Horror anthologies are a decidedly mixed bag. For one thing, with the dwindling horror/dark fiction markets in the United States and the declining ability of horror publishers to invest in new talents, there is a small pool to pull from. Each magazine has it's own style of horror with a single common thread: they will drop an unknown author like a hot potato so they can cram in another Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, or Peter Straub story. That provides a small pool for domestic horror anthologies. Often, the best horror anthologies come from across the pond. Stephen Jones has been editing my favorite, The Year's Best Horror, for quite a while now. Sure, the usual suspects (King, Campbell, Straub, Lansdale) always get in, but Jones always sprinkles in a fine mix of new, emerging, and forgotten talent for a brutal and relentless horror anthology.
Ellen Datlow, long standing editor of The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, has thrown her editing hat into the ring with the first in a new series of horror anthologies: The Best Horror of the Year Volume One. Though she doesn't specify an attempt to look past the more common names for fresh talent, it's quite clear that was her intention. Unfortunately, as any ardent horror fan can tell you, there's a reason the common names are so common: horror is hard to do right, and - formulaic or not - some authors have figured out how to make it consistently work.
Datlow's collection would be better referred to as an anthology of dark, not horror, fiction. However, since it's marketed as a horror collection, introduced as a horror collection, and designed like a horror collection, it has to be judged as a horror collection.
The anthology falls flat. The placement of stories is nice, the layout clean and clear, the introduction and yearly round-up done very well, but the collection is limp, weak, and underwhelming when taken as a whole.
Is it because the writing isn't any good? No. These are very talented writers at various stages in their careers. Is it the editing? Nope. Datlow's a vet and she knows what she's doing. These stories all have merit and offer a nice cross-section of darker fiction in 2008 (2008 because she is willing to admit that best-of anthologies often reward a year behind, so a 2009 release is really 2008 stories). So what went wrong?
The stories aren't scary. Datlow usually works in fantasy and many of these stories are dark fantasies, not horror. The line is often blurred here and elsewhere, but the stories in this collection almost uniformly keep both feet planted in fantasy.
Take, for example, E. Michael Lewis's "Cargo." This is a beautifully written story about an airforce delivery of a large stack of caskets containing dead children from a mass cult suicide. The doctor/recruit on board is traveling with the guidance of a nurse because he snapped from the pressure and believes he hears the children playing in the boxes. Pretty soon, everyone hears them. Instead of some big payoff or a consistent gothic atmosphere, Lewis opts for a somber wartime fantasy about the loss of innocence that reads more like the narrator accepting the existence of fairies in the garden instead of restless child spirits who don't know what happened to them.
Some of the stories are nightmarish in design, but still fall prey to the trappings of fantasy. Miranda Siemienowicz's "Dress Circle" could be horrifying if the emphasis wasn't on magical dresses that trap women in servitude. It reads like a variation of Snow White where she is put in the overly tightened bodice by her evil stepmother, only not nearly as dark.
There are three brilliant horror stories that might even be worth reading the whole collection for. First is Laird Barron's "The Lagerstatte," about a woman who lost her husband and son in a plane crash and goes off the deep end, or so you think. Even at the end, it's not clear whether or not the narrator is sane, and that's what makes it horror. It's a modern gothic cozy in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, where you have no reason to trust the narrator but follow her every word.
Second is "Girl in Pieces" by Graham Edwards. Imagine a multidimensional detective working in a small city populated by every creature ever mentioned in the history of horror. Now imagine a gigantic, kindhearted golem shows up to his office with a garbage pail full of a woman's body parts and zombie police officers demanding everyone comes out with their hands up. Now imagine the only way to solve the case is to bend through space and make a deal with a woman, now a monster, banished to another dimension. It's thrilling, funny, and rather scary. I would read a series of these stories if Graham Edwards wanted to pursue it further.
Third is Adam Golaski's "The Man from the Peak." It's a bit confusing, even at the end, but the story works. The narrator arrives at the going away party for his best friend and his new girlfriend - the narrator's ex - at their shared home on the top of a mountain. He witnesses a man walk down from the peak of the mountain and infiltrate the party. Strange things start happening with the man that only the narrator can see. It's suspenseful and feels real, like the best episodes of the Twilight Zone.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is a feature that Ellen Datlow included in The Best Horror of the Year: a list of honorable mentions. Why is this disappointing? Because I've read quite a few of those stories before and any one of them could have switched places with any of the stories selected for the anthology and produced a stronger finished product. Some of the best work by writers like Sarah Langan, Jeff VanderMeer, and Richard Harland were overlooked to make way for dark fantasy in a horror anthology. Of course, I respect that tastes are subjective and willingly admit that for what was put together (horror or not), this is a well orchestrated anthology.
I know that Ellen Datlow is a talented editor. I have no doubt that she will only improve on future volumes of the anthology. As it stands right now, I would recommend anyone interested browse through it at your local bookstore first before committing to a purchase. I was terribly disappointed in the lack of genuine horror stories, a problem I've never had with Stephen Jones's anthologies. The writing in The Best Horror of the Year is great; it's just not horror writing.