Aickman’s Heirs [Amazon|B&N|Publisher] is a new anthology from Undertow Publications, edited by Simon Strantzas, composed of stories written in the shadow of Robert Aickman (1914-1981). Aickman was an award-winning author of supernatural fiction, referring to his tales as “strange stories,” a moniker which has stuck due to his work’s singular character. He hasn’t been as high-flying as many other authors in terms of public citation of his influence, though that’s changed in recent years with the current wave of weird fiction, much of which quite directly engages with the tradition. In the case of Aickman, that means subtle and sometimes inscrutable tales of people’s experiences with perhaps-supernatural forces. As multiple people commented in one way or another at last year’s World Fantasy Convention, celebrating Aickman’s centennial, it’s sometimes difficult to know precisely what has happened in a strange story.
This anthology is a fine window through which to view an Aickman-ish world, and I can honestly say I enjoyed every story in the book. Some gave me more chills than others, some tugged at my heart more than others, but not a clunker in the bunch. Some of the stories I expected to enjoy based on past experience of the authors’ work: Cisco, Gavin, Langan, Marshall, Mills. Others I enjoyed and look forward to rereading a few years down the road.
One of the remarkable strengths of this anthology is that it held no less than four excellent stories by authors I hadn’t previously read much or at all. This is theoretically one of the virtues of anthologies, but it often isn’t so. If the focus on the theme is too strong, the book features well-themed stories that may be poorly written. If the focus is resolutely commercial, too many “safe” author choices. Finding one really good story in an anthology by a to-me-unknown author I take as a gift… which is why Aickman’s Heirs is surprising. Some of the authors below I’ve met at conventions or seen around online, but their work was new to me.
David Nickle‘s “Camp” is short, lean, and packed with meaning. The climax arrives with a visible cause nodded at, but workings left thoroughly unexplained. This is a story I might point to in future if asked to describe a story with a “mysterious” aspect. I currently own no David Nickle books, which this story suggests is a grave error, to be remedied as soon as is feasible.
Lynda E. Rucker‘s “The Dying Season” delivers tiny shocks all the way along its twisting, suggestive length. Striking, lyrical, and brooding. Shades of Shirley Jackson as well as Aickman, I think, or perhaps Joyce Carol Oates. I cannot imagine not buying her collection after reading this story.
Michael Wehunt‘s “A Discreet Music” shares a certain similarity to “Camp,” which I’ll leave the reader to discover. It was a strange story, but it also smacked of magical realism as much as anything specifically in-genre. Whether it’s more Kelly Link or more Gabriel García Márquez, I cannot quite say, but it’s damn good, and I’ll be on the lookout for more stories from him in the future.
Finally, Nina Allan‘s “A Change of Scene” is something of a slow burn that goes in a different direction from many others in this book. The tale of two old friends reconnecting after a many-years-long gap in their relationship is a sleeper. We follow the two women through conversation and a train ride off to what turns out to be The Strange Little Town. Allan weaves in many elements that typically have a share in the supernatural, but she leaves questions hanging as to the precise nature of the darkness the women find. I’m a sucker for ekphrasis, and this story uses it to killer effect.
A Bouquet of Undertow
Apart from the fiction, the cover is truly evocative. The artist, Yaroslav Gerzhedovich, appears to work in thin layers with various kinds of supports and media, and the sentiment he conjures fits the book perfectly. It also seems to me to fit in with the overall design of Undertow’s books, which makes the lot a pleasure to consider. His work is of a piece with that of many other artists (Santiago Caruso, Galen Dara, Kris Kuksi, Daniele Serra, etc.) who have amped up their landscape elements or decorative motifs vs. more conventionally character-heavy illustration. A welcome companion to the new golden age of weird fiction.
Aickman’s Heirs was a genuine pleasure, and I’ll happily read more Strantzas-edited anthologies down the road. Fortunately Simon is editing Volume 3 of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, so there’s something just over the horizon.