Title: The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4
Edited by: Ellen Datlow
Publisher: Night Shade Books
You will be swept away by the sheer relentlessness of The Best Horror or the Year, Volume Four, edited by Ellen Datlow.
The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 4, contains an excellent selection of stories that rise to the top of the genre. Some of the pieces include topics that are shocking and at times difficult to read while others leave scenes lingering in your mind long after you’ve reached the end. As with any anthology, readers are sure to find they like some stories more than others, but the quality and diversity of the pieces within this anthology are spot on.
There is no story within The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 4 that doesn’t belong. Of course, the pieces by Stephen King and Peter Straub deliver as expected. While Straub’s piece is more challenging, King’s will tap into your sympathy and leave you wondering “then what happened?” Other notable stories include “The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick, which is infused with the tangible influence of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Priya Sharma’s story “The Show,” which puts the reality into reality TV. Then there is John Langan who, in gymnastics terms, sticks the ending of his stories every time.
Special thanks to all of the authors who were able to participate in the group interview for The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 4. Below, they share their thoughts on the horror genre as well as some fascinating background on what inspired the stories within this collection. We hope you enjoy the interview and that you’ll also enter the contest to win 1 of 5 copies of The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 4, which have been provided by Night Shade Books.
What is it about dark fiction or horror that captures your imagination as a writer or a reader?
Anna Taborska: The world is a cruel and terrifying place, and, if art is supposed to hold a mirror up to nature, then horror is the art form that does it best.
Livia Llewellyn: For me, experiencing horror (as both reader and writer) is the chance to open an emotional gate inside me that usually remains closed, unchallenged, and unused in my day-to-day life. I don’t approach horror and horrific events as an end, but as doorways into greater understanding of myself, in imagining what kind of person I and my characters would become in the worst times and under the worst experiences. Horror is a crucible that brings about transformation not just in the physical world, but also in those who experience it.
Leah Bobet: That it’s a kind of literature that’s always trying to find out who we, as people, are. Dark fiction and horror fiction are in some senses, really very introspective: What are our best and worst impulses, and where did they come from? What would we do in the worst kinds of situations; how do we really act under pressure, or removed from social rules, or in the face of something we don’t understand? What’s the measure of us? Who are we, really?
Which is of course a fascinating question, and one of the most worthwhile to be asking, I think. And it’s the question that leads to another of the most worthwhile questions: So, how can we be more, be better?
Margo Lanagan: I’m pretty much against niceness and soothingness in my reading, although characters I can love as they tackle their inner and outer monsters, I’m grateful to an author for those. I like a story to shake me up and to bend my view of the world, to make me wonder how much I could really deal with, in terms of the grim, the violent and the unfortunate. I wouldn’t say I’m actually much of a horror reader, but definitely I like to see characters tested by encounters with systems or phenomena that threaten or frighten them.
A.C. Wise: I’ve always been drawn to dark fiction and horror. There’s something appealing about the idea of exploring the monstrous – whether in human form or otherwise – from a safe distance. As a reader, you can always walk away. As an author, you can usually control the outcome. Horror fiction allows us to explore the darkness, but with an escape route close at hand. Horror fiction also appeals to the part of me that wants the world to be wild and strange. The themes and tropes of horror and dark fiction seem to brush up against the every day world more frequently than, say, fantasy; they seem a little more plausible. Very few people out there will tell you with absolute conviction about the time they saw a unicorn, but almost everyone knows somebody with a personal ghost story.
John Langan: For me, the attraction of horror lies in its unique ability to represent the experience of profound personal and even social dislocation–which is to say, those moments in our lives when the bottom falls out of everything. Horror is able to give form to that catastrophe and shape to the story of our reaction(s) to it. There are also monsters.
Laid Barron: You know, I keep asking myself the same question. Upon consideration, I think it just boils down to the fact that I’m a dark, moody, perverse SOB.
Alison Littlewood: I didn’t make a deliberate choice to write dark fiction – it just grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. I think it’s just how I’m wired. I suppose I’m fascinated with things that we can’t quite explain or reconcile ourselves to. And it’s the most fun you can have with a pen! I didn’t grow up reading much horror either, though I used to borrow Stephen King novels from my brother. Since I discovered I enjoy writing dark fiction, it’s really changed by reading habits too.
Brian Hodge: There are a lot of factors, with a couple of big things that go hand-in-hand. First, there’s the throwing away or invalidation of the rules of everyday life, from orderly human conduct and decency, to everything we regard as consensus reality. You get to make your own rules, and break even those. So there’s a sense that anything can happen.
