Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, editors, Year's Best

Fantasy and Horror, Volume 4 (St. Martin's Press, 1991)

I resist the idea of rigid genre classification.

I don't usually have a problem understanding how to categorize a work, I have a problem with the idea that it must be somehow categorized; that a good piece of fiction has to be defined within the parameters of a nomenclature really geared more toward marketing product than toward any true insight or understanding of the literature itself.

I'm not saying it doesn't have its uses, this genre thing; I'm simply confessing to a resistance to the idea that good art can be so easily slipped into cubbyholes and thus described. It's a testament to the deft handling and selection of tales for The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fourth Annual Collection that with few exceptions, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling manage to pull together a collection of (in the main) superb works, which knits together the fantastical and the chilling and the enigmatic. Somehow, this diverse assortment emerges as a coherent whole without, for the most part, relying too heavily on the dreaded aforementioned taxonomies by stating "this is a horror tale" or "this is a fantasy." Instead, at least in the Fourth Annual Collection (1990's best of the best), one walks away with an overall satisfaction, and a feeling of accomplishment for having absorbed so many superbly-written works so skillfully cobbled together. Now that is good editing.

If I have to choose one word with which to begin a description of this anthology, that word would be "dense." The cover claims to contain "over 250,000 words of the finest fantasy and horror," to which I would reply, "Is that all?" So much material is packed into the volume -- not just in terms of words but in terms of meaning and content -- it takes intense concentration to read the whole work: not each story individually (though I will admit to having struggled through a few), but the entire volume. I found it best to pace myself, and read only one story at a time. That was a difficult prospect for me (voracious reader that I am), but in the end it proved the best approach. Many of these pieces were so intense, I found I needed a certain amount of recovery time after each reading. A couple left me exhausted, drained, and one or two repulsed me so thoroughly, I suppose you would have to call them successful. Repulsive, regrettably and reluctantly read (at least by me), but certainly effective, if repulsion was the author's intent.

Datlow and Windling break the reader in slowly to the collection, like a horse to the bit. "Freewheeling" by Charles de Lint is the first story, a nice warm-up piece. About street kids and urban artists placed in a gritty, end-of-the-eighties setting, this one really gives a sense of time and place, and sets the mood of the year of the collection. This is either brilliant foresight on the parts of the editors or fortuitous happenstance, but of all the pieces, this felt the most authentic to the era. A lyrical and bittersweet story, this one doesn't seem to have a big punch upon first reading, but it lingered in my mind long after the impact of most of the others dissipated.

"The Sweeper" by George Szanto and "Two Words" by Isabel Allende are two more lovely, lyrical stories, both steeped in Latin culture. Latin mysticism and folklore lend a depth of character and fluidity of language and of reality that some might think smacks of magical realism. Again, I hesitate to categorize (and sub-sub-sub-categorize), but the sensibilities of these two stories are more romantic, less rigid, than many of the others.

"Ladies and Gentlemen" by Joyce Carol Oates comes as a surprise. It's fairly early in the table of contents, but this literary blast of humor is well-placed. Like the de Lint piece, this one is truly an artifact of the late eighties, though of yuppie culture. "Ladies and Gentlemen" serves as a humorous comment on the conspicuous greed and consumption spawned in the Reagan years. The only other piece of similarly light (dark) humor is Ian Frazier's "Coyote V. Acme," in which an attorney pleads a case against Acme Co. for the horrendous results of the use of its fraudulent and faulty products by a Mr. Wile E. Coyote.

Among other highlights; Susan Cooper's non-fiction essay, "Fantasy in the Real World," John Brunner's "Moths," the bizarre but somehow incredibly appealing in its strangeness "TV People" by Haruki Murakami, Angela Carter's deconstructionist/feminist "Ashputtle: or, The Mother's Ghost," the charming Karel Capek story "The Dog's Tale," the tragic and inexplicable "The First Time" by K.W. Jeter, the haunting "Snapshots from the Butterfly Plague" by Michael Bishop, and finally, the wistful end-story, "The Sadness of Detail" by Jonathan Carroll. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

A couple stories are of the gross-out variety, so if you're looking for such reading when you see the word "horror," and you were worried you'd be missing out if you took a chance on The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fourth Annual Collection, never fear: I'm particularly thinking of David J. Schow's "Not From Around Here," though many other stories are grotesque to some degree or another. Only one story did I regret reading, and not in some titillating, entertaining fashion. I think the story of a brutal and thoroughly-enjoyed first-person point-of-view murder-rape is just not something I ever need to read again. I'm not even objecting to the eating of dead babies ("Not From Around Here") or the pedophilia (Jonathan Carroll, "The Panic Hand") or the horror of the perpetual orgasm ("Arousal" by Richard Christian Matheson): so if I'm objecting at all, I'm feeling the repulsion pretty strongly. I'm loath even to name the story, for fear of biasing anyone against it (or for it? I shudder to think). Ironically, the author of that piece is the favorite author of two people I've spoken to this week alone. Though it hardly needs saying, I'll say it now; taste in all things is subjective, especially when those things touch so close to our cores.

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fourth Annual Collection contains over fifty-five pieces in all, including opening editorial introductions, essays, and several poems. I've stuck to the highlights (and mentioned the lowlights), but this anthology is best experienced for oneself. Just take plenty of time to absorb what you read, rest between stories, breathe deep, and remember, you're getting a fabulous bang for your buck.

[Camille Alexa]