SELECT * FROM uv_BookReviewRollup WHERE recordnum = 598 The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth An, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, Gavin J. Grant Book Review |

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The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth An, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, Gavin J. Grant
Genre: Mixed Genre Anthology
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Published: 2004
Review Posted: 6/9/2005
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 2 out of 10

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth An, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, Gavin J. Grant

Book Review by James Michael White

Have you read this book?

The Seventeenth Annual Collection of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant, sports 43 stories culled from the usual-suspects among genre magazines and anthologies as well as samples from lesser known publications. The emphasis here falls squarely upon prose, with well-written stories covering the spectrum from lighthearted to downright lugubrious. Many stories come off as style without substance, and in a few cases (okay, nine of them) as genuine jackpots, and in a very few cases as wretched Why-on-earth-have-I-wasted-my-money? flops.

Oh but any collection touting itself as representing "the best" is just a matter of taste, after all, so with this in mind, here's just a taste of what the latest "best" has to offer:

The good:

1. Dan Chaon's "The Bees" has to be one of the best ghost stories to appear for a very long time. It's about a fellow named Gene who has a good life with a loving wife and son, yet remains haunted by memories of the alcohol-soaked life he used to lead, one in which he had another wife, another son, now long left behind. Oh, but that's not so easy in ghost stories, leaving the past behind, and it's his new son, five-year-old Frankie, who provides the first inklings that things are amiss in the idyllic new life by his frightful nighttime screams, a matter about which he can provide neither waking detail nor sign of harm. Chaon's storytelling is relentless, efficient, and ruthless, exhibiting superb pacing and the kind of creepy, inescapable distress that both compels reading and makes you dread what you'll find at story's end. Turns out that what waits at the story's end is disturbing indeed in this tale about a discarded past catching up to the man who abandoned it. A harsh kind of ghost story, this one lets us know that we can never escape our past no matter how far behind, or dead, we believe it to be. Superb.

2. "Why I Became a Plumber", by Sara Maitland, spins a fantasy tale of letting things go, both the emotions that we hang onto no matter how they continue to damage us and, in this case, a tiny mermaid, whose appearance in a toilet bowl one day changes the life and spirits of a divorceť wallowing in the gloom of a miscarriage. Touched with humor and a sad kind of redemption, the story makes for light and easy reading with an uplifting ending anyone who has ever suffered can enjoy.

3. Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald" offers a clever alternate-universe take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, though never comes right out and says so. Imagine, if you will, a world in which H.P. Lovecraft's Old Ones have assumed the throne over mankind, and that all nobility emanates from them. Then imagine Dr. Watson being called upon in this universe to assist his friend's investigations into the murder of a member of the nobility. That the villain isn't who you might imagine it is makes for a nice surprise in a short tale both textured and eminently realized.

4. "King Rat," by Karen Joy Fowler, is an autobiographical essay that strikes as effectively as a short story tinged with elements of fantasy poignantly evoking themes of lost youth, lost dreams, lost idealism, but mostly just loss itself in its everlasting and infinite form. This is accomplished in very short form of a tale told through the eyes of a young girl who grows to adulthood and her longtime association with Vidkun Thrane, a Norwegian psychologist, who introduces her to the world of fantasy stories via a book titled Castles and Dragons. Every inch resonates with the underpinning architecture of its muse, "The Pied Piper of Hamlin," which is about lost children, after all, here used to help explain how those who are lost must feel, but most of all, how those who remain must deal with what is gone. Excellent and emotive.

5. Dale Bailey's "Hunger: A Confession", relies upon our primal fears of the dark and, to paraphrase Wes Craven, maniacs with knives. The trick here is that a kid named Si is tormented by his older brother, Jeremy, who likes to tell frightening stories at night in their darkened bedroom about erstwhile nefarious chap from the hood, Mad Dog Mueller, oh he of the slice'em-n-dice'm infamy. Making the story all the more frightening for Si is that Mueller liked to practice his carving arts on little kiddies. What Si finds hidden in the basement of the family's new home one day brings what were once merely stories to frightening reality in this sharp-edged ghost story.

6. "Mr. Sly Stops for a Cup of Joe", by Scott Emerson Bull, plays a neat trick of "What if?" wherein a bad guy robs a convenience store and takes customers hostage only to find that one of those customers is a badder bad guy than he is, something we can certainly expect based upon the excellent first line: "Mr. Sly and fear were old acquaintances, though when they usually met it was at Mr. Sly's invitation and on his terms." Bravo style and tip-top timing from a killer's side of noir.

7. In Karen Traviss's "The Man Who did Nothing", hapless protagonist Jeff Blake, Deputy of Housing Services, finds himself in the middle of a battle between residents wanting to evict fellow neighbor Mr. Hobbs, whom they believe to be the antichrist, a political crisis in his own office involving the kiddie-porn impropriety of a co-worker, and the words of Mr. Hobbs who reminds him that, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing." The story is excellent not simply because it's entertaining and written in an engaging voice, but because it has something worth saying, which is something all too common and appalling about human nature.

