Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror, edited by Ellen Datlow

Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror Book Cover Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror
Ellen Datlow (editor)
Tachyon publications
November 1 2016

Ooh, look. Another horror anthology! I apparently read quite a number of them, and yet, Nightmares: A new decade of modern horror stands out from the rest.  This is partly because many of the stories wander over that line that separate entertainment-horror from needs a set of trigger warnings-horror.  It's probably good to be prepared for that, because going unknowingly from a ghost story to a tale of various kinds of child abuse can be upsetting.

Good horror can be upsetting.  It isn't always, or even most of the time, but it's definitely a part of the thematic landscape.  I'm not normally shaken by zombies and body snatchers and whatnot - but this anthology offered not just one, but many stories still haunting me weeks after reading.

So, well. I'll mention some of my favourites - not necessarily the most shocking, just the ones I personally liked best:

"Closet dreams" by Lisa Tuttle is bleak and awful. A young girl has been kidnapped and is held captive, a very long time, in a closet. Expertly written, and definitely one of the stories I can't get out of my head.

"The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan is a dark fantasy - Hansel without Gretel, a few years after the first visit to the witch's house.  Everything is really enormously grimdark, but the witch's special diet is the least of the terrible things.

"Lonegan's Luck" by Stephen Graham Jones - a clear favourite of mine! This story sits firmly in the aisle of fun-horror, introducing us to a classic snake oil-salesman in the old west, travelling from town to town.  He never revisits a town he's been to, with good reason.  Not that there'd be anyone left to recognise him, but still.

"The Shallows" by John Langan was a strange thing - it reminded me a little bit of Elizabeth Knox's "Wake", in that the story's present time is set after what was obviously a hideous apocalypse event - but in this story, the event must have been somewhat... Lovecraftian.  It is that flavour of weird, and I liked it a lot - I would have liked to explore this world at length, like, in a novel. 

"Shay Corsham Worsted" by Garth Nix - this story instantly made me add the author to my list of authors I need to read more of,  which is the kind of reaction I always hope to get from a short story.  An old man tries to stop a dangerous old military weapon from destroying everything, but he can't get through, the records are lost, and no one will believe him.  No one will recognise this particular weapon for what it is, just by looking at it...

Yep. Great anthology. Go get it if you feel like you could go for a smorgasboard of horror authors to further fatten your to-read shelf with.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016, edited by Paula Guran

The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016 Book Cover The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016
The year's best science fiction & fantasy novellas
Aliette de Bodard, C.S.E. Cooney, Nnedi Okorafor, etc.
Science fiction, fantasy
Prime Books
July 26 2016

The second volume of Prime Books’ annual anthology series collecting some of the year’s best novella-length science fiction and fantasy. Novellas, longer than short stories but shorter than novels, are a rich rewarding literary form that can fully explore tomorrow’s technology, the far reaches of the future, thought-provoking imaginings, fantastic worlds, and entertaining concepts with all the impact of a short story as well as the detailed depth of a novel. Gathering a wide variety of excellent science fiction and fantasy, this anthology of “short novels” showcases the talents of both established masters and new writers.

I love the novella format. It's long enough to fit a proper story, yet so short that there's no time to dilly-dally - everything comes out concentrated and punchy.  Thus, I read a lot of them.  This anthology contains a few I had read previously:  Nnedi Okorafor's Binti,  which is excellent, and feels like an episode of the kind of new Star Trek show I desperately want.  K.J. Parker's The last witness, a kind of whodunnit, though it is fantasy, with a scathing narrator and a world you fortunately can spend more time in by seeking out the author's other novellas.   Both of these are great examples of why I have huge faith in everything published by 

Then there were the novellas that were new to me. I'll just mention a few of them:

Aliette de Bodard's The citadel of weeping pearls is the first piece of science fiction I've read from this author, and it's beautiful. Very immersive - but because I feel like it doesn't have quite enough of a plot skeleton under all the velvety detail,  it wasn't my favourite in the anthology.

I had been planning to read Usman Malik's The pauper prince and the eucalyptus jinn for a long time, and now finally did. In a way, having read it, this feels like it must have been a several hundred page long epic - a dense family story that takes you back and forth between dusty Lahore and Florida, from dust and chai to quiet university halls. 

Carter Scholz's Gypsy begins like this:  

The launch of Earth’s first starship went unremarked. The crew gave no interviews. No camera broadcast the hard light pulsing from its tail. To the plain eye, it might have been a common airplane.

...And that is how to hook me as a reader, apparently. The story is dreary and immensely sad - and beautiful - bringing to mind a plethora of lonely spaceship scenes from various films.  After reading this, I immediately went off hunting for more Carter Scholz.

