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The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow

December 5, 2013 Leave a comment

BestHorror5_CoverPanel

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2013) sees our experienced anthologist trawling the oceans of short stories with a net mesh set to catch only the best.

“Nikishi” by Lucy Taylor is one of these elegant stories which tantalises the reader as to which of the protagonists will be the biter bit. Set in a desolate part of Africa, it deals with the raw emotions of fear, greed and love, producing an entirely unsentimental way of arriving at the undoubtedly correct ending. “Little America” by Don Chaon* is a very ingenious and rather affecting zombie story. Somewhat unusually, the zombie is sympathetic albeit completely at the mercy of his hunger, making this a tragedy in the classical sense of the word. “A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford* is also about choices and the penalties people must pay for selfishness rather than trust. Perhaps people only show their true nature when in extremis. “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson is a slightly experimental piece reflecting on the habit of some female of the species to eat the males during or immediately after impregnation. This says a great deal about the sexual imperative of the males and the need of females to provide suitable food for their offspring. “Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski is another highly original zombie story, speculating on what would happen to zombies if a cure was developed. Would this cure be given to every zombie who could be saved or would there always be some who, despite their involuntary consumption of the living, we would not want to save?

“The Callers” by Ramsay Campbell plays a very nice game with the language of bingo calling. It’s surprising how much menace can be generated from the ritual of call and response when the women of a Lancashire town warm up for their traditional Morris dance about a chosen maypole (and the younger the better). “Mariners’ Round” by Terry Dowling is one of the best “horror” stories I’ve read in a long while. It offers everything I look for in a quest trope. No matter how young or old, we all have dreams. Some we realise, but life can be hard. It frustrates. It deals out pain. But just suppose there was a way in which you could realise your heart’s desire, you would take the risk, wouldn’t you? You would want to believe the magic was real. Here’s three young boys who’ve grown older. Perhaps they’ll take the chance to ride on this strange old machine. “Nanny Grey” by Gemma Files is an example of a stock plot rewritten most expertly. All the trappings are appropriately contemporary, but the biter bit by protective “other” trope runs along predictable lines.

“The Magician’s Apprentice” by Tamsyn Muir* has a wonderfully mordant sense of humour as we navigate the tricky waters of a young girl learning the ropes of real magic from an “old” mage. Think of it as being like peeling an onion. Each time a new spell is mastered, the food intake increases to sustain the amount of energy required for the magic to work. At some point, major dietary changes may be required. “Kill All Monsters” by Gary McMahon beguiles with its simplicity. It economically explains the situation, pushes us forward in time a few hours, and leaves us with the imponderable decision of what should be done. “The House on Ashley Avenue” by Ian Rogers is beautifully paced as our investigative duo go their separate ways, the secrets of the house to explore. It’s a delight! “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn is the third zombie story and again takes a completely unexpected direction with a voice-over artist recording the track for a documentary about the music that emerged during the time when small communities were isolated during the plague. The hook lies in the rather delightful ambiguity as to the source of some of the music recorded by a musicologist as he travelled around the infested areas.

“Bajazzle” by Margo Lanagan* is a slightly disturbing story in which an extreme form of female display creates social difficulties — it seems without the police prosecuting the women who participate for public indecency — which is juxtaposed with the behaviour of an erratic and unfaithful husband. I’m not wholly convinced there’s real synergy between the two narrative threads, but the end result does highlight male hypocrisy on dress codes and criteria for determining the limits on behaviour, i.e. younger women are expected to wear sexualised clothing to show varying degrees of bare flesh while featuring covered breasts or other physical “attributes” for inspection by ogling men, but they are not supposed to flaunt genitals or act in a way men define as unseemly and provocative. “The Pike” by Conrad Williams is a melancholic tale of an ageing man who’s coming to terms with his own mortality while fishing in fact and in his memories for the ghosts of the past. “The Crying Child” by Bruce McAllister* is magnificently weird. It starts off as if it’s going to be a ghost story with a coming-of-age overlay, but it proves to be genuinely unusual both in concept and execution. Some of the imagery is quite startling as we move past the set-up into the big reveal. This is a stand-out story!

“This Circus the World” by Amber Sparks may only be two pages long, but it manages to provoke thought on the cruelties we inflict on each other and the hypocrisy that then taints our view of the outcomes. “Some Picture in an Album” by Gary McMahon is one of these deceptively simple stories. All it does it describe a few old photographs yet this litany of stored memories manages to evoke menacing responses. It’s beautifully done. “Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud* starts off in a conventional monster ate my friends mode and then veers off into the hinterland of broken people. It would be good if we could always come to terms with our own failures but many people find fear and despair too attractive to give up. They stay broken. “Final Exam” by Megan Arkenberg plays a similar game to McMahon’s story, subverting the format of a multiple choice exam to explore why a marriage should break down and whether the monsters that came out of the sea were from a different dimension or had evolved on our own sea bed (or under her bed). “None So Blind” by Stephen Bacon shows us that even after the most terrible events, life goes on. It may not always be the most pleasant existence, but when you’re waiting for death, one finds a respite where one can.

