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- Published on Amazon.com
WINNER of The 2008 British Fantasy Society Award for 'Best Anthology of the Year 2007'.
What is horror?
Well, I can't answer that. After all, I'm not an S.T. Joshi or a John Clute and, further, not nearly as well read in the genre as I'd like to be (my 'to read' pile is really a mountain! Even when funds are tight, buying the books is the easy part - it's getting the time to read them. Sigh.)
But let's take a stab at it anyway, if only from the ill informed view point of a humble reader.
Even as a teenager during the '80's horror boom, when I first discovered the delights of the dark fantastic, I had little to no interest in movies or TV relating to the horror field. It was always the midlist writers to whom I gravitated: Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Charles L. Grant, Thomas Ligotti, Thomas Tessier and others. Many more, of course, most of whom, although they were all active in the '80's, I didn't personally get around to reading until recently.
The whole bad joke of the Splatterpunk movement was, mercifully, short lived and rightly derided. However, to me, that's all media horror is: sure, I can get as much of a visceral thrill out of, say, Saw or The Descent as anyone, but they leave little impression. As sad looking and 'of the moment' as a Halloween cake seen in a bakery window on the 1st of November.
Old horror was easy, right? It was monsters, surely. Werewolves and vampires and cheap thrills and shocks as celebrated in Creepshow's homage to EC Comics.
But is new horror, then, simply the monsters within us? Absolutely... but as many genre writers emerging from the '80's boom began to realize this, and to write it, they soon became aware - as did their publishers - that what they were now producing were mainstream thrillers. And thus they became marketed as such.
So where does that leave horror as a genre? Last year Clive Barker called for the death of genre distinctions and, indeed, as regards to the horror field at least, this may already have occurred, its 'horrific' elements being subsumed into fantasy and the modern day thriller.
Horror, for me, are those tales which embody the feel and delicious flavor of that wonderfully archaic word `foreboding'.
A sense of unease while you're reading it. For me that is the distinction. While you're reading it.
Those are the stories.
Some 'horror' tales read like ordinary mainstream fiction, their 'horror' element grafted on during the final few pages. Until then there was no sense beforehand of foreboding or unease.
These are the situations.
True horror stories are as much about the journey as they are about the destination (sometimes it is all about the journey).
So, then, "Summer" by Al Sarrantonio is a horror story. No monsters, no sociopaths but a simple scenario (what if the best summer ever never ended?) and imbued with an absolutely delicious sense of unease and foreboding throughout.
When it comes to embodying these principles Ramsey Campbell has justly earned his reputation as the most revered living horror writer since M.R. James. No other writer has so consistently written about the mundane and yet left his readers feeling utterly uncomfortable. (That said, I found The Darkest Part of the Woods (2003) to be all atmosphere and too little substance and certainly didn't share the opinion that it was his best novel in recent years. Ramsey is a master at merely suggesting a horror unseen, The Overnight (2004) being a great case in point to the extent that the `horror' may not even exist outwith the mass hysteria and paranoia of its characters. Woods had none of Overnight's memorable characterization.)
His "Digging Deep" is an enjoyable tale and very darkly comic.
"The Luxury of Harm" by Christopher Fowler is reminiscent of Joe Hill's "Best New Horror." A fine tale.
Mark Samuel's "Sentinels" builds upon what he started in his collection The White Hands and Other Weird Tales (2003), a book which is an incredibly strong and worthy addition to the weird tale
I like Elizabeth Hand and "The Saffron Gatherers" is a wonderful story, a pleasure to read (it has now been included in three 'Best of' anthologies this year). In the world of post 9/11 it is a disquieting tale, similar in that sense to Stephen King's "The Things They Left Behind" (2005).
I've followed Mark Morris's career from the beginning and although he's not a great writer he is a damned good one. "What Nature Abhors" has all the hallmarks of being a great horror story.
Lyndia E. Rucker's "The Last Reel" had the potential to instill in the reader that sense of foreboding whilst reading it and, paradoxically, fails only because the story was so much fun to read! One of those tales that leaves you with a wry grin at the end of it.
Jay Lake's "The American Dead" is both a horror situation and a horror story. Whatever the title may conjure up it's not. It's so much more. A relatively short tale but one which is a delight to discover.
Peter Atkins's "Between the Cold Moon and the Earth" was a story which was fascinating to read and to think about afterwards, one in which even to give a hint of it's storyline would spoil it (as you no doubt will not have failed to notice I give no plot summaries here, finding them both boring to read and more so to write: I prefer just to lay down my gut impressions).
