The Best Horror of the Year Volume Eight: 8 Paperback – 23 Jun 2016
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Praise for Ellen Datlow and The Best Horror of the Year Series:
“Award-winning editor Ellen Datlow has assembled a tasty collection of twenty one terrifying and unsettling treats. In addition to providing excellent fiction to read, this is the perfect book for discovering new authors and enriching your life through short fiction.”―Kirkus Reviews
“For more than three decades, Ellen Datlow has been at the center of horror. Bringing you the most frightening and terrifying stories, Datlow always has her finger on the pulse of what horror fans crave. . . . and the anthologies just keep getting better and better. She's an icon in the industry.”―Signal Horizon
“Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year series is one of the best investments you can make in short fiction. The current volume is no exception."―Adventures Fantastic
“As usual, Datlow delivers what she promises, ‘the best horror of the year,’ whether it’s written by the famous (Neil Gaiman) or the should-be famous (Laird Barron and many others).”
“You just can’t have a list of recommended speculative anthologies without including an Ellen Datlow anthology. It’s. Not. Possible. The line-up in The Best Horror of the Year Volume Eight is absolutely stupendous, featuring the most frighteningly talented authors in horror fiction.”―Tor.com
"Once again, [Ellen Datlow supplies] an invaluable book, featuring excellent short fiction and, in addition, providing as always precious information about what happened in the horror field last year.”―Mario Guslandi, British Fantasy Society
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His regular Table of Contents companions, Laird Barron and John Langan, made it, but beyond a nod on the acknowledgments page and an Honorable Mention, there's no Nathan. Surely he wrote something in 2015 that was worthy of inclusion here. Surely this rather truncated volume could have added a few pages to accommodate an extra story (Night Shade Books' science fiction annual got about 600 pages, no fair!).
Leading the authors who did get editor Ellen Datlow's TOC tap is Kelley Armstrong. Oy, the vampires are back. In "We Are All Monsters Here," Armstrong portrays the vampire as plague victim. DNA is sampled, and those who test positive are tattooed with a black star and locked away in "dormant monster" dorms. The black star symbolizes obviousness. I'd feel like a hack for stealing that "Simpsons" gag, but one of the story's characters actually says, "Kill them all and let God sort them out," so it's not the kind of yarn that warrants a more original quip. This is not the stuff of "I Am Legend."
Laird Barron fares better with the unstakable, unslakable undead. "In a Cavern, In a Canyon" is a hardscrabble family drama shaded by blood-n-gut suckers that illustrate the axiom that no good deed goes unpunished. Charity is grand, but guard your gizzards. Barron doesn't exactly revamp the genre (sorry, that was uncalled for, I know), but his evocations of his native Alaska, where swaths of stark and sprawling wilderness provide a perfect setting for spooky stories, give the tale a touch of the unique.
Innsmouth must have a helluva visitor's bureau to keep drawing unwitting tourists the way it does. The traveler in Steve Rasnic Tem's "Between the Pilings" is back for his second visit! Like the vampire, H.P. Lovecraft and his slimy submariners have been sorely overused in less than original ways and in less than imaginative imitations, but veteran short story writer Tem adds his longtime mastery of dark family dynamics and slow-creep atmosphere to a dank, sodden trip to a beach where even the individual grains of sand are malevolent. And I'd be willing to bet it's the only Mythos story that features miniature golf.
From Tem's sand to Dale Bailey's "Snow," in which a tiny band of survivors of a hemorrhagic "red death" pandemic must descend from their mountain sanctuary in Colorado in search of emergency first aid. In the suburbs of Boulder, they take shelter from the freezing weather in an abandoned home, their view of "the death throes of the world" dwindling as darkness and the cold -- and maybe something more savage and sinister -- encroach. I've criticized Bailey before for his stories' timidness, and as usual, he doesn't push much beyond the basic, but in the words of the author himself, "Snow" taps into the primal: "Like cavemen, drawing circles of fire against the night."
I don't know what strippers have to do with Robert Aickman, but John Langan's "The Underground Economy" was part of an Aickman tribute anthology, and it's about strange and bloody goings-on at the nudie bar. There are only a couple of bits in the story that I'd identify as Aickmanesque, but in a way, that's a good thing. In last year's "Best Horror," Langan had a Laird Barron tribute in which the Barron influence was so overbearing, it choked out Langan's own voice. Langan corrects himself in "The Underground Economy" by allowing a hint of Aickman to complement his writing, not submerge it under slavish devotion to the master of the strange story. It's a lesson legions of lesser Lovecraft imitators could learn.
Reggie Oliver's "The Rooms Are High" reads more like an overt Aickman tribute. A lawyer named Savernake, "wifeless and semi-retired," seeks respite from his recent grief, a retreat where he can be "obscure, anonymous, part of the landscape." A seaside bed-and-breakfast called Happydene seems perfect (at least he didn't choose Innsmouth). Rather than the small-town nostalgia he came for, Savernake immediately feels an indefinable disquiet. Quietly disquieting is a trademark of the traditional English ghost story, which is Oliver's comfortable corner of the graveyard. It's a subgenre that can be subtle to the point of non-existence, but the malice of Happydene is much more substantial than a rattling window casement and moaning wind.
