The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
09 May 2012
Never before had it proven best to collect a book for review in person. Never before had a volume been so unwieldy, so large and uncontainable, that it made more sense to travel to meet the editor of this fair organ, to take this monster from his own trembling hands, than to ask him to commit it to something so quotidian, so unmatched to its task, as the feeble postal service. The Weird, a tome so thick with verbiage that its double-columned, small-printed pages sprawl well past the one thousand mark—approaching 800,000 words, in fact—demanded a unique approach.
This is even more true, of course, of the act of actually reviewing Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's exhaustive account of "weird" literature. It contains more than a hundred short stories, excerpts, and novellas; it features almost as many writers (some are featured twice); and it is rich in stylistic innovation, varied in subject matter and almost impossible to encompass in the space of a manageable review. The Weird has no synecdoche: to review a few of its stories is to fail to capture the collection; to review the collection is to sand over the innumerable rough peaks of story which spit, fittingly ill-fitting, from its roiling surface.
All of which is not just appropriate but inevitable. The VanderMeers have taken as their subject a mode of literature defined by its ineffability—its very subject is the unknowable and the untamed. In the early 2000s, the lively discussion boards of The Third Alternative magazine were host to an exhaustive, discursive, inconclusive debate about something called "the New Weird," a resurgence in writing which eschewed the traditional trappings of genre to focus on the shocking or bizarre. Writers such as China Miéville and Steph Swainston were identified with the movement, but it was far more difficult to quantify what the movement actually was: was it a new kind of fantasy, or something else? Was it science fiction, or anti-rational? Did it in fact exist at all?
Jeff VanderMeer himself was both a part and a subject of this debate, and in a keystone text of the New Weird, the gloriously macabre City of Saints and Madmen (2005), one character says of another in way of praise: "[he] refuses to lose himself in his grotesque structures, or to abandon himself solely to an imagination under no causal restraints" (p. 222). The New Weird was, as the current collection argues, a grace note in the long symphony of the literature it supposedly revived, which the VanderMeers open in 1908 with "The Other Side," Alfred Kubin's discomfitingly surreal tale of a nameless city stricken with an unexplained sleeping sickness. If the definition of so small a part of this tradition proved to be so difficult, it is no surprise that The Weird is a sprawling, often confounding, volume. What it bears out, however, is that, to face the flaws in humanity's fractured modernist world system, an author must face the inexpressible with precisely the steadiness so admired in VanderMeer's earlier work.
Take, for instance, Ryunosuke Akutagawa's "The Hell Screen" (1918), in which the "father of the Japanese short story" turns an unblinking eye on the irrationality of art and of the politics of authority. Yoshihide, the greatest painter in a faintly feudal world, is asked to paint as realistic an image of the Buddhist Hell as possible. In order to do so, he tortures his apprentices and commits the results—the pain, the contortions, the misery—to canvas. As he chases artistic perfection, he demands—rather too forcefully—that the Lord of the realm burn a live girl in a carriage, so he can add this image, too, to his masterpiece. The Lord, for reasons which remain hidden between the story's lines, inflicts this punishment on Yoshihide's own daughter: "The strangeness went beyond the sight of this father ecstatically watching his daughter's agony. At that moment, Yoshihide incarnated a solemn exaltation elevated beyond the human condition, some supernatural dignity" (p. 123).
"The Hell Screen" is among the first rank of stories collected in The Weird, and, in that image of Yoshihide transplanted beyond the understanding of the story's admittedly wildly unreliable narrator, it arrives at something profound about this mode of literature. Its subject is that which is insubjectible, unknowable within the bounds of ordinary human experience and understanding. In many ways, "The Hell Screen" is a ruthless historicization of the fairy tale, no more a part of an emerging genre of the "the weird" than "Sredni Vashtar" (1910), the grimly hilarious Saki story about a young boy who worships his pet ferret, needs be said to have any supernatural content; but it is a recurring theme in the story notes provided by the volume's editors that the weird is more a resonance than a novum. That is, a weird story need have no identifiable break with our own world, no concrete instance of the impossible; it need only hold out the possibility, the potentiality, the pregnancy of the inexplicable. From one perspective, Yoshihide, like Saki's ferret, is simply an unusually committed artist, imbued with other characteristics by observers with their own agenda and needs; from another, he—and it—are transfigured out of, parallel to, what we think we understand about our world.
