Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume 3: An Interview with Simon Strantzas

Year's Best Weird Fiction 3The Weird is a notoriously nebulous mode to define. Ask ten different authors or readers to define the genre and you’re likely to get ten different responses. But this aspect of Weird fiction need not be a bad thing. In fact, one of the great things about the Year’s Best Weird Fiction series from Undertow Publications is that it leverages the ambiguity surrounding the genre and what constitutes it by featuring a unique, new guest editor for each year’s edition. The diversity of each volume so far has provided a look into how different guest editors have defined The Weird, and this year’s volume is no exception.

The third entry in the Year’s Best Weird Fiction series is guest edited by author and editor Simon Strantzas. Strantzas should be no stranger to fans of Weird fiction. He recently edited the Robert Aickman tribute anthology Aickman’s Heirs which won two Shirley Jackson Awards — one for best Edited Anthology and one for Lynda E. Rucker’s story “The Dying Season.” Strantzas was gracious enough to stop by Weird Fiction Review to answer questions about how he defines Weird fiction and how he selected stories for YBWF3. From his responses, I find it interesting that while not every fan may agree with his definition of Weird fiction, Strantzas still provides a very clear and critical framework for how he understands it, along with some insights into what the Weird looks like today and where it may be headed. As a side note, I would also encourage interested readers to check out our interviews with Laird Barron, who edited the first volume, and Kathe Koja, who edited last year’s second volume, in order to gain some perspective into how the Weird is viewed differently by other practitioners.

Weird Fiction Review: Did you read the previous years’ volumes? I’m wondering how you think your selection of stories differ from those of Laird Barron or Kathe Koja.

Simon Strantzas: I dipped into both volumes upon their release, picking my way through the stories that were new to me, revisiting some that weren’t. It seems to me that the first volume was focused on giving a very broad overview of the what constitutes Weird fiction (or at least did so at the time), whereas the second drilled down into a side of the field that hews closer to Fantasy than Horror. This makes it the perfect follow-up in my eyes. Michael Kelly’s mandate for the Year’s Best Weird Fiction series is to show the diversity of the field, and that second volume proved to be a jolt to those who thought they knew what “Weird fiction” was — both those that embraced the term, and those that felt alienated by it. It was a bold and impressive choice, and I think immediately it freed the series from spiraling down a predictable hole.

My own sensibilities about what Weird fiction is and what makes it interesting differ in some ways greatly from those two volumes, yet also stay on perhaps more traditional paths. I suspect I have a greater interest in British and European Horror than the previous editors do, which is likely reflected in my choices. I also lean closer to the Horror side of the Weird fiction spectrum, so many stories I find the most interesting explore the Horror mode in some way. One thing I hope to see more of in future volumes in an influx of writers from outside the Western world, though that carries a number of hurdles, language barriers being only the most obvious.

WFR: In your introduction, you make the case that Weird fiction is just another name for Horror fiction. Would you say that they are completely interchangeable? Or are there perhaps stories that are Weird but not Horror or vice versa?

Strantzas: I wouldn’t call them interchangeable, no. I consider one to be a subset of the other. My argument (laid out, I hope, much more cogently in the introduction to the book) is simply that though there has been fiction called Weird for a long time, the contemporary use of the phrase is relegated to describing the newer forms Horror fiction is taking in this post-millennial age. It’s a term often (not always, but often) used as a short-hand to suggest that because these forms are new and different, they are inherently better than what preceded them, so they need to be divorced completely from what came before so there’s no confusion. “Weird” is too often used as a form of elitism.

One has to remember, though, that all these names are but artificial constructs created to examine and categorize fiction after it’s been written in order to study or sell it. Authors (good ones, at least) don’t tend to worry about such categorizations while writing. What makes weird fiction “Weird” is the author’s desire to tell stories in a different way or with different tools than have been traditionally used. But that’s the same for all leading movements of art, I’d think. I don’t argue that Weird fiction is an interesting and distinct place, I just argue from the perspective that it’s not far enough from its precedents that it can be branched. The Weird is simply new Horror.

WFR: You also acknowledge in your introduction that there’s no consensus around what constitutes Weird fiction. I wonder if you have any theories around why the Weird is such a nebulous genre. 

