Review: Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Two edited by Kathe Koja, series editor Michael Kelly

Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Two edited by Kathe Koja, series editor Michael Kelly
ISBN: 978-0-9938951-1-1
Undertow Publications
October 2015

All of Undertow’s books thus far have been beautifully produced, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Two is no exception.

Koja’s approach to the Weird and representation thereof in this volume veers toward liminally permeable work and prose-conscious surrealism, especially where the stories in translation are concerned – Julio Cortázar’s “Headache” and Jean Muno’s “The Ghoul.”

There’s a range of Weird fiction to be sure, with Cat Hellisen’s “The Girls Who Go Below” representing the more traditional murder ballad style of storytelling, alongside pieces like Carmen Maria Machado’s “Observations About Eggs From the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa” with its exponentially spiralling monologue on consciousness, culpability, and consequences, through the lens of cuisine literal and metaphorical; Nick Mamatas’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop”’s marriage of stream of consciousness and urban legend ghost story, with a little beat poet to its road trip; and Amanda C. Davis’s “Loving Armageddon” with its short, sharp vignettes and literalized discourse on the slow build toward explosive violence in an unhealthy relationship dynamic, seen in fragments.

The book is an excellent overview of the field in 2014, as the first volume was for 2013. And these volumes are certainly upholding the argument in favour of guest editorship as a way to ensure varying views of a given field in an anthology series.

Some of the stories in the anthology – Rich Larson’s “The Air We Breathe is Stormy, Stormy,” Sunny Moraine’s “So Sharp That Blood Must Flow,” Caitlín R. Kiernan’s “Bus Fare”, and Sarah Pinsker’s “A Stretch of Highway Two lanes Wide” – one could argue as less actively Weird fiction. Doing so calls for a very wide lens. Though that is admittedly fair given the broad mandate of the anthology series, and the book does well by their inclusion as they’re all excellently written work.

Indeed, though there are stories that I dislike in the volume, none of them do I dislike in terms of their prose. Instead, I take exception to a couple of the stories in terms of their execution, framework, and occasionally some misfiring or unintended subtext. Though I invariably find something in an anthology whose execution or effectiveness I will argue. As always, individual mileage will vary, and the anthology is demonstrably excellent overall, with a high quotient of beautifully written work.

Another point highly in the book’s favour is the gender balance of reflected authors. The male/female authorship ratio in the first book was about equal, and slightly heavier on male representation. This one has a gender balance of 2:1 in favour of women. Which is important for a couple of reasons, but primarily the following one:

Weird fiction does not have a dearth of women working in the field, but their presence is not as frequently, nor as effectively highlighted in this fashion, outside of doorstopper anthologies looking at the field overall like Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird; projects with more specific aims like Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R Stiles’s She Walks in Shadows and Joe Pulver’s Cassilda’s Song, among others; and especially in the Queer and erotica side of Weird and horror literature where anthologies like Victoria A. Brownworth’s Night Bites have long been in evidence, and all-women-edited-and-authored anthologies are not exactly a new concept, with many of these loosely thematically organized as well.

And for me at least, it is stories by women contributors that stand out primarily in this volume (with one exception that will be made clear momentarily):

Karin Tidbeck’s gorgeous “Migration” – possibly my favourite piece in the volume – with its focus on dissociation, tension, and abstract roles and redefinition in the face of atavistic migration that is not as unguided as it seems. All this layered into a puzzle box world in which the characters are mutable components, dreamlike as much as the vistas and landscapes that inhabit the story as much as the characters do.

Siobhan Carroll’s “Wendigo Nights” with its achronological unfurling, deliberate obscuring of the protagonist’s gender, and as with the Tidbeck a slow, dream-like quality to its telling. Combined with questions of familial and parental obligations, culpability, archaeological quandaries, frigid landscapes, and idea as epidemic vector.

K.M. Ferebee’s “The Earth and Everything Under,” that plays with grief in variable, multi-layered terms, witchcraft in equally subtle ones, and surreal beauty in magic and relationships and quiet moments, all in simple, beautiful, haunting prose.

Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” with its subsuming of fairytale gothic storytelling into feminist horror, its subtle deconstruction of women as object in narrative use, and its inevitable, beautifully sharp conclusion. All with gossamer-delicate prose, and Machado’s ever-present flair for layered revelation.

Isabel Yap’s “A Cup of Salt Tears” with its restrained unfolding of slow alienation and the inevitability of loss, its focus on personal, mythological, and cultural ethics, and additional focus on the emotional lives of both women and kappa. A tale whose prose is as subtle and quiet as its trajectory. A piece revealing itself in miniatures and minimalist motion.

In addition to which I will also note Julio Cortázar’s “Headache,” though it does break pattern from the above discussion, because it’s also one of the strongest stories in the book. Michael Cisco’s translation renders fluid prose, arguably the equal of Cortázar’s own work, that matches the lucid devolution of the tale’s two farmers raising at once symbiotic and parasitic livestock whose presence unhinges the mind and warps reality.

It’s an exquisite collection overall. Different enough from the one preceding it that it doesn’t feel like a retread. Grounded enough in its subject matter that it is clear continuation, as well as generous promise for forthcoming volumes. I spend a fair bit of time re-reading anthologies, and this one too I will come back to.

And I will, as we come to the close of this review, take a moment to note that Mike Kelly and I are friends and occasional colleagues. Which it only seems fair to disclose lest there be argument of undisclosed bias in the reviewing.

Though it doesn’t take bias to note that Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Two is an extraordinarily strong entry in the series. Kathe Koja has done a fantastic curatorial job, pulling together work from an international perspective of writers working in vastly different fields, and what the volume ends up presenting is a unified whole, assembled from highly disparate parts.

Whether you’re already familiar with the Weird or not, this is an excellent volume speaking to the state of the field, as well as just an excellent anthology overall. Do yourself the favour of picking up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

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