My favourite story in the anthology is Bao Shu's What has passed shall in kinder light appear (translated by Ken Liu).  The basic premise is strangely simple - it turns the modern timeline around, telling a story of human culture where someone grows up with smartphones and grows old with rapidly deteriorating levels of technology. Add in cultural and political events, Chinese ones, and it still doesn't sound that clever, but then add the magical narration, and there it is.  That's the sound of story clicking with this reader.  (Soon I have to pick up Ken Liu's books to put to rest my suspicion that it's his voice that captures me when he translates Chinese fiction.)

Anyway, The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016 is an anthology worth every penny, especially if you haven't read the published bits of it. (And if you have - you likely really want to read the rest of this...!)


Operation Arcana, edited by John Joseph Adams

Operation Arcana Book Cover Operation Arcana
John Joseph Adams
Anthology, fantasy, military, short stories
March 3 2015

How do you make a reader suddenly very interested in anthologies? You make sure that reader gets really into a specific author, and that author is one who contributes to a lot of anthologies. Like, for example, Seanan McGuire. She, gloriously, writes stories for all the things.  And it is turning me into an anthology reader, developing an appreciation for how they can offer delicious samples of authors new and unknown to me. (I do think that's positive - even if I'm simultaneously admitting I require an established favourite to make me start reading.)

Her story is the second-to-last in Operation Arcana, an anthology of military fantasy.    After some debate, I decided to save this story, In skeleton leaves, for nearly-last, and read the stories in the order they were put in.  It was smart. Felt like dessert.  The story deals with a different kind of war, in Never-never-land.  It's dark and creeps up my spine in a tingly kind of way.

John Joseph Adams is the editor of many popular anthologies, as well as the editor/publisher of Lightspeed magazine (to which I subscribe)  and a co-host of the podcast The geek's guide to the galaxy (to which I keep failing to devote my ears, but it's not for lack of interest - just that I have a hard time deciding to listen to other stuff than audiobooks once I have the earphones on).

Because it's hard to talk about an anthology as a whole, I'll instead say some things about some of the stories.  Short stories are unavoidably hit-or-miss; some of them were great, some of them less able to hold my interest.

Myke Cole's Weapons in the Earth is a terribly bleak war prisoner story with goblins and cows, or something very like cows, and enough tangible detail and dirt that I'm suddenly quite interested in reading the author's Shadow-ops books.

Yoon Ha Lee's The graphology of hemorrhage is a little sad, but more than anything it's like an informational brochure about a beautiful handwriting/calligraphy/language-based magic system, with guidelines for use and possible side effects.  I'm interested and would like to see this system featured in longer stories.

Weston Ochse's American golem puts a vengeance-seeking golem into Afghanistan, on a mission to kill a named terrorist.  It's a fresh setting for a kind of Pinocchio-tale, that is, stories about constructed human-like things, and how human they really are. (Think all the episodes about Data or the doctor on Star Trek shows.)

Ari Marmell's Heavy sulfur offers an episode from the first world war, which was largely caused by, and fought by, occultists and demons. I like this setting a lot.  Occultism and the world wars are, obviously, a perfect fit.

Carrie Vaughn's Sealskin is pretty, and readable, though the title describes it in its entirety to anyone familiar with the relevant piece of folklore (which I am thanks to the aforementioned Seanan McGuire, actually).

Jonathan Maberry's The damned one hundred is one of the more memorable stories of this collection, which I didn't even realise until just now, typing things about it.  Like several of the other stories, it adresses the, um, desperate times that call for very desperate measures. Pretty much the core of all things epic, right?

Glen Cook's Bone eaters might be more meaningful to a reader with pre-existing familiarity with the Black Company, but it is actually good enough to make me want to read those books, so - that's a win.

I usually enjoy Linda Nagata's short stories, especially the horror-flavoured ones, and The way home is no exception. A band of soldiers have accidentally ended up in a terrible elsewhere, full of demons. There is a way home, but it's not... it's not that easy.

All in all, I had a good time with this anthology.  I came away with a couple of new author names added to my pay-attention-to list, and re-discovered how good military SFF writing can be, and that it is possibly the subgenre that provides the biggest, craziest, heaviest friendships.

