I don't mind admitting that I really dig anthologies, and I've been a genre fan for a long, long time. From the days of the DAW "Year's Best" collections--I really, really miss Karl Edward Wagner--I would look forward to the day the paperback would hit the stores and see what gruesome picture was on the cover that year. Some of them were truly disturbing, as much as some of the stories inside.
Times change, tastes change. And, hard as it is to believe, it's been almost twenty years since the DAW titles ceased with Wagner's tragic, way-too-soon demise. I have them all, I think, going back to 71, but there's been a variety of incarnations under a number of different titles, enough that it's hard to keep up with them all. Stephen Jones' "Mammoth Book" series is excellent of course, but there's always room for more, isn't there?
Well, of course there is. And I have been enjoying the "Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror" collections since my beloved gifted me the 2011 edition for Christmas a year ago. It was a bit rough around the edges, but good enough that I asked for the 2012 volume this year, along with the premier 2010 edition that I'd missed. They're unusual tomes in that they're not strictly horror anthologies, which is okay in that they do not claim to be thus. Now, I've read the complaints: "these stories weren't scary"...listen, take my advice and ignore that sort of thing. Horror is all about perspective, and besides, Dark Fantasy comes first in the title, and that's what you get, Dark Fantasy. That means "creepy" to me, and sometimes "creepy" isn't purely scary, it's more that prickle at the back of your spine, the faint apprehension that sticks with you long after you've put the book back on the shelf. I don't know if it's that I'm mellowing with the years--I certainly don't think so--but I appreciate the creep-out more than the gross-out anymore.
So. Dark Fantasy and Horror is what it is, with Paula Guran again making the selections. It's bookended wonderfully by Lisa Tuttle's creepfest of an eerie tale of a couple searching for a lost house and who end up wishing they hadn't found it, and Charles de Lint's stupendous novella which ultimately is all about choices. Love it, love it, love them both. In fact, I halfway wished de Lint's piece would've kept going...if it's not the basis of a larger story...it certainly could be. In this form, it's still cracking good. A great start and a great finish to a terrific volume.
But in between there's loads to enjoy. We get the annual superb entry from perennial fave Joe R. Lansdale, "The Bleeding Shadow", a story of a bluesman who got what he wanted in the worst possible way. You'll never put a record on the turntable the same way (yes, I DO still own a turntable!) Tim Powers gives us "A Journey of Only Two Paces", which is short but packs a mighty punch, and that's followed by an evocative, claustrophobic tale by Elizabeth Hand, "Near Zennor". Excellent, excellent. Laura Anne Gilman gets a lot done in just five pages with "Crossroads", and--surprise!--an all-new story from no less than Big Steve, "The Dune", something to remind one that he is still a Master. Nice.
One of my favorites was Priya Sharma's lovely "The Fox Maiden". Now, I know, I hear you, lovely isn't exactly a word you expect in a review of dark fantasy and horror, but there you go, it's one of the things that makes these books so special. Best in show, however, goes this year to Norman Partridge's terrific "Vampire Lake". As you might expect in this Twilight age there are a few vampire stories in this collection, but believe me, this is NOT one of those kind of stories...it's a western. Kinda sorta. And as brutal as Sharma's was gentle. Yikes! Pay up and hit the trail.
I could go on, there's so much good stuff here, but really, even if you expect there to be a few clunkers here and there--some of them even miss for me--the comparatively lesser works are still quite good; the way I see it, much like the Wagner and Jones collections, if you make it into this volume, you've well and truly Accomplished Something. Heck, the book even looks good on your shelf, the graphic design being striking and of a kind with its predecessors. It's a great package. Which is a good thing, as this is one you'll keep and read again and again. I should also point out that the copy editing problems of the 2011 edition seem to have been resolved too, which is a relief.
That's three in a row for Paula Guran. Can she make it four in 2013? I'm looking forward to finding out, and it's already on my Christmas list.