Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2010 Edition

This is the third "best horror of 2009" anthology I've read.  In March of last year there was Ellen Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two, the new home for the horror half of the venerable Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series.  Then last November there was (The Mammoth Book of) Best New Horror 21, edited by Stephen Jones.  Between them these two veteran editors have produced 44 annual best-ofs for dark fiction.  Given their experience and judgment, one might consider a third such annual anthology unnecessary or overkill.  If so, one would be wrong.

In the first place, I'm not at all sure that there could ever be too many best-of series for speculative fiction.  Too much great horror, fantasy, and science fiction appears only in expensive limited editions, obscure magazines, or markets not traditionally associated with those genres.  Inexpensive, widely available reprint anthologies make this material available to readers who otherwise might never see it.  I first encountered virtually every contemporary horror writer I now admire in the pages of one or another best-of.  The more such books are published, the wider the range of reprinted material will be, and that's good for writers and readers alike.

In the second place, The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2010 Edition distinguishes itself from its fellow best-ofs in a couple important ways.  I'll let editor Paula Guran tell you about it herself, in this quote from the acknowledgments:
The scope and intent of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2010 [sic] is unique.  As the publisher allowed me a considerable number of pages to fill, I was able to select some longer works that, in a thinner book, might not have been afforded the space.  And, with such a broad theme, I was able to select stories that do not fit anthologies more tightly constrained by definitions.  Thanks to Sean Wallace of Prime Books for the lack of boundaries.
And the volume's page count is indeed considerable: 575 large trade paperback pages, all of them, except for an introduction and the back matter, devoted to fiction.  For this particular year, Guran's volume includes about as much fiction as Datlow and Jones combined.  That's 39 stories, including three novellas.  Even though I had previously read over a quarter of those stories on original publication and/or in other best-ofs, there were still 28 pieces completely new to me.

But enough about quantity; it's that other thing that really matters.  Fortunately, Guran hits a home run here as well.  Part of the fun of a best-of is seeing excellent stories you've already read get the recognition they deserve.  Here, for the second or third time, I read such great tales as Suzy McKee Charnas's "Lowland Sea," Michael Shea's "Copping Squid," Barbara Roden's "The Brink of Eternity," Catherynne M. Valente's "A Delicate Architecture," and Norman Prentiss's "In the Porches of My Ears."  There are some stories so good that seeing them in a table of contents is an added incentive to buy the book, even if I already own the piece in question in some other format, and all five of these fit that bill.

And I was equally impressed by many of the pieces that were new to me.  In particular, I got a kick out of the three novellas.  Jones usually includes only one novella a year in Best New Horror, and they're even rarer in Datlow, so Guran's triple threat was a nice change of pace.  I'd especially been looking forward to the novella "Sea-Hearts" by the indescribably brilliant Margo Lanagan, and it didn't disappoint.  This reworking of the selkie legend, which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella, showcases all of Lanagan's virtues: her ability to modify elements of fantasy and legend in fascinating, dark ways, her insight into harrowing psychological experiences, and the strange, poetic diction that makes her language a joy to encounter.  To begin a Lanagan story is to be dropped into a strange, shifting world where the rules have changed and even the most familiar things can become mysterious, but if you persevere you'll find the radiant humanity that defines and enriches all her work.

The other two novellas were equally fascinating in their diverse ways.  John Langan's "The Wide, Carnivorous Sky" reinvigorates the vampire by turning it into a force of nature and tying its existence into the experience of injured Iraq War veterans, while "Halloween Town," by Lucius Shepard, begins with a town hidden in the shadows of an immense gorge and a man who becomes intelligent and jaded after being hit in the head with a rivet, and only gets more surprising, funny, and thoughtful from there.  As for the shorter works, I especially want to mention Stewart O'Nan's "Monsters," a story that captures the horror of a very real situation by telling it straightforwardly, avoiding excess and melodrama; Stephen Graham Jones's "The Ones Who Got Away," a spooky tale of memory and regret, elevated by the slightly disjointed language in which it's narrated; and Maura McHugh's "Vic," which is that great rarity, a story told subtly enough that you might well miss its chilling point on first reading.

Naturally, there were a few stories I thought were adequate but not exceptional, including one I'm not going to name that I've now read three times in various anthologies, always vainly hoping that I'll like it better this time around.  But the nice thing about an anthology this size is that I can find six of its stories underwhelming and still be a fan of the other 33.  And the volume's wide scope means that you can go from a retold fairy tale to a ghost story to a doppelganger to a vampire to a deal with the devil to a story that isn't supernatural at all.  For the reasonable price of $20 US, The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2010 Edition offers an excellent overview of where dark fiction went in 2009.  Here's hoping this series, unlike other recent attempts at a new horror best-of, will have some staying power.  It certainly deserves to.

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