Either the airports in Letitia Trent's neck of the "Wilderness" are criminally negligent or she hasn't flown in the past 15 years. Ladies who leave their carry-ons unattended as they wander off in search of sanitary products are liable to come back to find the bomb squad detonating their dainties. And I have yet to encounter the TSA employee lazy enough to allow travelers to stroll around the parking lot while awaiting their flight. This is a glaring hole in the middle of the story that's big enough for a 747 to taxi through. Also, the only author who's earned the right to dispense with quotation marks is Cormac McCarthy.
Adam Nevill's "Hippocampus" is more scene-setter than story, simply describing the aftermath of an awakening horror at sea. It's like a prologue or snippet from a longer work. But I'd like to read that novel, should it ever actually exist.
Neil Gaiman's "Black Dog" is probably a strong enough draw by itself for readers craving more company with Shadow, the hero of Gaiman's peripatetic epic "American Gods." Shadow's travels take him to a British pub where he encounters a peculiar breed of dog called a lurcher, a peculiar brew of beer that shares a name with the story and a miserable, mummified cat. The weather outside is frightful (Gaiman writes twice that the rain redoubles; that's quadruple the soaking!), so a friendly older couple invite Shadow to shelter with them for the night, and they give him a crash course in their village's lore and legendry, including the tale of Black Shuck, "a sort of a fairy dog" that foreshadows the death of the people it trails. You know how it goes in these stories: You bring up a supernatural menace in conversation, next thing, it comes prowling "in the darkness beyond the fire circle." (Maybe it was Black Shuck who strayed into Dale Bailey's story.) In his short acquaintance, Shadow's grown attached to the couple. He has an in with a particularly prominent feline, so he might be in a unique position to help his new friends. And really, I'd better muzzle myself after that so as not to give away any more of this intriguing, multilayered dark fantasy. Gaiman is almost always a treat, and like the novel it spun off from, "Black Dog" refuses to heel, persisting in unpredictability and breaking the leash of reader expectations.
Talk about that which can eternal lie: Long after his premature death, H.P. Lovecraft is everywhere and never more popular. In her Summation of 2015, Datlow devotes two-and-a-half pages to the mini-industry that continues to mine the Mythos. As frustrating as that might be for some fantasy factions, Lovecraft love has its place. But I believe the intent of Lovecraft opening his malign universe to other authors was for them to build on the original concepts, not mindlessly parrot them. Brian Hodge gets it. The always overachieving, aggravatingly underappreciated Hodge is on something of a roll in reinventing Lovecraft. He follows his superb "The Same Deep Waters As You" from Volume Six with "This Stagnant Breath of Change." At the end of Donald Beasley's life, a team of desperate doctors works to wring the last few moments from a decrepit and dying old man, a man pleading for death when he's conscious. "They lived in fear of him thinking to bite through his tongue in an effort to drown in his own blood." The town of Tanner Falls depends on Beasley's prolonged existence, though he's also the subject of residents' enmity. Even the medical personnel fantasize on bedside watches of mutilating and torturing the town's final founding father. There's a price to pay for small-town placidity, and the debt Tanner Falls has racked up is an Old One. Many of Lovecraft's Mythos minions rely on pulp-era nostalgia to keep themselves rooted in a backward-looking subgenre, so it's wickedly subversive of Hodge to put Lovecraftian fixtures to work in illustrating the nasty side of nostalgia. There's a sanctimonious little speech in the penultimate scene that could have left Hodge vulnerable to accusations of moralizing were it not for the sickening finale that shows the scariest stuff lurks not among the Outer Gods but uneasily suppressed in inner space (though the amorphous Goat with fertility issues is frightening as well). I've been hearing good things about another Lovecraftian story Hodge has recently had published. Maybe we'll see it here next year.
There's an overall not-badness about Volume Eight. Considering genre standards that aren't always as high as they should be, not bad is actually pretty good. But I don't read these roundups every year in the hopes of finding stories that are merely decent. I'm looking for what the book cover promises: the Best, something exceptional. And "Best Horror" has been denying me, coasting for the past couple of years. The most recent two volumes have been largely solid, but solid should not be the endpoint. Solid should be the foundation for something special. There's very little in Volume Eight that I'm likely to remember by the time Volume Nine rolls around, very little that will give me flashback frisson the way "--30--" from Volume Three still does, the way "Blackwood's Baby" from Volume Four still does. I'd like to see Volume Nine up its game, take some risks and get off to a good running start, racing toward a truly memorable 10th-anniversary blowout. A first step in that direction might be fewer vampires, limited Lovecraft.
And more Nathan.
So if you're looking for some good stories, even some eerie ones, this book has them. But if you're looking for scary, you'll be disappointed. I know I was.