Gene Wolfe is a fine and subtle writer and "Sob in the Silence" is his most straightforward and accessible story yet.
Nicholas Royle has always been hit or miss for me (his whole fallow '90's slipstream period was a total dud for me) so I entered warily into "Continuity Error" and to my delight found myself reading the anthology's best story since Al Sarrantonio's "Summer". Now, I couldn't actually pin point what exactly it was about this deceptively straightforward tale that pressed my buttons more than some of the others, but as with Lyndia E. Rucker's "The Last Reel" this was a delight to read, the shear pleasure of it negating any sense of unease the writer might have thought he was instilling.
"Dr. Prida's Dream-Plagued Patient" by Michael Bishop is a short and amusing piece of tomfoolery. Good, especially as short-short fiction tends to have too little substance to linger long for me.
"The Ones We Leave Behind" by Mark Chadbourn, together with Jay Lake's "The American Dead", has the best of both worlds, that of the horror situation and story. Although not as powerful as Lake's story its unease is palpable, the payoff memorable.
Joel Lane's "Mine" is short and fine; some may find it offensive as the author claims in the intro, although it's taboo subject matter is only hinted at. Another take on this theme is William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" in the massive anthology The Dark Descent (1987) edited by David G. Hartwell and also Babara Gowdy's "We So Seldom Look On Love" included in her 1992 collection of the same name.
More than any other writer (even more so than Joe R. Lansdale despite his Drive-In series) David J. Schow brings the best elements of media horror to the literary playing field and "Obesquy" is an unapologetic homage to good ol' horror. The last line is terrific.
Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Houses Under the Sea" wouldn't have looked out of place in an SF 'Best of', attesting to the ease with which writers now cross-pollinate the genres of SF, fantasy and horror.
David Morrell. You know him, right? Sure you do - Sly Stallone's Rambo. Good, glad we got that out of the way because I wouldn't expect you to judge him on that any more than you would judge Robert Bloch on Hitchcock's Psycho.
I've never read any of Morrell's novels. I do, however, own his two superlative collections, Black Evening (1999) and Nightscape (2004). He's a superb short story writer and "They" shows him in fine form here. The closing lines are the best in the whole book.
F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre's "The Clockwork Horror" wasn't what I expected but the writing captures brilliantly the style of the 1830s in which it is set and is a darn good yarn to boot.
I said earlier that short-shorts don't do it for me. The exception is Richard Christian Matheson, a master of this form, and "Making Cabinets" may be his finest yet. True, the intro helps to set it up, but this is a true horror and one that lingers.
Geoff Ryman can be a little too literary for his own good at times, but "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (fantasy)" is deserving of its numerous reprints this year. Here Ryman has all his best attributes on display, whilst leaving his self-conscious literary excesses behind. Quite possibly one of the finest stories of the year.
Glen Hirshberg's "Devil's Smile" more than lives up to his much lauded 2003 collection The Two Sams. This new tale is taken from his latest collection American Morons and although I haven't gotten around to reading it yet I plan to do so soon: two other, different stories from it have already appeared in additional `Best of' anthologies. BEST NEW HORROR 18's best story by far.
It feels as if it's been too long since Kim Newman appeared in this series, but a quick scan of the table of contents of recent volumes shows this not to be true. However, those were short stories and Newman's early appearances were almost all novellas. Well, this time around Kim makes up for his `shorts' in spades with his longest novella appearance yet, a whopping 88 pages! In fine Newman tongue-planted-in-cheek form "The Man Who Got Off the Ghost Train" may not be long on horror but this is a fast-paced, rollicking ride all the same.
Despite Steve Jones's obvious support and admiration for Pete Crowther's magazine Postscripts - and even more so in light of his editorial in the bumper issue 10 - I was surprised to find no stories here representing that fine magazine.
Were there any horror stories worth including? Absolutely! Conrad Williams's "The Veteran" (Postscripts six) Robert J. Jeschonek's "Fear of Rain" (Postscripts eight) and Mary SanGiovanni's "Kins" (Postscripts nine).
So has the best of horror been subsumed into its sister genre, fantasy? There's a good argument that it has: four of this year's best entries were earlier in the year already included in Night Shade Books inaugural volume of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year edited by Jonathan Strahan.
But that doesn't matter. Call it what you will; the best of modern genre fiction is - and has been for quite some time - that which skillfully crosses over into its neighbor. Mainstream publishers' horror imprints might be dead (Leisure a rare non-small press exception) but it's still out there. And if you don't find it, don't worry.
Stephen Jones will.
I grew up with Steve's anthologies and will continue to follow wherever he leads.