Signal Horizon

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{Book Review} The Best Horror of the Year Volume 13: The Cutting Edge

[Beware: Minor Spoilers Below!]

It’s become almost unremarkable when Night Shade Books releases a top-tier anthology. Like Tom Brady winning another Super Bowl, or Kendrick Lamar dropping a platinum album, some things are just expected. But under Ellen Datlow’s editorship, the Best Horror of the Year series has become a crown jewel in the publisher’s line. For over a decade now, the anthology has charted the established masters and rising new voices of horror fiction, and provided an exhaustive catalog of every major novel, novella, and collection published in the past year. Now reaching Lucky Number 13, the series shows no signs of slowing down any time soon – in fact, its latest installment is one of the strongest yet. 

As usual, a few of horror’s biggest names have stories in here, and Stephen Graham Jones’ “Lords of the Matinee” stands out. Coming off the blockbuster success of The Only Good Indians, Jones has had an incredible year, and “Lords of the Matinee” is another strong piece of work from his pen. The plot follows a young man as he takes his father-in-law to a daytime movie, and accidentally gets a glimpse into his subconscious, learning some dark family secrets. From there, things only get worse, and there’s one particular image that still gives me shivers weeks after reading. Jones’ breezy, informal first-person narration is a joy to read, and the story’s eye for the macabre among the ordinary is reminiscent of King in his prime. 

Nathan Ballingrud also impresses with his “Scream Queen,” a twisted love letter to B-movie cinema and its stars. Told through the framing device of a DVD bonus documentary, “Scream Queen” traces rumors about demonic possession on the set of ‘Blood Savage,’ a legendary schlock film from the 1970s. Its central character, the 82-year-old Jennifer Drummond, is a vivid and emotionally real personality, and the story delves into some of the darkest depths of sexism and exploitation in Hollywood that have become all too familiar from recent years’ news. It’s a meditation on horror films, the people who obsess over them, and the nagging question – are we a little bit messed up for enjoying this?

Beyond the household names, though, some of the strongest stories in this year’s stable come from relative newcomers. It’s hard to do anything fresh and new with dystopia anymore, but Catriona Ward’s “A Hotel in Germany” pulls the trick off, delivering a dismal, threatening future world – seen from a perspective we don’t usually empathize with – in wickedly sharp detail. There’s a slow reveal to this one, so it’s best to go in with a minimum of spoilers, but suffice to say this is a tale of power and privilege, the misery it creates for others, and above all revenge. Highly recommended. 

Speaking of things that are hard to give a new spin, there’s a zombie story in here, and it’s also pretty excellent. With disturbing echoes of life during Covid, Maria Haskins’ “Cleaver, Meat, and Bone” is set in the aftermath of a pandemic that turned ordinary people into carnivorous “Raveners,” only to have them return – seemingly – to normal when a vaccine was found. Its protagonist, Hanna, is a traumatized young woman who lost half her family to the horde, and is trying to cope by learning the butcher’s trade. But past atrocities are never really buried, it turns out, and when they come back, no one is safe. Thematically, there’s a lot going on here – about grief and memory, about bullying, and about contagion of all kinds. It’s a deep, rich story that rewards a re-read. 

Meanwhile, Richard Gavin’s “Scold’s Bridle: A Cruelty” riffs expertly on the theme of the Faustian pact, taking its Devil figure into the supposedly innocent streets of suburbia. Ivan Biskup is desperate for cash when he agrees to create a perfect replica of a medieval torture device, and Gavin’s prose lingers lovingly on every detail of the Bridle, from its “iron muzzle” to its “gravel-like coating of barbs” – but Biskup never intends that anyone would actually use such a thing, of course. (Cue ominous music.) There’s a real eeriness of tone here that’s hard to pin down – a jarring wrongness that sneaks up on you between one page and the next. At a mere seven pages, this is one of the shortest stories in the anthology, but it packs a big punch. 

My favorite story from this volume, however, was David Surface’s “The Devil Will Be at the Door.” It’s a deceptively simple tale, about two college students who track down reports of a bona fide haunted house in their neighbourhood. On paper, this shouldn’t work at all: the basic premise has been done dozens of times, if not hundreds, and there’s no huge departures from well-worn horror tradition in the characters or setting.  But Surface’s skill is all in the use of language to build atmosphere, and he has a secret weapon in the notes of Gnostic theology that he weaves deftly throughout. If this reminds me of anything, it’s John Carpenter’s vastly-underrated Prince of Darkness, and like that film, it 

“But if you can’t see it,” Greta said, “and you can’t describe it, how do you know it’s God?” 

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just that… sometimes I feel like there’s something. I can’t describe it, but I just feel like it’s there.”

“I mean… what if it’s not good? This thing that you can’t see, but you know it’s there… what if it’s something bad?”

David Surface’s “The Devil Will Be at the Door.”

***

There are quibbles, of course. I was surprised to see that Kurt Fawver, who had a particularly strong run in 2020, isn’t included here; there’s also no mention of Shane Hawk’s wonderful Indigenous horror collection Anoka in the Summation, an unfortunate miss. It’s worth remembering, too, that “Best” is a highly subjective line to judge – not every story reached the heights of the ones mentioned here, and there were a few that weren’t to my taste at all, although they might be someone else’s favorites. But overall, it seems almost ungrateful to focus on the negatives, when there’s such a wealth of good stuff on display. For anyone who doesn’t have the time to pore through every issue of Nightmare, Cemetery Dance, and the other short-fiction magazines, the Best Horror of the Year series is a lovely curated selection. Future historians of the genre will look back on these books as an important resource, charting the rise and fall of different writing styles through the 2010s and 20s. For the average reader, too, it’s hard to imagine a better guided tour through the darkness. 

The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 13 is available now from bookshop.org, and other less scrupulous companies.