I'm reading through three lists of best horror with two friends (DeAnna Knippling and M.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 Fantasy: First Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.
Edward Bryant wrote the introduction. Fun fact: I met him and Steven Brust (who has a story in this collection) at my first Mile Hi Con. I had no idea who they were at the time. Whoops!
I found the introduction fascinating, especially as a writer of horror. You'll notice this collection is called the year's best FANTASY, with no mention of horror. This was put out in 1988, featuring the best stories from 1987. Up until 1987, horror was published and honored as fantasy. Horror Writers of America had just been started, with Dean R. Koontz and his wife being instrumental, due to a call for it from both horror and fantasy authors. Horror was taking up a lot of space, both in terms of publishing space and awards being given out at the World Fantasy Convention. When this collection was put together, they were still being lumped together, and how the split would go was up in the air.
As with all these collections, I enjoy going through the intro for the little twinges of memory I get from reading what books, TV shows, movies, etc. came out that year. And to read all the horror news of the time. This one may have been the most educational for me, because of the above!
Instead of splitting each story out separately as I've done in the past, I figured I'd mention my favorite stories instead.
My top two were:
Halley's Passing, by Michael McDowell. It's about a serial killer (who, as it turns out, is also something more). He travels around and has a quota of one death before dawn of each day. The way the story was laid out was so perfect. We're in the character's head, and he's so business-like about what he does, keeping a notebook record of his expenses, murders, and income from each murder. It's the sheer lack of emotion about each kill, laid out in clear detail, that got me. Each kill had to be different, because he was obsessed with avoiding patterns. The most horrifying details were often throwaways, such as when he's talking about keeping a record of addresses, "because sometimes he likes to visit widows." Just another day for him. I loved the deliberate movement of the character through the story. And the way he came across his victims, in places you feel safe, daily situations, etc. It gave such a cold, hard look at daily life, and gave life to the meme going around Facebook about how many times you walk by a murderer in a day.
The Pear-Shaped Man, by George R.R. Martin. First of all, I've never read anything of his, and I had no idea he was originally known for horror. As of 1987, he was considered a horror author. He was also working on the television show Beauty and the Beast. This story hit perfectly on certain experiences women have with men. A woman moves into an apartment building and frequently sees a neighbor watching her. He's uber-geeky (I pictured one of Martin Short's characters when he was described, especially when it came to the brown polyester pants pulled up to his armpits), socially clueless, has pasty skin, etc. It was the details in this story that got me, though. I noticed it had me physically pulling into myself, squinching up, shoulders rising, during certain parts. There's no gore or violence, but the geeky neighbor is gross in a million little ways. Stuff like a perpetually wet lower lip, squishy white fingers like maggots, and the fact that he keeps cheese doodles in his pockets and offers them to her. The main female character is trying to figure out what's up with this guy, and he messes with her in ways no one believes. Her roommate's boyfriend decides she's obsessed with the neighbor and tells her she's imagining things, but those tiny details are there. Windows oddly kept open, cheese doodles in weird places, things moved. Add to that, the ending isn't what you might think from reading this description. It really hit all the right places for me as a woman who has had unwanted attention and tried to be nice about it.
I listed these two separately because they're the stories I'm still thinking about, the ones I discussed with friends after reading them. However, there were plenty of good stories in the collection.
Honorable mentions (my other favorites):
A World Without Toys, by T.M. Wright. The fantasy element and commentary on adulthood were such fun, and the setup was immediately an eye catcher.
The Other Side, by Ramsey Campbell. A great piece of psychological horror. And it involved a creepy clown! Yay! I have a thing about people being made to doubt their own sanity, and this story was all over that.
Fat Face, by Michael Shea. Though everything seemed harmless, there was a sense of horror beneath the actual story. It used the senses well, and was beautifully written. Felt inspired by H.P. Lovecraft.
Uncle Dobbins Parrot Fair, by Charles de Lint. This story was magical. One of the few purely fantasy stories that made it into my favorites. It was about magic in the modern world and belief in magic. It left me with a feeling of content and happiness, and put a smile on my face.
