Ellen Datlow accused me of being overly snarky the last time I reviewed one of these things, so this year, I'm starting off by saying something nice: It's good to see that Datlow's back. Small presses have a reputation for unsteadiness, and last year, there were ominous Internet rumblings and grumblings about Night Shade Books. But Night Shade is still publishing, the books are still rolling out, and Datlow is still performing her invaluable service to horror fans. Though my notion of "best" may run contrary to hers at times, Datlow captures a snapshot every year of where the genre is at and where it might be headed, making her annuals required reading for those in their fright minds.
Datlow went big name hunting in 2011 and bagged two titans for her bookends. Volume 4 kicks off with horror's most popular author and ends with arguably its best.
As bad as he can be, Stephen King is a difficult author to consign to the Dean Koontz Memorial Slagheap of Authors I Used to Give a Crap About. Despite his flirtations with lazy, going-through-the-motions hackery, King has left himself open to an inspiration that strikes less often these days, but when it does, he becomes fully engaged and tackles that idea like the pre-jillionaire hungry young author who became such a phenomenon. That's why I keep buying Stephen King books: That young man is still lurking somewhere in the shadows of the brand name, and he's the one I come to see. The inspiration for "The Little Green God of Agony," King's first "Best Horror" entry, may have come from his personal experiences with a broken body and knitting bones. The sixth-richest man in the world is looking for a shortcut through the pain of physical rehab to recovery from a plane crash that left him shattered. He summons the Rev. Rideout (think Tom Noonan) to his bedside. Rideout is no mere faith healer. He doesn't heal, "I expel." He casts out the demon god that feeds on hurt. And on a dark and stormy night (natch), the Rev. Rideout sets about a rather unique exorcism. "The Little Green God of Agony" isn't likely to ever make the Classic Top 10 Stephen King Short Stories, but it's a refreshingly concise, lightly comic flexing of muscles King doesn't always use anymore.
At the opposite end of the book and in contrast to King's sturdy simplicity is Peter Straub's intricate puzzler "The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine." A pair of decadent lovers cruise languidly along the Amazon on a yacht of impossible dimensions, moving forward and back through different decades, tended to by an invisible crew of pygmies who speak in birdsong. Since Straub started hanging around those New Weird delinquents, his short fiction has taken a turn for the peculiar, the dream-like. "The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine" is as likely to inspire consternation as admiration. Honestly, I'm not sure what to make of it myself. But few authors can offer readers a sensory experience equal to the luxury of sinking into Straub's plush prose. So I'm happy to go along if he wants to indulge his inner Aikman (or maybe, as the title might indicate, he's channeling J.G. Ballard). I was three or four pages short of the ending of "The Ballad" when I had to report to work, but Straub had me so ensnared in the tangles of his nefariously strange story that I kept sneaking a paragraph here and there throughout my shift until I finished.
It's no surprise that one of the best stories in the book is by Laird Barron. The testosterone runs thick in "Blackwood's Baby," a Hemingwayesque horror that gathers a group of hunters (including a redneck Texan named Briggs!) in a lodge in Washington state. The men, predators all and dangerous to more than game animals, have come to hunt a mythical stag, "the king of the wood." As horror readers know from experience, the dark legends are true, the woods are cursed and there's something out there on cloven foot that's a lot more threatening than a deer. It's a story of classic campfire chills and another success for Barron in an extensive winning streak that many authors would sacrifice their right typing finger to have.
Brian Hodge's "Roots and All" begins in an autumn glow of nostalgia, accumulating note-perfect details of a bittersweet return to a childhood homestead. The softly melancholic tone works with the expertly evoked bucolic setting to leave the reader that much more vulnerable when the story starts taking nasty twists. A combat veteran witnesses the effects of meth and strip mining on the community he once loved and learns the fate of his sister who vanished eight years before. I think Hodge and Laird Barron must have gone camping in the same woods together.
