Book Review: The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror

The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror is an anthology series of — you guessed it — fantasy and horror that St. Martin’s Press has been publishing as thick trade paperbacks since 1988. It is always a very good read and the series consistently gets nominated for genre awards such as the Bram Stoker each year.

Top editor Ellen Datlow always selects the horror stories and poems for the collection; Terri Windling was the fantasy editor for volumes 1-16 but stepped down and was replaced by the dynamic team of Kelly Link and Gavin Grant for recent editions. Grant and Link collaborate on other literary projects such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Small Beer Press. Artist Thomas Canty always does the covers, giving the series a very distinctive look.

For a writer, getting selected to be in the anthology is quite an honor. Even getting onto the “Honorable Mentions” list at the end of each book is something to be pleased about. The “Honorable Mentions” listings are far-reaching, and are a useful reference for anyone seeking out new, good stories to read.

A Review of the 10th Annual Collection

Thomas Canty’s cover for this anthology features a lush illustration of a pensive fairytale princess seated at a woodland banquet table — a table laden with tasty tidbits such as a plate of eyeballs, a dish of infant’s skulls, and the severed head and hand of Prince Charming.

This illustration presents a good metaphor for the entire collection, which as usual is edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling and published by St. Martin’s Press. The forty-odd stories spread out like a vast buffet of painstakingly refined gourmet dishes and exotic sweets (and not a single bit of cheese or corn to be found anywhere). Datlow and Windling have brought out literary treats from publications ranging from The Iowa Review to OMNI to Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex. All the selections in this volume are finely crafted works from talented writers. This is just the sort of book you should drag out if you ever run across a friend, enemy, or relative who sniffs, “Well, horror’s certainly not real literature.”

But will this book be pleasing to your mental palate?

In the end, it’s a matter of personal taste. The emphasis here is on beautiful writing and striking imagery; plot and storytelling are a secondary concern. If you are a regular reader of literary magazines, or if you have enjoyed the fruits of previous Datlow/Windling editing partnerships, then you will no doubt enjoy this collection.

Conversely, if you read fiction because you hunger for good stories, then you may find this to be a mixed bag.

Some stories certainly entralled me from start to finish, such as “The Reason For Not Going To The Ball (A Letter to Cinderella From Her Stepmother),” “The Secret Shih Tan,” “Never Seen By Waking Eyes,” “Crow Girls,” “Walking the Dog,” “The Witches ofJunket,” “…Warmer” and “The Ladies of Grace Adieu.” Some stories are touching and melancholy, others are intense and geniunely disturbing (I admit I couldn’t quite finish “Ursus Triad, Later”, in which an adult Goldilocks is raped by three bears). Regardless of your personal taste, a good portion of these stories are bound to keep your brain churning long after you’ve closed to the book, and in my mind, that’s what good fiction should do.

A few others, mainly the entries from literary magazines and the magic realism pieces, are interesting but ultimately left me cold, because in my Western SF-reading eyes, their plots are just too thin. It seemed to me that Neil Gaiman’s exceedingly raw poem, “Eaten (Scenes From A Moving Picture)” is a much better realized story than some of these. In many cases, I was left wondering, “Why is this fantasy/horror? Why is this even considered a story?”

If you’re a writer, asking yourself (and answering) these sorts of questions are important, both because they help you define your own taste and because they help you learn the mechanics of the modern short story. And, of course, you’ll get a very good feel for what a few of the top editors in the horror/fantasy genre like in a story.

So, if you have any ambitions of selling a story in these genres, you should get this book. If you know a budding fantasy writer over the age of sixteen who hasn’t gotten past Tolkien and Dragonlance books, you should by all means buy them this book (or any of the others in the series), lock them in their house with it, and not let them out ’til they’ve read it. Someday, an editor will want to thank you.

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