Best Horror of the Year: All the rest.

Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow
Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow

-At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow

-Mr. Pigsny by Reggie Oliver

–City of the Dog by John Langan

-Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Doors by Brian Hodge

-Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge

–When the Zombies Win by Karina Summer-Smith


–30– by Laird Barron

–Fallen Boys by Mark Morris
–Was She Wicked? Was She Good? by M. Rickert

The Fear by Richard Harland

Harland’s The Fear is another of my favorites from this collection. It borrows elements of traditional horror fiction and utilizes the current “found footage” motif to craft a taught story. An Australian fan club of Australian horror director Lucas Roe uncovers footage of an unfinished early film and decides to find out more about as a summer project. What they find out isn’t quite what they expect and is slightly more than they bargained for. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of The Fear is how easily Harland manages to convey a sense of the fictional film that is so central to the story. Partly this is a result of found footage films that have cropped up over the last few years and part of it is how perfectly he captures the rapt attention and voracious zeal with which his characters take to the film. That immediate attraction to a film, that sense of wonder and terror and elation that a good horror movie evokes is difficult to evoke at the best of times and Harland’s ability to so readily capture the emotional high of that experience helps sell the story. The Fear is a story about the journey, it never explains anything in detail and is not cheapened by that fact. A story that is the very definition of chilling The Fear has a well-deserved place in this anthology.

Til the Morning Comes by Stephen Graham Jones

Jones’ story is yet another that features children front and center. Something about this story didn’t quite feel right for me. It is ambiguous in a sense, but that isn’t something that usually bothers me with horror. Perhaps I’m just not sure where the threat is coming from in the story. I will say that the way that threat is introduced accurately captures the contagious nature of fear in children. How one small thing can so radically and completely change the way the world looks particularly when you are young and conveys how that shift in perception can persist even into adulthood. An interesting and well told story that worked for me on some levels.

Shomer by Glen Hirshberg

The title of the story refers to the Jewish bereavement custom in which a deceased body not immediately buried must be watched over by a relative. Hirshberg’s story is a mediation on grief and life and love. The horror has less to do with the supernatural elements that occur but rather deal more with the emotions and relationships between the living and the deceased. This was an interesting story with only light touches of horror.

Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside by Christopher Fowler

Another story with children at the forefront (perhaps the most frightening monsters of all: teenagers) Fowler’s crafts a very strong setting. He deftly sketches a dilapidated and failing seaside resort town within a scant few pages. It is a place that seems to have a sort of strange magnetism; drawing people to itself and unwilling to let them go. Much like in Til the Morning Comes there is a sort of regrettable ambiguity here that left me feeling somewhat confused by the stories conclusion. This is an entertaining story buoyed by its strong sense of place and some creepy characters but with a twist ending that comes bizarrely out of nowhere.

The Obscure Bird by Nicholas Royle

This is one of the more fascinating and original stories. Indeed I had no idea how it was going to end at all. I don’t want to spoil things too much and Royle does an excellent job at providing slight misdirection in order to keep readers guess as to what comes next. Once the climax hit (we’re talking paragraphs from where the story ends) I was pretty sure I knew where things were going but that foreknowledge did little to lessen the sick twist at the story’s end.

Transfiguration by Richard Christian Matheson

I’m a big fan of arctic settings in horror fiction so I was all in the minute I started reading Transfiguration. The protagonist is a Ice Trucker and I was pleasantly surprised to realize this might be the only time I’ve seen that profession employed in fiction. Matheson does an excellent job a blending reality and delusion. He carefully obscures the truth given the isolation and tension the protagonist faces. The protagonist’s belief is so strong that it is difficult not to believe as well and even as the truth behind his actions is revealed you are still left wondering, at least a tiny part of me was, what was true and was delusion.