“The Ballad of Boomtown” by Priya Sharma builds on folk stories, reminding us that traditional values of loyalty and respect are supposed to prevail. Yet underneath the veneer of modernity, raw emotions like lust and guilt sweep aside pretensions and leave the more primitive and destructive side of our personalities exposed. “Pig Thing” by Adam L G Nevill pursues the same idea of a landscape that has endured through time and resents the arrival of new people and the “modern” things they bring with them. Of course, you can give these interlopers a hint but, if they fail to leave, well they have no-one but themselves to blame. “The Word-Made Flesh” by Richard Gavin continues with the power of grief to distort intelligence and snatch away sanity. Here’s a tragic man who has lost his wife and son in an accident. He becomes obsessed with the idea of reclaiming them to the point where he, too, passes beyond life itself. “Into the Penny Arcade” Claire Massey is an atmosphere piece that builds pleasingly but ends on a slightly inconsequential note. “Magdala Amygdala” by Lucy A Snyder** deals with a different type of hunger and, as transformation beckons, nicely leaves ambiguous whether the final thoughts are delusional or the emergence of a new being from the chrysalis of the old husk of a body. “Frontier Death Song” by Laird Barron draws on his early life in the North to produce a riveting variation on the traditional theme of the Wild Hunt. It’s a perfect way to bring this rather fine anthology to a rousing conclusion.

*Nominated for the 2012 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette or Short Story.
**First appeared in Dark Faith: Invocations and won the 2012 Bram Stoker Award for Best Short Story.

 

For reviews of other anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

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!”

Ellen Datlow continues to dominate the editorial world

“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:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

Alien Sex edited by Ellen Datlow

Alien Sex edited by Ellen Datlow has been republished by Open Road Media and marginally updated with an additional paragraph for the introduction and a little more contemporary information fleshing out the authors’ bios. It’s a bit of an old warhorse, an anthology of ten original and nine reprinted stories that first appeared in 1990. Such a gap in years makes me wonder whether it’s actually worth rescuing from the relative obscurity into which it had fallen. The title is self-explanatory. Whether directly or indirectly, it’s all about sex. But not, you understand, in a pornographic or, even, erotic sense. There’s no gratuitous titillation. What we actually get is rather more functional or allusive. This is not to deny different forms of activity are described. But this is not a “dangerous visions” type of book. Although one or two stories are reasonably strong meat, the intention is to deal with reactions to, or the context for, the activity which is often all too human.

“Her Furry Face” by Leigh Kennedy is a genuinely tragic story about a man who loses his way. You might always expect a student to be obsessed with work and not good with people but, when the studying is over and paid work begins, you hope for a transition into adulthood. Except this man has learned nothing useful about how to build and maintain relationships. In particular, he forgets the need for boundaries. More generally, the inevitable and callous racism is mentioned but, unfortunately, it fails to match Manrissa Man by Peter Van Greenaway which is the definitive approach to this trope, albeit without the sex. “War Bride” by Rick Wilber reminds me in spirit of William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” but with a different slant, focussing rather on the desire of the alien Pashi to save just one or two of the Earthling “collaborators” — for entirely laudable reasons, of course. “How’s the Night Life On Cissalda?” by Harlan Ellison is slightly too long but nevertheless hilariously inventive. It should be required reading for everyone who wants to see how the world will end in a flood of joy and an excess of starvation. “The Jamesburg Incubus” by Scott Baker is also vastly amusing as our hero recovers from ingesting the radiation-soaked grain used to make the bread which then developed mould when lying uneaten in his refrigerator. Newly invigorated, he finds a remarkable new way in which he can spread himself around without appearing to stray (if you catch my meaning). It’s a very pleasing story of transition from a selfish man lost in his own fantasies to a well-balanced man with a strong marriage and exactly 2.4 offspring.

Ellen Datlow wondering how a couple can produce exactly 2.4 cildren

“Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” by Larry Niven is a classic reprint, again dealing the physical problems should Superman and Lois Lane ever “get it on”. “The First Time” by K W Jeter is something extraordinary conjured out of the entirely ordinary desire of a father to introduce his son to the facts of life. That means a trip into town, a few beers to get up Dutch courage, then primal instinct takes over and the son ain’t no virgin no more. “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” by Philip Jose Farmer shows the rawness of the 1960s, reinventing Tarzan in something approximating the style of William Burroughs as the Kid hangs loose, strung out on the best rot the jungle can provide. I’m not sure modern readers will understand where it’s coming from, but an oldie like me remembers reading it when it first came out. “Husbands” by Lisa Tuttle elegantly plays with the notion that biological sex may be binary, but gender is for each generation to define as it wishes. Who’s to say how a world might function if there was only one gender, or if we were to make the effort and define a third gender that everyone could accept. “When the Fathers Go” by Bruce McAllister is the fictional version of what it means to be married and have children. Of course, everyone lies about who they are. Sometimes, the lies are seductive and they lull us into love because we want to hear the truth in the words. Sometimes the lies are particularly convincing because they come from a telemanifestor and so everything we dream can seem real to us. Either way, we can tell ourselves we’re happy.

“Dancing Chickens” by Edward Bryant is a variation on the theme perhaps best captured in The Productions of Time by John Brunner and “Passengers” by Robert Silverberg where aliens jerk us around like puppets on a string. This story is slightly different from its forebears in its gay context and the more obvious physical cruelty in the sexual activity. “Roadside Rescue” by Pat Cadigan also parallels John Brunner’s novel with an alien working through an agent provocateur to get the sexual gratification it wants. The sting in the tail is, of course, the nonconsensual nature of this exchange. We humans lay down rules for those who engage in S&M. The submissiveness or domination is by agreement. This scenario is more spontaneous and, in its own way, a kind of rape. “Omnisexual” by Geoff Ryman is a fascinating story of how a man populates the world of his own imagination or, perhaps, it’s not his imagination. “All My Darling Daughters” by Connie Willis shows the possibility that abused daughters may escape the abuse if suitable surrogates can be found but, as between normally consenting teens, the arrival of surrogates might be a bit frustrating. “Arousal” by Richard Christian Matheson is a slightly weird story about an act of adultery, consensual in every way, but somehow unforgettable. “Scales” by Lewis Shiner takes us into the world of mythology and the possibility where, as Keats puts it,

“Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake
Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love’s sake”

“Saving the World at the New Moon Motel” by Roberta Lannes shows us you just can’t assume everything will be the same between different species but, if both parties are willing, it can be a wild ride. “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by James Tiptree Jr. is one of these terrible warning stories in which Earthlings are cast as the primitives to be bought off by the aliens with trinkets and cheap geegaws. It shows us our ignorance condemns us to be screwed both metaphorically and physically if only we can get close enough to them. “Picture Planes” by Michaela Roessner demonstrates the universal desire of the battered spouse to escape the abusive partner. Finally, “Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates” by Pat Murphy leaves us with decisions made as to what should be the dominant species after we humans have bombed each other into oblivion. It’s an interestingly mechanical story.

