The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Eighth Annual Collection by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (ed).
Published by St. Martin's Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Each year editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling compile a collection of what they regard to be the best fantasy and horror short stories published during that year. This volume covers the stories of 1994, and as always includes several opening essays discussing the state of the publishing industry. In "Summation 1994: Fantasy," Terri Windling discusses the establishment of several new magazines offering short fiction, as well as important novel-length works of fiction and non-fiction books dealing with the genre. Ellen Datlow's "Summation 1994: Horror" covers similar ground for the horror genre, although she notes that there is a considerable overlap between it and fantasy, given the focus upon the supernatural found in both genres. In "Horror and Fantasy in the Media: 1994" Edward Bryant reminds us that the genre isn't limited to print, but also encompasses television, cinema and even music and electronic games (at the time this would've meant primarily console games, since the World Wide Web was just taking off in 1994 and most people were on slow dialup connections that would've made video-intensive online gaming impossible). Will Shetterly and Emma Bull give us the lowdown on sequential graphic narrative in "Comics 1994," and there are several pages of obituaries honoring the giants and lesser lights we lost during the year.
But what really brings readers to these anthologies aren't those prefatory essays, or even the listing at the end of the book of the even greater number of stories the editors would like to have included, but simply couldn't find room for. No, what we're really looking for are the stories themselves. And as usual, they represent a broad variety of tastes, from traditional fantasy and supernatural horror to slipstream stories in which the fantastical elements may well be metaphorical rather than objectively real within the story world. As a result, it's likely that not every story will be to every single reader's taste. I know that there were a number that I bounced off of pretty hard, even as my literature background allowed me to see how some readers would really enjoy them.
The editors have chosen to begin this volume's stories with just such a subtle one, Patricia A McKillip's "Transmutations." It's the story of a mad scientist and his efforts to bring everything into a state of changeless perfection, starting with the poet Cerise. By the end of the story I'm not sure exactly what happened, if anything, but it's certainly literary and evocative of something.
In "Bottom's Dream" Rachel Wetzsteon gives us a poem based upon Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.Yet again we have elements of transformation, but this time there's also the peril of the fairy realm to the unwitting mortal.
Leroy Quintana's "La Promesa" is unusual in having a clearly present, active narrator who is aware of telling a story to us, the audience. Although the current literary fashion has largely been to make the narrator as faceless and objective as possible, the very present and active narrator who lets us know that this is a story we're being told actually helps to bridge the gap of cultures that might otherwise be difficult for many Anglo readers.
In "Aweary of the Sun" Gregory Feeley takes us to the time of Shakespeare to tell the story of Fletcher, a rival playwright who seeks the aid of a witch to gain the place he regards as rightfully his. But things don't go quite as planned, and he ends up learning a lesson about proper priorities and what's really important in life. I think the fire at the Globe Theater that is key to the resolution is a historical event, but given that I'm not an expert on Elizabethan theatrical history, I wouldn't swear to it.
Jonathan Carroll's "A Wheel in the Desert, the Moon on Some Swings" brings us to the early part of the Twentieth Century to tell the story of a photographer frustrated in his struggle to capture transcendent beauty in his works. And then he meets a man he despises, yet who has the very gift he so desperately seeks.
In "Who Will Love the River God?" Emily Newland takes a new look at the old story of the waterbaby, a creature resembling a misshapen child that might be found in or near a watercourse by a woman who desperately wanted a child. Sometimes they were a sort of judge of the person's suitability to have a real child, and treating them well would result in a real pregnancy, but other times they would instead be monsters that sought to trap their unwitting hosts in a deal they couldn't get out of. In this one, the overlay of modernity makes it more puzzling because I'm never entirely sure whether they were real or merely the delusion of the desperate and somewhat superstitious protagonist.
Joyce Carol Oates is usually thought of primarily as a mainstream author, but in "Brothers" she takes us into a liminal world that may be the result of a young boy's fantasies, but just as easily could be an encounter with another world that lies near our own, but not quite touching. In any case, as our young protagonist grows up and engages more fully with the world of consensual reality, his own private experience of these mysterious others begins to fade away to nothing.
I found Nicholson Baker's "Subsoil" particularly fascinating because of my own agricultural background and interest in historical tractors. Although the beginning piqued my interest for just that reason, the story soon moved into some very dark places as human and vegetable began to intersect and a man moved into those places not of humans in strange and terrible ways. You'll never look at a Mr. Potato-head quite the same way after reading it.