The Days of Flaming Motorcycles by Catherynne M. Valente

While there has been a seeming overabundance of zombie stories of late Catherynne M. Valente manages to provide a rather unique take on the walking dead. Much like Stephen King’s work in Cell or George Romero’s in Land of the Dead Valente’s story involves undead whose behavior falls outside the expectations of the reader defying the conventional zombie mythology we have all come to know. The horror here isn’t so much what has already happened but rather the mystery of what is to come. Valente’s variation on zombies feels less forced than either Romero or King. The organic feel of these new zombies is primarily a result of Valente’s ability to create a strong connection between our narrator, her environment, and what remains of her father. The Days of Flaming Motorcycles evidences a palpable sense of sadness and an overarching sense of unease that makes up for any outright terror.

The Folding Man by Joe R. Landsdale

The Folding Man is pure horror pulp at its best. A couple of kids joy riding around Halloween engage in some tomfoolery only be pursued by a horrific monster. Landsdale easily riffs on a familiar trope borrowed from countless horror films of the 70s and 80s. Its twisted monsters and anything goes flare recalled films like Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. Like that film its off-the-wall crazy is firmly contained within a vaguely outlined setting hinting at a preconceived mythology just beneath the surface. Landsdale easily crafts a strong sense of place and history amongst his characters. While not necessarily new there is a certain comfort in the familiarity of The Folding Man and fans of horror and short fiction can find little to dislike in its near perfect structure and pacing.

Just Another Desert Night with Blood by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.

I should probably read this story again. Its crafted somewhere between poetry and prose and I’m not ashamed to admit that it may have gone straight over my head. It certainly is unique amongst the stories in this collection.

A Black and White Sky by Tanith Lee

A Black and White Sky is an expertly crafted though ultimately disappointing story that will draw many comparisons to Hitchock’s The Birds. While an unceasing exodus of birds is an unsettling notion I still found it rather difficult really get into as a primary focus for the story. Lee crafts a well drawn slice of British country town but the firm setting locale doesn’t quite pay off in terms of atmosphere and chills.

At Night, When the Demons Come by Ray Clulely

Another post-apocalyptic story about a world overrun by demons that plays nicely alongside the earlier Lesser Demons. Cluley’s story has the benefit of allowing for a deeper reading that can be looked at as dealing with the repression of femininity or female sexuality. It can also be read as a simply an interesting take on a post-apocalyptic story. At Night, When the Demons Come really did little for me in terms of atmosphere focusing more on crafting a surprising human tale of horror instead of crafting a sense of outright dread a fear. An interesting story but not up to some of the best in this collection.

The Revel by John Langan

Another story with a somewhat experimental structure. To be honest I wasn’t really a fan. It feels more like an exercise in horror writing than actual horror story. It does manage to encapsulate the elements of horror fiction and film fairly accurately. Burried beneath the obtuse structure of the story is a familiar story with characters that manage to feel interesting even if the way their perspectives are introduced is a bit odd. I do wonder if the story, if told straight, would have been more interesting. This meta-fictional story feels very out of place in this collection.

Best Horror of the Year: Fallen Boys and Was She Wicked….

Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow
Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow

-At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow

-Mr. Pigsny by Reggie Oliver

City of the Dog by John Langan

-Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Doors by Brian Hodge

-Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge

When the Zombies Win by Karina Summer-Smith


–30– by Laird Barron

Fallen Boys by Mark Morris

I won’t lie I have a think about mines and basically anything underground.  Day to day I am not a claustrophobic person.  Not at all.  But something about all that stone above, the complete and utter dark just absolutely terrifies me on a deep level.  Fallen Boys (note the child centric story again) taps into that fear a little bit by using a field trip to an old mine to tell a ghost story.  It isn’t a perfect story and I wish it had taken advantage of its setting a little better.  As it stands the supernatural/horrific elements of the story are bit too strongly telegraphed for my taste.  You see them coming from miles away thus robbing the story of some of its potential power.  Again, this isn’t a bad story but one that doesn’t quite utilize its elements to completely tap into the fear centers of my psyche.

