Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (editors), The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror --
Tenth Annual Collection (St. Martin's Press, 1997)
This enormous 1997 collection of 42 short stories opens with Parke Godwin's 'the Last Rainbow," a story that alternates imperfectly between fizzy humour and dark melancholy as an empty-headed twit of a baron's daughter captures two of the fairy folk, and promptly demands of them enough riches to save her father from his greedy liegelord and the Holy Grail besides. Unbeknownst to her, the fairyfolk over the years have fallen into a state of poverty and near landlessness, and the story's bittersweet element comes out of the girl's realization that humankind's idea of wealth is very different from that of the fairies'.
After that is "Lily's Whisper" by Jay Russell, in which a man visiting his ornery dying grandmother is sent out upon a murky quest of sorts by the ghost of his great-aunt Lily, an eccentric but beloved part of his Jewish immigrant family. While essentially a ghost-story, the tale is driven by the warmth and innocence of the title character rather than dread.
Tanith Lee's marvellous "The Reason for Not Going to the Ball (A Letter to Cinderella from Her Stepmother)" follows with a darkly horrific fairy-tale retelling that casts the legendary stepmother in a different light. Not a light of innocence, not quite, but one that nevertheless posits her as only a lesser evil in a world of much more gruesome terrors. This is quite possibly my favourite story in the whole collection.
"Among the Handlers or, The Mark 16 Hands-On Assembly of Jesus Risen, Formerly Snake-O-Rama" by Michael Bishop follows the story of Hoke Pilcher, an abandoned kid in the Deep South who's part of a Christian cult whose members chug strychnine and handle venomous snakes to prove their piety. However, he soon discovers that even the most gonzo of organized religions is still vulnerable to doubters, persecution, schisms, and betrayal.
"The Phantom Church," by Ana Blandiana, demonstrates how a true story that is already unbelievable can easily transform into an immortal legend, presenting the blurry line between fantasy and reality. It all starts when serfs, due to a decree forbidding them from building a church of their own, decide to take a pre-existing church and drag it across miles of obstacles to settle it in their town. Complications ensue, speculation arises, and an intriguing legend is born. It's a slow-building but ultimately satisfying yarn.
In Angela Carter's "The Snow Pavilion," the smug lover of a wealthy, married, and much older woman has his car break down in the snow and has to take shelter at a mysterious mansion populated by sinister personages both animate and inanimate. It has an excellent build-up of suspense, and while the ending is somewhat confusing, the lover soon learns how little beauty and wealth matter in the end.
Laurie Kutchins' poem "Birthdream" follows, an intriguing short piece about motherhood and changelings, and after that comes "Disillusion," by Edward Bryant. What begins as a standard argument between two journalists as to whether a famous magician's tricks are real or not quickly develops into something even more surreal. The story is cannily written, with an extraordinary ending.
In "Diana of the Hundred Breasts," by Robert Silverberg, archaeologist Tim and his savagely atheist brother Charlie uncover a hidden seal that releases what may or may not be the goddess of the title. Silverberg deftly describes how the goddess does not bring world domination or a new reign of terror, simply the utter destruction of a man's purposeful lack of faith.
"La Llorona" by Yxta Maya Murray is a retelling of Southwestern folktale about a weak-willed and submissive wife's transformation into a bitter, clawed monster over her husband's infidelity. Murray's evocative language gorgeously describes the tenuous position of women in the home, as well as the swelling hatred that provokes the main character into performing her vengeful crime.
Thomas Ligotti's "Teatro Grottesco" starts intriguingly but descends into incomprehension as an author of "nihilistic prose writings" decides to explore a mysterious organization that approaches artists one by one and essentially destroys their talent. How, or what, or even why this organization performs such actions is unclear, and the ending left much to be desired.
"The Secret Shih Tan," by Graham Masterton, a story about an enterprising chef who gains access to a forbidden cookbook, is deliciously gruesome in every sense of the word. While it is soon obvious what type of meat is to be served, the clever execution and delectable descriptions more than make up for the lack of surprise. Another favourite in the collection.
Bruce Holland Rodgers presents us with an alternate history of a North America that never lost its First Nations' dominion in the utterly fascinating "In the Matter of the Ukdena." It starts out with sections of poetry, odd chapters of science texts, and encyclopaedia entries that demonstrate how the U.S., now the United Nations of Turtle Island, integrated their spiritual and religious practices into contemporary, technological life.
"O, Rare and Most Exquisite" by Douglas Clegg is a dark little tale about a dying nursing home inmate who confesses the crimes of his youthful callousness in manipulating a flowergirl who loved him into abetting his doomed relationship with the wife of his employer. Clegg makes use of some wondrous sexual imagery here, as well as a kick of a conclusion.
"Never Seen By Waking Eyes," by Stephen Dedman, takes Alice in Wonderland, vampires, and the concept of sexual attraction to children and creates a disturbing story regarding the dark history of Lewis Carroll. In this tale, an amateur photographer and Alice fan finally comes face-to-face with a little girl who's managed to appear on the fringes of nearly all of his photographs for twenty years. She's not nearly as young as she looks, but her interactions with the protagonist make for interesting discussion.
