Friday, May 30, 2014

back to the anthology reading with The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Six, ed. Ellen Datlow

Night Shade Books, 2014
397 pp


Twenty-four stories make up this anthology, some from authors I know (meaning that I've read their stuff in the past), and some that are new to me.  As usual, it's a mixed bag, but I do have to say it's better than many of Ms. Datlow's previous Best Horror of the Year anthologies, and there were a few entries that actually sent shivers running up my spine. So -- without further ado, I give you

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Six

First up is "Apports," by Stephen Bacon, proving that old adage that there is indeed no rest for the wicked.   In 2006, Mark Fisk's wife divorced him and got custody of their little son.  After the ex-Mrs. Fisk started seeing another man, Fisk tried to do himself in, jumping off of the top of a tower along with his little boy. The boy died, Fisk survived.  Not long after Fisk was sentenced to time in a mental institution, the ex-Mrs. Fisk commits suicide. Now a guy known as Cowan is looking for Fisk, for "Old times sake and all that."  I have to say that using "Apports" to start the collection was a great idea -- it's an awesome story.  I wasn't nearly as fond of the second story, Dale Bailey's "Mr. Splitfoot," as narrated by Maggie Fox, one of the infamous Fox sisters who became known far and wide for the rapping noises they produced with their joints and for ushering in the age of Modern Spiritualism here in the US. Now on her deathbed, she has a conversation with her dead sister Kate remembering a spirit named Mr. Splitfoot and all of the bad things it made her do. What happens in the story is creepy enough, but for some reason Maggie's persona just didn't do it for me. Moving on, Nathan Ballingrud's story "The Good Husband" was nice and weird, in which  a husband stops another of his wife's suicide attempts when he probably should have let her get on with it. Ewww.  Nina Allan wrote "The Tiger," another very different kind of horror story.  A photographer named Croft  serves ten years in prison for the sexual assault and murder of a child until a new witness comes forward and clears him. Unfortunately, he can't remember much about that time so he's not sure if he's really innocent or if he actually did it.  Now he's out, and meets up with Symes, who goes out of his way to help him, even handing him a new camera.  Hmmm.  Up next is a deliciously weird tale that would be a great film if someone could do it right. It's "The House on Cobb Street," by Lynda E. Rucker, and  my favorite story  in this collection. Vivian and Chris Crane buy a fixer-upper in Athens, Georgia. It isn't long until things start happening in their home, and after a while things start happening to the two of them. But that's not the worst of  what's going on in this house, Athens' own urban legend. If I spill what's in this story, it will totally kill it for anyone who wants to read it, so that's all I'll say except that  this is one ferociously creepy and nightmarish tale, kind of surreal and way out there. It's also probably the most well-written story in the book. I loved it.

KJ Kabza's "The Soul in the Bell Jar" seems to be set in an alternate world somewhere. Lindsome Glass, a young girl, comes to stay with her great-uncle Dr. Dandridge at his home while her parents are vacationing around the world. Dandridge is a scientist and a "stitchman," so called because of his work with bodies with reanimated souls, or "vivifieds."  She is put under the charge of Dandridge's assistant Chaswick, who clearly specifies where Lindsome may and may not go.  Of course, that doesn't stop her from wandering around, stumbling upon things she probably shouldn't see, and getting Chaswick mad at her.  Unfortunately for all of them, her curiosity gets the better of her.  Aside from the weird science that seems normal in this story, it reads like a tale from the Victorian era; it was just okay.  Much, much better is "Call Out," by Steve Toase, another favorite. A country vet in Yorkshire is called out late at night to tend to a farmer's cow and newborn calf. According to the farmer, the cow had been "cooked"  from the inside out after giving birth to her calf, and the "birth waters" had "scorched the floor stone-white clean." Let's just put it this way -- the vet  probably should have stayed home. It's another that is wrecked in the telling, so I'll just mention after I read this story  I had to put some time and space between myself and this book, especially since I read this story around 2 a.m. all alone in the house. Moving back into less horror, more weird territory, next up is Robert Shearman's "That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love." This one was just plain bizarre, but in a really twisted kind of way, I liked it.  Two children grow up in a home where the dad shows little, if any affection for the boy.  The brother is ignored while the sister is doted on, getting dolls from her father after he returned from traveling all over the world.  Together they participate in a strange ritual of sorts, but first he makes sure she's come to really love her new doll.  Freaky. 

