I'm fairly ambivalent about genre classifications. On the one hand, I have a certain sympathy with Ursula K. LeGuin, who has had, on occasion, words to say about "genre" that can be readily classified as "not complimentary," although I don’t really subscribe to the idea that genre is nothing but a marketing ploy. Against this idea I feel impelled to note that Samuel R. Delany has made a very strong case for the validity of genre in terms of formal and semantic structures and also in terms of the contract with the reader. So there you are: as far as I'm concerned, the jury's still out on that fairly large question.
It's probably not a surprise, then, that in the realm of genre fiction, the idea of publishing a collection of fantasy and horror is one I find sensible: the two have been bleeding into each other (if you'll pardon the expression) at least since the days of H. P. Lovecraft.
My other consideration in tackling the eleventh annual collection of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror was the general concept of "year's best" anthologies. They are not really "theme" anthologies in any sense (which I'm still convinced, in spite of recent happy experiences, can be a loaded gun pointed in the wrong direction), and it seems that, absent criteria related to theme or story type, there are inescapable layers of subjectivity in the selection process. What does determine "best," after all? This is something to consider, particularly since we are dealing with the "best" in two genres that seem to recognize no clear boundary between them (what is a "supernatural thriller" -- horror or fantasy? Does it depend on whether you include vampires and ghouls, or spirit guides and ancient gods?) I am very sympathetic to stories that sometimes trash genre tropes, but how does one pick the best of those? (And trust me, these stories are all over the territory between fantasy and horror.)
Editor Terri Windling, in her summation of the state of fantasy literature in 1997, offers some sense of what she means by "fantasy," but gives us little sense of what constitutes "best," while Ellen Datlow gives us less sense of best but a good take on the state of horror publishing in that year. I was, in fact, quite favorably impressed with the beginning sections, the two summations just mentioned, the review of the two genres in film and television, a survey of comics and what Time magazine used to call "passages." For the scholar or the knowledgeable fan, there is a wealth of useful information here. I really was not prepared for the amount of information made available -- the volume becomes an immensely valuable resource for the student of speculative fiction, just on the basis of the beginning sections.
The stories are kind of iffy, not because of any lack of quality, but more, I think, because of the focus (or lack of it) of this kind of collection. Full disclosure: I have been an enthusiastic fan of fantasy in all its guises for decades, consuming with equal avidity heroic sword-and-sorcery, urban/contemporary fantasy (also known as mythic fiction), and into the realm of dark fantasy or supernatural thriller. Horror, not so much. I'm still trying to pin down exactly what brand of horror leaves me cold, but the important point is that, however good the story itself might be, I can't always summon up the interest to do it justice. (I may never figure this out -- for example, I was wildly enthusiastic about the film versions of Dracula, including the amazing Nosferatu, and I'm generally quite fond of the various takes on vampires in fiction, from Chelsea Quinn Yarbro to Elizabeth Bear, but finally finishing Bram Stoker's novel looks at this point likely be part of my penance for some vile crime that I can't even imagine myself committing.)
With that caveat in place, there were stories that registered highly positive. Nancy Pickard's "It Had To Be You" became an instant favorite, as did Leslie Dick's "The Skull of Charlotte Corday"; I enjoyed Peter S. Beagle's "The Last Song of Sirit Byar" when I first read it in his collection Giant Bones, and enjoyed it just as much this time. Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman's "The Fall of the Kings" became the novel of the same title, which I also enjoyed greatly. There were a few, regrettably, that I found a little tired, such as Michael Chabon's "Into the Black Mill," built on a situation that is almost a cliché, the "dark secrets and conspiracy of silence in a small town" story (almost a genre unto itself), and which, while well done, doesn’t really head into new territory and also contains the added irritation of a brand new question raised in the last paragraph that looked too much like an "oops!"
For anyone who feels impelled to stay current with the latest in fantasy or horror or their multitude of offspring for whatever reason, the "Year's Best" anthologies are of obvious value and interest. Datlow and Windling certainly know their business and can't be held responsible for my somewhat lukewarm reaction.
Or, as one of our other senior staffers here put it in a note to me, "not really my cuppa -- maybe you'll like it."
Terri Windling's Web site is under construction, but you can visit
her MySpace page. Ellen Datlow can be found at Ellen Datlow, Editor.