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Introduction: The New Weird: “It’s Alive?” by Jeff VanderMeer
This is brief, but sets the tone for the whole anthology, I reckon. It’s a mixture of the perspective of a fan and the perspective of an academic studying the genre; that is, VanderMeer comes across as both someone who reads the genre, and someone who has read the metaliterature – the writing about the genre that, of course, every body of work like this accrues. If this mix of academic and “fannishness” (I can’t think of a better word) is indeed the tone of the volume, especially given the clarity of the more academic sections and passages, then I think this will be an excellent anthology!
The Luck in the Head by M. John Harrison
This seems to be a story set in the world of Viraconium, which I know nothing of, but giving the setting its name. It is absolutely clear how it anteceded and preceded the New Weird; it takes elements that others then used and changed slightly (an insect-headed woman having sex with a human, in this case insect-headed by a mask, but in the case of Mieville later through truly being alien, for instance – a direct homage, one suspects). It also has an excellent style of its own, with the plot and characters drawn only fuzzily, changing and altering before our very mind’s eye. An interesting story; however, it doesn’t really go anywhere of itself, and a wider knowledge of the setting is clearly required to truly enjoy it; without that, it simply felt like it went nowhere.
In the Cities, the Hills by Clive Barker
An… unusual story, to say the least; Barker’s created something strange here, but given the nature of the anthology and of Barker’s reputation that should be nothing but expected. He’s got some simple characters here – almost stereotypes – and thrown them into a situation so completely beyond the normal human experience that their reactions, despite the stereotyping, become unexpected; he’s got some interesting ideas, and executes them well. However, I felt a little more time world-building and creating the setting could have been more useful, and some of the concepts could have been clearer – hints didn’t obscure them, but weren’t absolutely clear, until relatively near the end, and it wouldn’t’ve hurt to have it more clear earlier on in the story.
Crossing into Cambodia by Michael Moorcock
This seems to be some sort of alternate history – Russia siding with America and Australia in Vietnam and Cambodia against the “Khmer Stalinists”. It describes a war in a situation where traditional foes are allies, and where politics is life and death. It’s also an interesting one for its use of oil – or rather, the face of war without it; cavalry is once more of vital importance. As a tale about the madness of war it’s excellent, and as a story of alternate history it’s well written; however, the characters aren’t very two-dimensional, a theme that is starting to become reasonably clear through these stories so far. That doesn’t stop it being a good piece, though.
The Braining of Mother Lamprey by Simon D. Ings
This is the first truly excellent story in this anthology. It actually, as a preceding story to the New Weird, could be of the NW itself; it certainly contains many of the elements. As an alternate-future story, one where magic has surplanted science and works, and one where things strive to be alive and conscious, it’s a wonderful idea, and carried off in great style; the story itself has humour, suspense, and really black moments. The characters, even, are quite fun, though we don’t get to know much about them. That’s my only real criticism; a lot of things are mentioned in brief, but not really discussed much – I’d like to know a lot more about this world and its history and nature. A very good story, though.
The Neglected Garden by Kathe Koja
This is an interesting one; a tale of metamorphosis and death, and a tale of the effects of something very strange on an individual, slowly driving them insane (an element, perhaps, of Lovecraft). It starts simply enough, and the strangeness of the story simply grows over its short length; done excellently, it describes things reasonably vividly. However, there are things that make little sense (they’re pretty damn clear when you read the story – f’r instance, why does no one call the cops?) and there’s things that I’d prefer to see described in more detail (the metamorphosis itself, for instance – but then I like my fiction graphic). That this is one of the ancestors of the New Weird is more than a little clear.
A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing by Thomas Ligotti
This is a short piece of existentialism, in essence – the beauty of suicide, or suicide as beautiful act. More philosophical than fictional, in many ways, it works well as a story because despite the tone of it we do get somewhat attached to the main character – the “I” of the tale; his frailties are ours and his emotions are ours. However, the message overwhelms the story especially towards the end, and a significant part of the story is given over to a metaphysical lecture barely justified by the plot; a good piece let down by its evangelising nature.
