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The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4 Paperback – May 1 2012
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Synopsis: The first three volumes of The Best Horror of the Year from Nightshade books have been widely praised for their quality, variety, and comprehensiveness.
Now, for the fourth consecutive year, editor Ellen Datlow, winner of multiple Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards, has explored the entirety of the diverse horror market, distilling it into the fourth anthology in the series and providing an overview of the year in terror. With tales from Laird Barron, Stephen King, John Langan, Peter Straub, and many others, and featuring Datlow's comprehensive overview of the year in horror, now, more than ever, The Best Horror of the Year provides the petrifying horror fiction readers have come to expect-and enjoy.
Fear is the oldest human emotion. The most primal. We like to think we're civilized. We tell ourselves we're not afraid. And every year, we skim our fingers across nightmares, desperately pitting our courage against shivering dread.
A paraplegic millionaire hires a priest to exorcise his pain; a failing marriage is put to the ultimate test; hunters become the hunted as a small group of men ventures deep into a forest; a psychic struggles for her life on national television; a soldier strikes a grisly bargain with his sister's killer; ravens answer a child's wish for magic; two mercenaries accept a strangely simplistic assignment; a desperate woman in an occupied land makes a terrible choice...
What scares you? What frightens you? Horror wears new faces in these carefully selected stories. The details may change. But the fear remains.
Table of Contents:
The Little Green God of Agony - Stephen King: A paraplegic millionaire hires a priest to exorcise his pain
Stay - Leah Bobet - can a woman with no medicine stop Raven and keep a wendigo human?
The Moraine - Simon Bestwick - a failing marriage is put to the ultimate test
Blackwood's Baby - Laird Barron - hunters become the hunted as a small group of men ventures deep into a forest.
Looker - David Nickle - a young man at a party meets a girl with extraordinary eyes
The Show - Priya Sharma - a psychic struggles for her life on national television
Mulberry Boys - Margo Lanagan - villagers produce silk for a living, but what price have the villagers paid for this income?
Roots and All - Brian Hodge - a soldier strikes a grisly bargain with his sister's killer
Final Girl Theory - A. C. Wise - a film made 40 years ago fascinates a man, and when he thinks he sees one of the actresses on the street he follows her home, because he has to know: was it real?
Omphalos - Livia Llewellyn - family togetherness was never meant to be like this.
Dermot - Simon Bestwick - the Special Projects department of a police station requires the help of Dermot to locate the creatures that prey on the town; but is his help worth the price they pay him for it?
Black Feathers - Alison J. Littlewood - ravens answer a child's wish for magic
Final Verse - Chet Williamson - to what extreme would you go in order to find the answer to a long-held question?
In the Absence of Murdock - Terry Lamsley - where did Murdock go and why has no one seen him in days?
You Become the Neighborhood - Glen Hirshberg - mother and daughter reminisce about the event that drove the mother mad, and about the events that led up to it.
In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos - John Langan - two mercenaries accept a strangely simplistic assignment
Little Pig - Anna Taborska - a desperate woman in an occupied land makes a terrible choice
The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine - Peter Straub - love and pain and pleasure and surrealism
My Thoughts: Stephen King is still the master - by the end of his story, "Little Green God of Agony," I was actually tensed up and waiting for a blow - maybe because I've dealt with pain for years now, I don`t know, but wow that story got to me. "The Moraine" is a creepy story that is enough to make you nervous about walking over rocks ever again. "Blackwoods Baby," about hunting an enormous stag, was incredibly disturbing. "The Show" was another weird one, with a woman acquiring a spirit guide in a very strange way. "Roots and All" was about the price one needs to pay - which is inevitably a steep one, as is "Little Pig". Omphalos was extremely disturbing, and highly strange.
I enjoyed the fact that the tales of the Native peoples of the extreme northern areas of North America, the tribes called Dene or Inuit, were incorporated into "Stay." Of course, the wendigo myth is common to many tribes across North America, but it was still refreshing to see these native peoples in a new light - we hear very little about them in mainstream media. There is the smallest hint of medicine in the tale "Black Feathers," as well - it also features Raven and emphasizes that you should be careful what you wish for... because you just might get it. Then, "In Paris in the Mouth of Kronos" we get a hint of the Greek gods, to balance things, while "The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine" gives us a touch of Amazonia.
In "You Become the Neighborhood," I was amused by references to a wolf spider spinning a web over the apartment door every night, and the people living there carefully knocking down the web each morning so they could get out of the house. There are a lot of overly ambitious spiders around my neck of the woods and this sort of thing happens all the time.