Putting all this together, Alien Sex has some truly excellent stories, most of which have stood the test of time. The anthology shows that, when it comes to sex, the functional drive to procreate never goes out of fashion. Only our attitudes change and then only slowly. As a final thought, the fact I can recommend this anthology to contemporary readers is actually an accolade for Ellen Datlow. As an editor, she selected stories that avoided the obvious pitfalls inherent in the theme and still seem fresh today. She has impeccable taste!

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 Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review.

Blood and other cravings edited by Ellen Datlow

January 15, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s always a challenge to put together a themed anthology. Too many stories feeling the same can leave the reader with a jaded palate. In Blood and other cravings, we’re offered vampires, except Ellen Datlow challenged her authors to avoid the traditional while still providing something that would feed upon others.

 

It all begins beautifully with “All You Can Do is Breathe” by Kaaron Warren. The question, of course, is what else a predator might want to take from its victim? This is a desperately sad story of what the trauma of being trapped underground for days can do to people. When first rescued, they can seem bouncy and glad to be alive. Later, depression overwhelms them. They seem empty, as empty as if something had sucked all the life out of them. “Needles” by Elizabeth Bear is somewhat more traditional with a couple of creatures moving from town to town, each finding relief and sustenance in their own ways. The nice thing about it is the essential tedium of the lifestyle. They run from and to each satisfying release only to have to do it all over again the next day and night. “Baskerville’s Midgets” by Reggie Oliver is the first of two reprints. It’s a beautifully judged atmospheric tale of seven midgets who come back for their Snow White. Who would have thought a game of hide-and-seek could make the bond so strong. “Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow” by Richard Boyd asserts there’s a cycle in fashions. Sometimes it’s in to be a vampire. The other times, you have to go cold turkey which has little blood and is unsatisfying. Once you’ve kicked the habit, the years may pass, but not the nostalgia for the excitement of it all. What would it be like if it could start all over again?

 

As an irrelevant note, it’s always fun when an author locates a story in a place you know. “X For Demetrious” by Steve Duffy picks on Penkull which really does have a vampire history. I should know. I used to drink in The Wellington just round the corner from The Villas. Based on the facts, this is a beautifully told story of a life-long obsession and torment. Sometimes people never can break out of the mould they are forced into at birth and by their upbringing. “Keeping Corky” by Melanie Tem is a fascinating and daring exercise in point of view with a mother struggling to remember her child and then finding she has lost him. This is an affecting and tragic story in which, despite the effort of those who believe they know better, the love and hope of reunion is never sucked out of her. “Shelf-life” by Lisa Tuttle is another highly inventive way of bending the vampire trope. The sense of family is particularly powerful as mothers intervene to protect their daughters. Who can say whether the potential danger can ever really be neutralised. “Cauis” by Bill Pronzini and Barry N Malzberg plays with the notion of emotional and ideological vampirism, suggesting a different form of manipulation and extraction routinely available in our everyday lives, if it’s to our taste, of course. “Sweet Sorrow” by Barbara Roden develops the theme of emotions as food in a stand-out story of loss and despair, first by parents and the neighbourhood, later by just one incautious individual who should have known better.

Ellen Datlow receives the accolade of flowers

 

“First Breath” by Nicole J LeBeouf is one of those rather pleasing stories that blends the supernatural and the physical together. It’s entirely possible there are predatory spirits waiting to take possession of our bodies. The pertinent question is where they originate. “Toujours” by Kathe Koja is another of these beautifully judged stories in which a slight variation on the role of Éminence grise brings us the inside story on the power behind the throne: first buy the throne, then find someone to sit on it, and not be afraid if someone appears to take the “king” away — repeat as necessary. “Miri” by Steve Rasnic Tem is a story of mental disintegration as an artist finds his world losing its colour and slipping into an increasingly dislocated black and white. What is it, exactly, that encourages a man to give up on himself, his job and his family? Perhaps remembering someone he once knew could be a trigger. “Mrs Jones” by Carol Emshwiller, an old but delightfully weird story from 1993, sees one sister take her chance for a little affection when something obviously male appears in their orchard, albeit the other bits might give cause for concern. In “Bread and Water”, Michael Cisco teaches us that diseases may come in many different forms. If you are unlucky and catch one, you may surrender yourself to death only to find the end does not come as easily as you were expecting. Indeed, more startlingly, what if you began to recover although not quite as you were before?

 

“Mulberry Boys” by Margo Lanagan is a powerful story about the exploitation of a people thought inferior. It’s perhaps appropriate for this to be an Australian story given that the urbanised immigrants of that distant island continue to discriminate against and abuse the aborigines. This story matches others in which “people” are treated as a natural resource and either harvested directly or farmed for what natural product they produce inside their bodies. This is particularly creepy and makes us root for the possibility of them throwing off the yoke of oppression. “The Third Always Beside You” by John Langan is almost an old-fashioned story in which the nature of the supernatural occurrence may seem rather less threatening except, of course, the actual effect on the couple is plainly horrific in psychological terms assuming, of course, they are both aware of it. Perhaps it’s our uncertainty as to whether they are wholly aware of it that’s so unsettling. Finally, in “The Siphon” by Laird Barron we get to ask whether psychopaths are merely human or have connections to creatures living in the cracks between the worlds. In this case, a man with secrets is eventually recruited by the NSA and finds himself at the centre of an operation to track a spy who might want to “come in from the cold”. Unfortunately, this spy is also of interest to other people of power which leads to some tension between the different groups and the sense our hero’s secrets may no longer be safe.

