Interview: Ann & Jeff Vandermeer – The Weird (A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories)

You wouldn’t believe how honoured I am to get ask Ann & Jeff some questions regarding The Weird. As you’ll see it is an amazing project.


Hello Ann and Jeff,

Thank you for taking some time out to discuss The Weird. It’s a staggering project.

Thanks! We’ve answered below together to make it more streamlined and to get it back to you in a timely fashion.

1)  I notice the word ‘definitive’ is missing though it does seem a comprehensive tome.  Could this be considered a ‘definitive’ anthology, or it not, why?

As we note in the introduction, a Compendium is neither as thorough as an encyclopedia nor as baggy and loosely organized as a treasury. So we believe we have created something iconic or definitive, but our focus in creating a Compendium was to create a central spine or structure and then in some cases go a bit off the beaten path to bring back true undiscovered or under-appreciated treasures. Sometimes being too structured means you don’t take enough chances. That said, we hope readers delight in the anthology enough that they use it as a jumping off point to explore even more weird fiction.

2) How is The Weird constructed? Have you imagined it being read from beginning to end? Or should people feel free to dip into it?

We decided on chronological order, including translations by date of original publication in the original language, so that readers could get a real sense of some of the more interesting juxtapositions. When you consider that while Lovecraft was writing the bulk of his best work, the Belgian Jean Ray was doing something similar and that you also had writers in Japan, Italy, India, and Poland, among others, sharing a similar impulse or world-view, it’s rather inspiring. But we also saw Kafka and Lovecraft as two major impulses behind weird fiction and that meant beyond supernatural fiction, we included weird ritual and certain instances of science fiction where the SFnal element takes the place of the supernatural but has much the same effect. So you can see that resonance and progression, too. At the same time, it’s definitely a book you can dip into, so we’d recommend wormholing into it in whatever manner suits you best. For interesting story-by-story reads, we’d recommend Des Lewis’s posts and Maureen Kincaid Speller’s posts:

3) The Weird seems like a strange, almost unboundless concept as it ranges from something not quite right through to mind and reality altering madness. For this compendium did you have to draw a line? And if so where?

Yes, we talk about the shifting nature of it in the introduction. And yet there are definite boundaries. Most naturalistic horror involving serial killers and other non-supernatural elements, for example, doesn’t qualify as weird. Neither does most fiction involving vampires, werewolves, and zombies—this latter distinction because those supernatural entities are such embedded archetypes that there isn’t the sense of the unknown any more with regard to stories that include them. There’s something else at work that holds the appeal. We have only two vampire stories in the entire anthology—vampires actually somewhat peripheral to the point—and what’s interesting is readers have told us already how startling and fresh it is to encounter them in the context of a book in which they don’t appear much. And although we included “weird ritual,” we did go back and forth on some stories where the ritual just didn’t seem weird enough! Along with that, we didn’t take traditional Gothic ghost stories, although we do have some very weird ghost stories in the book.

4) What’s your favourite story in the collection?

This is such a difficult question for us, because some stories are favorites because we are bringing material to readers that hasn’t been widely known of outside of the countries of origin. For example, Claude Seignolle’s “The Ghoulbird”—a fabulous French writer, extremely well-known in France, but almost completely untranslated in the US and UK. “The Autopsy” by Michael Shea is rather wonderful as is Jean Ray’s “The Shadowy Street” and Shirley Jackson’s really chilling “The Summer People.” Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” is also absolutely horrifying underneath its cheery exterior. Leena Krohn’s “Tainaron”—an entire short novel—is a surreal weird classic, as is the novella “The Other Side of the Mountain” by Michel Bernanos. We’re very happy to present the Bernanos and others in new, definitive translations by Gio Clairval. But it’s so hard to choose, especially as the stories seem to change when you encounter them in the context of the finished book and what stories are near them in the TOC.

5) Are there any stories that almost made it but didn’t?

We really love Paul Bowles’ “The Circular Valley,” but the permissions were just too hard to get. Same with J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant,” although that story is on the periphery of The Weird. We also would have liked to have had time to further explore contemporary Latin American fiction to possibly include additional translations beyond writers like Borges and Cortazar. We very much wanted to include E.F. Benson, but we had to draw the line at too much public domain material. If we had more permissions money, we would have taken a second Joyce Carol Oates story as well. The other source of debate was Arthur Machen, because most of his best work was before 1910, our original start date, although it slipped to 1908 because Alfred Kubin, in the way his hybridization echoed Kafka but also supernatural fiction, was the clear early indicator of a shift to the modern. But in researching more and more, Machen seemed over-emphasized with regard to twentieth-century weird fiction, and he’s so widely available that we wound up just mentioning him in the introduction. For some, of course, this will be tantamount to blasphemy.

