After the amazing year we had in 2014, it was hard to believe that we’d have another one that was just as strong in 2015. However, this year managed to live up to the previous with great new fiction, continuing periodicals, and the reprinting of old classics. Perhaps the biggest news this year was the republishing of a trio of old favorites by Penguin Classics in October. The first release was Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by the inimitable weird fiction author, Thomas Ligotti. This was followed by classics Perchance to Dream by Charles Beaumont and The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell — the latter of which featured a foreword by weird writer Laird Barron.
Readers might recall that last year Barron served as the guest editor for Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 1. This year saw a continuation of the series with Kathe Koja as the guest editor. There was also no shortage of new original weird fiction. One of our favorites was The Loney by Andrew Hurley, a sort of unsettling rural British slow-burn. Then there was Lincoln Michel’s debut collection Upright Beasts, which collected a variety of modes of dark fiction from the Aickmanesque to the Kafkaesque, and Get in Trouble, which continues Kelly Link’s legacy as one of the best contemporary weird fiction writers.
Weird Fiction Review itself had no shortage of great pieces. We continued our Weird Writers series, had tons of great interviews, and published new fiction with features like Weird Voyages Week and two weeks of Weird Birds. We also had some great translations like “The Wagon” by Khalida Asghar and “The Supper” by Alfonso Reyes. To recap the year, we’ve compiled a list of recommendations from people who have contributed to Weird Fiction Review in one way or another: either with fiction, interviews, or articles.
Overall, 2015 was a great year for the Weird. So here’s to 2016 — may it be just as Weird!
Lincoln Michel (Things Left Outside)
Secret Rendezvous by Kobo Abe (Vintage). Abe is one of Japan’s greatest weird writers, and his 1977 novel Secret Rendezvous is a darkly funny nightmare that resides somewhere between Franz Kafka and David Cronenberg. A man’s wife is mistakenly taken away in an ambulance. He goes to the hospital to find her, only to discover she’s can’t be located. Soon, he’s navigating a labyrinthian hospital run by surveillance-obsessed officers, scientists conducing bizarre sex experiments, and a man who turns himself into a horse by attaching another man’s lower half to his own.
Shadows in Summerland by Adrian Van Young (ChiZine). I’m cheating a bit here, as Van Young’s brilliant Gothic novel about 19th-century spiritualism won’t be released by ChiZine until spring of 2016. However, I had the pleasure of reading it in manuscript form, so I’m going to count it. The novel is loosely based on the historical spirit photographer William H. Mumler, who famously photographed Mary Todd Lincoln with the alleged ghost of President Lincoln behind her. Fans of uncanny horror and gorgeous Gothic prose will want to put this on their to-read list
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press). The Story of My Teeth is an odd and intriguing novel with an even odder back story. Luiselli was commissioned to write a piece by a juice factory in Mexico. She decided to do a collaboration with the workers in the juice factory, sending chapters and getting feedback across countries. The resulting novel mixes nonfiction, fiction, and metafiction in telling the story of Gustavo “Highway” Sanchez Sanchez, an auctioneer who makes money selling off the teeth of famous writers.
Sofia Samatar (The Space Between Objects)
Get In Trouble by Kelly Link (2015)
Kelly Link’s vision is extraordinary: she can make a parking lot into an uncanny landscape. Her latest collection revels in the threatening weirdness of ordinary spaces: ruined cabins, suburban bedrooms, theme parks, hotels. Like her settings, Link’s writing is simple and everyday and thick with something hidden that’s trying to press through. Her characters – mean kids, frightened parents, two-bit actors, washed-up superheroes – are on the edge of disaster. Like all of us, they’re in trouble.
For over thirty years, Can Xue has been conducting an experiment in fiction, what she calls “an experiment without an escape route.” Her novel The Last Lover does not point the way to any exit, it does not unfold, it does not unroll like a piece of tape or a plotted novel. Rather, it shape-shifts. Can Xue’s characters lead double lives, and as these lives intersect, they create moving patterns of color. Lovers separate and reconnect, they make journeys to bleak mountains and snake-haunted rubber plantations, they encounter new animals, veiled or double-faced strangers, mysteriously empty towns. The Last Lover is senseless in the way that dreams are senseless and absolutely logical in the way that dreams are logical. It’s a novel that’s experienced rather than recorded in the reader’s memory. To open this book is to look into a kaleidoscope.
Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven by Antoine Volodine (1998÷2015)
Translated by J. T. Mahany
Antoine Volodine is one of the names of the writer who also writes as Lutz Bassmann and Manuela Draeger. This heteronymous artist is creating a new literature, complete with its own literary forms and practitioners. These practitioners are the post-exotic writers and they are all in prison or dead. They write against capitalism, in the name of radical egalitarianism, employing the genres discussed in Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, such as the romånce, the Shaggå, the novelle, and the interjoist. Descriptions of these forms appear throughout the book, interrupting a series of interrogations of the incarcerated writers. The effect is bizarre, terrifying, uplifting. Filled with the stench of rotting prison cells and death, this is one of the most utopian books I have ever read.
Other weird delights I read this year: Gabriel Squailia’s adventure in the afterworld, Dead Boys (2015), Celeste Rita Baker’s debut collection Back, Belly, and Side: True Lies and False Tales (2015), and Aixa de la Cruz’ astonishing vampire story “True Milk,” translated by Thomas Bunstead for The Quarterly Conversation in 2012.
Usman T Malik (Khalida Asghar’s “The Wagon” and Fiction in Urdu)
The Occult by Naiyer Masud (2013). I was introduced to Masud’s work last year by the Indian horror writer Jayaprakash Satyamurthy. It took just a few Masud stories (many available here: http://www.urdustudies.
The Occult is a collection of five interwoven stories, that like much of Masud’s work are dazzling displays of pattern hiding within seeming randomness. Try them out.
Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay (2015). One of my favorite novels of the year, this is a dark psychological thriller about a possession and its effects on a family. The real horror of the story comes from the narrator’s experience, as it should, rather the child’s possession. Notwithstanding the tremendous edge-of-your-seat storytelling, the book is also a fierce feminist commentary on the modern condition and how we are all complicit in the various unique assaults on women in every part of the world.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (2015). They are written by Kelly Link. That’s all you need to know.
Helen Marshall (101 Weird Writers #37 — Kelly Link)
Gemma Files, Experimental Film (ChiZine Publications) — Experimental Film was released late in the year, and so I feel fortunate that I managed to get my hands on a copy in time to write about it for this. Files has gained a well-deserved reputation for the chilling beauty of her short stories and novels. This is her most accomplished work to date: it weaves together, found-footage style, a fascinating history of early Canadian cinema (a topic even most Canadians would be hard pressed to speak on) with a horror-myth that will appeal to fans of Algernon Blackwood. But while this description may give them impression thatExperimental Film is a bit parochial in its interests, I can assure you it isn’t at all. This is far and away one of my favourite novels of 2015: an accomplished and ultimately devastating read.
Indra Das, The Devourers (Penguin India, forthcoming 2016 from Del Rey in North America) — Like Files, Das is an extraordinary stylist: his prose is lush and evocative, an approach taken by few science fiction writers. His debut novel, released in 2015 by Penguin India but slated for North American publication in 2016, may seem on the surface like a departure from stories like “Weep for Day” and “The Widow and the Xir” which have gained him a reputation as a talent to watch. The Devourers is a literary fantasy novel which alternates between seventeenth-century Mughal India and the twenty-first century. In it, Das offers a refreshingly bold take on the myth of the werewolf. The transition from short story to novel can be a difficult one, but I can say in all confidence that Das makes use of the larger canvas in all the best ways: the world he imagines is thrilling and complex, the history vivid and beautifully rendered. Like his short stories, this novel locates an extraordinary sense of compassion in even the darkest and most alien encounters. In The Devourers, he has fashioned a tale that is redemptive, transformative, and uniquely his own.
Emily Carroll, Through the Woods (Margaret K McElderry Books) — This gorgeous collection of short horror comics came out in 2014 to well-deserved acclaim, but I want to mention it again because it is just that good. If you haven’t had a chance to read any of Carroll’s comics before, I recommend you start with her personal webpage: these make brilliant use of the form of the webcomic, combining stunning art with stories that remind me of a strange mash-up between Kelly Link, Shirley Jackson and H. P. Lovecraft. Shifting between fairy tales, dreamlike musings, ballads, and hauntings, Carroll proves herself a master of the vocabulary of dark fantasy. Utterly, utterly spell-binding.