 

Taken overall, Blood and other cravings shows Ellen Datlow at her best. Although the theme is set, the diversity of responses from the authors is remarkable. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that, if you picked up the book without the jacket (which is more slasher than vampire) and failed to read the introduction, you might not realise this was a themed anthology — which is the highest praise you can ever give the commissioning editor.

 

For reviews of other anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

For the record, the Stoker Awards have been announced. The anthology was shortlisted for Superior Achievement in an Anthology, while “All You Can Do is Breathe” by Kaaron Warren was shortlisted for a Stoker for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction. Blood is also nominated as Best Edited Anthology in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards.

Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow (Dark Horse Books, 2011) is an anthology that conflates two different subgenres as its theme. We’re all familiar with the notion of the supernatural, so the more important element to understand is the reference to the word noir. For me this is indelibly associated with the pulp style which reached the maximum quality in the work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I suppose the primary characteristic of classic pulp is that the PI or detective is always a tough guy but smart. That way, he can take being hit with a sap, get up, dust himself down and, in due course, nab the villain. The implicit reference to darkness (noir is French for black) comes from the works which get past melodrama into worlds without pity where we see through the eyes of the victims and the criminals. In such stories, there’s always less hope for the safety of those involved. An introduction that brings us to the first story as an example of the problem inherent in the anthology’s theme. “The Dingus” by Gregory Frost reminds us of a truth. When you torture and kill a young woman, you’d better be sure she hasn’t got a sister with the power to take revenge. As seen through the eyes of an old boxing trainer, now driving a taxi, this is a case of people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The idea is compelling, but I think the language and tone apes the period style just a little too well. I would probably have loved this fifty years ago. Today, it feels a little tired.

“The Getaway” by Paul G. Tremblay is the story of a simple heist that goes inexplicably wrong. It should be so easy to knock over a pawnshop but, as the three robbers and their driver discover, nothing is easy. This is hardboiled with a modern voice and increasingly powerful as the driver tries to outrun their fate. “Mortal Bait” by Richard Bowes sees humans caught up in a supernatural conflict. This nicely captures the sense and feel of the immediate post-WWII America with a veteran trying to make a living as a PI. In this, he has an edge given his link with the fey except, of course, having any kind of attachment leaves you potentially vulnerable should the enemy be looking for leverage. “Little Shit” by Melanie Tem is a disturbing story about the entrapment of paedophiles. It succeeds because, when you consider the facts, it’s obvious why Lourdes would be in a relationship with the titular Little Shit, yet not so obvious why someone with mind-manipulating capacity would not realise that reason. “Ditch Witch” by Lucius Shepard is a marvelous atmosphere piece in which imagination (and a liberal quantity of street drugs) combines to convert a hitch-hiker into someone who, when provoked, might just be able to do magic. It charts the sense of menace as the driver begins to see the world in a slightly different way.

Ellen Datlow — one of the best editors working today

“The Last Triangle” by Jeffrey Ford flirts with pulpy language but has enough modern sensibilities in tone and plot to make this an outstanding effort. With a runt of a protagonist as the point of view, we see an addict more or less getting clean with the help of an old but determined lady. Unfortunately, as he gets more healthy, this pitches him into an attempt to avert a possible murder, tracking the man who might kill. What makes it so successful is the fact there’s no actual evidence of anything supernatural. It could just be a man with delusions derived from reading all the wrong history books. Jeffry Ford masterfully exploits the uncertainty to keep it a more traditionally noir story. In exactly the same vein, “The Carrion Gods in their Heaven” by Laird Barron details a battered wife on the run with the emotional support of her lover. They take up residence in a cabin in the woods. There are tales about an earlier occupant, but it’s only slowly the couple realise how believable old tales can be. Again the story is firmly rooted in reality although there are ways in which the mind can play tricks and no-one could be entirely certain where the battered wife ended up. “The Romance” by Elizabeth Bear is an elegant story about relationships: the ones you can see in the now, and those that may by some uncanny means, transcend time. I think it a very good supernatural tale but am less convinced it’s genuinely noir. “Dead Sister” by Joe R. Lansdale has the author’s trademark style which always tends to be noirish in spirit as a PI bites off more than he can chew when a vampish lady pays him to watch over her sister’s grave. This soon develops into a meeting of interested parties at an old sawmill where the rollicking adventure is terminated in an appropriate way. “Comfortable in Her Skin” by Lee Thomas changes the mood quite dramatically darker. Some people are shaped by things done to them. Other shape their own lives, while a very small percentage are able to shape others in their own image. This rare ability proves a powerful partnership is possible when interests match. “But For Scars” by Tom Piccirilli continues in darker vein as a criminal finds himself persuaded to look into a six-year-old murder case by the unexpected return of the victims’ daughter from a mental hospital. Again we have a fundamental truth about human nature. Once you get past the scars and under the skin, most young criminals are the same.