Was She Wicked? Was She Good? by M. Rickert

Here we have another child-centric story and a pretty wicked one at that.  Faeries don’t always (I might be willing to say never) have a place in horror fiction but Rickert manages a unique twist on the fae that is chilling.  Rickert establishes a strong implied backstory the helps lend a certain emotional weight to the story.  The parents of the child in the story have obviously been through the same song and dance more than once and by starting in the middle Rickert is better able to craft an engaging conflict between husband and wife as well as parent and child.  As I mentioned there seems to be some sort of implied childhood trauma that prompts the child to act out the way she does (the she of the title) and the story is in a way a rather twisted take on loss of childhood.  It is an exaggerated metaphor for growing up that seems to highlight the terrible fact of how we lose our innocence while simultaneously taking a dark look about how the innocence can be just as horrific.  An excellent entry and one of the best in this volume.

Best Horror of the Year: When the Zombies Win and –30–

Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow
Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow

-At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow

-Mr. Pigsny by Reggie Oliver

City of the Dog by John Langan

-Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Doors by Brian Hodge

-Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge

When the Zombies Win by Karina Summer-Smith

I’m only going to spare this story the barest of space.  It isn’t scary in the least.  It is certainly fun and amusing but there is a tongue-in-cheek cuteness that makes me question its placement in this anthology.  A weird choice that is thankfully short.  It reminded me of the story about Santa Claus from Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors.

–30– by Laird Barron

I’ve had experience with Laird Barron’s work and am particularly fond of his Old Virginia from The Imago Sequence and Other Stories.  –30– is a lengthy story that combines a lot of interesting elements that work well together just about as often as they don’t work together at all.  The story takes place at an isolated research post in the middle of a former farm community now reclaimed by the wilderness.  What they are researching involves the area’s coyotes but hints of the area’s dark past and the ominous information gleaned about the group funding the  outpost call the true designs of the station into question.  There is a bit of a Lord of the Flies element here as well and the isolation and monotony of the two researchers begins to eat away at their sanity.  Or does it?  –30– manages to walk that fine line between outright supernatural presence and more mundane explanations.  Barron combines strong elements of psychological and emotional tension with classic horror tropes (something knocking on the door in the night, brief glimpse of something on a recorded video, etc) to heighten the tension.  The story sort of disintegrates at the end, I expect deliberately, and while there are certainly lingering questions when all is said and done the story is still satisfying.

Best Horror of the Year: Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge

Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow
Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow

-At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow

-Mr. Pigsny by Reggie Oliver

City of the Dog by John Langan

-Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Doors by Brian Hodge

Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge

Norman Partirdge’s Lesser Demons is sort of an action/horror hybrid wherein a small-town sheriff fights a lonely battle against demon hordes at the end of the world.  It is an undeniably cool setup even if it isn’t the most original of ideas.  Whether it was Matheson’s I Am Legend or the opening of The Walking Dead the notion of one man versus the monstrous hordes is something that has been seen before.

The story focuses not on fixing the problem but rather on surviving the situation as it stands.  Our hero is willing to sacrifice much of himself and his humanity to keep on living.  Partridge does an excellent job of setting an atmosphere of lonely isolation.  The scene where the Sheriff, sitting alone at the end of the dock eating a can of beans as the sun sets because he isn’t ready to face the blood of his deputy still on the walls of the cabin is incredibly evocative and rife with a mingled sadness that belies the Sheriff previously evidenced grim determination.

Truth be told I think that Lesser Demons is the first story in this collection suffer because of its length.  It is an encapsulation of a lengthy event that never really manages to completely sell its premise.  Events happen quickly and while the deputy and his slow slide into madness plays an important role of the plot there isn’t enough to time to establish a relationship between the Sheriff and his co-worker.  Without that emotional bond between the two character readily apparent the whole story comes off with a rather disturbing detached feeling.  I suppose that could be what Partridge is going for but it doesn’t quite work for me as a reader.  I really love the twisted menagerie of monsters that pepper the story and would love to see more of the apocalypse that unfolded in the story.  A solid entry that comes a bit close to being a disappointment but the inventiveness of the story and solidly constructed setting manage to keep this one above the mark.

