the most successful [horror] almost always seems to play upon and express fears which exist across a wide spectrum of people. Such fears, which are often political, economic, and psychological rather than supernatural, give the best work of horror a pleasing allegorical feel.
So what exactly is making us nervous these days that is not already apparent in our post-9/11-infinite-war-on-terror, post-Snowden-war-on-privacy, postapocalyptic-violence-saturated society? Before reading this year’s Best Horror anthology, I would have gone with body horror and the limits of physicality partnered with technology’s dark side (surveillance state, anyone?), maybe with a dash of class warfare made literal alongside a chilling nod to the slippery nature of reality (made more so by technology). It would seem the actual answer, however, is much more old-school — the same things that have always made our collective psyches twitch still frighten us now: the impotence of the individual in the larger world, the indeterminacy of free will, and the question of what exactly makes us human. Early in the anthology, there are several characters who seem at the mercy of larger forces, whether they be criminals (“The Atlas of Hell”), the vastness of the land (“Allochton”), or a government agency (“Shay Corsham Worsted”). The Sin-eater narrator of “A Dweller in Amenty” can’t escape what she is, but she can work to subvert it, and “This is Not for You” raises the question of what’s more problematic: the sociopath who is compelled to kill or the true believer who chooses to of her own free will. Finally, many stories echo Mary Shelley’s investigation of who or what is really monstrous: Dr. Frankenstein or his creation. Stories in this category include “Winter Children,” “Nigredo,” and “the worms crawl in.”
Two stories, in particular, stand out for wrestling with all three themes: “Outside Heaven” by Rio Youers and “The Coat off His Back” by Keris McDonald. At the level of plot, “Outside Heaven” centers on a small-town sheriff who hasn’t aided an abused mother and daughter, despite his certainty concerning their abuse at the hands of Beau Roth, “a fiercely wicked man who crushed all that could have been loved.” In the story, Roth’s mutilated corpse is found after a house fire, and Beau’s daughter, Mary, is discovered hiding in a field nearby; Mary’s daughter, Cindy, is not so easily located. Chief Peck feels remorseful over not helping these women previously, and he decides to do right by them now. Peck begins a search that eventually leads him to a supernatural encampment where he discovers Cindy and other folk who may be cult members (and maybe something not human), but who nonetheless consider Cindy one of their own. They don’t have any regard for Peck’s good intentions, and he thus becomes another victim along with the young deputy who accompanied him on the surreal hike through the woods.
Chief Peck is a sympathetic character who doesn’t deserve his painful death for being slow to offer aid to Mary and Cindy. Mary, who has suffered years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her now-dead father, is much less likable: she’s cynical, difficult, and hardened. Cindy is almost a classic victim turned abuser, lashing out at whoever is present. She is responsible for the house fire and the condition of her grandfather’s maimed corpse, but only takes such extreme action after failing to convince her mother to run away. Mary, for her part, can’t envision a life outside what’s familiar, even if the familiar means violence and degradation. The story invites the reader to reflect not only on the increasing strangeness of the tale but on how our pasts shape our decisions, for better or for worse; it also asks us to question how we treat our fellow human beings and, indeed, whether a man like Beau Roth is even human. Finally, there is a meditation upon power and how it gets used and by whom.
The protagonist of “The Coat off His Back,” Geoff Leighton, is not a very likable man either. Early on, we learn that he has just returned from bereavement leave after the death of his mother. Of course, that relationship was considerably more complicated than is at first apparent, and he too was formed by a particular and peculiar abuse. Can he be blamed, then, for his standoffishness and self-containment, his lack of connection with others? Leighton makes use of his fastidiousness by working to conserve fabric items for a museum. He comes across what is labeled an “innocent coat,” and it mysteriously begins to appear wherever he is — including his home. His investigations reveal that not only is it likely this coat belonged to the famous English highwayman Dick Turpin, but also that an “innocent coat” is one made from the skins of hanged murderers, and it makes one “supposedly immune to suspicion or the attention of the law.” He begins to believe that “it wanted him, … its soft sleeves would brush over him, groping for his face … just like his mother used to.” In an effort to end his feelings of powerlessness, he chooses to remove the part of himself that seems to be causing the difficulties: his skin.
As someone who reads for character, my personal favorites in the anthology all featured narrators who tell their own stories with varying degrees of awareness about themselves and about the storytelling process. None other than the grandmaster of horror, Edgar Allan Poe, was a fan of the unreliable narrator who reveals more than he means. “Persistence of Vision,” by Orrin Grey, was my favorite in the volume in this regard. The unnamed narrator is a survivor of the Ghost Apocalypse; he tells his tale as if it were a film, beginning, “I want you to act like this is all a movie. That’ll make it easier.” He goes on to examine how a horror film narrative works and where it falls short, saying things like, “in the movie version, the machine would have been the heart of everything. Its destruction would have been the end of the film, the salvation of mankind,” and then he explains how that didn’t come to pass. Also on display is the narrator’s vast knowledge of popular culture:
We only had one movie that predicted this. Well, two if you count the remake. It was Kairo in Japan in 2001, Pulse in the U.S. in 2006, during the height of the J-horror boom, starring that girl from Veronica Mars and that guy from Lost. Well-known prognosticators of the end of the world.
The narrator’s wry sense of humor is apparent throughout, but it is as fruitless in his new world as his ability to explicate film. In this tale, life neither imitates art, nor does art imitate life. The truth is infinitely more complex and unexpected.
Trying to say something cogent about 22 different stories is difficult (especially while trying to avoid major spoilers). I picked up this anthology expecting my brain to play spot-the-monster and my body and soul to be disturbed and/or horrified (fun fact: the root of horror comes from the Latin horreo, “to bristle” or to make the hair stand on end, as happens when one is scared). While many of the stories manage some or all of these, others don’t really seem to belong. There is a great deal of genre-bleed, if you will: “The Atlas of Hell” and “The Culvert” are, for all intents and purposes, Urban Fantasy, while “Tread Upon the Brittle Shell” features more adventure than scares. Of course, there’s a postapocalyptic survival tale in “Chapter Six.” I would have very much liked to have seen the definition of “horror” that was used during the volume’s selection process.
Regardless, on the whole, I think Poe would be happy with this collection, because all of the stories here seem to be following his ideas as laid out in “The Philosophy of Composition”: Each story is easily read in a single sitting, and most seem to aim for a single effect on the reader. Rarely is there a wasted word. Many are imagistic, painting dark pictures. Unfortunately, there were also a few cases where the final effect was one of bafflement; I finished unsure of what had happened and wondering if I had read carefully enough or whether the tale was supposed to be mysterious. For instance, in “Allochton,” a housewife keeps reliving the same day, and I was never quite clear what was going on or why the landscape seemed so oppressive and dangerous. I reread the ending more than once, and I remain baffled as to the details once she goes out the door of her home. The ending of “Past Reno” was similarly confusing. I was unclear why the character chose to go back into a situation he had escaped. In “Departures,” I longed for more explanation as to the why and how of the monster.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King talks about a story’s effects on the reader. He divides these effects into three levels: Terror (“it’s what the mind sees”), Horror (which “invites a physical reaction by showing us something wrong”), and Revulsion (“I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud”). This anthology has something for everyone, and it works at each of the various levels. It also includes something for each reader to skip, depending on one’s taste and triggers (animal lovers avoid “The Dog’s Home” — I’m just saying). In a long “Summation 2014” at the book’s opening, Datlow provides a list of what else is happening in the horror genre and what has recently won noteworthy awards, and as a result, I’ve added half a dozen promising titles to my own to-read list.