Review: Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year, Vol. II

By Amanda Spedding

besthorroroftheyear2Datlow, Ellen, ed. The Best Horror of the Year, Vol. II. Night Shade Books (March 9, 2010). USD $15.95. ISBN-13: 978-1597801737.

I’ve always been a bit sceptical when it comes to ‘Best Of’s’. Writing and, in turn, reading, is a subjective experience, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure kind of thing. Sadly, more often than not, I’m left with a bitter taste in my mouth when I put down a collection of short works. Sure, there’s always a little gem tucked away in the pages, but fighting through a mish-mash of quality to find that treasure can be tiresome work. Yes, work – the one thing reading should not be.

Like all readers, I want to be swept into a story, carried blissfully along in someone else’s world, where I can’t turn the pages fast enough but need to slow down to prolong the ride. Unfortunately, with many collections of short stories and novellas, that hasn’t always been my experience. So, it was with mild trepidation I opened the cover of Ellen Datlow’s choices.

We begin with a dedication that made me smile: to all the horror readers out there. Thank you, Ms Datlow. While we no longer feel the need to explain our obsession to those who don’t understand the panic-ridden thrill of a monster slithering toward us, or the lure of whispers from a room alive with shadows, it alleviates that pariah status that sometimes still hangs over us.

What follows is an almost awe-inspiring list of awards, novels, novellas, anthologies, collections, journals, newsletters, magazines, webzines, non-fiction, poetry, chapbooks, limited editions, and “odds and ends”. It would be impossible to list every publication currently on the market, but the effort and dedication to this summation needs to be applauded. With a plethora of reading material out there, making an informed choice is a mammoth task. Ms. Datlow gives an honest review of these works – not all are “recommended reads” – and I like that. As a self-confessed book whore, when I spend my money, I don’t want to feel swindled. Too many times, I’ve tossed an anthology or collection into my bookcase and cursed the “recommended reading”, wondering if an email to the reviewer would get me my money back. (Note: I’m broke, so don’t bother trying!) Here, I’m appreciative of the honesty. Subjective, I know, but in truth, I saved the Summation ’til the end. It was the stories I was itching to get to. The Summation could wait. I’ll explain why at the end of this review.

There are 17 stories captured within this collection, with authors from England, Wales, Canada, the U.S., and one from my backyard, Australia. The only theme here is horror. We’ve got zombies, ghosts, plagues, paranormal, and the sheer unexplained. All stuff you’ve gotta love. To me, though, the test of a collection such as this is the first story and Suzy McKee Charnas’ “Lowland Sea” didn’t disappoint. Told through the eyes of purchased African girl, Miriam, we’re taken on a ride through a plague-ridden world set against the backdrop of opulent Cannes. Miriam’s struggle to remain seen and unseen for her survival provides a poignant counter-balance to the parasitic, charismatic Victor. The ending was superb. I was nicely hooked.

While not all stories evoked a strong reaction and one didn’t grab me at all, the overall quality is exceptionally high, from the beautifully-visceral descriptions of Michaela Morrissette’s “Wendigo” to the stomach-churning boat ride of Nina Johnstone’s “Dead Loss” (What was that noise?). Michael Marshall Smith’s “What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night” made me want to sleep with a night-light…and not. Written in a child’s voice, it’s disturbingly good.

I was particularly interested in Australian horror writer, Kaaron Warren’s piece: “The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall”. While a fan of Ms. Warren’s other works, I hadn’t had the pleasure of this one. From the first paragraph, we are deposited into the main character, Rosie, a procurer of dogs. Only, these dogs aren’t any you’d like to meet in a deep, dark forest. Problem is, this is where Rosie must travel to meet an order from a subtly-slimy client. Ms. Warren’s imagery is fabulous in every sense of the word. We journey with Rosie and her sister-in-law through fantastic ecosystems, each one a frightening delight which culminates in…nope, not going to spoil it. The balance of beauty and nastiness, done with seamless ease, made this one of my favourites.

The standout, for me, is Steve Eller’s “The End of Everything”. It’s not often I get to the end of a story and say, “Wow” aloud (it wasn’t “wow”, but I’m sure we can’t print what I really said, here). With Mr. Eller’s piece, not only did I put the collection aside to wallow in the story, I’ve recommended it to anyone within shouting distance. The desperateness of the main character seeps into you and it ended all too soon.
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These are tales I want to find – unexpected jewels. Ones that sink their fangs in, drip into your veins, leaving a part of them with you. No, it’s not a werewolf story and I don’t want to delve into it too much. “The End of Everything” deserves better than that. Discover it as I did, slowly and ravenously. Bravo, Mr. Eller!

Writing is a craft and the authors within these pages have honed theirs to a sharpened stake. When I turned the last page, there was no bitter taste in my mouth. I spent a few days digesting all I’d read, coming back to those stories that beckoned with a skeletal finger.

The list of Honourable Mentions at the end tied this “Best Of” up nicely. Whittling the stories out there down to 17 is not a job I’d like, but Ms. Datlow has put together an extraordinarily strong collection. With this in mind, I returned to the Summation at the beginning of the book and read with interest. I now have a jam-packed listing of ‘reads’.

Overall, this collection of horror stories is one of the best I’ve read and now sits proudly on my bookcase. Like I said at the beginning of this review, reading is a subjective experience and, while a few of the stories didn’t quite grab me the way I’d like, I have a feeling it had something to do with the outstanding quality of the many that did.

You can find The Best Horror of the Year, Vol. II at Amazon.com.