The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror: Sixth Annual Collection, ed. by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Like the Dozois SF collection, the Datlow/Windling collection is the fantasy/horror short fiction collection to get if you only get one a year. I’ve been picking up both of these collections since they first started appearing, and I’ve never been disappointed. Due to the fact that I have not been reading the magazines in recent years, all of the stories in this volume (with one exception) were new to me, so what follows is a story-by-story discussion. That exception? Ed Bryant’s “Human Remains,” which I read in workshop.

    • Emma Bull, “Silver and Gold”–Excellent fantasy, with touches of the fairy tale, but also a nice measure of reality–much like that of Tolkien, for whom this story was written as a tribute.
    • Jack Cady, “The Tinker”–Fantasy? I don’t think so. Very southern type fiction–like Faulkner or O’Conner–where the most important things are the ones not said. Not to my taste, although I can see its appeal for the literati.
    • Craig Curtis, “Queequeq”–Cute concept, although slightly reminiscent of Ellen Guon’s “Stable Strategies for Middle Management.” And for all its “telling,” what comes across is the “showing.” This may be because when the first person narrator tells, he is doing it through “show.” This is probably why first person is so easy to do, yet so hard to do right.
    • M. John Harrison, “Anima”–As everything I’ve ever read by Harrison, I find myself interested by the writing, but bewildered by the concepts. I really don’t know how anyone call sell anything so subtle–or is it me? Am I just dense? No. Harrison is subtle, and I don’t care to pick him apart to understand him.
    • Steve Rasnic Tem, “Skin (poem)”–A couple of good images, but the whole didn’t coalesce for me.
    • Reginald McDwight, “Homunculus”–Not as subtle as the Harrison, but still too much for me to want to read it again and try to find out what the point was. Now, I’m not against working with a story, but these writers, I feel, ask too much. There’s a fine line between rewarding insight and punishment by obscuring. Either that, or I’m just losing patience.
    • Christina Peri Rossi, “The Annuciation”–The style is magic realism, or maybe I just perceive Latin American fiction that way. The story is sort of interesting, and I loved the last line, but it felt like there was way too much that went before to get to that point, and the unanswered questions were left dangling much too high.
    • Charles de Lint, “The Bone Woman”–de Lint writes well, with grace and fluidity, but I’ve never really like his short stories. For some reason, they seem dainty and fey–things “real men” shouldn’t read or write. Which is funny coming from me, because I love fairy tales.
    • A.S. Byatt, “The Story of the Eldest Princess”–See, I told you I liked fairy tales, for I loved this one. It looks like Byatt can do no wrong (for me, that is), so I’m going to have to search out more of her work. This is an excellent post-modern “once upon a time” tale, that both conforms to the traditional fairy tale motifs and also goes beyond them with a meta-meaning (the Princess realizes that she is caught in a story) and a subtle meaning (I took the tale to be a “state of women’s modern lives”). Excellent.
    • Poppy Z. Brite, “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves”–So this is the story that caused Dan Simmons to write a story for Still Dead? I can see what affinity he might have for it, given his Song of Kali, but it seemed to…not obscene, I don’t really believe in that word, but, too…much. But then, maybe that’s the point. However, I’ve been told how nasty Calcutta is so many times now that I’m little impressed by another rendition.
    • Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “In the Looking Glass, Life is Death (poem)”–I don’t get it.
    • Scott Bradfield, “The Parakeet and the Cat”–Ah, a wonderful little story full of talking animals and metaphysics. Bradfield’s style is clean and crisp as well–a real joy to read.
    • Nicholas Royle, “Glory”–Spooky, which, in today’s horror glut, is quite a compliment. It reminds me a little of the film version I once saw of Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing. And, nicely, it’s just as ambiguous and yet clear. It’s almost too ambiguous, surprising me that it saw print like that. Ah, well–those are the Brits for you, not needing to spell it out.
    • Neil Gaiman, “Murder Mysteries”–I really like the tale inside the story of the murder in heaven and the instigation of Lucifer’s downfall. It’s the kind of thing Carroll would write if he wrote “real” fantasy. (Do you get the feeling that I idolize Jonathan Carroll? I do. He’s not perfect, but his way with words and stories somehow strikes the perfect chord with me.) The outside tale I wasn’t as fond of–something like what Bret Easton Ellis might write if he wrote horror (ok, I haven’t read American Psycho to know if this comparison is truly apt). But, this is Gaiman, so it also reads a bit like “Sandman”–lots of people sitting around talking about the weirdest things, with some ambiguous twists. Not my pick for a “great” story, unless I give extra points for “intriguing.”
    • Steve Rasnic Tem, “Hungry”–Wugh. That’s about the grossest thing I’ve read recently. Reminds me of something like in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Not to my taste anymore, if you’ll pardon the pun.
    • M.R. Scofidio, “Playing With”–Short and okay. Cute play with title, but really not getting anywhere.
    • Robert Silverberg, “It Comes and Goes”–Not bad. The quiet type of horror so loved by the Charlie Grant school. Unfortunately, quiet often means boring. (Loud often means boring and disgusting, so that’s really not the answer.) While Silverberg’s piece isn’t necessarily “boring,” it still doesn’t have the same intriguing characteristic’s of Gaiman’s nor the chill of Royle’s.