As well, a lot of horror takes place in the shadows, in pockets hidden behind the surfaces of normality. It’s like you’re caught out someplace at 3am, when everyone else is home asleep, and you pass this building and can’t quite suss out why that one light is on, or what’s making those sounds … you just know none of it feels right. I like that feeling of discovery, of peeling back the façade to get to the secrets. In a way, it confirms what you always suspected about the world but hoped you’d never actually find. Or maybe you hoped you would, because it makes the world a more interesting place.
Glen Hirshberg: So many things, really. I love the imagery. I love the way fear and wonder feed and augment and twist around each other. I love that eeriness, on the page, turns out to be such a terrifically effective catalyst for heightening other emotions. I love the challenge of writing this kind of fiction, because sustaining that spell is hard, and demands so much thought about the language itself. Or maybe giving yourself over to the language itself.
Simon Bestwick: It creates a setting where anything can happen. You can have as much of the real world as you want, and as much as you like of any other; also it’s very easy to rope in elements of other genres. Every genre gives writers a kind of toolbox to explore certain themes, certain aspects of life. With horror, you can call on all of them. Whatever you need is there for the taking.
You can go all the places- physically and emotionally- in a story of this kind that you’d avoid in real life. And when it’s done well you can ask all the big question, exercise your imagination and still tell a great story. Plus, good horror fiction requires great technical skill and precise use of language
Of course, horror tends to mean dark, but here’s no reason why you couldn’t take a similar approach that would be a bit sunnier and more cheerful in tone. Generally if my stuff hasn’t got some dark elements in it then it feels too lightweight, but never say never.
What was the inspiration behind your story that was selected for The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4?
Chet Williamson: I was approached by a friend who’s also a small publisher, and he wondered if I had a story that I’d like to have reprinted as a chapbook with a CD of me reading the story. The more I thought about it, the more I was captured by the thought of writing something that was intended to be heard, yet something that could stand alone as well. I play guitar and was in a Celtic band for several years, and also have a deep love of American roots music, so I thought it might be fun to create something with a song attached, and thus “The Final Verse” was written. I actually recorded the story with the song and guitar accompaniment for the CD, but the publisher’s program ended due to financial difficulties, and the chapbook/CD was never released. Off the story went to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where Gordon Van Gelder’s editorial savvy helped make it even better. I hope to release it as an MP3 file someday so it can be heard as intended.
Laird Barron: The Willows by Algernon Blackwood. That and a love-hate relationship with the wilderness. Also, a hate-hate relationship with sports hunters.
Anna Taborska: When I was a little girl, my grandmother’s best friend, Irena, came to London to visit us. A friend of the family went to pick Irena up from Heathrow Airport. As she came out through the Arrivals Gate, she accidentally dropped her glasses and stepped on them. When our friend expressed how sorry he was that she’d broken her glasses, Irena laughed the incident off and stated that the glasses were just “a little pig”. Our friend later confessed that he thought Irena might be completely mad. My grandmother explained that she and Irena grew up in the east of Poland (which was annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War, and is now part of the Ukraine). Winters were very harsh, and you needed a horse-drawn sleigh to travel through the forest from one village to another in the deep snow. It was common to take a piglet along on such trips, to throw to the wolves in case of an attack on the horse. Horrible as it sounds, the notion of taking a little pig along as a potential sacrifice to avert the death of horse and people probably made sense at the time. For Irena and my grandmother, Natalia, the term ‘little pig’ became synonymous with the superstition that if a minor mishap befell someone – particularly while travelling – it was generally good sign, as it meant that a greater disaster would be avoided thanks to the small sacrifice. I think they were rather tongue-in-cheek about their superstition, but I found the idea of taking a piglet along as a potential sacrifice to wolves rather horrific. Which led me to thinking: how horrific could things get if the little pig wasn’t where it should be?
John Langan: Some time ago, my friend, Laird Barron, was telling me about a story he had completed which featured a monstrous giant, somewhat on the order of Goya’s famous painting of Saturn devouring his child. This seemed to me such a brilliant idea that I immediately vowed to steal it. When the invitation came from Ellen Datlow to contribute to her Supernatural Noir anthology, that image, along with its more mundane avatar, Mr. White, found its way into it.
