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The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: Volume Three coverReviewing anthologies is always a challenge. There’s a temptation to clutch at potential similarities, trying to make a cohesive whole from a number of different stories and a number of different authors, none of whom actually worked together to create that cohesion. All that can be created is an order imposed from the outside, by editor or reviewer or reader, and sometimes that imposition can cause patterns to be seen when they might not have been there in the first place. Maybe it’s better to make reviewing such a volume an exercise in broad sympathies. When it comes to volume three of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, edited by Paula Guran, I am broadly sympathetic. It’s a compelling anthology, with a lot of appealingly disturbing stories. 

Imposing my own sympathetic order, I choose to talk about endings. 

It’s difficult to talk about story endings without spoiling them unnecessarily, but a number of stories have notable endings in this anthology, and they are notable primarily because they are expected. Now, there are arguments to be made in favour of the expected ending. Tragedies are practically built around it, with tragic characters containing within themselves the seeds of their own destruction; the stories are tragic because we see, in advance, how the characters are the architects of their own inevitable misery. It’s not the final destination, the last element of plot, that’s so compelling; it’s the journey, and you can make your own arguments from there. 

There is a difference, too, between expectation and originality. I don’t know that I actually believe there’s an infinite number of possible endings. Originality is often overrated, and I’d rather have a familiar plot that comes with a particularly interesting use of language, for instance, than I would leaden prose that goes somewhere I don’t expect. Even with all these caveats, however, there are some endings that are plain disappointing. I read them and think, That’s where you’ve gone with this? Really? rather than, Oh, that’s an unexpected use of the trope.

You know the type. It’s the they’ve-been-dead-all-along story, the pass-on-the-dangerous-object story. It’s hard to read them and not think of the elements that were outstanding, and how it all fell down.   

To work with a specific example: there’s a story in here called “Hand-Me-Down” by Seán Padraic Birnie, and for the most part, it’s an excellent story. All credit to Birnie, who creates a truly ambiguous and undermined sanity in his protagonist. Danni, who has recently given birth to baby Sophie, is in the middle of an apparent mental health crisis. Perhaps it’s postnatal depression, or perhaps it’s a fractured, paranoid reality brought on by a chronic lack of sleep, but Danni, who cuts herself off from her family and has almost hallucinatory episodes, is an immensely sympathetic character. What I enjoy most about this very successfully atmospheric story is that sense of unreliable narration: there could be something dodgy going on, or it could be a very ordinary crisis, and for the most part readers can’t discern which it is. Neither can Danni, of course, who spends an increasing amount of time glued to the baby monitor handed down to her by her brother, unsure if what she’s seeing—or not seeing—in wee Sophie’s bedroom is there or not. It’s very, very well done, and then we come to the ending, which is cribbed right out of another very famous horror story, except it’s not a haunted video tape that’s the culprit here. The gifted baby monitor is cursed, and the only way for Danni to save her baby is to pass it on to another family, so that their child can be targeted instead.

Which, incidentally, is what Danni’s brother did. Better Sophie than his own child, after all.

And yes, there’s something horrific about that ruthless repudiation of family ties, but at the time I read it I thought, That’s where you’ve gone with this? Really? There was no follow-up thought from me on any original use of the trope. The perception of derivation had crowded out all else.

I wonder if that’s fair, though. Just because one narrative uses the cursed-hot-potato plot, doesn’t mean to say that all other stories should be banned forever from the same. I do wonder, though, why the exploitation of trope stopped where it did. There were two genuinely horrific elements to “Hand-Me-Down”—the first is the unsettled, ambiguous presentation of new maternity that comprised the bulk of the story, and the second was that last fraternal betrayal. I can’t help but think that if Birnie had to use the cursed-hot-potato plot, then that betrayal might have marked the second part of a much longer story in which the destabilisation of the first half was repeated, in a different form, in the second. How do you come back from a family sacrifice like that? It’s not as if Danni isn’t planning an equal betrayal of her own. There’s so much to mine here that the ending feels somewhat inadequate.

Horror and dark fantasy stories live and die by their endings. It’s the beginnings that draw people in, that make editors sit up and hook readers into offering up their limited attention, but we expect those undercurrents of disturbance to come with a payoff. The somewhat sickening compulsion that keeps us all reading through what are really rather appalling storylines—with elements we might be revolted or terrified by—needs that horrified catharsis. Endings are important in horror. In fact, I’d argue that endings are more important in horror than they are in any other genre. Those endings can be ambiguous. They can be undermined; they can be obvious setups for future stories. What they can’t be is less affecting than what’s come before. 

If I talk a lot about endings in this review, it’s because I think that it’s here where my own taste most differs from Guran’s. The stories that I found least effective in this collection were the ones with endings that didn’t quite stick for me. They were too reminiscent of other stories. They were too abrupt. They seemed to underline the least interesting part of the narrative, or they were generally unsatisfying in some more nebulous way. Let me be clear: many of the stories in this volume had outstanding endings—endings that fully justified their inclusion. I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about one of them here.