    • Grozdana Olujic, “The Bewitched Burr”–Nice, but the ending doesn’t fit the implied moral message of the fairy tale, at least not to me. And given that this is coming from the former Yugoslavia, where it is hard to imagine where the “happily ever after” is going to appear, that isn’t too surprising.
    • Charlotte Watson Sherman, “Swimming Lessons”–Nice short short of the rural south that speaks a great deal about children everwhere.
    • Garry Kilworth, “Memories of the Flying Ball Bike Shop”–What a wonderful story! I’m a sucker these days for stories set in other cultures, because for me humans are the alienest of aliens. When another culture is mixed with a heart-rending story of character, what emerges is pure delight. I’ve liked some of Kilworth’s previous work, but now I’ll really be looking for it.
    • Diane de Avalle-Arce, “Bats”–Another story set in a different culture, this time Guanujuarta, Mexico. Wonderful hook paragraph about how shoeshine boys tortured bats leads into a nicely told tale. The basic plot is not that startling. What lives on in memory is the setting and the characters, so well drawn from just a few lines.
    • Nancy Farmer, “Origami Mountain”–Simplistic mystery, supposed to reveal something about the Japanese character. I had a hard time ignoring the sentence structure and the weird dialogue of the policemen.
    • James Powell, “Ruby Laughter, Tears of Pearls”–Fun little story, mainly for humor. Strangely, it was originally published in a mystery magazine. Guess it provided a pleasant change of pace (it couldn’t be just because the author is a well-respected mystery writer, right?).
    • Judith Tarr, “I Sing of a Maiden”–So? Okay, it’s a nice conceit–lady writer brings Thomas a Beckett back from the past, and, yes, Tarr gets to throw in a bunch of that there fancy book learning. But so what? Nothing here is that touching, that interesting, to warrant inclusion.
    • Cliff Burns, “Also Starring”–Since I’m not a film buff, most of the character references went over my head. What was left was only mildly amusing. Luckily, it was short and didn’t take long to read.
    • Christopher Fowler, “On Edge”–Okay, I’ll admit its disgusting. It might even be disturbing, depending on your personal fear of dentistry. But what’s the point? Yes, the “patient” was an asshole. His arrogant demand for service can be seen in almost any customer-related/oriented business. And his barging in to find a dentist adds a touch to the logic of the story. But after–even during–the operation, I can’t help to repeat, what’s the point? Are we supposed to take this as a moral tale: this is what happens to line-jumpers? Or are we just supposed to wince vicariously at the dental work? So far, this has to be the poorest pick for this volume.
    • Joyce Carol Oates, “Martyrdom”–I seem to be having this trouble with horror–supposedly the Year’s Best–in that I just don’t get it. Oh, I get the disgusting aspect of it. In the war between “quiet” and “loud” horror, splatter seems to be winning. Every story seems to try to top the one before in the savage viciousness of it all. But for what? Maybe my horror filter, when finally overloaded a couple of years ago, still hasn’t been renewed. Whatever. All I know is that stories like this do not make me any eager to read more.
    • Haruki Murakami, “The Second Bakery Attack”–Well, here we go again; I didn’t get it, but this time I liked it. Obviously I’ve shifted more towards fantasy in these last few years. And, while I didn’t get it, I at least felt there was something to be had here. I especially enjoyed the narrator’s “voice,” the descriptions (one-liners perfect for their analogies), and the structure (intro, break into story of first attack, then interlude, followed by second attack). I wonder if I would “get” his longer work?
    • Lucius Shepard, “A Little Night Music”–I haven’t lost my taste for all horror. Or, maybe, what I’ve lost is the horror, but I don’t mind the dark fantasy or whatever Chizmar calls it. Even though the fantasy part of this tale is science fiction, it merges with horror because it is about death. But that’s just an underlying premise here. The real story is as old as the hills–the mainstay of TV and Updike fiction, that is the jealous husband. Datlow says in her introduction to the J.C. Oates story that the best writers blur or merge the genres. Yeah, I’ll agree, although I tend to like the style of Shepard over Oates.
    • Jo Shapcott, “Tom and Jerry Visit England (poem)”–Cute idea, with some great description. I didn’t really follow the ending, but liked enough of the whole to be amused.
    • Stephen Gallagher, “The Sluice”–As much a “mainstream” story as any (given the ambiguous, yet understandable, nature of the slight bit of fantasy), it achieves what it sets out to achieve. There’s nothing unworkmanlike here, but, at the same time, there was nothing spectacular either.
    • Brian Aldiss, “Ratbird”–From the new incarnation of the famous new wave magazine, New Worlds, this story reads like it came from the pages of the old incarnation. Which is not a compliment in my book. Like Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories, this is full of instance and experiment, and I canna make head nor tails of it.
    • Gene Wolfe, “The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun”–Interesting, but confusing as well (a frequent comment of mine after a Wolfe short story). I like the idea of explaining the appearance of the monkey in an old document (a real document?), but it seems like a long way to go for it. Also, a nice, underlying moral, but almost too subtle, and seems easily displaced by all the other going on.
