The WEIRD: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
Edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
First published in Great Britain 2011 by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.
I’m due to start below another of my gradual real-time reviews, turning leitmotifs into a gestalt. I have already ordered this book from an Amazon dealer. I hope to commence this review as soon as I receive it.
There is no guarantee how long it will take to complete this review, whether days or weeks. But more likely: months or even years (judging by the enormous size of its contents).
CAVEATS: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the book, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading it. In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective. Also, Nemonymous (Cern Zoo) was the original publisher of ‘The Lion’s Den’ by Steve Duffy that is included in this book.
My many other real-time reviews are linked from here: http://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/ (2 Nov 11)
“… maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. […] Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.” – an extract from John Updike’s rules.
Just this minute received delivery of the book itself. Wow! And double-columned text – didn’t expect that. (4 Nov 11 – 1.05 pm GMT)
Having now handled this beautifully handleable tome, as gigantic as it is imposing, I wonder now if I have bitten off more than I can chew by tackling a real-time review of it. I am thrilled as well as daunted by this project, hoping that I live long enough to complete such an endeavour. As ever with my RTRs heretofore (proceeding apace for three years exactly today), I shall treat each story as it comes. Here, with this book, I shall re-read any story I have read before in my 63 year reading-life, hopefully attuning each reading to an emerging gestalt. Every collection and anthology has a gestalt, in my experience, whether intended or not, sometimes quite an unexpected one. Whether that gestalt has a randomly inexplicable / synchronous power or a more deliberate one, I try to feed back that power to the book itself when reviewing it, e.g. knowing that a book’s reading journey may be different if one knows, when making that journey, that one is publicly communicating the experience of that journey in real-time. Finally, I usually do not read introductions, story notes etc until I have completed the review, and that will be the case here. (4 Nov 11 – an hour later)
The Other Side (an excerpt) – Alfred Kubin
“Now the area had transformed into a monstrous zoo.”
A very promising start for me, containing feral and dream-sickness (my expression, not the story’s) and zoo themes that have obsessed me. A sleeping sickness plague for humans and when they awake the animal kingdom has run amok, with frightening and humorous results. There’s even a bear that eats a pork butcher’s widow. An enjoyable and provocative dystopian fable with implications for immortality and decay. I’m not sure if the excerpted nature of this piece has meant I miss or misread some of the characters’ protagonisms… yet it seems steeped constructively, and at least partially, in War With The Newts – by Karel Capek (4 Nov 11 – another two hours later)
The Screaming Skull – F. Marion Crawford
“One always remembers one’s mistakes much more vividly than one’s cleverest things, doesn’t one?”
Apt talk of November and of drugging people like Michael Jackson so as to sleep soundly and a tell-tale or five-fingered skull – on the loose – and soliloquised about maniacally then sensibly then maniacally again then wrecked on the rocks of the reader’s craggy mind (i.e. mine) – this is an incredibly modern tale told to us from the unmodern past. It’s like the animals in the Kubin are emblemised as on the loose with leaden brains and grinning bony carapaces. Each single haunted skull to betoken another somewhere else or another part of itself with Darwinian jigsaw fitting? A classic horror story that I’m pleased to have brought back to my attention. I remembered it not. Not quite like this – in this book’s heavy-bendy skull-tome context… “…the dog, his face growing more and more like a skull with two little coals for eyes;” — (4 Nov 11 – another 4 hours later)
The Willows – Algernon Blackwood
I. “It was an otter, alive, and out on the hunt; yet it had looked exactly like the body of a drowned man…”
For me, a welcome opportunity to re-read this weird classic after a number of years. Lonely Literature’s ulitmate ‘genius loci’ (gestalt stätte): the boat trip of the narrator with his ‘unimaginative’ companion (the Swede) along the ill-differentiated Danube between land and water, nature and terror. Here we echo the stream of feral beasts or skulls of earlier stories in this book alongside the patternless, human-uncontrolled surge of currencies and debts that pervade our news today, joining a ‘parent river’ then we become another different unexpected parent-in-waiting of children that were misborn years before we were first alive. Here we have willow-prehensile land and water as a herd or swarm instinct – as accentuated by even Unimagination itself now being impeached by frissons and fears – not Three Men in a Boat with jokey bonhomie, but two men alone together in a clumsy Jungian canoe that is you and me… (5 Nov 11)
II. & III. “It was we who were the cause of the disturbance,…”
Not by (a) ‘our’ disturbing the disturbance into existence, but by (b) creating it at source, from the hands of the head-lease author via the creative narrator towards the even more creative reader? The story’s overt implication is (a), but re-reading this story in my later years I now feel it is (b) and – with the wind, the patterings, the heaviness of soul and the shapes emerging from some gaia – all take on a new meaning as I disturb – or create? – the story’s hidden gestalt. (5 Nov 11 – two and a half hours later)
