Unapologetically Transgressive, Imaginative, and Strange: A Review of The Weird

Weird-1_B2When the newly released Tor edition The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer arrived at my front door, it felt like an event.  It was an event.  I’d had an electronic edition of the Atlantic/Corvus edition on my Nook for a good long while, but this… this was something else altogether.

I took one look at black book with red tentacles on the cover and said, “Now I know how the monkeys felt in the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

And I love that movie.

At one point, after I’d torn open the padded mailer and thunked the book down on the kitchen table, my wife, 8‑year-old daughter, and I gathered around and just stared at it.

Can I read it?” my daughter asked.

Of course, we’re biased.  We’ve known Ann and Jeff VanderMeer for seven years or so, through our mutual association with Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building summer camp for teenagers at Wofford College.

But you don’t have to know the editors to be moved by the enormity – the sheer mass–of The Weird.

A while back, I interviewed the VanderMeers and four other anthology editors for a piece called “Anthologists Discuss Their Craft” that ran in January 2009 edition of Clarkesworld Magazine.

When asked if she had an “an anthologist’s credo,” Ann VanderMeer said, “I don’t know if this is an anthologist’s credo, but we approach each project with the philosophy to make it the best book we can produce.  We also are strongly committed to searching far and wide to make this happen. And we believe in mixing it up, having a lot of diversity in each project we do.  Each book is unique unto itself.”

Jeff VanderMeer followed up with,” I want my reach to exceed my grasp, so to speak. There’s no point in doing something by half-measures…  When Ann and I edit together, we work well because the credo is to be both ambitious and grounded. I can go off into left field, and Ann pulls me back, because Ann is the best reader I know, and thus the best general editor.”

With all this in mind, perhaps we, the reading public in general and readers of The Weird in particular, should’ve seen The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories coming.  We should’ve expected such a—what?  What do we call this masterpiece of a book?

(In my mind’s eye, I imagine Ann and Jeff VanderMeer approaching Sisyphus, patting him on the shoulder, and gently assuring him everything will be okay before they — the VanderMeers — successfully push Sisyphus’ big, black rectangular rock all the way up the hill.  All this while a Main coon cat sleeps with his eyes open.)

What does that cat see?

Firstly, The Weird is a compendium.

A compendium,” writes Jeff VanderMeer on his blog, “is neither as complete as an encyclopedia nor as baggy as a treasury. Although the backbone of the book reflects the immense influence of both Kafka and Lovecraft, we have ventured out from that basic focus to provide different traditions of weird fiction and outliers that are perhaps open to debate.”

Secondly, the compendium’s intention:  “[The Weird] is meant to be both an interrogation of weird fiction and a conversation with it,” says VanderMeer.

This compendium exceeds 750,000 words.  The VanderMeers have thrown a very wide net.  Rather, they haven woven together an immense net.

Among the interwoven threads in The Weird,” write Ann and Jeff VanderMeer in their introduction, “you will find a dedication to showcasing what one might call traditional weird, mainstream (or commercial weird), weird SF, weird ritual, surreal weird, feminist weird, and avant garde weird.”

The impulse for some readers inevitably will be to ask why certain authors are missing and certain others are included.  Questions such as these are gifts from the editors and from the stories included within the compendium.  A collection of anything should raise questions, not put an end to them, should spark debate, not stifle it.

Nearly two-dozen nationalities are represented in The Weird, including examples of Japanese, Eastern European, Indian, African, and Latin American literature.  One of the great joys of reading The Weird is discovering authors from different times and places exploring similar ground in isolation of each other.

The Weird speaks with over a hundred voices from more than a hundred years about alien territories of the human mind,” said Lena Krohn, the Finnish writer whose brilliant short novel Tainaron: Mail From Another City appears in The Weird.  “Some of these territories are repugnant or terrifying, some fascinating. These stories are entirely personal and for that very reason also universal.”

Arranged chronologically, the stories in The Weird stretch from the beginning of the 20th to the beginning of the 21st century, spanning just over a hundred years.  While, as a whole, these stories tell an interesting story about the last century, they are ultimately timeless.

In an interview with Kirpal Gordon for Unlikely 2.0, Eric Basso, who contributed the novella “The Beak Doctor,” could very easily be describing The Weird when he says, “My work, in general, avoids the timely in favor of the timeless.  For me, it’s an exploration of both the possible and the impossible…  There’s also the dark side, which is very dark with me, a theme that runs – or, rather, zigzags – through most of my work: the sense that a story, novel, poem or play is completed by the very thing that destroys it.”

In a way, each story in The Weird: a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories presents us with the question “What is The Weird?”  The VanderMeers have framed this question for us, presented the evidence we need to answer the question for ourselves.

Their Introduction moves us toward a vocabulary for evaluation:  “The Weird acknowledges that our search for understanding about worlds beyond our own cannot always be found in science or religion and thus becomes an alternative path for exploration of the numinous.”

The Weird is less concerned with “fixed tropes of the supernatural,” the VanderMeers tell us, and more concerned with strangeness and subversion, the visionary, “visceral physicality” and the never-ending search…  for what?

Michael Moorcock in his “Foreword: Weird Stories” speaks of “marginalized” authors and of “unrationalized fiction, having much in common with surrealism or absurdism.”  China Mieville in his “Afterweird: The efficacy of a Worm-eaten Dictionary” speaks of texts that “infect” us and “burrow” inside us.

Weird travels with us,” Mieville writes, “each reader a Typhoid Mary in every library. It passes from us into pages, infects healthy fiction (pretend for a moment there might be any such thing). A virus of holes, a burrowing infestation, an infestation of burrowingness itself, that births its own pestilential hole-dweller.”

Mieville’s emphasis — like, in part, the VanderMeers’ — is on motion.  The Weird is not a tomb or shrine or bucket full of today’s fish, some of which will turn fetid with time, some of which will ripen into a pungent delicacy.

All books alter the books that are (read) near them,” writes Mieville. “Here [in The Weird], it is the unease, the strange, the alien malevolent, in its alterity, its Weird, that spreads. That contingent and unwyrdly, that wyrms its way throughout the library.

Thus the canon grows like mould, mildew-damp, eldritch, its vectors vermiform, gnaw-claiming even works that we had thought sedate, a subterranean countertradition, an abcanny that has… everything to do with the unsuspected. Burrowers cause the scree slippage of solid ground.”

What did he just say? What? What?

So, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer don’t set out to define The Weird with their compendium, but to engage it and us in a gloriously weird discussion that will extend well beyond this book.

What The Weird holds next for readers is unclear,” write the VanderMeers in their Introduction, “but given the past manifestations, we can be sure it will be adaptable, idiosyncratic, and involve some of our best stylists.  It will also continue to be at times discredited, misunderstood, and denigrated for being unapologetically transgressive, imaginative, and strange.”

Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher living in South Carolina. He is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine, Kobold Quarterly, and Booklifenow.com. Jones teaches at the Montessori Academy of Spartanburg and is the director of Shared Worlds at Wofford College, a creative writing program he co-founded with Jeff VanderMeer. You can find more from Jones at his personal website.