Designed to Disturb: ‘The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories’

The joke goes that if you’re within 50 yards of anything remotely Cthulhu-like, you avoid books like the plague. Those “quaint and curious volume[s] of forgotten lore” that Poe went on about? They seem to litter the Cthulhu universe like plastic Solo cups after a college party, and they’ll drive you insane by providing the merest glimpse of things which humanity was not meant to know.

Well, The Weird contains many a glimpse into worlds terrible and wondrous and strange, but at 1,100+ pages, it’s so thick and heavy that if an elder god rose from its ancient slumber in front of you, your last act of defiance could be to brain it with this book even as your mind turned to jelly.

“Weird” though, as we find out from Michael Moorcock in the books’ “foreweird”, China Mieville in the “Afterweird”, and editors Jeff and Ann VanderMeer in the introduction, isn’t limited to Cthulhu and Lovecraft. He just gets all the press. But as The Weird proves, he certainly didn’t have a monopoly on weird tales, and to limit one’s readings to Lovecraft is a bit like living in a creepy old Victorian house, but never bothering to investigate the shuffling in the attic, the banging in the basement, or the whispering voices that seem to rise every time the house gets quiet.

So what is “weird,” anyway? Lovecraft limited the definition to supernatural tales that weren’t simply ghost stories. Moorcock, however, proposes that “there are no established rules for the weird tale, which is at least part of the attraction if the story an author wants to tell can’t readily be told in an established form. Although it might contain a supernatural element, or a suggested supernatural element, it does not have to do so… For me, the appeal of the weird story is precisely that it is designed to disturb. At least if left to itself.” The VanderMeers offer that “usually, the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the unusual that they become obsessed with the weird.”

Perhaps it’s best described by one of Algernon Blackwood’s characters in 1907’s “The Willows”:

“Another region — not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind — where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs, the rise and fall of nations, the fate of armies and continents, are all as dust in the balance; vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul and not indirectly with more expressions of the soul.”

That all covers a lot of ground, and if the sheer scope of The Weird is a testament to anything as it charts the “genre” from its beginnings to the current day, it’s that there is no shortage of talented writers with unique ideas ready to carve out a new nook or cranny in the weird landscape.

Blackwood and “The Willows” is an eye-opening story in several ways. Hailed by writer after writer as one of those seminal stories that got its hooks into them and didn’t let go, “The Willows” is somehow both a little archaic and still highly effective. At its most basic, it concerns a pair of explorers canoeing down the Danube, who encounter strange and dangerous things in the night when they make camp on an isolated island. At first, you think Blackwood has his sights set on Melville’s title of “Who can write the most pages about water without anything really happening,” but ultimately all the pieces are in place and Blackwood’s two characters — the narrator, and his companion, a taciturn fellow called “The Swede” — must contend with the fact that they are brushing up against something both great and ominous. “The Willows” is a horror tale with very real things going on around the explorers, but it’s also a snapshot of how the stress of the situation affects the men’s minds. It’s a very tense story — you can practically feel the lashing rain and ferocious current pulling away parts of the island — and one filled with no small amount of dread.

It’s also a window into the early days of “weird”, when authors didn’t need to be quite so canny about their stories. When James Whale’s Frankenstein hit movie theaters in 1931, people reportedly fainted in the aisles at the previously unimagined horrors now towering over them onscreen. But it wasn’t long before Frankenstein joined the Wolfman and Dracula in an Abbott and Costello film. That initial maddening glance of the weird? We got used to it and asked for more, only stronger and stronger each time.

So in a way it’s charming to read tales like F. Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull” (the weird is right there in the title!), a rather entertaining story from 1908 that makes, ahem, no bones about its concept and rolls right along. (The reader should also ignore any biases that might linger from seeing a very bad film version of this story skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000.) Likewise, a jaded modern reader can see the twist of Luigi Ugolini’s “The Vegetable Man” (1917) coming from all the way across the garden.

The Weird, though, in its mission of provide a Genesis-to-now overview, isn’t as concerned about always startling the reader as it is in painting a complete picture of the genre’s growth. Besides, the stories quickly become more sophisticated. Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “The Hell Screen” (1918) reveals itself bit by bit towards its inevitable conclusion, while Margaret Irwin’s “The Book” (1930) doesn’t allow the reader to get too far ahead of its cursed protagonist, even as we sense he’s going down a very bad path.

It’s not long before well-remembered luminaries like Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Franz Kafka grace the pages of The Weird, and by the time you get to modern practitioners like Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, or Harlan Ellison, you get a sense of the burden that must weigh on modern writers. Here is this entire continuum of weird literature, increasingly sophisticated and savvy, with an audience equally so, and these writers are accepting the challenge of creating something new and unique. Gaiman’s “Feeders and Eaters” (2002) purposely reveals a bit of itself in the title, but Gaiman dances around the nature of the feeding and the eating, doling out bite-sized pieces until he can offer a reveal that makes sense and which still offers a surprise.

Spanning 110 stories from around the world, and covering just over 100 years of writing, The Weird is an ambitious, impressive undertaking. It’s a history lesson. It’s a writing tutorial. It’s, by and large, excellent reading. It can also be, when a story rolls the dice just right and comes up with a reader’s own personal bogeyman (with this many stories, it’ll hit the jackpot on you eventually), pretty darn spooky and disturbing.

RATING 9 / 10