Storyville: What the 'Best Horror of the Year' Anthology Can Teach Us
If you write dark fiction, including horror, one of the best ways you can stay current, evolve as an author, and find new stories to tell is to read The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow. I consider it MUST READING every year. I teach out of this book for my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop, and even though I’ve published over 150 stories, I learn something every time I read it. What do I learn? How can you use this anthology to get better? Let me tell you.
(Note: I’ll be using The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Nine) as the example in this article, for the most part, since it’s the most recent one I’ve read, and the stories are fresh in my head. Volume Ten is out now—I’ll be teaching out of that next year.)
There are several ways you can use this book to do research, and all of them are valuable.
First, I look at the publications that make it into the final table of contents. Why? Because I probably want to publish with them! I most likely have heard of them all, but sometimes a new press, anthology, or journal pops up, and I make sure I take note. I got lucky running Dark House Press a few years ago, with the anthology Exigencies. On top of getting a Shirley Jackson nomination, we had a story by Letitia Trent, “Wilderness,” make it into The Best Horror of the Year anthology (Volume Eight). Which just goes to show that editor Ellen Datlow is open to work outside the top markets—that a relative unknown (DHP and Letitia) can get recognition. It is about the stories.
But back to the publishers and publications. In this year’s issue, let’s look at who got in: three stories from the Children of Lovecraft anthology (Dark Horse Books, edited by Ellen, so I’m not surprised she selected a couple); Black Static (a market I love, even with less than pro pay); Conjunctions (a literary journal that is known for publishing hybrid work, lit and genre); the What the #@&% is That? anthology (Saga Press, edited by John Joseph Adams); the Borderlands 6 anthology (Borderlands Press, edited by Olivia and Tom Monteleone); The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu anthology (Running Press Adult, edited by Paula Guran); two stand-alone chapbooks published by Nightjar Press—“Fury” and “The Numbers” (that got on my radar); the Autumn Cthulhu anthology (Lovecraft Ezine Press, edited by Mike Davis); The Dark (a favorite publication); Dead Letters: An Anthology of the Undelivered, the Missing, the Returned (Titan Books, edited by Conrad Williams); Malevolent Visitations, a collection of stories by C. E. Ward (Sarob Press); the Eternal Frankenstein anthology (Word Horde, edited by Ross E. Lockhart); Nightmare (another favorite publication); Ragman & Other Family Curses, a collection of stories by Rebecca Lloyd (Egaeus Press); two from the Uncertainties II anthology (The Swan River Press, edited by Brian J. Showers); People Holding; and the Green and Pleasant Land anthology (Black Shuck Books, edited by Steve J. Shaw).
(There were another fifty listed on the Honorable Mentions page if you want to dig deeper.)
So what do you see in this list of stories here? What jumps out at you? What surprises me is that so many stories came from anthologies, and not all were published in the USA. I also was happy to see a few come from personal collections of short stories (which is why you should always put at least one new story in every collection you publish). So what this tells me about this year, at least, is that anthologies are doing really well. How many of these anthologies, presses, and editors have you never heard of? There were quite a few for me. Others, I knew pretty well. This is a great way to expand your knowledge, your reading list, and the stories you read.
OLD AND NEW VOICES
What I usually look for when I first read the anthology, or see the TOC, are my friends. I want to see how many of my pals, peers, and students have gotten in. That’s always exciting. I want to make sure I read their story for sure, if I haven’t already. Then I look for “bigger names,” to see what giants have made it in. I typically like their stories. Then I look for those authors that I just love to read—voices that speak to me personally. And then, I see who is an author that I don’t know at all. I only discovered Brian Hodge a few years ago, he’s relatively new to me. Three years ago, I’d have said, “Who?” Now, I seek out his work, I’ve become a real fan. He’s gone from unknown to friend to favorite to big name. All in the span of a few years. It’s always great to revisit voices that speak to you, but it’s also essential to find new work that resonates. “Fury” by D.B. Waters is an example. Loved it, but wasn’t that familiar with the author. It was only about four years ago that I realized how amazing Livia Llewellyn was. New to me, now a favorite. All essential reading.
