The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror
Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
St. Martin's Press, 1993
471 pages

Kathleen Ann Goonan


Edited by
Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

This review originally appeared in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION

A continuum which begins at the outermost reaches of the breakdown of the human soul and ends at the brightest and most hopeful of fantasy tales is spanned in the sixth annual YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.

Horror and Fantasy both draw breath from the premise that reality may differ from the way we usually see it; that beyond or within our world lies another; that there are rules or consequences which may, if we step forward or back a bit, come into focus. Each story in this collection refocuses reality in ways both light and dark, and with the power of each writer's unique vision.

There are two ways to look at this collection. The most rewarding is to take each story individually and examine it on its own merits to see if it succeeds as a story. Most contained herein pass that test admirably.

Yet, attempting to address two such vast fields in one volume is perhaps quixotic. The parameters of horror and fantasy are vast, and vaster still when one approaches the philosophical verge of "all fiction is fantasy" which Windling evokes in her forward. Horror is then a subset of fantasy, a queer little backwater where dark visions fester--the place of no exit, where dilettantes choose to cast their line and see what evil monsters can be pulled forth and examined before they are thrown back, before we can lean back in our comfortable chair with a feeling of relief and greater appreciation for the safety of our own lives.

But the safety of our own lives is actually thin indeed. In a split second we can veer across the border into the truly horrific. At that point, I suspect that the reading of horror would pall for many fans. But perhaps the writing and reading of horror is a cathartic process; the best of horror seems that way to me, and that is simply my own opinion. There is another border here, that which divides cathartism and voyeurism, which is the difference between bravely exploring the dark places of the psyche and coldly writing something decidedly unpleasant for the fun of it, or for the profit. For instance, Christopher Fowler's "On Edge," apparently written after a bad trip to the dentist, might actually be funny if it were possible to bear to read it.

It could be legitimately asked if the fans of fantasy are also the fans of horror. Perhaps philosophically, yes. I like the stories in the collection best which could be said to fall into both camps; they are the best-developed in terms of story and character or in the sense of utter strangeness. "In the Season of the Dressing of the Wells," by John Brunner, involves a pagan sacrifice--dreadful, of course, yet Brunner manages to use the event cathartically for the community in which it occurs and for the reader. There is an inevitability and a rightness about it which is not contrived. "Memories of the Flying Ball Bike Shop," by Gary Gilworth, involves an experience from which there is no exit except absolution. This absolution occurs in the story--the father's guilt at being an innocent adjutant to his young son's death is mitigated. This is guilt as in, if only I had not stopped at the store, this dreadful accident would not have occurred; it is the random guilt which the universe seems to inflict on everyone. The genuine fantasy element, and the protagonist's decision to consciously master and use this magic, make for a satisfying resolution and a solid story.

Perhaps horror is the bravery of the small child examining nightmares straight on. Rather than finding out the menacing shadow which comes and goes on the bedroom ceiling is caused by car headlights, as Annie Dillard did in AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD, fans of horror seem to want to believe that there is a monster in the closet. It is one thing to regard life from the Dillard end of the scale, to coolly examine the numbers or sit in a graveyard all night as do Buddhist monks in order to fully confront the fact of one's own death, insofar as it is possible. It is quite another to personify the unknown with terrible demons with frightful powers as do many religions. Life is easier in a way, and more ordered, when companioned by the belief that one's life is of such significance to some sort of higher being that we might be consigned to some heaven or hell by a wave of their hand. It is much more difficult for many people to believe that no such being exists.

The Hindus have many such satisfying demons, gods, and goddesses. Kali is one such goddess, often depicted as wearing a necklace of skulls. Two stories take the goddess Kali as their subject: "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" by Poppy Z. Brite is a shimmering, exotic setpiece which takes place in a city of living dead, filled with scent, sound, and a casually visible population of living dead. The kick here lies in the evocative setting and in the use of language, for though there is a confrontation with Kali, and perhaps an invitation to join the living dead, the protagonist flees the transformation. "Puja," by D.R. McBride, brings the reader face to face with another manifestation of Kali just outside Schenectady, NY, and the prosaic setting realizes the meeting perfectly, as the protagonist is made to face the reality of a goddess he thought he had left behind.

