Whereas Gardner Dozois clearly has a taste for dystopian and apocalyptic themes, Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant tend to emphasize more psychologized, intimate stories of the fantastic and horrific in this year's installment of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Paradoxically, given the "horror" in the title, the result is that this anthology feels less "dark" than its sister SF collection; while one would be hard pressed to find many of these stories funny, they aren't necessarily pessimistic.
Although my tastes generally align more closely with Dozois' than with Datlow and Co.'s (this is a new set of co-editors), I liked this collection quite a bit. As usual, I didn't find the poetry selections particularly memorable; R. T. Smith's "Horton's Store," with its meditations on storytelling and memory--"It's all a jigsaw now, a shambles asking/if I can't resach deeper than dock leaves/and rubble, to pull it up--threshold, joists/and ridgepole"--was the most accomplished of the set. Of the stories, the only one whose inclusion seemed utterly inexplicable was Chuck Palahniuk's "Guts." It's not "fantastic" and, while disgusting, it isn't especially "horrific." Granted, the thought of mentioning it in this review inspired all sorts of fear--mostly because I was imagining all sorts of weird search engine requests showing up in my referral logs. The story falls into that odd subsubgenre known as "tales of male adolescent stupidity while in the pursuit of autoerotic stimulation." (Didn't Philip Roth already cover this territory?) At base, my problem with "Guts" is that its primary effect derives from the idea of what's going on, especially in the third anecdote, and not from the language or imagery itself.
The anthology's craziest story is undoubtedly Stepan Chapman's "The Revenge of the Calico Cat," set in the land where children's toys go after they die. Take every story you read about living stuffed animals, dolls' hospitals, and the like, jumble them together, and spice them up with spousal abuse and mafia activity. The result is utterly bonkers, but in a good way. (D. Ellis Dickerson's "Postcretaceous Era," about dinosaur love in the human age, is slightly similar in its approach.) Two of the better stories from McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories are here: China Mieville's "Reports of Certain Events in London," which turns a tale of mysteriously mobile streets into a reflection on the changing London cityscape, and Peter Straub's "Mr. Aickman's Air Rifle," which combines an attack on the more ruthless side of commercial publishing with a riff on Sartre's No Exit. Straub's second entry in this anthology, "Lapland, or Film Noir," is less a story than a revved-up meditation on noir's tropes; it's evocative, nonetheless.
As I said, there are very few stories here that aim for contemporary social or political resonance. Of those that do, the most interesting is John Farris' "Hunting Meth Zombies in the Great Nebraskan Wasteland," told in the form of a high school term paper (there's even a grade at the end!). The story is set after advances in terrorist weaponry have caused the federal government to collapse and attempts to eradicate the meth industry have produced a new form of super-addiction--the solution to the problem being summed up in the story's title. Farris doesn't quite sustain the teenager's voice, but the story remains compelling. Don't miss the footnotes at the end. Simon Bestwick's "A Hazy Shade of Winter," about religious mass hysteria, will probably strike even the most convinced atheist as heavy-handed; Christopher Fowler's "Seven Feet," which imagines the birth of a new/old religion in the wake of the plague's return to London, does a more convincing job with the same subject.
Of the historical fantasies, the best are Gregory Maguire's "The Oakthing," which dwells on loss and hope during wartime; Andy Duncan's "Zora and the Zombie," which follows Zora Neale Hurston in search of literary material; and Laird Barron's "Bulldozer," which mixes the Old West with demonic possession. Richard Mueller's "And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead" offers a chilling new twist on the Nazis in an alternative WWII, but suffers from wooden prose. Elizabeth Hand's "Wonderwall" offers an elegiac account of teenage angst and hedonism just before the age of AIDS, filtered through Rimbaud and an overdose of cough syrup. Those suffering from coulrophobia may want to avoid the two evil clown stories; the better of the two is Terry Dowling's "Clownette," which manages to combine clown imagery, icky hotels, and mysterious paint splotches. There are three strong tales featuring slightly "off" worlds: Greg van Eekhout's "Tales from the City of Seams," a plotless series of vignettes involving death and magic in a city that doesn't quite work as the reader expects; Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down," about community-building and execution; and M. T. Anderson's "Wake and Watch," in which adolescent anxieties about identity take a particularly grim twist. (For this reader, "Wake and Watch" was the anthology's one truly spine-tingling story.) Finally, of the stories devoted to love (romantic and otherwise) gone awry, the most interesting were Douglas Clegg's "The Skin of the World," which offers a disquieting take on the disappearance of children, and Jean Esteve's "House of Ice," which watches the collapse of a couple's mutual illusions during a winter of storytelling. Another story in this vein, Conrad Williams' "The Owl," has some effectively ominous moments, but the ending doesn't have the intended punch and the narrative could have used more focus.
This installment may not be to the taste of those want a menu of truly scary literary dishes; most of what's here is more eerie than frightening. Nor is the fantasy of the sword-and-sorcery variety, one or two examples aside. A few misfires aside, this collection does a fine job suggesting the literary possibilities of both horror (here, primarily of a mental, rather than blood-and-guts, type) and the fantastic.