This one got read as something of a fool’s errand to see if I could learn anything about Kathe Koja’s ideas about what constituted “weird fiction”.
Well, “the weird” means different things to different people. That’s the whole idea behind getting a guest editor for each volume of this series, now in its third installment.
Is it the best weird fiction of the year? How would I know? And if I did, there really wouldn’t be much point in me reading this.
Series editor Michael Kelly read about 2,800 stories and passed the best to Koja for the final decision on whether or not to include them.
Koja’s ideas of weird fiction and mine don’t match much. On the other hand, I have no idea what she had to work with for 2014.
Still, the book had enough good stories in it for me to recommend, and I will read other volumes in the series.
However, I read it almost four months ago, and I’m only covering the stories that stuck in my mind, weird or not. That’s why this is a . . .
Low Res Scan: Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume 2, eds. Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly, 2015.
For me, the only weird story in the book was its oldest: Jean Muno’s “The Ghoul”. First published in 1979, it got its first English translation, from Edward Gauvin, in 2014. Beautiful in imagery, it has a man walking a foggy beach. He encounters a woman in a submerged wheelchair. The mixing of time, a jump back to 20 years earlier in the man’s life, and language that may be realistic, may be metaphorical, was beautiful and memorable.
Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” is an occult take on a hard-bitten crime story. Narrator Jack runs a bookstore in New Orleans (with the really good and profitable stuff in back). Jack’s old employer, crime boss Eugene, coerces him into another job. Jack’s to take a thug with him and find Tobias who has not only ripped off some gambling proceeds but somehow gotten, from Hell no less, the thighbone of Eugene’s dead son. It’s off to the bayou and some weird stuff, and that atlas turns out to be something unexpected.
Siobhan Caroll’s “Wendigo Nights” has a setup similar to John Carpenter’s The Thing: a canister (from the doomed Franklin Expedition, no less – Caroll has done academic work on polar exploration) is retrieved from the thawing tundra. Mayhem ensues involving the wendigo – monster or really bad cabin fever that turns men into cannibal killers depending on whether you go with folklore or psychology.
“Bus Fare” from Caitlín R. Kiernan features her albino teenage monster slayer Dancy Flammarion (I’ve only read Threshold in the series) and her really creepy encounter at a small town bus stop in the American South.
“The Air We Breathe is Stormy, Stormy” from Rich Larson seems like it should be a mermaid story. An oil rig worker in the Baltic, escaping an abusive father in New Zealand and a pregnant girlfriend in Perth, fishes a woman out of the sea. She seems to be living amongst the garbage floating beneath the rig. It’s not a mermaid story, though, and why she climbs up to the rig to room with that worker is not entirely clear – but in a good, weird sort of way.
The strength of Usman T. Malik’s “Resurrection Points” is its setting in Malik’s native Pakistan. A young man must come to terms with his inherited ability to heal the sick and resurrect the dead. It’s an ability that doesn’t please the local Defend the Sharia Committee, and Malik doesn’t sugar coat their murderous behavior. The hero also discovers a tragic family past.
Sarah Pinsker’s “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is sort of a takeoff on those stories I occasionally see in the Fortean Times about people who have received organ donations and seem to have picked up abilities and behaviors from the donors. Here, though, it’s an artificial arm the farmer protagonist gets, and it gives him strange visions, perhaps a legacy from a repurposed microprocessor.
Naturally, with an interest in Japanese folklore, I was going to like Isabel Yap’s “A Cup of Salt Tears”. It involves the Japanese kappa, an aquatic being with an indentation full of water at the top of its skull. A young woman encounters one while despondent over her husband’s long terminal illness. This is something of a Wikipedia story in that its use of the many elements of kappa lore isn’t obvious until you look at the appropriate entry. In a pre-internet age, an editor might have demanded more explanations. It works as a story entirely on its own though.
I mentioned in my review of Koja’s Extremities that Koja may have a thing for stories based on old folk ballads. There are two such stories here.
Nick Mamatas’ “Exit Through the Gift Shop” plays off “The Daemon Lover” ballad in a plot involving a unique tourist attraction based around a phantom hitchhiker type story. The most remarkable and off putting feature of the tale is the nasty, condescending voice of the narrator. But it makes sense when you find out who that narrator is.
I was about two thirds of the way through “The Girls Who Go Below” from Cat Hellisen when I realized I was reading a version of “The Cruel Sister”. (You can listen to performance of it from Old Blind Dogs.) The song is the heartwarming story of a woman who pushes her younger sister into a river because she’s jealous of the attention a visiting suitor is paying to her. (If you should ever find yourself in the world of a Scottish ballad, you should never take up the offer to go for a walk, especially near a river.) A couple of passing minstrels fish the body out of the river and make a harp out of her breastbone and hair. (Which is, of course, a perfectly normal thing to do.) Hellisen’s version, though, is even darker. I will note that the contributor’s notes says Hellisen is fond of “miserable folk songs”.