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REVIEW: The Best Horror Of The Year, Volume 2 edited by Ellen Datlow

REVIEW SUMMARY: Beautiful writing and serious goosebumps.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Ellen Datlow brings us seventeen of the best Horror short stories to appear in the last year demonstrating not only the incredible diversity of the genre but also its astonishing capacity for stylistic excellence and technical innovation.


PROS: Files and Barringer’s “each thing i show you is a piece of my death”, Morrissette’s “Wendigo”, Duffy’s “The Lion’s Den”, Morris’ “Lotophagi”, Langan’s “Technicolor”.
CONS: Hirshberg’s “The Nimble Men”, Johnstone’s “Dead Loss”, Barron’s “Strappado”.
BOTTOM LINE: While the anthology contains some weak stories as well as some strong ones, the weak stories are never all that bad and the good ones are often exceptional. On the whole, that makes for a great anthology.

Much like Stephen Jones’ Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series, Ellen Datlow opens the anthology with “Summation 2009”, a piece giving readers a whirlwind tour of all the best books, magazines, short stories and works of non-fiction to appear in and around the Horror genre in the course of 2009. A fantastic place to start whether you are looking to get into Horror, or whether you are an old hand looking for your next purchase, this is an impressively complete if critically bare piece of genre train-spotting that does a great job of reminding us quite how much interesting Horror passes below the radar of most genre websites and magazines.

But let us move on to the meat of the book : The stories.

Suzy McKee Charnas’ “Lowland Sea” is well written but frustratingly lightweight. Set against the backdrop of a terrible civilisation-eating disease that has billowed up from the Global South, it is the story of a small community clustered around a hugely wealthy Hollywood wannabe. Hoping to ride out the infection, the community barricade themselves into a well-stocked mansion in the French countryside but, as you might expect as this is a Horror anthology, it all ends rather poorly. “Lowland Sea” is not particularly interesting on a narrative level and its ideas are actually quite pedestrian. What prevents the story from sliding into outright cliché is Charnas’ writing. Beautifully descriptive and wryly detached, Charnas deconstructs the Western myth of the last bastion of civilisation by suggesting that the world being destroyed by the disease (on both sides of the mansion’s walls) was never all that civilised to begin with. There is also a rather elegant flourish in which the fate of the story’s viewpoint character darkly reflects one of the songs the community uses to keep itself entertained. However, while these motifs hint at a deeper social sub-text or a more profound tragedy than the traditional genre one present in the story’s foreground, Charnas’ allusions never quite manage to cohere into anything substantial. There is a great story in these characters and these events, but Charnas fails to nail it down decisively and so it floats away as potential unfulfilled.

Steve Keller’s “The End of Everything” begins with a stylish flurry of jagged sentences and surreal images that suggest some equivalence between the psychological state of the narrator and the ruined post-apocalyptic landscape he inhabits. This brilliantly magnetic prose carefully picks its way through a tortured timeline before the plot turns up. At which point Keller takes his foot off the stylistic accelerator and allows the story to coast to its conclusion. This is a sign of an author who recognises the power and the importance of style but who nonetheless struggles to integrate gonzo prose poetry with stuff like plot and characterisation. This is a rather frustrating quirk that pops up throughout the anthology but in Keller’s case the change of gear is quite noticeable as the story’s power really does lie in its style as the protagonist’s fragmenting mind wrestles with a loss of faith, a messiah complex, an urge to kill and a terrible sense of guilt all expressed through his terrible visions of a world gone mad.

Reggie Oliver’s “Mrs. Midnight” is a robustly weird tale about a minor celebrity who agrees to help save an old Victorian music hall only to wind up tumbling into the dark and surreal history of London’s East End featuring Jack the Ripper, cannibalism and animal comedians. Despite lacking the kind of final big idea that would have allowed it to finish with the bang it was clearly aiming for, “Mrs. Midnight” is still an impressive meditation upon the ends that people will go to in order to leave their mark on the world and it is written in a style that perfectly apes the disingenuous anti-intellectualism and fondness for cliché that pervades British tabloid writing.

Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer’s “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” is the anthology’s first truly exceptional story. Borrowing from J-Horror films like Ring (1998) and Pulse (2001) as well as ergodic works such as Danieleweski’s House of Leaves (2000) it uses emails, blog posts, chat logs, press releases and transcribed interviews to tell the story of a baroquely shot 1920s snuff film that manages to escape its original medium. Is it a meme? Some kind of CGI virus? Some twisted attempt at gaining immortality? Showing a real eye for the syntax of different forms of electronic communication, Files and Barringer have produced a story that is not only perfectly paced, well characterised, formally innovative and full of ideas but incredibly creepy too.

Glen Hirshberg’s “The Nimble Men” is a well paced and deftly characterised riff on one of those weird tales that get told around the camp fire. Two pilots waiting for their place to be de-iced notice the northern lights in the sky so they start swapping stories about them. The stories get passed back and forth along with a few jokes and a lunchbox full of poutine and suddenly the pilots realise that they have been sitting still for a while. Where is the de-icer? What are those lights in the trees? Why is that passenger crying? Neatly balanced and perfectly pleasant, “The Nimble Men” is competently written but nothing much to write home about.

