on 18 October 2012
'Best New Horror' is now the longest running annual 'best of' horror anthology ever, beating the previous 22-volume record held for the past eighteen years by DAW Books for 'The Year's Best Horror Stories' (1971-1994). Although, in fairness to the industrious Ellen Datlow, she has - so far - edited an unbroken run of 25 annual 'best of' anthologies, twenty-one with St. Martin's Press and currently four with Night Shade Books. Of course, both have a ways to go yet to beat the mighty Gardner Dozois, who has edited a colossal 34 'best of' science fiction volumes since 1977, five with the publisher Dutton and, presently, twenty-nine editions of 'The Year's Best Science Fiction'.
Last year 'Best New Horror' and Datlow's 'The Best Horror of the Year' overlapped by quite a few stories: this year none overlap. In fact, together with Paula Guran's 'The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror', only one story is duplicated out of a total of 77, making this year a true embarrassment of riches.
RAMSEY CAMPBELL leads off with "Holding the Light". Curiosity, a burning need to just know: the curse of youth, as young Tom and Lucas find out when they go exploring a local tunnel said to be haunted. As ever, Campbell's language is deceptively simple, the accumulative effect eerie, one of dread.
Next up CHRISTOPHER FOWLER gives us a mischievous piece of whimsy, presented as the monologue of a patron of The Jack O'Lantern pub telling a new customer about the strange events that always seem to occur there throughout its history on All-Hallows Eve. Readers of Fowler's recent Hammer-homage horror novel 'Hell Train' will know just how delightfully sly he can be, and as with the best of tongue-in-cheek horror "Lantern Jack" still manages to give a nasty bite at the end.
"Rag and Bone" by PAUL KANE is classic Best New Horror. I heard once that, with the overwhelming number of stories he has to consider each year, editor Jones will often read the first few pages then skip to the last few: if the story ends up going in the direction he thought it was then what's the point? After many decades in the business he wants to be surprised. So no surprise, then, he picked Kane as this story of a scrap merchant - a rag and bone man - doesn't finish up where you think it will.
"Some Kind of Light Shines from Your Face" by GEMMA FILES is from the World Fantasy and British Fantasy Society Award-nominated 'Gutshot', an anthology of weird western stories edited by Conrad Williams. Western it certainly is, but it also involves Greek legends: a young woman joins two women in a travelling wagon, crossing the American dustbowl and scraping up a living by setting up tent and displaying their wares to grubby patrons eager to spend the little coin they have on catching a glimpse of the fair flesh and secret parts of comely women; to look on something fine to take their minds off their dry, barren existence. The women wear masks on stage, and when young Persia Leitner is eventually allowed to join them as well, a trinity is formed, and something happens... and old myths become new reality.
"Midnight Flight" by JOEL LANE is, as the author himself says in the introduction, "a story about the loss of memory, and how memory might not want to be lost." Concerning a man slowly recalling the title and details of a lost book from his childhood, whilst losing the identity of who he is now, the language very much recalls classic Ramsey Campbell in the author's claustrophobic depiction of misinterpretation and paranoia - and even manages to out-do Campbell in the closing page!
"But None Shall Sing for Me" by GREGORY NICOLL is a piece of exotic horror set in the Caribbean and told from the point of view of a zombie. No, this isn't the knock about fun of Tim Powers' terrific `On Stranger Tides' novel, but an intense tale of closure and setting oneself free.
Some of the best horror is the simplest, as demonstrated by ALISON LITTLEWOOD in "About the Dark". Three youths, Adam, Fuzz and Sasha, enter what is locally known as the Dark Cave. Through Sasha, we learn that there is a darkness in the cave, and not simply an absence of light. Many people have gone into the cave. Some never came back, their names written on the walls. Adam has recently started attending a new school, where he has reinvented himself from the bullied to a strong and disinterested figure who doesn't care about anything. Except he does. He cares about Sasha, but because of the newly created image of himself he doesn't show it and she goes with Fuzz instead, which annoys him greatly. Only once do all three enter the dark; thereafter Adam ventures alone and learns about the dark... and the names... and who puts them there. Understated, exact, and with an atmosphere that closes in on you. A frequent contributor to the UK's premiere horror fiction magazine, `Black Static' (wherein this story was first published; another story she had in the same magazine last year was reprinted by Ellen Datlow), Littlewood recently hit the UK bestseller lists with the publication of her well-received debut novel `A Cold Season'.
In "The Photographer's Tale" by DANIEL MILLS Lowell's estranged apprentice, Patrick, sends him a camera. It's 1892 and this camera is the very latest model. It is also unique, as Lowell soon finds out. When looking through the lens it reveals not only what the subject will eventually look like in old age, but what secrets lie beneath their mask of make-up and outward personality. And once Lowell sees the truth, he sees it everywhere... even when no longer looking through the lens.