The human penchant for war is perhaps the greatest horror which exists, and is the subject of two stories. Joe Haldeman's "Graves" is a short story with a stunning, macabre twist. Peter Straub's novella "The Ghost Village" is one of the most mature of the collection. Straub uses the Vietnam setting in a powerfully effective way to deal with the issue of child abuse as well as revenge.

Women, sex, and violent death, both on- and off-stage, are linked in four tales. "Absence of Beast," by Graham Masterton, satisfies the appetite for things Gothic as a young boy and his grandfather find an odd kinship when the boy's mother decides to divorce her husband for another man; it is difficult for the young and old males to cope with this change.

Ed Bryant embeds the horror of his tale "Human Remains" in the image of an almost lifelike Barbie doll tightly wrapped in fishing twine. A writer needs great skill to make the premise--that women might think their brush with a serial killer the high point of their lives--plausible. There is no overt violence here; all is subtle and implied.
"Murder Mysteries," by Sandman creator Neil Gaiman, is even more subtle, but in this quiet, darkly brilliant story, a strange absolution takes place as we learn how death entered the world and what happened when it did.

Lucius Shepard's "A Little Night Music" is masterfully told in First Person Twisted; a critic is overwhelmed when a supernatural jazz band of dead musicians infuses the airwaves with music that's "a meter reading on the state of the soul, of the world." Needless to say, that reading is not good.

Horror of course must, by definition, be disquieting. It is therefore difficult, when examining these four stories to tease free the threads which make them doubly so. Yet it is useful to wonder why it is so easy to group four stories into the camp of "women being brutally punished for their sexuality by men who get away scot-free." Of course, they don't, not really. The grandfather in "Absence of Beast" does not intend to stop with two victims; he is democratic in his insanity. Bryant's story postulates the psychopathic Bundy-like killer as almost a hero in the lives of women who are bound by a meaninglessness which their encounters with him have, briefly, broken. Curiously, Bryant's story is the only one among the four to take seriously the female characters--the victims--in the story. The viewpoint character sees herself on an equal footing with the serial killer, and actually chooses to tryst with him again--a decision set up as life-enhancing by Bryant.

The main character in Gaiman's "Murder Mysteries" is distraught and confused; one might say that he has been punished--Gaiman's other ventures seem to have a strong moral framework which is echoed here. Shepard's critic is too crazed by the music to notice what he's done or at least, and understandably, to actually acknowledge it before the story ends. Besides, the music caused the darkness in his soul to be made concrete, to manifest itself in his life as it has everywhere else; the world, by allowing itself to hear this music composed by the dead (thereby having its "meter reading" reflected by the music), has opened a fateful door, has given permission for the transformation to occur and for nightmarish impulses to find their actual manifestation, wherein the darkness of the subconscious is freed to act.

These stories escape Ellison's "Thick Red Moment" category, almost--the violence at the heart of the stories is not dwelt upon; character development is; for these are all well-written stories, told with a sure hand which guarantees that we will read them. But in terms of the writer taking up these tropes, which Ellison claims in his essay are a backlash against feminism, and the editors including not one such story but several, the inclusion of all of them in one collection magnifies this aspect, and deserves to be remarked upon. There is no question that any of these writers condones this energy; quite the contrary. Shepard makes this point most strongly, and most pointedly--they are simply social commentators, using a thread which runs darkly through today's society. It has been enormously difficult, for instance, to criminalize domestic violence. But surely there are well-written stories in the field which turn this scenario on its head--Elizabeth Hand, for one, has produced several fine ones, and there must be more. If the included stories are a good thing, then why should their violent but well-crafted sisters not be sought and included with the assiduity brought to bear on the converse? In the one story which comes close, Lisa Tuttle's "Replacements," men are relegated to being moping outsiders when women take to symbiotic relationships with creatures which suggest both vampire bats and babies in an interesting exploration of jealousy.