Michael Marshall Smith’s “What Happens When You Wake Up In The Night” is short but sweet. Drawing its inspiration from the sense of claustrophobia that one can sometimes feel in the pitch dark, it tells the story of a little girl who wakes up to find her night-light missing. After feeling her way around for a while, she eventually wakes up her parents but they struggle to find the night-light too. Or the light switch. Or the curtains. Or the door. Saved by its comparative lack of ambition “What Happens When You Wake Up In The Night” does what it does without any fuss or fireworks.

Micaela Morrissette’s “Wendigo” is another one of those stories that turns on the style early on only to slowly run out of heat like an over-long shower that uses up all the hot water. Oh but what style it is! “Wendigo” opens with a fine-dining experience described in viscerally disorienting terms. An assault upon the reader waged with intoxicating flavours and the sensation of crunching bone and meat stuck between teeth. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about exactly what kind of gourmet the viewpoint character is. How her tastes shape her perceptions, her identity and her sense of self-worth. Regrettably, “Wendigo” ultimately suffers for its focus on style as its characters and narrative prove too thin to prevent the story flagging a bit in the middle but longueurs aside, this is still an impressive piece of writing.

Norman Prentiss’ “In The Porches of My Ears” is another frustrating read. Oddly paced, the story is not particularly long but it lavishes attention upon its set up. Prentiss goes to great lengths describing how a couple react when they go to the cinema and wind up sitting behind an old woman who spends the entire film giving her blind partner a depressing interpretation of the events on screen. Having established the characters, their relationship and the idea of a depressing narrator, Prentiss then aggressively and ineptly reframes the story and rushes through a viscerally unpleasant pay-off that relies heavily upon the invocation of bladder cancer to compensate for the fact that the lovingly described characters and relationships never quite go anywhere. What is frustrating is that Prentiss is clearly trying to coax a story out of the way that bad news can serve to reshape the world around us. This is an excellent idea for a story but ultimately Prentiss fails to stick the landing.

Stephen Graham Jones’ “Lonegan’s Luck” is – much like Oliver’s “Mrs. Midnight” – a very traditional piece of Horror writing. It is written in a pleasant if unsurprising style, it features interesting but unchallenging characters and its ideas are quite familiar (zombies and magic gone wrong set in the old west). This engaging but ultimately quite generic read is enlivened by the merest suggestion of a subtext dealing with the dangers of placing one’s faith in magical foodstuffs (like communion wafers) but all in all this is one of the weaker stories in the anthology.

Dale Bailey and Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Crevasse” first appeared in Datlow’s recently published Lovecraft-themed anthology Lovecraft Unbound (2009). This is a fitting birth-place as this story of a group of 1920s Antarctic explorers could quite easily be a spin-off of Lovecraft’s At The Mountain’s of Madness (1936). Separated from the rest of the expedition, the explorers experience a terrible accident that leaves them teetering on the edge of a crevasse. Uninjured and free to move about, the doctor is called upon to cut one of the sled dogs free, sending it tumbling into the crevasse in order to save the rest of the group. However, the doctor is strangely out of sorts. He is drawn to the darkness of the crevasse. He claims to hear the dog whining. He thinks he sees his wife. He swears that there is a giant staircase cut into the rock. He is drawn back to the blackness again and again despite the protestations of his companions. Being a story dealing more with madness than the supernatural, “The Crevasse” is clearly playing with the iconography of the Lovecraft novella but its rather generic characters and depiction of depression as well as a general lack of tension means that what power “The Crevasse” has is ultimately due more to the gravitational pull of Lovecraft’s novella than anything else.

Steve Duffy’s “The Lion’s Den” is another quite traditional weird tale. Set in a zoo, it tells of a keeper who watches as a young man disappears in the lion enclosure. Shaken by the mysterious event, the zoo keepers then come to realise that something has changed in the zoo… the animals are behaving oddly. “The Lion’s Den” is a story that is, to be honest, thin on ideas : Instead of telling us what it is that is so strange about the animals’ behaviour, Duffy refuses to allow himself to be pinned down, stressing instead the expertise of the keepers and their reactions to goings on in the zoo. However, this lack of a grand reveal does not ultimately matter as the story is technically perfect. From the very first page, Duffy begins slowly tightening the screws. Allowing the tension to creep slowly upwards as he introduces more and more weirdness. Occasionally the story will plateau with an exquisitely rendered supernatural set-piece but the second the dust settles, Duffy turns the screw again. Many of the stories in The Best Horror of the Year – Volume 2 rely upon raw prose to raise the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck. Others construct fiendishly horrifying ideas. Duffy, on the other hand, has complete control over his story’s rhythm and with pacing this good, you simply do not need any of the other stuff.