6) Is there anything that surprised you when researching and compiling The Weird?

What surprised us, quite frankly, after reading so much across a century of fiction is that some of what has been dubbed “classic” just re-treads earlier work by other writers that most readers don’t know about, sometimes in ways that reminded us of fan fiction as opposed to mere influence. Other writers, considered obscure or minor, came into sharp relief as being much more than that.

Also that previously mentioned synergy of seeing writers active at the same time all over the world, who seemingly shared the same world view, the same idea of “something beyond” without ever having been in contact or even being able to read each other’s work. It was somewhat awe-inspiring.

We also discovered that some writers are obscure because the reprint rights are so difficult to acquire. To give you a partially anonymous example, Neil Gaiman’s people were incredibly nice and swift and reasonable, the same with Bradbury’s agent, and many others. Another writer’s representatives, someone who deserves a wider readership and is largely forgotten today, required over one hundred hours of negotiations for a very, very short story. Contemporary writers should give great thought to who will represent them after they have passed on. Because we also discovered estates represented by agents who had literally succumbed to dementia and were unable to negotiate.

7) How did you both find the process of collaboration? Where are any points where you fervently disagreed or was it something more harmonious? 

We have a rule that each of us can pick one or two stories the other person wouldn’t pick. We do this because we believe too much compromise is harmful to an anthology by stifling risk-taking. At the same time, we also each get an “over my dead body, wrestling you all the way to Hell” veto. But we had very little disagreement of that nature—it was more that one of us would merely like a story and the other would love it.

8: Did it take longer than you thought? Where there any stumbling blocks you didn’t anticipate?

Atlantic originally had a November 2010 slot open up and called us in December of 2009, saying that if we could turn in the anthology, all 750,000 words of it, in about five months, they could do this amazing project. So we had a choice: take them up on the offer and put our lives on hold for five months, or decline. We decided to jump in and attempt the impossible. We read probably 6,000,000 words of fiction and looked at over 500 books, not including library and internet research, and much, much more. We worked about 15 hours a day for those months and didn’t see our family. At the end of it, thankfully, Atlantic postponed the project to 2011 so we had more time to fill in the gaps and to acquire permissions, since negotiations can take awhile. This also allowed us to pursue the new translations. But it was fairly intense. We knew weird fiction before this, but we had to try to seek out every last possible possibility, so to speak, and to test everything against everything else. And when we discovered an unfamiliar writer in a reprint anthology, we then had to acquire everything they’d written and test it: Was the reprinted story truly the best, or should we choose something else? Stumbling blocks were often just finding out who owned the rights to older material. At one point, for example, our back-up plan for getting a story by the famous surrealist Leonora Carrington was to send a friend of ours in a Mexican circus down the Mexican coast on horseback, with a contract on hand, to Carrington’s beach house…It’s important for readers to understand that acquiring World English rights for print and ebook in this day and age, for 116 stories, across a spectrum of “genre” and “literary” authors is to our knowledge without prior precedent except in the context of textbooks.

9) Would be you be able select a quintessential weird story from those you’ve chosen and conversely a story that wouldn’t at first be thought as weird?

George R.R. Martin’s “Sandkings” is probably thought of as SF, and rightly so, but we found it to be deeply weird in the context of our reading, and one of those stories where the SF element introduces a mood and tone much more in keeping with The Weird. The same applies to stories where you have a first person narrator who may be unreliable, for example in “Egnaro” by M. John Harrison, which also tests the reader’s belief in the weird. Or “The Town of Cats,” where the narrator admits to being under the influence of drugs before the weird thing happens. As for a quintessential weird story, Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” is absolutely iconic in our minds, Jean Ray’s “The Shadowy Street.” Caitlin R Kiernan’s story, Thomas Ligotti’s story, “The Town Manager,” as well. But the quintessential weird story question is difficult because so many are included.

10) HP Lovecraft is probably the best known and most influential of the weird but are there other writers that he’s overshadowed that we should recognise more?

The Belgian writer Jean Ray, a contemporary of Lovecraft’s, was in many of his stories fully Lovecraft’s equal and was very prolific, but very little of his fiction is available in English. But, more generally, Lovecraft’s definition of the weird has to be acknowledged and has been very influential, but can’t be seen as the only type of weird. One most also consider the separate influence of Kafka, and the understanding that his work conveys a very different but legitimate form of the weird, and also a long tail of weird influence since his writings became widely available in English in the 1940s. The separate upwellings of weird fiction in other parts of the world, which can also be claimed by other traditions, are important to consider, too.