“The Blisters on My Heart” by Nate Southard asks and answers the age-old question of what a jealous man will do if his girl is humiliated in a way that challenges his prowess. “The Absent Eye” by Brian Evenson is a particularly fascinating story. I’m not sure it’s noir except that it does have a man who becomes a kind of detective, but it does offer an interestingly secular, rather than the more traditionally religious, view of the soul. “The Maltese Unicorn” by Caitlin R. Kiernan is terrific fun as our bookseller gets caught up in a con and then has to find a way out of it without dying in the process. I suppose it’s raunchy noir as our more open view of sexuality bends the pulp rules in a way that would never have been possible fifty and more years ago. “Dreamer of the Day” by Nick Mamatas is genuinely and delightfully creepy with a contract killer who can recite even the minutest details of the way in which the whole death scenario will play out. This is an outstanding effort. Finally, “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronus” by John Langan shows us how two who made the headlines as torturers for the US Army in Iraq try to make a living in civilian life. Again, I think this works well as a supernatural story but I’m less convinced of its noir qualities. As the title suggests, we are into ancient gods and the scale of the problem confronting our duo lifts it out of the pulp subgenre for me. Somehow, I always feel true noir lies in more intimate details.

So there you have it. Ellen Datlow has put together another outstanding anthology. While I might differ slightly in my interpretation of the editorial brief requiring a noir tone, I take nothing away from the actual stories included here. They are all of a high standard with one or two outstanding. By any standards, this is an anthology to savour.

As an aside, I can’t say I like the jacket artwork by Greg Ruth very much. Although the idea of a raven is OK — it is, after all a noir bird with Poeish supernatural connotations — but the perspective has been bent to make the eyes fit vis-a-vis the bird. This leaves the head in the wrong position which just goes to show how subjective all this editing, publishing and reviewing business is.

For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound

For the record, the 2011 Stoker Awards have been announced. The anthology was shortlisted for Superior Achievement in an Anthology. It has also been nominated as Best Edited Anthology in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards. “Ditch Witch” by Lucius Shepard and “The Last Triangle” by Jeffrey Ford are nominated as Best Novelette in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards.

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three edited by Ellen Datlow

August 21, 2011 1 comment

The beauty and value of a “best of” anthology is as a demonstration of the strength of the genre under review. Now let’s be clear about this and, in doing so, assume there are objective criteria for judging the quality of fiction. Yes, yes, I know. Please forgive my attempt at humour. There could never be anything even vaguely objective in the process of judging fiction. But suppose, by whatever criteria you apply, only ten of the thousand and more stories published in any year are worthy of being included as one of the best. To make up the page count, the rest will be valiant failures. But if a “best of” anthology contains significantly more great than merely good stories, and there are no bad stories, it suggests there were plenty of high quality stories to choose from. Yes, I know it ultimately comes down to the taste of the editor making the selections and whether his or her taste matches my own. But this year’s The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 3 (Night Shade Books, 2011) edited by Ellen Datlow contains such a range and diversity of different themes and prose styles that I’m reassured the horror (and fantasy) field remains strong. No matter what criteria you apply, this is a wonderful book.

Allusive stories are the most difficult to write because once you start putting words on a page you’re limiting their meaning and defining their message. “At the Riding School” by Cody Goodfellow is a particularly fine example of the art of suggesting the routine occurrence of terrible things in an exclusive gated community dedicated to the “schooling” of young women — or perhaps that should be rewritten to involve their induction into a form of religious cult rooted in classical mythology where the participants in the rites risk rape and death if they fail to control themselves and the animals they must ride.

Stories about death and an afterlife are always tricky things to write but, in “Mr. Pigsny”, Reggie Oliver comes up with something genuinely unique. This is a completely fascinating tale about a faun or, since he evidently speaks classical Greek, a satyr with possible leprechaun overtones given one of his dance styles in a pub. Although the changing picture has been done to death (pun intended) in this context, we should not care. This is simply a delight!

Ellen Datlow meets an admirer from Down Under

“City of the Dog’ by John Langan is also weirdly wonderful as our hero’s on-off relationship with his girlfriend is suddenly distracted by her admission of infidelity and, later, her disappearance. Of course, if you set off to rescue her, it helps if you believe the explanation of what’s happened to her. That our hero only later acknowledges the truth means he does lose her to the other man.

“Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls” by Brian Hodge reminds us that the power of our imagination is often strongest when we are young. Suppose all we needed to make a wish come true was the chance to draw it. That would make the power of the pen the ultimate weapon unless you tamed the savage beast of your childhood desires and reluctantly grew into a dull adult. Now that would be the real horror, just remembering what you might have lost.

“Lesser Demons”(1) by Norman Partridge makes you wonder what magic might lie behind the rise of the dead and the predators that eat their way out of their bodies. Except, of course, if you get too obsessed with questions, you might miss the simple solution at the end of a gun. “When the Zombies Win” by Karina Sumner-Smith is such an elegant idea, nicely expressed and admirably brief. It demonstrates a story does not need to be pages long to be a riotous success. “—30—”(2) by Laird Barron on the other hand remains a mystery to me. I was unimpressed when I first read it, and do not find it improves the second time around. Nevertheless, even though I feel it fails to focus properly, it’s beautifully written — perhaps that’s why I find the result so frustrating. It’s my sense of what could have been. . . For the record, I think the story listed in Honorable Mentions is far better.

“Fallen Boys” by Mark Morris strikes an interesting note with the annoying child. I’ve certainly met whiny kids like him and found the whole school trip beautifully balanced to set up the outcome when the lights go out. “Was She Wicked? Was She Good?” by M Rickert also sets up an interesting question about child development. It asks whether parents should discipline their children and, if so, how they should do it. Similarly, “The Fear” by Richard Harland creeps up on the reader as if you half-felt someone touch you on the shoulder but, when you turned, there was no-one there. It has a meticulously paced flow as investigators follow the trail of breadcrumbs to satisfy their curiosity about whether the horror director’s first film was ever finished.

