Readers unfamiliar with The Year's Best Horror Stories XX may prefer to read these notes only after reading the stories.
The Year's Best Horror Stories XX (1992) Edited by Karl Edward Wagner
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1991. Wagner begins his introduction by noting the contraction in publishing numbers for horror novels and the continued flood of short stories:
[....] each new year as the output increases, I find myself wondering: Why are these people writing the same bad stories over and over and over?
[....]Here are your latest basic ingredients: A serial killer. Teenagers having sex. A vampire/werewolf. Sharp objects. A maniac. Child abuse. Contents of a human body. Bits of a human body.
[....] The really depressing part is that each new writer steams into this slough of clichés with the buoyant enthusiasm of one who believes that no one has ever written such a terrifying concept before.
Garage band fiction.
You know about garage bands. A bunch of the kids in the neighborhood are, like, really into rock music, and they get some instruments and equipment, and one of them has a detached garage where they can practice. So they listen to tapes of all their favorite groups, and they watch all their favorite videos, and they learn how to dress like their idols, and they learn how to prance and posture and swing microphone stands. Now they're ready to play. So they write a bunch of their own material, cloned from whatever they can grasp of their favorite groups—only they're going to play it louder, and they're not going to pull any punches.
What results is a lot of derivative, strident noise—sounding much like all the other garage bands around town—and the fact that their models are mostly derivative and strident clones of their favorite groups doesn't help matters. Well, it's all in good fun, and there's no harm done. Most garage bands disband for one good reason or another: The lead guitar goes to law school, the bass gets a job as produce manager, the drummer explodes on stage, the usual.
It's a similar situation in horror fiction. New writers read a few books by favorite authors, watch a lot of really bad films, then sit down to write something just like it all—only louder, stronger, no punches pulled. The result is a lot of derivative, strident noise.
[....] it means the genre is both flourishing and changing. And new blood is essential.
[....] The essential thing for new writers is to persevere until you find your own voice, and then write what you want to write. Maybe someone will be influenced by you in a few years.
[....] each new year as the output increases, I find myself wondering: Why are these people writing the same bad stories over and over and over.
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Few horror-reading pleasures can compare to the excruciating humiliations and misunderstandings inflicted on his protagonist by Dennis Etchison in "Call Home." The story makes one of Larry David's predicaments look like a vicarage tea party. The disaster seems to occur for no reason at all, except that, to use Jack Sullivan's phrase, we live in "a fundamentally malign universe".
Readers of Arthur Machen and John Buchan, however, may detect causes subtly obscured below the surface of contemporary your-can't-win absurdism. When a small child inveigles itself into an adult stranger's care, and begins expressing itself with a knowing and calculating maliciousness, surely it isn't the universe at large where the malignity is to be found.
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When soldiers die on foreign battlefields, are their posthumous fates governed by local customs and folkways? "Ma Qui" by Alan Brennert answers yes, and takes the reader through a Vietnam War hellscape where all choices are wrong and there are no maps showing the route to paradise.
"Ma Qui" is a serious story uninterested in happy endings for its Vietnamese and U.S. combatant ghosts. It rejects facile war-is-hell generalizations, shoving our noses in the specificity of imperial carnage.
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"An Eye for an Eye" by Michael A. Arnzen originally appeared in Outlaw Biker's Tattoo Revue. This isn't the first story Wagner selected from a biker magazine. As with his own fiction, Wagner's editorial nose was sui generis.
Our narrator, a skilled tattoo artist, tells the story of his final run-in with a homeless biker named One-Eyed Jack. Jack, laying low after a bank robbery, needs a disguise.
Then, when the room was nice and shadowy, he ripped off his patch, and tossed it on the floor, revealing his disfigured face. The right side of his face was smooth and pale, as if both his eyeball and eyebrow had been erased clean off. Unlike the other side of his face, there was no sunken-in socket . . . it was just a flat surface of white virgin flesh.
"What are you starin' at?" he asked, wiggling the gun at me.
"Nothin', Jack. Nothing at all.
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"Wall of Masks" by T. Winter-Damon employs a Ligottian tone. A collector of antique masks recounts the startling night of transformation he undergoes after wearing black leather gimp headgear once associated with Aleister Crowley. While our recondite narrator might live in Tucson, he clearly has the Yellow Nineties world of the Golden Dawn at his fingertips.
