Reading The Outcast Hours, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, I found myself increasingly conscious of the role of the editor in shaping an anthology. Is this story about demons, and abuse, and a book that “will find you when you need it” the right way to start an anthology about the half of the world that is dark? (Yes, I think so.) How many of the 25 stories are told in cities (around half, depending on how you slice it), feature modern technology (six-ish, sprinkled throughout the anthology) or feature really strange intrusions into the world (seven by my count), and should those be strung together or alternated with others? In a time of refugee crises and powerful perpetrators of sexual misconduct being held to account, how should these themes be made visible? And with a selection of authors and stories from around the globe, what distinguishes the dark alleys of Vancouver from those of Karachi?
During the best moments in The Outcast Hours, I forgot the context of the anthology and found myself enchanted by the story to hand (Genevieve Valentine’s “Everyone Knows That They’re Dead. Do You?” and Karen Onojaife’s “Tilt “ were particular favorites), but equally often I found myself wondering what would distinguish this jaded protagonist about to walk down a dark alley with their companion from the next jaded protagonist in another city ostensibly halfway across the world. In the case of “Gatsby” (Maha Khan Phillips) and “Swipe Left” (Daniel Polansky), two horror stories placed next to each other in the table of contents, in one the traditional horror trope of a predator picking off a young woman is enacted, and in the other, the twist ending attempts to salvage a story that otherwise performs its misogyny so aggressively I could barely push through the story.
Just before these two stories is another world-weary protagonist—Lavie Tidhar’s “Bag Man” follows Max, the bag man, through the tired streets of Tel Aviv. (Fans of Tidhar’s Central Station may enjoy the reference to “the imagined future of Tel Aviv’s central bus station “on a poster in a bookstore). Like many of the other stories in the anthology (and contrary to my initial expectations), “Bag Man” is not a horror story; along with a handful of other stories, there are no speculative elements to speak of. It is the story of a violent journey through outcast hours, beginning with Max picking up a suitcase and saying goodbye to Marina, who “had been a working girl in the past but now she ran a flower shop and she and Max had an understanding. And he didn’t normally say any damn thing, so why was he being chatty tonight” (loc 147), and ending with the delivery.
Max smiled. As Benny went to leave he said “what’s in the case?”
Benny turned by the restaurant door and looked back at him. “Does it matter?” he said.
Max thought about it. Sunlight rippled through the windows into the gloom of the restaurant.
“No,” he said. “I suppose not.” (loc 176)
Of the early stories, Sami Shah’s “Ambulance Service,” about Karachi’s only demon-fighting ambulance, was my favorite, pulling me into what The Outcast Hours could be. The early paragraphs are full of atmosphere, specific details, and universal characters: the experienced driver; the old woman at the door; and the eager new apprentice, found next to the chai shop; the “juice vendor balancing pint glasses of neon-green sugar cane juice to a family of six that had arrived on a single motorcycle; and suffusing it all, an ether of mosquitos and flies” (loc 78). The night builds slowly: a female spirit has entranced a young man; later, a waterlogged zombie is mollified; and then much later, in the midst of the most fabulous wealth and isolation available (the story explicitly connects these twin privileges), a crisis is discovered and averted. The partnership of the old driver and his new partner is cemented, and I found myself wishing for episode two of the series. In many ways, “Ambulance Service” is a typical buddy-cop story, but from the magic made of words folded upon words, the extreme inequalities present in the setting, the zombie concerned only with civil engineering, and the not-quite-humans found among the city inhabitants it is also something more than the traditional version of this story, and I enjoyed it immensely.
In a different vein, “This Place of Thorns” by Marina Warner, in which a family escaping the violence of the war in Syria “joined more women and children, living in shallow caves in the rocky sand, which they had tried to hollow more deeply using sticks of the thorn bushes” (loc 416-417), is a compelling story about outcasts not just in time but also in space. In this story, the refugees are specifically connected with other outcasts in the ancient world—Antigone with her unburied brother, and Balthasar following the star, while joined by an angelic visitor. There are stories in The Outcast Hours that feel in direct conversation with current social movements and political conflicts (although I note an absence of any consideration of climate change). Will Hill’s “It Was a Different Time,” a #MeToo story in which a hotel clerk comes upon a man having the worst night of his life, makes a point, but is a story I never need to read again. In contrast, “This Place of Thorns,” and the people within the story seeking any place of refuge, will be with me for a long time.
“This Place Of Thorns” embodies some of the best of The Outcast Hours. The story of outcasts is told tenderly, and the supernatural intrudes gently, bending the story away from the “young, anxious volunteers with NGOs” (loc 420) and their straightforward rules for safety that do not make space for appointments with sons from destroyed towns. “In the Blink of a Light,” by Amira Sulah-Ahmed, juxtaposes the straightforward morality of a man who disapproves of, and is distracted by, “the girls at the parties, or the female performers or the bride’s friends at weddings, running around and shaking their hips in short dresses” (loc 345) with the wisdom of a mentor whose rules “gave way bit by bit, until he reached this place - where he knows better than to view these scenes with a critical eye” (loc 346), but who turns out to be equally (and perhaps more unhealthily) distracted himself. In Cecilia Eckbäck’s “Dark Matters,” we meet a girl whose “mother hated things that didn’t fit, that suddenly left a mould, were too large, moved fast, or that you couldn’t control” (loc 457) and who can see, and speak with, Death. Each of these is given the same weight, alongside the coercion and literal beliefs of evangelical protestantism, and the supposed power of positive thinking. Edges are frequently blurred in The Outcast Hours, and in the best of stories, the obvious conflicts (between religious faith and scientific rationality, or various schemes of morality) turn out not to be the heart of a conflict after all.