“Till the Morning Comes” by Stephen Graham Jones encourages us to wonder what might be real in that half-waking time during the night when our bladder demands attention, but there’s fear in our heart. “Shomer” by Glen Hirshberg offers an insight into the ways of bereavement and death in the Jewish community. It’s always good when a story is both informative and potentially scary. “Oh I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside” by Christopher Fowler perfectly captures the hopelessness of life in a dead-end British seaside resort. It’s always amazing more of those imprisoned in these places don’t go on murder sprees to pass the time more interestingly. “The Obscure Bird” by Nicholas Royle is another of these weird ideas that works to inspire “horror” when you realise what’s going on. The last set of images is particularly striking.

“Transfiguration” by Richard Christian Matheson is powerful in a slightly off-beat way. It’s inclusion proves the admirable diversity of range in this anthology. This is another allusive story, this time about a trucker who, on his good days, thinks he’s an angel as he drives across the frozen landscape. “The Days of Flaming Motorcycles” is the best thing I’ve read by Catherynne M. Valente and one of the most interesting zombie stories of the year. “The Folding Man” by Joe R. Lansdale does a beautiful job in one of the most difficult tropes, namely maintaining the pace as the boys run for their lives. “Just Another Desert Night With Blood” by Joseph S. Pulver is as much about the writing as about the content. It’s highly stylised and somewhat poetic, but interesting. “Black and White Sky” by Tanith Lee is an outstanding story, beautifully evocative, recalling some of the classics of the early English natural disaster novels like J G Ballard’s The Wind From Nowhere. I’m not sure it’s horror, but it’s a superb read (who cares about genre boundaries, anyway?!). “At Night, When the Demons Come” by Ray Cluley continues a post-apocalypse vein with a story justifying acute misogyny. Who would have thought a few devils could cause so many problems when a few well-directed bullets can bring them down. There’s something disproportionate about the logic. Taking nothing away from the power of the story, it would be interesting to hear the author explain what happened to reduce the most gun-happy culture in the world to this sorry plight. And finally, “The Revel” is the second story by John Langan. This is wonderfully knowing, deconstructing the iconography of a werewolf story. It works beautifully both as a piece that could be used for academic study and for those who just want to read a very clever horror story.

Put all these elliptical comments together and you should get the message. The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 3 is a superb anthology, demonstrating just how well Ellen Datlow judges stories and picks winners.

(1) First appeared in Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

(2) First appeared in Occultation

Artwork by Allen Williams

For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two edited by Ellen Datlow

September 5, 2010 2 comments

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:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

As an added note, “In the Porches of My Ears” by Norman Prentiss won the Bram Stoker Award 2010 for Short Fiction.

Lovecraft Unbound edited by Ellen Datlow

In a previous review, I commented that an editor has an easy task with themed anthologies because it’s easy to identify, say, vampire or werewolf stories, and judge them on their merits. Yet, this simplistic assertion rather breaks down when it comes to Lovecraftian stories. This is one of the most consistently explored of “universes” and the professionals who would contribute to the Mythos have a responsibility to avoid clichéd reworkings of tired tropes. As the editor, Ellen Datlow has to balance the need to achieve quality in the writing against the requirement that submissions show canonical consistency to the Mythos (albeit with some degree of originality to mitigate the potential boredom of mere pastiche).

So, perforce, we must briefly consider what constitutes a Lovecraft story. There are a number of essential elements. The narratives must be enigmatic, i.e. there must be an undercurrent of cosmic mystery that is only partially resolved at the end. This lack of resolution emphasises the forbidden nature of the relevant knowledge. Indeed, because this knowledge is so dangerous, Earth’s population must be protected. To achieve this, the writers must not actually explain the events described. Think of it as being a mercy that we are kept in ignorance of the “things” lurking on the threshold. Humans always have the greatest fear of things “unknown”. Such fear defeats optimism and induces a paralysis of will — what point is there in struggling when we are so clearly outmatched. This leaves us with three key ideas, namely that:

(a) there are higher orders of beings that can, at will, violate what we think of as fixed, natural laws;

(b) we are insignificant creatures, only lately come into possession of Earth; and

(c) the previous occupants might come to reclaim it at any minute.

Authors and readers therefore enter into a conspiracy to treat the Mythos as real. The writing must be allusive, hinting only obliquely at matters of cosmic significance. If an innocent human is confronted by undeniably outré events in a “traditional” story, it must be an experience shattering all preconceptions as to the nature of reality. It must transcend understanding and, in religious terms, strike at the soul. Modern protagonists are allowed a little more spunk.

So it is that we come to Lovecraft Unbound (Dark Horse), edited by Ellen Datlow, twenty stories, sixteen original to the anthology. “The Crevasse” by Dave Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud places us in a familiar polar locale and challenges us to balance the hallucinogenic qualities of incipient snow blindness against a narrator who is less than wholly reliable as he struggles to come to terms with his traumatic experiences in W.W.I and, independently, the loss of his wife to the 1918 Flu Pandemic. It’s nicely atmospheric, musing on what might draw a man with a damaged psyche to explore, while his tough-minded companion prefers denial. “Cold Water Survival” by Holly Phillips has our explorers adrift on a ’burg floating free from the ice cap. This time, the reliability of the narrative is mediated through the protagonist’s direct observation and a video record. This represents a form of mirror image in that the first narrator may be returning to the crevasse, whether physically or in his dreams, whereas the melting of the ice may be releasing more than the explorers expect from the past.

