“Stories clawed and fanged, stories that feed on blood,” wrote Jean Muno in his story The Ghoul. It’s a line that neatly sums up Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume Two, edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly (Undertow Publications). Within the pages of this collection lie stories of monsters that draw on the human body for sustenance, that bite into the reader’s psyche with hooks made of words.
With an author line up featuring Karen Joy Fowler, Caitlin R. Kiernan and Karin Tidbeck, you’re in fairly safe territory (or should I say, weird waters) in expecting high-quality stories from the collection. From the opening imagery of floating purple flowers made of bleached human heads in Nathan Ballingrud’s The Atlas of Hell, this collection doesn’t disappoint.
Where weird fiction can often fall down is in treading the line between maintaining an undisclosed threat and slipping into vagueness, so the stories that stand out have a strong sense of voice and the confidence to deliver it. Stories such as Carmen Maria Machado’s sinister The Husband Stitch, which caused me to visibly shiver in my seat when the stitch in question is revealed. Or Hidden in the Alphabet, where Charles Wilkinson skillfully unpicks the strands of family relationships and memory, leaving just enough for the reader to break down the events that came before.
While the quality of stories in this collection is high, sometimes there is that one rare story that stands above the others. In this collection it is Julio Cortázar’s tale of mancuspia farmers Headache, translated by Michael Cisco. By bombarding the reader with vertiginous sensations, Cortázar produces the kind of sophisticated storytelling where the sensation experienced by the reader reflects that of the narrator. Headache perfectly captures that sideswiping feeling weird fiction should deliver, the glancing back saying “What was that?” as something shoots past faster than vision.
Also of note is Amanda C. Davis’ masterclass in flash fiction, Loving Armageddon, where a husband has a hand grenade for a heart. While the heart replaced with a mechanical item is not a new concept, her execution is succinct and demonstrates depth in only a few pages.
From other stories, it is a single line that will haunt me. “This is the blue hour. The ravenous night.” Siobhan Carroll, Wendigo Nights. “Someone once told me dust has no religion.” Usman T. Malik, Resurrection Points. Or the original imagery in Isabel Yap’s A Cup of Salt Tears, of throwing an engraved cucumber into the river to prevent the Kappa from stealing you away.
In examining the collection as a whole, a number of themes stand out: women young and not-so-young manipulated by sinister forces (Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story, The Girls Who Go Below, Bus Fare, A Cup of Salt Tears); amputation and limbic damage (The Husband Stitch, So Sharp the Blood Must Flow, A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide); and monsters, always monsters.
Each year a new editor takes on the challenge of Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and this year’s best table of contents has been released here. Michael Kelly is the series editor, who read a whopping 2,800 submissions for this book alone. The wider value of these ongoing collections is gathering an understanding of movements in the contemporary weird, so that in future years they can be compared. It’s always wonderful finding a collection twenty years later, and recognizing the achievements of those names in the years since.
Here’s to many more weird years.