One of the secondary purposes of Datlow's annuals is to spotlight a lot of new names, some of whom could have used a little more time on the vine, and others who bear further investigation. Simon Bestwick had a pretty good story called "The Narrows" in a previous volume, and he scores two slots this year. "The Moraine" has a feuding couple lost on a mountain in a whiteout fog with a monster. It couldn't get much more basic than that, but Bestwick tells his well-worn tale with an enthusiasm that's infectious, energetically mixing bits from "Tremors," "The Ruins" and "The Mist." Originality is great, but sometimes you just want an old-fashioned, suspenseful, gory monster stomp. Bestwick's second serving, "Dermot," is about an odd, unsettling little man (named Dermot, oddly enough) and a special police unit whose members dread his calling. I'll be picking up more of Bestwick's fiction. Also soon to join my to-read pile is David Nickle on the basis of "Looker," his tale of multi-eyed voyeurism.
In A.C. Wise's "Final Girl Theory," "'Kaleidoscope' isn't a movie, it's an infection, whispered from mouth to mouth in the dark." This is the third "Best Horror" volume in a row to feature a story about an evil cult film. The mini-trend started with Gemma Files' "each thing i show you is a piece of my death," and it probably shouldn't continue until someone writes a story that tops, or at least equals, that. "Final Girl Theory" isn't bad, but it feels like a slight variation on an overly familiar rerun.
"The angry expression has vanished. But there are tears." Those tears make their first appearance on the second page, the fifth paragraph of "You Become the Neighborhood" by Glen Hirshberg, horror's very own Eeyore. This triggers the urge to weep on Page 3. Followed by a teeth-rattling moaning fit on Pages 6 and 7. A full-fledged crying jag erupts on Page 9. "Then you started crying. ... And you cried some more. And I started crying." Glen Hirshberg is fully in his element: supernatural soap opera in which there's rarely much scaring but always plenty of sobbing. Hirshberg is capable of some fine writing ("Her long-fingered hands have curled up at her sides like smacked daddy longlegs." "Her husband ... was pretty much just a pool to pour morphine in."), but it gets difficult to pick out the good bits because he insists on slathering Natalie Portman-level histrionics all over everything like great undigestible gobs of lugubrious peanut butter. And the thing is, Hirshberg's stories just aren't that sad. He tells us they're sad by going blub-blub-blub every other paragraph. But that's not sad. That's just maudlin and tiresome. "My tears surprise me. I'm not even sure what they're for." It's as if Hirshberg's own character is speaking to him from the page, telling him to go blow his nose and man up.
John Langan has made it into almost every volume of "Best Horror." (Last year, he got in twice.) His stories have been interesting and ambitious but somewhat flawed in one way or another. He pretty much nails it in "In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos." Two disgraced former soldiers have a reunion with a truly spooky spook they first encountered doing wetwork in a bloodstained underground prison in Afghanistan. Now, in the City of Light, there's a certain hotel corridor that remains stubbornly in the darkness. I've enjoyed watching Langan develop and improve as a writer over the past three years. I'll have to start actively seeking out his name in anthologies.
Of the four volumes of "Best Horror," this is the best yet. 2011 was apparently a good year for the genre, and Volume 4 offers fiction that's scary, transgressive and pulsing with an energy that was missing from some of the earlier annuals. Some stories are boldly experimental; others are traditional without being stale. Even the odd clunker here and there isn't unreadably bad. But now that the praise is over with, I've got to end on a slightly nastier note. Night Shade Books may have smoothed out the bumps on its production side, but it needs to address some serious deficiencies in its editing. NSB either needs to invest in more copy editors or reduce the number of titles it publishes to lessen the burden on the editor(s) it already has. I understand that no editor is perfect. There's a good chance there's a mistake lurking somewhere in this review that I won't notice til after it's published. But sections of this book are positively swarming with errors, many of which are softball pitches to the alert proofreader: dropped words, misused words, sentence fragments, clumsy phrasing ("The categories are broken down into thirteen categories."), free-floating clauses ("Too stunned to scream, Pippa did it for him." "Sickened by this small, crushed life, her headache was suddenly much worse.") and various other impediments to readability. A character named Harris becomes Harrison a few paragraphs later. Another character vacillates from sentence to sentence between Jaime and Jamie. The mistakes continue right up through the ads at the back of the book for other Night Shade titles. Why is this sloppiness endemic to the horror genre? Are horror readers and writers so much less literate than those in other genres or the mainstream? I'm sure some critics think so; why give them the typos to reinforce their prejudices? And why insult the readers who demand better? Typo-free text isn't likely to automatically win the horror genre critical respect, but it would be a sign of self-respect, and that's where it all has to start.