Growing out of the seeds sown by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, then cultivated by H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness and M.R. James’ ghost stories, the genre of “weird fiction” has emerged into its own over the last couple of decades, despite being so unclassifiable that it has the most blasé name possible. We are so used to genre labels and conventions that when a book comes along that breaks out of such moulds, there’s nothing to call it except…weird.
It was with a little trepidation, I admit, that I picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints And Madmen, an early example of the New Weird. I was attracted to the concept of a canon, a collection of pieces linked by theme and location while still being separate stories. But I was also nervous about what I might encounter: how weird could weird get?
Fortunately, the answer is: just weird enough. The atmosphere and world are avant-garde, but something about the characters feels real and relatable. Perhaps it’s that they aren’t entirely part of the weirdness. We’ve met them before, though in less exotic settings. Kings, artists, priests, and lovers all live in the city called Ambergris, and while it is a strange and off-kilter place, they know it and embrace the city’s character, not unlike the denizens of any large and interesting city in the real world. It’s their awareness of the weird that makes the weird a little more palatable and brings out the darkly humourous side of everything.
The real touches Ambergris in other ways, too. Hints of Istanbul come out, and not just from the dome architecture on the cover. The name “Manzikert” is used (the site of a medieval Byzantine battle) and two political factions called the Greens and the Reds cause violent friction in the town (the Greens and the Blues did the same thing in ancient Constantinople). Colonial themes also appear, since Ambergris was founded by occupying a city that belonged to an indigenous people called gray caps or “mushroom dwellers”.
City of Saints And Madmen has been published in a few different editions over the years (including a beautiful hardcover I wish I could have gotten before it went out of print) with material added and even decoded. My paperback copy is divided into two sections, “The Book of Ambergris” with the original novellas and stories, and an “Appendix” of stuff that has been added to the collection and expands the world even further.
A variety of literary styles make up the book. Perhaps my favourite is “The Hoegbotton Guide To The Early History of Ambergris”, because it’s the purest piece of worldbuilding you could possibly have: exactly what it says on the cover. The historian Duncan Shriek is openly eccentric, which makes this extended non-fiction-style narrative quirky and amusing. A similar bit of worldbuilding happens in “The Transformation of Martin Lake”, where the story of a bohemian painter is intercut with excerpts from an art critic’s analysis of his most famous works. The story itself, however, reveals far more about the inspiration behind the paintings than the analysis understands; sometimes critics just miss the boat entirely.
“Dradin, In Love” opens the collection with what turns out to possibly be the weakest entry. A missionary returns to civilization after a catastrophic experience trying to convert natives in the jungle. You can see certain plot revelations coming a mile away, so the novella is more atmosphere than story. But it does plunge us into the strange and otherworldly place that Ambergris is, through the eyes of someone who has just arrived.
“The Strange Case of X” provides a metafictional twist in the form of a man who claims to be a writer from a city called ‘Chicago’ and that he’s invented the world of Ambergris. This conceit is carried into the second section of the book, the Appendix, which is presented as a gathering of documents found among X’s belongings. Some are pages ripped out of other books, and the page numbering of the actual book you’re holding reflects this; if you like to keep track of just how many pages you have left to go, this is slightly annoying.
Ultimately, City of Saints And Madmen is more than just a short story collection. It’s a canon, with all the stories connected and linked into a tapestry. But also more than this, it aspires to be an actual piece of the world it describes, an artifact from a weird literary dimension dropped into our pedestrian reality. This extends from the list of other books by Jeff VanderMeer at the front to the description of the book’s fonts and author bio at the back. So complete is the illusion that we’re seeing glimpses into another universe that the desire is only to see more. This kind of ambition is admirable and it makes City of Saints And Madmen an enjoyable, disturbing, and quirky read — assuming you don’t have phobias for squid and mushrooms.