As a professional book reviewer, I oftentimes (unfairly) bear the brunt of people’s displeasure with the publishing industry. My UPS deliverywoman recently complained to me about buying a much hyped, newly released paranormal fantasy in hardcover for almost $30 and being completely disappointed with it. I have a neighbor who is always whining about the lack of bookstores in our immediate area (there used to be four, all are now closed) and never fails to ask me, “why aren’t there any Barnes & Noble bookstores around here?” as if I have any say in the matter. Friends call me up when they need technical assistance with their NOOK (I know nothing) and, on occasion, presumptuous people whom I barely know ask me if I have the time to read and critique their novel (I do not).
I take it all with a grain of salt because I understand where they’re coming from, especially the cost of books. In an economy like ours, I can understand why people would like to know beforehand if a book – or any form of entertainment, for that matter – is worthy of the money that they plan to shell out in order to experience it.
Well, I’m elated to report that I recently read a book that is well worth its retail price. In fact, if that price were doubled or even tripled, it would still be an absolute steal.
But more important than its girth is the quality of stories that it contains – this is the highest quality weird fiction ever published.
The anthology begins with an insightful “foreweird” by Michael Moorcock as well as an incredibly informative introduction by Ann and Jeff concerning the history and evolution of Weird Fiction. Here is just a taste:
“A ‘weird tale,’ as defined by H.P. Lovecraft in his nonfiction writings and given early sanctuary within the pages of magazines like Weird Tales (est. 1923) is a story that has a supernatural element but does not fall into the category of traditional ghost story or Gothic tale, both popular in the 1800s. As Lovecraft wrote in 1927, the weird tale ‘has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains.’ Instead, it represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane – a ‘certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread’ or ‘malign and particular suspension or defeat of…fixed laws of Nature’ – through fiction that comes from the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastical tradition.
With unease and the temporary abolition of the rational, can also come the strangely beautiful, intertwined with terror. Reverie or epiphany, yes, but dark reverie or epiphany – not the lightness of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ but the weight of, for example, seminal early twentieth-century weird writer and artist Alfred Kubin’s sensation of being ‘overcome…by a dark power that conjured up before my mind strange creatures, houses, landscapes, grotesque and frightful situations.’ The Weird can be transformative – sometimes literally – entertaining monsters while not always seeing them as monstrous. It strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood, and acknowledges failure as sign and symbol of our limitations…”
The stories, which are mostly in chronological order, are all noteworthy in their own right and – this is shocking to say about a 110-story anthology – there are no weak links. Not one. It’s one classic story after another. Just check out this sampling:
• "The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907)
• “How Nuth Would Have Practiced his Art” by Lord Dunsany (1912)
• “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka (1919)
• “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft (1929)
• “Genius Loci” by Clark Ashton Smith (1933)
• “Smoke Ghost” by Fritz Leiber (1941)
• “Mimic” by Donald Wollheim (1942)
• “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury (1943)
• “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges (1945)
• “The Summer People” by Shirley Jackson (1950)
• “The Hungry House” by Robert Bloch (1951)
• “Don’t Look Now” by Daphne Du Maurier (1971)
• “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” by James Tiptree, Jr. (1976)
• “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin (1979)
• “The Brood” by Ramsey Campbell (1980)
• “The New Rays” by M. John Harrison (1982)
• “Soft” by F. Paul Wilson (1984)
• “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler (1984)
• “In the Hills, the Cities” by Clive Barker (1984)
• “Shades” by Lucius Shepard (1987)
• “The Function of Dream Sleep” by Harlan Ellison (1988)
• “The Boy in the Tree” by Elizabeth Hand (1989)
• “Family” by Joyce Carol Oates (1989)
• “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” by Poppy Z. Brite (1990)
• “The Man in the Black Suit” by Stephen King (1994)
• “Yellow and Red” by Tanith Lee (1998)
• “A Redress for Andromeda” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2000)
• “The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon (2001)
• “Details” by China Miéville (2002)
• “The Genius of Assassins” by Michael Cisco (2002)
• “Feeders and Eaters” by Neil Gaiman (2002)
• “The Beautiful Gelreesh” by Jeffrey Ford (2003)
• “The Forest” by Laird Barron (2007)
This is not only a collection that readers can – and should – read multiple times, it’s one of those rare books that will be absolutely cherished by those who own it.
(And if that’s not enough, this literary leviathan can also be used as a deluxe aerobic step for those weird fiction aficionados obsessed with fitness as well as an impromptu insect and small rodent annihilator.)
The quality of stories within The Weird Compendium simply cannot be surpassed – this is the best of the best weird fiction ever published. In a word: priceless.
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for the last two decades and has written thousands of reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and BarnesandNoble.com. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
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