It's tempting to say, with this being the 20th Anniversary Edition, that Best New Horror has reached a new watershed in the quality of its selections -
- but in reality that happened last year, with the arrival of newcomers Gary McMahon, Simon Strantzas and Simon Kurt Unsworth (two of whom make a reappearance this year). Mark Samuels, too, is a relative newcomer although, remarkably, he actually made his debut in this annual showcase series 5 years ago.
If you're scratching your head and saying, "I've never came across any of these names in my local bookshop" then you can be forgiven, for so far these gentleman have only been able to learn their craft within the independent small press publishers (alas, few new women writers in recent years are making a name for themselves in modern horror fiction, although one - Allyson Bird - recently won Best Short Fiction Collection for "Bull Running for Girls" from the British Fantasy Society). Other names in this year's edition, such as Tim lebbon and Sarah Pinborough, will be familiar to readers of Leisure Books' long running horror fiction line. It may, however, come as a surprise to many to know that, despite Leisure's consistent publication schedule and wide distribution, they are in fact an independent publisher...
... meaning that, currently, none of the major league London or New York publishers (those part of international conglomerates) has a horror fiction imprint.
This, then, is why Stephen Jones's "The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror" series is so vital (even more so given the abrupt cancellation, after 21 years, by St. Martin's Press of "The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror" - although it was gratifying to hear that Ellen Datlow was immediately picked up to do "Best Horror of the Year" for Night Shade Books, though unsurprising to note that it was an independent press which threw her the lifeline). This is where most of us first hear of the best of the new writers worth seeking out.
Last year's volume 19 was one of the largest `mammoths' in recent years and its utterly solid lineup - featuring great fiction from the likes of Joe Hill and Glen Hirshberg - is a hard act to follow.
Amazingly volume 20 trumps it: volume 18 was one of the series' most cross-genre, boundary-defying instalments, featuring writers such as Michael Bishop, Gene Wolfe, Elizabeth Hand and Geoff Ryman, all of whom are well-known for their association with fantasy and science fiction (volume 18 sold out of its entire print run within a year in the UK).
Volume 20, however, is the series' most eclectic addition: all horror, yes, but this time our editor seems to be feeling mischievous, with the inclusion of a number of humorous tales, the sly "Feminine Endings" by Neil Gaiman, the delightful "The Pile" by Michael Bishop and the exuberant "The Camping Wainwrights" by Ian R. MacLeod.
But there are also `old' horrors set many years in the past, their writers showing fantastic confidence and skill when it comes to drawing their readers in, to the point where the stories' `old world' voice completely convinces and effortlessly puts the reader right their in the past: "The Oram County Whooit" by Steve Duffy and "The Overseer" by Albert E. Cowdrey. Then, too, there are those remarkable writers who seem to imbue their stories with a sense of set-anywhere-anytime otherworldliness; even when the `place' exists, in their magical hands it doesn't feel like it should: "The Place of Waiting" by Brian Lumley and "A Donkey at the Mysteries" by the fantastic Reggie Oliver (the only thing better than reading an Oliver tale is hearing the man himself reading it: head on over to The Ghost Story Society to listen to him reading aloud the very story included in this year's edition of Best New Horror).
Then there are the great stories: "Under Fog" by Tanith Lee, describing how a small coastal village survives on the spoils of the ships wrecked upon its shore. What is most satisfying about this tale is the `voice' Lee tells it in: for this reader, volume 20's best story. Also "The Beginning of Sorrow" by Pinckney Benedict, better known in the literary journals of America's university presses. Not only a compelling `voice' with details brilliantly conveyed, but the premise too is immediately arresting: a dog which slowly and achingly becomes a man.
There are others, of course: Peter Crowther's lead story for instance, from his excellent linked-collection "The Land at the End of the Working Day", which sees the author holding his own against other genre writers who have written terrifically about the musical worlds of jazz and rock `n' roll (although, here, Crowther's love of music forms only the story's background): the novels "Spider Kiss" by Harlan Ellison, "The Armageddon Rag" by George R. R. Martin and "Glimpses" and "Say Goodbye" both by Lewis Shiner. As well, of course, as numerous tales by two giants of short fiction, Theodore Sturgeon and Richard Matheson.
For the first time in the series' history THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR won BEST ANTHOLOGY in consecutive years from the British Fantasy Society. Volume 20 deserves to make it a hat-trick.
In our currently climate (and especially given that the horror genre has yet to regain its sales heyday of the 1980s) it is heartening to see that this astonishing series has reached 20 volumes, and for this the publisher Robinson/Running Press should be commended (volume 21 is already in the works, with the editor's website requesting works first published in 2009 be submitted for consideration for inclusion is the 2010 edition). Indeed, the publisher showed their support this year by attending the British Fantasy Society's annual gathering, Fantasycon, in the UK for volume 20's advance-publication launch in September, where this reviewer picked up their copy.
This series MUST reach at least volume 23 - so as to beat the current record held by DAW books for "Year's Best Horror Stories"! (22 volumes, from the early `70s through to the early `90s). But, seriously, the genre needs the bright spotlight and shout-out that this series provides, and I personally hope it reaches its 25th Anniversary and - dare we hope? - 30th.