Christopher Burke (The Rim of Morning by William Sloane)
Nathan Ballingrud, The Visible Filth (This Is Horror) – I wanted to keep this list confined to works that have perhaps not received as much attention as they deserve. Nathan Ballingrud’s novella has received a lot of praise already, but it was so good that I can’t not include it here. This piece had just about everything I want in a work of weird fiction: unputdownable, goes in directions you will not predict and does so in convincing ways, strong characterization with an emotional core, great imagery, and a climax that simultaneously makes sense in context and I didn’t see coming. I went into the story knowing exactly nothing about the book other than some of the authors and reviewers who had blurbed it favorably, so I’m not going to say a word about the plot because I think it’s best consumed that way.
V.H. Leslie, Skein and Bone (Undertow) – In a column with unlimited space, I could justly expound upon essentially everything that Undertow has put out this year (Aickman’s Heirs, These Last Embers, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction 2), but I will devote this paragraph to their most recent release. There is a bit of similarity to the work of Damien Walters in these stories’ visceral, sometimes “extreme” bloodiness laid over emotional undercurrents (one might even view the title as a metaphorical inverse of this kind of structure), but Leslie’s fiction has plenty of its own to distinguish itself. If I had to pick a favorite from the collection, it would most likely be the title story, which genuinely made me let out a bit of a gasp upon its conclusion. There is also a fine undertone of dark humor that can be found in some of these pieces, which isn’t to diminish their seriousness at all. The short stories include a strange riff on the Jane Eyre tale, the amorous woes of a timekeeper and their mortifying consequences, an unsavory series of encounters at a mostly-abandoned French chateau, and plenty more.
Craig Laurance Gidney, The Nectar of Nightmares (Dim Shores) – This chapbook stems from an intriguing premise, tracking brief but seemingly-unconnected vignettes about three characters whose nightmares plague their waking lives and are fueled by the appearance of an ominous force or being. What I like so much about this story is how it finds a common humanity in the seemingly small and quotidian by linking the characters to larger forces and anxieties operating behind the scenes. The result is equal parts unsettling and poignant, which is a difficult balancing act to pull off. The extra attention to artwork in this series is also a fantastic bonus.
Marian Womack (Orange Dogs)
Of my weird reading this past year I’ve picked two books by established authors, and two books by newcomers (one of them is only available in Spanish, and this recommendation is based on a review I wrote for the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network earlier this year):
A new book by China Miéville is an event to mark in the calendar, and he does not disappoint with Three Moments of an Explosion (MacMillan). It is impossible to convey in a few lines the power behind this short story collection, in which Miéville makes it clear once again why he has no equal in the scope of his imagination, the daring of his premises, the sharp interrogation to which he subjects our post-communicative society through his own blend of the fantastic, science-fiction, horror, and even a grotesque near-realism, as his weird vistas read like actual offerings from the sickly and near-apocalyptic world we live in. With each story, whether three or thirty pages long, the reader is plunged into a new scenario with a new set of rules, its own daring premise, and world-building powers that one imagines could effortlessly sustain whole novel-length plots. Aside from Miéville, no one has interrogated the failings of our society and achieved much more than a dystopian postcard: whether involving aliens, floating icebergs, mysterious illnesses or German ghosts, these are stories that have the power to send us back to our world with our eyes newly opened, and that’s the greatest praise I can give a work of literature.
The artist B. Catling has produced in The Vorrh (Vintage) a pitch-perfect weird novel of complexity and depth, and it is impossible to overstate what a compelling and assured read this first novel is. The imaginatively weird plot ties together explorers, robots, tribes which make magical weapons with the bones and flesh of their dead shamans, a cyclops, and real-life Victorian photography pioneers, all tightly bound in a complex exploration of Imperialism, but also of modernity, identity, and tradition. The settings, in particular, recall other classics of weird fiction: the mysterious jungle, the decadent city rotten with secrets. One is amply compensated for this familiarity by the prose style, gloriously rich and verging on gothic-cosiness without ever entering flamboyant territory, a rare and unexpected pleasure. I found myself re-savouring sentences as I went along, re-reading paragraphs just to enjoy the writing itself. I would be surprised if this work didn’t pave the path for Catling’s recognition as one of the best prose stylists in weird fiction.
