Column: Ink Retrospective: Review: The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 4

By Amanda J. Spedding

Datlow, Ellen, ed. The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 4. Night Shade Books (2012). Paperback USD $15.99; E-book USD $7.99. ISBN: 978-1-59780-399-1.

I’ve been a long-time fan of any works Ms. Datlow puts together and The Best of Horror, Vol. 4 is no exception. To be included in this anthology is probably one of the best industry nods you can get and the 17 stories that form this edition have earned their place.

I was familiar with only one of the pieces – “The Mulbery Boys” by Margo Lanagan (originally published in Blood and Other Cravings) – and I enjoyed this the second time around as much as the first. Ms. Langan has the power to transport you so completely into the worlds she creates that I often wonder if it really is fiction she writes.

But let’s start at the beginning. The anthology is kicked off by none other than the King of horror, with his masterful piece, “The Little Green God of Agony.” It’s been too long since I’ve read one of Mr. King’s short stories, which is shameful really, as it was King who got me hooked on horror. The characters in his story are an eclectic mix: eccentric billionaire, nurse, PA, housekeeper, cook, and reverend – a seemingly mundane group, but that’s how King works his magic. His wordplay, the atmosphere and tension put you in the room with the players – a voyeur to something you’re not sure you want to see, but are powerless to look away. King knows his monsters and he knows how to make them get you. Thing is, with “The Little Green God of Agony” (as with many of King’s tales), he often leaves you wondering who is the real monster in his story.

I enjoyed King’s story. A lot. I also felt a little sorry for the next author – how do you follow a King story? With a cracker Wendigo story, that’s how. Leah Bobet’s “Stay” is a perfect mix of secluded town, winter storm and native myth. An injured stranger arrives in Sunrise and the townfolk rally to the man’s aid, but Cora suspects not everything is as it seems. With winter closing in, effectively quarantining the town and imprisoning its inhabitants, the monster-within premise stews with underlying tension. Weaving folklore, conflict and fear, this story comes to a head in an unexpected way. I loved the characters Ms. Bobet created – simple yet complex in their own way – and each worked their own magic in the finale.

There is a strong showing from the Wendigo in this anthology. All with different takes on the legend, but all left me with a feeling of unease. “Final Verse” by Chet Williamson revolves around a jaded musician’s search for the fabled last verse of a song, a ‘search for the Holy Grail’ to revitalise his career. Told in the first person (with sometimes second person narrative), it’s a quirky tale that begs to be read. The little verse-teasers Mr. Williamson uses as you’re drawn inexplicably toward the end, hold back just enough to maintain that disturbing (awesome) penultimate scene. The end of this tale? Loved, loved, loved it!

“Looker” by David Nickle isn’t your typical Wendigo story, but it’s…almost the same monster. The style of this piece threw me at the beginning, but the skill with which it was delivered drew me in quite quickly and the fantastical elements were what truly captured me as a reader. Nicely done.

Another tale I really enjoyed was “Roots and All” by Brian Hodge. Cousins Dylan and Gina return to their grandmother’s home to clear it out after the old woman’s death. Childhood memories resurface for both Gina and Dylan, dominated by the long-ago disappearance of Dylan’s sister, Shae, and an old cautionary tale of the Woodwalker. I can’t say too much about this story without spoiling it and this tale needs to be enjoyed without any spoilers. I will say that Grandma wasn’t exactly truthful about some things, and was unlike any hoarder I’ve ever seen, but was there method to her madness? Mr. Hodge keeps you on the edge of your seat with this tale and the ending stuck with me a long time after reading.

In horror stories, the monster you don’t see is often the most frightening. Simon Bestwick’s “The Moraine” does this very, very well. Steve and Diane take a holiday in an attempt to revitalise their stale marriage. Lost in mist during a mountain hike, they make a series of decisions and paths taken that leads them into a nightmare. Mr. Bestwick’s monster is heard, not seen…although the after-effects of the monster’s attacks are vividly examined. There’s terror here and when Steve and Diane realise what they’re dealing with, and what they’re hearing, the choices they make from then on really hit home.

Simon Bestwick has two offerings in this anthology and “Dermot”? Wow. This was one of my favourites of the issue. Where to start with this gem? Deals with the devil, the lesser of two evils, what sacrifices does one make to protect the many? This story takes the ‘What would I do?’ scenario to a place I’m not sure many would entertain (good show!). The ending, although I had an inkling of what was to come, still had that sucker punch I so love in a story.

