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Of investigators, dark places and deep waters...
on 21 October 2013
Protagonists investigating strange goings on and stories involving caves and tunnels and deep dark places are recurring motifs this year, as are bodies of water; rivers and lakes and seas and oceans. These stories succeed in taking deceptively simple events and yet making them fresh and unsettling. It's also quite a sombre, thoughtful volume this year, and that's no bad thing. This is horror, this is where it's at and it has matured, it has grown up.
As with Ellen Datlow's 'The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five' there are no novellas this year, so the page count is not as mammoth as recent instalments. Detractors, though, should bear in mind that an anthology editor's budget allows them to buy the reprint rights to X amount of stories: as to what the final page tally comes to once all those stories are gathered together is irrelevant. So, this year we have one poem and twenty-one short stories, ranging from a single page long to Reggie Oliver's 27 page novelette. The quality, though, remains high. Those readers, however, concerned only with how big the book's girth is would perhaps be better off reading a novel instead: short stories are about quality, not quantity after all.
There is one overlap with Datlow's book and two with Paula Guran's 'The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2013', though neither Datlow or Guran overlap with each other. There are, however, quite a number of authors who appear is more than one volume, but represented by different stories. All told there are a total of 82 different stories showcased this year.
After NEIL GAIMAN opens with a dark, melancholy poem about a witch in a house of clocks who sells storms and sorrows and calms the sea ALISON LITTLEWOOD takes this year's honour of being represented but two stories (the prolific Gary McMahon is given the same honour this year in Datlow's volume). In "The Discord of Being" Emma travels from England to Morocco to find out what happened to her mother's desecrated grave. Her father is there, a man she feels she doesn't know, lost in his world of fossils and superstition. But Emma sees her mother in the city's bustling streets and although she should know that it isn't really her mother - but instead a djinn, a ghul - she still believes that it is. Like many of this year's contributions to follow, Littlewood's tale is a wonderfully realised story of investigating, of seeking and finding out something; almost always not what the character thought they were looking for.
Next DALE BAILEY tells of a gentleman's club in "Necrosis", where one of its patrons is decidedly off. Literally. There is an odour about the gentleman. Told in a wonderfully old school voice the ending has a delicious little punch to it.
His novels are often thoughtful and considered, whilst shot through with sharp humour (as witness his excellent recent novels 'Edge of Dark Water' and 'All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky') whereas he tends to go nuts in his short stories and let it all hang out. This time, however, he doesn't and although JOE R. LANSDALE's "The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath" is about zombies it isn't really, as the author hisownself explains in the preceding comments he wanted to "[...] think about a world where people are not only learning to live with their presence, but in fact the focus is on the living people. [...] I wanted to see if the humans could stay human."
SIMON KURT UNSWORTH's 5th appearance in 6 years in Best New Horror sees a photographer chronicling the Olde Worlde style celebrations of "The Cotswold Olimpicks". During the town square festivities a group of young women, draped in white, pass out a strange drink to the revellers. Our photographer politely refuses, citing work and that he's from the Press - not realising that to reject the offer is an offence he'll have to pay for later.
I truly love short stories and as our lives are one-shot, never-to-be-repeated privileges I've never understood why book lovers often restrict themselves to one genre, be it science fiction, crime or horror. Me, I'm a huge fan of modern SF novels and in regards to short stories I also regularly buy 'The Best American Short Stories' and 'The Best British Short Stories', all of which is a long way of saying LYNDA E. RUCKER's "Where the Summer Dwells" would not have looked out of place in this year's 'The Best American Short Stories' - and that's a high compliment. A dark fantasy about the loss of youth and opportunity and of crossing over into adulthood and finding it wanting.
RAMSEY CAMPBELL gives us "The Callers", a tale also reprinted by Daltow. Only Campbell's subtle, claustrophobic style could make the rhyming phrases of a bingo caller creepy, in this quietly spooky story of a young boy, having been barred from the local cinema and chased by a gang of youths, ends up in a bingo hall where his grandma had gone earlier in the evening. Later the old women from the bingo come down his street because it's his turn and they want to be mum.
In "The Curtain" by THANA NIVEAU Martin dives to explore a wreck off Laberinto Island and finds some not-so-old wine bottles and cheap cutlery. And more, of course... something unearthly, something released during a recent hurricane. Taken from her debut collection 'From Hell to Eternity' this marks rising star Niveau's 3rd appearance in Best New Horror.
Like Mark Samuels, MARK VALENTINE is one of those recent writers whose prose is so assured and so deliciously and authentically steeped in the old masters that they feel as if they've been around for decades. In "The Fall of the King of Babylon" a self-declared King of a collection of ramshackle warehouses and hovels isolated by stagnant waters receives an usurper who appears human. But, then too, the water only appears to be still and quiet.
TERRY DOWLING's "Nightside Eye" tells of a paranormal investigator at an abandoned hotel following up a previous visit by a colleague - a colleague who deliberately had his memory wiped because he did not want to remember what he had seen. Objects being pushed from a mantel piece... really, Jared thinks, what apparition who did this could be so horrible that a person would instantly want to forget it? What, indeed...
HELEN MARSHALL's "The Old and The New" is a chick-lit story of coffee and photocopiers intercut with a date in the catacombs of Paris. Or maybe it's the other way around. Guran reprinted "No Ghosts in London" and Datlow gave Honorable Mention to "Blessed", all 3 taken from her debut collection 'Hair Side, Flesh Side', which is recommended by both Datlow and Jones.
