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The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

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Genre: Sci-Fi & Fantasy / Editors: Jeff Vandemeer, Ann Wandemeer / Publication Date: 2011 / Publisher: Corvus

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      29.06.2012 09:51
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      A huge compendium of weird horror and science fiction

      This is an absolutely enormous collection of short stories - 110 of them spread over 1,100 pages. The pages have fairly small type, and are laid out in two columns on each page. It's a big, chunky, heavy volume. It took about three months to read, although obviously it's better to dip into than try to read cover to cover.

      A helpful introduction tries to define weird stories as those which contain supernatural elements but which don't involve ghosts. This isn't strictly adhered to in this book - there are a couple of ghost stories in here, and they rub shoulders with science fiction tales, magical realism and urban horror. The grandfather of 'weird' horror is HP Lovecraft, and there are plenty of stories in here which owe him a great debt. But it's not just 1,100 pages of Lovecraft pastiche, which would get tired quickly.

      It mixes high art and low pulp, and for my money, the low pulp usually wins. I guess I prefer my horror to be straightforward in the telling - I read horror to be freaked out, not educated. Not that the more literary stores are bad, but they tend not to fit in with the tone of the more obvious genre pieces. Authors like Ben Okri or Jorge Luis Borges aren't trying for the same effect as the majority of writers in the book, and I found myself impatiently skipping through some of these stories more quickly than the freakier stuff. Of the 'proper' authors included, only Angela Carter really engages with the tropes of horror, and the Carter story chosen for this volume, The Snow Pavilion, isn't one of her best, even if the prose is lovely. In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka is a marvellous story, of course, but I'm not sure what exactly qualifies it as 'weird' as defined in the introduction.

      The stories are arranged chronologically, and start at 1908. I'm not going to make even the slightest effort to describe all of them, as I'd be here forever and I don't think it would help much. A few of the stories I'd read before, but the vast majority were new to me (I usually stick to ghost stories for my horror reading, as they're more likely to scare me). A few of the earlier stories are effectively ghost stories, or at least, they seem to belong to that tradition. The Screaming Skull, by F Marion Crawford, is a decent example, although not as scary as his ghost story 'The Upper Berth'. Algernon Blackwood's The Willows, with canoeists stuck on an increasingly hostile island, has a nice sense of desolation about it, but does go on a bit.

      MR James is represented by Casting the Runes (I'd have gone for 'Number 13' myself, it's definitely weirder, but maybe they wanted to get a Crowley-based villain in there somewhere). Hans Heinz Ewers' The Spider, about a student trying to learn the secret of a hotel room where everyone who stays commits suicide, has a good slow-build and plenty of creepy atmosphere, although the subtext that women are basically evil castrating bitches who will lead you inevitably to your doom might put a few people off.

      The People of the Pit by A Merritt is more obviously Lovecraftian, as a prospector uncovers a vast, horribly ancient temple and civilisation inside an Alaskan mountain. It's almost a dry run for Lovecraft's 'At The Mountains of Madness', which was published some years later. The book offers many tales from non-Western writers, and The Hell Screen by Ryunosuke Akutagawa is a good example, a very Japanese story that still feels like it would work as a western-friendly horror movie.

      Unseen - Unfeared by Francis Stevens is another Lovecraftian horror, and one of earliest I know of to offer up the potent idea that we're constantly surrounded by fearsome, invisible creatures that would drive us to insanity if we ever learned of their existence. It also plays nicely on the racism that so often mars the work of Lovecraft and similar writers. You often have to make massive allowances when reading writers of this vintage, and it's refreshing that here the unpleasant racism that grips the main character is revealed to be a side-effect of an hallucinogenic drug. On the whole, this book steers clear of the nastier side of Lovecraft and some of his followers. The Night Wire by HF Arnold is also nicely Lovecraftian, and is one of the first stories here to feature techno-fear, as the characters receive mysterious messages over the news wire from non-existent cities.

      We finally get Lovecraft himself, represented by The Dunwich Horror (not his best story, but perhaps his most quintessentially Lovecraftian one). It has it all - in-bred yokels, old gods, hideous rituals, forbidden lore, New England scenery, unease about women and reproduction. Good old Lovecraft!

      The Book by Margaret Irwin is a nasty little story about a man who becomes possessed by an old tome he reads, although it feels more like an MR James story than a 'weird tale' as such. Jean Ray brings us very much back into the weird, though: The Mainz Psalter has a ship sail into another dimension, with a stunning moment of cosmic horror. Far Below by Robert Barbour Johnson is explicitly indebted to Lovecraft, with its dog-faced ghouls burrowing into the New York subway from below. It's probably the pulpiest fiction in the book.

      Fritz Lieber's The Smoke Ghost (which I'd read before) is a nice urban horror, in which a man is pursued by a shapeless sack of darkness. Donald A Wolheim's Mimic is another big city horror, with a strange pay-off. Shirley Jackson's The Summer People, by contrast, is rural, a tale of holidaymakers who stay too long in the country, and which builds a sense of looming dread very effectively.