"Bones of Crow," by Ray Cluley, starts out rather tame then quickly moves  into the  bizzaro world. Maggie lives in a high block of flats, and whenever she can take a break from her chronically ill father with COPD, she sneaks up to the roof to sneak a smoke. On one such visit, she tosses a lit cigarette and then worries that it might have hit litter, so goes to investigate. She does find litter, but she finds something else on the roof -- four giant eggs.  I can't even begin to explain what happens afterwards. It wasn't up there on my top story list, but it was definitely well written.  There's a poem next, "Introduction to the Body in Fairy Tales," by Jeannine Hall Gailey, but I'm not a poetry person so I'll move on to another good one, "The Tin House," by Simon Clark.  The owner of this house, so named because it's completely "clad in corrugated tin sheets," went missing six months earlier. Not a clue turned up as to his location, so the case is going into the cold files.  A detective is assigned to go to the house and take photos of every room before handing over the keys to the owner's nephew.  The author takes his time getting to the meat of this story before we find out what happens next, but it's well worth it.  "The Fox" by Conrad Williams also gave me a nice case of spine tingles, as he tells the story of a family's camping vacation. This is another one I can't divulge much about, but it's bone-chillingly good.  I almost skipped the next story "Stemming the Tide," because of the word "zombies" in the first sentence (I cannot stand zombie stories whatsoever), but I read on.  A man takes his significant other to visit the Hopewell Rocks, a place where people can walk on the ocean floor when the tide goes out. The place is filled with people, which the man hates.  Before the tide comes back in, the lifeguard shoos everyone out and locks the gates. His girlfriend isn't sure what to expect, but he knows. Very strange, but also pretty good. 

the Hopewell Rocks, taken from Canadian Roadstories

Priya Sharma's story "The Anatomist's Mnemonic" about a man who has an obsession with hands, starts out fine, but to be really blunt, I figured out what was going to happen well before I got to the ending.  I don't like when this happens. Meh.  I also didn't particularly love Steve Rasnic Tem's contribution, "The Monster Makers," about a "special" family where the kids learn more than they should from their grandfather.  And while I have an on-again/off-again relationship with Kim Newman's work, his "The Only Ending We Have," featuring a Janet Leigh stand in for  "Psycho" who gets entangled with a real-life mother-son combo, just didn't do it for me.  Three not so hots in a row didn't bother me though...the next story picked up the weird thread quite nicely: Derek Künksken's story, "The Dog's Paw" about a new guy in the diplomatic service in Africa learning how things work and how to get along there  is beyond eerie.  "Fine in the Fire," by Lee Thomas, is a rather poignant and ultimately sad story, in which a young boy is left in the dark about his older brother's predilections until he stumbles in on a family secret. Oh my gosh -- the terrible implications left me very unsettled.  Moving on,  I wasn't overly keen on Jane Jakeman's "Majorlena," either, about an army Major who shows up out of nowhere in Iraq and leaves the same way.  "The Withering" by Tim Casson is much better fare. Set in 1891, a reporter named Cresswell teams up with a Miss Appleby in Wales to try to save a poor young man named Tobias from the gallows.  He is accused of murdering the woman he loved; it is a relationship Dad wasn't happy about because of the class difference. Let's just say Miss Appleby has a very unique talent for getting to the truth. Aside from the satisfying eeriness of this tale, the author keeps it nicely grounded in time and place. In Neil Gaiman's very short piece, "Down to a Sunless Sea," a mother learns the fate of her son who ran away from home to be a sailor at the age of 12. Short, but truly horrific.

welsh graveyard, 1867, from 123RF

Now entering the final stretch, the last three stories in this book are all pretty darn good.    Laird Barron also has a nice story here, "The Jaws of Saturn," which I came across in his The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All  Barron is a modern master of weird, and this is one of the stories that showcases why I believe so.   With his infamous Broadsword Hotel as the setting for this piece, Barron's story concerns a hitman who doesn't like the aftereffects of the hypnosis his girlfriend is undergoing for quitting smoking and decides to confront the hypnotist. Very bad mistake. As I'm fond of saying, Laird Barron could write copy for cereal boxes and it would be good.   Linda Nagata's entry "Halfway Home"  is one I'm glad I didn't read while I was on my long airplane flights over the ocean earlier this month.  An American passenger on a overseas flight to LAX meets the passenger next to her from the Philippines, who seems to be faring poorly, but says it's just an allergy to nickel. Their topic of conversation turns to exit strategies  and the safety card in the seat pocket, a strange topic of discussion indeed. No one can be prepared for what happens next, though.  I have to say that this story turned out to be not at all what I thought it was going to be -- kudos. And last, but not least, a very Lovecraftian piece comes from Brian Hodge with "The Same Deep Water as You."  In a bizarre but very different take on the normal Innsmouth-based  story, the Department of Homeland Security hires an "animal whisperer" for a very special purpose at a detainment center where the inmates have been housed since 1928. For people like me who like all things Innsmouth, it's a good one.

I will repeat what I said at the outset ... this installment of Best Horror of the Year is probably the best one so far. I know that horror is in the eye of the beholder, but a majority of the stories in this collection worked well to satisfy my hunger for growing creepiness.  In previous installments, that definitely was not the case.  This time around Ms. Datlow's anthology is one I can definitely recommend to readers of horror -- most especially those who enjoy more cerebral frights than the kind that are in your face and splattered across pages in an ongoing gore fest.  I quite enjoyed this one!

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