IV. & V. “Our thoughts make spirals in their world. We must keep them out of our minds at all costs if possible.”
The above “them” actually being our thoughts themselves (any or all of our thoughts to be kept from our mind!) or is it THEM: the transcendents that lurk like Old Ones beyond the thinning or “veil” (veil or ‘door’, with the swarm of bees or humming gong sound, a la Stephen King’s Todash?) – or the strange disjointed fragments of phrases that make no sense and may be our thoughts disguised? This is all genuinely frightening to the reader who, as I hinted before, is more than implicated by just reading the story – despite the 3-men-in-a-boat laughter that breaks out at one point. Yet, there are three men here after all, the ego, id and nemo, but which is the Swede (cf: ‘the American’ in the Kubin story or ‘the Russian’ in Blackwood’s ‘The Centaur’ novel), which the equally anonymous narrator and which the anonymous victim ‘otter’? There will hopefully come soon my ‘hole in the toe of my shoe’ moment (rather than my ‘hole in the bottom of my canoe’ moment). A revelation, this re-reading, as I imagine the transcendents’ shapes made up of several animals from another ‘monstrous zoo’.
“The nemo is an evolutionary force, as necessary as the ego. The ego is certainty, what I am; the nemo is potentiality, what I am not. But instead of utilizing the nemo as we would utilize any other force, we allow ourselves to be terrified by it, as primitive man was terrified by lightning. We run screaming from this mysterious shape in the middle of our town, even though the real terror is not in itself, but in our terror at it.”
– John Fowles 1964 (from ‘The Necessity of Nemo’ in ‘The Aristos’) (5 Nov 11 – another 3 hours later)
NB: ‘The Willows’ seems to be a treatment of self-deception (and indeed the expression ‘self-deception’ in this sense is used in its text). This is appropriate as I am currently reading an academic book by Robert Trivers about ‘self-deception’. (5 Nov 11 – another 30 minutes later)
Sredni Vashtar – Saki
“Without his imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago.” Cf: the ‘unimaginative’ Swede in the previous story!
A short densely textured Saki classic masterpiece about a boy fighting (according to how the mood takes you in this welcome thoughtful yet relaxing mode of reading ‘The Weird’) against (or with?) class-conscious, generation-conscious, toast-conscious views of religion and social convention and all idol religion – with a feral god fluted from the Kubin or shape-swarmed, shape-beasted Blackwood. (Loved the TV version of this story but can’t get it out of my ‘thoughts’ when reading the story). (5 Nov 11 – another 3 hours later)
Casting the Runes – M. R. James
“…Mr Karswell began the story by producing a noise like a wolf howling in the distance,…”
Karswell, Kubin. Sakitribution. Meanwhile, this is a characteristic, if slightly off-the-wall, M.R.-Jamesian story of various civilised and partially academic narrative-levels (one epistolary, another unreliable, others more reliable), i.e. unfictionalised fiction that hides and then tantalisingly reveals a pursuant or stalking evil like a simmering burr you can’t brush off. A mass of creatures, at one point, and a “dry rustling noise” and, also as in ‘The Willows’, an Unimagination stirred into Imagination (the latter tellingly nearer to the truth about what lies behind any veils and piques) … and a snappish creature under the pillow that I imagined to be like Sredni Vashtar. And pursuant Runes or letters (some embedded in glass not upon it) like the lexic disjointments in ‘The Willows’. “I’ve been told that your brother reviewed a book very severely…” Following the morally satisfactory conclusion of this spooky story, I nevertheless retain some empathy, if not sympathy, with our man Karswell…. (6 Nov 11)
THIS REAL-TIME REVIEW OF ‘THE WEIRD’ IS NOW CONTINUED HERE.
All my many other real-time reviews are linked from HERE.
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