Straub is one of my favorite authors, but the story of his in this anthology really bothered me. I liked it, don't get me wrong - it's typical Straub, in that it's dreamlike, surreal and haunting. However, it is also inconsistent. The character Sandrine's age changes constantly. She is born in 1957, is 15 in 1969, is 19 in 1976, is 25 in 1982 and is 49 in 1997. Ballard is described as being both 44 and 38 in 1982.
I haven't commented on every single story, but that doesn't mean they weren't all good - in many cases, there's just no way to comment on them without spoiling the story - which is a real problem when reviewing an anthology.
The introduction was really long - 12% of the book - but very interesting. I ended up with a long list of books that I need to check out now (oops - like I needed more books to read!)
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.
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.
It is unlikely that your favorite part of a book is the introduction, but that's the case for every year's best collection Datlow has ever edited. Her range of reading is enormous, covering all forms of horror and many types of mysteries as well. Datlow summarizes a full year's worth of novels, collections and anthologies. My library increases in size and quality every time I place a book order following my perusal of a Datlow summation. She divides her comments not just between the award winners and her recommendations, but also offers lists of the best books about zombies, vampires, Lovecraftian horror, demons, weird fiction, ghosts and other monsters. Choose your poison and you'll find the novels that will most suit you. Datlow also covers poetry, children's books, chapbooks and literary and cultural criticism relating to the fantastic. I would buy these anthologies if only to be able to read these 50 pages -- about 12% of the total book. Similarly, the honorable mentions with which Datlow ends the anthology is a collection of titles of excellent short fiction that would amply reward the reader who chose to track the stories down.
And then there are the stories. And what a treasure the book becomes then!
Laird Barron has probably had a story in every year's best since he started publishing. This year's is a long novelette called "Blackwood's Baby," the story of a fabled hunt in Washington State in the months before the start of World War II. Luke Honey receives an invitation to this hunt as he sits in the heat drinking strong whiskey, somewhere in Africa. It makes him feel cold even as the sweat trickles down his face: "[T]his missive called with an eerie intimacy and struck a chord deep within him, awakened an instinctive dread that fate beckoned across the years, the bloody plains and darkened seas, to claim him." Vintage Barron, for sure. The hunt is for a fabled stag, one the hunters discuss as they swap stories and drink heavily in the lodge the evening before they are to head into Washington's forests. The drinking and fighting continue as the hunt proceeds, starting before dawn on a rainy day. The hunt itself proceeds much as one would expect when a number of competitive, entitled, and foolish men head into the unknown. Barron tells his story of ancient evil with elegant language, beautiful formal dialogue, and a strong sense of when just a few words are necessary to convey everything that is needful.
John Langan's work has also appeared in just about every year's best anthology since he started publishing. "In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos," is a long novelette about the Titans of myth, and how they play their part in our contemporary universe, whatever we may think. The characters' most careful machinations, no matter how sophisticated and violent, are not sufficient to keep the gods safely tucked away in stories instead of active in our world. The tale is as much about the torture of prisoners by the United States military in Iraq as it is about mythology, and the punishment meted out to the torturers strikes me as entirely appropriate.
Glen Hirshberg regularly turns up in the year's best anthologies as well, and his entry in this volume, "You Become the Neighborhood," is first class. A grown child has taken her mother to the neighborhood in which they lived while the child -- this story's narrator -- grew up. Memories of an unhappy time flood back to the mother, who insists on telling her daughter what happened during one fall when spiders overran the neighborhood and the upstairs neighbor died.
Peter Straub's work is getting darker and darker as the years go by. "The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine" may be the darkest story he's yet published, where the evil is languid and spoiled, with no seeming malice. Ballard and Sandrine have some mysterious source of wealth that allows them to spend an indeterminate period of time on a yacht cruising down the Amazon River. The yacht, like so many structures in fantasy, appears to be larger on the inside than on the outside. It also seems to be manned by an invisible crew; at least, Ballard and Sandrine are never able to catch anyone in any of the rooms they inhabit, nor even in the rooms that they have been forbidden to visit. The food they enjoy is equally mysterious: unidentifiable as any particular kind of meat or vegetable, but inexplicably delicious. Ballard and Sandrine spend their time engaging in an extreme form of sadism and masochism, taking turns as top and bottom, occasionally taking days or longer to recover from one of their bouts -- a relationship that has bloomed ever since Ballard first discovered Sandrine cutting herself when they were both much younger (though Ballard is clearly a good 20 years younger than Sandrine). Their voyage takes a turn from indulging in their sex play, if it can be called that, when Sandrine attempts to do some shopping ashore; and the end, from there, seems inevitable. You'll need a shower after you finish reading this one, but it is clearly a story written by a master of the genre at the top of his form.