“The Office of Doom” by Richard Bowes plays the dangerous game of leavening Lovecraft with a touch of humour. Why dangerous? Because in our world of postmodernist sensibilities, an author can devalue the core concepts by inadvertently mocking them. Fortunately, Bowes manages to stay on the right side of the line and describes the life of a minion in a library who knows enough to avoid the fate of those who should have known better. “The Din of Celestial Birds” by Brian Evenson and “Light Unseen” by Joel Lane take the same theme of displacement. Outside forces take over the mind and body of a human carrier with results being respectively active and passive, but no less fatal. “The Tenderness of Jackals” by Amanda Downum speculates on whether ghoulish predators can sometimes show “mercy”. It follows in the same vein as vampires who bestow immortality rather than merely drain the victims and leave the empty husks. “One Day, Soon” by Lavie Tidhar is a short, elegant dream story which, so my ageing memory tells me, is unique in being an acknowledgement of the Holocaust in a Lovecraftian context. “The Recruiter” by Michael Shea bucks the more usual trend by being slightly optimistic. It’s good to feel that, every once in a while, someone down on his luck may find a little good fortune, even if only to follow the lead of someone rather delightfully rhyming femur with lemur. “Marya Nox” by Gemma Files is also different in adopting a transcription format for an interview with a priest. This is always difficult to manage and the sparse story is surprisingly powerful despite lacking the more usual trappings of prose.

There are the inevitable weak links, sadly delivered by Joyce Carol Oates and Simon Kurt Unsworth. “Commencement” by Oates is an attempt at injecting some humour into proceedings, but it proves overly long and lacking in intelligence. Even if there’s some form of collective amnesia among the vast number of family members and hangers-on actually attending the graduation ceremony, the immediate “world” is watching courtesy of all the cameras present. This breaks the prime directive of Lovecraftian “forbidden knowledge”. Should there be no direct coverage of the ritual climax, it’s inconceivable that the annual loss of key people would not be noticed and investigated. Finally, with only a gesture at Herbert Westian student experimentation, the dynamic is totally unLovecraftian. “Vernon Driving” by Unsworth is a revenge story only relevant to the anthology because one of the victims writes Lovecraftian fiction. This is unfortunate because, in other anthologies, both stories would be considered better than good.

“Sincerely Petrified” by Anna Tambour is the first of three standout stories. Told in a deceptively simple way, this is a thematically complex story. Imagine the disease vector of bacteria released from careless research laboratories. Now translate this into the power of myths to infect the world once free of the academic minds hoping to manipulate them. Her characterisation of the professors is pointedly satirical, but this does not detract from a neat biter-bit story. The second is “Come Lurk With Me and Be My Love” by William Browning Spencer. The notions of “love at first sight” and “soul mates” to some extent depend on the willingness of the pair to suspend disbelief. But suppose there was a test of compatibility — something to remove all uncertainty. Now that’s something that would inspire all concerned with confidence as to the future. Then comes “Mongoose” by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. All I can say is this must have been fun to write because it’s great fun to read. The future history of space exploitation with Lovecraft meeting Lewis Carroll is probably my favourite story of the anthology. It’s a pitch-perfect Mythos story with genuine affection for the tropes on display. Thank God(s) the Akhamers make friends!

The engine room driving the core of the anthology comes with the best of the “traditional” stories. This comprises “Houses Under the Sea” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, Marc Laidlaw’s “Leng”, “In the Black Mill” by Michael Chabon, and “Catch Hell” by Laird Barron. Kiernan reworks the Innsmouth theme with the worship of Father Dagon and Mother Hydra. She follows in the footsteps of other authors by moving West, this time to Monterey, and the story replicates the idea of Cult members being allowed entry to an undersea civilisation. As in other stories, drowned bodies show up and the whole is treated as a mass cult suicide. It presses all the right buttons in a playfully reverent style the Marsh family would have approved.  Laidlaw continues in the venerable tradition of an expedition, this time to Leng. Experienced readers will immediately recognise the payoff once cordyceps is mentioned but, in reality, all this does is heighten expectations. This is a beautifully judged story in which the desire to “know” inevitably proves the undoing of the seeker. Chabon also delivers another seeker story with an archaeologist digging through ancient burial mounds only to find an all-too-contemporary threat. Like O. Henry stories, there’s an expectation of a “twist ending” for Lovecraftian stories. That afterthought where you wonder why you never thought of some key element. In this instance, I cannot recall anything on such an epic scale before. Finally, Barron has us in Nyarlathotep territory with a figure in a remote Seattle wood offering an insight into a potentially chaotic world in which, literally, we become as little children to find the spiritual outcomes we were searching for — it’s all one big cycle of life, after all.

With “Machines of Concrete Light and Dark” by Michael Cisco we are into an interesting parallelism. Remembering images of cold as a metaphor for orderliness and cleanliness, we think of Eric Zann’s music or the cracks in the plasterwork of Keziah Mason’s witch house as being portals to different dimensions. It’s always interesting to speculate on what the precise mechanisms might be for moving from one place to another if not explicitly rooted in the Mythos. Cisco’s answer is cleverly ambiguous allowing ideas to trap us in the mundane, while nevertheless inviting us to consider other possibilities. This is probably the story taking the most risk. And, as is always required, the story to end with, “That of Which We Speak. . .” by Nick Mamatas has a magnificent gesture of defiance with Teacher’s (only a blend and nothing worth saving) finally put to good use.

On balance, this is one of the best Lovecraftian anthologies I can remember reading for a long time, so kudos to Ellen Datlow and all who contributed.

Fortunately, there were no authors from Wales included in the anthology — sorry, an in-joke.

For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Supernatural Noir

As an added note, Lovecraft Unbound was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Award 2010 for Best Anthology.

