Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, editors, Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume 16 (St. Martin's Press, 2003)
One of the books that has been most influential in developing my literary ideas actually has nothing to do with literature. The book is The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury, which traces, among other things, how the idea of 'newer is better' came to be. It's an idea that plagued literature for most of the twentieth century, and that doesn't appear to be letting go now that we're into the twenty-first.
Is newer a priori better? Of course not, but the challenge to be new and trend-setting is always there. Consider how many yet-unpublished authors strive to find that something different so that they can get a contract and become published.
On the other hand, consider how within the fantasy genre, repetition is what sells books. Consider the fact that the bestsellers tend to be either part of a series or books by familiar authors that don't cover 'new ground'.
If you're the editor of a series that purports to present the year's best short writing, this dichotomy of the new vs. the old is one that must be considered. With sixteen years of creating such anthologies, Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow have once again proved that they can balance both.
The 2003 volume of Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, the sixteenth of the series, covering short fiction published in 2002, is as always a beautiful treat. To begin with, the packaging is as luscious as ever, with a Thomas Canty cover -- one of his best for the series -- set off by a William Morris-esque border. Moving into the book, we find the same eye-pleasing layout: beautiful typefaces that evoke a sophistication familiar to fantasy and horror readers without being overly baroque and thus harsh on the eye.
Ah, but that's just the icing on the cake. What about the actual contents of the book? As with the past fifteen years, Windling and Datlow have provided us with an excellent selection.
To start with, before the arabic page numbering begins, we are treated to 134 pages of an overview of the fantasy and horror genre for the past year. As always, Datlow sums up the horror genre, while Windling looks at fantasy. Also included are Charles Vess looking at comics, Edward Bryant pointing us to the best movies and television shows, and Joan D. Vinge guiding us through manga and anime, as well as James Frenkel informing us of recent deaths within the field.
As one friend pointed out, the summations are becoming a tad bit formulaic, with whole sections of Windling's fantasy review being cribbed from the previous year. But I find that that's OK with me, because these sections are meant to be overviews. If the editor has found a concise way to sum up what's happened in the field, and nothing has changed, why alter it? As it stands, the summations comprise one-fifth of the book's length and are a menace to the roman numeral-challenged reader. And these summations are indeed valuable, both to the casual reader who is looking for recommendations, and to the more devoted genre reader. My one big regret is that this volume comes out too late to help me with nominating books for awards committees that I'm on.
The stories themselves follow a similar pattern: there are those that are familiar in their style, as well as the new. Most all, though, deserve the moniker 'year's best'. (Although I might quibble with one or two inclusions and exclusions, such argumentation would just be the exception that proves the rule.)
As is now established tradition, each story is introduced by the editor for the area in which it best fits: Terri Windling for fantasy, Ellen Datlow for horror. The balance of fantasy to horror this year is nearly even, with twenty-four selections by Windling, twenty-three by Datlow, and two made jointly, one of which is an essay. Of the fantasy selections, six are poems, while only one of the horror selections is a poem, so the book feels heavy on the horror this year, although actual page count comes out close to even.
The horror in this year's volume is varied, from the blatantly macabre to the more psychological. Some of the better stories include the appropriately named (for this venue at least) 'The Green Man' by Christopher Fowler, which traces a Londoner's descent into jealousy and where it ultimately takes him. The green man of the title, however, is a macaque on a Pacific island. The juxtaposition of familiar themes with unfamiliar settings makes the story linger long after you've finished it.
'Puce Boy' by Michael Libling is another such example of the familiar mingled with the unusual. The story takes place around a miniature golf park, where the proprietor's daughter can see the 'color' of people's fate. If you leave the park with the wrong color, your death is sure to happen. On top of this unusual premise is a story of young love and ruptured families. The combination brings a fresh air to the familiar themes.
'The Receivers' by Joel Lane and 'Standard Gauge' by Nicholas Royle both deal with macabre happenings in otherwise mundane modern-day Britain. 'Hides' by Jay Russell follows a Brit (in this case Robert Louis Stevenson) in 19th-century America and delves into cannibalism.
But the Russell story brings up one aspect that seems to recur a lot in Datlow's choices: ambiguity. With many of these stories, the reader is left with ambiguous and circumspect endings: does that imply what I think it implies? One or two of these types of stories are fine, but when about half of the stories leave more to guesswork, I get the feeling we're watching the emergence of a cliché. Today it may be considered 'the year's best', but tomorrow we may look back and identify it as the 'early twenty-first century cliché'.
The fantasy selections cover a wide range of venues. It seems as if Windling has combed every possible written source to find what she considers the best, from the genre magazines to mainstream journals and magazines, to collections and anthologies, and even to a music tour book!
This diversity makes for interesting reading. As I'm sure most GMR readers are aware, Terri Windling is one of the founding members of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, so it's no surprise to find most of her selections are interstitial in nature. Again, as with Datlow's selections mentioned above, the heavy leaning in one direction can become a bit wearing after the eighth or so instance. Some of the stories, even, are 'fantasy' only in the broadest sense. Haruki Murakami's 'Thailand', for example, reads like a straight mainstream story. In the course of the story, however, the main character visits a local fortune teller who tells her fortune quite accurately. But nothing is done with that. That is, the fantastic is just another trope in the story; the story is thus not technically 'fantastic'.
Another story, 'Mr. Mendoza's Paintbrush', reads, again, like straight mainstream (in this case a Latino coming-of-age story) until the very end, where a fantastic element is suddenly thrown in. While all of these stories are excellent and well-written, I still wonder how much they should be included if other equally worthy, and more fantastic in nature, stories are being excluded to make room for them.
If there's one idea or trope that seems to have been more common this past year, it is (appropriately enough) the Green Man. This is in no small part because of the excellent 2002 anthology, The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest, edited by Windling and Datlow. From that collection we find M. Shayne Bell's 'The Pagodas of Ciboure' and Jeffrey Ford's 'The Green Word'. There's also the above-mentioned 'Green Man', as well as 'The Green Children' by Kevin Brockmeier. All of these stories stand out as some of the best in the collection. To someone reviewing for a publication called Green Man Review, that's comforting news.
Some of the other outstanding fantasy stories this time around include 'The Least Trumps' by Liz Hand, 'Creation' by Jefferey Ford, and 'What I Didn't See' by Karen Joy Fowler.
As has been noted in many other places, this is Terri Windling's last volume as editor of fantasy for the series. The news is that she's wanting to devote more time to writing and other projects. Kelly Link and Gavin Grant will be the new fantasy editors with the next volume. Over the past fifteen years, Windling has certainly raised our expectations of what constitutes quality fantasy, bringing to light many authors who would not have otherwise been noticed, as well as helping to develop more fully the idea of what constitutes interstitial fantasy. All good things must come to an end, but Link and Grant, through their work with Small Beer Press, have shown themselves quite competent to fill the shoes Windling is leaving vacant. We here at GMR wish Terri all the best in her new endeavors. Meanwhile, I highly recommend you all head out and read the latest volume of Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.
[Matthew Scott Winslow]
For GMR reviews of past Windling/Datlow anthologies, click here.
For more about the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series, click here.