Sleepy, Hollow

The Best Horror of the Year Volume One (2008), edited by Ellen Datlow (2009) containing:

Cargo by E. Michael Lewis
If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes
The Clay Party by Steve Duffy
*Penguins of the Apocalypse by William Browning Spencer
*Esmeralda: The First Book Depository Story by Glen Hirshberg
The Hodag by Trent Hergenrader
Very Low-Flying Aircraft by Nicholas Royle
When the Gentlemen Go By by Margaret Ronald
*The Lagerstätte by Laird Barron
Harry and the Monkey by Euan Harvey
Dress Circle by Miranda Siemienowicz
The Rising River by Daniel Kaysen
Sweeney Among the Straight Razors by JoSelle Vanderhooft
Loup-garou by R. B. Russell
Girl in Pieces by Graham Edwards
It Washed Up by Joe R. Lansdale
The Thirteenth Hell by Mike Allen
The Goosle by Margo Lanagan
Beach Head by Daniel LeMoal
The Man from the Peak by Adam Golaski
The Narrows by Simon Bestwick

Being the most subjective of genres, horror lends itself to argument when ‘best of’ selections are made. What scares one person may make another person chortle. Based on my encounters with multiple-award-winner Ellen Datlow’s horror and dark-fantasy editing, the two of us don’t have particularly complementary tastes. The first volume of this ‘Year’s Best Horror’ anthology series from Night Shade Books seems to me to be an awfully scattershot assortment of stories, with only three stories I’d pick myself for such an anthology (I’ve starred them, if you’re interested).

On the bright side, the technical side of horror writing seems in good shape — there’s nothing badly written here. Some of the stories are dark fantasy stories that aren’t particularly horrific; others use tired tropes to unnoteworthy effect; a few offer nothing in the way of endings or even adequate set-up, instead falling into the nouveau-tired school of artsy fragments possessed of a few startling images but nothing in the way of character, plot, or cumulative horrific effect. These last examples remind me of Henry James’s 100+ years-old-advice to ghost-story writers: “Write a dream, lose a reader.”

The inclusion of two poems doesn’t really help things either, while “Beach Head” gets the Ramsey Campbell “In the Bag” award for mislabelling a horrific story with a jokey title. I note this while also noting that Campbell himself flagged himself for the “In the Bag” mistake in the introduction of one of his short-story collections.

One story — “The Narrows” by Simon Bestwick — is especially frustrating because it’s basically two good stories smashed together to make one frustrating one, as Lovecraftian shenanigans and nuclear holocaust work together in a way that never coheres. The standout here is William Browning Spencer’s “The Penguins of the Apocalypse”, which uses an old (and unlikely) monster to startling, quirky effect. Spencer’s horror novels and short stories generally show a mind attuned to absurdity as well as horror — he’s the closest thing the genre currently has to Philip K. Dick, and God bless him for it. Not recommended.

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