Windling's taste is so catholic and eclectic that one selection, "The Wife of the Blue Stone Emperor," by Sara Gallardo, falls solidly into the realm of poetry. I submit that it is impossible to simply read through it one time and get any satisfaction whatsoever. One is compelled to enter the utterly alien mind of this woman, and live her entire life by deciphering the clues which she drops, because she does not care whether we understand; she is a world and a morality unto herself. It is as deeply satisfying to take a good look at this story as it is to unriddle an obscure poem. Is it horror, is it fantasy? This woman is a party to many deaths, yet there is a heroic quality to her. It does not seem fantastic (though a magical ceremony is hinted to underlie events at one point); it does not seem horrific. It seems more like Greek Tragedy, or Shakespeare. Naturally it would have seemed pretty awful to get on the wrong side of Richard III. But we do not call such tales horror or fantasy. Because of their scope we call them tragedy. Here, it is only the mode of telling which makes the story seem fantastic. The dreamlike Magic Realists who, it could be argued, merely mirror more succinctly the way we actually see things, at some level, could be argued to be fantastic. But that is an uneasy alliance at best, and springs apart if poked at too determinedly.

Several stories have no supernatural elements at all. But their authors deftly focus on the strangeness of human nature and the world. Martin, a middle-aged man living in a home for the mentally impaired, painfully realizes what death is in "The Sluice," by Stephen Gallagher. Ed Gorman also takes a look at the wrenching side of life in "The Ugly File," wherein a photographer has taken on a well-paid mission to help a wealthy woman cope with pain.

Some of the stories place revelations before the reader like gifts. "Tinker," another story with no supernatural elements, does so beautifully, showing one man's response to oppression when the men on a Depression-era farm resent and fear the women's relationship with a traveling tinker who is able to repair more than pots. "The Second Bakery Attack" by Haruki Marukami is a quirky, unconventional love story wherein a newlywed couple holds up an all-night McDonalds in Tokyo and demands only thirty Big Macs. "Origami Mountain" by Nancy Farmer is wry and funny; a Japanese businessman embodying all the negative stereotypes of that class mysteriously vanishes in Origami Park, where a bit of land too small to be on the map unfolds into a new country. "Queequeg," by Craig Curtis, out-and-out fantasy, also explores the downside of corporate life in a story first published in THE CHICAGO REVIEW.

These are stories which hold their own in the mainstream venue, and no one there looks at them askance and demands that they return to their home in the fantasy world. Why? Because their authors are good writers, which mean that they illuminate life in a fresh and welcome fashion via style and skill. Why did Windling include them? That is a greater question. To broaden the horizons of her readers? To show them something that they might possibly have missed? Personally, I appreciate having read her selections, and having them in one volume. But is the field of fantasy so paltry, its boundaries so narrow, that she needs to fling her net this widely? That may, in fact, be a part of the truth.

There are several fine stories which bear the unmistakable stamp of fantasy. In Charles De Lint's "The Bone Woman," the unrealized possibilities of those broken by life exist, for a time. "On Death and the Deuce," by Rick Bowes, a story which impressed me on first reading in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, is about personal realization as well, this time that of an alcoholic struggling to recover who must meet his doppleganger in order to do so. Tom, in Robert Silverberg's "It Comes and It Goes," is also chemically dependent, but on freeing himself from drugs finds he has swapped one dependency for another, ultimately more compelling dependency.

The pagan underpinnings of British sensibilities are used beautifully by M. John Harrison in "Anima." Harrison takes the reader on a breathless and well-rewarded chase for the mystery at the heart of exasperating, fascinating Choe Ashton. Ashton is a larger-than-life seemingly jaded soul who jumps off a building for kicks and habitually drives like a demon: "He abandoned the motorway and urged the RS into the curving back roads of the White Peak, redlining the rev counter between gear changes, braking only when the bend filled the windscreen with black and white chevrons, pirouetting out along some undrawn line between will and physics." We are in the car, too exhilarated to be frightened, as we ought to be, and that mesmerizing excitement is heart of the attraction Ashton holds for the narrator. The narrator's eventual realization of what lies at the core of Ashton's desperation makes for an illumination which is strong, transformational, and which lingers. This is a very fine story.

There is much here for the fan of traditional fantasy. Emma Bull's "Silver or Gold," which opens the anthology, is a heroic quest in which Moon Very Thin, young assistant to the village witch, goes to the underworld and meets death in order to save the prince of the kingdom and gain womanhood. "The Homunculus: A Novel in One Chapter," by Reginald McKnight, is a funny commentary on what happens, allegorically speaking, to writers who get too wrapped up in their own importance.