In "Elvis's Bathroom," Pagan Kennedy gives us a new take on the obsession with Elvis Presley, to the point that some people practically deify the man. The idea that belief can have supernatural power, or that divinity can be produced by people's belief, is fairly common in fantasy literature, but I've never seen anything that walks quite a fine line between fantasy, horror, and the metaphorical approaches of slipstream.
Most of us are familiar with the motif of the poisoned apple from Snow White, particularly the Disney version. In "Yet Another Poisoned Apple for the Fairy Princess" A. R. Morlan gives us a darker take on the idea,, bringing it into the contemporary world, reminding us of a time when fairy stories weren't cutesy, but tales of the perils that awaited humans who strayed beyond those realms proper to mortal kind.
From cyberpunk to the new gritty, there's a certain fascination in literature with the ugly underside of society in which forbidden appetites are secretly indulged. In "The Big Game" Nicholas Royle gives us a world no too far in the future where there's a steady market in images of ugly death, to the point that accidents are deliberately set up, often on unwitting and unconsenting victims who have no idea that they're about to die or be horrifically maimed in order to provide entertainment for those who have a combination of fabulous amounts of money and rubber ethics. It's one of those stories that leave you feeling very uncomfortable about humanity by the time you're finished reading it.
Margarita Engle's "Buenaventura and the Fifteen Sisters" gives us the story of an island that may be in the Caribbean or somewhere in those mists of not-quite-history that a certain kind of slipstream loves, since it gives us the verisimilitude of mainstream without pinning us down to an actual place and its history. It makes me think of Sting's song "They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)," although it isn't a simple retelling of the song's lyrics in narrative prose.
Unicorns are one of those fantasy creatures that have been used so much that a lot of editors have taken to warning new writers away from using them. However, that doesn't mean that a truly masterful treatment can't bring a new freshness to the unicorn, as Jane Yolen shows us in "De Natura Unicorni." Literally, the title means "the nature of the unicorn," and hearkens back to the day when Latin was the universal language of scholarship. And she does seem to have captured the mindset of a time not our own, as much another world to rational, scientific moderns as the fairylands.
In "Blue Motel" Ian McDonald brings us back to contemporary America, and specifically the world of cheap motels, the sort of place that once were found up and down the highways of this country. Prosaic places with exteriors sometimes dolled up with various Populuxe features such as soaring tailfin pillars or bands of neon lighting along the rooflines -- yet might there be a certain magic in them, for good or for ill? The magic of the liminal zone that is a place to rest which is not truly one's hearth and home.
David Garnett's "A Friend Indeed" is another contemporary story that takes place along that edge between the real and the not-quite-real. I's one of those that really didn't do much for me, but I could see how someone with a more literary bent to their tastes would enjoy it.
In "Sometimes, in the Rain" Charles Grant takes us to contemporary London for another slipstream story, this time of the death of some of he narrator's friends. The end is sort of a ghost story, but maybe the ghost is just an illusion of memory and regret.
We get more rain in the next story, Michael Marshall Smith's "Rain Falls." And some discussion of violence and gender, and specifically how guys are expected to "take it like a man" when they're knocked around. Again, I'm not really sure where the fantasy or supernatural content is, but there is an element of the evil human beings do to one another.
In "That Old School Tie" Jack Womack gives us a story of characters who become increasingly obsessed with erotic auto-asphyxiation, and particularly using a fetish item to bring oneself to the very edge of blacking out while sexually stimulating oneself. I found it disturbing and not really appealing, but I understand the appeal of edge play and exploring the boundaries of the forbidden.
Scot Bradfield's "Animals Behind Bars!" takes us to the zoo to meet Scaramangus, the exemplary wildebeest. I'm not sure whether he's actually supposed to be a talking animal or it's an elaborate metaphor for the relationship between human and animal, but it certainly makes you think about it.