A.C. Wise: The seeds of Final Girl Theory were planted during a cemetery tour in New Orleans. The tour guide pointed out a monument that had been featured in a scene in Easy Rider (at least I think that was the movie). It got me thinking about truth and illusion in films in general. The moment I got back to the hotel room, I started working on the story. It’s also a bit of a love letter to cult films, and slasher movies, and B movie classics, and a whole host of other influences that soaked my early years. But, of course, on the other hand, it’s nothing like that at all…
Simon Bestwick: The first story, ‘The Moraine’, started with the title. I then had to look it up to find out what a moraine was! (Read the story to find out.) I knew I wanted to write a story, but wasn’t sure what to do with it. There had to be something in the moraine, and I knew it had to be something more substantial than a ghost- it needed to be something physical, a creature of some kind. At the same time I wanted it to be scary rather than simply bloody, so it had to build tension and suspense. The nature of the setting helped determine that. Then there had to be real people in the story. Originally I thought of something with a bigger cast, but in the end it worked best if I kept it simple. Writing it, I imagined it as a short film or a television play, which helped me focus on the couple in the story. Making their relationship a troubled but not doomed one made them realer too and gave the story somewhere to go when there wasn’t a monster around…
‘Dermot,’ the second story, was inspired by a guy I saw on the bus a few times. He looked pretty much the title character in the story, which made him stand out and catch my eye. I did what I sometimes do in such cases, which was to invent an imaginary biography for him. Not a very flattering one, I’m afraid- I pictured him as a child predator or something, but that wasn’t enough for a story. So I gave it a bit of an extra twist, and I had this piece, which was written in a single sitting and hardly needed a word changed.
Glen Hirshberg: This one actually grew out of some real life experiences, from back when my wife and I first moved to Los Angeles right after the riots. We had this talkative, charming, nervous upstairs neighbor who used to regale us with neighborhood stories, and who moaned so loudly in her sleep that our ceiling shook. We had another neighbor, an aspiring actress, who used to sit in the little square of grass out front of our building and watch the traffic with her turtle, which she claimed was 150 years old. And we had one fist-sized spider that liked to make an enormous web right across our front door.
Margo Lanagan: I wrote ‘Mulberry Boys’ at Ellen’s request for her Blood and Other Cravings anthology. I’m not mad about vampires, but when she said that the story need only deal with vampirism in some way, that gave me the freedom to find a back entrance into that area of the genre.
The human silkworm idea? Well, we did the mulberry-leaves-in-the-box thing when our boys were little; perhaps it was the sight of those green, fragile, flightless moths that established the sweet characters of the mulberry boy in the story. And I remember a documentary I watched on silk-making, from which an image of the mass cocoon-unravelling machine made an impression, the brutality with which people harvested the fruits of all that delicate work.
Leah Bobet: “Stay” came out of a few things, but the seed was an NFB documentary I watched back in 2004 or so about a series of freezing deaths in Saskatoon–young aboriginal men found dead of cold on the outskirts of the city—and the allegation that Saskatoon police officers were picking aboriginal men up, driving them to the outskirts of the city, and leaving them there to find their own way home in sub-zero temperatures. The documentary was about the legal fallout and commission of inquiry that followed, but mostly I was furious that this would even happen: It wasn’t only an abuse of police authority, or a vicious kind of racism; it’s a breaking of the entire social contract of a cold-weather society. Leaving someone to freeze, deliberately giving them to the winter instead of building and helping and working against the cold, is the worst, most antisocial, most shockingly wrong thing I can imagine. It is unspeakable.
It took about six years to find a way to make that unspeakableness into a coherent piece of fiction. I knew why and how it was wrong. But to write about it, I had to think, long and hard, about what would instead be right.
Brian Hodge: Poisoned nostalgia. Although I was a town kid, my father came from the kind of rural area depicted in the story. Growing up, I spent a lot of time there visiting my grandparents. I think it helped foster a kind of magical relationship with, and love of, fields and woodlands, and green and growing things in general.
As an adult, my first sense that the community was rotting from the inside was when I pulled county jury duty in a trial over a stabbing that had occurred there. As I listened to the testimony about these people’s lives, it brought on a sadness over the changes in the place as I remembered it. So that planted a seed to do a story about this dissonance, but it lay dormant a long time, and after moving away, the longer we lived in Colorado, the farther away I got from it.
Then, during a recent visit back, I learned from an uncle that the place, like so many rural communities, had deteriorated even further as meth culture moved in, and that convicted pedophiles were seeing it as a good haven to retreat after their release. That rekindled everything, and I did the story a few months later, but with clearer eyes. My uncle also told me how my great-grandparents, dirt-poor people I never knew, had their one hog stolen just before autumn butchering time, with no restitution, and it was an even harder, leaner winter for them than usual. Places like that have always had their darker sides, despite how you may have come out of childhood with a romanticized sense of some earlier purity.
