Occasionally, I read something and don’t particularly want to review it so much as say, just read this. Or produce a review consisting of nothing but quotations from the text: let the evidence speak. Phantasm Japan, a 2014 anthology edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, is such a book. Pardon me while I spend the next several hundred words embarrassingly fangirl-gushing about it.
There are a few different ways to measure an anthology’s success. The one that is used most often is determining how many of the stories the reader liked versus how many they didn’t. While there’s nothing wrong with this as a metric, it’s not the primary one I use. My favorite anthologies shift my perception in some fundamental way, whether by some of the stories taken individually or by the aggregate body. Phantasm Japan does both. Considerably. Of course, producing a collection that’s bold and smart is not without risk; two or three of the more cerebral stories in this anthology sailed right over my head. There were several more that blew my mind in the best possible way.
I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be a fantasy anthology, but it’s actually one that looks at the boundaries between genres and says, “Lol, whut?” Many of the stories give not a damn about the conventions of the genres and freely mix elements of science fiction, horror, and others. Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Ningyo,” a near-future mythic fiction with a mermaid hunter and a yokai, is a haunting love story set in a bleak nuclear wasteland. What does it mean to be immortal — or to seek immortality — when the world has only a few decades left? And “From the Nothing, With Love,” written by the late Project Itoh and translated by Jim Hubbert, is a fantastic, chilling little genre-bender that brings science fiction and metafiction to the espionage thriller; it grips from the opening and never lets go:
I am a book. A text, unfolding continuously.
I am an algorithm programmed to output the account you’re about to read…. Even if what follows seems a touch ironic from time to time, or sentimental here and there, rest assured that there is no one behind the curtain. The output only makes it seem there is.
End of disclaimer. Now I can say it.
May my soul rest in peace.
The anthology includes several other stories about the nature of consciousness itself, such as Yusaku Kitano’s “Scissors or Claws, and Holes,” which has a neat narrative point of view: that of a second-person conversation with a tour guide.
Of course, there are a few creepy ghost stories, such as James A. Moore’s “He Dreads the Cold,” which made me look at snow in a different way — it can hide many things, after all — and Nadia Bulkin’s “Girl, I Love You,” a post-apocalyptic fiction in which magic is cheap and life is even cheaper. I was also pleased to discover that Sriduangkaew and Alex Dally MacFarlane were not the only authors present with more than their measure of poetic talent; Lauren Naturale and Jacqueline Koyanagi have distinctive narrative voices as well.
My favorite story… It’s funny; I’d asked the editor for a review copy of this just as I’d uncovered an unconscious bias of mine, which is that I almost never read books set in Japan. It took about twenty seconds of critical self-analysis to realize that such a reflexive avoidance is probably because Japanese women are so frequently fetishized, particularly in the West. Tim Pratt’s “Those Who Hunt Monster Hunters” addresses this objectification, in which a neckbearded “douchebro” is the antagonist. It’s a revenge tale that should be delightful for women who’ve had some grossly entitled dude become their problem. (Uh, I expect it’d be all of us that fit into that category.) It isn’t just entertaining from the intersectional feminist perspective, though; it’s funny and devastatingly sad at once.
This anthology is particularly recommended for people who like post-apocalyptic fiction but for whom it’s become a bit stale, because I can come as close as possible to promising that it’ll rekindle one’s love for it; for those who appreciate new and diverse approaches to myth and folklore; and for those who order their SF/F with a side of lyrical prose.