In "Monuments to the Dead" Kristine Kathryn Rusch tackles one of the uncomfortable legacies of American history, namely, that the Republic is built upon the dispossession of its previous inhabitants of their tribal lands. Of course what goes unsaid is the cultural transformation by which the simple assumption of those ages of the law of winner take all, of the right of the victor to the spoils of conquest, was abandoned in favor of a new system which in theory would be more equitable, except that it ends up creating enormous loads of inherited guilt by which enormous numbers of people effectively become guilty merely by existing, never mind that none of us ask to exist or even are asked whether we want to exist. It's an awkward story in which there really aren't any good guys or bad guys, just the way in which evil echoes through history to poison the lives of people on both sides of a cultural divide for generations to come because trying to rectify the old injustices would create new injustices for present generations.
Ray Bradbury gives us another look at historical guilt in "Unterseebot Doktor," in which the protagonist discovers his psychiatrist's unpleasant past. How should we respond to the presence among us of persons who participated in terrible wrongs in the past, even if they have since put those things behind them and become exemplary members of society?
In "Young Woman in a Garden" Delia Sherman takes us to France in the early years of the Third Republic, to give us a story of a woman painter and her search for beauty in a time when women in the arts were still viewed as suspect at best. And then the supernatural begins to intrude into her exploration of the equally revolutionary and suspect art movement known as Impressionism.
Stephen King is usually known for his novels, and most of them tend to be of doorstop heft, so the very idea of him writing a short story may come as a surprise to some. But in "The Man in the Black Suit" he takes us back to 1914, to the last days of the old era, for a story of small-town youth in a world soon to be destroyed forever by war, and the sinister intrusion of the titular man, who may be a symbol or an actual agent of evil.
Michael Swanwick has a long history of pushing the boundaries of the possible, and in "In the Tradition…" he takes us into the realm of metafiction. It's described as an essay in the table of contents, but there's strong narrative elements in the prose that makes it distinct from the expository prose we usually expect from an essay. Not to mention the ways in which the author directly addresses the reader, which might be twee or annoying in another writer, but hits just the right note in this work.
In "Words Like Pale Stones" Nancy Kress gives us a new take on the Rumplestiltskin story, with a surprising ending. In the end, a mother's love for her child proves stronger than all, but only at a terrible cost.
Jane Yolen appears a second time in these pages with her poem "Mäaut:rchen," which contrasts the work of the brothers Grimm with the poet.
In "Giants in the Earth" Dale Baley gives us a story of ordinary working men and the momentary intrusion of the numinous into their world.
The use of fire is one of the things so distinctly human that many cultures have enshrined its acquisition in myth and legend. Bradley Denton's "A Conflagration Artist" we have the story of a woman obsessed with the fire that ruined her happy life, to the point that she has made it into a ritualistic observance which she reluctantly acts out before an audience in order to earn the necessities of life. And then there is the man who has become obsessed with learning the truth behind the image the public gets.
Carme Riera's "Report" is a story that may be based upon actual historical events, since historical figures are mentioned in it. I'm not sure how much the mention of witchcraft is to be taken metaphorically, or sociologically, and how much is supposed to be an actual interaction with the malign supernatural.
In "the Village of the Mermaids" John Bradley gives us both verse and prose poetry that works together to tell the story of an encounter with the mysterious denizens of the sea. Or maybe not.
A. R. Morlan's "--And the Horses Hiss at Midnight" brings us back to the contemporary world and an encounter with a woman at a carnival, a woman who may be more than she seems.
In "The Entreaty of the Wiideema" Barry Lopez takes us on an anthropological journey to find the last pure hunter-gatherer society left on Earth. But then things begin to go strange as the Wiideema began to speak in English -- not the simple words that someone might pick up through casual association with travelers, but elevated language, complex words that most native speakers don't even use. Perhaps consciousness and information are not the simple mechanistic things we've always assumed them to be, but the true universal penetrating all things and binding them together.
Douglas Clegg's "White Chapel" tells the story of a man whom some regarded as a hero and others viewed as a monster. I don't know whether Nathan Merritt and his atrocities in central and eastern Asia were historical, or if they had anything to do with the historical Jack the Ripper mutilation-murders in the Whitechapel district of Victorian London, but this is a very chilling tale that left me feeling notably uncomfortable about being human.
"The Stone Woman" is Linda Weasel Head's verses of Coyote and a human woman who goes rock-climbing only to find an unexpected reversal of fate.
It is followed by Charles de Lint's "Coyote Stories," in which Coyote by turns fools and is fooled by the modern world. And then there's Albert, who may have been made mad or set free by his encounters with the wild Trickster spirit that exists in a liminal zone between the boundaries of society.
