Interview: Year’s Best Weird Fiction

Interview with editors Michael Kelly and Laird Barron

Year's Best Weird Fiction, Volume OneWeird fiction finally has a best-of series. For the inaugural release this year of The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One, Weird Fiction Review decided to talk with series editor Michael Kelly and guest editor Laird Barron about their work. Year’s Best Weird Fiction will be a yearly publication from Undertow Publications (an imprint of ChiZine Publications) featuring the best weird fiction short stories of the previous year. It will feature a new guest editor each year.

Laird Barron, with countless anthologized short stories and a recognizable and respected name in weird fiction, was a formidable choice for first guest editor. Barron recently won the Bram Stoker award for his collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. Michael Kelly’s weird fiction credentials are no less impressive with two collections, a novel, and a yearly anthology of weird fiction called Shadows & Tall Trees. The first Year’s Best Weird Fiction hits shelves October 7th (although the ebook is out now) and needless to say, we were incredibly excited to talk with Kelly and Barron about finally having a best-of series.

Weird Fiction Review: Was anything special about this year in terms of starting the series? Was there maybe a tipping point in that you felt there was enough Weird Fiction being published to sustain a yearly best-of series?

Michael Kelly: Many have claimed that there has been a renaissance of ‘Weird Fiction’ in the past few years. In a sense that is true – simply in the fact that there’s been renewed interest in the writings of Thomas Ligotti, Robert Aickman, and others, along with the emergence of ‘new’ voices like Caitlin R. Kiernan, Sofia Samatar, etc. But I believe there has always been an interest in the weird mode, and that its proponents, readers and writers, numbered as many fans as other modes of literature. Several specialty presses – Tartarus, Ex Occidente, Egaeus, Swan River, to name a few – have been publishing and promoting weird fiction for a number of years. Ellen Datlow and Gardner Dozois, bless them, have been editing their respective ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies for three decades now. Truthfully, there could have – and some would say should have – been a ‘Year’s Best Weird’ for 3 decades (or more), as well. It’s an idea I’d been cultivating for a few years, and thanks to the power of crowd-sourcing it’s a vision that is about to be realized. So, there wasn’t any real tipping point. I knew that there would always be enough material to fill the volume. Indeed, we could have filled two volumes.

Laird Barron: Weird fiction has been resurgent over the past decade. The VanderMeers have championed the cause through a couple of anthologies and the founding of a major weird-oriented web site. Weird’s relatives — horror and fantasy — are well-represented by year’s best anthologies. Genre categories often overlap, but a number of people have rightly noted that a gap remains when it comes to the weird. Michael Kelly stepped in and addressed that lack. With the proliferation of the small press, there is an abundance of excellent horror, dark, fantasy, and weird fiction circulating. We could have easily done a second volume.

WFR: Give us an idea of how this first volume came together. Like how it came about, who did what, etc.

MK: I knew from the get-go that I wanted Laird Barron to be my partner in crime. No-one, in my opinion, encapsulates the contemporary weird fiction movement as much as Laird does. He’s a treasure. And he’s got extensive contacts. Laird reached out to his many colleagues for suggestions, (reading hundreds of stories), while I manned the slush pile, reading upwards of 2700 stories. Laird’s task was especially difficult as most of his reading involved stories that were exceptional to begin with (and fit our criteria), while a vast majority of the submissions I read could be dismissed relatively easily due to poor writing or the fact they just didn’t fit the weird mode. So, I would pass along the best weird tales from my readings. Laird, though, was given the unenviable task of ultimate arbiter. Because of rights issues, there were a couple stories we weren’t able to secure, unfortunately.

LB: Mike asked me to helm the inaugural volume. He’s an experienced editor and publisher. His vision for the series appealed to me — a guest editor each year to infuse the series with new blood while Mike acts as curator. Simple and elegant. For Volume One, he read slush and passed along prospects. My own search ranged far afield. I managed to secure most of the stories I wanted. However, as Mike notes, due to rights conflicts, we were unable to reprint a couple of pieces I had my heart set on. In addition to slush-reading, Mike handled the business end of the project. That left me free to agonize over the final table of contents and the honorable mention roster. It was a great partnership and a great experience.

WFR: Looking over the table of contents for YBWF, I see that there’s a nice mixture of established writers along with several newer and lesser known writers. Was that purely coincidental? Should we expect more newer writers in future volumes?

MK: We couldn’t ignore the new voices. They had to be heard. We are witnessing a remarkable era for weird fiction, and the inaugural volume of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction reflects that. So, indeed, purely coincidental that we have managed to compile such a great mix. I’ve no doubt that weird fiction will continue to offer us exciting and relevant new voices.

