In an era of ruthless self-promotion, one should be ever wary of self-applied superlatives like “best” or “greatest.” That said, some bragging rights are more deserved than others, and when it comes to collections of horror fiction, the “Best” series from Night Shade Books has inconsistently but regularly delivered.
In over 25 years of editing, Ellen Datlow has proven herself to be a talented editor in fiction generally, but her role in steering the “Best Horror of the Year” series is especially noteworthy. Her “Best Horror” collections have, for ten years, brought new names to the forefront of horror and provided readers with new stories from names they know and love (names that have, over the years, included Neil Gaiman, Linda Nagata, and Stephen King).
The tenth volume of the series is an excellent and wide-ranging collection; one that features writers plying their craft in a variety of contexts and a pleasing multiplicity of styles. The entries range from tales that are torn, shrieking, from the headlines (“West of Matamoros, North of Hell” by Brian Hodge) to stories that, while their subject matter may be antique and shrouded in cobwebs, provide for fresh and thrilling reading (“A Human Stain,” by Kelly Robson). To boot, the collection features not one but two stories from A.C. Wise: “The Stories We Tell about Ghosts” and “Harvest Song, Gathering Song,” the latter of which is one of the standout stories of the collection (more on that in a second). I’m a big fan of Wise’s short fiction; her writing features some of the most beautiful prose in horror, so to get two stories from her was a treat.
“Harvest Song” is one of the best-written and most thought-provoking stories gathered here, and full of Wise’s characteristically strange and beautiful prose. It also represents a general vector that many of the best stories here share toward the weird – “Harvest Song,” like “Holiday Romance” by Mark Morris and “Endoskeletal,” by Sarah Read – plays on age-old themes of reality, unreality, and alienation that, without spoiling anything, share some common terrain with the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft and Jeff Vandermeer.
Datlow is an able editor, though, and has peppered Best 10 with tales more rooted in the concrete – or, at least, maintaining one foot in the concrete while the other cloven hoof scratches deeply at the smoldering volcanic ash of the unnatural. Inna Effress’ “Liquid Air,” S.P. Miskowski’s “Alligator Point,” and Stephen Gallagher’s “Shepherd’s Business” are all unsettling and well-crafted stories that are quite at home in a horror anthology, but wouldn’t be at all out of place in collections devoted to dark magical realism, Southern Gothic, or pastoral tales, respectively.
An intriguing variety of styles is not the only selling point of this collection – the approaches to subject matter, be it mythic or mundane, display a pleasing variegation as well. I won’t spoil anything for those who want to pick through these stories for themselves, but this collection contains not one but two references to the Algonquian wendigo story, each so different in its approach to the story that you have to keep your eyes peeled to realize that they refer to the same basic myth.
The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 10 is, so far, the most recent in this series* – although Volume 11 is scheduled for release in September. If the quality of the previous installments is any indication of what to expect, I look forward to that volume with anticipation, having already found a lot of new authors whose work I intend to track down – and some of whom I hope to encounter again in Datlow’s next anthology.