At the level of the story, I found a lot to like in The Outcast Hours. I have so far not mentioned Kuzhali Manickavel’s “A Partial Beginner’s Guide to The Lucy Temerlin Home for Broken Shapeshifters,” which builds a story in a list, slipping between the supernatural and the mundane. The story begins by advising “Avoid any corridor infested with thunderstorms” (loc 613), continues with “Do not allow other people to create metaphors for your life. For instance, if a motherfucker tries to take your hand and say you are like a circle, you are like a prayer that is never answered, you are like my friend in rehab that never gets better...” (loc 615) and ends by reminding “Don’t be an asshole.” I have passed over Yukimi Ogawa’s “Welcome to the Haunted House,“ with its lovely, surreal, images of the traveling horror show, and Celeste Baker’s horrifying “Not Just Ivy.” “I was growing well here, flourishing in this carefully tended landscape. But I no longer wanted to tolerate having my sprouts weeded away … This is the right one. This presence on the sand, on the ground, with feet and arms and the scent of far away” (loc 439). I’ve said about anthologies in the past that if there are more than three or four really excellent stories, and only a few duds, I consider myself satisfied, and by this standard The Outcast Hours succeeds.
Similarly, there are elements of the editorial choices in The Outcast Hours that I very much admire. A brief review of the authors and stories already mentioned makes it clear that this is a global anthology, stretching between cities, across oceans, and in the towns and spaces in between the cities. While never straying from the theme, or the horror it implies, the stories frequently wrong-foot the reader, playing against the expectations of genre in a way that reveals the additional spaces waiting to have stories told, as with Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Sleep Walker,” with its mysterious haunted house, or the hapless intruders and dark small-town secrets in M. Suddain’s “MiDNIghT MaRAuDERS.”
And yet. The string of the more surreal, and more overtly supernatural stories mostly comes in the back half of The Outcast Hours. For me, the hinge of The Outcast Hours is “The Patron Saint of Night Puppers” by Indra Das, followed by Karen Onojaife’s “Tilt.” In “Tilt,” Iyere, devastated by the loss of her daughter, finds herself again in Barry’s Casino late one night, when “she noticed the croupier standing at an empty roulette table across the room” (loc 323). To this point, most of the stories in The Outcast Hours have been about a person, generally hurting, in a place and a space that they know well. Even in “Ambulance Service” or “Blind Eye,” the supernatural has been an accepted part of the known place and space. When “Tilt” began, I was bracing myself for yet another iteration of this story. But just as Iyere found herself captivated by Essy, I fell into “Tilt,” confirming that even another variation on an oft-repeated theme can make it new again. After “Tilt”, The Outcast Hours becomes steadily weirder, with the supernatural more and more intrusive. There are a handful of stories I would have been happy to see dropped from the anthology, but even more I wish I’d jumbled all the stories up and read through them in some other order.
I loved first the quiet dread of “Everyone Knows That They’re Dead. Do You?” with its conceit of instructing the reader on how to read a ghost story, followed close (but not too close) by the atmosphere of “The Patron Saint of Night Puppers,” which grows more and more tense as the night of dog-sitting wears on. I wish that among the people who have seen too much to be surprised by the world in “Blind Eye” (by Frances Hardinge), “Sleep Walker,” “Bag Man”, and “Gatsby,” I’d had time to read about the found family of “Welcome to the Haunted House,” or the surreal but less jaded protagonists of “Lock-In” (William Boyle) or “The Dental Gig” (S.L. Grey). I suspect I would have enjoyed “The Night Mountain” (Jeffrey Alan Love) more had it been whetting my appetite, rather than the penultimate story in the collection.
After enjoying Murad & Shurin’s first anthology, The Djinn Falls in Love, I was primed to enjoy The Outcast Hours. There are excellent stories by a diverse set of authors, spanning most of the globe, and many different ways of being alive. There are stories with barely a whiff of the supernatural, and others in which it is central. Between the microstories by China Mieville that are interspersed among the others, Manichavel’s “Guide,” and “Everyone Knows That They’re Dead. Do You?” the anthology is formally interesting. The overarching theme, that “The night is when we are able to imagine everything and anything without bounds” (loc 10), gives room for different kinds of stories, while also allowing for connections that mark this as more than simply a collection that happened to be thrown together. I admire very much the care that went into crafting this anthology, although at times I question some of the decisions. I do not remember as many individually compelling stories in The Djinn Falls in Love, but I enjoyed it as a complete whole more than this second offering. I hope for the opportunity to read a third collection from these two.