Odd, eh, odd? Well, isn't everyone a bit odd in their own way? When you're as old as I am, perhaps you'll realise that too. Odd? I meant nothing by it. (p. 35)
The first volume of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's eBook anthology series ODD? is undeniably a slice of strange pie. As they describe it in the introduction, the series "is devoted to eclectic fiction, usually with a fantastical, horrific, magic realist, or surrealist approach. You might even call it strange or weird" (p. 5). The VanderMeers make room for the fact that this ephemeral "oddity" is subjective, bound to be interpreted differently by readers who are varying degrees of (un)normal, but are still willing to promise that "you should find at least something you'd consider odd" within the anthology's (electronic) pages.
Even if this is not a bewilderingly original collection, I don't doubt that readers of all stripes will agree with the VanderMeers' mission statement. ODD? encompasses a fairly wide variety of fiction, more than enough to bewilder the neophyte and—except for the most experienced readers of the Weird—plenty material to give seasoned hands glimpses of strange vistas yet unseen.
The stories that appear in this anthology can be roughly categorized, and a few of them will stick out quite immediately as representative of a trend we might call "Lovecraft worship." "Apartment 205" by Mark Samuels, from which the quote above is taken, is one such story, and is—though somewhat passé in its style—well written and enjoyable, delivering us unto the grips of a suitably "cosmic" horror by which to be entertained. Another is "Lotophagi" by Edward Morris—which, on the other hand, is utter tripe:
Overhead, the Western stars were a nightmarish acid trip too vast and inhuman to fathom. Out there on the perimeter, there were too many stars, too many things to be careful of wishing for that might fall on you and knock you flat . . . (p. 112)
Morris's ellipse, I suppose, is meant to convey to the reader how incredibly deep—indeed, how unfathomable—this paragraph is. Unfortunately, the prose is far too hyperbolic to deliver on this promise.
There are also a few examples of weird fiction that either predate, or are contemporary with, Lovecraft's heyday, like Gustave Le Rouge's "The War of the Vampires" and "The Head" by Karl Hans Strobl. Caitlín R. Kiernan also has an offering in this anthology, and although she is introduced as "heir to the legacy of H. P. Lovecraft" (p. 165), I think her work—which is some of the best, and darkest, that appears in this collection—is far too original to merit that simple moniker. From "A Child's Guide to the Hollow Hills":
Beneath the low leaf-litter clouds, under endless dry monsoons of insect pupae, strangling rains of millipede droppings and noxious fungal spores, in this muddy, thin land pressed between soil and bedrock foundations, the fairie girl awakens in the bed of the Queen of Decay. She opens her violet eyes and sees, again, that it was not only some especially unpleasant dream or nightmare, her wild descent, her pell-mell tumble from light and day and stars and moonshine, down, down, down to this mouldering domain of shadow walls and knurly taproot obelisks. She is here, after all. (ibid.)
There is also a significant showing by the magic-as-metaphor kind of fiction that is popular in modern fantasy. In "Slow Cold Chick" by Nalo Hopkinson, a woman's anxieties create a physical monster; in "A Hard Truth About Waste Management" by Sumanth Prabhaker, a crocodile eats the mother and father of a family that flushes their garbage down the toilet, before admonishing the son: "How would you like it if there was a big tube that poured someone else's trash on your house? . . . How would you like it if I took you away and made you cough in my toilet?" (p. 72). ODD? will not only delight you, it seems, but provide you a moral education.
There is even space for dystopian fiction in this anthology, when told the right way. "The Fork" by Jeffrey Thomas, for example, tells the story of an automaton that is the last "living" creature in a city of decaying factories and that, so forgotten, tries failingly to make its escape. "Unmaking" by Amanda le Bas de Plumetôt takes place in a society where all energy—even unto the biological—must be conserved, and—under these laws—the narrator is dissected for committing a crime of procreation. Despite the gross-out dangers of such a visceral presentation, "Unmaking" is one of the most beautiful stories in the anthology:
I'm still me, thinking. I am a puzzle, constructed, disassembled, rebuilt. None of them have noticed that my arms have turned into wings. The birds of bones are filled with air. Red goes surging away from me and pure, clear, emptiness comes rushing up the tube towards me. It is all too easy and too wonderful. Then a hand and then nothing. Nothing. Not darkness, just nothing, only me. There's still me. There's still me thinking. I think, therefore I am. I think. I still think. I think, therefore I am. I think, therefore I am. I think, therefore— (p. 155)
Of course, none of the stories in this anthology are all that easily classified, even if dominant strains in the tradition to which they reply can be identified to some degree or other. They all distinguish themselves by dint of being transgressive and abnormal; by being, effectively, twisted versions of the real. One of the most fantastic stories in ODD? is a rather too realistic surreal piece by Stacey Levine called "Sausage," in which the protagonist fights to overcome the very forces of history by producing tons and tons of sausage. This absurd world, in which we see nothing come to pass but the production of sausage and the concomitant consumption of same, is a tilted otherworld that only mocks our own. And yet the work of sausage-making informs the protagonist's self-image and social perceptions to a disturbing degree: a structure of meaning which is not so foreign, but rather highly familiar to anyone who operates in a modern exchange economy, in which men and women are more often animal laborans or homo faber than they are men and women.
