“The Weird” and Other Phantasmagorical Experiences
As I write this, my wife Ann and I are preparing to travel to the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, where our anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories is up for a World Fantasy Award. Although The Weird was released in the North America back in July, reviews have been popping up again for the Halloween season in places like the Washington Post and a podcast for the National Review.
But, largely, this winter marks the end of an amazing journey for us with this anthology, which spans over 1,000 pages and 100 years of weird fiction: 116 stories by writers from over 20 countries, with eight new commissioned translations of major works. We were able to include a wide variety of writers, including Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, Margaret Irwin, Leonora Carrington, Ray Bradbury, Jorge Luis Borges, Shirley Jackson, Robert Bloch, Amos Tutuola, Mervyn Peake, Gahan Wilson, Daphne Du Maurier, Robert Aickman, Jamaica Kincaid, George R.R. Martin, Octavia Butler, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, Ben Okri, Joyce Carol Oates, Karen Joy Fowler, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Kelly Link, Michael Chabon, China Mieville, and Neil Gaiman. The Weird is now being taught in many college classrooms as exemplar of dark, uncanny fiction and as a showcase for a certain strand of international fiction—it’s even helped us create a website to continue exploring this kind of fiction.
Editing The Weird was a tremendous experience, but if we had known how far it would stretch us, how it would devour our lives for more than two years, we might not have said yes. We’re glad we did, but little did we know what lay in store when I received an email while hiking in the wilds of New Hampshire during a book tour in the winter of 2009. The email was from editor Nic Cheetham, then the head of Atlantic UK’s Corvus imprint. “Do you want to do the biggest book of weird fiction ever, covering a century?” Nic asked. “We have a slot in the 2010 fall schedule where it would fit perfectly.”
We had to consult with our agent, but our answer, after some deliberation, was a resounding “Yes!” From that moment, our fates were sealed. Because the catch was that to publish the book in the preferred slot, we had only six months to select over 750,000 words of fiction—and acquire permissions for the stories we picked. Granted, we already knew a thing or two about weird fiction, but we still wound up reading or sampling over 6,000,000 words of short stories, novellas, and short novels during that span. We really didn’t do anything else. We just read fiction, while frantically acquiring whatever we didn’t have in-house from libraries, used bookstores, and friends.
It was a trial by fire, utterly intense, and while stressful also very pleasurable. If someone had told me as a young writer and anthologist back in my teens that one day I would be paid to read weird fiction from all over the world to create a landmark anthology, I wouldn’t have believed them. Ann felt the same way, even if it was overwhelming at times. We ate, slept, and dreamt weird fiction. Indeed, our dreams did change during this time, as the number of phantasmagorical stories we read seeped into our subconscious and expressed themselves through odd images and situations. (Granted, the book was ultimately pushed back, giving us more time, but the bulk of the work still took place in a very short time span.)
The permissions process to acquire the stories was interesting, too, to say the least! When covering weird fiction over such a wide date range, you can encounter almost any situation. In one case, we were told the rights holder was in a coma and no provision had been made for what to do if this person were neither alive or dead. In another, the deceased author’s agent had gone senile and for our sins we received back faxes full of nonsense words. In yet a third case, we had to educate monks on an island about the e-books to get the rights. The number of times agents asked how many copies of the e-book we would be “printing” concerned us. The few times that the representative of an estate indicated that rights were not available to anyone because they were sitting on them like stock shares until the value rose also concerned us. In such situations, it became crystal clear why some short story writers are more prominent than others. When we contemplated sending a friend from the Mexican circus down the coast on horseback to get a contract signature from Leonora Carrington, we should’ve known we had lost all perspective.
But the point on a project this massive is that you do lose perspective as you become more and more immersed in the material. That, in some ways, you lose your way and your sense of self in the service of completing the project.
Another thing you do is find out what stands the test of time, often with surprising results. In some cases this applies to writers in the canon of uncanny fiction who didn’t seem quite as impressive when gauged against the full expanse of literary history. But in other cases, it involved assessing prior volumes that did something similar to The Weird. Every anthology editor is indebted to the hard work, research, passion, and taste of editors who came before.
So, as Ann and I begin to put The Weird in our rear-view mirror, here’s a short list of some of the other anthologies that truly impressed us—and held up to repeated testing. We should note that there is little overlap between The Weird and these other anthologies, which means if you acquire them all you should have a comprehensive view of the last century of dark fiction. (The original anthologies of Ellen Datlow must also be name-checked, as we took several stories from them for The Weird, and Dark Forces, a seminal original anthology from the 1980s.)
American Fantastic Tales, Vol. 1 and 2 (2009), edited by Peter Straub—This recent and exhaustive chronicle of American fantastical fiction, mostly on the darker end of the spectrum, helps to flesh out one particular tradition. The anthology provided a good overview of U.S. antecedents to the writers included in The Weird since Straub’s start-point (the 1800s) was much earlier than our own (1908). Straub’s remit is a bit broader than ours in terms of types of fantastical literature and yet narrower since he could not consider non-American works. Thus, AFT was less of an influence on The Weird, but still very useful.
The Books of Blood (1984-85) by Clive Barker—Although a story collection rather than an anthology, Barker’s seminal work should be an essential part of any weird/horror fiction lover’s library. These transgressive books, in their blending of influences and approaches to the short story, still stand as perhaps the most important in the history of modern dark fiction. His story “In the Hills, the Cities” became important to us in tracing surreal and decadent influences that we eventually included in The Weird.
Black Water (1984) and Black Water 2 (1990), edited by Alberto Manguel—These astounding anthologies, with their wonderful selection of writers from around the world stood out for us due to their variety, inquisitiveness, and their sheer richness. Manguel has no tight focus and thus the volumes function more as a treasury than as an overview. But even when the anthology plunges into rabbit holes, it’s delightful and gives off an almost kinetic energy. Along with The Dark Descent, Black Water was our touchstone in creating The Weird. Our copies became even more dog-eared and ragged than they had been before starting the editorial process. It was Manguel’s positioning of the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola that helped us reach a decision on including him in The Weird.
The Dark Descent(1987), edited by David Hartwell—If Black Water spirals off in unexpected directions, then The Dark Descent represents a totally different approach. In this definitive anthology, Hartwell charts the course of horror across the twentieth century. The focus is laser-tight and the stories all superlative. Even today, it remains an astounding achievement. But in creating The Weird, we decided to chart a path neither as wonderfully rigid as Hartwell’s nor as gleefully loose as Manguel’s. This allowed us the flexibility to include the kinds of amazing outliers that often get left out of an anthology while maintaining a specific point of view. We diligently tracked down the entire oeuvre of every writer included in Hartwell’s anthology. More often than not, we found we agreed with his selections.
Foundations of Fear (1992), edited by David Hartwell—This companion volume to The Dark Descent is just as good, and ranges from the staidness of the John W. Campbell story that inspired John Carpenter’s The Thing to the work of Carlos Fuentes. We will always remember this book fondly as we spent a lovely afternoon reading from it at the Blue Parrot Café, on the beach near St. George Island in the Florida Panhandle. It led to a fascinating conversation with another Blue Parrot patron who had known the iconic writer and editor Damon Knight.
Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural (1985) edited by Marvin Kaye—Although Kaye has faded as an editor, this anthology published in his heyday featured great stories and had gender balance and a fair amount of international fiction. Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown is also quite excellent. These anthologies helped us to make decisions on works by writers such as Meyrink and A. Merritt