Magic Realism puts in several other appearances. "The Annunciation," by Cristina Peri Rossi, begins enigmatically, but by the end we are all too aware of what is really happening as a young boy meets and worships the Virgin Mary at the sea's edge. "Swimming Lesson," by Charlotte Watson Sherman, is an American folktale which draws on African roots. "Bats," by Diane de Avalle-Arce, is Mexican, the story of a shoe-shine boy who gains the vision and resolve to change his life after an encounter which shatters his old worldview.

The collection is rounded out by the inclusion of three stories in a mythic mode. "Candles on the Pond," by Sue Ellen Sloca, brings legend and reality together as the main character, a girl in a remote village which is occasionally visited by anthropologists, matures. Brian Aldiss' "Ratbird" is, as Mr. White Face, a character in the story, appropriately points out, a kind of Mobius strip. And Gene Wolfe's "The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun" is a fable about an endearing monkey who trades places with a sailor on a whaling ship and goes on to greater things.

Harlan Ellison's "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" is a quite wonderful story, in the true sense of the word. The "unlimited person living in a limited world" is asked by the boy Orhon why he wears such a heavy coat on a warm day. He replies, "Because I need a safe place to keep the limited world." And he opens his coat to reveal this:

Pinned to the fabric, each with the face of the planet, were a million and more timepieces, each one the Earth at a different moment, and all of them purring erratically like dozing sphinxes. And Orhon stood there, in the heat, for quite a long while, and listened to the ticking of the limited world."

Despite the high caliber of stories as stories, there are drawbacks to the book taken as a whole. The collection is strong because it does not draw only from genre sources, but from literary magazines such as CHICAGO REVIEW and GLIMMER TRAIN; there is even one very affecting story, "Elfhouses" by Midori Snydor, from MOTHERING. The editors have seemingly read mountains of stories to winnow out these fifty-four pieces. The Summations--Fantasy by Terri Windling, Horror by Ellen Datlow, and Horror and Fantasy in the Media by Ed Bryant--give a detailed overview of the field as a whole.

Windling in her introduction claims a vast amount of territory for fantasy, as well she should. And if there is a fault with the fantasy selections, it may be that they are oddly retro, given the omnivorous sifting which has gone into the selection coupled with the promise of Windling's impressively wide readings. A large percentage of these stories remind me of childhood fantasy readings in THROUGH FAIRY HALLS, one of the Bookhouse tomes, or Andrew Lang's colored fairy tale series--all well and good, but based on my reading, admittedly but a fraction of Windling's, such tales do not form the bulk of the fantasy field at the present time. However, several of the overt fairy tales have one interesting postmodern quirk: often, the characters are aware of the constraints of the form in which they live. For instance, the princess in "The Story of the Eldest Princess" by A.S. Byatt refuses to progress through the stages laid out for her by the constraints of the tale's form, and so comes to greater truth.

Still, though the large number of myths and fairy tales are all well-written and just as uplifting as Windling in her forward advised us to find them, interspersed between the horror they often serve as palate-clearers, a space where I knew that nothing wrenching would happen, where I could relax and be entertained. They are light and bright. But too often I do not fear for the characters in these stories as I ought, to be engaged; the track is too well-worn; in fact, due to their very nature, they are not real characters; although they are trying hard to become more real, more individual, they still cling to their archetypal roots. A few less examples might have better sufficed, to make room for more of the fantasy which has struck a deep chord with many readers, or could--stories of the caliber and depth of "Anima," "Memories of the Flying Ball Bike Shop," "On Death and the Deuce," and "In the Season of the Dressing of the Wells."

In fantasy and in horror the world we know is stretched out of shape, sometimes radically, sometimes more subtly. When at its best, the genre steps into our world with such power that we fear or happily anticipate the possibility that these thresholds may truly exist. If such visions linger for only moments afterward, coloring a conversation or event, then our take on reality has widened a bit and the author has done his or her job well.

Despite minor quibbles, THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR is filled with such moments.

The End

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