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Onyx reviews: The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Six, edited by Ellen Datlow

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 05/25/2014

For the last quarter of a century, Ellen Datlow has edited anthologies featuring the best horror stories published in the previous year. The titles of these collections have changed over the years, as has the publisher. For many years, the books featured horror and fantasy, with co-editor Terri Windling handling the latter.

One thing a book like this has going for it—and it's no small thing—is that since Datlow had hundreds, if not thousands, of stories to choose from, there aren't any "clunkers," as one might find in a magazine or a general anthology. These are the crème de la crème, at least in Datlow's opinion.

People only generally familiar with the horror genre aren't likely to recognize the names of most of the authors in this volume. There are no stories from Clive Barker or Stephen King or Peter Straub. The marquee name is Neil Gaiman, whose dreamlike, disturbing entry in the book is among the shortest. The remaining writers publish primarily in the small press. Five of the twenty-three stories (the collection also contains one poem) come from a single source: UK's Black Static magazine. Nearly half of the authors are appearing in one of Datlow's collections for the first time.

Are there vampires? Not in the traditional sense. Zombies? Perhaps. Witches? Of a sort, if you're generous with the definition. Does the devil show up? Most definitely, though not always in a recognizable fashion, and he doesn't always get his due. Ghosts and Gothic haunted houses? Absolutely, but the apparitions don't rattle chains and get up to the usual business one expects of phantom apparitions, and houses can be haunted in myriad ways. There's even a mad scientist, for good measure.

Several stories have no supernatural elements at all. Why would you need them when human nature can be horrific enough? When insanity, obsession, hatred, revenge and bigotry can produce monsters to equal any of those other creatures. When the threat of terrorism is just about the worst thing we can imagine. 

Most of the stories are contemporary, although a few harken back to the distant past, and others are dependent upon incidents from the characters' earlier lives. Most are set in America, Canada or the British Isles, although a couple take place in exotic locales or in strange lands that you won't find on any map (or, in modern parlance, on Google Earth). There is surprisingly little blood and gore, and none of it is exploitive or excessive.

Kim Newman's story "The Only Ending We Have" takes just about every trope from Hitchcock's oeuvre and turns them into a kind of mash-up tribute to the great director, featuring a woman who acts as a stand-in/body double for Janet Leigh in Psycho. "The Good Husband" by Nathan Ballingrud might also call to mind the work of Robert Block by way of Hitchcock. "Apports" by Stephen Bacon is a kind of revenge tale that makes use of a spirit's ability to move things around, to haunting effect, whereas in "Fine in the Fire" by Lee Thomas, a young man learns the truth about his brother's lifelong torment, a family secret that has corrupted their relationship.

Many characters get their comeuppance in the end, but there is also salvation in some of the stories. In "The Tiger" by Nina Allan, a rehabilitated ex-con finds himself on the road to damnation, but finds a way, perhaps, to avoid his seemingly inevitable destination. Steve Toase's veterinarian is meant to become a human sacrifice in "Call Out," but fortunately he has been paying close attention to the legends and stories spun by his elders.

One of the more intriguing stories is Lynda E. Rucker's "The House on Cobb Street," a quasi-epistolary story in the House of Leaves vein or, perhaps, The Blair Witch Project. Rucker uses a variety of narrators to reveal the fate of a woman who may never have existed, or perhaps all memory of her has been expunged by some malign agency. In "That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love," sibling rivalry for a father's affection creates a woman devoid of love, or at least wary of it.

What is really going on with the young woman who has long been her father's caregiver at the end of "Bones of Crow"? Is her encounter with supernatural creatures on the roof of her building intended as a metaphor for her chain-smoking existence? Ray Cluley's tale doesn't surrender its secrets willingly, but it's a disturbing story all the same. And what is the source of the power wielded by the grandchildren in "The Monster Makers" by Steve Rasnic Tem? Tem never explains, but it's a study of the mindless cruelty of children and their potential to wreak havoc. And who is Jane Jakeman's "Majorlena," the mysterious woman who appears at the scene of a deadly ambush in Iraq in the guise of an allied officer?

Simon Clark comes up with a new kind of haunted house in "The Tin House," a story about the long memories of the dead and the need for evil men to confront those they have tormented. The sins of the father do, in fact, fall upon the sons as well. And trespasses of youth, even if accidental or impulsive, can come back to haunt people in later years, as in "The Fox," by Conrad Williams, a story of an ill-advised late autumn camping vacation that uses a sense of building dread and impending doom to good effect.

Simon Strantzas misleads readers into thinking "Stemming the Tide" is a zombie story by applying the term to tourists who lurch around a popular Eastern Canadian tourist destination, but then he yanks out the carpet to reveal that something terrible has happened to the world. What it is, he never explains: what's really important is the states of mind of the two characters who venture out to witness the incoming tide.

Tim Casson ventures back in time to the late 19th century, where a young and beautiful woman is cursed with the responsibility of trying to prove the innocence of the wrongly accused in "The Withering." She inherited a creature from her father that allows her to commune with the dead, but even when she learns the truth, it's not always enough to alter the outcome of "justice."

Love comes in all forms, and so does obsession. The protagonist of "The Anatomist's Mnemonic" by Priya Sharma has an unusual compulsion that leads him on a quest to find the perfect avatar of his desire. When he seems destined to fail, he comes up with an unusual and horrific solution.

In the collection's anchor story, Brian Hodge explores what would happen if the events of an HP Lovecraft story became known to the Department of Homeland Security. "The Same Deep Waters As You" is a sequel to The Shadow Over Innsmouth. In it, a young woman known as "the Animal Whisperer" is enlisted by DHS on a top secret mission to try to communicate with the imprisoned, malformed survivors of the blighted town to find out why they are suddenly acting strangely.  

Not every story will work in the same way for every reader, but such is the delight of the anthology. They can provide an introduction to new authors, especially when an experienced editor has culled through all the material released, sometimes in obscure periodicals, and selected the greatest hits of the year.

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