8. "Almost Home," by Terry Bisson, comes off as a young adult sleeper of a tale that takes off slowly and glides through a gentle story arc reminiscent of "It's a Wonderful Life" or even "Scrooge" in that it shows its protagonists, a trio of kids named Travis, Toute, and Bug -- who discover one day that their baseball field is really an airplane -- that an alternate world exists in which their various problems don't. Two of these kids, baseball-playing Troy and crippled girl Toute, too young to have a real romance but old enough to know all about friendship and sacrifice, learn all about tough decisions and their consequences during their visit to their alternate, seemingly better, world.

9. At once both satirical and bitingly funny, Shelley Jackson's "Husband" is a kind of story that speaks its own language in its own world while at the same time managing to engage and hold readers' interest without the strangeness of things alienating them. The first line informs us, "I am a lady drone and a big eater. I eat for the tribe and I eat well." Alas, this eater for the tribe, sporting separate sets of teeth for any eating occasion, desires that which she has not had, a husband, and it's the anthropological study of this unusual kind of relationship that drives both the humor and generates the interest. What, exactly is a husband for, and for what use to an eater drone? And who is the Doberman? You'll have to read the story to find out, but it's not what you think, just as the story itself isn't quite what you may at first (or second, or third) imagine. A bit of a puzzle and a strong spirit of play put the sting in a story that can legitimately be called interesting.

The bad:

0. George Saunders' "The Red Bow" is a story told in one of those bullshit styles you'll either buy as stutteringly real, or reject as a ridiculous gimmick. The art here relies upon a kind of shell-game trickery of implication and suggestion told in faux stream-of-consciousness style that seems designed to delay saying the important things the story wants to say. Yep, there's politics afloat on all sleeves here in a story about mad dogs "killen the chillen" and how hysterical townsfolk attempt to slay the madness in their midst, and in a post 9/11 world antecedents to the literary tropes abound, which may have helped make this an easy sell. Oh but that style galls, no matter how you feel about what it says.

1. "The Fishie," by Philip Raines and Harvey Welles stands antipodal to Shelley Jackson's "Husband" in that its style and tone neither engages nor endears itself to readers, but rather stiff-arms them with the stay-away-and-don't-play murk of too inwardly canny lingo and a so-what? plot engine waddling around the excavation of big "fishie" by a buncha rural sorts. Put simply, the chippity-chop dialogue style is humongously bothersome becausie the tellie the speak be trying to cipher. (Lots more of that sort of twaddle in "The Fishie.") Now, I don't mind a challenging read, but c'mon dudes, the second a reader wants to chuck a story across the room, you've lost him. Clearly not my cup of tea but, hey, it's one of the year's best fantasy stories. Hmm.

2. "The Hortlak" by Kelly Link comes off as a pointless waste of time. How blunt of me, so here's putting it another way: it strikes me as the kinda story that gets published because folks think that if they don't understand it, well, that must be because they aren't sharp enough to get it, so therefore it must be brilliant. Trouble is, though it's well written (has a nice rhythm, for instance, and a subdued kinda sleepy tone that jibes with the nonsensical dream-wave imagery), and though it seems to be trying to say something, the veil here is one of the only seeming. See, this dude named Eric works at the All-Night Convenience store. Zombies frequent the place, coming up from the valley, but they don't really do anything. Dude's keen on Charley, a girl who works nights at the animal shelter and drops by the store while giving doomed doggies their last car ride. Day-shift guy, Batu (and nominal manager), has a head full of crazy ideas that may or may not explain anything about the surrealities of a story portending things deep and meaningful. End result is kinda like wrapping islands in pink plastic. Looks kinda neat from the right perspective, but, eh, what's the point?

3. "Lamentation Over the Destruction of Ur," by Paul LaFarge, is an absurdist satire of war in which a teacher finds that the students in his conversational English class would rather role play their conversational practice as soldiers than anything else. Perhaps this is because there's a war on that started the day before the class began, but therein lies part of the problem; the satire is only tepidly pulled off, a feeling arising partly from tone -- playing matters dialed down to an even five rather than, say, a Spinal Tap eleven -- and arising partly from the functional offsets of primary satirical targets, which seem too diffuse, really, to drive the satirical points effectively home. Military actions are spoofed, but mainly through the actions of the students. The world in which such absurdities as war may exist is spoofed, too, but again only through agencies several degrees removed (for instance the enemy country is represented by a map of New York state, though the country isn't really shaped like that, nor is the enemy city under siege New York city, but it's called that because, well, the foreign name is too hard to remember). The end result is that the stand-ins aren't able to as viciously skewer as the things themselves. A story that seems to be casting about for its analogues in a world in which plenty already exist seems disappointingly veiled and ultimately far too general. Though a good satire should cut to the quick, this one merely chafes.
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