In The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2009), Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. interrogated the integral rationality of novums, finding that in the thickets of less rigorous SF the breaks with our own reality—light speed, time travel, seedships—can prove to be very far from rational. Nevertheless, for Csicsery-Ronay, even these irrational novums serve in SF to claim "that scientific discourse can comprehend and penetrate the supernatural and the surreal" (p. 75). In other words, by explicating the absurd supposition that almost all alien intelligent life consists of bipedal humanoids, Star Trek: The Next Generation creates its own rational scheme and sticks to it, implying—pretending—that science has emerged from combat victorious. The Weird—and the weird—offers an alternative scheme, which accepts that human understanding cannot stretch to encompass everything. That is, the mode does not simply reject the novum as often as it includes it; it subverts the very concept of a rationalizing phenomenology. The most obvious example of this approach can be found in the work of H. P. Lovecraft, here represented by the curiously clumsy but undeniably influential "The Dunwich Horror" (1929), in whose stories the Great Old Ones exist above, below, between, and beyond human notions of materiality. That The Weird features tentacles on its cover is no coincidence: Lovecraft's conception of a terrifying world glimpsed but never wholly perceived has become central to the weird aesthetic.
Indeed, the movement of the weird from the surreal to the horrific is one of the most noticeable changes observable in the century spanned by this collection. For the most part, the VanderMeers avoid analyzing their own collection—their story notes are biographical and specific, and the "Foreweird" and "Afterweird," written by Michael Moorcock and China Miéville respectively and their titles the only nods to cuteness in these 1100-odd pages, also focus largely on the achievements of the volume and the effect of its constituent parts. Nevertheless, editing is the process of shaping a story from the material of others, and the passage from the work of Lord Dunsany to that of Stephen King is stark. In "How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles" (1912), the English writer named Edward Plunkett outside of Burke's Peerage tells the story of a mysterious master burglar and his plan to raid the otherworldly bastion of the Gnoles, weirdly feared faeries; in "The Man in the Black Suit" (1994), meanwhile, King relates how a young boy gets lost in a wood and meets the Devil. Horror is present from the first pages of The Weird—its second story, F. Marion Crawford's "The Screaming Skull" does what it says on the tin, with, as the editors observe, a remarkable "early example of modern monologue" (p. 11)—but the earlier authors seem to play with their readers’ sense of reality more supply.
The later weird, then, seems to embrace more readily the grand guignol spectacle of the grotesque: in Jeffrey Ford's "The Delicate" (1994), a story far too intricately written to give in to blank horror, the author nevertheless revels in describing with loving attention the appearance and activities of an essentially unimaginable creature: "The Delicate is pale, limbs pipe-cleaner thin, with a head as shiny and hard as a bettle-back" (p. 841). With less rococo prose (few can write like Ford), Algernon Blackwood wrote almost ninety years previously, in one of the collection's first-tier stories, "The Willows" (1907) of "shapes of some indeterminate sort among the willows . . . as the branches swayed in the wind they seemed to group themselves about these shapes, forming a series of monstrous outlines that shifted rapidly beneath the moon" (p. 35). It's hard to decide whether in this movement from intimation to explication the weird gained its confidence or lost it. Certainly the stories in the latter half of the collection can feel at times more of a piece with each other than the deranged selection of dissimilar tales in its first half: the queasy whodunit of Hanns Heinz Ewers "The Spider" (1915) and the disturbing, apocalyptic isolation of "The Night Wire" (1926) are far removed from each other in a way VanderMeer's own "The Cage" (2002) isn't quite separate from Ford's other inclusion, "The Beautiful Gelreesh" (2003), both of which dwell in their own ways on physicality and revulsion.
