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