the Little Red Reviewer

The Weight of Words, short fiction inspired by the artwork of Dave McKean

Posted on: November 28, 2018

The Weight of Words, edited by Dave McKean and William Schafer

published in 2017

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher

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While whining about the books I’ve read recently and not reviewed (dear Andrea: is it OK to read something and not review it right away!), I got thinking about a book I’ve been reading and re-reading, and touching and oohing and aahing over the artwork of.  I’ve had this book in my possession for over a year, and it’s become less traditional anthology and more touchstone. The themes of the stories are all over the place – sad, creepy, hopeful, full of release, full of tension, seeking closure. The only thing these stories have in common is the artwork. If you’ve got a friend who loves the intersection of art and storytelling, this would make a great gift.

 

The Weight of Words, edited by Dave McKean and William Shafer came out around this time last year, but it’s a book I needed months and months to think about.  Dave McKean’s multi layered artwork draws you in, and then like a fractal, keeps drawing you in. This surreal artwork is the perfect match for speculative fiction stories that speak of places that never were.    These images tell a thousand stories, I almost feel bad for the authors who had to decide on just one plot line and write a short story!

Something incredible happens when artwork and storytelling intersect, something that feels like a chemical reaction.   The Weight of Words includes fiction by Joe Hill, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Catherynne Valente, Maria Dahvana Headley, Joe R. Lansdale, Alastair Reynolds, and more.

 

Here are my thoughts on some of my favorite stories in the collection:

 

Belladonna Nights by Alastair Reynolds –  McKean’s artwork prompt is a strange image of a clocktower, and violins growing out of the tops of the tower.  Reynolds took this fantastically surreal image and wrote a far future space opera about a reunion. Campion can continue to protect Shaula, or he can tell her the truth about her past.  If he tells her the truth, nothing will ever be the same again, and keeping up the lie is killing him. Just so you know, this story made me cry. I learned after I read the story that this story takes place in Reynold’s “House of Suns” world.

No One Dies In Nowhere by Catherynne M. Valente – Is this purgatory? Is this hell? There are no demons torturing anyone, but you can’t leave and there is nothing to do except forget. You’re already dead and you’ll never die again, so you’re stuck here forever. Maybe that is hell.  The titles of each section pay homage to Dante’s Inferno, but this story turns into the story of a lost woman who forgot who she was, and a murder mystery. Wait, how can you have a dead body show up in a place where it is impossible for people to die (again)? Was she not quite dead when she arrived?  Did she figure out a means of escape? A wonderfully surreal tale connected to an equally strange peice of artwork.

 

Yummie by M. John Harrison – What a strange, but compelling story!  The main character, Short, has had a heart attack and is recovering. He hallucinates, and the ghosts he sees try to engage him in conversation.  Should he talk to them? Should he tell the ghosts to leave him alone? If he tells his nurse and his friends that ghosts are talking to him, will people think he’s crazy? One particular ghost, named Yummie, seems hell bent on giving Short anxiety about his medical condition.  Short slowly changes his viewpoint, and well, to tell you more would be spoilers. I was surprised that a “ghost story” could be this comforting. It was comforting for me, at least, but I imagine this story could also be read as a horror story.

The Orange Tree by Maria Dahvana Headley – Easily the most beautiful story in the collection. Headley plays fast and loose with history record and the myths surrounding the Golem creating Andalusian Jewish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol and the Jewish poetess Qasmuna, whose biograph is unknown.  Ibn Gabirol commissions a hinged cabinet to be made of an entire orange tree, and once delivered to his house, he hammers the word of god into her mouth and awakens the Golem. He tries to convince her that she is a woman, she communicates through the musical instrument that’s been designed into her. He tries to convince the village elders that she’s nothing but an automaton, she’s been designed and programmed to protect him.  On my second and third read throughs, I was so carried away by Headley’s gorgeous prose that I didn’t even care what the story was about. As beautiful as McKean’s artwork is, this collection is worth owning just for The Orange Tree.

 

The collection opens with a multi-page story told through artwork by McKean, a story that shows the literal weight of words, what different people choose to do with that weight, and how easy it can be for some people to just let go of it all.  What weight do you want to carry with you? What words are worth their weight on your back?

 

The collection closes with the shortest of short stories. A single paragraph by Neil Gaiman the outlines the war between the biographers and the poets, and the unexpected power of the haiku.

 

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2 Responses to "The Weight of Words, short fiction inspired by the artwork of Dave McKean"

Not being a fan of McKean’s artwork, I chose to give this a skip last year, and my opinion hasn’t changed. Art being in the eye of the beholder (you can quote me on that!), the aim of the artist is one thing, the fiction thus inspired another, but not for me.

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There were a few pieces of his artwork in this book that I really resonated with. I was looking at more of his art online, and didn’t connect with most of it. you are totally right, art is in the eye of the beholder!

Got your card. 🙂

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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