Following yesterday’s cracking comics intro to The Weird by Leah Thomas (see here), today we have a slightly different Director’s Commentary for you – until now mostly we’ve featured comics creators discussing the making of their new work (although Oli East also treated us to a Commentary on how he created the animation for Elbow’s music video), but today we mark our first Commentary on the making of a prose work. And I’m rather delighted our first guests to do such a Commentary are my friends Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, both noted writers and editors, reviewers and also good supporters of other writers. They are also both well steeped in what’s generally become known in science fiction and fantasy circles as The New Weird, a form of SF&F that has carved out something of a niche for itself in recent years and includes some wonderfully different writers – such as China Mieville and Jeff himself – who have brought something fresh and unusual to the genre. Recently Ann and Jeff have been working hard on a massive new collection for Corvus Books (who have published some fascinating SF&F since they started, including Jeff’s brilliant Finch and Charles Yu’s head-twisting but brilliant How To Live in a Science Fictional Universe), The Weird, which looks very much like it should be on the present list for many SF&F readers this Christmas, taking in writers as diverse as HP Lovecraft, NeiL Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, Haruki Murakami, Michael Chabon and more. But rather than me telling you more about it, here are Ann and Jeff:
Imagine receiving an email while hiking in the wilds of New Hampshire. It’s from an editor at a major UK publishing house, asking if you would like to edit a 750,000-word, 100-year retrospective of weird fiction. The catch is, you’ve only got five months to finalize the table of contents. Do you say yes or no?
For us, the answer was an immediate yes, without hesitation. We love weird fiction, the surreal, horror, and all of those sometimes amorphous and yet immediately identifiable modes of fiction that exist on the darker end of the spectrum. (And, luckily, the time frame shifted so we had more time to make our selections.)
But just what exactly is a “weird tale”? As H. P. Lovecraft wrote in 1927, the weird tale “has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains” found in traditional ghost stories or Gothic tales. Instead, it represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane—a ‘certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” or “malign and particular suspension or defeat of…fixed laws of Nature.” Such stories can be terrifying or strangely beautiful, but do not always rely upon the scare central to horror fiction, nor the twist ending common to, for example, classic Twilight Zone episodes. They remain universal because they entertain while also expressing our own uncertainty about reality.
In compiling The Weird, we wanted to both honor this tradition and bring our own expertise to it. During the entire selection period, we read somewhere between 3,000,000 and 6,000,000 words of fiction, consulting somewhat more than 500 books, mostly anthologies and single-author collections. We scoured our own collection, library collections, and spent thousands of dollars acquiring rare and out-of-print titles. In many cases, we were reacquainting ourselves with material we’d read before, sometimes stories last encountered in our teens.
We went in with one set of expectations and came out with another with regard to authors, movements, trends, etc. Some writers held up on a re-examination, others did not, and a third set just didn’t fit the focus of the anthology. Unexpected gems included Margaret Irwin’s malevolent “The Book,” which we were delighted to discover is one of China Mieville’s favorites. The works of Daphne Du Maurier definitely stand the test of time, and we found short shark shocks of the weird in the work of Leonora Carrington, among others. Some authors we love are not part of the weird tradition, but their work includes weird fiction, as with Joanna Russ and James Tiptree, Jr. The Weird also heals a rift between genre and mainstream by rightfully including works from both arenas—has Ben Okri ever appeared in a book with Lovecraft before, or Murakami with Clark Ashton Smith? Angela Carter coexists peaceably with George R.R. Martin.
And, while we wanted to take a stab at creating a definitive anthology, we also recognized that too much public domain material would dilute the usefulness of the book to readers. To properly represent the early decades, we included exclusive translations, like Ugolini’s weird story “The Vegetable Man.” We also tried to balance Lovecraftian approaches and other ideas of “weird fiction,” including the Kafkaesque. We decided to include tales of weird ritual and SF weird where the supernatural isn’t present but some other element makes the stories part of “the weird.” Naturalistic horror, meanwhile, often about serial killers, seemed like another thing entirely.
One of the anthology’s other strengths was its capacity to absorb short novels like the Michel Bernanos’ classic “The Other Side of the Mountain” and Brian Evenson’s “The Brotherhood of Mutilation,” so we were not shy about acquiring longer fiction. We also discovered the weird in places we weren’t sure it had existed, like the Latin American Boom and Japanese horror and the strength of fiction from Nigeria. In pursuit of certain stories, we were also able to commission original translations. In addition to the Bernanos, these translations included such major stories as Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “The Hell Screen,” Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl,” and Georg Heym’s “The Dissection.”
If we exhibited a bias, it would mostly have been on the side of including more surreal weird than other editors might—and being willing to interpret a glimmer of the weird, or even a character’s obsession with it (as in M. John Harrison’s “Egnaro”) as the weird itself. That said, such tales exist within the context of a large core of traditional weird fiction in the anthology.
So we anchored the book in the classics, took a few chances, thought about balance, and in cases like the prodigious Thomas Ligotti, had difficult decisions about just which story to include. The results, we think, honor the idea of a “compendium” in both range and depth. We hope everyone who reads The Weird finds something amazing they didn’t know existed, and re-read with fondness classics they remember from their childhoods. Ironically, the anthology is so huge that it will still have that effect on us when we finally hold it in our hands.