All this said, there emerges from The Weird a set of concerns which recur so regularly that the mode begins to reveal itself as a means of understanding some quite particular aspects of the modern condition. In "The Willows," two canoeists on the Danube take a break on a sandy island near the border between Austria and Hungary. Lovecraft rather literally interpreted the strange shapes—and stranger effects—experienced by the men once they have landed as part of the best supernatural story in English, but there remains the sliver of a possibility that the "suggestion of things other than sensory" (p. 33) is in the narrator's head. The subjectivity of the modern troubles many of these weird stories, but so too does the antagonist in Blackwood's melodrama: nature. Time and again, the terror held by an increasingly urbanised and specialized humanity is reconstituted by the weird into something stranger and more unsettling. In Luigi Ugolini's "The Vegetable Man" (1917), which also features the collection's first mention of a tentacle (tellingly, in metaphor), greenery transforms a man's body so that he feels that "I was no longer myself, that my blood was not my own" (p. 100); in the science fictional "Sandkings" (1979), George R. R. Martin writes of a rich man on an alien planet who tries to control some of the indigenous fighting insect tribes and proves fatally unmatched to the task; and in Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" (2004), one of the collection's best later stories, a simple tar pit proves to be both potent and mysterious.
Even those stories not strictly about nature feature the uncultivated environment as a malevolent, untrustworthy presence. Isolation should never be trusted in weird stories—as if venturing beyond the urban reality of the modern is to invite impossible punishments. The protagonist of "Sandkings" lives "fifty kilometers from the city" (p. 521), whilst the ill-fated vacationers of Shirley Jackson's famous "The Summer People" (1950) are unstuck by their decision to remain in a country cottage "seven miles from the nearest town" (p. 311). The weird plays on our sickening feeling—our irrational hunch—that, beyond the confines of the systems we build ourselves, lurks the unspeakable truth we're busy burying. Another recurrent motif of the weird, then, is the question asked in M. John Harrison's anti-fantasy "Egnaro" (1981): "is it possible that the real pattern of life is not in the least apparent, but rather lurks beneath the surface of things?" (p. 591). This can be literalized as in "Window" (1980), the Bob Leman story which became the episode of Night Visions (2001) in which Bill Pullman was confronted with a patch of desert replaced by a live action Grant Wood painting. The frontier family inhabiting this vista prove to be bestial creatures from a parallel dimension—with knowledge we do not share of how to move between realities. Likewise, in Donald A. Wollheim's "Mimic" (1942), the narrator comes to realize we share the planet with a species able to pass convincingly as any other lifeform or object: "It is less than five hundred years since an entire half of the world was discovered," he remarks. "And yet we think we know a lot" (p. 280).
In the face of this anxiety over our possible ignorance, the weird suggests we will become ever more pathological in our coping mechanisms. The VanderMeers identify what they call "the weird ritual" as a strong plank of the literature: in Kafka's memorable "In the Penal Colony" (1919), for instance, an unnamed Explorer visits a remote island to inspect an Officer's "remarkable apparatus," used to slowly and with exquisite pain literally inscribe onto a prisoner's skin their crime (the nameless characters are the most obvious example in this collection of the weird’s allegorical mode); likewise, in "The Long Sheet" (1944) William Sansom describes captives tasked, in order to win their freedom, with drying every drop of water from a large expanse of canvas held in a room full of steam; less obviously, the (again, isolated) community in another of the collection's stories which received TV treatment (this time in The Twilight Zone), Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" (1953), fashions an entire mode of living, speaking, and even thinking around the unhinged psychic powers of their youngest member; in "Family," meanwhile, Joyce Carol Oates paints a quite hideous picture of what seems to be a post-apocalyptic landscape in which the titular brood adopt a quite different moral compass out of simple necessity.