Best Horror of the Year: Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow

The art of editing an anthology or magazine is all about taste and judgement. You back your own subjective values, knowing what you like, and judge that the market of potential buyers will agree with you. The easiest brief to give yourself is a themed anthology. You know the game: something jam-packed with vampire, werewolf or zombie stories. It’s relatively easy to pick from the pile of submissions and even more straightforward to market. Pick cover artwork with the relevant theme immortalised in acrylic, press go, and watch the predicted number of volumes slide off the shelves to the dedicated fans. The more difficult trick is the genre magazine and an original themeless anthology where only the editor’s name stands on the cover. Now it comes down to loyal fans of the editor to buy the magazines and books so prominently emblazoned with his or her name. One of the names that does sell books is Ellen Datlow and here we find her at work with the middle ground — a “best of” anthology. Now she passes judgement on the work of other editors with the only challenge being the decision whether to include stories she initially picked as editor in the final “best”.

Best Horror of the Year has moved from St Martin’s Press to the excellent Night Shade Books and Volume One in the new series is a marvellously eclectic selection of subject matter and styles. I cannot say every story is a success, but Ms. Datlow continues to make brave editorial judgements that “push the envelope” — a lazy idiom meaning it challenges the likely preconceptions of the readers.

We start with “Cargo” by E Michael Lewis which is a “haunting” in service to remind us of a tragic human event — the death of almost one-thousand in Jonestown, Guyana. It’s a nicely judged atmospheric piece that has no pretensions other than to tell its own story. “If Angels Fight” by Richard Bowes is equally straightforward as the author lovingly reconstructs childhood events in times recently passed by. It resonates with our own memories and experiences of childhood acquaintances who seemed so full of wildness yet, suddenly as they passed into adulthood, the strangeness is gone, leaving only a prosaic husk behind. “The Clay Party” by Steve Duffy is another story playing with history. This time we are into a disaster faced by one group of emigrants following the “California Trail” as their leader makes an ill-judged decision on which route to follow, leaving the wagon train stranded as winter sets in. Personally, I think the ending slightly misjudged. I would prefer to focus on the horror faced by ordinary people caught up in an unfolding disaster rather than introduce a supernatural element, but that’s the beauty of subjective taste. . . No-one gets exactly what they want.

“Penguins of the Apocalypse” by William Browning Spencer is something of a revelation. One of the benefits of a “best of” is to learn the name of someone whose work you want to follow in the future. As a surreal exploration of the hallucinogenic possibilities in acute alcoholism just short of full-blown delirium tremens (my own preference is to use DT to describe the psychotic state induced by the volume of alcohol consumed rather than as withdrawal symptoms), this is an outstanding piece of writing. “Esmeralda” by Glen Hirshberg is also a superbly conceived and atmospheric piece of writing dealing with a truly horrific future possibility — that physical books will be abandoned to rot as the culture in society moves on to other forms of entertainment. “The Hodag” by Trent Hergenrader is a more conventional “monster” story played out in a coming-of-age context. It’s inclusion briefly threatens to represent a possible theme with another historical setting — this time in an impoverished settlement in Wisconsin in 1936.

“Very Low Flying Aircraft” by Nicholas Royal is an elegant WYSIWYG story where the title tells you all you need to know. Just watch out for the chicken in yet another story playing to our discovered theme of history. This time the setting is an airforce base in the early 1960s. “When the Gentlemen Go By” by Margaret Ronald is a riff on a faustian deal where generations in a small town enjoy prosperity because of the bargain with the Gentlemen. “The Lagerstätte” by Laird Barron drags us back into the Oughties where the author reveals the pain of loss when husband and son are lost in an air crash, while “Harry and the Monkey” by Euan Harvey plays with the fear of losing your child to predators. In this case, the fear is compounded by displacement into a different culture — Thailand where the urban myths are slightly different to our expectations.

“The Rising River” by Daniel Kaysen is one of these playful unreliable narrator stories where you are never quite sure whether there is a ghost and, if so, who it is. The same device crops up in “Loup-Garou” by R.B. Russell with uncertainty surrounding the existence of the film titled Loup-Garou and how it might end. Then comes my favourite. “Girl in Pieces” by Graham Edwards tramples over every genre boundary it can think of, then makes up another and tramples that down as well. It’s a mesmerising piece of writing in which a PI in a multidimensional physical world can do deals with deities for their magic while following through on a golem client wrongly accused of murder. Next comes the “Goosle” by Margo Lanagan. This poses as a retelling of the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel and Gretel. It’s quite engaging in a tradition not unlike Angela Carter who played with fairy tales for adult purposes but, stylistically, I find it a little overwrought. “Beach Head” by Daniel Lemoal is a somewhat weird version of Hell. Who knows. Perhaps escape is possible. “The Man from the Peak” by Adam Golanski has Death join a party on a remote mountain and act rather like a cat, playing with the partygoers before despatching them. We then close with “The Narrows” by Simon Bestwick which is structurally the least satisfying the the stories selected. It sets out as SF with a small group of children and teachers surviving an atomic bomb blast. Then rather without warning, it seems to morph into one of these underground cavern stories in which strange creatures may be slowly picking off the survivors. Or, perhaps, this is the onset of the inevitable radiation sickness warping the perceptions of those lost in the winding tunnels, waiting to die through lack of food. It’s nicely written with a good sense of drama, but I wish the author had made a clear decision on whether this was an SF story or supernatural with a small group of adults and children whose school trip comes unstuck when they get lost exploring the underground canal system and its associated tunnels in northern England.

Overall this is one of the best of the best anthologies I’ve read in a long time and I strongly recommend it. Ms. Datlow is at the top of her game.

Notes:

1. I confess to being deeply prejudiced against poetry. There are two poems included, but I am not qualified to judge their merit.

2. As a matter of fact, the following sentence in the Summation is incorrect, “The authors reside in the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Wales, and Thailiand.” The last time I checked, Wales was not a sovereign country. It is combined with England to make a single jurisdiction within the federal state of Great Britain.

For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

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