Traditionally, from year-to-year, I don’t pay much attention to the World Fantasy Awards. They happen, but fantasy is, generally, pretty outside of my zone of exposure1. That said, this year I decided to give a try. I write about six thousand relentlessly similar music awards-granting programs, I can fit in a few more books. It’s good for me. Builds character.
1 except for that which crosses over incidentally with soft science fiction – see also the Nebula Awards piece.
Actually, it was a lot of fun, but that’s not the point. The point here is that it’s an opportunity for me to be right about stuff. I love being right about stuff.
The actual World Fantasy Award is a bust of H.P. Lovecraft, the man who embodies “problematic.” This is not without controversy – a petition has been circulated2 recommending changes3. It is probably fair to say, in fact, that Lovecraft is where most budding literary-horror-interested young folk (such as your writer here) learn about how they deal with problematic writers.
2 By Daniel Jose Older, the editor of Long Hidden, about which see below.
3 specifically that the bust be changed to that of the great Octavia Butler, who is a much better choice for an enormous number of reasons.
(If you already know stuff about Lovecraft, you can pretty safely skip this next bit.)
See, Lovecraft was a terrible, hate-filled man. He was well beyond an ordinary product of early twentieth-century New England, and into the realm of paranoid, obsessive racism that became, as Michel Houellebecq4, concluded, so much more than just his own foible, but the very engine of creation for his work. The horrors that Lovecraft elicited (and more on that specifically in just a moment) were, in other words, fuelled mainly by the horrors that he saw in his head when he looked at, say, a person of color (or a woman5).
4 the next paragraph contains a quote from China Mieville, and I’m going to paraphrase the bit that precedes it here: this is basically the only thing Michel Houellebecq has said that’s worth agreeing with. And really, I’m giving it to you through the filter of China Mieville, who is often worth agreeing with.
5 although his thing with women seems more based out of dread than disgust. Really, by assaying the varieties and expressions of H.P. Lovecraft’s fears of everything that doesn’t look basically like him, you can really get an education in the different ways something can be feared. He also didn’t like dogs, for example.
But despite all of that, he was undeniably important – if only sheerly in terms of the number of people who would make foundational works (especially in horror) that were inspired directly by him. And the award – a Gahan Wilson sculpture of a caricaturish bust – is stylish and interesting and all that. Plus, it’s given in good faith. All of which leads to The Mieville Solution, whereby China Mieville “put it out of sight, in my study, where only I can see it, and I have turned it to face the wall. So I am punishing the little fucker like the malevolent clown he was, I can look at it and remember the honour, and above all I am writing behind Lovecraft’s back.” Which is an excellent stopgap, really.
In any event, the World Fantasy Awards are not really as closely-followed or as fan-oriented as the Hugos. This means they were not hijacked by groups of people who believe that everything should conform to their vision of the world6, which is nice, and is also why I decided to dive into them this year.
6 honestly, if the World Fantasy Award stops using the likeness of H.P. Lovecraft, they should give it to the Sad/Rabid Puppies, since their stated aims and his are so close in execution.
So, as usual, here are the picks for the rightful winners. I am skipping the two special awards, partly because they’re fairly open-ended, and partly because I had neither time nor opportunity to evaluate them properly.
I am not an art critic! Static visual art7 is just not my bag. That said, I can come up with something here, given that the idea of the art is supposed to be the same as that of the stories: to make one think and consider, to bring to mind the images of the story. To that end, John Picacio’s direct representation isn’t doing it for me. He’s mechanically very talented, but there’s really nothing to devote extra thought to. Erik Mohr is less realistic, but still kind of non-evocative. It looks cool, though. Galen Dara makes great use of color, and some of what she does looks great, Samuel Araya does stuff with light (especially the lack thereof) that I think is awfully impressive, but I have to say, I think Jeffrey Alan Love’s impressionist cutout-type things are really my favorite here. He has a surprisingly versatile range of depictions with them, while also being instantly recognizable as his.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Jeffrey Alan Love, although Erik Mohr did the cover to a book called Monstrous Affections that is not the one nominated below, and it’s pretty incredible, so maybe a sub-Howard for him.
7 aw, hell, you guys have read my Oscar writeups, I’m also not big on non-static visual art. OR visuals in general, really.
Rebecca Lloyd’s Mercy and Other Stories had some ok moments, but wasn’t really a standout. Janeen Webb’s Death at the Blue Elephant was a little more distinctive, but also didn’t pop out so much. Robert Shearman’s They Do the Same Things Differently There had one of the best stories I read all year in “A Joke in Four Panels”8, and some other really tremendous top-flight stories. Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After wins points for consistency – every story in the collection is good, and a couple (“Supply Limited, Act Now” and especially “Secondhand Magic”) are great. But The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings was just as good (if never quite hitting the same highs on a piece-by-piece basis), and had the benefit of a puzzlebox, interlocking structure that, once it becomes apparent, makes each of the stories better than the sum of their parts.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Angela Slatter, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings
8 unaccountably, it does not appear to have won every award in 2012, when it was originally published. This seems like a tremendous oversight on the part of everyone involved.
