Epeolatry Book Review: The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 14, ed. Ellen Datlow
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Title: The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 14
Author: Various, ed. Ellen Datlow
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Release Date: 15th November, 2022
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 fourteenth 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.
Ellen Datlow’s series of Best Horror of the Year anthologies should need no introduction – not after 14 years. Her work has been the current state of horror touchstone for a long time now, especially in association with the current movement towards the new weird and existential/ontological horror. Slasher porn need not apply, mind you, although plenty of stories in this sampling have more than enough kinetic activity or plain old violence. The 24 stories in the latest volume–well, 22 stories plus one poem and one short piece possibly closer to prose poetry–number some of the most respected writers currently working in the field. They also include nine authors who have never appeared in the series before–but then that’s intrinsic to its appeal.
This is a wide-ranging compendium, in both its material and its sources. There’s a lot of British horror, shot through with traces of folk horror, down-at-heel seediness, and the clinging heritage of class and status. There’s Irish horror. There’re even suggestions of Italian and Chinese in the ostensibly American material. Even the North American horror, such as Simon Strantzas’s “The King of Stones,” shares that folk horror flavour.
Of course, across all that range, not every story will appeal equally to every taste. One or two of the stories reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s dictum that a short story stems from “a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out,” and if the author’s “very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step.” Such successful outbringing is more evident in some stories than others. G.V. Anderson’s “Shuck” and Matthew Holness’s “Caker’s Man” are especially good examples of getting it right out of the gate. Michael Marshall Smith’s “The Offering” takes a little longer getting into its stride.
These are stories of varying tempi, but one thing is for sure: despite the critical foregrounding of quiet horror in some quarters lately, Datlow’s selection embraces unsettling weirdness of all kinds from the discreetly suggestive to the full-on gung-ho.
“Redwater” by Simon Bestwick certainly opens with grunge and gunfire, in what amounts to virtual cli-fi creature horror. Gemma Files’s “Poor Butcher-Bird” also pulls no punches. If you want gruesome, some of these tales definitely have it. All in all, any concerns that modern horror has tilted too far towards the understated and opaque can be laid to rest by this compilation. Not safely or peacefully, but that’s the point.
What is horror are a perennial debates of the genre, but this sampling is not likely to exacerbate them. Fine, there may be few jumpscares, but remember that horrified is not necessarily the same as scared, and pretty much everything falls into place. If there’s any familiar style or sub-genre of horror that’s underrepresented here, in fact, it’s the traditional Jamesian ghost story–but I’m sure that omission is not deliberate, but down to the luck of the draw.
Given the overall high standard of the collected tales here, it’s hard to choose which to single out, and such choices are inevitably personal. Which of these stories is going to linger in the memory until the appearance of the next volume, though? That’s a real test, and a challenge, with 24 to choose between. For my money, Laird Barron’s gently insidious coming-to-maturity story “Tiptoe” probably rates among the volume’s most memorable items, thanks to its sheer subtlety. Simon Bestwick and Gemma Files’s tales also passed my personal adhesion test, but that’s purely my own preference, and I recommend reading through the contents to find your personal favourites.
Almost as unmissable as the stories inside is Datlow’s 51-page “Summation of the Year” by way of introduction. This comprises not only exhaustive breakdown of the results of all the year’s major horror and weird fiction literary awards, but also notable novels, magazines, and websites; anthologies and collections; chatbooks and poetry; non-fiction; and just about everything that’s moved and breathed in the realm of horror over the past year. It alone is worth the price of admission.
For many horror writers out there, Datlow’s list of Honorable Mentions is as eagerly watched as the actual contents list. And Datlow confirmed in a recent interview with the Lovecraft eZine that this list is essentially all those titles regarded as worthy of potential inclusion in the final cut. Inclusion on that list is almost as much of a guarantee of quality as inclusion in the printed volume, so there’s even more great horror out there.
You couldn’t do better than this roundup of the state of the art, and if you dove into the Honorable Mentions and other recommendations, you’d probably have enough reading matter to keep you busy until the next anthology. And it would be time well spent. Indispensable.
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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.