Weirdly Epic: A Century of First Lines from Weird Fiction

WFR Interrogatory:

Dear Readers: What are your favorite opening lines of weird stories?

Oddkin, Weirdie, & Old Peculiar

Oddkin Weirdie Peculiar Headshots

As a teasing celebration of the release of our The Weird compendium, covering 100 years of weird fiction, one of WFR’s enduring oddities, Adam Mills, has compiled the first lines from all 116 stories in the anthology, and written a great post about the experience.

These opening lines are presented in chronological order; the year of original publication is noted in the table of contents, available here. Adam writes of his experience  compiling the list:

I noticed a lot of the stories opted to start with a brief setting detail, like Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “A Redress For Andromeda” or Craig Padawer’s “The Meat Garden.” Others started with attention-grabbing dialogue, like Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat.” Some of the opening lines were long and winding compared to the others, like the one for Hugh Walpole’s “The Tarn.” Others were much more succinct, such as Elizabeth Hand’s “The Boy in the Tree.” But my favorite first lines, which include the examples I just listed, above all else sought to imbue their stories with an element of weirdness and mystery right off the bat, through a turn of phrase, or a moment of tension or attention-grabbing action, or a blatantly fantatical detail. They quite clearly served as omens of greater weirdness to come.

Any other conclusions to be reached are up to you, weird reader.…

The Weird cover image
The Weird: Opening Lines

An irresistible sleeping sickness had Pearl in its grip. It broke out in the Archive and from there spread across the whole of the Realm.” - Alfred Kubin, The Other Side (the beginning of the excerpt)


I have often heard it scream. No, I am not nervous, I am not imaginative, and I have never believed in ghosts, unless that thing is one.” - F. Marion Crawford, “The Screaming Skull”


After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Buda-Pesth, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes.” - Algernon Blackwood, “The Willows”


Conradin was ten years old, and the doctor had pronounced his professional opinion that the boy would not live another five years.” - Saki, “Sredni Vashtar”


April 15th, 190- Dear Sir, I am requested by the Council of the —- Association to return to you the draft of the paper on The Truth of Alchemy, which you have been good enough to offer to read at our forthcoming meeting, and to inform you that the Council do not see their way to including it in this programme.” - M.R. James, “Casting The Runes”


Despite the advertisements of rival firms, it is probably that every tradesman knows that nobody in business at the present time has a position equal to that of Mr. Nuth”  - Lord Dunsany, “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon The Gnoles”


Melanchthon was dancing with the Bat, whose costume represented her in an inverted position.”  - Gustav Meyrink, “The Man in the Bottle”


The dead man lay alone and naked on a white cloth in a wide room, surrounded by depressing white walls, in the cruel sobriety of a dissection room that seemed to shiver with the screams of an endless torture.” - Georg Heym, “The Dissection” (translated by Gio Clairval)


When Richard Bracquemont, medical student, decided to move into Room No. 7 of the little Hotel Stevens at 6 Rue Alfred Stevens, three people had already hanged themselves from the window-sash of the room on three successive Fridays.” - Hans Heinz Ewers, “The Spider”


My kinsman and myself were returning to Calcutta from our Puja trip when we met the man in a train.” - Rabindranath Tagore, “The Hungry Stones”


The following is the story told to me by the green man: ‘It is only natural, Sir, that you are surprised by the color of my face…’” - Luigi Ugolini, “The Vegetable Man” (translated by Brendan and Anna Connell)


North of us a shaft of light shot half way to the zenith. It came from behind the five peaks.” - A. Merritt, “The People of the Pit”


Neither in the past nor in the time to come could one imagine a person comparable to the High Lord of Horikawa. I heard that, before his birth, Dai Itoku-Myo‑o, the King of Magical Science, appeared at his mother’s bedside.” - Ryunosuke Akutagawa, “The Hell Screen”


I had been dining with my ever-interesting friend Mark Jenkins, at the little Italian restaurant near South Street.” - Francis Stevens, “Unseen – Unfeared” (pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett)


‘It’s a remarkable apparatus,’ said the Officer to the Explorer and gazed with certain look of admiration at the device, with which he was, of course, thoroughly familiar.” - Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”


I was a young journeyman at that time, like you, my dear boys, and I worked like a house on fire.” - Stefan Grabinski, “The White Wyrak”


There is something ungodly about these night wire jobs.” - H.F. Arnold, “The Night Wire”


When a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners he comes upon a lonely and curious country.” - H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”