Boxes can hide all sorts of things, but the titular one of Jack Ketchum's "The Box" may well be empty, or perhaps that void is full of all the things we don't want to think about.
In "A Fear of Dead Things" Andrew Klavan gives us a man with a pathological fear of death, to the point where encountering a dead insect can throw him into paroxysm. He's visiting a therapist, trying to overcome his problem -- but could he overcome it too well? Or maybe inflict a mirror disorder on the physician. Again, it's one of those slipstream or psychological horror stories in which we are left with a sense of something off-kilter, but there isn't a clear presence of the supernatural.
Darrell Schweitzer gives us more verse in "He Unwraps Himself." We have references to the great writers of English literature, very evocative for the literati.
In "Chandra" Brian Mooney gives us an Englishman in India at a time when the Raj was battling suttee, the custom by which a virtuous wife would climb upon the funeral pyre of her deceased husband and be immolated with him. He meets a sadhu, a Hindu holy man who claims that by willpower alone he can halt, even reverse, death. This man is accompanied by his mysterious wife who is perpetually shrouded in the burkha, although she claims she is Hindu rather than Muslim. Then the holy man, who claimed to have been centuries old and to have loved many wives, dies suddenly, his will having failed him. Suddenly his mysterious wife Chandra approaches our protagonist with an extraordinary request -- that he assist her in completing her suttee. For she is not what she appears, and the nature of her making is now unravelling with the loss of her husband's extraordinary will.
Harlan Ellison has made his reputation on his offbeat stories, and in "Fever" he does not disappoint. This little flash piece blends the mythical with the mundane in a way that may not work for you, or may give you a Zen-like burst of insight.
In "The Best Things in Life" Lenora Champagne a new take on several old fairy-tale classics of women and their roles in society.
Judith Tarr's "Mending Souls" gives us a cobbler who's brought from his mundane trade to an extraordinary gathering, where he's put to work at a task that may be magic or metaphor.
"The Ocean and All Its Devices" by William Browning Spencer gives us a hotel manager who discovers that the guests he had assumed to be completely unremarkable in fact bear some surprising secrets. When the father drowns unexpectedly, those secrets start coming out into the open in nightmarish ways. And then it begins to unravel his own life.
Kelly Eskridge's "Strings" peers into the secret lives of concert musicians, and how they interact when they're off the stage. Perhaps sometimes some of them become a little too wrapped up in their roles, to the point their identity becomes subsumed by the music.
"Superman's Diary" by B. Brandon Barker is just what it says on the tin. Except in baring his soul, he shows himself as unheroic, even antiheroic -- a postmodern deconstruction of the hero as being "nothing but a sandwich."
M. John Harrison's "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepny in the Spring" is the story of a woman who decides to have a makeover -- but the more she strives for her ideal body, the more it eludes her. It's interesting to see a slipstream treatment of the problem that James H. Schmitz used to kick off the space-opera short story "Company Planet" (which you can read in T'n'T: Telzey and Trigger.
In "The Sisterhood of Night" Steven Millhauser tells a story about a community where the young women are suspected to go out into the woods at night and carry out unknown rituals. It's a fascinating and rather disturbing exploration of both the process of moral panic and of our culture's deep fear of female agency, even when it appears passive, simply because it is something that isn't under our control.
Noy Holland's "Winter Bodies" is a very puzzling little flash piece. I've read it a few times and still don't get it, but maybe it's for people of a more lit'ry bent than myself.
By contrast, "The Sloan Men" by David Nickle is straight-up horror in the tradition of the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies. There's something strange about the Sloan men, something uncanny, even sinister. The matriarch of the family knew it not long after she married the old man, but by that time she was trapped. Even mutilating her own hand couldn't secure herself her freedom. But she's worked in secret all these years, with tiny rebellions fortifying a secret place in her soul, recruiting in secret her daughters-in-law, until it's time to find out just what secrets are hidden up in the attic.. Secrets that may in fact prove the undoing of creatures masquerading as human so as to better prey upon us.
Kevin Roice's "Is That Them?" gives us a dysfunctional family and its ugly little dramas -- but is the source of the interpersonal ugliness in fact their personal flaws, or is it something else, something that has insinuated itself into them and is driving them to these things in order to feed upon the negativity that results?