11) Even though The Weird as a book is done, you haven’t ended it as a project. Can you tell us more about the Weird Fiction Review website? initially was just going to be a promo site for the book called Weirdcompendium, but when we acquired that domain we discovered was available, so we emailed Centipede Press, which does the S.T. Joshi print journal called The Weird Fiction Review. It turned out they had no plans for a web presence, and suddenly we thought, this could be a general nexus and repository for weird features, interviews, and fiction. Centipede Press loved the idea, since we were happy to feature their journal on the site. And from there it just kind of blossomed. We found so many creators enthusiastic about the idea of a “non-denominational” site for weird fiction, by which we meant a site not devoted to just one writer or one idea of what weird fiction is, but an exploration of all of it. That central location didn’t exist before our site. So we’re covering weird fiction from all over the world, in addition to the usual suspects. We’ve run exclusive interviews with Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link, exclusive nonfiction by China Mieville, translations of stories by excellent French, Czech, and Belgian writers, what we call “creepy classics,” and a whole lot more. We’re really excited about it because our friend Luis Rodrigues built an incredibly professional-looking site and it’s become very popular in a short amount of time. Going forward, it allows us to explore a lot more than what’s in the already mammoth anthology.

 12) The Weird concentrates on shorter fiction. What is it about that form that gives power to this type of tale? Can it work equally well over a longer form? If so could you give some examples?

The Weird often deals with strange if horrific beauty and the unknown takes on both a numinous and luminous quality. There’s a sense of the visionary in some of these tales, and that is very, very difficult to pull off at novel-length. The need for traditional plotting tends to kick in and take away some of the power of the weird, and endings in particular suffer if a writer tries too hard to provide closure in a genre that feasts on a certain lack of closure at times. We do have long novellas/short novels in the anthology, though. At the longer form, The Tenant by Roland Topor is a remarkable example, Mieville’s work, the novels of Michael Cisco.

13) There are some expected horror names like King, Barker, and Brite but were there any authors that you’ve included that wouldn’t be known for exploring the darker side?

Ben Okri isn’t really known for supernatural fiction, but he’s written a few supernatural or phantasmagorical fictions, and “Worlds That Flourish,” in addition to sporting a brilliant title, is one excellent example. Merce Rodoreda, the most important Catalan writer of her generation isn’t thought of as a dar fantasist, but some of her short stories are, indeed, weird. Leonora Carrington is known for her surreal art, but she wrote very strange, weird short stories, some of them influenced by the long period of time she lived in Mexico.

14) Is there anything like the brighter side of the weird?

There really is, because even though some horrible and terrifying things happen in these stories, there also is that sense of visionary, dark beauty in the stories that contrast with the sometimes dire situations. You read not just because weird can be creepy, but also because you get these unexpected glimpses into something beyond that is fascinating. Not to mention, some stories are darkly funny. Robert Aickman’s “The Hospice” is strange and you may feel unease reading it, but you also laugh at the absurdity of the situations the protagonist finds himself in. Thomas Ligotti’s “The Town Manager” is very funny, as well as disturbing. There’s a very dry and cutting sense of humor in Hugh Walpole’s “The Tarn,” which features two competing writers.

It’s also interesting to note that the weird element is often firmly grounded in the real. Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” is as much about the loss of a child as any supernatural element. Ligotti’s “The Town Manager” functions not just as a weird tale but as a send-up of modern dysfunctional government. Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Dark” is in part about the affects of war. So the contrast and the “brightness” comes from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the visionary, the horrific and the beautiful…with humor thrown in from time to time.

15) Films exploring the weird were never that successful though some TV series have worked better. Can the genre transfer well to something visual or is its strength in the power of the combination the written word and the imagination?

We always go back to the movie Alien, because it’s basically a haunted house movie in space. The reason Alien is successful in part because you don’t see much of the alien until the end. And it’s somewhat similar for movies of the supernatural: how much you show, how you show it, and how grounded everything is in the characters, and how successfully the physicality of the weirdness of the weird element can be conveyed all make a huge difference. So the Nicolas Roeg flick “Don’t Look Now” or the movie “Session 9”…those movies by dint of being subtle at times but also able to be visceral—they work very well. We think movies should be able to convey the weird well, but it takes the right director and right approach to editing. You can tell when director not known for horror does a horror film and isn’t comfortable with the genre. The editing, the scene cuts, the emphasis, tends to be all wrong, and instead of rising tension and fascination you get something plodding and obvious.

17) Did you set any restriction on how many times an author could feature and did that cause any selection problems with the more prolific writers?

