Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Nineteenth Edition - Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin J Grant (eds)

This was something of a disappointment. Usually these big "year's best" collections are pretty reliable - with so many stories in, you'd expect several good stories and at least one great one - but among the 40 tales here there are only a few that manage to rise above "OK". It's particularly frustrating, as several of the stories were really promising, with fine ideas, great buildup and chilling atmosphere, only to fizzle out just short of the finishing post; while the sting in the tail is not the be-all and end-all of a good story, it can make or break an average one, and it's notably missing from most of these. Have they stopped writing stories like that now?

The main culprit for falling at the final hurdle is Chuck Palahniuk (yes, the Fight Club guy), whose Hot Potting is a wonderfully gruesome tale of horrific accidents in the volcanic hot springs, which unfortunately trips over itself in the last few pages and just becomes a bit stupid. There are also a couple of more traditional horror stories which are creepy enough to nearly work but lose something in the weak ending - Adam G Nevill's Where Angels Come In and Barbara Roden's Northwest Passage. Both have a good crack at some standard horror tropes (the old haunted house on the hill, something nasty in the woods) and generate some quality chills, but ultimately feel like they have something missing.

There's very little straight fantasy here; most of the stories are grounded in the real world with either a horror or a more benign "magical realism" setting. Still, there are a couple of decent fairytale-like stories, the best of which is The Last One by Robert Coover, giving Bluebeard an interesting twist (though again, the ending was less horrible than I would have liked). Deborah Roggie's The Mushroom Duchess has yet another disappointing ending, but is otherwise a pleasant yarn about an unpleasant duchess with a penchant for poisoning. Kim Newman's lengthy The Gypsies In The Wood covers the topic of malicious fairies in 19th-century London, and, while not quite as good as either Neil Gaiman or Susannah Clarke's separate takes on the same subject, still makes for a good novella to close off the collection.

I'm probably using the wrong definition of magical realism, but it seems the best term to use for stories that happen in the real world with some non-scary supernatural elements. I've never been that fond of the genre, so it's surprising to find that some of my favourite stories here fall under that description. Best of the bunch is Isabel Allende's The Guggenheim Lovers, a gorgeous little story about bewitched newlyweds that manages to be light and charming without crossing the line into twee-ness. Walpurgis Afternoon, a tale of suburban witchery by Delia Sherman, tries quite hard to match this, but strays too far towards cosy chick-lit, as do quite a few of the others in this collection (there seem to be quite a few about sexy mermen). Elizabeth Hand's Kronia is far superior - a poignant and disjointed set of memories of a meeting that never happened (hard to describe in half a sentence - read it and see what I mean).

There's a lot more horror in here than I've seen in previous volumes, which may mean that the genre's on the way back in (hurrah!), though to be honest, most of the stories here may be well-written but they're pretty formulaic. The Ball Room by China Miéville, Emma Bircham & Max Schäfer is a nasty little piece about a haunted children's play-area; Theodora Goss's A Statement in the Case tells us of strange Eastern European neighbours in a very convincing old man's voice; Jack Cady gives us an oppressed but vengeful mining community in The Souls of Drowning Mountain. The most original of these is Joe Hill's My Father's Mask, a strange and disturbing story about a teenager whose mother convinces him that the playing cards are out to get him (and it gets even weirder than that). Joe Hill is apparently Stephen King's son, and this story is certainly better than anything his dad's done in quite a while.

There aren't many obvious candidates for the worst story here, either; Pentti Holappa's Boman comes across as rather childish and stupid (it's about a flying dog), but that might be just the translation; Ding-Dong Bell by Jay Russell is a daft serial-killer version of Of Mice And Men but I've read plenty worse. While the anthology is nothing outstanding and has a lower proportion of quality material than previous collections in the series, there are still a good few solid pieces in here. I wouldn't pay £20 for the hardback, but a tenner for the trade paperback is not too bad. It's mostly frustrating because the stories could be so much better than they are, but hey, maybe it was just a bad year.



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