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"Moving Out" by Nicholas Royle is one of those short stories that rewards rereading the next day. On the first pass, it is the story of a breakup between an eccentric woman and our narrator. After a second pass, the story's truly disturbing dimensions become clear. The woman is escaping a situation in which the narrator has felt free to emotionally torture her: the name he gives to this torture is "practical joking."
Throughout, the narrator seems surprisingly patient and obliging with their breakup. Not until the end do we realize this equanimity concealed plans for a shocking last laugh.
Nicholas Royle is an outstanding impressionist: he conveys complicated scenes in brief staggered glimpses of environment, weather, and action.
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Barb Hendee's "Better Ways in a Wet Alley" is a compelling depiction of the lumpen milieu. Looking forward to works like the films of Larry Clark, Hendee allows readers no room for kidding ourselves. In its depiction of grotesques inhabiting a big U.S. city, Hendee gives our hearts to Torrie and Baby, childhood friends and now homeless street hustlers. When Baby finally overhears the respectable world's opinion of the everyday carnage people like she and Torrie face, the depths are well and truly plumbed.
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"Carven of Onyx" by Ron Weighell is a richly imagined novella of historical horror. Somewhere in England, in a Medieval nunnery, trouble mounts: architectural renovations have uncovered a secret chamber and its impedimenta of worship.
At one time Longlenn Priory was home to a band of Templar Knights after their return from a crusade. Alas, they brought something back.
Seeking further to unravel the mystery of Longlenn, the Abbot turned to a work on the heresies of the Knights Templar and discovered there, amid the familiar accusations, agonized confessions and heartless lists of "sundry entertainments" provided for the overworked torturers, certain admissions of practices peculiar enough to nonplus even their avid enemies. Though some among the knights had broken down and admitted to the "Worshippe of Baphomet" and to various "obscene observances" before an idol, there was one among their number who, while stoically denying the trampling of the cross, told how the brothers had "resorted privily to horridde incantation, an bye so doing raised an Elementarie to which ende they had employed certain attentionnes to a stone moste strangelie fashioned." The stone to which these strange attentions were paid had been "given them bye the deville-worshippers of Saladin's armies."
The demon, or "elementarie," in question had originally become entrapped within the stone and could be released by a method which the Knight refused resolutely to divulge, even under the most atrocious suffering imaginable. Neither would he divulge the whereabouts of the stone, claiming that the "Elementarie was more holie than our own Baphomet, being of no element known among men, neither of the earthe nor aire, nor of the fires nor waters of this worlde," for the stone had, according to its previous heathen worshipers, "come from the stars."
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Ramsey Campbell's "The Same in Any Language" is a chilling and closely observed vacation horror story. Ten-year-old Hugh gets a much-anticipated tour of Greece and nearby islands, but is stuck with a "joke-loving" dad who loathes any person, place, or situation outside the UK (and probably quite a few there, too). The story observes Hugh, his dad, and dad's girlfriend Kate as they visit Spinalonga, an offshore island once used as a leprosarium. The ride in a small boat in the "hour twixt dog and wolf" gives Campbell plenty of time to play with shadows and misinterpreted glimpses. But as soon as the sun sets, the island's tunnels and ruined housing structures, its walls and grave-shaped excavations, shift to black-shadowed points of ambush. Voices echo and deceive; certainties about directions - and the actual identity of companions sharing a gravel path - erode.
As was the case with L.P. Hartley's superb story "Podolo," not everyone will make it off Spinalonga alive.
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"An Invasion of Angels'' by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a tight quiver of glimpses. Experiencers collect and eat manna meat, and encounter otherworldly beings we suspect are angels. If that is true, what type of beings are the experiencers?
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An atelier tale, "Medusa's Child" by Kim Antieau depicts the flow and contra-flow of a contemporary urban vampirism. On whom should they prey who starve for nourishment? Who but painters and poets? Blood today is not buoyant enough to counter big city atomization.
[....] I realized then why the city frightened her. All those mindless people going to their mindless jobs. They were so frightened, so dazed; many of them thought of how to get home at night and little else. They had no imagination. Leila would die in that city.
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The "commons" became a shibboleth in the early 2000s for academics and activists following Hardt and Negri's book Multitude. "Common Land" by Joel Lane is not quite part of the political heat-lightning presaging that trend; it does, however, artistically falsify the later book's confidence in the agency of class-undifferentiated multitudes.