Terry Lamsley's "Walking the Dog" is a more straightforward horror story about a young man who discovers the dog-walking job he was hired for is not quite as simple as he expected. One clue: the creature at the end of his leash is not a dog.
After that comes "The Goatboy and the Giant," by Garry Kilworth, a story about the destructive relationship between an innocent, rather slow giant and the selfish goatboy with rockstar dreams who seeks to use the creature to make his millions. It's an interesting, cynical spin on the "Jack the Giantkiller" trope, with an unexpectedly sad ending.
"Gourd," an image-poem by Olive Senior, details the uses a humble gourd has on magic and folklore, and it's followed by "the Phoenix" by Isobelle Carmody, in which a homeless girl is approached by a "slow" boy named William who insists that she is a magical princess in exile, and he her faithful protector. Whether the ending is glorious or tragic depends entirely on how well William has convinced you of his story, and is another favourite for me.
"Caribe Magico" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez follows, and it's a standard example of his flair for magical realism -- while there is some loving detail about a tiny airport in the Caribbean, there is hardly any fantasy, and no plot at all.
"The Witch's Heart," by Delia Sherman, however, is a detailed, intricate tale about a Witch's desire to retain warmth, the wicked Lady who torments her, and the girl (formerly a wolf) whose love might just be enough to free the Witch from her centuries-long curse. It's fascinating how so much story could be fit into such a sort narrative, and the ending is highly satisfying, if not fairy-tale happy.
"Plumas (Feathers)" by Patricia Preciado Martin, is a short but intriguing tale about a humble cafeteria worker whose waking life is affected by the dreams she has of a more glorious past. While the ending is a little abrupt, the colourful imagery produced by Martin is wonderful.
After that comes Charles de Lint's "Crow Girls," a light-hearted piece that involves several characters recycled from his novels and the way they interact with the titular pair of benign animal spirits. While pleasant, the story is unremarkable.
Lisa Russ Spaar's short but insightful "Rapunzel's Exile" is similar in many ways to Tanith Lee's 'The Reason for Not Going to the Ball," in that it re-examines the motivations of Rapunzel's stepmother. However, while Cinderella's stepmother is partially redeemed, Rapunzel's stepmother gets shorter shrift in this shorter story.
'The Witches of Junket" by Patricia A. McKillip is an entertaining yarn about an elderly old witch who has to summon her three precocious, punk grandchildren home to help her deal with a malicious spirit trapped in a stone. McKillip's evocative description of family life, as well as the witches' magic, lends this story a highly original spin.
'The Cruel Countess" by Chris Bell is a story about fate, or more specifically, the embodiment of fate known as the Cruel Countess, a famous statue in the world's largest cemetery in Ohlsdorf, Germany. An alcoholic businessman relies on her for advice when his relationship with his girlfriend takes a turn for the worse, and the results are sad but a little vague.
"Little Beauty's Wedding" by Chang Hwang, on the other hand, is a surprisingly humorous tale once the reader discovers that the main character, who apparently buys and sells young girls for an increasingly tenuous living, is doing much more good to them than harm. How his services could be considered benign, of course, is the story's secret.
What follows is Neil Gaiman's graphic and gruesome poem "Eaten (Scenes from a Moving Picture)." The title pretty much describes all I can about the plot of this story without making this review unfit for people under the age of eighteen to read. It seems to be both art and a scathing satire of it.
"Angel," by Philip Graham, is a desperately sad story about a boy who grows into a man convinced that his guardian angel exists, not to guard him, but to live through his experiences. As the story proceeds, it becomes clear the protagonist believes that failure to satisfy his angel will bring deadly consequences. A depressing but challenging read. After that is a poem by Amy Breau: "Elk Man" lovingly describes the effect the lecherous folktale character has on women.
"Beckoning Nightframe" by Terry Dowling is probably my least favourite story in the collection. The tale concerns criminal profiler Corinne Kester who, after finishing her latest book project, becomes obsessed with the way the curtains move on a dark window across from her own. While Corinne and her psychologist friends all try to explain away her increasing pathological interest, to the reader the window is never conveyed as anything other than a window.
'The Dead Cop" by Dennis Etchison, portrays Los Angeles as a chaotic, thug-infested wasteland, or at least to protagonist Decker, a photographer who's desperately trying to get in touch with his son to warn him of the current state of affairs just as he grows increasingly paranoid about his wife's safety as an inner-city schoolteacher. The "surprise" that is revealed three-quarters of the way through is easily guessed from a mile away, but Etchison's demonstration of how one man's sickness can infect an entire city is a chilling concept.
I'm certain now -- "Ursus Triad, Later" -- by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg is my least favourite story. In no uncertain terms, this story is about a woman (perhaps Goldilocks) who is brutally and repeatedly raped by three bears. The authors simply use pretty language to describe it, but they fail to concede on what the point of it all is.
