BOOK REVIEW: The Weird ed. by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark StoriesThe Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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For a book themed by such a niche genre, stories of the weird, this book covers a huge amount of ground. Over 1100+ pages, the book includes more than a hundred stories. While the book mostly consists of short stories, it does include several novellas and a novel excerpt. Not only does the book cover temporal ground (from the 19th century through writers of today), it includes works by authors from India, Japan, Nigeria, Benin, Iran, the Czech Republic, and many other nations besides the numerous British and American entries. It includes names you’ll know from mainstream literature, such as Haruki Murakami, Ben Okri, and Ray Bradbury, as well as a few of the best-selling authors of all time such as Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. However, it also includes names that you probably won’t have heard of unless you are a huge fan or an amateur historian of this cross-cutting subgenre (more on that descriptor to come.) It’s telling that only one author has more than one piece in the anthology, and that seems to represent an attempt to gather the very best pieces from each. I won’t say every great author of weirdness was included, but a whole lot of them were — whether the weird was a momentary diversion for him or it was the whole of his writing career.

The organization is chronological, and the book stands a single-volume education on stories with weirdness, bizarreness, or surreality at their heart. I used the term “cross-cutting subgenre” to describe the theme, and, I’m not sure I even understand what I meant, but these stories have a super-genre – e.g. horror or literary – but they necessarily have this element of strangeness. In other words, while some of the stories might be labeled “horror,” that genre classification is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for inclusion. Many of the stories aren’t particularly dark, and just because a story horror doesn’t mean that it’s weird enough to be included. The stories generally take place in a world that is recognizable, but with a hint of the surreal and with some level of strategic ambiguity as to the nature of that surreal element. This allows the collection to include examples as dark and visceral as “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson or as quirky and amusing as “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be” by Gahan Wilson.

I couldn’t possibly go through all 110-ish of these stories, but will say that it’s a phenomenal collection. If I had to make my own personal top ten list it would be (in no order but the one in which the stories came in)

1.) “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers: A man moves into a room under the pretext of investigating a string of suicides only linked by residence within the apartment.

2.) “The Night Wire” by H.F. Arnold: A man in a newspaper office with a gift for simultaneously transcribing from two wires receives incoming reports of an ominous fog.

3.) “The Mainz Psalter” by Jean Ray: A mysterious ship journey ventures into bizarre territory and the crew starts disappearing one-by-one, leaving nothing more than gruesome stains.

4.) “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury: A man tries to understand how a crowd seem to form almost instantaneously at the site of a car accident that he survived.

5.) “Sand Kings” by George R.R. Martin: A nasty little man buys some otherworldly pets that prove difficult to maintain.

6.) “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler: In a recurring theme for Butler, she writes about an alien species that appears to be beneficent toward humans, but shows that where a power disparity exists beneficence is an illusion.

7.) “Shades” by Lucius Shepard: A Vietnam vet turned journalist returns to Vietnam on a story about one of the men who died in his unit.

8.) “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio” by Marc Laidlaw: A renown photographer somehow has her own suicide photographed and this leads to questions of the nature of art and the degree of passion it evokes in people.

9.) “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson: A man who self-cauterized his own amputation in order to kill the man who cut his hand off is drawn into the shadowy world of a bizarre cult who honor voluntary (and unnecessary) amputations.

10.) “Flat Diane” by Daniel Abraham: A father helps his daughter send out a picture cutout of herself for a school project. His daughter inexplicably starts experiencing PTSD like symptoms around the same time the father starts getting disturbing anonymous photos through the mail.

I don’t know how representative my top ten list is, but hopefully it gives one an idea of the nature of stories included. Though, as I said, it’s hard to give nutshell commentary on such a diverse work. It was even hard to come up with a top thirty, there were so many great inclusions.

I’d highly recommend this book if you at all enjoy weird tales. I got a copy on Amazon at a bargain price, especially considering that this is about four books worth of great stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

The Unlimited Dream CompanyThe Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The protagonist, Blake, crashes a stolen small aircraft into the Thames River beside the sleepy English town of Shepperton. In short order, Blake discovers that he cannot escape Shepperton and gradually he comes to realize that he can do anything else that he can imagine. This gradual discovery is like a dream becoming lucid. At first the world seems right even though there is plenty that is odd about it, as is the case when one is dreaming and oddities and anomalies don’t trigger a response as they do when one is conscious. Despite the fact that Ballard captures the surrealism of the dream state well, and even uses the word “dream” in the title, the reader is never sure what is going on exactly until the book’s conclusion. Is Blake dreaming everything? (including the plane theft?) Or, was he knocked unconscious in the crash? Or, is something supernatural going on that is dreamlike, but not a dream. There are a cast of townsfolk who sometimes behave oddly, but who seem like they have enough depth to be more than projections of Blake’s subconscious. The unfolding of the story involves the surreal nature of Shepperton becoming more obvious as the reader — little-by-little — gets a better idea of what is going on there.