In "The End of the Garden" (1991), a story which ends with a lizard climbing onto a flying bed, Michael Ajvaz writes: "Here, I think, lies the misfortunate of philosophy: always we encounter on our travels some exceptional freak to which the philosophical rules are found to be non-applicable" (p. 773). The Weird sets out to collect as wide a variety of stories as possible which document not just the exceptions themselves but the sickened, disorientated responses to them. In seeking to achieve this aim, the editors have been as heterodox as possible: writers from every continent are included, although in its second half the collection does tend to skew Anglo-American; and if there are not quite so many women in the contents list as might be ideal, there has clearly been an effort to champion female perspectives—Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Hand, and Angela Carter are all recipients of fulsome praise.
Indeed, the darkness of "The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats" (1976), written by Alice B. Sheldon as James Tiptree, Jr., offers one of the most ineffable all these ineffable tales, anthropomorphizing the ethical questioning of a researcher in a "magical beast." That story, which is so disquieting perhaps because it takes place in that most ordinarily controlled of environments, the laboratory, provides not the collection's only vision of a writer known best for science fiction touching instead on the illogical nerve endings of the weird: Joanna Russ is present and correct, represented by "The Little Dirty Girl" (1982), but so too are Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury and Octavia Butler. In one of Russ's science fiction stories, "When It Changed" (1972), she writes of humanoids "obviously of our species, but off, indescribably off": it is not a piece collected here perhaps because it seeks to explore, rather than evoke, that offness. That tension between SF's observational method, and the weird's tendency to view the world from a corner of its stalk-eye, recurs again and again in this anthology. It is not a difficulty the editors wish to resolve so much as throw into stark relief.
To pause over any one of these stories is to ignore a hundred more—I have read my share of anthologies and, thanks in large part no doubt to Ann VanderMeer's experience of compiling Weird Tales, few attain the consistent excellence of this one—but there is a moment in Gahan Wilson's "The Sea Was Wet As Wet Could Be" (1967) which seems to me to say something meaningful about the collection as a whole. The story of a beach party at which the narrator feels uncomfortable ("We are the contamination here," he muses darkly, again reviving that weird interest in the antagonism of humankind and nature), it is both acutely observant in a drolly realist fashion—"You tell 'em, Carl!" hollers the party's bore, at which the narrator quips, "Horace had sparkling quips like that for almost every occasion" (p. 417)—but also intensely, gleefully odd. A pair of strangers come walking down the beach, reminding the narrator in their amusing appearance of the Walrus and the Carpenter from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, a book which lies behind many of these stories like the screen on which a film is projected; these odd men proceed to enchant the dysfunctional party, charm them and persuade them to join a different gathering, further down the beach. Something is not quite right in this friendly picture—"I couldn't seem to get located. Everything seemed disorientated and grotesque" (p. 420)—and yet no one but the narrator notices. The story ends as he cowers behind a rock, looking, unwillingly, reluctantly, uncomprehendingly, at the husks of his friends: "The Walrus and the Carpenter had eaten the oysters and left the shell" (p. 422).
In this image of a baffled but terrorized figure standing alone on a "vast, smooth, empty, and remote" expanse of sand, the inexplicable corpses of his friends the consequence of the impossible actions of a first comic and then cosmic force, The Weird finds a kind of emblem. The collection is too broad and strange to summarize or enclose; but it is also, in its own distended way, empty: of answers, of conclusions, of comfort. That is as it should be, and the VanderMeers have produced an essential, entertaining, and definitive document of this indefinable literature. "What is left after other definitions are exhausted," writes Michael Moorcock as he opens the volume, "is the weird story" (p. xi). That is, where genre breaks down, and consensus is discarded, the weird—and The Weird—waits, grown fat with questions.