“Blackwoods Baby” by Laird Barron was an interesting read. Due to quite a slow beginning, it took me a while to get into this story. There’s a lot of backstory here, most of which is used to really set the reader in the time period. After the Great War, when hunting big game was the height of power and aristocracy, an eclectic group of hunters sets out to kill the fabled Stag known as “Blackwoods Baby.” While the story is slow to start, the tension ramps up quickly once we’re on the hunt. Superstition, accidental deaths and missing party members all work to build to a finale that is well worth the read.

A.C. Wise’s “Final Girl Theory” has a touch of Blair Witch about it, insomuch as what’s real, what’s not, and what is the elusive hunt for the truth. This was an interesting read and a great premise that begs the question: If truth destroyed the mystery, would you want to know?

“Black Feathers” by Alison Littlewood is in my Top Five of this anthology. Brother-and-sister rivalry is explored here, not so much with manic jealousy but more…a wish for something better, something…stronger. Mia loves her little brother Davey, but often wishes she had the same bravado, the same carefree attitude and love of life as he does…or that he was a little different. But one act of misguided love changes everything and Mia is left with the fulfilment of her wish, for better or worse. There’s a touch of a Stephen King tale about Ms. Littlewood’s story, but telling you what it is would break the spell the author has so magically weaved.

Terry Lamsley’s “In the Absence of Murdoch” is a strange tale filled with strange characters. All of them. It works on many levels, but at times I wasn’t sure I was fully understanding what the author wanted me to understand. It wasn’t ’til I reached the end of the story that everything fell into place and I enjoyed being led along like that.

“You Become the Neighborhood” by Glen Hirshberg is an interesting mix of past and present, deeds and misdeeds, and how nothing is ever truly forgotten, how the residual effects of our lives linger long after we’re gone. The two-tales-told-as-one premise works decidedly well here: Little snippets of the past told via the present by a mother who’s never quite made it back from the edge give this story a unique quality that separates if from the others in this anthology.

John Langan’s “In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos” is another story that made it to my Top Five and one of my favourites of the issue. The intrigue of this story, weighted against the Big Bad you know is coming (but not exactly how and from where), had me trying to read faster, all the while wanting to slow down to prolong the story. All of the players are half-shadows, each with their own secrets, each with their own agendas, and each with a hand in something you know isn’t good. I could go on a long soliloquy about Mr. Langan’s tale, but the joy of this story, I think, is best served…fresh.

“Oh, Little Pig.” This short and powerful story by Anna Taborska is a cracker. Most of it lies in the past and it’s that past that weighs heavily on the future. Told at a wicked pace, this story tightly weaves fear, heartbreak and and ultimate choice extraordinarily well, and is one of my picks of the issue.

So, I’ve covered all but one of the stories in this anthology and, yes, I’ve saved the best for last.

Almost a month had passed from when I finished reading this story to when I sat down to write this review, (Real life imposes itself heavily over the Christmas period), but it gave me a perspective I don’t usually have. Each time I thought back on the anthology, one story resonated more than the others: “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn. On my first read (Yes, I read this story three times), I knew I hadn’t picked up everything I needed, but I so wanted to know what happened that I tore through it. Each subsequent read had me loving this story more. While it may not be a story to everyone’s liking, I think that’s what sets it apart. Dealing with such a taboo subject takes guts. Not many authors break through that wall of societal taboo, but Ms. Llewellyn smashed through it and kept on going.

As seen through the eyes of June, this dysfunctional family is like none other. Jealousy, hate, despair, and hope fuel this story, and it’s the war – both internal and external – that has you struggling with June and her tale. Reciting with a normality born from years of oppression, June is both victim and saviour of this piece. At times an uncomfortable read, it shows that true horror doesn’t have to come in the form of the supernatural, but that we, as a species, are the true monsters. “Omphalos” refused to let me go until the end and even then, its dirty, greasy fingers lingered. It truly is my pick of this anthology.

I’ve read all of Ms. Datlow’s Best of Horror anthologies, and Volume 4 is by far the strongest of the editions. It covers all gamuts of horror and there really is something in here for everyone. I can’t recommend it enough.