Ellen Datlow has been called the “venerable queen of horror anthologies” by the paper of record itself, and the 22 stories within the twelfth volume of her annual Best Horror of the Year anthology cement her status as royalty in the genre.
This year’s anthology features well-established writers such as Gemma Files, Joe R. Lansdale, and Paul Tremblay, as well as up-and-coming writers like Sarah Read (side note: if you haven’t read The Bone Weaver’s Orchard, you should pick that up right after reading this anthology). There are tales in this collection for lovers of the supernatural, the gory, the quiet and chilling, as well as stories with a dark bent to them that will haunt you long after you’ve turned the page. Every single story is exquisitely written, and it’s clear why Datlow chose the stories she did, even if you aren’t a fan of a particular subgenre.
My favorite entry in this year’s volume is “The Puppet Motel” by Gemma Files. This creepy tale of a sinister AirBnB is supernaturally scientific. A young woman, Loren, is charged with acting as a maid for condos rented out by her boyfriend’s friend, but one emits a strange sound and seems to prompt even stranger behavior from its occupants. When Loren needs a place to crash, she’s forced into staying at the condo, which ends up having a conversation with her phone, driving her to flee. The use of sound as a horror device in this story is spectacular, and the protagonist’s attempt to explain the unexplainable is divine. Though the ending is ambiguous and lacks closure in the traditional sense, it’s the perfect way to wrap up this warning-as-story. Files manipulates readers adeptly, forcing us to fill in the blanks with the things we find most horrific. I can’t help but imagine this story as a podcast episode–sound as a character, nay, an antagonist, in “The Puppet Motel” would be incredibly terrifying told through in an auditory medium.
Readers seeking a unique, character-driven story will enjoy Robert Sherman’s “I Say (I Say, I Say).” Opening as a joke that we soon realize is the premise of the story, this quiet piece of horror is more unsettling than scary. In it, we follow the lives of three men: an Irishman, a Scotsman, and an Englishman, and their work performing skits. The punchlines of their skits provide comic relief to juxtapose the horror of their situation, leading us to a tragic ending that is both beautiful and haunting. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Both the premise of the story and the way it’s told fit the tale perfectly, though it was a bit disorienting for the first few paragraphs. But don’t let the fact that the story takes some time to settle in deter you–this one is well worth your time and will stay with you long after you’ve finished it. In fact, if you’re like me, this is one you’ll re-read and you’ll find that it’s even better the second time around.
“The Pain Eater’s Daughter” by Laura Mauro is equally tragic. The circumstances of the story made it a difficult one for me to read, as it hit a bit close to home. A daughter watches her grandfather and then her father die of a mysterious illness she eventually learns comes from their work as pain eaters. While they ease the suffering of others, they can’t help but take in some of that darkness, which eventually infects them and takes their lives in a horrific way. As someone who watched their own father die, I almost couldn’t read this one, but I’m so glad I did. Through the tragedy, there is strength and that toughness comes from the daughter’s knowledge of her family’s history and the thankless role they play in helping others. Tales of suffering can be difficult for those of us who’ve experienced it first-hand, but Mauro handles it in such a way that though that anguish makes us uncomfortable, sad, or angry (or all three at once), there is so much dignity in it that we can’t help but take on some of the strength she’s imbued in the main character. And, of course, bonus points for rare Romani representation that’s both thoughtful and accurate.
I would be remiss to not mention “The Senior Girls Bayonet Drill Team” by Joe R. Lansdale. It’s not surprising that this story by Lansdale, a veteran of the horror genre, is one of my favorites. It’s reminiscent of “The Hunger Games” while also managing to be completely original in its own right. In “The Senior Girls Bayonet Drill Team,” high school girls fight to the death, and the main character’s team is shaken after the loss of their captain during the previous game. But rather than being a story about the game itself, it’s actually a tale of a broken team trying to find a way to be whole again.
The most exquisitely written piece in this book is Gordon B. White’s “Birds of Passage.” Though the plot of the story is excellent all on its own, it’s the prose that elevates this to a story that readers will enjoy again and again and writers will study to improve their own craft. When a boy and his father go on a camping trip and witness something strange in the woods, the boy must flee, leaving his father behind. But when his father returns mere hours later, he looks as though he’s been gone for days, if not weeks. If you’re looking for a tale of suspense, this is one you’ll want to be sure to read.
Every single story in this anthology is worth a read and it’s a shame that I can’t tell you about every single one of them, but I don’t want to rob you of the experience of going in blind. Other favorites include “The Night Nurse” by Sarah Langan, “Haunted House Tour: 1 Per Person” by Paul Tremblay, and “As Dark As Hunger” by S. Qiouyi Lu. Each of these bits of horror will also stay with you long after you’ve finished them. This entire collection is memorable, and a testament to how much talent exists in the horror genre today. Though I haven’t read every “Best Horror of the Year” volume, this is the best one I’ve read to date. Datlow did an excellent job selecting these stories, but she could not have pulled together such a perfect collection if there hadn’t been so many great dark tales to choose from. This anthology proves that we are in a golden age of horror, and I can’t wait to see what next year’s “Best Horror” has in store.