This is Ellen Datlow’s fourth time editing Best Horror of the Year for Night Shade Books. This edition is the best so far, combining potent, ambitious longer works by genre stars with a varied sampler of up and coming names. Eighteen stories (including several novellas) follow Datlow’s lengthy introduction, a wide-ranging summary of the genre year touching on noteworthy novels, anthologies, collections, periodicals, awards and events. If the tasting menu of the year’s finest short fiction weren’t enough to make the volume an essential overview of all things noteworthy in the horror genre, this overview tips the balance. This makes an excellent introduction to talented new writers, as well as others more established who may yet be unfamiliar to a given reader.
For example, I knew David Nickel and Brian Hodge by name, but hadn’t read their works, which turned out to constitute pleasant revelations. In Nickle’s “Looker,” a drunk man at a party finds a woman whose qualities go beyond the merely eye-pleasing. In “Roots and All,” Hodge’s character revisits a town where important childhood events occurred, some of which still echo in the present. Both stories exemplify Datlow’s preference for character-driven horror, more haunting mood and troubling memory than blood and shrieking monsters. There are several more standouts:
“Blackwood’s Baby,” like many Laird Barron stories, takes place in rural Washington state, and expands upon Barron’s personal, regional mythos. This novella tracks a 1930s expedition of diverse hunters seeking a beast of legend more dangerous than any of them anticipate. It’s as powerful as any previous work by Barron, who lately can be counted upon to contribute at least one rich and potent tale to each year’s best.
In Livia Llewellyn’s “Omphalos,” a girl caught in terrible surroundings must fight complex factors keeping her in place. Llewellyn specializes in the dark, raw-edge and harrowing. Her writing pulses with blood and seethes with emotion. Her “Engines of Desire” is among the best weird/dark collections of recent years, certainly one of the top debuts.
In John Langan’s “In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos,” two fallen former agents try to claw their way back to gainful employment. They’re hired to grab a “Mr. White,” who may be a very different order of being from what they expect. Dark yet breezily entertaining, merging the grittiness of noir and spy thriller intrigue with a Lovecraftian hint of ancient forces lurking beneath the everyday world’s seeming normalcy. Langan’s a skilled writer, whose work Datlow often features. At times I’ve thought his work needed more of an edge. This has it.
“The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” by Peter Straub is a tour-de-force of tender yet bitter codependent romance conveyed in a disorienting balance of straight realism and twisted surrealism. In a series of encounters separated by wide gaps of time, the title characters (the much older Ballard is a mysterious “fixer” type employed by Sandrine’s father) journey down the Amazon River on boats with ever-changing names. The couple, caught up in unfathomable events, exhibit a muted curiosity about their circumstances. At times they make experimental gestures seeking to understand the odd nature of the boat or its invisible crew. What knowledge they gain always seems to be lost, forgotten or clouded by the next interlude. The effect is weirdly disorienting, yet familiar. Don’t we all forget lessons we’ve learned, ignore warning signs, and often repeat our mistakes? The growing surreality of Ballard and Sandrine’s circumstances finally unfolds at least partially. Horrific and seemingly occult aspects are revealed, yet mystery remains. Straub may be the most cerebral of horror writers, and this is one of his best, boldest works.