Epeolatry Book Review: Best Horror of the Year Volume 15 Edited by Ellen Datlow
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Title: Best Horror of the Year Volume 15
Publisher: Titan Books
Genre: Horror Anthology, Best Of
Release date: 14th November, 2023
Synopsis: For more than four decades, Ellen Datlow has been at the center of horror. Bringing you the most frightening and terrifying stories, Datlow always has her finger on the pulse of what horror readers crave. Now, with the fifteenth volume of the series, Datlow is back again to bring you the stories that will keep you up at night. Encompassed in the pages of The Best Horror of the Year have been such illustrious writers as: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Stephen Graham Jones, Joyce Carol Oates, Laird Barron, Mira Grant, and many others.
With each passing year, science, technology, and the march of time shine light into the craggy corners of the universe, making the fears of an earlier generation seem quaint. But this light creates its own shadows. The Best Horror of the Year chronicles these shifting shadows. It is a catalog of terror, fear, and unpleasantness as articulated by today’s most challenging and exciting writers.
It goes without saying that this collection is essential for anyone who is active in or who follows the horror genre. Ellen Datlow’s reputation and standing is well enough established to ensure that – the sypnosis, for once, is not exaggerating. Additionally, though, the extensive “Summation of the Year 2022” that kicks off the volume is practically a definitive guide to everything that moved or shook in the horror landscape during that period – notable novels, novellas, collections, poetry, competitions, etc. Let it be understood, though, that this is not an industry yearbook for the industrious horror writer or editor. It’s a collection of the year’s most horrible and horrifying tales.
To quote the editor’s own numbers for this collection, “There twenty-one pieces total in this volume, including novelettes, one novella, one piece of flash fiction, one poem. The story lengths range from 200 words to 20,000 words (not counting the poem). There are eight stories and one poem by women and twelve stories by men. Ten stories are by contributors living in the United States, two in Australia, one in Canada, five in the United Kingdom, one in Norway, one in Germany, and one Italy. Nine of the contributors have never before been published in any volume of my Best of the Year series.” So, that’s how wide-ranging it is. This should also emphasize that there is no bar to entry in the series beyond sheer quality – if you feel your story is good enough, just make sure it gets submitted. But be prepared to compete against a very high standard.
The stories come from many familiar and even illustrious names, but few follow well-worn paths. Angela Slatter’s “Solivagant” is an insidious vampire story where there is more than one form of vampirism at work. Jeffrey Ford’s “Gate 9” jumps straight into the anxiety of air travel, before re-emerging in another very surreal nightmare. Garry Kilworth’s “Flaming Teeth” goes on a voyage to the land of the giants, but this is not your grandmother’s land. Or giants. And Steve Toase’s “On the Hills, the Knitters” shows you fear in a 300-foot woollen elephant. That said, for traditionalists who bemoan the passing of the classic Jamesian ghastly tale, Margo Lanagan, Gary McMahon, and Jacob Steven Mohr have got you nicely covered, in ways that will leave less recherche tastes fully satisfied.
One test – by no means the only one – of a really good horror story is whether it will stick in your mind after you’ve finished reading the book and gone on to the next one. Gemma Amor’s “The Zoo” is likely to do that, I suspect, as is David Surface’s “Eyes Like Small Black Stones” and Charlie Hughes’s “The Collection”. There is way more than a touch of the surreal here too. The normal turns weird with deadly ease, while when the likes of zombies and giants appear, they are mostly as ordinary and accepted as weather. Or at least, extreme weather. and when you’re dealing with a story where zombies are just footnotes to the main thrust of the propulsive narrative, as in Daniela Tomova’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reporter”, then you know you’re really cooking with gas. “The Harvester of Ladslove” by Steve Duffy builds on the fears and horrors of World War I to introduce quite different and equally monstrous terrors. “The Myth of Pasiphaë” by Andy Davidson is a load of macho bull – but I mean that in the most positive, brutal, jolting sense. And in “Enough For Hunger and Enough For Hate”, John Langan delivers his signature turn of intensely characterized local narratives thrust up against the primal forces of myth.
Is there any common theme, thread, or flavour to the whole collection that the smart critic can pass off as an insight into the current state of horror? Given the timing of these stories, a couple are clearly conceived in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic – notably Gemma Files’s “Bb Minor, or The Suicide Choir: An Oral History”, which goes through her now-familiar speed-blender mashing up of presentational techniques on the way towards a more complete, perhaps climate-related, apocalypse. There’s an absence of Lovecraftian pastiches, despite their prevalence elsewhere. There’s nothing that would remotely be called cosy. There’s only one other I can think of – and I’m fully prepared to have bullshit called on this. That’s perhaps an overall absence of the kind of complicit relish you’d see in the work of, for instance, Clive Barker, Brian McNaughton or Poppy Z. Brite. These are truly horrors to be dreaded and shunned – not to be identified with and even seduced by. I’m not sure what that says about the current zeitgeist – polarization of public opinions, perhaps? And maybe it’s just a statistical artefact of one year’s selections. But there you go.
All in all, this is a collection that fully lives up to its title. I hardly need to say any more. If you read any horror, you should read this. Go forth and horrify yourselves.
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Paul StJohn Mackintosh is a Scottish author, poet, journalist, games writer, and media professional. Born in 1961, he was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, has lived and worked in Asia and Central Europe, and currently lives in France near Geneva.
Paul’s first collection of short stories, Black Propaganda, appeared from H. Harksen Productions in 2016. His second story collection, The Echo of The Sea & other Strange War Stories, was published by Egaeus Press in 2017. His short novel The Three Books was published by Black Shuck Books in 2018. His short story “The People of the Island,” in Eldritch Horrors: Dark Tales, from H. Harksen Productions, received an Honorable Mention from Ellen Datlow in her Best Horror of the Year Volume Two list for 2009.
Paul’s acclaimed first poetry collection, The Golden Age, was published by Bellew Publishing in 1997, and reissued on Kindle in 2013. His second poetry collection, The Musical Box of Wonders, was published by H. Harksen Productions in 2011. His sonnet cycle The Great Arcana: Sonnets for the 22 Trumps of the Tarot, and his ballad cycle Black Ballads, based on traditional Scottish myths and legends, were both published in 2022.
Paul’s Lovecraftian and dark fiction, and criticism, has appeared in numerous formats and journals worldwide, including Occult Detective Magazine, Weirdbook, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, the Financial Times, the UK Independent, the Times Literary Supplement, Arts of Asia, Strange Horizons, A Broad Scot, and elsewhere. His co-translations from the Japanese, done with Maki Sugiyama, include The Poems of Nakahara Chuya (1993) and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (1995) by the 1994 Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe, which won a Japan Festival Award. He also co-translated Superstrings (2007) by Dinu Flamand from Romanian with Olga Dunca. Paul is a former Executive Committee member of the Translators Association of the Society of Authors of Great Britain. He was rated #1 of “The 12 Publishing Shakers You Should Be Following” by The Independent Publishing Magazine. He is also the official clan poet of Clan Mackintosh.