Thankfully, "JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction" by Robert Olen Butler ably cleanses the palate with a gorgeously told, melancholy alternate history in which John F. Kennedy was not killed by a sniper's bullet, but merely whisked off into hiding because his wound, while not fatal, stripped him of his ability to withhold state secrets. Years later, his keepers allow him to attend the auction of his late wife's possessions, and his wistful observations on truth and memory render him a wonderful protagonist.
"Warmer" by A. R. Morlan is an engrossing, detailed, initially confusing story in which an ambitious starlet whose only acting credit is a sultry cameo in a rock video is given a mysterious job offer by a personage whose history she knows to be extremely unsavoury. The set-up sounds familiar, and could have gone in any number of directions -- the one Morlan chooses is interesting, but poorly-explained.
Michael Marshal Smith's "Not Waving" was recommended by both Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow (meaning it counts as both fantasy and horror), but I'm at a loss as to where the horror comes in before the cute little shock at the very end. A (cat-loving) freelance graphic designer initiates a romance with a delivery girl at the same time his troubled (and very anti-feline) girlfriend starts believing that he's smuggled a cat into their house. The horror seems to be experienced mainly by the girlfriend (no one can see the cat but her), but since the story is told from her boyfriend's point of view the horror of the story is predominantly absent.
Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will be delighted to read Susanna Clark's contribution to this anthology, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," which features both protagonists of Clark's recent novel (although Norrell appears in little more than a cameo). Still studying magic under Mr Norrell, Jonathan Strange travels to Grace Adieu with his wife to visit his brother-in-law, and encounters three women whose magic surprises and surpasses his own. Delightful and strange, this story won't confuse readers who haven't read the novel yet, but it does offer further explanation as to Strange's character to those readers who have.
"Wilderness" by Ron Hansen is a bizarre and absurdist retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood": a middle-aged woman goes on a journey after her husband leaves her for an archaeological dig (and a younger woman). Someway, somehow, the woman discovers a lustful, poetic, and elderly version of a big, bad, wolf, and someway, somehow, her husband returns to rescue her. Puzzling and intricate, the story can be easily enjoyed once one ignores the chafing burdens of logic and reason.
"Oskiwiinag: Heartlines On the Trickster Express" by Gerald Vizenor is actually several stories bound up into one that each describe one part or process of a mysterious train and railroad that keeps the North American Indian tradition alive. Very bizarre in places, but Vizenor's language is seductive, and the story comes to a neat conclusion.
"Persephone Sets the Record Straight," by Shara McCallum is the third entry to explain the "truth" behind a mythological famous mother. In poem form, McCallum casts doubt over Demeter's innocence in her daughter's kidnapping by Hades, in a fresh retelling that suggests vanity, jealousy, spitefulness, and a host of other delightful mother-daughter feelings.
Patricia C. Wrede, one of my favourite authors, comes after with "Cruel Sisters," a retelling of the popular Scottish folk ballad about two princesses whose fight over a man leads to murder most foul. This story is told from the point of view of Meg, the third, "forgotten" sister whose keen eye sees past the fairy-tale glitter that demonizes one sister, martyrs another, and makes their "sweet William" into a hero. Nothing is as black-and-white as it seems, and Wrede's ambiguity lends a richness to the tale that it did not have before.
Jane Yolen's "The House of Seven Angels" is a short but colourful tale about a boy in a more traditional than religious Jewish town in the Ukraine, who notices the presence of angels surrounding the town's new rabbi. The boy's spying gets him into trouble, but someone is evidently looking out for him.
The collection concludes with Michael Swanwick's excellent story "Radio Waves." Ghosts don't fall down, according to Swanwick, they fall up, into the sky and eventual nothingness, but some manage to hold on by travelling along electrical wires and metal pipes. In one such case, a ragged and amnesiac ghost named Cobb makes a daring attempt to rescue his ghostly friend Widow from a monstrous apparition, and finds out that the memories he has lost may have been worth forgetting. A fascinating examination of death, memory, and life, and a wonderful end to this generally wonderful anthology.
It is sometimes difficult to rate an anthology, since every author contributes their own style and artistry (or lack thereof), and while it seems callous to leave it to numbers, in such a large collection as this it seems to be the only way. The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, for 1997, contains 42 fantasy and horror short stories. Of those 42, three were tedious, disjointed muddles ("Teatro Grottesco," "Beckoning Nightframe," and "Ursus Triad, Later"), while thirteen were vivid, startling wonders ("The Reason for Not Going to the Ball," "Disillusion," "The Secret Shih Tan," "In the Matter of the Ukdena," "O, Rare and Most Exquisite," "The Phoenix," "Little Beauty's Wedding," "Angel," "JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction," "Not Waving," "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," "Cruel Sisters," and "Radio Waves"). The other 26 stories fall into a pleasant middle ground, some a little sub-par for the collection (Charles de Lint's "Crow Girls" might be fun for fans, but seems a little out of place here), but most are quite good. All in all, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror -- Tenth Annual Collection is a solidly excellent collection.