Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, editors, The Year's Best
Fantasy & Horror, 7th Annual Edition (St. Martin's Press, 1994)
Any annual collection is a time capsule; one originally published 13 years ago is even more so. The writers and the readers were a lot younger and more innocent, and the face of fiction (especially horror) has changed a great deal since 1993. However, the stories in this anthology would not have been ordinary in any year. They are the best of the best, collected by the intrepid Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling in one of the finest of their many collaborative projects.
As usual, the essays at the beginning are fascinating: Summation of Fantasy 1993 by Windling; Summation of Horror 1993 by Datlow; Comics by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull; Horror and Fantasy in the Media by Edward Bryant. Half of the fun of these books is looking back and realizing what we had in any given year. The Honorable Mentions at the end would make another entire Best Of collection in themselves, and demand detailed exploration.
And what goodies we had in 1993! Windling's Summation of Fantasy reminds us that magical realism had just gone mainstream: Like Water From Chocolate hit the best-seller list. Peter S. Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song, now the seed of a universe, was newly published. The Iron Dragon's Daughter, also a world-seed, came out from Michael Swanwick. Tanith Lee, Steven Brust, Patricia McKillip, now relatively rare in the new book rack, were all writing strongly.
Horror was less literally visceral and more thoughtful, before the epitome of the written genre became self-consciously explicit. Datlow's Summation notes some of the best novels: The Ice House by Minette Walters, In The Electric Mist With The Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke, The Golden by Lucius Shepherd, Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. These are all books I recall with shivers and delight, and a feeling that their like has become increasingly rare.
The movies were amazing and many of them are still on the shelves as modern classics. Per Bryant, Jurassic Park, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Addams Family Values, and Dead Alive are among the best. Even the bad ones in 1993 were usually at least entertaining; horror movies like Boxing Helena and Kalifornia boasted actual plots.
Now, the stories . . . and there are a lot of them. This volume is a hefty 500+ pages, and all are worth close attention. But let's try to list some of the standouts.
Ursula Le Guin's "The Poacher" starts off the collection with sheer elegance, being a recounting of "Cinderella" from off-stage; the viewpoint of a peasant child who escapes his grim life by tunneling into the hedge of thorns surrounding the enchanted castle. He touches nothing, he changes nothing; he simply dwells on the edges of magic, safe from sorrow and pain. It could be a elegy for everyone seeking solace in fantasy.
Nancy Collins' "Sunday Go-To-Meeting Jaw" is wonderfully tragic. Set just after that great American horror, the Civil War, it concerns a man who returns to his family missing his jaw from a war wound. The replacement, seen through the eyes of his child, is even more horrific than the loss. This is perfect Americana horror, the sort we used to get assigned in high school. It holds its own easily beside the works of Poe and Bierce.
Carol Emshwiller's "Mrs. Jones" is sort of The Cherry Orchard meets Weekly World News' Bat Boy. It's weird, sprightly, very entertaining while bring decidedly creepy, and somehow makes one giggle guiltily. A neat little tale of desire and satisfaction.
"The Lodger," by Fred Chappel, is marvelous. A young, sensitive librarian is possessed by the predatory spirit of a bad poet -- bad in every sense of the word. In order to drive out the rapacious poetaster, the librarian sets out to make his life inhospitable: he turns himself into a pedantic, dry-as-dust, deconstructionist literary critic, in whose annotated soul not even a really bad poet could survive. And it works! The true horror of the story, though, is that he than cannot turn himself back. . . .
Gabriel Garcia Marquez recounts "The Saint" most beautifully. Here is magical realism at its best, reminding the reader that the realism part may be the most important -- that simple human magic is the most miraculous. This story is like a glass of fresh water.
Dan Simmons' "Dying In Bangkok" is -- perfect Dan Simmons. Monsters, war vets, trauma, honor, vengeance and redemption; he has been doing what he does for a long time, and no one does it better. Fascinating take on vampirism on many levels.
"Troll Bridge" by Neil Gaiman is a perfect little gem of horror, and despite the troll of the title, a very modern horror at that. A man wastes his life and barters everything he might love in order to avoid by devoured by a troll he meets as a child. The troll consumes his life in the end -- but by that time, the man has already shrunk to a narrow, dried-up, loveless husk of a man. A wasted life is a horror indeed, and this is beautifully told.
Not all of the stories please, though all are well told. Editorial choices, while better-honed than the rest of us, are personal at bottom; not all reader's tastes will be satisfied by their selections. I found John Coyne's "Snow Man," about an abysmally and fatally stupid Peace Corps volunteer, merely annoying. "The Taking of Mr. Bill," by Graham Masterton, is a glib, nasty take on Peter Pan that seems to trivialize everything from the classic faerie tale to child murder. "Crash Cart" by Nancy Holder is a ghastly "She was asking for it" scenario -- it's horrible, all right, not in the simple-minded graphics of Saw, but in the ancient horror of blaming the victim of violence for what was done to her
But they are well done. There is not a tale in here that will slide unnoticed from the memory. I recommend limiting oneself to two or three an evening, like a box of good chocolates, to avoid sensory overload.