Weird First Impressions

This Halloween, the Weird Fiction Review went live on the Internet. It’s a one-stop source for weird fiction, created with the intention of supporting the new mega-anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. My bosses at Cheeky Frawg Books, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, edited the anthology, which samples a century’s worth of weird fiction in one convenient location. The website itself is off to a good start, with interviews with Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link, rare translated fiction, and a cheeky new webcomic among its initial features, and it will only grow from here.

3.5 pounds of weird goodness.

Ever since being taken aboard as their intern, I’ve helped Ann and Jeff with a handful of projects. One of these projects involved creating two separate documents in support of The Weird: a compilation of first lines from all the stories in the anthology and another compilation of significant/attention-grabbing paragraphs from the stories. The first lines compilation just went live on the Weird Fiction Review site, so everyone should go and get a little taste of all the stories.

On my way to the wedding of my friends Tarver and Liz Nova, I worked on the first lines. I retyped them on my flight from Springfield, MO to Denver and in the Denver International Airport while waiting for my connecting flight to Fargo, ND. I didn’t cut-and-paste them; I decided ahead of time to retype them all, line by line.

Why? Partly, I figured retyping just the opening lines of the stories wouldn’t be too difficult, and it wasn’t. There was a bigger reason, though. When I was in my first Master’s program, at Missouri State University, a few of my instructors and fellow students sometimes advocated the exercise of retyping entire short stories written by other authors, short stories that they loved or admired in various ways and wanted to commit to memory. The theory behind this was a kind of muscle memory for writing. By retyping their favorite stories, they would then absorb the qualities of those stories into their writing.

I decided to test this out. I didn’t know if I would absorb some of that weirdness into myself. I still don’t know; I haven’t written any new fiction since then (mostly because I’m finishing my thesis for my MFA at the moment). I did, however, come away from the experience with a better understanding of good writing in general.

It was fun to type out all the first lines, but I do have my personal favorites, and they all share similar qualities:

  • They grabbed me immediately, through some key detail or moment of suspended action.
  • They exhibited a crucial glimmer of weirdness and mystery that teased me for future content.

That’s not to say the stories that don’t exhibit these qualities in their opening lines aren’t any good. Quite the contrary, actually. There are a lot of stories in The Weird that open in rather unassuming, seemingly ordinary ways, and for good effect; that way, when the weird elements make themselves known, it can be more jarring for the reader. It’s a matter of taste and the demands of the story at hand.

That said, judging them on their own, as self-contained opening lines, I favored the ones that gave me that little twinge of the weird immediately. Here’s a cluster of my favorites, and the reasons why:

  • The following is the story told to me by the green man: ‘It is only natural, Sir, that you are surprised by the color of my face.’  –  Luigi Ugolini, “The Vegetable Man”

No kidding! I am quite surprised by the appearance of a green man. It’s a doubly interesting move to have the character acknowledge that weirdness to the narrator, and essentially to the reader as well.

  • As Foster moved unconsciously across the room, bent towards the bookcase, and stood leaning forward a little, choosing now one book, now another with his eye, his host, seeing the muscles of the back of his thin, scraggy neck stand out above his low flannel collar, thought of the ease with which he could squeeze that throat and the pleasure, the triumphant lustful pleasure, that such an action would give him.  –  Hugh Walpole, “The Tarn”

This one was a bit of a crapshoot for me while I read it the first time. The first half of the sentence just seemed unnecessarily overwritten, clogged with predicates. The English teacher in me shook my head at first. Once I got to the second part, where the host fantasizes about strangling Foster, I laughed. I think that was the intention. We’ve all probably been in those situations where we’ve had to suffer an audience with someone insufferable and wanted to wring his neck, which is what makes it so blackly humorous. It also sets up the question of why he actually wants to strangle Foster.

  • ‘Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’  –  Daphne du Maurier, “Don’t Look Now”

One of my top favorites. It’s such a great, informal line of dialogue, and yet so pregnant with possible tension and scene-setting. Are the old ladies merely giving him a flirty eye, or are they genuinely trying to hypnotize him? Or is it another possibility altogether?

  • I was lying on the floor watching TV and exercising what was left of my legs when the newscaster’s jaw collapsed.  –  F. Paul Wilson, “Soft”

This one is quite the opening shock. My experience reading it focused at first on the newscaster’s jaw collapsing. Only in thinking about it in retrospect did I remember the bit about “exercising what was left of my legs.” So, a nice one-two punch of weirdness to set up the story there.

  • Our heart stops.  –  Elizabeth Hand, “The Boy in the Tree”

Another of my top favorites. It’s remarkable for how it’s so succinct – it’s easily the shortest of the opening lines, along with K.J. Bishop’s “Saving the Gleeful Horse” – and yet at the same time still hits upon that element of weirdness and mystery. “Our heart.” A shared heart? Who is sharing the heart with the narrator? Clearly someone important. And it stops. Why does it stop?