David Nickle's "Looker" is an unpleasant little story narrated by a man a different generation would have called a cad and a bounder, a man who takes his sexual pleasure wherever he finds it, never mind what emotional destruction he might leave in his wake. Tom meets Lucille at a friend's ocean house, and seduces her in an impromptu episode of midnight skinny dipping. Tom discovers something odd about Lucy during their tryst, something that he initially can't quite puzzle out, and ultimately something that robs him of his desire. Lucy, it seems, isn't quite alone. And ultimately Tom finds this utterly compelling. This secret, and Tom's plans based on this secret, are likely to induce the sort of lightheadedness one usually experiences with nausea, and for the same reason; it's stomach-turning, like a rollercoaster that looked safer from the ground than from the top of that first hill.
Leah Bobet's "Stay" is set in a frigid Canadian town, completely isolated from the rest of the world by a storm, so small that everyone knows everyone. A truck transporting exotic fruits and vegetables has gone off the road into a ditch, breaking an axle, and the injured driver is stuck in town until long after his cargo will go bad. It also seems that the driver will go as bad as his produce, or so his eyes say, as does the raven perched on the motel's roof in weather that is 30 degrees below zero Farenheit. Public opinion gives strong consideration to killing the driver, but Cora has other ideas. Her method of dealing with the danger is mythically beautiful.
"The Moraine" by Simon Bestwick reminded me strongly of Stephen King's "The Raft," one of my favorite horror stories: it has the same nearly poetic reaction to the senselessness of the horror that drives it. In "The Moraine," though, the evil can be figured out -- and Diane and Steve do a fine job of divining its nature in Lakeland's mountains when they get lost on a long hike. The problem is that figuring it out doesn't mean you get away from it. It's a fine story about the wilderness, and all the ways in which, even now, we don't know exactly what occupies this planet with us.
Martha is a television psychic struggling to maintain her façade of true insight in Priya Sharma's "The Show." It's difficult when her staff, especially the man who researches the background of the sites she visits to feed her tidbits that make her sound as if she's actually seeing the so-called spirit world, threaten to expose her as the fake she is. Martha has become used to wearing real cashmere, and she has no interest in sharing her newfound wealth with anyone; she knows that if her staff tell the truth about her ability to read hands and faces, rather than to see into The Great Beyond, they'll be slitting their own throats as well. But when Martha actually does tune in on one site, everyone gets an evil surprise.
Margo Lanagan works her usual dark magic in "Mulberry Boys," a tale about the hunt for, feeding of and harvesting of creatures called mulberry boys, formerly human and still human-shaped animals that produce a type of silk. The silk is the currency of the group of people that keep the mulberry boys; without it, they would have nothing, not wheat, not cloth, nothing. In this story, one of the mulberry boys has escaped, and worse, he has eaten something other than mulberry leaves. The hunter, Phillips, tracks him down with the help of the narrator, George, not quite fifteen years old, who is more than he originally appears. It is a story of redemption, of a sort, but more than that, it is a story of cruelty.
"Roots and All" is Brian Hodge's story about what adult grandchildren discover in their recently dead grandmother's attic. The story is tied up with their continuing grief at the loss of Shae, their cousin (for Gina) and sister (for Dylan, a corrections officer and the narrator of the tale). The nineteen-year-old Shae had gone missing while visiting her grandmother years ago, probably the victim of one of the meth manufacturers that had invaded the area in recent years. The two reminisce about the stories of the Woodwalker their grandmother used to tell and sort through their grandmother's belongings in separate parts of the house until Gina makes her discovery, along with their grandmother's letter explaining it. The characters are vividly drawn, the quandaries in which they find themselves nicely delineated; it's some of the best writing in the book.
There is a movie called "Kaleidoscope" out there, according to the Internet Movie Database, but it sure isn't the "Kaleidoscope" featured in A.C. Wise's "Final Girl Theory." The movie from the story sounds like one of the most horrible, graphic, haunting horror movies ever made, one that seems to have involved that actual torture of its actors. Jackson Mortar, an expert on the film (to the extent that expertise is possible, as no one involved in the making of the film in any capacity has ever before been found), believes he has spotted Carrie Linden, one of the main characters. Jackson has been in love with Carrie ever since he first saw the film, so he tracks her down. She answers his questions before he can even ask them, and not with the answers he wants to hear. "Kaleidoscope" becomes more frightening in the course of this story than any actual horror film could ever be -- probably because the reader sees it only in the imagination.
