Pickering, Canada: Undertow Press, 2015; $18.99 tpb; 328 pages
I begin with a confession: I can’t offer a very specific definition of what Weird Fiction is. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s threshold test has always been good enough for me: I know it when I see it. But circumstances change. Having skated by on this flimsy old chestnut for years, one day, the editor of a prestigious science fiction newsletter holds a weaponized iguana to your head and tells you to stop futzing around.
So let’s say: Weird fiction isn’t exactly fantasy (though it can be fantastic) and it’s not straight-up horror (though it can horrify). But it can have elements of both, or neither.
Hmmm, not going so well, is it? Methinks I hear the iguana’s armor-plated tail lashing in anticipation. Let’s try again:
In his foreword, series editor Michael Kelly says: “The Weird is a feeling. A kind of continuous distortion of ambient space. So, weird tales can be composed of elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but can also occupy those more sensate, liminal areas” (viii).
Liminal, that’s a good word: “being an intermediate state, phase, or condition.” So a space between the fantastic and the horrifying and—sure, why not—let’s throw science fiction in there too. A genre without edges or borders, then.
This year, Kelly is joined by guest editor Kathe Koja, a prolific and talented writer of spec fic herself. (Volume 1 was guest edited by Laura Baron, volume 3 by Simon Stranzas.) On the subject of the weird, Koja writes:
The stories I chose were the ones that spoke most surely and strongly of the truth of the weird, its presence, its power when revealed to unsettle or make an end; or a beginning.
Ending or beginnings. In other words, a range of ideas. That works since this anthology features established authors and up-and-comers, a representation across age, race, and gender. The stories themselves feature, among other things, sentient robotic limbs, kappas, messages from the underworld delivered by birds, murderous opticians, cursed roadside hotels, transient werewolves ... in other words, a deeply satisfying and diverse range of subject matter. Though the stories vary widely in tone, subject matter, and setting, their ability to unsettle is unmistakable.
This is a uniformly strong collection, so I’ll just a cherry-pick a few of my standouts:
Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” is a harrowing quest for the titular object of desire through some of the more awful back rooms of New Orleans, ending at a blighted shack in a cursed swamp where Very Bad Things happen. Ballingrud eases us into the darkness with sure-footed prose and a matter-of-fact delivery that make the horror elements all the more unsettling:
Tobias is screaming, but whatever he’s saying has no relation to me. It’s as though I’m watching a play. Blood is leaking from his eyes. Patrick is grinning widely, his own eyes like bloody headlamps. He’s violently twisting his right ear, working it like an apple stem. Johnny is sitting quietly, holding his gathered brains in his hands, rocking back and forth like an unhappy child. My upper arms are hurting, and it takes me a minute to realize that I’m gouging them with my own fingernails. I can’t make myself stop. (17)
Siobhan Carroll’s “Wendigo Nights” launches us into the creepy with this eyeball kick of an opener:
Lately I’ve been thinking about eating my children. (31)
The ride only gets stranger from there, featuring cannibalism and survival in an Arctic research facility:
I study McCauley’s hands. They’re large and dirt-streaked. I imagine crunching through his knuckles and rolling the tattered joint on my tongue like a marble. (31)
This story comes to the weird by way of science fiction, with elements of fantasy and horror lurking underneath its researcher’s parka. It’s presented in a nicely constructed nonlinear format that forces the reader to assemble the pieces for herself.
In Karen Joy Fowler’s “Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story,” two sisters wait for their parents to return while Nanny spins scary tales by the fire and plays dress up in their absent mother’s clothes. Beautifully precise, it reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie with dark fairy-tale overtones:
Fiona woke up sometime later and it seemed to her that she could hear Nanny Anne singing even though Nanny Anne wasn’t in the room. The rain came hard and the singing was soft. Fiona had to strain to hear it and even so words were lost. It was something about dreaming and something about the woods. It was something about a mother’s love and a cradle and the snow. It was a lullaby that woke Fiona up. Or else it was another of those things that Fiona wasn’t supposed to hear. (94)
Rich Larson’s “The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy” is set on an oil rig in the Baltic Sea where a man, escaping his past and hiding from his future meets a mysterious woman who may—or may not—offer him salvation. Larson doesn’t obfuscate the story’s mainspring so much as hide it in plain sight, which makes the ending all the more satisfying.
Isabel Yap’s elegant “A Cup of Salt Tears” opens with a woman on the verge of tragedy. Yap’s protagonist, preparing herself for the impending death of her husband, visits a bath house and meets a kappa, a river demon:
As the figure nears, she sees its features through the mist: the green flesh, the webbed hands, the sara—the little bowl that forms the top of its head—filled with water that wobbles as it moves. It does not smell of rotting fish at all. Instead it smells like a river; wet and earthy, alive. (290)
In her clean, clear prose, Yap affirms an indelible truth: the loss of a loved one is more painful and frightening than a supernatural creature—even a green, bowl-headed river imp—can ever hope to be.
Nick Mamatas’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” takes on the tricky business of weirdness in the modern world. A stretch of haunted road, designed to boost the local economy of a depressed New England town, defies GPS to deliver thrills and chills for a mere $40,000 a ride (no repeat customers, of course). The story’s POV shifts and accelerates, like the car driving through it, with a steady, rising dread, and the moment where the mundane shifts into the bizarre is deftly managed.
I started with a confession, so I’ll end with one too: though all the stories on offer here are excellent, a few of them felt as if they were operating above my head, a level of weirdness whose frequency eluded me. Of course, when it comes to the weird—like so much else—one size does not fit all. If you’re looking for stories that challenge, unsettle, and entertain in equal measure, this anthology will not disappoint.
Kris Dikeman is the managing editor of this magazine. The iguana is actually a pacifist.