  • The Delicate is pale, limbs pipe-cleaner thin, with a head as shiny hard as beetle-back.  –  Jeffrey Ford, “The Delicate”

Really, I could have picked either this one or the opening line for his other story in the anthology, “The Beautiful Gelreesh.” I picked this one because it had a greater element of mystery to it. The opening line for “Gelreesh” is clearly talking about a humanoid character, but this… well, just what is this? It could be humanoid, but there’s no guarantee there. Sure, it is pale, and it has “pipe-cleaner thin” limbs (such a great little weird detail). But a head “as shiny hard as beetle-back”? I’ve got no clue there, and I love it.

  • They humped it over metal hills and down through tortured valleys of scrap and smoking slag.  –  Craig Padawer, “The Meat Garden”

So many questions established by this line. Who’s they? What exactly are they humping? Where the hell are they to be humping items over “metal hills and down through tortured valleys of scrap and smoking slag”? I feel compelled to read on, at the very least to have my questions answered.

  • ‘When you’re Dead,’ Samantha says, ‘you don’t have to brush your teeth…’  –  Kelly Link, “The Specialist’s Hat”

The weirdness here is implied more than anything else. It’s a great line of dialogue; there’s an element of simple logic here that marks it as coming from a child. But what kind of child would be thinking about the things you wouldn’t have to do if you’re dead? And why exactly is “Dead” capitalized? Are we talking about different kinds of death here? Either way, I love it.

  • Where the land ends and the unsleeping, omnivorous Pacific has chewed the edge of the continent ragged, the old house sits alone in the tall grass, waiting for Tara.  –  Caitlin R. Kiernan, “A Redress for Andromeda”

I admire how Kiernan manages to make the Pacific Ocean sound so monstrous, with talk of its “unsleeping, omnivorous” nature and how it devours “the edge of the continent.” That in turn makes me imagine the old house as either fearful prey, or perhaps something even more menacing, since it can stand in defiance of (or cooperation with?) the ocean. And the house itself waits for the main character, like it has its own essence. It is the task of the reader, then, to see what the house has in store for her.

  • His hands didn’t tremble as he traced his daughter.  –  Daniel Abraham, “Flat Diane”

Again, the questions raised here are too juicy to ignore. Why is he tracing his daughter in the first place? Is his daughter the “Flat Diane” of the title? Maybe she’s not flat yet; maybe she’ll become flat in part because of his actions. The bigger question, though: why would his hands possibly tremble in the first place?

I would be delighted if retyping these opening lines and their various brothers and sisters in The Weird somehow imbued me with the qualities of these writers, but I don’t expect it. I do, however, appreciate how this task illustrated just how important the beginning of a given story is to the success of that story. The act of reading is a game of expectations, of call and response, questions and answers. Every story does this, but not every story does it well. I think writers who tackle weird fiction, or even speculative fiction in general, have to play this game more overtly than other writers because readers come to these stories with certain expectations in mind. If I’m reading a story included in The Weird, I expect there to be some element of weirdness that arises from the story sooner or later. Luckily, there are a variety of ways that expectation can be met or even challenged, and the writers included in The Weird prove that point wonderfully.

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5 responses to “Weird First Impressions

  1. Pingback: Weirdly Epic: A Century of First Lines from Weird Fiction | Weird Fiction Review

  2. Here are a few from various sources:

    “In some places, time is a weak and occasional phenomenon.” – Karin Tidbeck, “Aunts,” in ODD?

    “In the south of Europe, nigh a once frescoed capital, now with dank mold cankering its bloom, central in a plain, stands what, at distance, seems the black mossed stump of some immeasurable pine, fallen, in forgotten days, with Anak and the Titan.” – Herman Melville, “The Bell-Tower,” in H. Bruce Franklin’s FUTURE PERFECT.

    “As fall crept on and the storms got worse, the supply of monkeys ran low.” – Carrie Laben, “Something in the Mermaid Way,” over at Clarkesworld: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/laben_03_07/

    “Frank was seven years old when he found the red grass growing behind the basement wall.” – Caitlin R. Kiernan, “Onion,” in TWO WORLDS AND IN-BETWEEN

    • I loved the Tidbeck story when I read it while proofing ODD? for Jeff and Ann. It’s such a tight, grotesque little fable. Wouldn’t leave me for days after I read it. Easily one of the best stories I’ve read in the past few weeks. I’ll have to search out the rest of the stories you mentioned, particularly “Something in the Mermaid Way.” That opening line is damn near perfect, as far as providing a “weird hook.”

  3. Pingback: Cheryl's Mewsings » Blog Archive » You Don’t Have To Be Mad…

  4. Liz Nova

    Always interesting, Adam! The first lines are so very important. I frequently think of the opening lines to The Gatsby, Anna Karenina, and my favorite, Another Country. The first line even more than the first page sets the tone for the whole story. These are all weird and fantastic in their own ways! This makes me want to go find these books!

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