Strantzas: If we accept the tenet that Weird is its own mode, I suspect its nebulousness comes from its relative newness. Established modes like Horror and Science Fiction have existed long enough, and are distinct enough, to have developed tropes and clichés that define them. Should I describe a story where a family moves into a house where a person was murdered, and they suffer through a night of strange noises and unexplained premonitions, you would be hard pressed to find a reader who wouldn’t define that as Horror; just as a story about a rocket ship and an alien planet whose society is both ancient and advanced would be considered Science Fiction. It’s easy for someone to identify these modes. But Weird? Just what exactly is that? Is there a story construct that everyone would agree on as being Weird? The mode is not codified in the same way. In fact, everyone has their own slightly different impression of Weird means. And I don’t consider that a problem. Weird hasn’t existed as a defined (or loosely-defined) thing long enough to develop its own mode-defining hackneyed baggage — it’s still primarily filled with stories on the forefront of literature. It’s and exciting place, but I do wonder if it requires that codification to remain relevant to readers. I remember a similar issue with “Dark Fantasy” a decade or so ago. It was another term bandied around by people who didn’t want to use the word Horror to describe the fiction they liked, but just as Weird fiction it was nebulously defined, and once a generation of readers grew past the term it fell out of favor. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone called a Dark Fantasy author without irony or derision. But perhaps I travel in the wrong circles.

WFR: There are a number of writers in Year’s Best Weird Fiction Vol. 3 that are well established (Ramsey Campbell, Tim Lebbon, Reggie Oliver, etc). Were there any writers that were new? Perhaps new to Weird fiction or even new to you?

Strantzas: About a third of the stories selected for the book were from authors I’d never before read. Michael Kelly does a great job at casting a wide net over the field, looking not only for new voices, but new voices in atypical venues for Weird fiction readers. As a result, the stories he sent me to consider were widely varied in style and subject matter. Some were quiet, some explicit; some were realistic while others fantastic. In essence, he was able to provide a healthy spectrum of work to consider, which made my job harder, but much more interesting. I read each story blind so I might assign it an unbiased ranking on several different levels. Then, on re-read, I ranked each again and took an average. This whittled down my list of serious candidates for the book. At that point it was only a matter of re-reading them again to puzzle out the best fit for style and variation. Simple, but not so simple at all. When dealing with the best of the field, selecting which “best” is better than another is a bit of a fool’s errand. In some case, it boiled down to what appealed most to my own sensibilities. The book as a whole is a reflection of the sort of fiction I enjoy, and another volume filled with dissimilar stories could easily have been assembled from the same material and been as good. The stories in all these best-of series are never the qualifiable best of the year, but rather some of the best that are being presented for the readers’ review.

WFR: Do you consciously strive for a balance of well-known and newer writers, or does this balance arrive more or less as a natural part of the editorial process?

Strantzas: Once I was in the final stage of picking the table of contents, I went through the narrowed-down list I’d assembled with my blinders off and linked each titles to its author. This allowed me to make corrections in balance I might not have been able to otherwise. When I ran into a situation where I had two stories I liked equally well, I considered other factors outside the story to lean toward a final list that was balanced by sex and nationality and experience. I could easily have put together a volume of stories written by only straight white men, but I don’t think that properly reflects the field or the talent in it. These best-of books are more than a book of favorites — instead, they function as an overview of what’s happening in the field and what’s exciting. For me, different voices are what’s exciting, especially new voices. I was thrilled to be able to gives some fledgling writers their first taste of being in a curated best-of anthology, and I have no doubt this won’t be the last time for any of them. I must also admit I was excited to be able to include a new story by Robert Aickman in the volume. Aickman’s work has been transformative for me, and it was surely kismet that I should be invited to co-edit YBWF during the year a major new story of his was first published.

WFR: Speaking of Aickman, you talked about the Strange Tale in your introduction. What are the hallmarks of the Strange Tale? Were there any stories in YBWF3 that you would categorize as Strange Tales or Aickmanesque?

Strantzas: I’d probably call the Aickman tale “Aickmanesque”, but it’s not the only one. I see the Strange tale as a more European style of story telling, as opposed to the American style of Weird fiction. The former is weighed down with such a long history that the stories tend to turn inward, whereas the latter are turned outward in exploration of what the world and the cosmos has to offer. American Weird is thus more direct, and more showy that the Strange. (And, again, let me restate that these are arbitrary divisions intended to aid in understanding movements, not define them). Most of the British writers in the book wrote stories I’d call Strange, and the American writers wrote what I’d call Weird, but this was not always the case. I’d suggest the British D.P. Watt’s story falls closer to the Weird scale, and American ex-pat Lynda E. Rucker’s tale falls closer to the Strange. It’s about atmosphere and mood, and plenty of great stories in this book and elsewhere entwine the two irrevocably.