STEVE RASNIC TEM marks his 17th appearance in Best New Horror with Walker and his family "Waiting at the Crossroads Motel". Walker believes his blood has power, that it tells his body what to do or where to go. Such as this motel in the middle of nowhere. His dull-witted wife and sullen children are dragged along and the power of the story comes from the portrayal of Walker: a man who cares little for himself or anyone but simply does as his blood says. Out on the heat shimmering horizon something is coming, called to his blood - or so he believes. Seems others believe too: by the end of the week the motel is full and folks are camping out in the parking lot.
Occult detectives Normal and Nadine find themselves at sea in GLEN HIRSHBERG's "His Only Audience", a writer who has appeared in at least one 'Best Of' anthology every year since 2002. Here we're investigating the source of a radio broadcasting thought-to-be-unrecorded concerts and private sessions of famous musicians. The DJ is located on a small boat and his private cassettes are rare indeed, given to him at the crossroads, as it were, where musicians made a deal that did not involve money.
CLAIRE MASSEY's "Marionettes" tells of a woman in Prague whose obsession with a marionette shop causes her to literally lose herself. A brief, effective tale that is really about her partner Karl, a sullen disinterested man. She sees a replica of herself and Karl in the shop window; Karl is holding her strings, as he does in real life too.
A few years ago REGGIE OLIVER was commissioned by the estate of M. R. James to complete an unfinished tale by the old grand master of the ghost story, a high honour and Oliver is easily the only living writer worthy of the task. Here Oliver channels James once again, as he explains in the comments preceding "Between Four Yews": "The story was written for an anthology [where] the brief was to write a prequel and/or sequel to a story by M. R. James. I chose [...] 'A School Story' because it is one of the author's most enigmatic tales with plenty of gaps and loose ends to it that I felt needed filling." A remarkably vivid writer whose prose utterly immerses the reader in the stories he tells, his contribution to Jones's 'A Book of Horrors' was one of that anthology's best tales (in a book filled with nothing but great stories) and his latest collection is 'Flowers of the Sea' (Tartarus Press), released just this month at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England.
GEMMA FILES's wonderfully titled "Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars" tells of an archaeological dig on a remote island in the Pacific. Only a few hundred inhabitants populate the city but there's a mass grave called Funeral Rock, and tales of murder and of a king killed and of how some things should remain buried. Expertly told, with a strong sense of voice, this is one of the volume's best stories.
With "The Other One" by EVANGELINE WALTON Jones once more presents us with an accomplished, previously-unpublished story from a writer little known today to modern readers. That these and others lay forgotten among the writer's papers speaks volumes about the quality of her short fiction which was published during her life time. Jones is performing a great service here for new readers and we owe to ourselves to seek out more of her work.
JOEL LANE's short "Slow Burn" tells of an officer investigating fires most likely set by local youths. But an old man whom the officer interviews tells of a disused mine, of bodies with burnt-black faces but undamaged clothes and of something... a cold flame. Lane is a deeply allegorical writer and what he is really writing about is the slow burn of British society, of the youths burning up in a wasteland of unemployment. Of trying to break free; of waiting for the country to complete its slow burn and renew itself.
In "Celebrity Frankenstein" by STEPHEN VOLK we are given the ultimate Celebrity/X Factor/American Idol show featuring multiple winners who are then chopped up and spliced together to make one 'perfect' winner - Christmas album and chat shows soon follow. It's a comment, of course, on our obsession with fame and body image, but this isn't a tongue-in-cheek sharp satire, a là Kim Newman style. Instead Volk plays it straight and this sordid tale is all the more sad and pathetic for it.
ROBERT SHEARMAN has an almost detached, mischievous way of writing, as if the omniscient narrator is saying, "Look at these silly people! Shall we go see what these silly people are doing? Yes, let's!" And yet... and yet in "Blue Crayon, Yellow Crayon" Shearman still pulls off a beautiful tale of a man coming home for Christmas, who's flight connection to Edinburgh is cancelled and who gets the train instead. There's a woman and her daughter and some others in the carriage. And something's not right. Something's off. He's going home to his own wife and daughter. Isn't he? Of course he has a wife and daughter. Doesn't he?
Before Alison Littlewood closes out the volume MICHAEL KELLY tells of "October Dreams", a short poignant tale of a girl who becomes a young woman who becomes an old woman in a story inspired by Ray Bradbury's 'The October Country'.
Alex goes cave diving in Mexico in ALISON LITTLEWOOD's "The Eyes of Water". He's trying to discover what killed his friend Rick. Locals talk of God, sacrifices. Rick's sister is with Alex. What is he willing to sacrifice? This story was also included in Guran's volume and Littlewood's debut novel, 'A Cold Season' is highly recommended.
Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of Best New Horror. In the meantime, 2013 mark's Stephen Jones's 25th anniversary as a published book editor, having for over a decade and a half before that been an award-winning editor of various magazines as well as a movie publicist. For Jones fans this month presents a bonanza with no less than 5 books released from four publishers to coincide with this year's World Fantasy Convention and to mark his quarter century in book publishing: Best New Horror, Psycho-Mania! (a collection of 40 tales, over half original), Fearie Tales (not a typo, it is illustrated by Alan Lee of 'Lord of the Rings' fame), 'Flotsam Fantastique' (the massive souvenir book for the World Fantasy Convention) and 'Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth' (his 3rd and final instalment of tales inspired by H. P. Lovecraft). Get them all and happily lose yourself in a tsunami of great tales.