Edward Morris’ “Lotophagi” deals with a hippy commune that drops out of civilisation only to discover that some things are even further removed from the world and values of men than they are. Told through the perspective of a slightly unhinged survivor, the story skips back and forth in time with an effortless grace slowly building tension and conveying an impression of a mind that is falling apart under the weight of too many memories and way too many drugs. What is most impressive about Morris’ writing is the way in which he manages to perfectly integrate the demands of characterisation, narrative and style into a structure that is not only non-linear but also brilliantly paced and powerfully affecting. Read this story for the way it makes your stomach tighten. Re-read it for Morris’ jaw-dropping technical skill.

Kaaron Warren’s “The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall” is a deceptively complex piece of writing. It begins as a fairly standard if somewhat whimsical monster hunt with a rare dog dealer setting off for Fiji in order to capture a vampire dog. Warren’s prose is open and transparent and effortless to read. But then, once the characters arrive in Fiji the story starts to change. Suddenly, we are no longer on a monster hunt but on a weird and densely metaphorical quest filled with distorted images of masculine rapacity and the perils facing any woman who gives in to them for even a second. Despite re-reading the story a couple of times, I am still not entirely sure that I have understood it but even if the story itself remains a puzzle, the growing sense of unease that pervades the second half of “The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall” is still powerful stuff.

Carole Johnstone’s “Dead Loss” is a mash-up of Lovecraftian ‘something dwells below’ Horror and Spielbergian ‘we’re gonna need a bigger boat’ Thriller set on a Scottish fishing boat. “Dead Loss” is a pleasant enough story but it never quite manages to get out of second gear. The problem lies in its nature as a stylistic mash-up and its author’s failure to master the technical demands of any of the elements contained within that mash-up. For example, Thrillers tend to be largely structural works that draw their power from the author’s skill at creating and manipulating tension through control of pace and atmosphere. Think of all of those scary movies you have sat through and how you felt the slow build up of tension in the pit of your guts. Think of how you laughed with relief when it turned out to be the neighbour’s cat and not the monster. Johnstone manages to build tension (albeit by drawing upon the residual power of other – and better – works of genre) but once that tension is built she systematically allows it to ebb away. Also problematic is the way that Johnstone lapses into florid Lovecraftian prose. This type of stylistic quirk worked beautifully when you imagined the narrator to be an embittered WASP intellectual, but when the characters are all working class Scottish fishermen, the quirk quickly becomes jarring. “Dead Loss” is far from offensive but its lack of ideas and technical skill do stick out when compared to some of the other stories in this anthology.

Laird Barron’s “Strappado” is, much like “each thing i show you is a piece of my death”, the story of characters encountering a work of psychotic art – a piece that does not merely transgress the boundaries of taste, but those of morality and humanity as well. Unfortunately for “Strappado” the similarity between the stories is not exactly flattering as where “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” is technically superb and emotionally complex, Barron’s story is a flat, stylistically uninteresting and ultimately rather drearily misanthropic story in which a couple of smug and wealthy gay men get what they (apparently) deserve.

Nina Allan’s “The Lammas Worm” is a story that is more Fantastical than it is Horrific. Set in a British travelling circus, it tells of an encounter with an odd little girl. Picked up by one of the performers, the girl reveals herself to be nothing less than a force of nature. As the story slowly unfolds Allan paints a vivid picture of a bunch of run down people who suddenly find themselves encountering youth in all of its primal power. The writing is nothing much to write home about and the characters are just enough to give the story weight but Allan neatly taps into a tradition of British folklore to produce an entertaining and enjoyable story.

John Langan’s “Technicolor” closed out Datlow’s recent Poe (2009) anthology and it does a similar job here. The story is an exercise in counterfactual genre criticism in which a professor tells his class about the fictitious history and non-existent antecedent of Poe’s famous story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). Beautifully paced, formally innovative and powerfully written, “Technicolor” is a story about the power of books to capture our imaginations and bully our emotions. Despite an ending that feels a little bit too much like overkill, this remains one of the best short stories I have read in the last few years.

CONCLUSION: As I am relatively new to the Horror short fiction scene, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover quite how much style seems to be flowing about the place. These days (it seems to me) a lot of SF and Fantasy authors concentrate on producing the kind of transparently readable prose style that supports the longer novels that are now the standard in genre publishing. Of course, there are a few genre stylists kicking about the place but their approach to writing seems to be depressingly rare. As much as I like books whose ideas flow unimpeded into my mind’s eye, I also like writing that stops me in my tracks and draws my attention not to what the words represent but to the words themselves. I like writing that is an end in itself.

Mercifully, if Datlow’s latest anthology is anything to go by, then my silent laments have been answered as the Horror short fiction scene is producing stylists by the truckload. I challenge anyone not to be impressed by the prose styles of Keller and Morrissette, the technical skill of Duffy and Morris or the formal innovations displayed by Files, Barringer and Langan. I only wish that the list of recent Hugo short fiction winners contained as much stylistic firepower as this anthology.

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