Jack by China Miéville
This is a wonderful story. It’s moderately long, but it’s only in the last little bit that the twist comes; even rereading it and knowing what that was, it’s easy to miss the tiny tells that let you know all isn’t as you expect, that some things aren’t what they seem. I can’t tell you much without giving it away, but I can tell you Miéville is, here, giving us a lot more information about Bas Lag and one of the characters of Perdido Street Station who appears only briefly there, Jack Half-a-Prayer the fReemade hero. A wonderful little story, expertly pulled off, Miéville doesn’t stint on the political messages either – he lays them on thick, though again, they’re only really made clear by the twist in the tail; and they’re expertly done, not harming the narrative remotely This is the New Weird at its absolute finest.
Immolation by Jeffrey Thomas
This is a very political piece; not much of the stereotypical New Weird about it, it’s more science fiction with a strongly political bent. It follows a clone in a series of events that… well, to say more would be to spoiler. The setting isn’t extensively built, but what we see is well-done all the same, and we do understand how it came about; and the characters are reasonably drawn, though perhaps not fully rounded again. That may, however, be intentional; it’d fit with the viewpoint-character’s thoughts, certainly. However, the twist is easily foreseeable, and the plot as a whole is pretty predictable, letting Thomas down somewhat.
The Lizard of Ooze by Jay Lake
This story will do nothing for those with a morbid fear of clowns, I have to say. It takes some everyday elements of life, some elements of other cultures, and some interesting ideas, and messes with them royally. There are some tropes that the story invokes directly, and the characters aren’t terribly well-drawn (or rather, the viewpoint-character, the first-person I of the story); however, the atmosphere is excellent and, despite being (again) quite an obvious plot, it’s still a decent story thanks to Lake’s skill as a writer.
Watson’s Boy by Brian Evenson
This is a very disturbing story to say the least. It’s the closest the anthology has come to traditional horror so far, though it incorporates many elements of the fiction of Borges as well, especially reminding me of The Library of Babel. A slow-burner, it’s a gentle piece that gets more and more strange and horrific as it goes on, and becomes clearer that the character-viewpoint we’re following is insane (or at least so he seems to me). A grim and dark piece, although it doesn’t really go anywhere it serves as an exploration of insanity and suspense very well.
The Art of Dying by K. J. Bishop
This one’s an odd story; an absolutely existentialist piece, it turns dying into an art form. The characters are strong and we do sympathise with them, even if we don’t actually understand them all that well, and the plot is strongly and deftly told. Although it seems simple, some of the motives are very unclear, and the characters almost alien to us; for all that, the story remains a well-written piece.
At Reparata by Jeffrey Ford
This is back to the Miéville model of the New Weird; it certainly draws on the same roots, with the aesthetics very similar to that of Perdido Street Station – mystical moths and hypnotic patterns especially. The characters in this are well-drawn and likeable, and the humour is clear and strong; the melancholy of the story is also portrayed well. Despite the feel-good message at it’s heart, which is very much evangelised at the end of the story, perhaps (or even probably) overstrongly, this is a good piece of New Weird writing.
Letters from Tainaron by Leera Krohn
This is an interesting sociological-style piece; letters of observations on a different culture (and species – insectoid, it seems). However, for all that, it seems to be reasonably straight-up fantasy – an alien species that changes and is unhuman, but not of the New Weird terribly. That aside, the letter-writer is a strong personality who comes across clearly from their letters, and their correspondent’s personality also seems to emerge well. Perhaps due to the fact that this is an excerpt from a novel, it seems peculiarly plotless, but then, it is a very well done series of letters as if by a traveller in a strange city; it achieves what it sets out to achieve.
The Ride of the Gabbleratchet by Steph Swainston
This is an incredibly fun excerpt from a full-length novel that makes me want to pick up the whole thing. The characters and settings are very vividly drawn, the language lush and rich, and yet it doesn’t linger or move slowly; Swainston charges through her narrative at breakneck pace, pushing the plot along. The ideas that appear in this are very New Weird – dimension shifting, strange creatures, and a creature that is reminiscent of Barker’s though more horrific still. However, and this is definitely a limitation imposed by the nature of the story as an excerpt, it was hard to understand the reasons behind the events of the story.
