My literary tastes trend toward the grindhouse. Schlock, melodrama, and spooky spectacle of the un-ironic variety. To continue to couch this in terms of the cinema, I prefer John Carpenter over David Lynch; Stuart Gordon over Lars von Trier. Whatever weird fiction might mean, I more often than not prefer it to mean horror, and within that association, I like monsters, creepy settings, unsettling imagery, and a little action. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy fiction that’s intellectual or cerebral. But I like what I read to strike a balance somewhere between fun and intellectual, with the slider closer to the former. It’s all art to me, man—whether it’s the rickety spookhouse ride or the ballet.
I just tend to have more fun at the spookhouse.
It is, however, with great pleasure that I devoured Year’s Best Fiction Volume Two edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly. Koja is a powerful writer and artist, and Kelly’s voluminous reading of horror and weird literature is award-worthy unto itself. Together, they’ve curated a book of sterling quality; diversity in stories, modes, and authorship alike. This is elite weird fiction—yes, even literary in its aspirations—done completely right.
Not every story was my bag of popcorn, of course. But what makes this collection great is that, even when I didn’t vibe with a particular style or narrative, I still recognized that the writing was masterful, and the imagery was haunting. This book has a little something for everyone, and, I’m not afraid to admit, my own tastes and preferences were challenged for the better.
I won’t mention all the stories I enjoyed in this collection (that would be most of them), but I’ll touch on a few. Keep in mind that the stories that I didn’t enjoy were not bad by any means, but were instead just not right for me.
Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” was the perfect story to start the collection. It’s a crime noir yarn with a delirious creature-feature bent. Siobhan Carrol’s “Wendigo Nights” is equal parts The Thing and introspective supernatural meditation. Kima Jones’ “Nine” is a period piece that tells a story of dark juju and a patchwork family battling its influence. Caitlín R. Kiernan turns the monster slayer trope on its head in the pulpy (yes!) selection “Bus Fare.”
Rich Larson laughs off the standard mermaid tale in “The Air We Breathe is Stormy, Stormy” and explores a would-be father’s fear. Usman T. Malik writes about religious-civil conflict in a foreign-born Re-Animator take in “Resurrection Points.” Sarah Pinsker’s science fiction-character study “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is a subtle examination of identity and rural life (with more than a passing connection to my own dear Colorado).
These selections knocked my socks off—scratching that ghoulish horror itch, or conjuring thoughtful reflection. Again, even the stories not listed here—a couple of which were not to my taste—were still full of striking imagery and impression that lasted well beyond the time I spent reading them.
Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Two is an anthology that, despite its chronological-inspired name, will remain evergreen. I have not read Volume One, but I should. With Volume Three right around the corner, there’s no better time than to get caught up now.
Highly recommended for fans of dark speculative fiction, or for those looking for an entry point into the vast and growing body of high-quality weird work… and recommended for lowbrow horror junkies, too.