We didn’t intend to include any writers more than once, but in doing the research, we found a few situations where we needed to break our own rules. For example, William Sansom wrote both the very darkly funny “A Woman Seldom Found,” which is a classic weird tale but also “The Long Sheet,” which is very much Kafkaesque weird ritual. We needed both to support certain lines of inquiry, and Sansom isn’t well-known, so we felt it was also important to give readers a second taste of his work. Jean Ray is a great Belgian writer who is only obscure because so little of his fiction is in English, so when we had the chance to publish two stories of his, we jumped at it. M. John Harrison has written in several different modes related to weird fiction, so we also included two from him. Thankfully the anthology is large enough it could absorb these dualities without it meaning we had to cut anything else…And then, again, there were issues with regard to H.P. Lovecraft. Theoretically, you could include more of his work, but it’s so widely available…

18) There was a brief movement described as the ‘new weird’ are there any fundamental differences and have you represented it here?

New Weird mostly manifested through secondary world settings, and mostly at novel length—a kind of inquiry into the Weird in part fueled by the influence of both the New Wave and things like the transgressive body horror of Clive Barker. So it definitely added to the approaches to the weird. But we have writers like K.J. Bishop, Jeff, China Mieville, M. John Harrison, and Michael Cisco represented in the anthology who were identified with this movement and others who were precursors, or hybrids. In a somewhat related way, we don’t have a lot of secondary world material in the anthology, but just enough to give readers a taste of it.

19) I tend to think of the weird being US/UK centric but you’ve gathered stories from other countries in what ways do the stories differ, if in fact they do?

We’ve never really thought of the weird being US/UK centric, to be honest. Although the majority of the stories in the anthology are from US/UK sources, over 20 nationalities are represented. The main obstacle is that we don’t have access to all of a particular country’s or region’s fiction in English, so we would say that the jury is still out on its relative prevalence elsewhere. All we know is that we found a lot of weird fiction from sources outside of the US/UK. Differences are hard to sum up because it varies so much. But you do see more stories that don’t conform to the usual story structures, which is only to the good. There are of course cultural differences, and different cultural references sometimes, although not always. Borges was very influenced by UK writers, for example. And many of these stories are extremely well-known, like Cortazar’s “Axolotl.” What the anthology also does is heal a rift by including writers side by side who are usually thought of as either “genre” or”literary” but share definite commonalities.

20) The Weird seems to have a strong male influence – how well are female writers represented and are there any marked differences in interpretation between the two sides?

Quite frankly, between 1910 and 1950 we found very little weird fiction by women—most of it fell under the category of traditional ghost stories or Gothic fiction in a vampire/werewolf mode. This is in part a reflection of the modes of fiction expected from and encouraged from women during the time and also that some of the weird fiction from Weird Tales back then hasn’t dated very well in general. Still, we’ve got great stories from Francis Stevens, Margaret Irwin, and Leonora Carrington Going into the 1950s, you’ve got writers like Daphne du Maurier, Margaret St. Clair, and Shirley Jackson and then by the 1970s and 1980s there’s a huge influx of women writers into speculative fiction generally, and so then you have weird fiction by, among many others, James Tiptree, Jr., Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, and Karen Joy Fowler, along with one-offs like Angela Carter and Jamaica Kincaid, followed up in the 1990s by full-on weirdies like Caitlin R. Kiernan, Kathe Koja, and Poppy Z. Brite….There’s not always that much difference between the stories by men versus women, but when it occurs it’s along the lines you might expect: more female characters in stories by women, perhaps more overt exploration of issues of identity, etc. We’re now working on a feminist speculative fiction anthology that will allow us to explore some of these themes more fully.

22) After reading The Weird from beginning to end what would you hope the reader comes away with?

We would hope that the reader has been entertained by the richness and variety, but also unsettled at times, and challenged at times. We also hope readers recognize that there are many, many not-so-well-known writers who had amazing talent and should be better known. Finally, we hope that readers take pride in the fact that there is a kind of world communal weird and that the ways in which the weird tries to suss out something beyond the ordinary has commonalities with issues we all grapple with. In some ways, the weird was the twentieth century’s replacement for fairy tales. Fairy tales and folktales tried to provide explanations for the world, and warnings. Weird tales by contrast often tell us that the world is too wide and strange to be entirely understood, although that should not stop us from trying.

23) Finally, what are you both working on at the moment?

Jeff is working on two novels, Borne and The Journals of Doctor Mormeck, and Ann is about to announce two new anthology projects. Both of us also work on the Shared Worlds SF/F teen writing camp out of Wofford College in South Carolina, where Jeff serves as assistant director, and that’s ongoing.

I wish you both well with your future projects and I look forward to seeing Weird Fiction Review evolve and grow. Thanks again for your time.

Thanks for some great questions, and the opportunity!


I think you’ll agree there  are some great avenues to explore and that The Weird is an essential item for anybody that has the remotest interest in, well, the weird!

Oh I think this illustrates what a huge project it turned out to be. All 1125 jumbo pages of it!

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