The Gutter Sees the Light That Never Shines by Alistair Rennie
This is the most graphic story of the collection so far. It takes some of the tropes of the genre – manipulation behind the scenes, some people as straight-up better than others, heroes as a breed apart – and twists them. It’s also vile and visceral; some disgusting and horrible imagery is incorporated, sexual and otherwise, and it’s actually really rather awful in parts. However, the characters make it compulsive reading – they’re interesting and you want to know what they’ll do next, despite knowing that it’ll be foul and awful. A stellar piece, although perhaps it lingers too long on some of the viler aspects…
New Weird Discussions: The Creation of a Term
Despite this being a discussion mostly between authors – whom one thinks could write – and academics – whom one would think would want to stick to their subject – this remains an internet discussion. This shows greatly; as far as creation of a term goes, or even New Weird discussions, it’s neither; whilst it may have been what germinated the idea for the anthology, it has no place within it, being mostly a discussion of labels in general and their negative power on SFF. All in all aimless and irrelevant, to my eyes...
‘New Weird’: I Think We’re The Scene by Michael Cisco
This is an interesting short piece; it is more focussed than the first Discussion, and at the same time a lot better at getting its point across, as one might expect from one man’s thoughts rather than a collective discussion. However, it still doesn’t define New Weird or even describe it, except in a general sense of what it isn’t, and I reckon that’s not terribly helpful – it’s apophatic theology, and not useful in a discussion of what something actually is.
Tracking Phantoms by Darja Malcolm-Clarke
Malcolm-Clarke is an academic, and her essay shows this. It’s thoroughly and well researched and sticks to its point, which is not about what New Weird is (or is not) but about what New Weird can do and could become; in this sense it’s an interesting article, with a theory that looks at both the literary and the political implications of the genrebending and playing with the rules by the writers of the pseudo-genre that is the New Weird. This is a solid and insightful piece of truly readable academia.
Whose Words You Wear by K. J. Bishop
This is more about the difficulty (if not impossibility) of taxonomy in art than about this taxonomical instance, but it does touch a lot on the specific name “New Weird” – in the sense of why it was used as a name, but also (and perhaps more importantly) why it was a bad name, or at least not a good name (but then, Bishop seems to be saying, nothing would be). She doesn’t have a real point, in the end, except for that expressed in her final paragraph: Better to analyse one’s own work, than have others analyse it after one is dead – however badly expressed in the essay (or not badly, but neither well), it is a good point to remember.
European Editor Perspectives on the New Weird
“We are all writers in the same world. Sometimes a Weird World.” That sentence, from Michael Haulica, sums these five essays by Europeans in the field up; the ideas in the essays tend to be similar to those in the other essays in this more discursive, semi-academic section, but with application to the specific nations of the writers themselves. They’re an interesting window into a wider literary world which, as a monolingual English reader, I have little access to, and are all well-written; as such, they’re a valuable and useful contribution to the anthology – and do what they set out to!
Laboratory: Festival Lives
View 1: "Death in a Dirty Dhoti" by Paul Di Filippo
View 2: "Cornflowers Beside the Unuttered" by Cat Rambo
View 3: "All God's Chillun Got Wings" by Sarah Monette
View 4: "Locust-Mind" by Daniel Abraham
View 5: "Constable Chalch and the Ten Thousand Heroes" by Felix Gilman
View 6: "Golden Lads All Must..." by Hal Duncan
View 7: "Forfend the Heavens' Rending" by Conrad Williams
These seven stories are by non-New Weird authors (although some of them are at least somewhat New Weird affiliated) and take a setting and set of characters created by Di Filippo to construct a New Weird narrative. It works well as a short piece of collaborative fiction, and creates a very interesting New Weird piece with different perspectives on the primary characteristics of it; the Indian Subcontinent-style setting works well, and the culture and politico-religious nature of the present is deftly presented by all. Each brings different New Weird tropes – metamorphosis, Lovecraftianism, strange horror, and so on – to bear, and the whole is cohesive but not singular; an interesting, if varied and perhaps not properly ended, story.
Anthology, edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
This anthology is far better on collecting stories than it is on collecting the more academic material, which lets it down given the introduction. However, the stories tend to be of excellent quality and it is always obvious why they were included; even if they were not all to my taste, they were all appropriate to the anthology, and all worked within that context to produce a reasonably absolute view of the pseudo-genre. As a semi-academic survey of the pseudo-genre, I'd look elsewhere; however, it is an enjoyable and well put-together and laid out anthology that I would be happy to recommend.

And not a tentacle rape in sight, let alone exploding from anyone's head!


reading, books
Daniel Franklin


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