In "The Kingdom of Cats and Dogs" Geoffrey A. Landis gives us a fairy tale of three daughters sent to make their way in the world. At several points they encounter animals who at first seem threatening, but they're able to convince to spare them, and in the end they are able to draw on the resultant alliances to bring about their happy ending.
Steve Rasnic Tem's "Angel Combs" starts ordinarily enough, with a troubled family and its unhappinesses. But there's something very strange, even unearthly about that comb the protagonist's using -- and in the end it proves to have a rather nasty stinger to it.
The final story, "Snow, Glass, Apples," is Neil Gaiman's take on Snow White, but from the perspective of the wicked queen. Or is she the wicked one? There's something positively eldritch about that girl
However, there's still more -- the last several pages are devoted to Honorable Mentions, a listing of the stories that the editors considered worthy of note but simply could not fit into this year's volume.
In all, this is an excellent compendium, a particularly good resource for the writer who wants to see what a top editor in the field considers to be the best of the best. You may not find all the stories to your taste -- in fact, you probably won't -- but seeing what's being bought and what's being liked may be useful in getting your own career kickstarted.
Table of Contents
- Summation 1994: Fantasy by Terri Windling
- Summation 1994: Horror by Ellen Datlow
- Horror and Fantasy in the Media: 1994 by Edward Bryant
- Comics 1994 by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull
- "Transmutations" by Patricia A. McKillip
- "Bottom's Dream" (poem) by Rachel Welzsteon
- "La Promesa" by Leroy Quintana
- "Aweary of the Sun" by Gregory Feely
- "A Wheel in the Desert, the Moon on Some Swings" by Jonathan Carroll
- "Who will Love the River God?" by Emily Newland
- "Brothers" by Joyce Carol Oates
- "Subsoil" by Nicholson Baker
- "Elvis's Bathroom" by Pagan Kennedy
- "Yet Another Poisoned Apple for the Fairy Princess" by A. R. Morlan
- "The Big Game" by Nicholas Royle
- "Buenavantura and the Fifteen Sisters" by Margarita Engle
- "De Natura Unicorni" by Jane Yolen
- "Blue Motel" by Ian McDonald
- "A Friend Indeed" by David Garnett
- "Something in the Rain" by Charles Grant
- "Rain Falls" by Michael Marshall Smith
- "That Old School Tie" by Jack Womack
- "Animals Behind Bars!" by Scott Bradfield
- "Monuments to the Dead" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
- "Unterseeboot Doktor" by Ray Bradbury
- "Young Woman in a Garden" by Delia Sherman
- "The Man in the Black Suit" by Stephen King
- "In the Tradition..." (essay) by Michael Swanwick
- "Words Like Pale Stones" by Nancy kress
- "Marchen" (poem) by Jane Yolen
- "Giants in the Earth" by Dale Bailey
- "A Conflagration Artist" by Bradley Denton
- "Report" by Carme Riera
- "The Village of the Mermaids" (poem) by John Bradley
- "--And the Horses Hiss at Midnight" by A. R. Morlan
- "The Entreaty of the Wiideema" by Barry Lopez
- "White Chapel" by Douglas Clegg
- "The Stone Woman" (poem) by Linda Weasel Head
- "Coyote Stories" by Charles de Lint
- "The Box" by Jack Ketchum
- "A Fear of Dead Things" by Andrew Klavan
- "He Unwraps Himself" (poem) by Darrell Schweitzer
- "Chandira" by Brian Mooney
- "Fever" by Harlan Ellison
- "The Best Things in Life" by Lenora Champagne
- "Mending Souls" by Judith Tarr
- The Ocean and All Its Devices" by William Browning Spencer
- "Strings" by Kelley Eskridge
- "Superman's Diary" by B. Brandon Barker
- Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring" by M. John Harrison
- "The Sisterhood of Night" by Steven Millhauser
- "Winter Bodies" by Noy Holland
- "The Sloan Men" by David Nickle
- "Is That Them" by Kevin Roice
- "The Kingdom of Cats and Birds" by Geoffrey A. Landis
- "Angel Combs" by Steve Rasnic Tem
- "Snow, Glass, Apples." By Neil Gaiman
- Honorable Mentions: 1994
Review posted June 4, 2012
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