Anything Ellen Datlow edits automatically finds a place on my list of books to read. For many years, this included the excellent anthology series The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, which Datlow coedited with Terri Windling. When that series disappeared, much to the dismay of fans of short fiction everywhere, Datlow undertook to publish The Year’s Best Horror, which has been published by the terrific smaller press, Night Shade Books, for the past four years. This year’s volume, the fourth, is chock full of memorable stories certain to keep you up at night.
It is unlikely that your favorite part of a book is the introduction, but that’s the case for every year’s best collection Datlow has ever edited. Her range of reading is enormous, covering all forms of horror and many types of mysteries as well. Datlow summarizes a full year’s worth of novels, collections and anthologies. My library increases in size and quality every time I place a book order following my perusal of a Datlow summation. She divides her comments not just between the award winners and her recommendations, but also offers lists of the best books about zombies, vampires, Lovecraftian horror, demons, weird fiction, ghosts and other monsters. Choose your poison and you’ll find the novels that will most suit you. Datlow also covers poetry, children’s books, chapbooks and literary and cultural criticism relating to the fantastic. I would buy these anthologies if only to be able to read these 50 pages — about 12% of the total book. Similarly, the honorable mentions with which Datlow ends the anthology is a collection of titles of excellent short fiction that would amply reward the reader who chose to track the stories down.
And then there are the stories. And what a treasure the book becomes then!
Laird Barron has probably had a story in every year’s best since he started publishing. This year’s is a long novelette called “Blackwood’s Baby,” the story of a fabled hunt in Washington State in the months before the start of World War II. Luke Honey receives an invitation to this hunt as he sits in the heat drinking strong whiskey, somewhere in Africa. It makes him feel cold even as the sweat trickles down his face: “[T]his missive called with an eerie intimacy and struck a chord deep within him, awakened an instinctive dread that fate beckoned across the years, the bloody plains and darkened seas, to claim him.” Vintage Barron, for sure. The hunt is for a fabled stag, one the hunters discuss as they swap stories and drink heavily in the lodge the evening before they are to head into Washington’s forests. The drinking and fighting continue as the hunt proceeds, starting before dawn on a rainy day. The hunt itself proceeds much as one would expect when a number of competitive, entitled, and foolish men head into the unknown. Barron tells his story of ancient evil with elegant language, beautiful formal dialogue, and a strong sense of when just a few words are necessary to convey everything that is needful.
John Langan’s work has also appeared in just about every year’s best anthology since he started publishing. “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos,” is a long novelette about the Titans of myth, and how they play their part in our contemporary universe, whatever we may think. The characters’ most careful machinations, no matter how sophisticated and violent, are not sufficient to keep the gods safely tucked away in stories instead of active in our world. The tale is as much about the torture of prisoners by the United States military in Iraq as it is about mythology, and the punishment meted out to the torturers strikes me as entirely appropriate.
Glen Hirshberg regularly turns up in the year’s best anthologies as well, and his entry in this volume, “You Become the Neighborhood,” is first class. A grown child has taken her mother to the neighborhood in which they lived while the child — this story’s narrator — grew up. Memories of an unhappy time flood back to the mother, who insists on telling her daughter what happened during one fall when spiders overran the neighborhood and the upstairs neighbor died.
Peter Straub’s work is getting darker and darker as the years go by. “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” may be the darkest story he’s yet published, where the evil is languid and spoiled, with no seeming malice. Ballard and Sandrine have some mysterious source of wealth that allows them to spend an indeterminate period of time on a yacht cruising down the Amazon River. The yacht, like so many structures in fantasy, appears to be larger on the inside than on the outside. It also seems to be manned by an invisible crew; at least, Ballard and Sandrine are never able to catch anyone in any of the rooms they inhabit, nor even in the rooms that they have been forbidden to visit. The food they enjoy is equally mysterious: unidentifiable as any particular kind of meat or vegetable, but inexplicably delicious. Ballard and Sandrine spend their time engaging in an extreme form of sadism and masochism, taking turns as top and bottom, occasionally taking days or longer to recover from one of their bouts — a relationship that has bloomed ever since Ballard first discovered Sandrine cutting herself when they were both much younger (though Ballard is clearly a good 20 years older than Sandrine). Their voyage takes a turn from indulging in their sex play, if it can be called that, when Sandrine attempts to do some shopping ashore; and the end, from there, seems inevitable. You’ll need a shower after you finish reading this one, but it is clearly a story written by a master of the genre at the top of his form.