FLAVORS OF HORROR
Another reason to read this anthology is to read a wide variety of horror. I don’t think that many of us here write the same horror story over and over again. I hope we don’t. In this anthology there was violent horror and subtle horror, Lovecraftian and depression-era horror, there was visceral and intellectual horror, and everything in between. Variety is the spice of life, right? By seeing what gets published, in the top markets and at the best presses, we see the RANGE of horror that’s being accepted. And that’s crucial if you want to keep evolving, innovating, and growing as an author.
What I also learned from reading this anthology was the individual taste of editors and publications. If I look at the TOC and the Honorable Mentions list, for example, I can see what kind of stories Black Static is publishing these days. If all three have something in common—perhaps heavy setting and atmosphere—that might help me in sending them work later. Maybe you can look at the work that Ellen Datlow, or JJA, or Doug Murano, or Michael Bailey got on the list. Study what they like so you have some sort of idea about what they may accept. To be informed is to be prepared—and then put your own twist on it, of course.
What the hell is that you ask? The zeitgeist is “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” Why is this important? Did you happen to notice a theme or sub-genre in the work that was accepted? There was quite a lot of Lovecraftian horror in this year’s anthology. Maybe there were a few anthologies out, and that’s why there was so much. Perhaps the chaos of our world state pushed us to read these kinds of tales—as a cautionary tale, as a vicarious roller coaster ride, as rippling terror on the page. It’s often difficult to come up with an idea, write it, submit it, and get it published in a short period of time. The reason that most authors, editors, and publishers don’t encourage you to write to a theme or trend is that by the time you make that all happen, the world has moved on. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We’ve been in a particular funk here in the U.S. for a few years now. And I know that I’ve written a story in days, weeks, or months, and then had it come out shortly after that. But typically it takes a year or two from start to finish. My story in Cemetery Dance in 2019 (“Battle Not with Monsters”) was written in 2015, sent out from 2015 to 2017, accepted in 2017, and is finally coming out in 2019. That is quite the journey.
DRAWING THE LINE
As a reader, and as an author, we all draw the line at certain themes, stories, scenes, and genres (as well as sub-genres). By reading a range of fiction, a range of horror, we start to understand what stories we don’t want to read (again) or write (at all). Maybe we have decided that we’ll never write about rape or molestation. Maybe we will decide that we want to back off of the body horror, the violence and gore, the visceral depiction of certain acts and events. And that’s all fine—it’s part of the journey. Why not narrow it down a bit and make your life easier? It’s okay to avoid reading and writing certain aspects of horror in order to free yourself up to write what excites you, moves you, and resonates on the page.
I know that every year I read a few stories that really shine a light on how to subvert expectations. Authors like Brian Evenson, Livia Llewellyn, Stephen Graham Jones, Brian Hodge, Seanan McGuire, and Adam Nevill (just to name a few influences of mine) do it all the time—setting, POV, character, plot, voice, focus, theme, atmosphere, etc. The first time I read “Hippocampus” by Adam Nevill I hated it. Later, when I re-read it, I realized it was quite exceptional—the echo of horror and violence, the aftermath, was a powerful silence. Same with the aforementioned “Fury” or Livia’s story, “Allochthon,” from a few years ago. Reading stories that really work hard to be original has informed my own work, stories like “Asking for Forgiveness” (plural we), “Undone” (a 1,200-word story that is one sentence), and my recent novelette, “Ring of Fire” (theme, subject matter, split narrative, plot, and emotion).
Whatever genres you write in, be sure to seek out the best of the year anthologies that publish your kind of writing—horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thrillers, weird fiction, bizarro, literary, whatever. If you aren’t paying attention to what’s going on now (and if you haven’t studied the masters in these genres) you are shooting yourself in the foot. Don’t do that. It hurts.
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