On a foggy night in November, Mr. Corbett, having guessed the murderer by the third chapter of his detective story, arose in disappointment from his bed and went downstairs in search of something more satisfactory to send him to sleep.” - Margaret Irwin, “The Book”


A man who is about to die is not likely to be very elegant in his last words: being in a hurry to sum up his whole life, he tends to make them rigorously concise.” - Jean Ray, “The Mainz Psalter


On a Rotterdam dock, winches were fishing bales of old paper from the hold of a freighter. The wind was fluttering the multicolored streamers that hung from the bales when one of them burst open like a cask in a roaring fire.” - Jean Ray, “The Shadowy Street”


‘It is a very strange place,’ said Amberville, ‘but I scarcely know how to convey the impression it made upon me.’” - Clark Ashton Smith, “Genius Loci”


The quality that incites the desire for travel has gradually disappeared from my fantasies.” - Hagiwara Sakutaro, “The Town of Cats”


As Foster moved unconsciously across the room, bent towards the bookcase, and stood leaning forward a little, choosing now one book, now another with his eye, his host, seeing the muscles of the back of his thin, scraggy neck stand out above his low flannel collar, thought of the ease with which he could squeeze that throat and the pleasure, the triumphant, lustful pleasure, that such an action would give him.” - Hugh Walpole, “The Tarn”


The journey was long. The train, which ran only once a week on that forgotten branch line, carried no more than a few passengers.”- Bruno Schulz, “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass”


With a roar and a howl the thing was upon us, out of total darkness.” - Robert Barbour Johnson, “Far Below”


Miss Millick wondered just what had happened to Mr. Wran. He kept making the strangest remarks when she took dictation. Just this morning he had quickly turned around and asked, ‘Have you ever seen a ghost, Miss Millick?’” - Fritz Leiber, “Smoke Ghost”


The time has come that I must tell the events which began in 40 Pest Street.” - Leonora Carrington, “White Rabbits”


It is less than five hundred years since an entire half of the world was discovered.” - Donald A. Wollheim, “Mimic”


Mr. Spallner put his hands over his face.” - Ray Bradbury, “The Crowd”


Have you ever wrung dry a wet cloth? Wrung it bone white dry – with only the grip of your fingers and the muscles of your arms? If you have done this, you will understand better the situation of the captive at Device Z when the wardens set them the task of the long sheet.” -William Sansom, “The Long Sheet”


That same sweltering morning that Beatriz Viterbo died, after an imperious confrontation with her illness in which she had never for an instant stooped to either sentimentality or fear, I noticed that a new advertisement for some cigarettes or other (blondes, I believe they were) had been posted on the iron billboards of the Plaza Constitucion; the fact deeply grieved me, for I realized that the vast unceasing universe was already growing away from her, and that this change was but the first in an infinite series.” - Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph”


When I was eleven years old, one of my uncles one day took me along with him to his farm.” - Oympe Bhely-Quenum, “A Child in the Bush of Ghosts”


The Allisons’ country cottage, seven miles from the nearest town, was set prettily on a hill; from three sides it looked down on soft trees and grass that seldom, even at midsummer, lay still and dry.” - Shirley Jackson, “The Summer People”


The gnoles had a bad reputation, and Mortensen was quite aware of this.” - Margaret St. Clair, “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles”


At first there were just the two of them – he and she, together. That’s the way it was when they bought the house.” - Robert Bloch, “The Hungry House”


He was a beautiful ‘complete’ gentleman, he dressed with the finest and most costly clothes, all the parts of his body were completed, he was a tall man but stout.” - Amos Tutuola, “The Complete Gentleman”


Aunt Amy was out on the front porch, rocking back and forth in the high-backed chair and fanning herself, when Bill Soames rode his bicycle up the road and stopped in front of the house.” - Jerome Bixby, “‘It’s a Good Life’”


‘Less strange, although without a doubt more exemplary,’ the other man then said, ‘is the story of Mr. Percy Taylor, headhunter in the Amazon jungle.” - Augusto Monterroso, “Mister Taylor” (translation by Larry Nolen)


There was a time when I thought quite often about the Axolotl.” - Julio Cortazar, “Axolotl”


Once a young man was on a visit to Rome.” - William Sansom, “A Woman Seldom Found”


The Germany of that time was a land of valleys and mountains and swift dark rivers, a green and fertile land where everything grew tall and straight out of the earth.” - Charles Beaumont, “The Howling Man”


