How on Earth did 10 years of Ellen Datlow’s “Best Horror of the Year” series go by? To be honest, a couple of those years probably passed while I was waiting for this WordPress page to load just now, but even so. Anyway, it’s been a few years since I got round to posting a review of one of these, and I’ve not got the time to catch up on that, so I will just say that the quality of this series has not declined over time and volumes 1 to 10 are all worth reading. But what of this eleventh anthology?
Things kick off with a name I hadn’t seen around for a while: Anne Billson, whose 1993 corporate vampire novel Suckers I enjoyed as a kid. ‘I Remember Nothing’ begins in classic “torture-porn” territory but Billson is somehow able to write about a very worn-out horror environment (the heroine wakes trapped in a shabby, unidentified room with no memory of how she got there) in a way that avoids cliche, and the story stays readable and tense despite its length. This is soon followed by a fine contribution from Ray Cluley, ‘Painted Wolves’, about an ill-assorted little team of wildlife documentary makers on the job in a South African national park. This is more than just another bit of “we’re as bad as them really” nature horror, and also explores the pernicious effects of the media. The unflinching depiction of what used to be called the ‘sex war’ (until people realized that made it sound exciting, as opposed to grindingly depressing and endless) also helps this story fit right into a Datlow anthology.
After all that some comic relief from Michael Marshall Smith’s “Shit Happens” is very well-timed, and he’s on his usual form, just with the acerbic humour a bit more to the front than usual. John Langan, another writer who is always a safe bet, is also on hand with one of his trademark long, academia-inflected stories, “Haak”. Although the framing device (an odd lecturer dispensing a class to some university students) is very reminiscent of his earlier story ‘Technicolor” the meat of the story is very different, with the inspiration coming from Joseph Conrad instead of Poe this time. Also central to the plot is another super-famous literary childrens’ character, and that’s where things went wrong for me. This is very much a matter of personal taste: although Langan is writing as well as usual, I have since childhood nursed such a violent loathing for said character that I don’t even enjoy reading attempts to subvert or develop it. I find both character and book simply irredeemable, even in a story as full of adventure, mystery and colour as this!
Although this series virtually always offers a commendable amount of variety, some of the years tend to have one flavour of horror that seems more predominant. This year, I felt like this was apocalyptic horror, which is bad luck for me because it’s pretty much my least favourite type. A good handful of the stories are about how people operate (or fail to operate) after society falls apart, or are actual depictions of apocalypse, and while one of these is very well-written (Joe Hill’s ‘You Are Released’, a kind of tragic literary Airplane) I found it too upsetting to really enjoy, while some of the others seem hackneyed.
Fortunately, Steve Toase is on hand to remind us that not every future-facing story has got to be miserable. His ‘The Jaws of Ourobouros” is the best story in the book, a tight fusion of standing-stone mythology, national disaster and the criminal gangs who profit from it. It too is based on something going very wrong in our future, but it’s action-filled and exciting and features some terrific original ideas. Toase has obviously impressed the editor, as another of his stories, “Split Chain Stitch”, also appears in the book, and that too is better than average. We could definitely do with more authors willing to explore new ground like this.
That’s actually one reason I also liked ‘Golden Sun’, a sort of expanded cadavre exquis where four authors – Kristi de Meester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters and Michael Wehunt – each write a separate chunk of a narrative about a little girl who goes missing after an uneasy beachside holiday. Each chunk is told from the perspective of a different character, and the diversity of voice obviously came in very handy for that. It’s a subtly strange story and everyone involved holds their own without any one voice dominating. Meanwhile, ‘I Love You Mary-Grace’ by Amelia Mangan proves that no type of horror plot is ever really ‘over’ – you might think that paranormal romance would have been comprehensively drained of all interest by now, but writers like Mangan show that real talent can still pull something fun out of the bag.
So yes, it’s a predictable thumbs-up for this anthology. Datlow is to my mind the reigning queen of horror anthologists, and to be honest probably the reigning king too now that Richard Dalby has gone beyond the veil!