Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror: Volume 21

A few months ago I set about acquiring complete runs of two of the three long-running "best horror" anthologies: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror.  (I plan to start on the third, The Year's Best Horror Stories, at some point in the future.)  Thanks to online used book sites, I bought them a lot faster than I could read them, and it was only recently that I got around to the volumes of Best New Horror.  As a result, I'd only read the first two when the most recent entry in the series, #21, was released.  My eccentric reading-order obsessiveness led me to feel I should finish all twenty of its predecessors before I bought the new one, but when I saw the table of contents I knew I wouldn't be able to wait.  So I ordered a copy, and sped through it in a single night.

In part, that was because this installment contains less fiction than any previous entry, only about 300 pages' worth.  The other 180 pages are given over to editor Stephen Jones' summary of the year in horror (100 pages) and Jones and Kim Newman's exhaustive necrology, which takes 80 pages this year to note the death of anyone with even a passing connection to horror, science fiction, or fantasy in any form.  Personally I find these sections too exhaustive to be readable-- I have no use for one-sentence plot summaries of every paranormal detective novel or paragraph-long obituaries for every actor who played a bit part in a monster movie-- but I know others find them useful, so I won't complain that they're there.  I do wish the annual summary had clear section headings so one could find, say, all the anthologies without having to flip through novels, collections, etc.

One thing the size of the summary proves is that Jones knows the full range of the field, and that knowledgeable eye leads to a wonderfully-varied selection of fiction.  From ghost stories to an action-packed revenge tale to a unclassifiable sequel to King Kong, this year's selections meet a fundamental criterion for a strong non-theme anthology: they have nothing in common but excellence.  Like all types of fiction, horror is intermittently accused of being dead, or dying, or devoid of new ideas, but the quality and scope of these stories demonstrates that such accusations have more to do with the limited knowledge of certain commentators than with the actual shape of the field.

Instead of drudging up dutiful comments on every story, I've focused below on those about which I thought I had something to say.  (You may well disagree.)  Those not mentioned were all fine stories and come recommended.

As he often does, Jones picks two stories by a single author to open and close the anthology.  In this case, it's Canadian writer Michael Kelly.  Both are short; the first, "The Woods," is only four pages.  It may seem odd to say that so brief a tale is predictable, but with a few paragraphs I could see where it was going.  Kelly capably captures the atmosphere of the frozen woods where the story takes place, but I've read too many stories about similar desolate, isolated settings for this one to have much effect.  It's a fine little tale, but I'm not sure what makes it one of the best of the year.

For most of its length I was likewise uncertain about "Throttle," a novelette written by the father/son superstar team of Stephen King and Joe Hill.  I admire both writers, especially for their short fiction, but for a long time it seemed that this story had nothing more to offer than a well-written variation on Richard Matheson's "Duel."  I like fast-paced, gruesome action as much as the next guy, but I was hoping for something more, and the story eventually provided it, with a concluding twist that ties together various threads from earlier in the narrative to great effect.

I had previously read Barbara Roden's "Out and Back" in its original context, as part of Roden's dazzling debut collection, Northwest Passages.  There, among Roden's other subtle stories about isolated places and the things that haunt them, I loved it, but rereading it here I had some doubts.  The concept, an abandoned, decrepit amusement park where something lingers, is a great one, but the ghostly occurrences feel like random atmosphere generators rather than part of a single haunting, and one central image is a little too implausible and thematically on-the-nose for my taste.  Ultimately, though, these are small complaints about a successful story.

Ramsey Campbell is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest living horror writers, so it's hardly surprising that his stories have appeared in almost every installment of Best New Horror.  This year's selection, "Respects," originally appeared in the anthology British Invasion, where I read it a few months ago.  I wasn't greatly impressed then, and rereading it didn't change that feeling.  In some ways, I suppose, I take Campbell's skill for granted.  His evocation of a grieving widow and her nasty neighbors is undeniably excellent, and the supernatural creature at work in the story is a creepy one.  But, as is often the case with Campbell's lesser work, I found his "something ghastly happened, unless it was actually only something mundane" device wearying rather than spooky, and the conflict between the widow and her neighbors, while realistic, was too one-sided to be interesting.  But this story is in two different "year's best" anthologies, so what do I know?