Haunted, by Joyce Carol Oates. This story was haunting and gripping, because she says fairly early on what's going to happen, yet you read on to find out more, and with that little bit of hope that it won't happen. It flitted around, jumping from time to time, which was effective in keeping the reader guessing and in making the details disjointed.
Splatter: A Cautionary Tale, by Douglas E. Winter. This was told in an unusual way, with a horror writer trying to find success during a time that appeared to be the castration of horror writers. Alongside his story are snippets about a battle to keep horror from becoming violent pornography, with a call for women to have better treatment in horror. It was told in flashes that tied it together with actual horror movies/stories of the time. Cleverly done.
Gentlemen, by John Skipp and Craig Spector. This one felt deeply symbolic of men who are abusive. But it was literal in this, in the sense that a good man is taken over by something that burbles out of the toilet in a dive bar. He can see what he's doing, but has no control. Until years later, when he finds he can move one arm while the thing inside him sleeps. Disturbing.
And one that really affected me, though I'm not sure it was a favorite necessarily, was DX, by Joe Haldeman. The author was a Vietnam vet in real life, and this is a poem about war time. It was a gut punch, and left me with moist eyes at the end. Incredibly powerful. And sad.
There were a lot of good stories in this one, with a few that made me scratch my head. All the ones that left me feeling like the story was pointless were fantasy, so perhaps it spoke more to my understanding of the genre than the stories themselves. The final story in the collection, A Hypothetical Lizard, by Alan Moore, was one I almost didn't bother finishing. I stuck it out, and was happy to have done so, but I felt like it could have been significantly cut and been a stronger story.
My Name is Dolly, by William F. Nolan was good, and might have been among my favorites except for the ending. Somehow the ending took away the wonder for me, and caused the rest of the story to fall flat.
Voices in the Wind, by Elizabeth S. Helfman was sweet, and spoke about believing in magic and wonder. It was very short and simple, and nothing much happened, so it fell flat for me, as well.
Small Heirlooms, by M. John Harrison was one I read twice to try to get the point of. Even after two reads, it was one of the head scratchers. I completely missed the point. The other head scratcher was The Fable of the Farmer and Fox, by John Brunner. I just purely didn't get it. Well, I thought I got the gist of it, but it was maybe too deep a thinker for the mood I was in, and I chose to move on instead of trying to understand it better.
Author's Notes, by Edward Bryant, had such possibilities, but I felt like it wasn't played out as well as I would have liked. The idea was a kick, but I wanted more from it than I got.
Overall, great collection of stories, and a lot of fun to read the introduction. There are several authors I'd like to read more from, and there were no stories I absolutely hated. There were certainly no authors I'd avoid after this collection.
My new rankings:
1. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
2. The Bottoms (Joe R. Lansdale)
3. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
4. The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection (Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)
5. Those Who Hunt the Night (Barbara Hambly)
6. The Damnation Game (Clive Barker)
7. The Wolf's Hour (Robert McCammon)
8. Berserk (Tim Lebbon)
9. Best New Horror, Volume 1 (edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell)
10. Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)
11. The Imago Sequence (Laird Barron)
12. From the Dust Returned (Ray Bradbury)
13. In Silent Graves (Gary A. Braunbeck)
14. The Tomb (F. Paul Wilson)
15. The Cipher (Kathe Koja)
16. Drawing Blood (Poppy Z. Brite)
17. The Doll Who Ate His Mother (Ramsey Campbell
18. Hotel Transylvania (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro)
The next book I read will be Darkness, by Ellen Datlow. I believe it's another collection, and I've already got the notebook I've become accustomed to carrying around to jot down notes since I don't have a good enough memory to remember each individual story in a collection otherwise. Might as well keep using that notebook!
Have you read any of these authors? Which are your favorites? Did you know George R.R. Martin was a horror author originally? Did you know horror fiction had split out so recently (in the scheme of things)?
May you find your Muse.