"The Tower" by MARK SAMUELS comes from his collection `The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales'. In this deceptively simple story a man, disillusioned with the modern commercial world and the vapidity of its future he envisions ahead, begins seeing a fog-enshrouded tower, where there shouldn't be any, in the middle of the city of London. A symbolism, he believes, for where he's trying to go, what he has to become. The power of this tale lies in the telling, and is on a par with the measured surrealism of Thomas Ligotti. Both write fresh horror, but imbued with the disciplined style of old masters like M.R. James, Robert Aickman, Algernon Blackwood and, of course, Arthur Machen. This is his seventh appearance in `Best New Horror' since volume 15.
Last year's "Christmas with the Dead" by Joe R. Lansdale was Best New Horror's knock-about story; this year PETER ATKINS picks up that mantel in the delightful and snappily written "Dancing Like we're Dumb". It sees the return of his detective character, Kitty Donnelly, in a short, breezy tale of gangsters dabbling in the supernatural. It starts off with Kitty being carjacked and kidnapped: her day just gets worse from there on out!
"An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky" by SIMON STRANTZAS is an emotionally complex story, allegorical, symbolic and thick with meaning and portent: Port McCarthy, once beautiful, is a damaged town, wrecked by an oil tanker spill. Our narrator and his wife Suzanne, once filled with hope and love, now stained like the town. Both fates - the town's and the couple's - are intricately entwined. Returning alone ten years after the town's accident to the inn they first stayed in, and the beginning of his wife's own descent, the narrator reflects on the crumbling of the past, seeing stains and shadows in the room and how his way of thinking, and what he said, came to infect his wife. The rich symbolism of the closing passages have a deep, ironic weight. This is horror of raw feelings, the writing delicately balanced, and being a tale of non-explicit horror it would not have looked out of place in this year's `The Best American Short Stories'.
"Hair" by JOAN AIKEN comes from her posthumously published collection. Brief, but sharp, it tells of Tom keeping a promise to his recently deceased young wife to deliver a lock of her hair to her mother, whom he has never actually met before, his wife having been estranged from her for some time. An old woman, and very strange, Tom soon wishes he had still never met her.
Echoes of Ramsey Campbell's influence can also be heard in the tight, dread-filled language of STEVE RASNIC TEM's "Miri", which marks his 16th appearance in Best New Horror. Here Rick finds his new life invaded by memories of a damaged and needy girl from his college days. Memories so tangible as to blur and make indistinct the reality he's currently trying to live in.
"Corbeaux Bay" by GEETA ROOPNARINE is a short but effective story of a man who likes to get away from it all by exploring his local beach, where birds to whom he was cruel and dismissive in the past, now take a keen interest in him.
"Sad, Dark Thing" by MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH is from what was easily last year's best original horror anthology, ` A Book of Horrors' edited by Stephen Jones, which I've reviewed and where readers can find my thoughts on this story. As I said of a Smith story in a review of another Jones anthology from last year, `Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead', everything Smith touches at short story length these days turns to gold. As for this present story, suffice it to say here that it was also reprinted in `The Best British Short Stories 2012', a non-genre literary anthology.
ROBERT SILVERBERG is easily the longest serving writer here: his first short story sale was in 1954 when he was eighteen-years-old - almost 60 years ago. Silverberg is a solid novelist, but a dazzling short story writer, as witness the recent massive retrospective from Subterranean Press, `Phases of the Moon: Stories from Six Decades' (2004), and as too witness this present story, "Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar", published in what is now the author's seventh decade as a professional writer. Although Silverberg is indelibly associated with the science fiction genre, Jones has had occasion over the years to reprint his short stories in some of his themed anthologies, but this marks his first appearance in Best New Horror - and it's a welcome inclusion.
Old masters such as M.R. James and Robert Aickman are talked of with reverence these days. Will REGGIE OLIVER one day be talked of that way? No, he already is. Oliver's contribution, "Guieta Non Movere", is actually lifted from his novella "The Giacometti Crucifixion" where it served as a story-within-a-story. That's how good Oliver is, when 'half' a story is so rich in language and storytelling that it can stand on its own.
"The Crawling Sky" by JOE R. LANSDALE sees the return of the Reverend Jedidiah Mercer, who first appeared in the author's cult weird wild west novel 'Dead in the West' (1986), and in recent years in a series of short stories, one of which, "Deadman's Road", was included in Best New Horror 19. Lansdale has a voice soaked in the dialect of his East Texas home and his dialogue crackles with sun-lazy barbs and quips, his beloved landscape conjured with a few deft strokes of description. Here the Reverend finds himself in a spit of a little town called Wood Tick where, with shunned local Norville, he goes out to a ramshackle homestead to banish a 'haint' that is not of this world - and his doesn't do so with prayer and holy water!
