As I may have noted before, to put together a collection of stories, or what have you, and call it the best, you're really making a certain subjective statement. Everyone's opinion about the best differs. Some of the most critically acclaimed stories are the ones I find the least enjoyable. A certain editor and publisher I know might insist that it's not the best if stories he published in his magazines weren't present. Take two editors, give them the same assignment, and find an overlap of maybe 20%, tops.
That's why it's so impressive that every year, Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow can put together the massive collections of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, which turns fourteen this year with yet another thorough investigation and retrospective of the previous year's output. And with the traditional gorgeous cover art by Thomas Canty, it's hard to miss.
A quick scan of the contents page would reveal dozens of short stories and poems, ranging the gamut of fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, and all the gray areas in between. A random sampling of authors reveals that the "year's best" includes Harlan Ellison, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Jonathan Carroll, Francesca Lia Block, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tanith Lee. But lesser-known lights come to the front as well, such as Bolivian author Claudia Adriazola, and Glen Hirshberg. You don't need a membership card to get into this particular club, just a story or poem worthy of the editor's attention.
And that's the beautiful and best thing about these yearly collections of the bizarre, fantastical, disturbing, and thought-provoking. I read a lot. I read several dozen anthologies a year, numerous magazines, books beyond counting. And I've seen maybe a quarter, at most, of the works present in this volume. I somehow missed Ghost Writing: Haunted Tales of Contemporary Writers. I've never heard of Horror Garage or Imagination, Fully Dilated (Volumes I or II!). I don't read the New Yorker, generally. Or the Iowa Review or the Colorado Review or even the New England Review. What The Year's Best gives you, then, is a sampling of stories you likely never would have found on your own. Obscure gems, treasures in the rough, genre stories that strayed outside the normal lines and into <gasp!> mainstream. New works by favorite writers, and newer works by writers you've never heard of. And that's the first reason why I find the Windling and Datlow collections so enjoyable: they always manage to turn up things I never would have found on my own, and dollars to donuts I'll enjoy the majority of them. Doubtful that I'd enjoy them all, since tastes do differ. But what I like, it's -good-.
There's another reason, though, why this book is such a useful resource. And that's the hundred plus pages of summations, obituaries, and the year's roundup that precedes the actual stories. That's right, in addition to over five hundred pages of short stories, novellas, and poems, you also get all this bonus material. Sounds like an infomercial offer, doesn't it? Too good to be true? Not at all. It's all part of the package.
As always, Terri Windling starts off with one of the most in-depth, thorough, knowledgeable essays on the state of fantasy in such categories as Top Twenty, First Novels, Urban Fantasy, Imaginary World Novels, Mythic Fiction, Humor, Oddities, Children's Fantasy, Single-Author Collections, Anthologies, Magazines, Poetry, Art, Mythology and Folklore, Awards and more. Dozens, nay hundreds, of items worth checking out, hunting down, borrowing, buying, or stealing.
This is the sort of investigation that must take forever to do properly, no matter how many of the items in question might be sent her way to begin with.
But wait, there's more! Ellen Datlow follows that tough act to beat with her own summation of Horror in the year 2000. Awards, Novels, Anthologies, Reprint Collections, Poetry, Artists, Magazines, Nonfiction, Small Press Addresses, and more. If anything, she's just as thorough and scholarly as Windling, and details enough material to make any horror aficionado drool with delight.
Edward Bryant chimes in with Fantasy and Horror in the Media, tackling the way Hollywood handles and interprets everything from historical fantasy to vampires to comic books to television, and more still. He even pulls out the independents that are worth a look. Seth Johnson takes a look at how comic books dealt with the subjects, pointing out the best, most intelligent, and most enjoyable of the lot. Finally, James Frenkel gives us the literary equivalent of the Montage of Honor at the Academy Awards, listing all of those people associated with fantasy and horror in all their many forms who passed on in the year 2000. It's a sad topic, but he treats it with dignity and respect, paying homage to all those who've told their last story. He touches upon the lives and achievements of L. Sprague de Camp, Edward Gorey, Don Martin, Carl Barks, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Sir Alec Guinness, Steve Reeves, Jim Varney, and so many more. A moment of silence, please.
With a collection this size, it's hard to pick out the best or most noteworthy. But a few pieces did make me stop and think, or shudder, or reread them again and again. Of special interest, then, are Glen Hirshberg's "Mr. Dark's Carnival," which treats us to a town where Halloween takes on a special, intimate meaning, and a mysterious carnival has the power to change lives forever; Terry Dowling's "The Saltimbanques," which deals with Australian myth, and the loss of innocence, and growing up; Ben Pastor's "Achilles' Grave," which looks at a peculiar encounter during World War One between a British soldier and a German, and the bond they form when they summon the dead; Ramsey Campbell's "No Strings," a nightmarish account of the fate of a late night DJ; Charles de Lint's "Granny Weather," which brings back one of his popular characters, Sophie Etoile, for another journey into the other worlds; Harlan Ellison's "Incognita, Inc," a truly memorable story about where all those mysterious maps come from, and what happens when we no longer need to find our way to Oz or Xanadu.
And as a sidenote, did I mention the Honorable Mentions? That's right. More pages filled with lists of other stories and poems that were noteworthy, but couldn't be squeezed in.
I can't say much more than to reiterate, in no uncertain terms, that The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume Fourteen is one of those absolutely indispensable offerings that any true lover of fantasy and/or horror should pick up. It's well worth the price, and will serve you well.
[Michael M Jones]