"Common Land" takes place in the urban heart of (perhaps) Birmingham. Ceramicist Rosalind, entangled with squatter activist Stephen, moves into his tiny commune's abandoned house. There is no heat or electricity, at least none safe to use. Though the ectoplasm Stephen generates in his sleep is plentiful. Commingling this situation with Rosalind's emotional isolation and unhappiness, the cult-like squatters appear to produce a tulpa.
Lane's prose and his delineation of the ebb and flow of mutually reinforcing individual unhappiness is compelling.
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Wagner's brief introduction to "Root Cellar" notes that it marks Nancy Kilpatrick's first appearance in the YBHS series. According to the isfdb, it is only her second published story. It is a competent descendant-homecoming horror tale, braided with a strand of vampire-inheritance, and saved from cliché by stylish brevity.
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"The Picnickers" is peak Brian Lumley. Though he has written countless short stories, his finest (and those are fine and robust indeed) can be counted at about half a dozen. (All can be found in the 2012 collection No Sharks in the Med and Other Stories). Many of the best tales begin with narrator memories of out-of-the-way communities isolated by tradition or industry. Like "The Pit-Yakker" and "The Viaduct," "The Picnickers" takes place in the northeast UK's coal region. Our narrator, Sandy, is spending his summer break with his uncle, the local G.P. The story turns on his uncle and several other locals confronting a nightmare menace. It makes for compelling fiction, and Lumley beautifully balances his story elements. I have previously written about it here.
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"My Giddy Aunt" by D. F. Lewis is an eccentrically executed bit of strangeness: a boarding-house anecdote that comes to rest in macabre territory. Stories about boarding house life and death by Bierce, Hume, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and O. Henry often did, too.
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"The Lodestone" is beautifully engineered. Only at the end do we realize what a fine job of nip-and-tuck Sheila Hodgson has done to create this classically misdirecting puzzle.
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Edo van Belkom's "Baseball Memories" is a slice of life in unassuming minor key. Protagonist Samuel Goldman, a skilled machinist and contented husband, wrong-foots himself when he starts using his photographic memory for baseball trivia to make extra cash. Soon he is a menace to coworkers and a source of misery for his spouse. Then things get bad.
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"The Sharps and Flats Guarantee" by C. S. Fuqua is a somber story about giving up. Imbued with southern U.S. blues music and melancholy, it is richly delineated. In a sun-drenched landscape of retarded hopes and horizons, the story demonstrates that music never pays. Just like dealing with devils at crossroads.
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Today "Close to the Earth" by Gregory Nicoll would be anthologized as eco-horror. It certainly is that, as well as being an excellent portrait of the adult U.S. male with feet of clay. Mr. Tacker stops off in Woodville, "a community close to the earth." Diner hostess Marie fills him in on local color:
"So tell me," Tacker said quietly, "what's going on around here?"
Marie continued to stare out the frosted glass. "It started back in the 1950s," she answered, her voice weak and nervous, "but nobody really noticed it until about twelve, maybe fifteen years later. Took that long to put all the pieces together."
She nodded. "Stories in the news about Love Canal, Three Mile Island—places like that—were what finally convinced everybody. Some of us, though, got wise to it all a whole lot earlier."
Tacker swallowed hard. "You mean, uh, radiation?"
"That's part of it. The chemical waste was the main thing. Ever heard of XCCD?"
Tacker set down his cup. "Sure. Xavier Commercial Chemical Development. Big Company. Everybody's heard of it. But you know, I think some of those news stories are a little far-fetched. I've been around chemicals all my life and I've never had a problem."
The napkin had soaked into the eggs on his platter. The two yellow eyes stared through their paper blindfold.
"Well, I guess you're one of the lucky ones, then," Marie continued. "XCCD's got one of those processing plants a short ways up the interstate from here. Lots of folks from around these parts got jobs in it when it first opened back in '55, though most just ignored it. Maryswood's been a farming community for hundreds of years. We're close to the earth here."
"So you've told me," Tacker responded, trying to avoid looking at the eggs, to ignore their unblinking stare.
"It was almost 1960 before the first babies were born different," said Marie. "Most of 'em died stillborn or else they came premature and didn't last long. But some lived all right, even though they were different." She stroked her left hand, still completely covered by the cooking mitten. "I came along in '63 myself."
Tacker looked down at his coffee mug. It was empty. "When did it start affecting your crops?"
"Slowly," she said. "It was even slower getting to the livestock. It always got the people first."