Readers with a prudish streak should be aware that references to sex are ubiquitous. It’s not that there are a lot of graphic sex scenes, but – as in a dream state, the subconscious mind is at the fore and primal urges take center-stage. Blake imagines having sexual relations with everyone in the sleepy town. He doesn’t, but he speculates about it. There is also symbolic sexual reference – e.g. flowers growing from his seed. Frequent references are made to Blake being naked, but the townsfolk not realizing it. There’s generally not graphic description, this recurring device primarily serves as a means to show how the other people in the story aren’t lucid, because Blake’s nudity doesn’t set off their weird-o-meters as it would in waking consciousness.

I enjoyed this book, and, if you like surreal and trippy stories, you should give it a read.

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5 of My Favorite Trippy, Mind-bending Books

I love books that send one down the rabbit hole. Here are a few of my favorites. [Note: as I was putting this post together, I realized that I’d left out Philip K. Dick entirely. That is a glaring oversight as almost any of his books could make this list, but I’m too lazy to make a bigger list right now, so you’ll have to wait for Part II.]

 

5.) The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard: A man crashes a small aircraft into the Thames, and after struggling up from the wreckage he discovers he can’t leave the town of Shepperton — though he can do just about anything else he likes.

 

4.) The Lathe of Heaven by Ursala K. Le Guin: George Orr believes his dreams shape reality. At first, he’s taken for a crazy man, but then his therapist begins to wonder.

 

3.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: A man hired for his skill at using his mind as an unbreakable encryption device, finds out that the job that seemed too good to be true, was.

 

2.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil comes to Moscow with his  rogue’s gallery, throws the city into disarray, and it’s all tied to a novel based on the life of Pontius Pilate.

 

1.) Alice in Wonderland  & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tumbling down a rabbit hole or walking through a mirror, Alice is transported to a whimsical land where everything is strange and exhilarating.

Let me know of any oversights [besides the aforementioned PKD.]

POEM: Anti-Solipsist

The world exists, save for me.
I’m a figment floating eternally.
You won’t say that I am not.
But I’m the burning word that time forgot.

I’m a lost watcher, fallen.
Never had either a hope or calling.
Disembodied, feels so real.
I’m the ceaseless turning of dharma’s wheel.

POEM: Strange Country


There’s a strange country
tucked away in the mind.

One can stumble into it
without expecting to;
Have you been there?

I remember pounding a drum to echolocate reality.
But the spongy landscape swallowed all sound.

A spastic second of fury and neural fireworks seized me
before I was overcome by the sadness
that terror was my go-to response
in the face of the unfamiliar.

What if I’d decided to be exhilarated?

Could one rise from the dead of living?

And so it came to be that the strange country cracked open,
giving birth to a world anew.
And leaves and rocks glittered with a cleansed glow.
And familiar country was suffused with an aura of novelty.

BOOK REVIEW: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-GlassAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

These are two separate children’s books, but the edition I read is one of several in which they are bundled together. Besides the fact that each is only a little over 100 pages, they are conveniently bundled because they share the same lead character, Alice, and take place in similar (arguably the same) alternate realities: Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World. These are worlds in which strange events are common place and there’s little compulsion to behave logically– worlds in which imagination rules and reality only provides a subconscious shaping of events.

In the former book, Alice enters the alternate world by tumbling down the rabbit hole and in the later she does so by stepping through a mirror (i.e. a looking-glass.) Each of these books follows Alice from her entry into the alternate reality, through a series of adventures, and then back to the real world.

Not much of a review is necessary because even though—given you are reading a review—you probably haven’t read the books yet, you will be familiar with many of the characters and references from widespread appearance in pop culture. I already mentioned the tumble down the rabbit hole, as does Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) in “The Matrix.” That movie also references chasing the white rabbit, as does a famous song by Grace Slick. You’ve also probably seen or heard references to the grin of the Cheshire Cat and the frenetic behavior of the Mad Hatter. “Through the Looking-Glass” features several well-known characters from English nursery rhymes (e.g. Tweedledee & Tweedledum as well as Humpty Dumpty.)

It’s also not so important to get into plot because the stories are purposefully chaotic and exist in a world of loose logic. The strings of causality are not so strong, but it’s on purpose. It’s supposed to be a strange and surreal world, and it achieves great success in this regard. Events don’t have to make sense; they just have to be imaginable. This doesn’t mean that there is no flow or transitions between the adventures in these books. There is. It’s more easily recognized in “Through the Looking-Glass” in which a game of chess provides an underlying structure for the unfolding of events.

I’d recommend everybody read these books. While I referred to them as “children’s books,” I also agree with Neil Gaiman’s point that that is a nonsense term. So one shouldn’t think one missed the boat and there is no going back.

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POEM: Phantom Mind

i washed up on a foreign shore
i saw no house, but just a door
through the door, light was dim
my mind was as phantom limb

 

my thoughts rang false
my mind chugged leaden
white mice danced a waltz
at the edge of Armageddon

 

a piercing tone slapped my mind
my eyes fell out and I was blind
squirming to a surface I couldn’t see
gasping, birthed, and then set free

 

another night in my phantom mind