The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two edited by Ellen Datlow
Anthologies can be the most fun to read, offering the chance to experience the complete range of the chosen theme or genre. The reason why this hope is often frustrated is that many editors have preset acceptance criteria, imposing their own rather limited sensibilities on the choices to be made. The result is usually monotony in style and/or content. Fortunately, there are exceptions to prove every rule and, in this instance, another anthology edited by Ellen Datlow is a perfect demonstration of how to appreciate and value diversity.
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two (Night Shade Books) is one of the most pleasing anthologies of 2010 (so far). After the now mandatory reference to Wales as a separate country, we are straight down to business with “Lowland Sea” by Suzy McKee Charnas which is one of these genre-bending stories that starts off as primarily science fiction and then veers off into horror territory. It’s saved from the ordinariness of the telegraphed ending by the characterisation. Every reader should be there with Miriam in confronting the callous disregard of the other survivors. “The End of Everything” by Steve Eller is the first of the two zombie stories that again manages to rise above the routine by subverting the idea of saving the souls of the dead. “Each Piece I Show You Is A Piece of My Death” by Gemma Files and Stephen J Barringer is a particularly ingenious story which happily plays with ideas from semiotics in considering how images of individuals might become embedded in our cultural records. Art is continuously reinventing the past and how we remember people and events. So what began as collage is now mashup as digital technology enables the mixture of video images, animation, audio and text. The intriguing question posed by these authors is whether images of people can ever really be lost from our digital records. Indeed, might these images be self-replicating and capable of invading even supposedly “protected” records? It’s interesting to compare it with “Technicolor” by John Langan which is a story emerging from a lecturer’s deconstruction of “The Masque of the Red Death” by Poe. Although the ending has an inevitability about it, our arrival there is somewhat laboured. Sadly, I grew bored by the “study guide” as fiction. It would have been more effective at a shorter length. Files and Barringer carefully change the tone and point of view to keep us interested. Langan’s academic endeavour is worthy but ultimately a little monotonous.
“The Nimble Men” by Glen Hirshberg is one of these neat “short” stories in which something weird happens as the Northern Lights flicker over Canada. The “Wendigo” by Micaela Morrissette reintroduces more traditional ideas of cannibalism rather than the more common supernatural were/vampire things striding through a wooded landscape. “The Crevasse” by Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud finds us in Lovecraftian territory as an icy wilderness may not be quite as empty as the humans believe. “Lotophagi” by Edward Morris is a well written recycling of cannibalistic devolved humans lurking in the deep woods. “The Gaze Dogs of the Nine Waterfall” by Kaaron Warren almost makes it on to my best of the best list but just misses out. It is a genuinely innovative fantasy/horror blend which has our two intrepid hunters rising above the disparaging sexism of the dog collecting world to journey off in search of the ultimately desirable additions to any collection. My only reservation about it is that there is a slight disconnection between the social commentary and the expedition. At least the dogs come out of it well.
“Dead Loss” by Carole Johnstone is a claustrophobic few days out over the deeps in a vulnerable trawler. In such cases, we always wonder who is trying to catch whom (or what). “Strappado” by Laird Barron takes us into that strange hinterland where a city’s fading commercial land is partially unoccupied and available for unconventional uses. As we have come to expect with Barron’s fiction, it’s the people who make the stories live although, this time, the Indian cityscape is a welcome departure from the more usual “dark” American settings.
For me, these are the standout stories. We start with “Mrs Midnight” by Reggie Oliver which is a wonderful story of a lurking revenant from Victorian times. We have all actually met or read about B-list celebrities, but this interior monologue is so pleasingly knowing, it makes the story so much better. The linkage to Jack the Ripper is cleverly handled and the creeping menace of the stalker well managed. Then along comes “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night” by Michael Marshall Smith. This is a quiet and intimate piece. Unlike “It’s A Good Life” from the Twilight Zone which was over the top in the involvement of adults in the world of a child’s imagination, this creeps up on you quietly and then leaves you in the dark. It’s a remarkable example of authorial minimalism. Equally cunning in the way it captures an everyday annoyance and then hangs endless sadness on it, is “In the Porches of my Ears” by Norman Prentiss. It’s a genuinely unexpected resolution to the set-up as the all-too-human need to understand and then reinterpret the world leads to dishonesty for all the “right” reasons. We then come to a second outings of zombies with a difference in “Lonegan’s Luck” by Stephen Graham Jones. This is a puzzle story that starts in the middle and lets us work out exactly what is happening. Once we get started into this as one of the longer stories, it never lets up, carrying us through to a final image of our anti-hero caught in a Tantalus moment. “The Lion’s Den” by Steve Duffy flits between fantasy and horror in a fascinating intervention that may forever change the relationship between man and the animals. Stories like this are difficult to pull off because they require just enough detail to establish the possibility as credible and then great self-discipline not to overelaborate. The essence of the weird is that it is fundamentally inexplicable. Duffy has it right, leaving us to wonder what will happen next. Finally, “The Lammas Worm” by Nina Allan is a disturbing story about a waif picked up from the roadside by a passing circus troop. This has two narratives in parallel as we see the girl slowly accepted into the community and ultimately into marriage with one of the group, while a second couple’s destiny becomes entwined in uncovering the history of the girl and the forces that may be shaping events. What makes the read so satisfying is the self-sacrificing trust of the couples as they do their best to reconcile their circus lives with their needs as individuals.
Overall, this is clearly one of the best horror anthologies so far this year. Definitely worth the price of admission.
For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
Blood and other cravings
As an added note, “In the Porches of My Ears” by Norman Prentiss won the Bram Stoker Award 2010 for Short Fiction.