If you were looking for an object lesson in the difficulties involved in classifying genre fiction, seek no further: two of the stories included here appeared in Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction, while a third also popped up in Best American Mystery Stories: 2004. And if you were looking for just one word to characterize the tone of many of the anthology's stories, I'd suggest "apocalyptic." This installment of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, now under the editorship of Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant, dwells very heavily indeed on looming global annihilation, war-scarred landscapes, and psychotic crowds. For the sake of variety, several stories feature victimized children. Not an upbeat anthology, to be sure, although the reader can get through most of the horror entries without worrying about turning off the light later. (Perhaps the only real exception is Dale Bailey's "Hunger: A Confession," which is also the anthology's most conventional horror story.)
Most of the best stories fall into the non-apocalyptic category. Neil Gaiman contributes a paradoxically charming Sherlock Holmes pastiche, "A Study in Emerald," which rewrites A Study in Scarlet on H. P. Lovecraft's terms. Gaiman handles the Cthulhu elements gracefully, and the reversal of expectations near the end works extremely well. (I never thought I'd get "Cthulhu" and "gracefully" into the same sentence.) Upbeat tales are fairly hard to come by in this anthology, and Sara Maitland's "Why I Became a Plumber" comes off best: it's difficult to resist the combination of a mini-mermaid and a new-fangled toilet. Philip Raines and Harvey Wells' "The Fishie" offers a fascinating take on the naming of the animals in Eden. Set in a world where the four elements have separated, its protagonist, Catchie, must learn how to use language not to control, but instead to give life. Of all the stories, "The Fishie" does the best at temporarily defamiliarizing the English language, mostly by playing with rhythm:
The beastie's half under rock and dirt still, but the other half's all odd shape. On its side, there's a white belly, grooved the length of four fat dozen feet from tip to tethered tail. Like a grand muscle of the earth exposed, the body makes a single thrust towards the massy tail, one purpose from which all else is stripped. The head's the tail broken suddenly, smooth, popped with titch eyes and split for a sneer. (270)
Here, the narrator channels the speech patterns of the rock people. This paragraph is typical of the story as a whole: often monosyllabic, alliterative, with a surplus of heavily accented syllables. The result is both energetic and, appropriately enough, "solid." Stories about children, as I said, feature a-plenty (something that editor Ellen Datlow claims was typical of last year's market as a whole [xlix]). The two excellent genre-benders, Michael Swanwick's "King Dragon" and Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Fluted Girl," fall into this category; both feature children who fight back against quasi-sexual victimization. In the anthology's best and most disturbing story, Peter Crowther's "Bedfordshire," the sexual abuse is real--but the narrative refuses to play out according to the reader's sense of fairness. Crowther breaks his story down into brief segments, set out of chronological order, that interweave the protagonist's abuse by his father and a sadistic schoolteacher with his wife's death by cancer, his brief acts of vengeance against his abusers (and those who failed to stop it), and his own decision to commit suicide. Throughout, he is haunted by "Nanny," the mother-substitute who once told him stories about Bedfordshire--a place of eternal peace and happiness. The ending is genuinely shocking.
Most of the apocalyptic stories are clearly meant to be allegories of our current political situation. The standout in this group is Laird Barron's ghoulish "Old Virginia," in which the US government tries to harness the clairvoyant powers of the only survivor of the Roanoke Colony--the one that disappeared several centuries before the story begins. For obvious reasons, this is not, perhaps, one of the government's better ideas. Virginia promises to be the ultimate weapon, but ultimate weapons have a bad habit of rebounding on their creators. Kevin Brockmeier's "The Brief History of the Dead" offers a nice twist on the old adage that you'll never be truly gone as long as somebody remembers you; the story is set in a sort of waystation city for the dead, who don't truly disappear until, indeed, everyone who knew them is also gone. As the story goes on, the city ominously empties out. Of the stories about crowds run amok, Karen Traviss' "The Man Who Did Nothing" has the best hook: the Antichrist really has moved into an English council estate.
In terms of overall quality, most of the stories are well-crafted but not as memorable as one might like, with the very notable exceptions of "The Fishie," "Bedfordshire," and "The Fluted Girl." (I don't really want to discuss the poetry; let's just say that my taste in this matter has never coincided with that of the editors...) There's little to make the flesh creep, so those in search of more traditional horror may want to pass; most of the authors aim to disturb rather than to shock (although the apocalyptic stories often go for the moral jugular). Fantasy fans may be better pleased.