I've been a longtime fan of Ellen Datlow. I think she has good taste, and almost always puts out solid anthologies. When Night Shade started publishing a Best Horror of the Year series with her at the helm, I picked up the first volume and have been faithfully following ever since. Some volumes are stronger than others, and some detractors point out that some stories would be better labeled as “dark fantasy” than horror. Label wars aside, a Datlow anthology always promises to be an interesting read.
The Best Horror of the Year series was saved along with Night Shade, and Volume Five saw publication recently. The anthology consists of Datlow's annual and in depth Summation of horror fiction and non-fiction of the 2012 year, followed by twenty-eight stories and poems.
I enjoyed this anthology, and loved how for this go-around the stories she chose were all rather short, which allowed for her to offer a vaster selection than usual. The stories within ranged from amusing, to outright horrifying.
Some favorites include:
Jeffrey Ford's A Natural History of Autumn is a modern take on a creepy monster from Japanese folklore. The story has some twists and turns, and made quite an impression on me, leading me to order a couple of Ford's collections upon finishing it.
The Callers by Ramsey Campbell has the author's brand of “comedy of paranoia” taking center stage. A young boy staying with his grandparents finds himself running away from some angry peers. Taking refuge at his Grandmother's bingo night seems like a good idea at the time, but quickly becomes anything but a good idea.
Proving he is one of Britain's strongest voices in horror, Gary McMahon has two excellent stories in the anthology. Kill All Monsters follows a weary woman on the run with her dangerous man and their daughter. The woman finds herself torn between fear and love for the man, who believes some everyday people are actually monsters that only he can see. He is constantly driven to rage, and compelled to kill these “monsters”. The story does a good job of leaving thing just ambiguous enough. I couldn't help but be reminded of the film Frailty, which saw a father/son team killing people who they thought were demons in disguise. As much as I enjoyed Kill All Monters, McMahon's second offering, Some Pictures in an Album, is the stronger of the two, and one of the scariest stories in the anthology. The majority of the story is made up of descriptions of pictures as the narrator flips through a photo album. The photographs begin to come together to paint a horrific picture, and as soon as I finished I found myself turning back a few pages and reading it again. An excellent exercise in building dread.
Jay Wilburn's Dead Song is a story that I found really intriguing. I didn't find it to be scary until the end, yet the story paints a unique picture of a semi-post-apocalyptic America. During the zombie apocalypse, certain people traveled through the dangerous land to certain parts of the country in order to record regional music. The narration of the story is a voice-actor doing a recording for a documentary about one of these music hunters. It's definitely an interesting premise, although at first I felt it was a bit repetitive with the descriptions of all the fictional musical styles of this time period. This wore off though, as I found myself getting into the "mud music" mystery.
Margo Lanagan's stories are always a delight to read. Bejazzle follows a man during an unhappy point in his marriage. Starting with a bizarre encounter with a strange, semi-Goth girl cult on the train, the story sees the man and his wife attending a party on a beach, where the man is tempted to cheat on his wife.
Bruce McAllister offers up a nice coming-of-age horror story set in a small Italian village with The Crying Child.
Nathan Ballingrud's Wild Acre is just as powerful a story as it was the first time I read it. The author is extremely talented at bringing to life flawed, emotionally damaged working class men and women. In this one a man is wracked by guilt at failure to save his friends.
2012 saw the release of Richard Gavin's At Fears Altar, one of the best single-author weird fiction collections in recent years. Choosing one story from the bunch for inclusion in a Best Horror of the Year anthology must have been a task, and although the majority of the collection found it's way onto Datlow's long honorable mentions list, The Word-Made Flesh was the story she settled on for the anthology. Richard Gavin is a well studied scribe of classic weird fiction, and his talents are on display in a story following a man trying to help his friend contend with a power that is way more than he can control.
The collection closes with two of it's most powerful stories. Lucy Snyder's Magdala Amygdala is grotesque, and there were moments when I literally had my hand to my mouth, cringing. The basic gist of the story is that there is a disease that people react differently to. One type of patient gets a thirst that can only be quenched by blood, while Type 3 patients can only properly get their nutrients from brain matter. The main character is a Type 3, struggling to live with her craving. A must read that will please even the most jaded horror fans. Closing the collection is Laird Barron's Frontier Death Song, a metafictional story featuring some of Barron's fellow authors as characters (a fictionalized version of Stephen Graham Jones is the story's antagonist). The story features many of the author's trademarks: a strong noir voice, tough guys facing overwhelming horrors, and high octane, no holds barred violence. I greatly enjoyed this yarn when it first appeared online, and was glad to see that Datlow chose it for the volume.
Overall, another fine addition to Datlow's annual series.