ODD? is definitely an enjoyable collection, likely to introduce readers to at least one new writer worth reading, and especially able to satisfy those who share the VanderMeers' general aesthetic. That said, the scope of ODD? is somewhat restricted. All the stories in this anthology—with one or two, very small, exceptions—are dark fiction. Indeed, there is really no basis on which to separate the notion of "odd" fiction from the "weird" fiction that is focus of the VanderMeers' other recent projects (the behemoth The Weird anthology [tagline: "a compendium of strange and dark stories"] or the online Weird Fiction Review). Although some stories are less macabre in tone than others, there is a general undercurrent of creepiness, malevolence, and even mundane evil that runs through the anthology that—though certainly not a bad thing in and of itself—does little to make the ODD? anthology radically different from the VanderMeers' other work. As a consequence, the reader's conception of strange fiction generally cannot be advanced.
However, the failings of ODD? are not expressed solely in its similitude to other projects, but also the failure to account for certain kinds of weirdness that might have broadened the appeal and informativeness of the anthology. I found it unfortunate that ODD? completely overlooks bizarro fiction—which, despite its excesses, tends to be rather giddy and "light," and would without doubt have brought another level of depth to the otherwise tenebrous anthology. I also found it exceedingly strange that there were no examples of literature that really pushed the boundaries of space, time, text, reader, etc.; that there was, in short, nothing experimental, nothing avant-garde, and, instead, simply a gathering of very linear, plot-oriented, character-driven stories. Although, for example, "The Aunts" by Karen Tidbeck (which, despite my critical position on it here, is one of the best stories in the collection), is a story about time (insofar as it takes place in a world where a circular or perhaps just "magical" is broken and becomes linear or "mundane" time), it is not a story that, within itself, actually plays with time. Tidbeck writes: "In some places, time is a weak and occasional phenomenon. Unless someone claims time to pass, it might not, or does so only partly; events curl in on themselves to form spirals and circles" (p. 114), but this beautiful manifesto is not brought to fruition by the text, merely in the text. Circular versus linear time is a conflict experienced by the characters—not the reader.
The one real exception to the generally rear-guard actions of this anthology is Eric Basso's "Logues," a surreal and narratively complex story that actually deserves to be re-read. Simply quoting from Basso's story cannot do it justice, since it proceeds in fragments and episodes that might, or might not, share relations with each other. Neither can it be adequately summarized, because, quite frankly, I have no idea what it is about (at least in an objective sense; I have plenty of thoughts about what it might mean to me). Perhaps my taste for this kind of esotericism is snobbery, but I would argue that this kind of holistically mysterious text, in which the reader is invited to be an integral part of the text's ontological status, is vastly odder than stories which merely present strange ephemera. Readers of the Weird in the new millennium, I would argue, should move beyond the strangeness of Cthulhu: they should ask, "What is Cthulthu thinking?" Suffice to say, "Logues" is a story the reader must grapple to understand; they will leave their own taint on the text, smell themselves in its aftertaste, and be left wondering if they "understood" it—or if an understanding of a text of this kind is even possible.
Unfortunately, this is not the case with every story in the anthology. In fact, the exact opposite is true: of every other story, something precise most definitely can be said: "The Bloat Toad" is about a deadly, spectral, vengeful amphibian; "The Night of the Normal Distribution Curve" is about the mysteries of mathematics; "Weiroot" is about (weird) parenthood. "Logues" is a stand-out, the crowning jewel of ODD?, precisely because it is itself an odd artifact, an odd text—whereas all the other stories are mundane texts about odd objects.
In conclusion, ODD? is a great anthology, but it is not a revolutionary one. It is, as I mention above, an anthology of "oddities," but not "odd texts"; it is stories of strange stuff, grimoires even; but, in structure and direction, these stories are not, in themselves, all that weird. It is, in sum, a primer for initiates of the Weird insofar as the Weird has come to be reified—and not as a set of "weird experiments" that might push us forward onto even grosser heights.
Ben Godby writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs, and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.
You must log in to post a comment.