'Best New Horror' is now the longest running annual 'best of' horror anthology ever, beating the previous 22-volume record held for the past eighteen years by DAW Books for 'The Year's Best Horror Stories' (1971-1994). Although, in fairness to the industrious Ellen Datlow, she has - so far - edited an unbroken run of 25 annual 'best of' anthologies, twenty-one with St. Martin's Press and currently four with Night Shade Books. Of course, both have a ways to go yet to beat the mighty Gardner Dozois, who has edited a colossal 34 'best of' science fiction volumes since 1977, five with the publisher Dutton and, presently, twenty-nine editions of 'The Year's Best Science Fiction'.
Last year 'Best New Horror' and Datlow's 'The Best Horror of the Year' overlapped by quite a few stories: this year none overlap. In fact, together with Paula Guran's 'The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror', only one story is duplicated out of a total of 77, making this year a true embarrassment of riches.
RAMSEY CAMPBELL leads off with "Holding the Light". Curiosity, a burning need to just know: the curse of youth, as young Tom and Lucas find out when they go exploring a local tunnel said to be haunted. As ever, Campbell's language is deceptively simple, the accumulative effect eerie, one of dread.
Next up CHRISTOPHER FOWLER gives us a mischievous piece of whimsy, presented as the monologue of a patron of The Jack O'Lantern pub telling a new customer about the strange events that always seem to occur there throughout its history on All-Hallows Eve. Readers of Fowler's recent Hammer-homage horror novel 'Hell Train' will know just how delightfully sly he can be, and as with the best of tongue-in-cheek horror "Lantern Jack" still manages to give a nasty bite at the end.
"Rag and Bone" by PAUL KANE is classic Best New Horror. I heard once that, with the overwhelming number of stories he has to consider each year, editor Jones will often read the first few pages then skip to the last few: if the story ends up going in the direction he thought it was then what's the point? After many decades in the business he wants to be surprised. So no surprise, then, he picked Kane as this story of a scrap merchant - a rag and bone man - doesn't finish up where you think it will.
"Some Kind of Light Shines from Your Face" by GEMMA FILES is from the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Society Award-nominated 'Gutshot', an anthology of weird western stories edited by Conrad Williams. Western it certainly is, but it also involves Greek legends: a young woman joins two women in a travelling wagon, crossing the American dustbowl and scraping up a living by setting up tent and displaying their wares to grubby patrons eager to spend the little coin they have on catching a glimpse of the fair flesh and secret parts of comely women; to look on something fine to take their minds off their dry, barren existence. The women wear masks on stage, and when young Persia Leitner is eventually allowed to join them as well, a trinity is formed, and something happens... and old myths become new reality.
"Midnight Flight" by JOEL LANE is, as the author himself says in the introduction, "a story about the loss of memory, and how memory might not want to be lost." Concerning a man slowly recalling the title and details of a lost book from his childhood, whilst losing the identity of who he is now, the language very much recalls classic Ramsey Campbell in the author's claustrophobic depiction of misinterpretation and paranoia - and even manages to out-do Campbell in the closing page!
"But None Shall Sing for Me" by GREGORY NICOLL is a piece of exotic horror set in the Caribbean and told from the point of view of a zombie. No, this isn't the knock about fun of Tim Powers' terrific `On Stranger Tides' novel, but an intense tale of closure and setting oneself free.
Some of the best horror is the simplest, as demonstrated by ALISON LITTLEWOOD in "About the Dark". Three youths, Adam, Fuzz and Sasha, enter what is locally known as the Dark Cave. Through Sasha, we learn that there is a darkness in the cave, and not simply an absence of light. Many people have gone into the cave. Some never came back, their names written on the walls. Adam has recently started attending a new school, where he has reinvented himself from the bullied to a strong and disinterested figure who doesn't care about anything. Except he does. He cares about Sasha, but because of the newly created image of himself he doesn't show it and she goes with Fuzz instead, which annoys him greatly. Only once do all three enter the dark; thereafter Adam ventures alone and learns about the dark... and the names... and who puts them there. Understated, exact, and with an atmosphere that closes in on you. A frequent contributor to the UK's premiere horror fiction magazine, `Black Static' (wherein this story was first published; another story she had in the same magazine last year was reprinted by Ellen Datlow), Littlewood recently hit the UK bestseller lists with the publication of her well-received debut novel `A Cold Season'.
