Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One {Review}

September 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One
Edited by Laird Barron & Michael Kelly
Undertow Publications (2014)

I’ve arrived slightly late to Undertow’s ‘Year’s Best Weird Fiction’ series, this first volume being released in 2014 and presenting the best short tales from the previous year, but the door to the weird is always ajar, so let’s push it open, ignore the protesting creaks and distant mutters, to take look inside.

The conceit of the volume is more clearly explained in its title than in any preamble I could give, and is clarified still further by guest-editor Laird Barron’s short and succinct introduction 9780981317762_outside_front_cover(his description of ‘the weird’ as “a sense of dislocation from mundane reality; the suspension of the laws of physics, an inversion or subversion of order, a hint of the alien” is as good a one as I’ve come across), that I may as well cut straight to the meat and pull out some of the choicest cuts from this weird platter.

Before that, however, it’s worth noting that this volume is remarkable in that, even if some of the stories are not to my precise tastes, none of them are poor; the content has been so well-distilled down from what must have been a screed of submissions, taken from journals like Shadows & Tall Trees and Fungi amongst others, into so select a congregation that all aspects of the weird are covered – from the slight to the outre and from the subtle to the blatant, all are gathered here – so even those that might not quite hit the mark of personal taste are at least technically interesting for the voice they bring to the storytelling circle. Even so, a good handful of stories stand out for me as worth specific comment…

Anne-Sylvie Salzman’s ‘Fox Into Lady’ and ‘Like Feather, Like Bone’ by Kristi DeMeester are both quite wonderfully slight tales of transformation which, presented one after the next, have the strangely unsettling power of that weird hinterland between madness and redemption; skin slides over bone in unpleasant ways and deeper, more true manifestations of the protagonists and their fears are revealed. “And this animal,” writes Salzman. “The moist smell of which comes now to Keiko’s nostrils, growls and whimpers, and in the middle of its inarticulate cry pronounces with horrible distinctness the word ‘Mother’”. What a phrase that is; ‘with horrible distinctness’! this is not the horror of the cowering-away but of confrontation and chilling, willing clarity.

‘A Terror’, by Jeffrey Ford sets us on a more Gothic path with the fever-dream of a stricken protagonist making her suitably convoluted bargain with an avatar of Death, where the prim austerity of decorum must tackle the rotting horrors tethered to this plane by terrible spells. Sofia Samara’s epistolic ‘Olympia’s Ghost’, a strangely giddy tale where the heroine, Gisela, becomes enwrapped in what appears to be Act One of “The Tales of Hoffmann”, an opera by Jacques Offenbach based on stories by ETA Hoffman, is suffused with the seamless blending of the real and unreal, that blurring of the human and the apparently-human (brought to life here in the confusion between a real woman and a mannequin) that we find in works such as The King In Yellow.

The malevolently modern claustrophobia of Jeffrey Thomas’ ‘In Limbo’ is presented in a nicely delineated vignette, the depths of a low-rent apartment block as both metaphysical and literal abyss, and is as horrifyingly familiar in its presentation as John R Fultz’ ‘The Key To Your Heart Is Made Of Brass’, perhaps one of my favourites in the collection, is fantastical. Both stories deal with the creeping inevitability of oblivion in their own ways, with Fultz’ particularly showing that, through brave use of language and a willingness not to overly explain, vaguely steampunk tropes can rise above the rather poor goggles-and-clockwork cliches into something that is genuinely exhilarating and diamantine.

A special, final word has to be given to Jeff VanderMeer’s delirious ‘No Breather In The World But Thee’, the collection’s closing piece. Blending the tortured vistas of Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ with the mordant merriment of Edward Gorey, VanderMeer introduces us to a collection of characters – the maid whose head watches events unfold ‘for longer than she would have thought’ after it is separated from her shoulders, the butler who hides from death in a coffin – and kills them off with a staccato stiletto until nothing remains but for the very landscape to turn upon itself, leaving us, as the collection leaves us, in a world ‘under stars forever strange’.

Yet more tales are contained within – the filth-smeared windows of Scott Nicolay’s ‘Eyes Exchange Bank’ and the queer-pulp adventures of A. C. Wise’s glam super-hero(ine)s in ‘Dr Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron’ provide good stylistic bookends of the remaining content – but let’s leave some surprises for you, dear reader.

This is a fine book, finely presented with excellent artwork and design by Santiago Caruso and Vince Haig respectively, that anyone with an interest in weird fiction, in non-mainstream fiction of all kinds, should have on their shelves.

Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One is available from and  Volumes Two and Three are now also available,


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