There has seldom been a more widely read genre anthology than Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and this year's edition should be no exception. The quality of its stories is consistently excellent, in part because Datlow and Windling have cast their nets widely in their search for great short fiction, pulling fantasy and horror tales from a vast variety of sources to tantalize and terrify readers. This volume contains forty-four short stories, eight poems, extensive summations of last year's fantasy and horror, a look at fantasy and horror in last year's media and comic markets, obituaries for the year 2000, a listing of honorable mention stories and poems, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
If I had to choose one word to describe this collection of stories and poems, that word would be "dark." Many of the fantasy pieces in this anthology skirt the line between fantasy and horror with reckless abandon, so much so that were it not for the editor's initials on the introduction to each piece (Terri Windling initials all the fantasy pieces, while Ellen Datlow initials all of the horror pieces) the reader would be left wondering where each story should fit. Ellen Steiber's short story "The Shape of Things" is one of the fantasy stories which defies categorization, telling the tale of a teenager whose best friend foresees her own death. It would be all too easy to see such a story as a horror tale: the friend can tell things about other people, such as when something horrible is about to happen, by seeing the shape inside them. After being right about her visions several times, she finally declares that she sees her own death, which leaves the main character in an understandable quandary: does she believe her rather theatrical friend? Whether she believes her or not, is there something to be done about it? While the story is a fantasy story in the magical realism sense of the word, it certainly doesn't conform to a vision of fantasy involving elves and dwarves and wizards. Other borderline stories include "Greedy Choke Puppy" by Nalo Hopkinson, a dark tale rooted in Caribbean folklore, and "Achilles' Grave" by Ben Pastor, a World War alternative history tale. Both of these are real world stories with darkly fantastic overlays -- overlays that are unsettling, if not frightening. It seems that the real world settings serve to highlight the eeriness of the fantasy elements. While the horror side of the balance is more firmly categorized overall, there are still horror tales, such as "Man on the Ceiling" by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem, which fit just as easily into the misty borderland between horror and dark-fantasy. To my mind, this story fits (like the previously mentioned story "The Shape of Things") as easily into the realm of magical realism as anything, since for me it tells about the magic of what it's like to be a writer, seeing the story inside your own life and telling it, whether it be wonderful or horrible. As the authors themselves say again and again, every word of this story is true.
Part of the intention of the anthology is to put side by side these two often-interconnecting genres, and to show how blurry the boundaries of the genres can be, which the editors do with their usual finesse and intelligence: it is more than likely that this focus on darker fantasy is intentional. This is not to say that all the fantasy in the anthology is dark fantasy. There are several charming tales with a lighter touch, including Charles de Lint's "Granny Weather," an artfully told tale where an artist reaches another world through her dreams, and "Incognito, Inc.", a story by Harlan Ellison which lets us know where all the adventurers get their maps to hidden treasures. Both these stories deal directly with standard genre tools, including otherworldly magic, mysterious shops, and happy (though not necessarily predictable) endings. "Granny Weather" is a Narnia-style escape to another world, where the protagonist has to deal with both the precision of fairy-tale magic and the uncertain qualities of relationships with fairy-tale families. "Incognito, Inc." is a story explaining why a man quits his job when the company for which he works forces him to take a bit of magic and adventure away from the world.
Although some stories in the collection use what I call standard genre tools, high fantasy is completely absent from the anthology. In her summation of the past year's fantasy, Terri Windling comments with relief that high fantasy is finally crawling out from under Tolkien's shadow and making a showing of itself, but clearly this trend, which she notes in the book market, has not made a sufficiently dazzling showing in the short story market. High fantasy's absence heightens one's awareness of the realistic bent of the stories chosen. Most of the fantasy Terri Windling includes in the book is drawn, in fact, from non-genre sources, such as The New Yorker and Colorado Review, or drawn from the adult fairy tale anthology Black Heart, Ivory Bones, which was also edited by Datlow and Windling. At least one of the fantasy tales comes from a collection of ghost stories. Only three of the stories are from the "Big Three" genre magazines, and all three of those stories are from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (The other two big genre magazines are Asimov's Science Fiction, and Realms of Fantasy.) This anthology's fantasy is almost exclusively mythical fantasy, folkloric fantasy, or magical realism. This is not a condemnation, as the stories are superbly written and enjoyable to read, but it is a warning to those who might find the word "fantasy" misleading.