    • Rick Bowes, “On Death and the Deuce”–What at first seems an interesting take on gritty magic realism, and started off with flare, ended up seemeing only as exciting as any mainstream story about an alcoholic. I can’t even say it was poor execution, just execution not to my liking.
    • Harlan Ellison, “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”–Huh? Like his earlier “Eidolons,” I just don’t get it. I wish Ellison would go back to writing stories with beginnings, middles, and endings, because when he did, he was a hell of a writer. This type of story is hellish, as well, but in quite the opposite connotation. Ah well, this is the type of thing that gets you in the Year’s Best (did this one make the American Best volume as well?).
    • Joe Haldeman, “Graves”–Nice little war story, full of disgust turned natural, and seemingly natural turned hellish. Haldeman writes about war and death as if he knows of what he speaks–which I guess he does. Neat and short.
    • Ed Gorman, “The Ugly File”–We’re on a roll now, up to two-in-a-row that I’ve liked. There’s nothing fantastic about this story–just a quiet little piece of true pathos. I wouldn’t even term it horror; unfortunately, it’s just life.
    • Midori Snyder, “Elfhouses”–Gah! Pleack! Bleah! My gosh, it’s a pagan Sunday School story. Combining the worst elements of reality, new age mentality and a slight bit of fantastic in a confection of unbearable sweetness, it’s no wonder that this tale was first published in “Mothering” rather than a genre magazine. Why it’s included here is a mystery to me.
    • Sue Ellen Sloca, “Candles on the Pond”–Not bad. Might even be very good. Yet this type of story–anthropological sf?–doesn’t sit well with me; it’s just not my normal interest. The writing’s good, though, because it kept me reading.
    • Grania Davis, “Tree of Life, Book of Death”–Nice little fantasy tale, using Jewish motifs mixed with a semi-modern style. Nothing fantastic, but a solid, likable story.
    • D.R. McBride, “Puja”–Another Calcutta story, although this one has it only as the protagonist’s memory, still it’s an integral part of the story. A quiet type of horror tale, with an inscrutible (to Americans) idea. Still, it was interesting. With all these Calcutta stories, wonder if Dozois and Dann could do a KALI! anthology–or maybe Dozois and Resnick’s Under Indian Skies?
    • Clive Barker, “Hermione and the Moon”–A surprisingly sugary tale from the goremaster of horror. Short and to the point; any longerand it might have turned as saccharine as the Snyder tale.
    • Graham Masterson, “Absence of Beast”–Following Herr Goremaster is Lt. Tag-a-long, with a typical tale of love and death with the requisite (1) child’s fear, (2) family squabble, and (3) bloody denoument. Sigh. This is best of the year?
    • Steve Rasnic Tem, “Rat Catcher”–Gross, but in the Stephen King way–so you know that the grossness has a purpose beyond itself. And that purpose is to blind you from the real horror here, the slow descent into, and quick removal from, the abyss of fear. Excellent story, even though it’s not really to my taste.
    • Jane Yolen, “Will (poem)”–A blank. I see the possibility of an idea, but nothing more.
    • Jane Yolen, “The Question of the Grail (poem)”–A little better, but still…. Why does poetry have to be so obscure? Maybe I should start a Post-Eliot Fellowship and call for clearer meaning in poetry?
    • John Brunner, “In the Season of the Dressing of the Wells”–Great story, although somewhat simplistic. But then, what’s wrong with being simple? Asimov made a career out of being as simple as he could with difficult material, and while I really don’t believe his fiction to be any great shakes, I’m in the minority. Brunner’s story here is pleasing and enjoyable, yet also with purpose and feeling. Hard to fault that.
    • Sara Gallardo, “The Blue Stone Emperor’s Thirty-Three Wives”–Overlong for the concept, but this might be a factor of the translation. I like the concept, and, for the most part, its execution. In the city, there are a million stories, one for each person. In the harem as well.
    • Angela Carter, “Alice in Prague, or the Curious Room”–I really don’t get it, unless Carter’s trying to be as surreal as Dali or as dadist as Ionesco. Glints of interest, but like coming upon a shattered glass animal.
    • Lisa Tuttle, “Replacements”–Funny, but this reminded me of my own “Going Mobile”–something strange happens that shows the differences between the sexes. Tuttle’s version is much, much darker than my own, and her world-view seems much more pessimistic (I, at least, showed a gleam of hope). Still, it seems effective; I hope that mine was as much so.
  • Peter Straub, “The Ghost Village”–Very readable, incredibly interesting, yet obscure and ambiguous in the way that Straub tends to be. What does it say? That cultures handle their monsters in their mists differently? That people do so? Why? I think this story asks “why” and gives no answer. Interesting, yes–but rewarding?

I noticed that a large selection of stories came from Dennis Etchison’s Metahorror, which seemed to be the 1992 horror anthology (much like his earlier Cutting Edgewas). Seems like I liked about half-n-half, with it fairly even split between the fantasy and the horror.

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