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