Quentin's Reviews > The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

The Weird by Jeff VanderMeer
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it was amazing

I was drawn to this collection for its appearance of being an authoritative anthology of a (sub?) genre that I really like--weird, sci-fi/horror fiction. I've been reading Lovecraft since I was an early teenager, and because much of Lovecraft existed in edited collections, I branched into reading people like Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, and later descendants of that tradition like Thomas Ligotti, and Laird Barron. For me, the best weird stories are those that use ambiguity and incomprehensibility as story elements, and where the authors create a mood with their prose, rather than with plot and characters going from a to b to c. In short, I like "The Colour out of Space" more than "The Call of Cthulhu".

What I found was that it was better than an authoritative history of weird fiction, and way more revelatory than I first expected. Whatever one thinks of the individual selections, this is a monumental achievement, and a really great resource for those of us in love, and fascinated by, the history of weird fiction. I have now read all 1100-odd, double columned pages, and though it was definitely a long journey, I'm glad I took it.

A few scattered thoughts, followed by a list:

The book itself is massive--110 stories, 1100+ double-columned pages, and almost 3 pounds. I am glad to have a physical copy, but definitely found myself reading a kindle version many times when I didn't feel like lugging it around.

Jeff Vandermeer (who co-edited this with his wife Ann) has picked "his" history of Weird fiction, rather than "the" history. There's a real emphasis here on what might be called ecological weirdness--landscapes, diseases, animals, bodies, fungi, and other kinds of physiological or environmental strangeness. That's not really a knock on the collection as a whole, but just to indicate that all anthologies are selective and from a perspective, even authoritative ones like this.

The collection is notable for its inclusions outside of Euro-American canon. Lovecraft is here, and Blackwood, and Ray Bradbury, and China Mieville, and Thomas Ligotti. But it is clear that Weird fiction is a global phenomena of the 20th century, and the anthology addresses that by including eastern European, African, and East Asian authors, most of whom I had never encountered before and am delighted to be introduced to.

As with all anthologies (even one as massive as this), there's stuff that grabbed me, and stuff that didn't. There's also stuff I knew already, and stuff that I had heard of and been excited by, and also pieces that were completely out of left-field. I gravitated to stories that maintain ambiguity and are subtle in their weirdness, though there are certainly pieces that are outrageous, shocking, or colorfully descriptive. What follows are stories that I didn't know, and are still with me, in some cases, despite having read them months ago:

Algernon Blackwood--The Willows. I knew of "The Willows" from Lovecraft's glowing praise for it, in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" but it took this printing to get me to actually read it. I was shocked at how modern, strange, and creepy it was. Vandermeer's Annihilation feels VERY indebted to this story's fusion of journey-narrative, eco-weirdness, and unreliability.

Margaret Irwin --"The Book". A stately, formal supernatural possession story that pulls the great trick of slowly unfolding itself before the readers eyes, rather than giving away all the cards. Good on the Vandermeers for including quite a few great women, given the very masculine bent of much weird fiction.
Jean Ray --"The Mainz Psalter". Not sure how to describe this masterpiece about the disturbing journey of a group of sailors, except to say that its part of a European tradition of weird fiction with which I'm not familiar, and that there are images and phrases in here that still haunt me.
Shirley Jackson - "The Summer People". Jackson is, of course, famous for "The Lottery" that is a high school English class staple used to teach about plot twists. But this story is so subtle as to be almost mundane, except that an aura of dread permeates every sentence. By the end, she's constructed an astonishing prison for her characters that feels both obvious and startling.
Michael Bernanos - "The Other Side of the Mountain". One of the longer pieces in this book, really a novella. Bernarnos is another new discovery for me, though this work in particular has apparently become quite a cult classic. It's hard to describe this hallucinogenic journey, except to say that it involves cannibalism, living trees, and a god frozen in the earth.
Robert Aickman--"The Hospice". As with Blackwood, I had heard of Aickman and used this book as an opportunity to find out more. I was not disappointed. Like Jackson, the subtle weirdness and unnerving characters turn this simple story of a man seeking shelter during an auto breakdown into a masterpiece.
M John Harrison - "Egnaro". I had read Harrison's recent sci-fi, and an older post-apocalyptic novel called "The Committed Men", but this short novel takes the Lovecraftian trope of the dangers of forbidden knowledge into a modern context. There is no real antogonist in this strange story, only a sense that the world is holding together uneasily, and what sits underneath is unknowable and completely alien.
Elizabeth Hand -"The Boy in the Tree". I'll read anything Elizabeth Hand writes, after being completely taken in by her short novella "Wylding Hall." This story is really a character study of a brother and sister that gradually reveals itself to be about something much more sinister and fantastical.
Karen Joy Fowler - "The Dark". As I've gotten older, I've traded a love of Lovecraft's outrageous, descriptive prose for more austere and minimalist writers like Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti. This piece is in the latter vein, using the tunneling strategies of the Vietcong as a platform for thinking about upbringing, fate, and what makes us human (or inhuman).
China Mieville -"Details". I like Mieville's novels, but often find that his imaginative setups write checks his follow-through doesn't cash. This piece is the perfect sweet spots of strange, funny, and creepy. It's a modernization of Lovecraftiana, with monstrous forces visible in the literal cracks in the walls.
Brian Evenson- "The Brotherhood of Mutiliation". Another novella, with a plot that is classic detective fiction, but with a setting and characters that are grotesque and unsettling.
Reza Negarestani- "The Dust Enforcer" Formally the strangest story in the collection, and drawn from a longer novel by Negarestani's novel. "Dust Enforcer" reads like an encyclopedia entry, but on that describes a reality filled with ancient monsters, contemporary resource conflicts, mythology, alchemy, and terror. I was so taken with it that I bought the novel, despite its rather inscrutable form and concept.


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Reading Progress

August 10, 2018 – Started Reading
August 10, 2018 – Shelved
December 9, 2018 – Finished Reading

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