The year’s best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition, edited by Paula Guran

The year's best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition Book Cover The year's best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition
yearly anthology
Paula Guran (editor)
Dark fantasy, Horror
Prime Books
June 17th 2014

Do I need to mention, to start with, that I'm not a very enthusiastic short story reader? I've been trying to mend this for years now, because there are so many awesome authors writing really awesome things in short form. I've read some that I genuinely liked, so I know I have it in me. Still, I find it so much harder for short stories to stick to me, you know? Time/immersion is one of my issues.  The other one is that quite a lot of short stories are of the "window"-variety, you know, they aren't actually stories, just glimpses of something going on somewhere that might have been interesting if you spent more time there.  I'm frustrated by that kind of thing.  I always want story.

But, hey.  I read this anthology,  The year's best dark fantasy & horror, 2014 edition.   A lot of it was enjoyable, too! I don't really know anything about the editor, Paula Guran, but I did know a lot of the names on the list of authors, which was what compelled me to read this thing in the first place.  The nice thing about a huge collection like this, of course, is the opportunity to discover new names to add to the mm, interesting-list.

Some of the stories were, inevitably, uninteresting to me. In a collection this size, that's no shocker.  Easy to forgive and forget, though, when there are highlights like these:

Phosphorus by Veronica Schanoes

I recently read about radiation poisoned factory girls in The Poisoner's Handbook (which is a great piece of non-fic for anyone with any curiosity about poisonous things and how lucky we are to inhabit a decade in which there are some sort of regulations) - so maybe I had some special interest in this short story about an Irish immigrant girl in London, poisoned like so many of her colleagues. Told in a haunting second person voice, the necrosis is detailed as much as old Nan's dreams of Eire.  Oh, yes, Old Nan. She knows a thing or two about, uh, a thing or two.  The story is brimming with atmosphere and some classic ghostliness around the edges.

(I thought I remembered the name Schanoes, and I did, because a while ago I read the short and similarly themed novella  Burning girlswhich can be had for free from Tor, because Tor is awesome like that. Schanoes is a name to remember if you have a penchant for hopeful/miserable immigration era spookiness.)

Shadows for Silence in the forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson

Lengthy dark scariest-of-scary-forests story, in which some female characters kick ass, and man is generally worse than even a bunch of creepy zombie-ghosts.  It might sound like a spoiler, but it can't be, because just reading my sentence about it isn't going to convey any of what Sanderson makes you feel.   He takes the time to allow you to invest in the characters,  feel the darkness, scramble for your silver trinkets,  and the length allows some real narrative structure, so this made me very happy. And somewhat haunted, even a week after reading.  Silence and her family will be difficult to forget.

(I know, I know. More Sanderson is on the to-read list.  It's not a list. It's the cloud of titles sliding in and out of my most immediate awareness zone. Sanderson will slip inside it once I get some other epic fantasy things out of the way.)

The Plague by Ken Liu

Ultra-short, but a huge favourite to this reader, who has a throbbing heart for evolutionary/post-human ethical debacles. Or, well, horrors. It's often horrors.   These few pages pack a heavy punch,  though the "the tables have sure turned!"-thing isn't exactly unexpected or shocking. It's just harrowing. And neat.  I love it even though I wish it was a novel, or even three novels.

Moonstruck by Karin Tidbeck

Last December I visited Prague, and went to stare at the Copernicus clock at the turn of the hour, while munching some roasted chestnuts from a hot paper cone. I've had a special interest in the history of astronomy, because nerd, and this made it very easy to provide the visuals for Tidbeck's story, in which a strange and distant professor with an Eastern-ish European name sits by her telescope, while the moon is up to no good.  The writing is stark and stylish, and I'm glad I have the author's collection Jagannath somewhere on my kindle, shuffling closer to being paid attention to.

It takes me some time to read a thing like this. An anthology, I mean.  It becomes something I take a bite out of between chapters of other books.  I think I just get fatigued if I slip into too many different worlds/settings/moods in quick succession.  But being able to give it enough time helps to improve the experience of each of the stories;  there were others, aside from the ones mentioned above, that I'll remember for a while.  Some of them just do the horror thing where they manage to find a direct line of communication to my nerves, because of some weirdly specific theme or even just a sentence that strikes the right chord, but it doesn't necessarily mean the story is exceptional.  The most haunting horror-thing I've ever read was actually another short story, Stephen King's Survivor type- if you've read it, you'll know it's not exactly intellectually stimulating stuff, it's just... it just freaked me out, and still does, though I cannot really explain why.   That's how some of the stories in this anthology work, too.  Others, of course, fall flat, but for all I know they'll smack others in the face just like that Stephen King story did to me.

Anthologies are nice tasting menus for narrow sub-genres, I realise, and I should consider, um, considering them where I usually just go "Ok, point me at a novel that'll show me the features of this sub".  It is nice to have alternatives, and when offering recs to other readers, a short story is much less of a time investment than a novel. For good and bad.