The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2007, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant.
This series has long been hailed as vital reading for connoisseurs of short speculative fiction. The 2007 edition, which is the twentieth in the series, headlines Joyce Carol Oates, M. Rickert, and Gene Wolfe, and clocks in at more than 250,000 words (452 pages). I am glad to report I enjoyed most of the stories in this volume and only failed to finish a handful*.
Any time you’re reading a Year’s Best compilation, what you’re really getting is the best according to the series’ editors. In Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror this is doubly so as these collections are published before the annual awards are announced in the summer. In this case we have Datlow, former editor of Omni and Sci Fiction (the late lamented original sci-fi/fantasy webzine hosted at scifi.com; if I ever meet the shiftless corporate boob who cancelled Sci Fiction, it’s on…), and we have Link and Grant, who run Small Beer Press, publishers of the zine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and other stuff. These are excellent editors and true professionals, no doubt about it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t question a few of their choices.
Let’s begin with the inclusion of the Joyce Carol Oates story, ‘Landfill’. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a fine and well-crafted story. Depressing, frightening, and more than a little sad. It’s also not horror or fantasy by any stretch. No element of the fantastic or unexplained, no real genre conventions, not even a sliver of ghostly presence. So what’s this story doing here? Rhetorical question, of course — everyone knows you sell more books if you place a name-writer on the cover — and Ms. Oates is a writer of stature whose resume includes some past fantasy/horror. You also add a little more literary ambiance to your collection including someone like her, though some would tell you literary pretension is the last thing the genre needs. I would tend to agree. The editors wanted to sneak this one in, maybe hook a few cross-over readers, boost some sales. That’s cool, but we’re officially calling them on it. You see, including ‘Landfill’ meant you didn’t take someone else’s actual authentic horror or fantasy story.
And this collection could do with a bit more authenticity. There are plenty of good stories here, but several skirt the line of what the typical reader would consider speculative. Most of the fiction has a contemporary ‘our world’ setting in which something weird happens or there’s just the smallest hint of the fantastic. I would’ve liked a little more fantastic, a little more phantasmagoric, a little more out there… The book also has a few too many ghost stories. Ghost stories are great, but they can also serve as a crutch for the lit-minded writer, which means they sometimes come off as maudlin or wanky.
That said, YBFH 2007 includes some very good fiction. ‘Cup and Table’ by Tim Pratt was my favorite, hands down. It was originally published in the collection, Twenty Epics, and it truly has an epic feel. This is the seminal quest story in broad strokes and concise diction, and it really kicked my ass. I was thinking about this one well after I finished it, wondering what someone like Peter Jackson or Guillermo Del Toro would do with such a tale. I’ll be on the lookout for more from Pratt. Another favorite was ‘A Siege of Cranes’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum, also originally from Twenty Epics. This story, set in a more traditional high fantasy world with witches, djinn, and a peasant hero, also deals with questing. It has the feel of an old fable or legend without being too hoary — a big reason I so enjoyed it. ’31/10′ by Stephen Volk seriously creeped me out. Yes, it’s a contemporary ghost story, wherein a BBC production team revisits the scene of an infamous live show from years past. That show and the ghosts involved seriously messed up a number of participants. Volk’s narrator mixes the dread and disbelief from that past event with the terror or the present situation. Excellent goosebumping horror.
Here are my other favorites:
- ‘Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter’ by Geoff Ryman
- ‘Fourteen Experiments in Postal Delivery’ by John Schoffstall
- ‘The Night Whiskey’ by Jeffrey Ford
- ‘In the House of the Seven Librarians’ by Ellen Klages
- ‘Another Word for Map is Faith’ by Christopher Rowe
- ‘La Fee Verte’ by Delia Sherman
- ‘Father Muerte & the Flesh’ by Lee Battersby
- ‘The Extraordinary Limits of Darkness’ by Simon Clark
- ‘The Good Ones Are Already Taken’ by Ben Fountain
- ‘Femaville 29’ by Paul Di Fillipo
That’s some good reading right there, even if there were a few other stories I didn’t finish*. If you want some return on investment in terms of both time and money, if you like short fiction or are curious about the differences between short fantasy and horror and novels of that genre (and there are considerable differences), you should check out this annual collection. When I get another window into my reading schedule, I’m sure I’ll pick up The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008 and 2009 editions.
*My rule on short fiction: if I don’t like it in the first 1-2 pages, I’m not finishing the story — too much other good writing out there to read.