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Review of Emily B. Cataneo's "Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories"


Weird Fiction, I think by definition, is a hard genre to describe. Still, I think it's possible to point to a couple of major strains - Classic and New. 

Cover Image for "Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories" by Emily B. Cataneo
On one hand you have the heritage of Machen, Blackwood, Gilman, Ligotti, and of course the decrepit and dark idol of HP himself. These are tales almost like ghost stories, where protagonists brush up against the uncanny and either survives or succumbs to bleak fates. These tales tend towards a morose and gothic atmosphere and describe worlds I'd definitely avoid in real life.

Then you have the bizarre stuff like Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Shea, and China Meiville where weirdness is something plastic and garish. Often referred to as the "New Weird," these are works where the universe keeps warping chromosomes and shoving disparate genres into weird hybrids. I'm not sure if I'm that keen to visit Bas-Lag in person, but I'm pretty sure I'd have more fun there than Carcosa. For my part, I'm a fan of both modes, which is why I dig Emily B. Cataneo's upcoming anthology "Speaking to Skull Kings and Other Stories."

One of the most impressive aspects of Cataneo's work is that it manages to combine these two types of weirdness with ease. Actually her works embrace a chimerical quality, borrowing from one literary genre before stretching out a pseudopod to incorporate another. And another. And another. Cataneo's work has an engagingly omnivorous quality, unafraid to mix/match/cut/paste as suits the needs of each of her peculiar and unique tales. But throughout the dozen tales included here a consistent mood prevails: the dark and uncanny gloom of Aiken mixed with the elegant derangements of Octavia Butler and Gemma Files. These are stories that evoke entire worlds, fill them with screwy oddballs, and let them play out their dramas in accordance with their own peculiar motivations.

Highlights in this collection: The title story which reminded me of the 100-acre woods as described by John Shirley, the taunt fantasy of "The Firebird," and the strange pathos of "Victoria's One-Way Ticket's" decaying machines. "My favorite story is "Purple Lemons," which incorporates a meta-fictional theme similar to Les Grossman's "Magicians" while being great deal less beholden to the imaginations of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Please note that I received a copy of this anthology in exchange for an honest review.

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