That night I hated Father. He smelt of cabbage. There was cigarette ash all over his trousers.” - Mervyn Peake, “Same Time, Same Place”


When Stefano Roi turned twelve as a birthday gift he asked his father, a sea captain and the master of a fine sailing ship, to be taken on board.” - Dino Buzzati, “The Colomber” (translation by Gio Clairval)


I had just turned eighteen when, after a night of drinking, the hand of a friend guided mine into signing myself onboard a galleon for one year.” - Michel Bernanos, “The Other Side of the Mountain” (translation by Gio Clairval)


I strolled down to the water, beneath the willow tree and the watercress bed. When I read the pond I knelt down. As always, the frogs gathered around me.” - Merce Rodoreda, “The Salamander”


My old friend, Dr. *** from Chateauroux, had recommended that I visit the manor of Guernipin in Brenne, between Mezieres and Rosnay, if the master of the house was kind enough to invite me, his mood being such that he was seldom inclined to grant the requests of the strangers who solicited him.” - Claude Seignolle, “The Ghoulbird” (translation by Gio Clairval)


I felt we made an embarrassing contrast to the open serenity of the scene around us.” - Gahan Wilson, “The Sea Was Wet As Wet Could Be”


‘Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’” - Daphne du Maurier, “Don’t Look Now”


It was somewhere at the back of beyond. Maybury would have found it difficult to be more precise.” - Robert Aickman, “The Hospice”


If you leave L.A. by way of San Bernardino, headed for Route 66 and points east you must cross the Mojave Desert.” - Dennis Etchison, “It Only Comes Out At Night”


He comes shyly hopeful into the lab. He is unable to suppress this childishness which has deviled him all his life, this tendency to wake up smiling, believing for an instant that today will be different.” - James Tiptree, Jr., “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats”


Now I will try to keep awake. The fog. They must have come for me before morning.” - Eric Basso, “The Beak Doctor”


Immediately on wishing my mother dead and seeing the pain it caused her, I was sorry and cried so many tears that all the earth around me was drenched.” - Jamaica Kincaid, “My Mother”


Simon Kress lived alone in a sprawling manor house among the dry, rocky hills fifty kilometers from the city. So, when he was called away unexpectedly on business, he had no neighbors he could conveniently impose on to take his pets.” - George R. R. Martin, “Sandkings”


”We don’t know what the hell’s going on out there,’ they told Gilson in Washington.” - Bob Leman, “Window”


He’d had an almost unbearable day. As he walked home his self-control still oppressed him, like rusty armour.” — Ramsey Campbell, “The Brood”


Dr. Winter stepped out of the tiny Greyhound station and into the midnight street that smelled of pines.” - Michael Shea, “The Autopsy”


It might have been in Club Justine, or Jimbo’s, or Sad Jack’s, or the Rafters; Coretti could never be sure where he’d first seen her.” - William Gibson and John Shirley, “The Belonging Kind”


Egnaro is a secret known to everyone but yourself.” - M. John Harrison, “Egnaro”


Dear _______:  Do you like cats? I never asked you.” - Joanna Russ, “The Little Dirty Girl”


When I first arrived here it was after a hideous journey.” - M. John Harrison, “The New Rays”


When Saturn and Mars come together, you may also discover Telenapota.” - Premendra Mitra, “The Discovery of Telenapota”


I was lying on the floor watching TV and exercising what was left of my legs when the newscaster’s jaw collapsed.” - F. Paul Wilson, “Soft”


My last night of childhood began with a visit home. T’Gatoi’s sister had given us two sterile eggs. T’Gatoi gave one to my mother, brother, and sisters. She insisted that I eat the other one alone.” - Octavia E. Butler, “Bloodchild”


It wasn’t until the first week of the Yugoslavian trip that Mick discovered what a political bigot he’d chosen as a lover.” - Clive Barker, “In the Hills, the Cities”


How could I forget the spring when we walked in the University’s botanical gardens; for there is such a park here in Tainaron, too, large and carefully tended.” - Leena Krohn, Tainaron: Mail From Another City


There lived, high above the empty streets in a tall building, an old woman whose pet cat had recently died. In those days cats were rare and the woman had not the means to purchase another.” — Garry Kilworth, “Hogfoot Right and Bird-Hands”


This little gook cadre with a pitted complexion drove me through the heart of Saigon – I couldn’t relate to it as Ho Chi Minh City – and checked me into the Hotel Heroes of Tet, a place that must have been quietly elegant and very French back in the days when philosophy was discussed over Cointreau rather than practiced in the street, but now was filled with cheap production-line furniture and tinted photographs of Uncle Ho.” - Lucius Shepard, “Shades”