I’ve never been particularly into Shadows & Tall Trees, and this year was not really any different. Still too precious and still too self-conscious9. Kelly Link & Gavin Grant’s Monstrous Affections and George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois’ Rogues were both uneven, but largely enjoyable, collections without a whole lot going on outside of their entertainment value (which, admittedly, was considerable). Ellen Datlow’s Kickstarter-assisted Fearful Symmetries shows off Ms. Datlow’s legendary editorial eye. But really, in terms of import, and interest, and of making the world better by the sheer fact of its existence, this year’s rightful winner is Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older’s10 Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History, a wide-spanning collection of speculative history/historical fantasy/something like that11, representing viewpoints and styles and things that aren’t traditionally represented historically or in speculative fiction. It’s wide-ranging, super-ambitious, and extremely well-done.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Daniel Jose Older (ed), Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History
9 it also is the original home of my least-favorite story in the Robert Shearman collection, a weird “people have sex with the wrong people” snoozefest called “It Flows From the Mouth.”
10 the guy calling for a change to the award statuette, which will make it somewhat annoying when he wins and is presented with someone who stood foursquare against what Fox and Older are going for in general. Or would have, if it had been a going concern in his time.
11 it is unquestionably great, and deserves many awards, including several for design (it’s a beautiful book), but as historical fantasy is really very much awfully so not my thing, it was also the best book I’ve read all year that I’m unlikely to ever go back to. It’s great that it exists, and it represents something really cool, though.
Scott Nicolay’s “Do You Want to Look at Monsters” is a well-executed version of a familiar12 sort of story, albeit with some devices that help it stand out. Alyssa Wong’s “The Fisher Queen” is also just fine, and features an interesting, although not earth-shattering take on mermaids. Kaaron Warren’s “The Death’s Door Cafe” is the best story in Shadows & Tall Trees, which is something I suppose, but ends up losing steam by the end. Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives” is great. Just really great. Kelly Link, who is probably my favorite currently-working writer, also put forth a good effort with “ I Can See Right Through You.”
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Though it pains me to not say Kelly Link, I think “Jackalope Wives” is actually the best story of this bunch, so it goes to Ursula Vernon.
12 although undeniably Lovecraftian
Michael Libling’s “Hollywood North”13 is a fine, if unspectacular, story that goes to some admirably weird places but also includes about one too many different threads. Pasi Ilmari Jääskelänen’s “Where the Trains Turn” is even weirder, and does an admirable job at sustaining atmospheric dread, but isn’t very satisfying, and also contains elements that really miss at being “scary” and land on “kind of silly.” Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America” is still a sturdy, adequate piece of historical fantasy. Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine is much more straightforward, but also has ending problems – namely the ending seems like it comes too early in the story (or that there should be some more story before the ending, and doesn’t really match tonally, even if it isn’t at all bad. Rachel Swirsky’s “Grand Jete (The Great Leap)” is awfully good, but I think for an award that is (for the time being) a bust of Lovecraft, something more dread-inducing and unnameable-horror-implying should be the winner here, so we go with Mary Rickert’s “The Mothers of Voorhissville”.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Mary Rickert, “The Mothers of Voorhissville”
13 on the World Fantasy Awards website, italics are used for some novellas and quotation marks for others – it may have something to do with word count, it may be how they were submitted, it may have to do with publication as a freestanding work vs publication as part of a group of works. I have no idea, but I’ve copied their usage here for consistency’s sake.
Jo Walton’s My Real Children is a well-written alternate history work about identity that infuriates me by making its subtext into actual text in the last few pages. Read it, enjoy it, skip the last bit. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is entertaining, but spends a lot of its energy being eliptical, and goes for long periods with insufficient traction (although stretches of it are just fantastic – the chapter that takes place at a Swiss ski resort would finish highly in the novella category, for example). Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is an impressively-told story about empathy, and a quiet sort of heroism in the face of court politics that you don’t often see. Jeff Vandermeer’s entire Southern Reach Trilogy is good14, and deeply indebted to Lovecraft, but it gets a little wobbly in the middle installment, and isn’t as good as Robert Jackson Bennett’s marvelous The City of Stairs, which is an original and incredible piece of fantasy writing, and is also the only novel in this list to have Sigrud, who should appear in more things. Even just extraneously. Like, just be around.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Sigrud. But, more broadly, Robert Jackson Bennett, The City of Stairs.
14 it’s also pretty obviously one three-part work. The Nebulas nominated only the first part, which was weird, since even though each of the three books is different in narrative style, they’re all telling one story.