As I've noted on previous occasions, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (now edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant) usually leaves me feeling less enthusiastic than Gardner Dozois' counterpart SF anthology--but this nineteenth anthology is one of the more solid entries in recent memory. Granted, the editors' poetry selections continue to puzzle me--most of the poems are unexceptionable and, quite frankly, rather unmemorable free verse--but the fiction this time was frequently of high quality.
While there were some stories that struck me as uninteresting, the only one whose inclusion left me actively grumpy was Chuck Palahniuk's "Hot Potting." It's quite possible that I simply fail to understand the Palahniuk "thing," and I suppose that making people say "ick" qualifies as its own particular brand of talent--but the wordsmithing involved seems equivalent to laying about readers' heads with the nearest tire iron. If this is horror writing, it's horror that lacks any frisson of fear or the uncanny. Granted, after reading this story, the reader may find herself looking askance at her next bacon cheeseburger, but not because there's an off chance that the bacon cheeseburger will transform itself into the gateway to hell (or something of the sort).
On to more interesting tales. Unlike Dozois' selections, which often incline towards the allegorical and the apocalyptic, these stories handled contemporary political and cultural debates with some delicacy. Both Glen Hirshberg's "American Morons," about a pair of luckless American tourists whose trip suddenly takes an unnerving turn, and David Wallace's "Vacation," about another American tourist whose wife has packed him off to an odd destination, showcase innocents abroad who find themselves in danger of becoming scapegoats for the USA's unnamed crimes. In both instances, cultural and political obtuseness leave the "innocents" dangerously vulnerable. Tom Brennan's "Scarecrow" ponders the extent to which immigrants may be dehumanized by those who resent their coming. Delia Sherman's amusingly carnivalesque "Walpurgis Afternoon," much of it set at the wedding of lesbian witches, pokes fun at a certain type of hollow academic liberalism. China Mieville, Emma Bircham, and Max Schafer together come up with "The Ball Room," which combines the sterility of an Ikea-like furniture store, a haunted playroom, and what appears to be a distinctly magical mode of advertising. The ending is perhaps an askew version of Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty is Five," one in which the whole problem is that we cannot forever remain children. Meanwhile, Mark Samuels' eerie "Shallaballah" meditates grimly on the future of celebrity culture and virtual reality, while Dave Hutchinson's "The Pavement Artist" savages self-promoting conceptual artists.
Hutchinson's story also speaks to one of this collection's recurring themes: art's transformative--possibly deadly--power. Jeffrey Ford's "Boatman's Holiday," featuring a Charon who ferries people towards something that looks suspiciously like Dante's Inferno, suggests that Hell itself was literally written into being--and thus can be rewritten. Ford goes at it again with "The Scribble Mind," which imagines the creative powers of those who can remember life in utero; in this story, those who cannot remember usually fail to grasp that this power is not for anything in particular. Albert E. Cowdrey's "Twilight States" proposes that the imagination can do much more than create fictional worlds, although the plot's twists are executed a little choppily. In Pentti Holappa's "Boman," the title character--a talking dog--promises to reinvent how we see the world, but eventually runs straight into human terror. Much more goofily, Howard Waldrop's "The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode In On)" mixes up vaudeville, an unknown Marx brother, a pair of vaguely Penn-and-Telleresque magicians, and a bizarre conspiracy involving priests who may really be Freemasons. Apparently, the future of the world may be at stake.
A number of stories revisit literary antecedents. Nisi Shawl's "Cruel Sistah" reinvents an old ballad with a twist of racial politics. There are several fractured fairy tales, some of them addressing the form (Deborah Roggie's "The Mushroom Duchess," with its oppressed daughter-in-law; Stacey Richter's mock-academic "A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility," yoking meth addiction and a rather unruly "prince"; Kim Newman's "The Gypsies in the Wood," part changeling tale, part neo-Victorian detective novel) and others the tales themselves (Robert Coover's "The Last One," an inverted Bluebeard). Adam L. G. Nevill's "Where Angels Come In" is billed as an homage to M. R. James, but Reggie Oliver's "Among the Tombs"--featuring an unsettling tale of would-be sainthood, told at a gathering of Anglican clergymen--also has a faintly Jamesian touch to it.
Among the other strong entries, both Marley Youmans' "An Incident at Agate Beach" and Elizabeth Bear's "Follow Me Light" imagine the encounter between earthly and aquatic love. Youmans' tale is the more unsettling. Chaz Brenchley's "Going the Jerusalem Mile," like "Among the Tombs," suggests that there's a point at which sainthood becomes dangerous selfishness. In "The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai"--advertised as "monkpunk"!--Geoff Ryman offers a fable of the end of magic and the beginning of the modern world. Jack Cady's "The Souls of Drowning Mountain" mixes regional writing with a decidedly ghostly form of workers' action. And Joe Hill's "My Father's Mask" neatly twists the games parents play with children into something far more sinister and surreal. Overall, a fine collection.