LB: I made an effort to dig deep when assembling this ToC. The mix is a function of abundant talent and fortuitous timing. It so happened that 2013 saw a wave of terrific work from newer and neglected authors.

WFR: What sort of criteria did you look for in your weird fiction stories when deciding whether to put it in the anthology? What makes a weird fiction story good?

MK: While it may be hard to codify and attach a genre label to weird fiction, to me, weird fiction, at its best, is an intersecting of themes and ideas that explore and subvert the laws of Nature. The Other. The Alien. A sense of unease. These, I believe, were our benchmarks. If a story can touch on those things and resonate on multiple levels, then you’ve a good tale.

LB: I selected for weirdness quotient, and of course that’s a subjective parameter. I selected for excellence; another subjective category and one that is informed by my personal judgment. I selected for a variety of themes and tropes. I selected for diversity in the voices represented. I feel that the utility of a truly great year’s best is more nuanced than simply declaring a handful of stories “the best.” Hartwell and Cramer have referred to such endeavors as snapshots of the field. I interpreted my job as to take the widest angle, highest fidelity shot possible. The weird covers a lot of ground. I attempted honor that.

A proper weird story may consist of any number of elements, but at the core it’s concerned with irrationality, with the alien, and strangeness. Reality is mutable and subject to contravention. Dislocation and dissonance prevail.

WFR: Were there any stories that were really good but didn’t fit into the anthology because they didn’t maybe fit the weird fiction label?

MK: The weird mode, perhaps more than any other mode, is a nebulous thing. It isn’t a genre, as such. It encompasses horror, the macabre, fantasy, science fiction, and other, chiefly speculative, genres. Because a tale has some weird shit going on in it, that doesn’t necessarily make it a Weird tale. There were quite a few excellent tales, truth be told, that we didn’t deem a fit. Many superlative, psychological horror stories, some Westerns, some mediaeval fantasy. These were good stories, yes. Just not Weird stories.

LB: Indeed. As I’ve said, a weird tale may be a composite of different genres or traditions. To qualify for this year’s best, the primary component had to be weirdness. I read a lot of wonderfully dark fantasy and even darker horror, among other genres, that contained some degree of weirdness, but insufficient to make the case for their inclusion. Sorting the borderline cases was a tough time.

WFR: The idea of having a different guest editor each volume is rather interesting. What’s sort of the idea or goal behind this?

MK: I’ve always admired The Best American Series of books from Houghton-Mifflin. Each of their many volumes has a Guest Editor and a Series Editor, so that the flavor of subsequent volumes is different from the previous year’s volume. When I was first cultivating the idea of a Year’s Best Weird Fiction I knew that this was the course I wanted to take. There’s no doubt that the current editors of the various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies do a great job. They have exemplary taste, and I enjoy their books. But it’s their taste. I like different flavors, different perspectives. What would Laird Barron’s book be like? How about a volume from Kathe Koja? It’s a unique, fresh vision from each editor. Different voices and different approaches make life, and books, interesting.

LB: It’s perhaps the strongest aspect of Mike’s vision for the series. You get consistent editorial overview with Mike as curator. Then every year you bring in a fresh perspective with a guest editor. The system is geared toward diversity.

WFR: I’ve always felt there were different types of weird fiction. For example, there’s American-based weird horror, which seems to be graphic and terrifying, and European-based “strange tales,” which focus more on creating an unsettling and disturbing atmospheres. Did you notice these at all when working on YBWF? Or did you see any other trends in weird fiction?

MK: I think that there used to be a clear demarcation in the two strains of weird fiction. I don’t see that as much, any more. The lines are blurring. The current crop of writers penning weird tales is well schooled in both strains, I believe. That is evidenced in this inaugural volume. It features a wide range of themes and tones.

LB: Historically, you have a point. I agree with Mike that the lines are blurring. Brian Evenson and Aimee Bender can do ambiguity with the best of them. Conversely, Conrad Williams and Clive Barker aren’t afraid of explicit violence. Nonetheless, trends in horror notwithstanding, the weird tale is often one of restraint on both sides of the pond. Once again, it’s the slippery nature of definitions. Many of the tales I find “graphic” or “terrifying” skew toward horror rather than the weird.

WFR: There are a number of great weird fiction anthologies out there including Shadows & Tall Trees. Were there things that made this anthology different from other weird fiction anthologies besides being just a best-of?

MK: I think what makes this a unique anthology is that finally — FINALLY!! — we have an anthology dedicated to a mode of literature that pre-dates all genre classifications and codification. This volume is well past due. And I hope it continues for decades.

LB: An anthology is an artifact of its composition and composers. The selections of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume One are necessarily unique as a product of my critical taste, that of Michael Kelly, and the labors of the authors. It’s a diverse anthology and by virtue of being a year’s best, it possesses a rare intensity of purpose.

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