David Nickle’s “Looker” is an unpleasant little story narrated by a man a different generation would have called a cad and a bounder, a man who takes his sexual pleasure wherever he finds it, never mind what emotional destruction he might leave in his wake. Tom meets Lucille at a friend’s ocean house, and seduces her in an impromptu episode of midnight skinny dipping. Tom discovers something odd about Lucy during their tryst, something that he initially can’t quite puzzle out, and ultimately something that robs him of his desire. Lucy, it seems, isn’t quite alone. And ultimately Tom finds this utterly compelling. This secret, and Tom’s plans based on this secret, are likely to induce the sort of lightheadedness one usually experiences with nausea, and for the same reason; it’s stomach-turning, like a rollercoaster that looked safer from the ground than from the top of that first hill.
Leah Bobet’s “Stay” is set in a frigid Canadian town, completely isolated from the rest of the world by a storm, so small that everyone knows everyone. A truck transporting exotic fruits and vegetables has gone off the road into a ditch, breaking an axle, and the injured driver is stuck in town until long after his cargo will go bad. It also seems that the driver will go as bad as his produce, or so his eyes say, as does the raven perched on the motel’s roof in weather that is 30 degrees below zero Farenheit. Public opinion gives strong consideration to killing the driver, but Cora has other ideas. Her method of dealing with the danger is mythically beautiful.
“The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick reminded me strongly of Stephen King’s “The Raft,” one of my favorite horror stories: it has the same nearly poetic reaction to the senselessness of the horror that drives it. In “The Moraine,” though, the evil can be figured out — and Diane and Steve do a fine job of divining its nature in Lakeland’s mountains when they get lost on a long hike. The problem is that figuring it out doesn’t mean you get away from it. It’s a fine story about the wilderness, and all the ways in which, even now, we don’t know exactly what occupies this planet with us.
Martha is a television psychic struggling to maintain her façade of true insight in Priya Sharma’s “The Show.” It’s difficult when her staff, especially the man who researches the background of the sites she visits to feed her tidbits that make her sound as if she’s actually seeing the so-called spirit world, threaten to expose her as the fake she is. Martha has become used to wearing real cashmere, and she has no interest in sharing her newfound wealth with anyone; she knows that if her staff tell the truth about her ability to read hands and faces, rather than to see into The Great Beyond, they’ll be slitting their own throats as well. But when Martha actually does tune in on one site, everyone gets an evil surprise.
Margo Lanagan works her usual dark magic in “Mulberry Boys,” a tale about the hunt for, feeding of and harvesting of creatures called mulberry boys, formerly human and still human-shaped animals that produce a type of silk. The silk is the currency of the group of people that keep the mulberry boys; without it, they would have nothing, not wheat, not cloth, nothing. In this story, one of the mulberry boys has escaped, and worse, he has eaten something other than mulberry leaves. The hunter, Phillips, tracks him down with the help of the narrator, George, not quite fifteen years old, who is more than he originally appears. It is a story of redemption, of a sort, but more than that, it is a story of cruelty.
“Roots and All” is Brian Hodge’s story about what adult grandchildren discover in their recently dead grandmother’s attic. The story is tied up with their continuing grief at the loss of Shae, their cousin (for Gina) and sister (for Dylan, a corrections officer and the narrator of the tale). The nineteen-year-old Shae had gone missing while visiting her grandmother years ago, probably the victim of one of the meth manufacturers that had invaded the area in recent years. The two reminisce about the stories of the Woodwalker their grandmother used to tell and sort through their grandmother’s belongings in separate parts of the house until Gina makes her discovery, along with their grandmother’s letter explaining it. The characters are vividly drawn, the quandaries in which they find themselves nicely delineated; it’s some of the best writing in the book.
There is a movie called “Kaleidoscope” out there, according to the Internet Movie Database, but it sure isn’t the “Kaleidoscope” featured in A.C. Wise’s “Final Girl Theory.” The movie from the story sounds like one of the most horrible, graphic, haunting horror movies ever made, one that seems to have involved that actual torture of its actors. Jackson Mortar, an expert on the film (to the extent that expertise is possible, as no one involved in the making of the film in any capacity has ever before been found), believes he has spotted Carrie Linden, one of the main characters. Jackson has been in love with Carrie ever since he first saw the film, so he tracks her down. She answers his questions before he can even ask them, and not with the answers he wants to hear. “Kaleidoscope” becomes more frightening in the course of this story than any actual horror film could ever be — probably because the reader sees it only in the imagination.