The story is “Laughter Among the Trees” by Suzan Palumbo. A family goes camping, and the elder daughter, Ana, is tasked with looking after her little sister Sab. (As an elder sister myself, I sympathise.) Sab is a nuisance. She doesn’t listen, and as the baby of the family she’s also spoilt and knows how to leverage that. As annoying as she is, however, had she been allowed to mature, the sisters might have developed a genuine friendship, rooted perhaps in the shared experience of being the children of immigrant parents, with all the expectations and prejudices that entails. But Sab wanders off, with a friend that Ana doesn’t like, and she never comes back. Her body is never found. Ana isn’t blamed; her parents never know that she failed to keep a close enough eye out. She goes through life trying to mould herself into the future expected for the sister she never much liked. It’s a story of grief and the amputation of the self, as Ana cuts off the parts of herself that aren’t reminiscent enough of Sab, and it’s just exhausting. She’s exhausted, and it doesn’t help that Sab’s disappearance is in some sense hereditary, because her mother, as a child, lost a young cousin in the same way. 

Ana grows up, and her parents die, and she goes back to the campground and searches until she finds her sister’s body. And I found the ending so effective because—and this story is nothing but tragedy—she lies down beside Sab and lets what’s left of her sister kill her. Now, there is a speculative element that’s leaned on relatively heavily throughout “Laughter Among the Trees,” but it’s also possible to maintain an alternate reading. There’s Ana, growing up when Sab could not and desperate to cling on to her sister, to navigate the guilt of looking away, of surviving. Unbalanced by grief, destabilised by the continual cutting away of herself so that the parts of Sab she could recreate with her own life could continue. “Sab, Sab, Sab. I glutted myself on the potential of her unfinished life,” Ana admits (p. 347). She later confesses that “I only allowed Ana to crawl out of the morgue inside me to visit Mom at the retirement home” (p. 358). 

Ana’s been using Sab to kill herself for years, and whether the supernatural or the natural explanation is the correct one, there’s no other way this story could have ended. It’s outstanding in every respect, a terrible, awful, inevitable blow of an ending. Palumbo’s story is, I think, my pick of the collection.

There are some very fine stories collected here, with some very fine endings. Nearly all of them relate to family. If this volume has an overarching theme, it’s family and home. The places we go back to, and the people we expect to find there. In A.C. Wise’s wonderful “The Nag Bride,” Sophie comes home, with her foster brother Andrew, after the deaths of the people who took her in when her own dysfunctional parents failed her. The wretched experience of dementia has twisted a not-entirely-wonderful-to-begin-with mother in Christopher Golden’s “The God Bag.” It’s mothers and daughters and granddaughters in Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Wolfbane,” and the stories of connections, of relations, go on and on.

A particularly interesting variation on the theme can be found in Rebecca Campbell’s “The Bletted Woman,” in which a widow suffering the early stages of dementia—an inheritance from her mother—chooses to transform her life in a way that speaks of wider relations. Judith becomes part of a corpse garden, retaining some sort of sentience as her body decomposes into a wider ecosystem. Her decision to embrace increased connection with some very distant relatives is one based in two very different experiences of biology. The first is the consciousness of wider relationships—for are we not related to the nonhuman as well as the human?—a state which also includes a reimagining of the individual body. Fans of fungal speculative fiction, such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris series, may have come across the concept of the microbiome before, in the transformation of the human body into fungus. We think of ourselves as individuals, but that’s not actually the case. The human body contains more nonhuman than human DNA, and more nonhuman than human cells. (Some of the species we contain within our microbiomes are fungal.) 

Judith, then, is opting for a reconciliation of biological realities, embracing her nonhuman characteristics, and valuing them as she does her human self. She is also, crucially, doing this in a world which is increasingly experiencing sterility, which is the second of the two biological experiences I noted above. I’m not talking about reproductive sterility here, although that is certainly a consequence. I’m talking about a slow microbial apocalypse where “the guts of the global north turned into a monoculture, then a desert” (p. 198). A child is born without a microbiome and, bereft of bacteria, dies within hours. By embracing the potential of a broader family tree, Judith is able to navigate mental deterioration (and a certain amount of body horror) and transform herself into something new, something capable of surviving.

That’s the thing about horror, and about dark fiction in general. These genres offer stories about survival. What happens when you can, and—equally importantly—what happens when you can’t. Both possibilities require transformation, even if it’s only transformation from the living into the dead. Set that transformation within a matrix of existing family or found family relationships, and the need for transformation rubs up against an almost-expectation of inertia. Families expect you to behave in a certain way. Everyone has their roles, and if you destabilise the existing structure by trying to act outside it, by trying to change it (even if that change is only within yourself) … well. That way lies conflict and ambiguity both. This makes for very interesting stories. It makes, I think, for sympathetic stories. The sister you can’t get on with, the disappointing parents. The monsters they become, and the monsters they turn us into.

These are stories that we know, stories that we can recognise. They are stories we are afraid we will be part of, one day … which may explain why anthologies like this one are so popular. They’re not just parlour tricks and peril. They are, fundamentally, preparation. We read them because we’re afraid that, one day, we’ll need them.        

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold close to fifty short stories to various markets, and several novellas, two poetry collections, an essay collection, and a climate fiction novel are also available. She attended Clarion West 2016 and was the Massey University writer-in-residence for 2020.
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25 Sep 2023

People who live in glass houses are surrounded by dirt birds
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In this episode of  Critical Friends , the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, Aisha and Dan talk to critic and poet Catherine Rockwood about how reviewing and criticism feed into creative practice. Also, pirates.
Writing authentic stories may require you to make the same sacrifice. This is not a question of whether or not you are ready to write indigenous literature, but whether you are willing to do so. Whatever your decision, continue to be kind to indigenous writers. Do not ask us why we are not famous or complain about why we are not getting support for our work. There can only be one answer to that: people are too busy to care. At least you care, and that should be enough to keep my culture alive.
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