The back cover tells us "legendary" editor Ellen Datlow ... Hold up, stop right there for a minute. "Legendary"? Isn't that a little ostentatious? "Venerated," sure; "well-respected," definitely; "award-winning," undeniable; but "legendary"? That's a descriptor best used in barroom tall tales and children's bedtime stories. "Boys, did I ever tell you the Legend of Ellen Datlow? On my soul, every word is true." A legendary editor would take the time to ensure all the typos got swept out of her book. Anyway, back to the cover copy: It promises that editor Ellen Datlow (legendary or not) "knows what scares us." If that's so, I wonder why she's holding back in this book. But that's OK, I'm a hard guy to bug out. The book's not scary, but is it any good?
Suzy McKee Charnas kicks off this volume with "Lowland Sea," a modern take on Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." A vapid movie star (is there any other kind?) and his entourage take refuge in a private compound in Cannes, partying non-stop while a plague outside the walls holds dominion over all. It's an interesting spin on Poe's tale, but that's as far as it goes. Charnas sets up her high concept, then ends the story.
The best of 2009's best horror is "each thing i show you is a piece of my death," a powerhouse collaboration between Gemma Files and Stephen Barringer. The story is told in high-tech epistolary fashion, in a collage of blog entries, police reports, e-mails and interview transcripts that mirrors rapidly evolving communication media. That format doesn't leave a lot of room for character development, but it enhances the documentary feel of the piece, intensifying the chilly feeling that this story of a literally viral video and its morbidly voyeuristic death cult of personality could be real.
Also stylistically daring is Micaela Morrissette's "Wendigo," but to no good purpose. I'm all for the New Weird. I think it's one of the most exciting (non)movements in the fantasy/horror genres, but I see too many random collections of surreal imagery and descriptions of slime, cephalopods and decadence wandering around in search of a story to serve. "Wendigo" was written as a companion piece to a pig flesh art project. Yea, I kinda figured.
"The Nimble Men" starts off great, offering a quick hit of creepy as a commuter flight crew is stuck on a rural runway amid snow, spooky woods, weird lights and a reticent air-traffic control tower. But that's not important enough for Glen Hirshberg. He has to make some grand statement about grief, and soon, as in most Hirshberg stories, everybody busts out weeping. Glen Hirshberg is the emo rocker of the horror genre.
Norman Prentiss' "In the Porches of My Ears" doesn't even seem to be a horror story until a nasty little stinger hits you at the end. Nicely done. I didn't see it coming. I'm keeping my eye on Prentiss.
Kaaron Warren's "The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall" has something to do with vampire pets, and yes, it's every bit as stupid as it sounds.
There are a couple more Poe pastiches in honor of the 200th year since the poet's birth, but nothing anyone will remember for near that long.
The book cover hyperbole continues, asserting that "every year the bar is raised." Well, not really. This is very much like Volume One. The stories are mostly competent (aside from the aforementioned typos), but rarely anything more. There's very little here to reassure a disheartened horror fan that the genre is alive and healthy or even poised for a revival in the near future. In Datlow's recap of horror publications in 2009, most of the novels she singles out as exceptional sound more like crime or fantasy fiction. I finished the book and looked back over the Table of Contents and honestly could not remember a thing about a few of the selections. Datlow is going to have to be a lot more discerning and exacting in her fiction choices if she wants to earn that "legendary" adjective. Maybe she'll get her chance in Volume Three.