I'm reading through three lists of best horror with two friends (DeAnna Knippling andM.B. Partlow), posting reviews as we go. (For more information, including a list of the books, see this post.) To see the books I've reviewed so far, you can view the list at the end of this post where I rank them.
This week I'm reviewing The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2010, edited by Paula Guran.
First, I'm always going to enjoy an anthology of short horror unless it big time sucks. This didn't suck. Look at the names on there! One of those names wrote one of the top stories I've ranked so far in this challenge. These are heavy hitters in horror and dark fantasy.
There were a ton of stories in this collection. I was pleasantly surprised to see Boulder author Stephen Graham Jones in there. He's making these collections fairly consistently these days. It was actually a story I'd read before, likely in his own collection.
Because there are so many stories, I'll touch on a few favorites.
Elizabeth Bear started the collection strong with The Horrid Glory of Its Wings. This one was well written and creepy, yet it had a lot of heart and a strong impact. A sick little girl meets a harpy. The reader is left to wonder if the harpy represented freedom or something darker.
I like a good revenge story - preferably one without insane amounts of torture and gore - and Suzy McKee Charnas delivers one with a fabulous ending in The Lowland Sea. The Red Sweat has come along, causing people to sicken and die, and spreading rapidly. A rich producer holes up in his mansion with a bunch of his employees, family, and lackeys. Told from a maid's POV, the ending delivers a sweet punch to folks who believe they're above everyone else, and are willing to tromp on those below them.
Michael Shea wowed me with language in Copping Squid. I wanted to quote half the contents of his story due to their beauty, yet the story was set in filth and squalor. The juxtaposition sang. "When he was a kid, he'd always felt sorcery in the midnight streets, in the mosaic of their lights, and he'd never lost the sense of unearthly shapes stirring beneath their web, stirring till they almost cohered, as the stars did for the ancients into constellations." p. 44. There were hints of Lovecraft, the story speaking of something deeper beneath the grimy underlayers of the city.
A Delicate Architecture, by Catherynne M. Valente, was my favorite story in this collection, by far. A twist on a well known fairy tale, but you don't know it until the end. And when that realization comes, it's amazing. This tale was delicate, lovely, and delicious, yet deeply sad. An origin story born of the ultimate back stabbing.
Steve Duffy's Certain Death for a Known Person is a punch in the gut. A simple decision has a huge impact years later. It's easy to trade an unknown person's life for that of someone you know, but what happens when you discover you know them better than you thought you did? I read this one with growing dread until the moment my suspicions (really...certainties) were confirmed.
John Mantooth's The Water Tower was reminiscent of The Body/Stand By Me. Well written, heart felt, and with a subtle and sad shock at the end.
In The Porches of My Ears, by Norman Prentiss, felt like sleight of hand to me. Another gut punch. Most of the story is spent in a movie, with our POV character sitting with his wife behind a couple where the husband is blind, the wife telling the details of the movie via whispers they can clearly hear. She twists the ending to make it sad, though it was a happy ending. Prentiss then does the same thing to the reader, all in the last page or two. He gives readers a clue right at the beginning, then offers distraction up until the moment he dumps us on our heads.
The Other Box, by Gerard Houarner, hit me right in the Mom Place. The despair of a mother whose children are all stolen from her, one by one. Something magical behind it all. Her life crumbles around her, but her drive to get her babies back takes her to a dark, yet hopeful place. There's more hinted at, including a history with this particular magic, but we never know for sure.
Steve Rasnic Tem, someone frequently found in these collections, makes us look at one hand while the other produces the coin. The Cabinet Child is told like a fairy tale, but with a spin. First, we hear the wife's POV. She's sad and lonely, desperately wanting a child. The reader comes to resent the husband in staunch support of her. But then we see his POV, and are stunned by the other side. We end the story with a whole different knowledge than we began with. Another sad one.
Vic, by Maura McHugh, was another story utilizing dawning realization to tell the reader they already know this character. I can't say much without giving it away, but this story was well told and perfectly built up.
Michael Marshall Smith perfectly closed out the anthology with What Happens When You Wake Up in the Middle of the Night. Told from a child's POV (quite perfectly), the child asks his mom why she turns his light out after he falls asleep. He manages to convince her to leave it on, as long as he doesn't wake his parents up in the middle of the night if he wakes up. Only he does wake up, and his light is off. Not only is it off, but it's missing. A cautionary tale against turning off your children's lights at night. I also got a kick from it, because my kids have asked me this very question. Simple, brief story telling.
Since I point out the best, I should probably mention a couple I struggled with. Stewart O'Nan's Monsters must have been dark fantasy, rather than horror, but if someone had drawn a picture of me reading it, there would have been a giant question mark over my head. It felt like something I'd read in Reader's Digest. I kept waiting for the dark punchline.
The Brink of Eternity, by Barbara Roden was a bit dull for me. There was an interesting aspect in that it switches between articles about an explorer, and the actuality of what happened with the explorer, which was not, of course, what the article said. Still, I struggled, and considered skipping this one.
Strange Stories From an Unfinished Film, by Gary McMahon was a story with promise that ended up irking me due to missing details. I get that they were missing to lend mystery to the story, but they actually ruined it for me.
That was harder than I thought it was going to be. Out of 39 stories, I ended up writing about 14 of them, anyway. And I was tempted to write about more than that. There were so many quality stories in here, so many authors I respect. There were stories that flipped genres on their heads. Ones with deep emotional impact. Ones that stunned me. There were also enough stories to last me a couple weeks, which is why these collections are so worthwhile.
Paula Guran did a great job putting this together. Even the ones I listed that I struggled with for one reason or another weren't badly written. They were just not my kind of thing. There are others who would probably enjoy those and dislike some of my favorites. That's the beauty of an anthology like this - something for everyone.
My new rankings:
1. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
2. The Bottoms (Joe R. Lansdale)
3. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
4. A Choir of Ill Children (Tom Piccirilli)
5. The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2010 (Paula Guran)
6. The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection (Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)
7. Those Who Hunt the Night (Barbara Hambly)
8. Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror (Ellen Datlow)
9. Dead in the Water (Nancy Holder)
10. The Damnation Game (Clive Barker)
11. The Wolf's Hour (Robert McCammon)
12. Berserk (Tim Lebbon)
13. Best New Horror, Volume 1 (edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell)
14. The Tomb (F. Paul Wilson)
15. Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)
16. The Imago Sequence (Laird Barron)
17. My Soul to Keep (Tananarive Due)
18. World War Z (Max Brooks)
19. From the Dust Returned (Ray Bradbury)
20. In Silent Graves (Gary A. Braunbeck)
21. The Cipher (Kathe Koja)
22. Drawing Blood (Poppy Z. Brite)
23. The Doll Who Ate His Mother (Ramsey Campbell)
24. Hotel Transylvania (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro)
I believe the next thing I'll be reading is Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Red Tree.
Heard of any of the authors I mentioned? Did you read this one? How do you feel about twisted fairy tales?
May you find your Muse.