The New Weird by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (editors)

by hetzer

ImageConsidering that the overwhelming majority of what I read is genre fiction, I read surprisingly few short stories.  I seem to gravitate more toward novels, which allow me to immerse myself more fully in an author’s creation, but this tendency has two deleterious side effects.  First, I miss out on the concentrated punch that good short stories can deliver; they often will have as much background as a full novel, but due to the constraints of the form they will start the reader off running, in medias res, which can result in an exhilirating read.  This goes double for stories that take place in a setting established earlier in an author’s work, often in a novel, allowing the author to revisit some underdeveloped facet of his world without the commitment of building a long work or the temptation to rewrite an earlier work to fill space (I’m looking at you, Terry Brooks).  Second, I tend to miss out on lesser-known (to me) or younger authors whose long works are either still unwritten or haven’t made it onto my radar screen, or those who work best in the short story format; I live in the sticks, I have two children and a job, and my local library is small, so it takes real effort and a real commitment of my nonexistent free time to explore new authors in the numbers that I would like.

The New Weird scratches both of those itches very nicely, thank you very much.

What is the New Weird?  The introduction poses this very question and proceeds to trace the development of this new mini-genre from its roots in Lovecraft’s weird fiction, 60s New Wave fantasy and the horror renaissance of the 80s through the gestation period in the 90s and its explosion in 2000 with the publication of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, mentioning a number of seminal works along the way (of which I will be making careful note).  Basically, according to the VanderMeers,

New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.  New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style and effects … New Weird relies for its visionary power on a “surrender to the weird” that isn’t, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica.  The “surrender” (or “belief”) of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text.

It’s an accurate and surprisingly precise definition for a slippery movement still alive and evolving.  Indeed, it effectively delineates the differences between these authors and others who, while capable of genre-blending with the best of them, don’t have that little frisson of, well, weirdness that sets these folks apart.  Dan Simmons, for example, can create serious fantasy/sci-fi/horror mashups (Ilium and its follow-up Olympos leap to mind) but lack the grittiness and Cronenbergian body-modification undertones that mark the New Weird.

The anthology itself is creatively set up.  The first section, “Stimuli”, is made up of a handful of older stories that can be seen to have influenced more modern New Weird works.  There is almost uniformly stellar work here, from Michael Moorcock’s Apocalypse Now-like WWIII story “Crossing into Cambodia” to Clive Barker’s Eastern European WTF-fest “In The Hills, The Cities”, to Simon D. Ings’ startlingly funny “The Braining of Mother Lamprey”. Thomas Ligotti’s “A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing” is more atmospherically creepy, while M. John Harrison’s “The Luck In The Head” manages to evoke both New Crobuzon and Videodrome.  I found only Kathe Koja’s “The Neglected Garden” disappointing; although the tale of a bound woman merging with the overgrown backyard was undeniably weird, I was unable to become invested in the characters and I found it, frankly, a little boring.

These were, however, simply appetizers for the second section, “Evidence”.  Here we have nine original works of pure New Weird deliciousness, leading off with China Mieville’s “Jack”, which is as far as I know his only short story set in the world of New Crobuzon (setting of his Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council).  It’s not only a tight, muscular work that illuminates a bit more of the origins and fate of one of his more memorable bit characters, but a masterful piece of deceptive storytelling that makes you immediately want to go back and read it again with fresh eyes.  I’ve been a Mieville junkie since I was turned onto Perdido and The Scar by a good friend and fellow cross-genre fiction junkie, and I confess the presence of “Jack” was what pulled me into this book; had Mieville not been there, I may have missed it completely.  But the following works are nearly as gripping: Jeffrey Thomas’ “Immolation” follows a clone laborer who has escaped from the (figurative) plantation; Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” weaves sly references to L. Frank Baum into his subterranean dystopia; Brian Evanson’s “Watson’s Boy” is a bizarre and disturbing portrait of childhood obsession.  There is a tonal shift into less grubby territory with “The Art of Dying”, K.J. Bishop’s study of melodramatic duel-artists, as well as Jeffrey Ford’s be-who-you-are fable “At Reparata” and the surprisingly-touching denouement of Leena Krohn’s insect-people travelogue “Letters from Tainaron” (translated, I believe, from the Finnish).  The section should have ended with “The Ride of the Gabbleratchet”, an excerpt from Steph Swainston’s Dangerous Offspring, but unfortunately it stumbles on the last selection, Alistair Rennie’s previously-unpublished “The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines”, which takes a promising premise and grinds it to a halt with clunky dialogue and imagery that is distractingly disgusting but not in an effective way; the whole thing reads like the first draft of what could, after much polishing, be a very effective and imaginative piece of work.

The collection closes with two unusual sections.  In “Symposium”, a number of editors and others hold forth on what New Weird is, where it’s been and where it’s going, sort of a response to the introduction (or, more likely, the introduction is a response to these essays).  It’s an interesting read but somewhat repetitive…it’s hard to say that many original things about a literary movement that had (at time of publication) only been really roaring for 8-9 years.  Every one, without fail, pays homage to the movement’s protector “Battleship Mieville,” name-checking China with reverence and near-awe.  The most interesting of these was a short piece by German editor Hannes Riffel who candidly admits that New Weird (and Fantasy in general) simply doesn’t sell well in Germany and they don’t really have any authors worthy of putting up there with the foreigners.  It’s a refreshing bit of candor in the midst of otherwise-uniform bright-future optimism and a little bit of self-congratulation.

Finally, the volume wraps up with “Laboratory”, a seven-part exercise in round-robin storytelling, with an initial setup story leading to six vignettes adding detail and color to the proceedings.  These are, uniformly, brilliant, although the conclusion (available on the publisher’s website, not in the book) feels rushed and somewhat incomplete.  It was an original and satisfying way to close the compilation.

I’m thankful that this collection crossed my path, especially with its recommended-reading section at the end (a hyperlinked version can be found here).  New Weird is not China Mieville and a bunch of hangers-on, mainstream appearances notwithstanding.  The near-uniformly high quality of the work in this volume gives me hope that there is plenty of good stuff out there, and that the creators of genre-crossing, creative, interesting fiction are numerous and determined enough to stand in the face of the continuous stream of cookie-cutter Tolkien clones that clutters up chain-bookstore Fantasy sections.  Battleship Mieville sails with an Armada, and it’s under full steam.  I can’t wait to tour the rest of the fleet.

Note: for another take on this collection, see here.