Book review: The Weird: A Compendium Of Strange And Dark Stories

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ALTHOUGH at the end of reading this incredible anthology I am not 100% sure what “The Weird” is, as a literary genre, it was a tremendous experience going through its 1,126 pages.

Like the equally contentious term “slipstream fiction”, what typifies “the weird”, or even “the New Weird”, is a moving target. Editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (he is himself the acclaimed author of the weird Ambergris trilogy) loosely stick to the definition given by HP Lovecraft in 1927, where he deliberately distanced himself from traditional ghost stories in favour of “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread”. But it is to the editors’ credit that this definition is not prescriptive.

What is truly ingenious in this volume is they way the editors have tessellated works of indisputable literary genius with stories from the pulp tradition. To move from Franz Kafka’s In The Penal Colony to William Sansom’s The Long Sheet, and to realise their almost subliminal connections, is an unlikely and thrilling jolt. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising: the Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky argued that literature’s defining technique was “ostranenie”; usually translated as “defamiliarisation”, but “making strange” works just as well.

HP Lovecraft may be as famous for his reactionary politics as for his tentacular mythology, and one major point of interest here is how subsequent generations struggled with this ambivalent legacy. In the work of Ramsay Campbell, Fritz Leiber and in M John Harrison’s scintillating Egnaro, there is a concerted determination to relocate the weird story into the modern and urban environment.

The number of female writers increases as the book progresses, in both the “art” forms – it includes Angela Carter’s The Snow Pavilion – and the “genre” forms – I’d single out Lisa Tuttle’s Replacements as a genuinely eerie tale of bodies and promises.

Another recurring element is a fear that there are places – houses, streets, cities, countries – that do not appear on maps (a kind of riff on the Situationist slogan “the map is not the territory”). This theme appears in Jean Ray’s The Shadowy Street, Robert Bloch’s The Hungry House and China Miéville’s Details; in the form of camouflage it occurs in Francis Steven’s Unseen – Unfeared (where the world teems with horrors we un-see) and Donald Wollheim’s Mimic (made into a sub-par film).

There are so many delights in this that any reader will find something truly memorable. For me, it’s the deliciously horrific The Book by Margaret Irwin, which is a salutary shocker for any book reviewer, about a tome so awful it even infects the way you read books that were placed next to it. The Weird manages to do something almost similar.

THE WEIRD: A COMPENDIUM OF STRANGE AND DARK STORIES

Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Corvus, £25