Together with Simon Strantzas, SIMON KURT UNSWORTH has clearly become a firm favourite of editor Stephen Jones, both having appeared four times now in the past five volumes of Best New Horror. Here he gives us "The Ocean Grand, North West Coast" from his linked-collection of haunted dwellings, `Quiet Houses'. Mandeville, Parry and Yeoman form a restoration crew, and the Ocean Grand is their biggest project yet. Built at the turn of the last century and slowly neglected by a procession of changing owners over the decades, it has now lain derelict for 15 years. An ambitious design, a marriage of function and art, the concept of the hotel was to show the industrial design on the ground floor gradually changing into that of nature on the third floor. As the author himself says, "[it's] about art created to be viewed, being alone, and going slowly claustrophobically mad."
The multi-award winning EVANGELINE WALTON may have died in 1996, but here Jones presents us with "They That Have Wings", a 'lost' story of World War II in the great tradition of `Weird Tales' magazine.
"White Roses, Bloody Silk" by rising star THANA NIVEAU is quite different from her contribution of last, "The Pier". This Victorian era tale of terror may start out slight and whimsical - but don't be fooled: a dinner party and a strange guest soon turns thorny. And bloody.
"Passing Through Peacehaven" is RAMSEY CAMPBELL's second story in this year's volume (he is the only author to be twice given the honour of having two short stories reprinted within a given volume of Best New Horror). Next to Silverberg, Campbell is the second longest serving author in this current edition of Best New Horror, his first sale being in 1962 (indeed, he was only sixteen-years-old; even younger than Silverberg!). He is, without doubt, a giant of the horror field and this year marks his 50th anniversary as a writer. Finally, Best New Horror 23 ends with "Holiday Home" by DAVID BUCHAN, a piece of crime flash fiction.
There are other fine stories, "Wait" by CONRAD WILLIAMS, which I reviewed last year under its original publication in 'Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead', one of the best ghost anthologies in years. Prolific novelist and short story writer TIM LEBBON give us a "Trick of the Light", a sensitively handled tale from the extremely good and recommended 'House of Fear' edited by Jonathan Oliver (Datlow and Guran also picked stories from this anthology). Plus the author of the bestselling 'Let the Right One In' JOHN AJVIDE LINDQVIST's first short story, my review of which can be found under 'A Book of Horrors'. Six of that anthology's stories have now been reprinted, Ellen Datlow gave special citation to a further two stories in the opening paragraph of her Summation in 'The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four', one other story has recently won an award and yet another story has been nominated for an award - making that 10 stories that have been 'named checked'; a quite remarkable achievement considering the anthology only contains fourteen stories in total.
[This review comes from an advance copy bought at the FantasyCon, Brighton book launch on September 29th.]
Also released today is 'The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women' edited by Marie 0'Regan - well worth checking out!
By any standards this is a massive volume of work considering the price of the download.
Holding the Light - Ramsey Campbell, Lantern Jack - Christopher Fowler, Rag and Bone - Paul Kane, Some Kind of Light From Your Face - Gemma Files, Midnight Flight - Joel Lane, Trick of the Light - Tim Lebbon, But None Shall Sing for Me - Gregory Nicoll, About the Dark - Alison Littlewood, The Photographer's Tale - Daniel Mills, The Tower - Mark Samuels, Dancing Like We're Dumb - Peter Atkins, An Indelible Stain Upon the Sky - Simon Strantzas, Hair - Joan Aiken, Miri - Steve Rasnic Tem, Corbeaux Bay - Geeta Roopnarine, Sad, Dark Thing - Michael Marshall, Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar - Robert Silverberg, Quiet Non Movere - Reggie Oliver, The Crawling Sky - Joe R. Lansdale, Wait - Conrad Williams, The Ocean Grand, North West Coast - Simon Kurt Unsworth, They That Have Wings - Evangeline Walton, White Roses, Bloody Silk - Thana Niveau, The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer - John Ajvide Lindqvist, Passing Through Peacehave - Ramsey Campbell, Holiday Home - David Buchan.
I've read most of the 'New Best Horror Series'. They're a great way of introducing yourself to different authors from past and present (Ramsey Campbell to Michael Marshall) and helping you discover someone you might not otherwise have read.
My personal favourites in the anthology are The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer and They That Have Wings but others came a very close second. I'm happy to recommend this series of books to any fan of the horror genre. There are bound to be some stories you don't like but; there are more than enough of them to make up for those.