I've written about Livia Llewellyn's "Omphalos" before, as it was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. It is about a horrifically dysfunctional family in which every family member seems to be having sex with every other family member of the opposite sex, whether the sex partner is willing or not. June, who is 15 years old, is very much not willing to accede to her father's incestuous demands, but he doesn't give her a choice, raping her every chance he gets. He sees their family vacation as a chance for the family to "be alone," by which he seems to mean even more rape with even fewer chances for June to get away. June hopes to find some degree of relief through her sexual relationship with her brother, Jaime, but she is in competition with her own mother for his attention. This set-up is horrific enough, but when the road disappears from under the camper her father is driving with the help of a strange and changing map, the forests of the State of Washington are revealed as a Lovecraftian hell.
I've also written about Simon Bestwick's story, "Dermot," which I think is one of the strongest stories in this collection; certainly it's stuck with me, jumping out of my imagination to scare me at odd moments. "Dermot" starts off calmly enough, with a man who seems mentally disabled boarding a bus. He's wearing a suit that seems a few sizes too big, but it's clean and pressed, and he's carrying an old-fashioned briefcase. He sounds, from the description, like a man playing dress-up, pretending to have a job. He seems harmless, but he makes people uncomfortable; the man next to whom Dermot sits on the bus gets up and changes seats for no apparent reason. Dermot doesn't care, but it seems like an unkind act by that nameless man. The scene abruptly shifts to an office in a police station, a department labeled "Special Needs," and the reader wonders whether this is where Dermot works. The officers working there, though, have some sort of dread of their jobs. They're the butt of jokes by others in the department. When Dermot gets to the door, the jokes are seemingly explained: these officers apparently work with individuals with "special needs." But the officers seem afraid of Dermot, and why is that? It isn't until the deal between the police and Dermot is made explicit that the horror of this work is revealed. Your stomach will lurch when you get to the denouement. It's worth nothing that Bestwick is the only writer to have two stories in this anthology; you can bet that I'll be looking more closely for his name in the future.
Chet Williamson's "The Final Verse" is about two men who set out to find the final verses to a folk song called "Mother Come Quickly." It's supposed to be one of the best-known songs in popular music, performed by just about everyone, but it has its origins in Appalachia, and those origins are foggy. The structure of the song indicates that something's missing; the last verse has only four lines, while all the other verses have eight. Pete Waitkus, the grandson of the man who first discovered the song, thinks that he knows how to discover the missing lines, because he's listened to an old recording of his grandfather discussing the song with an old mountain woman. There's information there, Pete thinks, that his grandfather overlooked. This story, too, is one that instructs us to be careful what we wish for, even if it's only the last verse of an old song.
I wasn't much taken with the Stephen King story that leads off the anthology, "The Little Green God of Agony," even though I have long believed that King does some of his best work at shorter lengths. King sets up his punch line fairly well, showing us a malingerer of epic proportions -- Newsome -- through the eyes of his physical therapist, Katherine. Newsome is not a lovable man, and Katherine has heard his story of how he incurred his injuries at least a dozen times too often, so the umpteenth iteration of the tale has her rolling her eyes. This time, though, Newsome has a listener who can treat his problem. Reverend Rideout isn't the usual snake oil salesman, and what he uncovers is pretty much what every sufferer of chronic pain would like to find: something removable that solves the problem.
A couple of the other stories Datlow includes seem like odd choices to me, not carrying the punch of the others. For instance, "Black Feathers" by Alison Littlewood is about a girl who makes a magic cloak for her little brother from the feathers of a raven, with unexpected results. The story reminds us to be careful what we wish for, even when we are children. "In the Absence of Murdock" is Terry Lamsley's story of a writing duo that has been inexplicably reduced to one. Murdock has simply disappeared. Jerry has asked his brother-in-law, Franz, to help him figure out where the man went when he vanished from the room in which the two of them were working, leaving behind only his malodorous cigar. Franz investigates and gets the fright of his life -- literally. Anna Taborska's story, "Little Pig," feels like a fairy tale in its depiction of a family escaping wolves in a winter landscape, but the contemporary frame to it is tacked on without any apparent reason. None of these stories is outstanding enough to fit into a "year's best" volume, though all are competently written.
Any reader of horror, whether a regular fan or one who occasionally flips through an anthology or magazine, will find something in this collection to his or her taste. Staying current with Datlow's choices is a fine way to stay in touch with where the field is and where it's going.
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