WFR: You’ve worked in the Weird fiction field for quite a while. Did you spot any trends while editing YBWF3?

Strantzas: I came away from the experience with two observations. The first was that the first-person narrative is popular among many writers of Weird fiction. I’m not certain why this is, but I suspect it’s the same at the vanguard of other modes and fields as well. Perhaps the first person narrative is more engaging because it immediately establishes a rapport between reader and narrator, providing a voyeuristic look into another’s life. Or perhaps the subjectivity of first-person works well with Weird fiction because it allows bizarre encounters and effects to be delivered through experience-by-proxy, which heightens the emotional connection. Whatever the reason, I found after reading through a number of first-person stories that encountering one written from the more traditional third-person perspective was an oasis.

The second thread I noticed deals primarily with what newer writers are bringing to this sort of fiction. We used to speak a lot about cross-genre fiction, but whereas once each mode was its own silo with the occasional writer attempting to mix the contents of one with another, newer writers don’t seem to recognize the existence of those silos at all. Instead, they write as though all the speculative fiction fields were one, and glide between aspects without any sense of inhibition. Within the last few years we’ve seen the field shift in this direction out from under those authors who were working at Weird fiction’s vanguard a decade ago, authors who were still working through the influence of the boom period on their fiction and on the field as a whole. These new writers coming of age now not only missed the influence of that boom period, but because the field became so fallow in its aftermath that they instead found their inspirations elsewhere. That they’re bringing those influences back into our recently revitalized field only bodes well for where it’s going.

WFR: How did editing YBWF3 compare to editing other anthologies like Aickman’s Heirs? I know you’ve talked before about editing fiction after Shadows Edge and you said that you enjoyed writing more. After the success of Aickman’s Heirs, which won a Shirley Jackson Award for best anthology, do you see yourself editing more in the future? What about in the near term?

Aickman's HeirsStrantzas: I edited Shadows Edge because I wanted to understand what the editing process was like, and I discovered I didn’t care much for it. Well, that’s not entirely true; I do love reading new stories by my favourite authors, and I do like introducing readers to names they may not have been previously familiar with. And as much work as editing a book is, it’s still less work than writing a book. But that aside I found the task to be a burden that took time away from my own writing, an endeavour I am much more passionate about than editing. So, I decided then that Shadows Edge would to be my first and only foray into editing. And for a time it was.

When the current wave of tribute anthologies we are going through now was initially ramping up, it occurred to me that I might enjoy contributing to one that focused on Robert Aickman. His influence on the field was becoming obvious, and the timing appeared perfect. But no one else seemed to realize that, and after a while I had to accept that if such a book was ever going to exist, it would have to be because I made it happen. So my second (and, I was adamant, final) foray into editing occurred because I saw a hole that needed filling and filled it. As for the award and its nominations, I’m certainly very happy with the acclaim, and I think the notice the book and many of its stories has garnered is proof that my initial instincts about its need to exist were correct.

Both these books involved me assembling a list of my favourite writers and determining who would be able to write great material related to the theme. It’s almost the reverse of a volume like Year’s Best Weird Fiction, where I was reading stories by authors I didn’t know, authors who were exploring their own themes. Editing a book like that requires putting one’s own feelings aside and absorbing each story as a single unit, and only at the end of the process determining how those units interplay with one another, and if there are any general themes or undercurrents that unite them.

As to editing another book in the near (or distant) future, you know what they say: never say never. But there are no plans, firm or inchoate, at present.

WFR: Do you have any projects you’re currently working on that you’d like share with our readers?

Strantzas: I’m somewhere in the weeds of my fifth collection of short fiction. It’s slowly coming together and I’m hopeful it will be completed and polished for a 2018 release. If all goes well, it will be as much of departure from the last book as that book was from the one that preceded it. After that I’ll be turning my attention back to the short novel I’ve been writing for the past few years. I don’t know when that will see print, or even if, but I’ve grown quite fond of the story as time has progressed and I’m eager to finally see how it all ends. Should it work out well, I have another few ideas for novels that will likely take me the rest of my life to complete. Between these projects, short fiction will continue to appear sporadically in magazines, journals, and anthologies. I have three due in various books that have fallen behind on their publishing schedules, so I’m not sure when they’ll appear, but I remain ever hopeful and patient.