The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four edited by Ellen Datlow
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2012) demonstrates the art of the editor in balancing the simple against the complicated, the visceral against the thoughtful. As anthologies go, this is completely eclectic. There’s no detectable common denominator except for the tried and trusted “good writing” and “sheer inventiveness”.
“The Little Green God of Agony” by Stephen King is the work of a consummate professional. It’s obvious from the outset what will happen but, when it does, it brings a round of applause. How can you not admire the technique as the storm rages outside, the generator flickers and the man with a dickey heart does his thing? It’s magnificent melodramatic hokum and all the better for it. Indeed, it’s the inevitability of the ending that spices the horror and makes it so deliciously cruel. “Stay” by Leah Bobet is a particularly pleasing Wendigo story set out in one of these desolate towns where winter snow and ice forces a strong sense of community where everyone looks out for everyone else. To take advantage of this protectiveness, all you have to do is stay. “The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick is a tensely exciting humans hunted story. From my school days, I recall reading about terminal moraines and this certainly meets the definitional requirements as a predatory burrowing creature threatens a couple trying to decide whether their marriage is worth saving. “Blackwood’s Baby” by Laird Barron is a rather beautiful story on several levels. It works well as a piece of period writing, recreating the times when men would disappear into trackless forests to hunt, telling each other stories of their exploits around campfires. It also nicely captures class and national prejudices as this disparate band move further from the beaten track. It has the tense excitement of the hunt itself and, of course, there’s the central mystery of exactly what they are tracking. “Looker” by David Nickle is a very well executed variation on an old idea, nicely carrying through the suspense until the literal catches up with the metaphorical. In Parliamentary terms, when all lean forward to hear the result, the Speaker announces, “The ayes have it!”
“The Show” by Priya Sharma plays nicely with the current vogue for reality television shows exploring paranormal phenomena. With actual injuries sustained and the police involved, this episode would become one of those all-time classics with fascinating consequences for all involved. “Mullberry Boys” by Margo Lanagan first appeared in Blood and Other Cravings and is a very elegant rerunning of stories like the Punktown series by Jeffrey Thomas, describing the commercial exploitation of aliens as food or the source of drugs. This time, the trope is played as an exploitation of an indigenous people with a delightfully casual piece of surgery performed on a live source for our edification. “Roots and All” by Brian Hodge is a wonderfully evocative piece of writing. Although it contains a supernatural creature and a murder, it’s really a story about love and sacrifice, about the need for balance in all things as we fight for what we believe in and take responsibility for our own actions.
“Final Girl Theory” by A C Wise is pleasingly inferential, playing a metafictional game as our obsessive movie buff catches sight of the leading lady from a cult horror film and follows her home. The questions, of course, are whether anything shown in the original film was real and, if so, whether that means there’s any kind of threat to him now. “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn demonstrates that, sometimes, relying on a map is not enough. Sometimes you have to throw the map away and just rely on your instincts to get where you really want to go, right into the heart of everything. “Dermot” by Simon Bestwick shows that we’re in the modern age. In earlier times, Faust made a pact with the Devil. Today’s police force manages an exchange of value with Dermot even though people lose their souls in the process. “Black Feathers” by Alison Littlewood is a story that plays with the idea of transformation. This time it should have been of a child into a man but, on the way, something got left out. It’s always strange to see not only how protective older children can be, but also how often the younger ones decline to grow up as their elders intend. “The Final Verse” by Chet Williamson is a marvellous piece of country lore coming to us through the agency of bluegrass music — just another form of oral history, passed down through the generations and speaking truth to us if only we have the wit to understand the lyrics. This time, a folk music historian finds the holy grail, the last verse of an all-time classic. Except it means what it says and that’s a little unfortunate for him.
“In the Absence of Murdoch” by Terry Lamsley (first published in House of Fear). When I read this back in January, I said, “This should be a contender for an award for best short story of the year.” My opinion has not changed. “You Become the Neighborhood” by Glen Hirshberg is a genuinely strange recounting of events as a mother tells her now grown-up daughter what it was that made her just a little less than sane. Were it not the for confirmation of a neighbour, the daughter might dismiss this account as the ravings of a distressed mind. “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronus” by John Langan (first published in Supernatural Noir) works rather better in this context, i.e. as a pure supernatural tale rather than as a supposed to fit into a “noir” themed anthology. “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska makes you wonder just what you might give up if your life was on the line. Finally, “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” by Peter Straub takes us on a meditative voyage where everything is pared back to its essentials, until there’s nothing left except for the possibility of love and the final desire to experience a swim in the river of life.
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four is a sensationally good anthology yet I have two entirely redundant thoughts. At the beginning, Ellen Datlow says, “The writers live in the United States, Australia, England, The Netherlands, and Canada.” The eiusdem generis rule of interpretation says you should always list things of the same status. All but England are sovereign nation states. England is a “province” of Great Britain, i.e. not even a unified law area which, technically speaking, would make it a “state” — for domicile purposes the “state” is now formally “England and Wales”. Secondly, the copyright acknowledgements are out of sequence suggesting that, at some point, “Dermot” was intended as the penultimate story.
For reviews of other anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
Blood and other cravings