      It's A *Good* Life by Jerome Bixby is the classic story of an omnipotent toddler ruling a small village with a grip of iron. It's a superb little story, and was famously adapted for the Twilight Zone (and parodied by The Simpsons). Another story bound for the Twilight Zone is The Howling Man by Charles Beaumont, in which a traveller has a terrifying encounter in a German monastery. It's let down a bit by a silly ending that's probably meant to be a twist, but actually just made me snort. Great otherwise, though. Mervyn Peake's Same Time, Same Place is a macabre cautionary tale evoking a drab, post-war London. It has a vibe of Tod Browning refracted through an essentially grey, austerity British lens.

      As the stories get closer to the present day, you can feel the authors' self-awareness growing. This occasionally leads to stories that seem to be trying to impress us with their intelligence rather than scare us. Lovecraft himself retreats as an overt influence, although there are a couple of last good twitches of the corpse. Michel Bernanos' The Other Side of the Mountain is perhaps the last really Lovecraftian story. It's another story of a boat that sails into a different plane of existence, and evokes the strange very well, even if it perhaps brushes the edges of silliness a bit too often.

      The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be by Gahan Wilson takes Lewis Carroll as its inspiration, and is unforgettably creepy, having the exact kind of forced jollity that the Alice books have if you read them in the wrong mood. Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier is a let-down, not having any of the uncanny feeling that makes the film adaptation so memorably brilliant.

      It feels like you suddenly turn a page and are in the modern world, or thereabouts. I'd never read anything by George RR Martin, but his science fiction tale Sandkings is one of the best stories in the book, having a narrative drive that kept me gripped from beginning to end. I can't try to describe the plot, which is a little ornate, but it makes me keener than I was to check out Game of Thrones. Another magnificent story is Window by Bob Leman, which starts out innocuous and seemingly predictable, but has perhaps the best ending of any story here. It is *horrible*!

      Ramsey Campbell has always left me a bit cold, I'm not sure why. Technically, I should love his stories, but they never quite seem to click. The Brood is no exception: well-written, kind of creepy, decent pay-off, but it just didn't work for me. He's been a huge influence on British horror, though. I felt much the same way about China Miéville's Details and Neil Gaiman's Feeders and Eaters (although the latter had a great last paragraph). Clive Barker's In The Hills, The Cities is very imaginative and clever, but perhaps a bit too clever. Tanith Lee's Yellow and Red was more endearing, and owed a bit to MR James. The best British contemporary story is The Lion's Den by Steve Duffy, about a zoo going crazily out of control.

      The Americans tend to provide better value in the book's later stages. The Autopsy by Michael Shea is a gruesome, cruel story of alien possession. Bloodchild by Octavia E Butler kind of covers the same ground, but from a completely different angle, and is certainly not for the squeamish. Lucius Shepard's Shades is a really good story of a ghostly Vietnam vet (not in the 'Camouflage' sense), which manages to make a few good points about the legacy of the war while still being scary and damned weird. Karen Joy Fowler's The Dark is another great Vietnam story, with all kinds of urban legend elements thrown in.

      The Boy in the Tree by Elizabeth Hand and Family by Joyce Carol Oates are both science fiction stories, each uniquely horrible. The Ocean and All Its Devices by William Browning Spencer is a partial return to Lovecraft-land with its dark bargains made with unknowably powerful beings. Stephen King is represented by The Man in the Black Suit, in which a young boy meets the devil while out fishing. It's not one of King's best, but even mediocre King usually manages to get under your skin occasionally. Michael Chabon's The God of Dark Laughter has a nice Twin Peaks vibe to it, although perhaps doesn't quite pay-off as well as it might. The same can be said for The Brotherhood of Mutilation by Brian Evenson: a great idea, a noirish detective story set among an amputation cult, but the ending wasn't quite good enough.
      Flat Diane by Daniel Abraham might be the best story in the collection, certainly in terms of the impact it had. It is incredibly nasty, and really stuck with me. It brilliantly feeds on some of the most potent modern fears and left me actually feeling dismayed. It's not a fun skin-crawling horror tale, but monstrous though it is, there's a sense that the author himself is very aware of the cleverness of what he's come up with. It's certainly extraordinary, and cautiously recommended.

      The more recent stories from the rest of the world tend to be more literary, perhaps because those are the kinds of stories that get translated more readily. The standout is Tainaron: Mail From Another City by the Finnish Leena Krohn, an extraordinary novella about a (presumably) human woman living in a city full of oversized insects. Dust Enforcer, by Reza Negarestani, is also extraordinary, a bizarre, repetitive fake encyclopaedia entry about the demon Pazuzu. I can't decide if it's brilliant or terrible, but I'll be getting the book it's excerpted from to try and find out.

      This book is vast, and inevitably, all I've been able to do is list the stories which most impacted on me, without really doing justice to any of them. Basically, if you like horror fiction, and are tired of reading about ghosts, vampires, serial killers or werewolves, then you will almost certainly find something to enjoy in here. And in spite of my overuse of the word 'Lovecraftian', I don't think you'd really need to have read many of the old curmudgeon's stories to enjoy what's on offer here.

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