Elegantly written and superbly structured, Challenger (Aristas Martínez) by Guillem López, is the best novel I’ve read in Spanish this year. It is divided into seventy-three chapters, recalling the seventy-three seconds that the eponymous space shuttle was airborne before disintegrating, their prolegomena and consequences for a handful of characters. The concentration on this smallest of timeframes establishes the novel’s particular thesis: focus in depth on a particular slice of life, and its inexplicable edges will be vividly brought to life, the unnatural will end up revealing itself organically as a part of that very nature which had previously appeared to reject it. Telepaths, sects, mediums, sea monsters, and the suggestion of parallel realities all sit comfortably alongside realist tropes: suburban housewives, mafia bosses, corrupt or inept politicians, unethical lawyers… This is one of the great technical achievements of the book, and one that makes it stand out in the Spanish market, where genre writing tends to follow Todorov in its exploration of the fantastic as a disruptive element ‘entering the real’. Here the fantastic and the weird is not alien or distortional: it is born out of the very impossibilities and general messiness of real life, its wonders and sorrows, magnified in that instant at which life and death fatally interact, at a scale that touches a whole community, a whole country, even humanity itself.
But for me the book of the year has to be Get in Trouble (Canongate) by one of the few true innovators of genre writing: Kelly Link. Here, her savvy characters seem deliberately to obey the imperative of the title. Fond of framed narratives, Russian-doll tales within fictions within realistic dramas, Link’s own oeuvre seems to be playing this kind of game on a larger scale now: without being self-referential, her construction of interlocking narrative patterns has become her own personal brand, and allows her to explore the liminal territories between the magical and the mundane, offering clues to our ‘real’ selves. While the author’s taste for the surreal may be reminiscent of Leonora Carrington, and her wicked playfulness recalls Angela Carter, her chief literary referent is now her own work. Link is a unique talent, and her weirdness and flavour for the surreal must be celebrated in a list like this. When we read her we have the feeling that we are reading a classic of the future.
Leif Schenstead-Harris (101 Weird Writers #38 — Leonora Carrington)
This year, I found myself interested in less spectacularly weird books that explore the moments in life that yield up chaos, estrangement, and insight. I was reminded that weirdness operates in drama and nonfiction, as well as in fiction usually marketed as, say, allegorical or postmodern. These are the openings in life where the weird emerges – not as a foreign agent or as a fantasy, but as a natural constituent of the world as we know it. So while I’ve kept up with what’s new – Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ latest instalment of Saga, for instance, which I continue to devour with a strange fascination – this year I found most resonant those works that ground their weirdness in the shifting soils and flowing waters of the observable world.
Ivan Vladislavić, The Folly (Archipelago Press)
First published in 1993 but republished this year, The Folly reminded me of two things. First, that Vladislavić, a South African writer of Croatian descent, has a keen eye for the way that people allow their illusions to control their lives and those of others. Second, that Archipelago Press have been putting out a high quality series of reprints and translations. The Folly rivetingly describes the way that wholly imaginary structures – ideologies, one might say – make their presence known. Its lively and even dangerously playful language alternately lulls and shocks its reader. One of the stranger and more oblique allegories of South African apartheid out there.
Lisa Dwan, in the “Beckett Trilogy”: Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby (Dir. Walter Asmus)
Since its emergence in 1972, Samuel Beckett’s monologue Not I has lost none of its distressingly inhuman chill. Check out Billie Whitelaw’s performance on YouTube to see for yourself. (I will not refer you to Julianne Moore’s version.) This year I saw Lisa Dwan perform Not I along with Footfalls and Rockaby, two more of Beckett’s short plays. as part of the “Beckett Trilogy.” Dwan’s harrowing performance is stunning and brilliant. So too the direction by Walter Asmus. Imagine: in the absolute darkness of a theatre so quiet and empty of light that vertigo sets in, the bizarre sight of an insatiable, fleshy mouth. Now, imagine that mouth tear through language as if it were a tattered cloth set afire. I count this among the most scorchingly weird things I’ve seen this year: “What?… who?… no! SHE!” The spectral Footfalls and the deathly Rockaby are not to be missed either, should the chance arise.
