Anthologies in horror, fantasy and science fiction seem to come at us like a horde of zombies. This is a good thing. Much of the best work in these genres (especially horror) appears in short-run magazines, collections from small independents and numerous webzines. It’s too easy to miss some of the best scare out there.
Master editor Ellen Datlow makes sure we don’t miss out in her continuing series, The Best Horror of the Year. In the midst of that horde of anthologies, Datlow’s work has proven consistently the best, her selections ranging from little known authors to the true masters of the dark arts.
Collections are, almost by definition, a bit uneven. Datlow’s expert selections manage this problem and most readers will find something to enjoy about every foray into the murky darkness. Datlow has raised up a menagerie of monsters, some more compelling than others but all well-worth your tribute of fright.
Although it’s more than a little difficult to choose the best of these “best” stories, most readers will never forget Catherynne M. Valente’s “Days of Flaming Motorcycles”. Other than the genius of the title (that I wont explain here), Valente creates a fresh (ha!) zombie tale that contains all the elegiac pathos and harsh beauty of her fantasy novels. Known for works like Labyrinth and Palimpsest, Valente here reminds us of her ability to infuse the fantastic with a sense of deep yearning and deeply human emotion. The zombies you meet in this story are probably unlike any you’ve encountered before. Valente successfully turns their plight into a profound metaphor for loss and regret. If you enjoyed Let Me In author John Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead, you’ll love what this short piece shows about the zombie genre’s continued possibilities.
Richard Harland’s “The Fear” also deserves special mention. This selection has the feeling of an old fashioned Victorian ghost story that manages to incorporate elements of horror fan culture and the documentarian aesthetic of films like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity. As Harland builds toward the big reveal at the end, the story becomes increasingly chilling. I was a bit disappointed with the final ending (too much of a Ringu feeling) but the ride itself was suitably uncomfortable.
Datlow also gives us a taste of the work of Joe R. Lansdale. Lansdale is the master of the short story and his “The Folding Man” is remarkable in part for its ability to tap into so many different chthonian fears in one brief narrative. His story of three teenagers having the worst Halloween ever manages to evoke the fear of Deliverance-style country horrors and combine it with the Headless Horseman meets our creeping terror of inhuman things of gear and clockwork. There is even some fear of nuns thrown in for good measure and it all works beautifully (in the sense of horribly).
Horror hounds also get a sense of what the unholy lords of the genre have been up to lately. Richard CHristian Matheson turns in a tale that eschews the supernatural in favor of the terrors of psychosis and violence in the bleak places of the world. His “Transfiguration” reads like Lovecraft meets Bret Easton Ellis meets “Ice Road Truckers.” Although strikingly different from most of his work, his unholy angel is disturbing to say the least.
Datlow chooses a Tanith Lee chiller called “A Black and White Sky”. Lee enthusiasts will immediately recognize the prolific dark fantasists ability to tie the mythological to the mundane. In this tale of avian apocalypse, she explores how personal isolation intersects with the anxieties of the modern news cycle and terrorizes us with the boundary between nature and the supernatural.
An added bonus to this collection of fine chillers is the editor’s “Summation 2010”. Even the most devout horror fan has likely missed some of the novels, short stories, anthologies, webzines and nonfiction that Datlow discusses in more than forty pages of bibliographic detail. My only quibble with this otherwise useful part of the book was the focus on printed/web material alone. Given the amount of space she gave even to mixed genre work, it seems that a brief discussion of what the author considers the best horror in feature films/shorts/webisodes/gaming was in order. She obviously made the editorial chose to only focus on the word, printed and digital, but most genre lovers (like myself) would love to hear her picks.
A culture gets the monsters it wishes for and the nightmares it deserves. Datlow obviously made her fine choices for aesthetic rather than thematic reasons but it is striking how many of these “best of” share some basic premises. Many of them feature isolated individuals, abandoned in various ways at a lonely still-point even as a maelstrom of events swirls around them. Even nature and the natural world prove predatory or at least bleak and empty, a stage for human destruction.
Good horror is more than good cultural studies and the real strength of this collection is the editor’s perfect eye for terror. Reading this collection though, you’ll be stuck with how much these “best of” tales mirror the anxieties of the moment.
Datlow has created a series that must be viewed as essential for serious horror fans. Volume three will help you get your fright on as you eagerly await her 2011 picks.