McGrath awoke suddenly, just in time to see a huge mouth filled with small, sharp teeth closing in his side.” - Harlan Ellison, “The Function of Dream Sleep”


I was at work one day when a man came up to me and asked me my name.” - Ben Okri, “Worlds That Flourish”


Our heart stops.” - Elizabeth Hand, “The Boy in the Tree”


The days were brief and attenuated and the season appeared to be fixed – neither summer nor winter, spring nor fall.” - Joyce Carol Oates, “Family”


‘To the treasures and the pleasures of the grave,’ said my friend Louis, and raised his goblet of absinthe to me in drunken benediction.” - Poppy Z. Brite, “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood”


As I am passing, I hear a pathetic call for help from a ground-floor window. I clamber up to the sill and jump into the room; I find myself in a room with heavy dark furniture, with tassel-edged covers, with mountains of variegated little cushions, with a darkened painting of the Bay of Naples on the wall.” - Michal Ajvaz, “The End of the Garden”


In the summer of 1954, Anna and Richard Becker disappeared from Yosemite National Park along with Paul Becker, their three-year-old son.” - Karen Joy Fowler, “The Dark”


Like wings. Rapturous as the muted screams, lush the beating of air through chipboard walls, luscious like sex and oh, my, far more forbidden: whatever it was, Lurleen knew it was wrong.” - Kathe Koja, “Angels in Love”


My husband’s an Ice Man.” - Haruki Murakami, “The Ice Man”


Walking through gray north London to the tube station, feeling guilty that he hadn’t let Jenny drive him to work and yet relieved to have escaped another pointless argument, Stuart Holder glanced down at a pavement covered in a leaf-fall of fast-food cartons and white paper bags and saw, amid the dog turds, beer cans, and dead cigarettes, something horrible.” - Lisa Tuttle, “Replacements”


‘You’ll like this,’ said Schaeffer as he let Brovnik into the apartment. ‘She was a photographer.’” - Marc Laidlaw, “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio”


Gardner was drowning, and strangers were laying hands on the bones of my forebears.” - Steven Utley, “The Country Doctor”


Every morning I drive the same route I drove when I still had to work.” - Martin Simpson, “Last Rites and Resurrections”


The hotel’s owner and manager, George Hume, sat on the edge of his bed and smoked a cigarette. ‘The Franklins arrived today,’ he said.” - William Browning Spencer, “The Ocean and All Its Devices”


The Delicate is pale, limbs pipe-cleaner thin, with a head as shiny hard as beetle-back.” - Jeffrey Ford, “The Delicate”


I am now a very old man and this is something which happened to me when I was very young – only nine years old.” - Stephen King, “The Man in the Black Suit”


The motor stalled in the middle of a snowy landscape, lodged in a rut, wouldn’t budge an inch.” - Angela Carter, “The Snow Pavilion”


They humped it over metal hills and down through tortured valleys of scrap and smoking slag.” - Craig Padawer, “The Meat Garden”


In the vast desert known as Oregon, during the peak years of the Bovine Brain Rot, a poor old woman lived all by herself, in a hovel in a graveyard.” - Stepan Chapman, “The Stiff and the Stile”


Coming down to the old house was at first interesting, and then depressing.” - Tanith Lee, “Yellow and Red”


‘When you’re Dead,’ Samantha says, ‘you don’t have to brush your teeth…’” - Kelly Link, “The Specialist’s Hat”


Where the land ends and the unsleeping, omnivorous Pacific has chewed the edge of the continent ragged, the old house sits alone in the tall grass, waiting for Tara.” - Caitlin R. Kiernan, “A Redress For Andromeda”


Thirteen days after the Entwhistle-Ealing Bros. circus left Ashtown, beating a long retreat toward its winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana, two boys out hunting squirrels in the woods along Portwine Road stumbled on a body that was dressed in a mad suit of purple and orange velour.” - Michael Chabon, “The God of Dark Laughter”


When the boy upstairs got hold of a pellet gun and fired snips of potato at passing cars, I took a turn.” - China Mieville, “Details”


From the brambles of a murderer’s eyes the gaze of the genius of assassins falls on you: a sooty-winged owl with a blanched, dead mask of livid unfeathered skin.” - Michael Cisco, “The Genius of Assassins: Three Dreams of Murder in the First Person”