Mia Couto, Pensativities (Biblioasis, translated by David Brookshaw)
Mozambican writer, environmental consultant and biologist Mia Couto has a talent for mixing the real with the unexpected, the weird with the mundane. Pensativities assembles a selection of Couto’s essays and addresses from the last fifteen years; in them, Couto traces the jagged edges of modernity and its exclusions with an enchanter’s lightly transformative hands. In “Languages We Didn’t Know We Knew”, Couto argues that the purpose of writers, “as producers of dreams, is to gain access to that other language no one can speak, that hidden language in which all things can have names.” These essays are firmly located in Mozambican natural and social contexts, yet in them it is possible to see how flashes of weird lightning illuminate Couto’s observations on the world. Essays like these reveal how speculative literature emerges and grounds itself in lived realities across the globe.
Boris Vian, L’Écume des jours [Mood Indigo / Froth on the Daydream] (Farrar Straus & Giroux)
This is an older novel, first published in 1947, but with the Michel Gondry adaptation to film from last year I was finally motivated to begin reading Vian. Today I cannot imagine not having read him. The midcentury French writer proves a wicked seducer whose touch makes flesh with pleasurable pain and whose sentences dance before you with either joy or despair – depending on how you see things. I won’t ruin the novel’s surprises. Let me simply say that a mouse’s actions will not always fill you with determination, as this year’s Undertale has it. A mouse might look around and offer itself up to a cat. In a related thought: can a fairy-tale logic of love and devotion sustain life? Or is it a dangerous daydream?
Haralambi Markov (When Raspberries Bloom in August)
I had the chance to reinvigorate my reading this year and I’ve come across two 2015 releases, which I think fans of weird fiction will devour with glee. The third book is my introduction to a classic writer who enjoys a celebrated status – Angela Carter. Not a surprising choice, but I feel it’s necessary to also discuss and re-introduce previous works to new readers.
Vermilion by Molly Tanzer. Weird westerns are making a return and Molly Tanzer leads the charge with a fun, action-packed and strange as hell novel. In this version of the United States the reader is introduced to talking animals (bears do make a prominent appearance), monsters and ghosts. The last of which Lou Merriwether, your 19-year-old heroine and a psychopomp, hunts down for a living until she takes on a commission to find out what’s happening to her fellow Chinatown boys gone missing.
What could have simply been a light book that relies on plot, action and the trappings of the urban fantasy genre, instead blends character depth with a seriously fun, disconcerting world. It’s a fun sort of strangeness that you should read like you’d drink a shot — in one take.
Lament for the Afterlife by Lisa L. Hannett. Lisa L. Hannett has been doing wonders within the short fiction forms. Her stories always tiptoe the line between wondrous and dark, joyful and melancholic – always penned with impeccable eye for language. Now, in her debut, Lisa brings all her talents into a story about war against an enemy that seems to be invisible and invincible, where people suffer from a condition that bleeds their thoughts in the physical realm. Though that’s just scrapping the surface in terms of worldbuilding.
It’s a heavy book. It’s an unpleasant book at times, but it’s an important book that is all the more relevant given how the whole world is on the brink of more and more wars. Also, it helps it’s well-written, and strange, and beautiful the way it arranges startling images from the ruins of war. Ultimately, it’s a novel about making do with what you have, getting by and moving on; survival in a severely fragmented reality.
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter. Carter isn’t a surprise to anyone who has been reading weird fiction for a long time, but I’m featuring her because it is easy to a new reader to not where to start within weird and miss this genius book. Carter is a wordsmith in a league of her own; commanding, bending and shaping language any way she sees fit from the shortest sentences that ring clear and ecstatic to veiled paragraphs undulating on the page. It’s her same fearless abandon that results in a story that knows no limitation and blends vulgarity with great purity, philosophy with mystery, beauty with the grotesque.
Kathe Koja (Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 2)
Having the YBWF2 reading as my delicious diet pushed longer form work off the plate. I’d recommend one sublime collection, not yet published but that I did read — devour — this year: Maryse Meijer’s Heartbreaker. There’s no voice like Maryse’s, and that’s my highest praise.