"The Best Horror of the Year Volume 14" edited by Ellen Datlow
If you’re connected to the world of horror fiction even remotely, you probably already know the name Ellen Datlow. And if you’re already familiar with her career, you know she can assemble anthologies like few other editors can—and rightly so, as she’s been doing it professionally for 40 years now. In the past two years alone Datlow has produced numerous volumes of collected works, most featuring either all new stories or a blend of works commissioned specifically for the anthology and reprints.
Then, of course, there is her annual Best Horror of the Year series, a literary mix tape culled from various magazines, anthologies, single author story collections, and other sources. Now in its 14th edition, part of what makes Datlow’s “best of” compilation particularly special is the fact it comprises the previous year’s publications, allowing the editor to survey a complete, finite body of work.
So for instance, this year’s volume doesn’t cover stories that appeared in 2022, but rather 2021. However, for anyone thinking these tales don’t pulse with a sense of urgency, or they have nothing to say about the world as it currently exists, simply because they first appeared a year ago, rest assured: the nightmares from ’21 aren’t much different than those occupying the minds of writers and readers right now. For instance, the collection begins with Simon Bestwick’s “Redwater,” an action-adventure horror narrative about a boat crew illegally navigating the flooded, monster-infested lands left to stagnate after an environmental catastrophe some years back—possibly a subtle nod to rising sea levels as a result of climate change and its long-lasting ramifications hovering over our planet.
Another recurrent theme deals with women’s “second-class” status in society—a matter still woefully relevant in 2022. “The Hunt at Rotherdam” by A.C. Wise gives readers a glimpse into a terrifying universe in which aristocratic manly men hunt female-presenting creatures for sport (read: forced marriage) —a tradition that doesn’t sit well with the secretly gay main character, who both recognizes the monstrousness of the hunt and has no interest in its intended outcome. Feminism and queerness also play a significant role in “Poor Butcher-Bird” by Gemma Files, a unique and gory cult story that really goes some places (in the best way possible). Last but not least, classism teams up with feminism and an old English folk tale in “Shuck” by G.V. Anderson, in which a young woman battles a gigantic hell dog, internalized feminine shame, and being the secret side piece of a popular boy.
Other stories either generally deal with the violence and cruelty of humanity, or offer bizarre images of “what-the-fuckery,” or both. Examples in the “both” category include: “Dancing Sober in the Dust” by Steve Toase, about a mysterious young woman’s obsession with a near-forgotten avant-garde husband-and-wife dance duo who excelled at shocking and unnerving their audience; “The Quizmasters” by Gerard McKeown, which involves a badly disguised pair roving rural Ireland, asking pop culture trivia questions to anyone they pass by—a game where wrong answers might have deadly consequences; and two selections from “Anne Gare’s Rare and Import Video Catalogue October 2022” by Jonathan Raab, only a small glimpse of a larger, 14 part series of micro-fiction pieces included in the anthology Hymns of Abomination that quickly summarize absolutely bizarre and bowel-quivering strips of film.
But perhaps the most dominant theme running through this edition of Best Horror deals with childhood trauma and fraught familial relations. Surreal nightmares that hint at unspeakable predation plague a young boy in “Caker’s Man” by Matthew Holness (co-creator and star of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace); parents grapple with teenage angst and other, less overt terrors in “The Offering” by Michael Marshall Smith and “Trap” by Carly Holmes (a masterful slow burn horror tale); narcissistic mothers and their scarred children appear in “The God Bag” by Christopher Golden and “I’ll Be Gone By Then” by Eric LaRoca, while abusive fathers—either through disinterest or direct anger directed at their offspring—generate horrors of their own in “The Strathantine Imps” by Steve Duffy, “All Those Lost Days” by Brian Evenson, “Jack-in-the-Box” by Robin Furth, and “Tiptoe” by the ever-captivating Laird Barron. The healing of old familial wounds—also known as intergenerational trauma—has been, for lack of a better term, “all the rage” in popular consciousness lately, propelling sales of The Body Keeps the Score, neuroscientist Bessel van der Kolk’s groundbreaking 2015 study on the subject, and appearing in the plots of numerous TV shows and films, including Everything Everywhere All At Once and Disney’s Encanto. Societally speaking, it seems we’re all ready to start dealing in earnest with our fucked up families, so it’s no wonder numerous horror authors in this, the year of our Lord two thousand twenty-two, created characters and situations that do just that.
There’s one social issue that isn’t directly addressed in any story in the volume, and its absence unearths an additional matter that unfortunately continues to plague the world of genre fiction. As a backdrop for terror, racial inequality appears nowhere in the anthology’s 380+ pages, because the authors presented here are predominately cic white males. Horror has long had a diversity problem, and while year after year more voices of color emerge on the scene (read: finally get noticed after years of hustling), the disparity is still quite glaring, both here in Volume 14 and in the broader tendencies of major horror publishers as well.
Still, this latest entry in the Best Horror series is a solid one, and it shows that Datlow’s ability to assemble a fluid, cohesive anthology of stories from varied sources is as strong as ever. Let’s just hope the 2023 Best Horror collection—which would round up horror narratives from 2022—will feature a broader range of perspectives.
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