I’ve written about Livia Llewellyn’s “Omphalos” before, as it was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. It is about a horrifically dysfunctional family in which every family member seems to be having sex with every other family member of the opposite sex, whether the sex partner is willing or not. June, who is 15 years old, is very much not willing to accede to her father’s incestuous demands, but he doesn’t give her a choice, raping her every chance he gets. He sees their family vacation as a chance for the family to “be alone,” by which he seems to mean even more rape with even fewer chances for June to get away. June hopes to find some degree of relief through her sexual relationship with her brother, Jaime, but she is in competition with her own mother for his attention. This set-up is horrific enough, but when the road disappears from under the camper her father is driving with the help of a strange and changing map, the forests of the State of Washington are revealed as a Lovecraftian hell.
I’ve also written about Simon Bestwick’s story, “Dermot,” which I think is one of the strongest stories in this collection; certainly it’s stuck with me, jumping out of my imagination to scare me at odd moments. “Dermot” starts off calmly enough, with a man who seems mentally disabled boarding a bus. He’s wearing a suit that seems a few sizes too big, but it’s clean and pressed, and he’s carrying an old-fashioned briefcase. He sounds, from the description, like a man playing dress-up, pretending to have a job. He seems harmless, but he makes people uncomfortable; the man next to whom Dermot sits on the bus gets up and changes seats for no apparent reason. Dermot doesn’t care, but it seems like an unkind act by that nameless man. The scene abruptly shifts to an office in a police station, a department labeled “Special Needs,” and the reader wonders whether this is where Dermot works. The officers working there, though, have some sort of dread of their jobs. They’re the butt of jokes by others in the department. When Dermot gets to the door, the jokes are seemingly explained: these officers apparently work with individuals with “special needs.” But the officers seem afraid of Dermot, and why is that? It isn’t until the deal between the police and Dermot is made explicit that the horror of this work is revealed. Your stomach will lurch when you get to the denouement. It’s worth nothing that Bestwick is the only writer to have two stories in this anthology; you can bet that I’ll be looking more closely for his name in the future.
Chet Williamson’s “The Final Verse” is about two men who set out to find the final verses to a folk song called “Mother Come Quickly.” It’s supposed to be one of the best-known songs in popular music, performed by just about everyone, but it has its origins in Appalachia, and those origins are foggy. The structure of the song indicates that something’s missing; the last verse has only four lines, while all the other verses have eight. Pete Waitkus, the grandson of the man who first discovered the song, thinks that he knows how to discover the missing lines, because he’s listened to an old recording of his grandfather discussing the song with an old mountain woman. There’s information there, Pete thinks, that his grandfather overlooked. This story, too, is one that instructs us to be careful what we wish for, even if it’s only the last verse of an old song.
I wasn’t much taken with the Stephen King story that leads off the anthology, “The Little Green God of Agony,” even though I have long believed that King does some of his best work at shorter lengths. King sets up his punch line fairly well, showing us a malingerer of epic proportions — Newsome — through the eyes of his physical therapist, Katherine. Newsome is not a lovable man, and Katherine has heard his story of how he incurred his injuries at least a dozen times too often, so the umpteenth iteration of the tale has her rolling her eyes. This time, though, Newsome has a listener who can treat his problem. Reverend Rideout isn’t the usual snake oil salesman, and what he uncovers is pretty much what every sufferer of chronic pain would like to find: something removable that solves the problem.
A couple of the other stories Datlow includes seem like odd choices to me, not carrying the punch of the others. For instance, “Black Feathers” by Alison Littlewood is about a girl who makes a magic cloak for her little brother from the feathers of a raven, with unexpected results. The story reminds us to be careful what we wish for, even when we are children. “In the Absence of Murdock” is Terry Lamsley’s story of a writing duo that has been inexplicably reduced to one. Murdock has simply disappeared. Jerry has asked his brother-in-law, Franz, to help him figure out where the man went when he vanished from the room in which the two of them were working, leaving behind only his malodorous cigar. Franz investigates and gets the fright of his life — literally. Anna Taborska’s story, “Little Pig,” feels like a fairy tale in its depiction of a family escaping wolves in a winter landscape, but the contemporary frame to it is tacked on without any apparent reason. None of these stories is outstanding enough to fit into a “year’s best” volume, though all are competently written.
Any reader of horror, whether a regular fan or one who occasionally flips through an anthology or magazine, will find something in this collection to his or her taste. Staying current with Datlow’s choices is a fine way to stay in touch with where the field is and where it’s going.