This is a true story, pretty much. As far as that goes, and whatever good it does anybody.” - Neil Gaiman, “Feeders and Eaters”


The hall contained the following items, some of which were later catalogued on faded yellow sheets constrained by blue lines and anointed with mildew:” - Jeff VanderMeer, “The Cage”


His facial fur was a swirling wonder of blond and blue with highlights the deep orange of a November sun.” - Jeffrey Ford, “The Beautiful Gelreesh”


One gray morning not long before the onset of winter, some troubling news swiftly travelled among us: the town manager was not in his office and seemed nowhere to be found.” - Thomas Ligotti, “The Town Manager”


It was only later that he realized the reason they had called him, but by then it was too late for the information to do him any good.” - Brian Evenson, “The Brotherhood of Mutilation”


You may remember Alfred Muswell, whom devotees of the weird tale will know as the author of numerous articles on the subject of literary ghost stories. He died in obscurity just over a year ago.” - Mark Samuels, “The White Hands”


His hands didn’t tremble as he traced his daughter.” - Daniel Abraham, “Flat Diane”


We all went down to the tar-pit, with mats to spread our weight.” - Margo Lanagan, “Singing My Sister Down”


This winter morning, when we crossed over the dune, we saw a man lying face down in a shallow tide pool half a dozen yards from us.” - T.M. Wright, “The People on the Island”


After the drive had grown long and monotonous, Partridge shut his eyes and the woman was waiting.” - Laird Barron, “The Forest”


The birds were white as they flew over the marsh, across the reedbeds and the frosted mere, but as they drew level with the hide their shade changed, from white to black.” - Liz Williams, “The Hide”


Pazazu, the Sumero-Assyrian demon of epidemics (the southwestern desert wind) is an occultural operative of the xero-informatic Abomination or Dust ( = 100 = NO GOD), and possibly the most awe-inspiring cultist of Tellurian Dustism in ancient Mesopotamia.” - Reza Negarestani, “Dust Enforcer”


The boy and his mother wake late in the swampy summer mornings and sit on the edge of the porch drinking their first glass of water and spooning out their wedges of melon and picking the dead heads off poppies with their toes.” - Micaela Morrissette, “The Familiars”


It’s so familiar now, that grainy digital footage of the lions’ den. We’ve rerun it a hundred times, picked over it obsessively, advanced it frame by fuzzy frame.” - Steve Duffy, “The Lion’s Den”


We’re not supposed to walk through the structure, but for eight years we’ve been watching it from sixty-two feet away, too.” - Stephen Graham Jones, “Little Lambs


Children are cruel. No one who has lived in the world need ask for proof of that.” - K.J. Bishop, “Saving the Gleeful Horse”


WFR Oddkin Disclaimer: First lines used only for promotional purposes herein; copyright to the individual authors and rights holders. All rights reserved.

14 replies to “Weirdly Epic: A Century of First Lines from Weird Fiction

  1. I read this list about three hours ago and the line that’s really sticking is from William San­som’s “The Long Sheet.”

  2. Pingback: Cheryl's Mewsings » Blog Archive » You Don’t Have To Be Mad…

  3. Wonderful. This should be required reading – not only for writers of speculative fiction, but for any wordsmith keen on drawing in their reader from the first sentence. Keep up the good work.

  4. A man who is about to die is not likely to be very ele­gant in his last words: being in a hurry to sum up his whole life, he tends to make them rig­or­ously con­cise.” — Jean Ray, “The Mainz Psalter”

    I was 14 or 15. Had just finished _Steppenwolf_ and _Beautiful Losers_ when I happened on Ray. This was not the fiction of some red-headed stepchild to sneak in the back door, this was Literature! !! VIVA WEIRD!

  5. Joe – isn’t that a great story! It’s a real shame Ray isn’t more widely available in English. (There’s a whole story behind that.)


  6. When is The Weird due to be published here in the US? I don’t know if I should wait or just order the UK publication now, as I’m really, really wanting to get my hands on this one. Thanks.


  7. Hi, Justin. We should have news about the US release shortly. I can tell you any US print version wouldn’t come out before May, so I don’t know if that makes a difference in your decision.

  8. Pingback: Week One of Weird Fiction Review…and The Weird | Weird Fiction Review

  9. (There’s a whole story behind that.) — Didn’t know that. Hoping one day it we’ll see more Ray in English!

    You are to be applauded, Jeff, (Hell, make it crowned!) for including this gem in this vault of treasures! !!