The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4 (2011): edited by Ellen Datlow, containing the following stories: The Little Green God of Agony by Stephen King; Stay by Leah Bobet; The Moraine by Simon Bestwick; Blackwood’s Baby by Laird Barron; Looker by David Nickle; The Show by Priya Sharma; Mulberry Boys by Margo Lanagan; Roots And All by Brian Hodge; Final Girl Theory by A. C. Wise; Omphalos by Livia Llewellyn; Dermot by Simon Bestwick; Black Feathers by Alison Littlewood; The Final Verse by Chet Williamson; In the Absence of Murdock by Terry Lamsley; You Become the Neighborhood by Glen Hirshberg; In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos by John Langan; Little Pig by Anna Taborska; and The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine by Peter Straub (all stories 2011):
Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror anthologies tend towards an area of the horror axis in which weirdness and relationship problems are the highest values. It’s not my favourite area of horror, but if it’s yours, you may find Datlow’s anthologies more rewarding than I do.
Certainly nothing here is badly written. The entries from Glen Hirshberg and Laird Barron are typically excellent. I like how Hirschberg lays out the long-term psychological effects of a brush with the supernatural, while Barron’s world of muscular protagonists faced with an enormity of perverse, hidden horrors always gives me a kick. “Blackwood’s Baby” seems like the sort of fever dream Hemingway might have had after getting punched in the mouth by Cthulhu.
The John Langan story is also good, though the ending is telegraphed all the way back to the title. Stephen King’s story seems to be included solely to get King’s name on the cover — it’s a curiously limp affair in which one can call all the plot points several pages before they occur and be right every time.
Peter Straub’s story disappoints in a much different way. It’s weird and creepy for awhile, but the eponymous couple’s peculiar sexual fetish, once revealed, acts to distance one from any investment in the narrative’s outcome. The ending comes several paragraphs too late, as a third-party explanation of what we’ve just read blunts whatever horror remained in what we’d previously read. Chet Williamson’s otherwise excellent “The Final Verse” also has a problematic ending, as it veers into a sort of jokey, EC-Comics nihilism that doesn’t fit the rest of the story.
Stylistically, the stories are well-written. Would I like more stories that are actually scary? Oh, yeah. I do like that Datlow includes a list of stories as ‘Honourable Mentions’ at the end of the volume. There’s something weird and off-putting about it. I could also probably go to the end of my days without reading another Bradburyesque story with the plot-engine removed, or another Weird Incest Tale. Weird Incest Tales: the worst fantasy magazine ever. Lightly recommended.