Best Horror of the Year: Just Outside Our Windows…. by Brian Hodge

Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow
Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow

-At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow

-Mr. Pigsny by Reggie Oliver

City of the Dog by John Langan

Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Doors by Brian Hodge

Horror fiction has often had a fascinating relationship with children.  Maybe it’s just me but I always feel that a lot of horror features children in a central role.  Novels like Stephen King’s It, Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night, Dougless Clegg’s Neverland, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, and Richard Laymon’s Traveling Vampire Show all use children as our heroes.  It is always a fascinating to see the juxtaposition of childhood innocence with unflinching horror.  Hodges story is subtle in its exploration of that juxtaposition.  He uses several careful layers in the story’s opening to obscure where the horrific elements are coming from.

Similar in vein to Let the Right One In, Hodge’s story is at its heart a story about the friendship between two outcasts.  One of which is a product of human monsters and the other just part monster.  It is sad and chilling at the same time.  Hodge’s opening lines for the story set the tone wonderfully setting us on the path to horror when our narrator states “…once the bloom is off the earliest years of childhood, we stand revealed as something our parents are mortified to have created.”

Best Horror of the Year: City of the Dog by John Langan

Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow
Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow

-At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow

-Mr. Pigsny by Reggie Oliver

City of the Dog by John Langan

City of the Dog represents a marked improvement over the previous story though I still thought it wasn’t quite what I was looking for in horror.   City of the Dog opens with a young couple on their way to a night out on the town when a chance encounter with what appears to be an injured stray dog shatters their lives. Langan does an adequate job in imbuing his characters with a sense of history.  Their problems feel real and constantly on the verge of bubbling over into something ugly.

It might be argued that the horrific events that unfold over the course of the story are manifestation and commentary on the anger and resentment that is left simmering beneath surface.  The tension between the characters is the most real aspect of the story and I felt that this aspect, welcome though it may be, left little room for the other elements of the story to really shine.  I never had a real sense of place for the story and the atmosphere while fraught with tension lacked the cloying sense of anxiety and darkness that I really look for in horror.

City of the Dog is an entertaining story that injects the threat of the supernatural into the already dangerous waters of a troubled relationship.

Best Horror of the Year: Mr. Pigsny by Reggie Oliver

Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow
Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow

-At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow

Mr. Pigsny by Reggie Oliver

This was a rather interesting story one part Goodfellas and one part Faust.  A Cambridge professor takes his two nephews to the funeral of their gangster uncle.  There he meets the mysterious Mr. Pigsny (who in my imagination looked an awful lot like Pip the Troll) who reveals a strange photograph of the deceased capering in a bizarre landscape.  From there our erstwhile professor has several run ins with the titular Mr. Pigsny and some increasingly supernatural events occur.

Truth be told this story didn’t really do much for me.  Structurally it’s sound and the premise is interesting but the disparate elements never really came together  into a cohesive whole.  The entire story lacks any kind of threat, whether physical or mental, lending the story a (perhaps appropriate) academic feel.  The language itself definitely feels like something a Cambridge professor would use.  While Mr. Pigsny is certainly a sinister figure he doesn’t really seem to do much.  I couldn’t help put imagine the Professor shrugging at the end of the story and moving on with his life as if nothing happened.  As far as I can see there was no meaningful impact on the main character’s life.  Mr. Pigsny is a far cry from the quality of the previous story.

Best Horror of the Year: At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow

Given that this month has been a bit crazy I’m trying to stick with a short fiction for a bit.  As a result the remainder of this week, and likely next, will feature commentaries on the stories in The Best Horror of the Year (Volume 3) and maybe a bit of Supernatural Noir.   I’m always bad at reading short stories (which I’ve said time and time again) so this is one of my few attempts to really buckle down with some short fiction.which, after a lengthy introduction, begins with Cody Goodfellow’s At the Riding School. 

Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow
Best Horror of the Year Volume 3 edited by Ellen Datlow

At the Riding School by Cody Goodfellow

Awakened by a late night phone call a veterinarian is called in to a local private boarding/riding school to deal with an emergency.  She has dealt with emergencies there before, off the books, as it seems that the headmistress has some sort of dirt on her.  Goodfellow does a wondrous job at casting an air of anticipatory dread. Goodfellow has our lead lay out the fairly mundane details behind the history of the riding school and its headmistress in a fairly straightforward manner.   As stranger and more troubling elements are slowly introduced into the story that sense of foreboding coils like a spring in your gut.

That is one of the best and most enjoyable aspects of horror, though it seems weird to say so, the expectation of dread and the foreknowledge that something terrible lies just around the corner is what pulls you forward while simultaneously urging you to stop reading.  The tension between those two elements (I’m sure it has a German name or something) is one of those things that I look forward to most in horror and the element whose absence I always find the most distressing.  Thankfully, Goodfellow’s story is one of the best examples I’ve seen in handling that dawning sense of horror.  However, I also found that the inevitable payoff did not quite match the exquisite nature of the journey.  That isn’t so much a comment on Goodfellow’s talent as it is the nature of horror itself.  Revelation and truth have always been, in my eyes, the enemy of horror fiction everywhere.

Short Fiction Review: The Crawling Sky

The Crawling Sky by Joe R. Lansdale

Subterranean Press Magazine, Spring 2011 (free here)

…And let me tell you, he is not the God of Jesus, he is the God of David, and the angry city killers and man killers and animal killers of the Old Testament. He is constantly jealous and angry and if there is any plan to all this, I have yet to see it.

This was the line that really sold me on Joe R. Lansdale’s recent piece of fiction for Subterranean Press Magazine. Reverend Mercer, the character speaking the above line, is sort of like a frontier version of a more ornery Solomon Kane. Not quite the right bastard that is John Constantine but definitely not the most agreeable of individuals. In The Crawling Sky Reverend Mercer arrives in the tiny Texas town known by the appropriate name of Wood Tick. Wood Tick is not the happiest places and the most honest and forthright individual there is the man they have chained up in their jail.

An entertaining adventure story The Crawling Sky scratches my itch for “weird west” fiction in an imminently satisfying way. The story’s largest problem is an overly long section of expository dialogue, but Landsdale infuses the conversation with some subtle use of dialect and an infusion of humorous asides from the titular character that renders this problem almost entirely forgivable. Lansdale’s descriptions of Wood Tick and its denizens, along with gems of dialogue like the following:

“No. I am good. I will take the horse meat, long as I can watch you fry it.”

“All right. I’m just about through whittling.”

“Are you making something?”

“No. Just whittlin’.”

“So, what is there to get through with?”

“Why, my pleasure, of course. I enjoy my whittlin’.”

indicate a distinctive flavor of dry humor that makes Mercer, and Lansdale, imminently readable. A bit of research shows me that there is one Mercer novel Deadman’s Road published by Subterranean back in October (it also included this story) though the title is no longer in print; which is a shame. Thankfully you can enjoy The Crawling Sky for free in the Spring 2011 of Subterranean Press right now.

Thoughts on Black Gate 14

So late last year, mostly on a whim, I decided that I wanted to subscribe to Black Gate magazine.  For those that don’t know Black Gate magazine, founded back in 2000, is a fantasy fiction magazine that focuses on “adventure fantasy.”  Character driven stories with brisk pacing, often strange landscapes, and more often than not a boat load of action are what Black Gate is all about.  It was a good time to jump on board with Black Gate since issue 14 (Winter 2010) is a double-stuffed issue clocking an at a massive 385 pages (in pdf) the print edition rivaling my 4th Edition Player’s Handbook in size.  What’s most impressive about those 385 pages is sheer amount of awesome fiction packed within.  While I haven’t read every bit of fiction in this issue everything I’ve read has been fantastic in one way or another and wonderfully unique as well.  Here is a look at some of what I’ve read so far:

Continue reading “Thoughts on Black Gate 14”