Last year saw the resurgence of weird fiction, in part at least due to Faber’s wonderful 2015 release of Robert Aickman’s back catalogue, and so it seems right that in that year, a strange new annual anthology finally caught my eye. Undertow Publications’ Year’s Best Weird Fiction, now in its third edition, from series editor Michael Kelly.
First off, what is weird fiction? Kelly helpfully explains in his introduction that “the weird, like any genre or mode of fiction, is fluid, adaptable, and ever changing.” He believes in the weird as a “feeling” rather than following any particularly rigid rules. With that in mind, his choice to give the anthology each year to a guest editor, allowing their own definition of the weird to come into play in the selection process, is smart, and Volume Three’s choice of author Simon Strantzas is especially canny. Strantzas is best known (at least by myself) as the editor of the excellent anthology Aickman’s Heirs, and he states in his own introduction that his classification of weird “is just another name for Horror fiction,” or later as “bizarre things happening in a world where the rules we understand are bent.” I like those definitions, but in my mind, the master of the genre, Robert Aickman gives the best definition in his incredible story ‘The Strangers’ (which is selected as part of this anthology):
“I claimed no particular gift for instantly catching on to how a conjuring trick was done, but I did expect to be provided, even by semi-amateurs, with data sufficient enough to define what the trick was. In the present instance, it was becoming more and more difficult to decide even who was performing the trick.”
That’s the almost indefinable crux of weird fiction. The unexplainable presented to you, the reader. Unresolved endings, questions that lurk in the back of your mind without you even knowing you needed to ask them.
The difficulty then is in reviewing an anthology which defines a genre, where the definition is not necessarily one with which all readers will agree.
Luckily, whether or not the anthology fits with your definition of what weird fiction is, it contains a great deal of excellent stories. The highlight of the whole book is Robert Shearman (he of Doctor Who’s Dalek revamp fame)‘s horribly disquieting story ‘Blood’, about a teacher who takes a student of his to Paris for a romantic weekend, experiences one of the most disturbing meals in recent fiction, and finds himself in a strange place at the story’s conclusion. It captures that most Aickman-like feeling of finding yourself at the end of a magic trick, without knowing a trick was even being performed.
Aickman also gets his due, with the previously mentioned story, ‘The Strangers’. It ticks all the Aickman boxes (upper class Englishmen, secret clubs, and the middle class man who doesn’t quite belong – a junior chartered accountant in this case – who witnesses something he cannot explain), and it’s a cracking story at that.
Elsewhere, Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Fetched’ had shades of Tom Fletcher’s excellent ‘Field’ from Nightjar Press, but it’s still a brilliant weird folk story of a couple violating local lore; and Genevieve Valentine’s ‘Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line’, which is perhaps more out and out horror (in this reviewer’s eyes at least) but which manages to chill you right to the bone when it wants to.
There are over nineteen stories in the anthology, and few (if any) missteps. Undertow, Kelly, and Strantzas have done an excellent job with this, and long may this anthology continue.
Any Cop?: If you’ve been caught up in the weird fiction boom, and you’re looking for some new authors to discover, there is absolutely no better place to start than here.