The major reason I wanted to read this volume right away was that it included Reggie Oliver's completion of the M. R. James fragment "The Game of Bear."  This was originally published in Madder Mysteries, an already out-of-print collection that I was almost but not quite willing to pay a ridiculous price to obtain simply to read this story.  As readers (both of you) may remember from an earlier entry, Oliver is one of my favorite ghost story writers and a master of pastiche, so it's no surprise that I loved this story, which complete James's tantalizing fragment in an entirely appropriate style, with spooky nursery rhymes some good old-fashioned chills.

When I first read Michael Marshall Smith's "What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night" in Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two, I wasn't impressed by it.  As is often the case with subtly disarming stories, I was expecting something more dazzling and was disappointed when I didn't get it.  This time, knowing just what to expect, I was able to appreciate Smith's use of the innocuous voice of a small child to find the terror in a simple but baffling situation.

The final story in this volume that I had previously read was "The Reunion" by Nicholas Royle, from Datlow's top-notch 2009 anthology Poe.  Royle uses the physical dislocation of wandering a vast hotel and the emotional dislocation of attended a school reunion to fashion a quietly unsettling story of bewildering events and missed connections.  No fireworks here; just confusion, uncertainty, and a brilliantly-controlled sense of dread.

Terry Dowling's "Two Steps Along the Road" weaves a number of disparate elements-- a setting in Vietnam, a theory about the origin of all ghostly phenomena, and the personal regrets and memories of several different characters-- into another subtle chiller with an amiable ghost creepier than any more aggressive phantom could be.

When I read a Mark Valentine story in a recent anthology, I was amazed at his command of language.  Most contemporary writers who attempt the elevated diction of nineteenth-century masters of the supernatural produce strained work that feels terribly self-conscious, but Valentine never puts so much as a single word out of place.  This makes the eerie atmosphere of the settings he describes far more unsettling than the simple events that take place in them might suggest.  His story here, "The Axholme Toll," uses the history of a real island off the coast of Scotland to tell a story about a mysterious manuscript, but the highlight is Valentine's evocation of the power of certain places to exercise the mind.

I don't think there's a type of monster I find more boring than the zombie, but there are a few zombie stories I've really liked, and "Granny's Grinning" by Robert Shearman is one to add to the list.  Like many of Shearman's stories, it uses black humor to explore the ways in which people hurt each other in their attempts, successful and otherwise, to come to terms with the pain of life.  In this case, a Christmas celebration and a visit from a grieving grandmother lead to one of the strangest zombie tales you're ever likely to read.

The longest story in this year's volume is Brian Lumley's "The Nonesuch."  I haven't always enjoyed Lumley's work in the past, but this was a fun, if slow-moving, tale of a hotel with a closed-off room and a tragic history.  That may sound like the set-up for something traditional, but the true antagonist here is not at all what you might expect.  The narrator, a cheerful alcoholic who can't help encountering the unexplainable, is charming enough that the slow development of the plot doesn't grate.  I do wish, though, that Lumley would stop buying ellipses in bulk...

And the anthology closes with its shortest piece, Michael Kelly's "Princess of the Night."  Barely a page long, it is indeed, as Jones says, "a nice short, sharp jolt in the EC comics tradition," but is it really one of the best stories of the year?

Despite my quibbles with some of the selections, I found Best New Horror 21 compulsively readable, and would recommend it to anyone curious about the state of horror fiction, or simply looking for some spooky bedtime reading.  And now that this volume is out of the way, I'm ready to double back to Best New Horror 3 and make my forward through several more years' worth of great horror stories.

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