been, amazing. Edward Gauvin, Nancy Hightower, Matthew Pridham, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and Katie Lavers have been stellar for us, and I am deeply grateful for the work they’ve done. I’m just as thankful for the people who volunteered to serve as writers for our ongoing 101 Weird Writers feature: Desirina Boskovich, Leif Schenstead-Harris, Timothy Jarvis, Kat Clay, Elwin Cotman, Larry Nolen, Alistair Rennie, Sofia Samatar, James Machin, Lynne Jamneck, Brendan Connell, Lisa Hannett, Gio Clairval, and Jim Rockhill. None of that even includes all of the people I’ve interviewed for the site over the past few years, or the people whose stories and art we’ve published and reprinted, or Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, without whose guidance and confidence I would have been but a shadow of my professional and personal self.

All I can say is that I’m deeply thankful to all of these people, for making my job here such a pleasure. Not only did they make my job supremely easy, but they’ve also been wonderful colleagues, the kind I’d work with on any project, any day.

There will be future projects for me, of course. I’m not done with the Weird, and I’m not done with editorial work either. I’ll be back in one form or another, hopefully soon. For now, I’ll bow out and once again say thanks to all of the people I’ve mentioned, and to all of you reading this editorial and this site. In the words of a certain Number Six, from a favorite TV show of mine (and a delightfully weird work in its own right): “Be seeing you.”

Julio Cortázar’s “Headache”: A new translation for a centennial anniversary

Julio Cortazar full image

This year has seen a lot of anniversaries in weird fiction. First, there was the centennial anniversary of Robert Aickman, then the bicentennial of Sheridan Le Fanu, and now we’re celebrating the 100th year anniversary of Julio Cortázar (whose birthday was actually before Le Fanu’s birthday last month). Today though, Tor.com is featuring an all new translation from Cortázar. The short story “Cefalea” (or “Headache”) was acquired for Tor.com by Ann VanderMeer and translated by weird fiction author Michael Cisco. From the Tor website:

“Cefalea” or “Headache” was originally published in Cortázar’s collection Bestiaro in 1951. This is the first time it has been translated into English. The translator, Michael Cisco, is a writer of surreal and fantastical fiction and he brings the right sensibilities to this story.

As for how Cisco found the story and why he decided to translate it, Cisco writes:

I discovered this story by accident, having mistakenly purchased the Spanish edition of his collection Bestiario.  When I tried to collate its table of contents with my English edition of his stories, I found one tale, “Cefalea” unaccounted for.  I decided to try translating it for my own edification … now here we are.

For those unfamiliar with Cortázar, Julio Cortázar was an Argentine writer who is often considered one of the most influential Latin American writers of the 20th century along with Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Cortázar was born in Belgium to parents who were Argentine nationals; his family moved to Argentina though after World War I.

In 1947, Cortázar published his first short story, “Casa tomada” (“House Taken Over”), in a magazine edited by Jorge Luis Borges. Cortázar moved to Paris in the 1950’s where he worked as a translator and continued to write. In the 1960’s and 70’s, he became a prominent figure in the Latin American boom in Europe and America with works like Los premios (The Winners) and Rayuela (Hopscotch). Cortázar visited Argentinia regularly until his exile by the Argentine junta who had taken offense to several of his stories. He passed away in Paris in 1984.

While he has been known as a master of the short story, Cortázar’s novels and poetry have also received critical acclaim. Cortázar is probably best known though for his short stories, which have influenced countless generations of writers since. One such story, “Axolotl” is featured in The Weird compendium and was the subject of our 101 Weird Writers series entry for Cortázar.

Like “Axolotl,” in “Headache” we also find layered meanings and hidden subtexts. Additionally, it seems to include a partly autobiographical element as Cortázar was a sickly child and spent many hours in bed while growing up. One thing that VanderMeer noted was that while researching “Headache” she found that so few of the many short stories Cortázar wrote have been translated into English. Head over to Tor.com now and check out the new — and only — translation of “Headache.”

Read “Headache” by Julio Cortázar on Tor.com