The horror selections, however, seem to come most often from genre rather than non-genre sources. Ellen Datlow pulls many stories from sources such as Horror Garage, as well as from several different ghost story collections. One of the most disturbing tales in the collection is "The Abortionist's Horse (A Nightmare)" by Tanith Lee, one of the stories reprinted from Dark Terrors 5: The Gollancz Book of Horror. It is an eerie tale about a single pregnant woman, moving away from the city to live in a house in a small town because she thinks it will be best for her and her unborn child. As this tale emphasizes, however, one never knows what the future will bring. (I, for one, found that this tale made me very uneasy, as I'm sure the author intended.) Other particularly powerful horror tales in the anthology include "Mr. Dark's Carnival" by Glen Hirshberg, where a college professor finds out just how real Mr. Dark's Carnival is, and "No Story In It" by Ramsey Campbell, where a writer struggles to make the sale, write the story, that will help him take care of his family. The good news is that by the end, the writer does manage to take care of his family. Completely.
This anthology is made to make you think, and made to make you shiver. I have to admit that the only book that has ever made me stay up at nights was Whitley Steiber's Communion, which I never did manage to finish, but these stories occasionally made the bottom drop out of my stomach, made my heart tremble, or made me eagerly anticipate what would happen. This is the gripping kind of horror that makes you fear for your protagonist (if not for yourself), or makes you puzzle over the plot (if not live the plot), or sympathize with the narrator (if not become him): in short, these are stories that engage you, and that is always the best kind of story.
My commentary seems to beg the questions: why is it that the horror stories come from genre sources if the fantasy stories do not? Aren't the genre sources for fantasy as high quality as the horror genre sources? I believe the answer lies not in the quality of various genre publications, as some reviewers have suggested, but rather in the intent of the editors: Terri Windling has said many times that she intends her anthology to be for both genre and mainstream readers. Ellen Datlow seems to echo that opinion. My own opinion is that, thanks to writers like Peter Straub and Stephen King, horror is much more widely accepted than fantasy in the mainstream. Horror is more familiar to many readers than fantasy, and thus it is easier to introduce new readers to horror-tinged fantasy than it is to introduce them to an elf or two. There are more long-standing science fiction and fantasy magazines than there are strict horror magazines because horror can often find a home in the mainstream, which fantasy has a harder time doing. More than this, it is easy to introduce fantasy readers to borderline-mainstream stories than mainstream readers to fantasy, so by flirting with the boundaries between "fantasy/horror/mainstream" this collection gets a far wider readership than it would otherwise boast. Good stories and smart marketing make a great package for any anthology.
Another fine thing about this anthology is that it tries to showcase some of what is arguably the least noticed of all genre work: genre-poetry. The poetry in this issue, being predominantly fantasy, is almost exclusively folkloric, mythic, or fairy tale in nature, including pieces by Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman, and Neil Gaiman. My favorite of this edition's poetry is a set of two interconnected poems from Amy Wack, sketching childhood's magical nighttime visitors, "Tooth-Fairy" and "The Sandman," in a way that is charming, interesting, and original. There's just something about the idea of the Tooth-Fairy sipping her gin with a twist that makes me smile. The poetry is also a bit gentler in tone than the fiction, which makes for a nice counterpoint.
Overall, this anthology is as well-researched and well-collected as any of its predecessors. As I have intimated, fans of horror and dark fantasy will have more to enjoy, but all of the stories are brilliantly written and knowledgeably chosen, reaffirming Datlow and Windling's savvy in the field. Combined with the summations, obituaries, and honorable mentions, this anthology becomes a must have for any fan of the fantasy and horror genres.
Erin Donahoe currently resides in the Hills of Appalachia with a black bundle of cat dander named Sierra. She has had several poems accepted for publication (see her Web site) and plans to Dominate the World by 2003. Erin's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. Visit her Web site for more about her.