In "The Photographer's Tale" by DANIEL MILLS Lowell's estranged apprentice, Patrick, sends him a camera. It's 1892 and this camera is the very latest model. It is also unique, as Lowell soon finds out. When looking through the lens it reveals not only what the subject will eventually look like in old age, but what secrets lie beneath their mask of make-up and outward personality. And once Lowell sees the truth, he sees it everywhere... even when no longer looking through the lens.
"The Tower" by MARK SAMUELS comes from his collection `The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales'. In this deceptively simple story a man, disillusioned with the modern commercial world and the vapidity of its future he envisions ahead, begins seeing a fog-enshrouded tower, where there shouldn't be any, in the middle of the city of London. A symbolism, he believes, for where he's trying to go, what he has to become. The power of this tale lies in the telling, and is on a par with the measured surrealism of Thomas Ligotti. Both write fresh horror, but imbued with the disciplined style of old masters like M.R. James, Robert Aickman, Algernon Blackwood and, of course, Arthur Machen. This is his seventh appearance in `Best New Horror' since volume 15.
Last year's "Christmas with the Dead" by Joe R. Lansdale was Best New Horror's knock-about story; this year PETER ATKINS picks up that mantel in the delightful and snappily written "Dancing Like we're Dumb". It sees the return of his detective character, Kitty Donnelly, in a short, breezy tale of gangsters dabbling in the supernatural. It starts off with Kitty being carjacked and kidnapped: her day just gets worse from there on out!
"An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky" by SIMON STRANTZAS is an emotionally complex story, allegorical, symbolic and thick with meaning and portent: Port McCarthy, once beautiful, is a damaged town, wrecked by an oil tanker spill. Our narrator and his wife Suzanne, once filled with hope and love, now stained like the town. Both fates - the town's and the couple's - are intricately entwined. Returning alone ten years after the town's accident to the inn they first stayed in, and the beginning of his wife's own descent, the narrator reflects on the crumbling of the past, seeing stains and shadows in the room and how his way of thinking, and what he said, came to infect his wife. The rich symbolism of the closing passages have a deep, ironic weight. This is horror of raw feelings, the writing delicately balanced, and being a tale of non-explicit horror it would not have looked out of place in this year's `The Best American Short Stories'.
"Hair" by JOAN AIKEN comes from her posthumously published collection. Brief, but sharp, it tells of Tom keeping a promise to his recently deceased young wife to deliver a lock of her hair to her mother, whom he has never actually met before, his wife having been estranged from her for some time. An old woman, and very strange, Tom soon wishes he had still never met her.
Echoes of Ramsey Campbell's influence can also be heard in the tight, dread-filled language of STEVE RASNIC TEM's "Miri", which marks his 16th appearance in Best New Horror. Here Rick finds his new life invaded by memories of a damaged and needy girl from his college days. Memories so tangible as to blur and make indistinct the reality he's currently trying to live in.
"Corbeaux Bay" by GEETA ROOPNARINE is a short but effective story of a man who likes to get away from it all by exploring his local beach, where birds to whom he was cruel and dismissive in the past, now take a keen interest in him.
"Sad, Dark Thing" by MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH is from what was easily last year's best original horror anthology, ` A Book of Horrors' edited by Stephen Jones, which I've reviewed and where readers can find my thoughts on this story. As I said of a Smith story in a review of another Jones anthology from last year, `Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead', everything Smith touches at short story length these days turns to gold. As for this present story, suffice it to say here that it was also reprinted in `The Best British Short Stories 2012', a non-genre literary anthology.
ROBERT SILVERBERG is easily the longest serving writer here: his first short story sale was in 1954 when he was eighteen-years-old - almost 60 years ago. Silverberg is a solid novelist, but a dazzling short story writer, as witness the recent massive retrospective from Subterranean Press, `Phases of the Moon: Stories from Six Decades' (2004), and as too witness this present story, "Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar", published in what is now the author's seventh decade as a professional writer. Read more ›