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.
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:
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