Alison Littlewood: The story actually came from my obsession with fairy tales when I was a kid. It’s a rather twisted take on one of my favourites – The Wild Swans, or The Six Swans. It’s about transformations, and the character in the story – who’s a bit of a dreamer, not unlike myself at that age – wants to transform her brother. But fairy tales often contained a lot of darkness as well as light, and that was something I wanted to reflect in Black Feathers.
Livia Llewellyn: My father was a teacher and my mother’s job was raising me and my sister, so our family had every summer to take lots and lots of trips. Dad would pack up our Volkswagen camper and drive us on these two and three week-long trips to Mt. Rainier, the Olympics and Cascades, the ocean coast and San Juan Islands – pretty much everywhere in Washington State and British Columbia that was wilderness. Most of the trips were uneventful, but a few bordered on the truly horrific, when he’d get us lost somewhere in the mountains, without a single clue as to how to find civilization again. I remember him pouring over his maps looking for some road or trail that might materialize and give us a way out. Outside, my mother would be pacing the woods freaking out, and my sister and I sat in the back of the camper, wondering how long it would be until we ran out of food and died. We laugh about those trips now, but as a child it was truly traumatizing for me; and so years later, when I started to write in earnest, I always knew I’d eventually use those vacations as inspiration for a story – which turned out to be “Omphalos”.
In honor of Ellen Datlow’s work within the horror genre, I asked the interviewees to share what “Ellen Datlow is” to them, and we received some amazing responses!
Ellen Datlow is… just plain utterly awesome.’ What else could I possibly say? ~ Simon Bestwick
Ellen Datlow is an inspiration. (Which is an uninspired sentence, but the statement remains true!) ~ A.C. Wise
In a world that generates bewildering numbers of stories each year, Ellen Datlow is a winnower with efficiency, style and substance, distilling the essence of each year’s darkness. ~ Margo Lanagan
Ellen Datlow is a great lady and a first class editor! ~ Anna Taborska
Ellen Datlow is awesome – among her other achievements, for the way her work encourages new writers: I remember first getting an honourable mention in her Best Of round-up and being absolutely thrilled! ~ Alison Littlewood
Ellen Datlow is not only one of the genre’s finest editors ever, but a repository of knowledge about the whole field. She seems to remember everything she reads, and her taste in choosing stories from that vast wealth of material has proven impeccable. ~ Chet Williamson
Ellen Datlow is probably one of the single greatest influences there is on the direction of genre fiction. ~ Leah Bobet
Ellen Datlow may love and understand horror fiction even more than she does cats. ~ Glen Hirshberg
Ellen Datlow is one of the greatest champions of horror and dark fiction in the world. She is our living treasure. ~ Livia Llewellyn
Ellen Datlow is one of my favorite people. The first time I met her, at the 2003 Readercon, she told me she had loved my most recent story and asked me when I was going to send her a story. Talk about being made to feel welcome. ~ John Langan
Ellen Datlow is the hardest-working woman in speculative fiction, and the best friend a cat ever had. ~ Brian Hodge
Ellen Datlow is far and away the greatest living editor of horror and dark fantasy. ~ Laird Barron
ENTER THE CONTEST
Best Horror of the Year Volume 4
Enter for your chance to win 1 of 5 copies of Best Horror of the Year Volume 4 by posting a note in the comments below by midnight on Saturday, April 28th. One entry per person.
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Table of Contents:
- The Little Green God of Agony – Stephen King
- Stay – Leah Bobet
- The Moraine – Simon Bestwick
- Blackwood’s Baby – Laird Barron
- Looker – David Nickle
- The Show – Priya Sharma
- Mulberry Boys – Margo Lanagan
- Roots and All – Brian Hodge
- Final Girl Theory – A. C. Wise
- Omphalos – Livia Llewellyn
- Dermot – Simon Bestwick
- Black Feathers – Alison J. Littlewood
- Final Verse – Chet Williamson
- In the Absence of Murdock – Terry Lamely
- You Become the Neighborhood – Glen Hirshberg
- In Paris, In the Mouth of Kronos – John Lantern
- Little Pig – Anna Taborska
- The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine – Peter Straub
The contest is closed and the winners are:
Andy Hardy, Frank Lewis, Brewerstt, Midnyte Reader, and C.W. LaSart
Congratulations!!!! Thank you to everyone who entered the Best Horror of the Year, Vol Four contest!!