She turned to face him, leaning on the cool, smooth surface of the counter. "When I was growing up, there was a tanker truck that always came from the XCCD plant twice a week. It rumbled up and down the dirt roads of our neighborhood, pouring something thick and purple from a spout in its back end. Supposed to keep the dust down, they told us. Filled up the gutter on one side of the road, then the other. We kids used to ride behind the truck, splashing in the stuff, yelling like wild Indians. Later, when we went home, it was our mothers' turn to yell—we tracked it into the house all the time. It was all over our shoes."
She paused, thinking. "I remember Pokey Johnson, the little girl next door, sitting on the curb all covered over in the stuff and laughing, laughing, laughing. We had so much fun with it—it looked like runny grape marmalade and stuck to things even better than the paste we used in art class in school. Sure did keep the dust down, too, just like they said it would."
Tacker smiled weakly. He fidgeted with the empty cup, turning it in circles on the counter as though it were the gear in a machine.
"Pokey died when she was 22," said Marie. "They told us it was cancer." She looked at her right hand, stroking it slowly through the concealing kitchen mitten as she spoke. "She didn't have a chance . . . all messed up inside. Children don't ever stand much of a chance in Maryswood. I know it for a fact. None of us born since the early '60s have been altogether right. Even my . . . my son."
Tacker cleared his throat. "Ahh, you have a little boy, hunh? My wife's expecting our first in the Spring. What's your boy's name?"
Marie ignored the question. "I don't know who the father was," she continued quietly. "Coupla years ago I was drinking a lot. Don't remember a lot from those days. I—I was with a lot of men. You know, strangers passing through. Maybe even you."
The coffee gurgled in Tacker's gut. He shuffled slightly on his stool and glanced back at the cash register, wanting very much to get back on the road. Marie had begun to look a bit familiar to him, but he could not quite be sure. There've been so many . . .
"Come take a look," she said. "He's out back."
* * *
"Churches of Desire" by Philip Nutman will recall the splatterpunk subgenre to some readers.
It depicts a falling-apart film journalist left dangling in Rome as he tries desperately to distract himself from the hard work of pulling his life together.
As the telephone rang for the seventh time a sense of hopelessness descended on Meredith like a carrion bird swooping to a corpse in an arid landscape.
Come on! Answer the damn phone!
The tension in his stomach tightened another notch. Since arriving in Rome two days ago he'd been feeling a sense of trepidation so strong he could almost smell it, an aroma that churned his gut and diminished his appetite. Thinking of stomach ulcers, he clutched the call box receiver so tightly his arm trembled, jarring loose a length of ash from his cigarette. His mouth was dry and he badly wanted to take a pull from the bottle of Johnnie Walker in his bag.
The tone buzzed for the eleventh time and he hung up, running a hand through his thick, black hair, pushing back the stray strands from his forehead, then threw the cigarette to the floor. On the opposite side of Via Paisello trees moved with the early evening breeze. It was 5:45 p.m. He would try Masullo one more time. After he took a quick pull from the bottle.
Where the hell was the producer, or his secretary for that matter? There was no reason why she should be ignoring the phone; he'd called each day at the same time in a frustrating attempt to get Masullo to fix a time for the proposed interview, already rescheduled four times in the past week. With the way things were going, it looked like Film Comment wasn't going to get the definitive story of Italian exploitation movies. This was Masullo's chance to gain some mainstream respectability, which, for a producer of over thirty cheap horror movies and soft-core skin flicks, was hard to come by, and Meredith couldn't understand why he was being given the runaround. Still, the producer of such bad-taste gems as Emanuel and the Satanists, The Sex Crimes of Doctor Crespi, and pseudo-documentaries like Savage Africa, complete with scenes of clitoral circumcision, probably didn't care about anything other than money. Sex, maybe, but Meredith could relate to both areas.
A sharp knock on the glass of the booth cracked him from his reverie. A large woman in a sickly green raincoat was rapid-firing unintelligible Italian through the glass that kept the chill of the Roman night at bay. Her face was a sour rictus, the corners down-turned over cheeks the color of dough, like a bloated tragedy mask, and the coat fabric taut over the huge breasts.
Meredith vacated the booth as the woman pushed past him into the cubicle.
"Fuck you," he said with a smile. On second thought, don't.
The woman was truly gross. A dried shitty substance stained the back of her coat and legs, and her black hair hung in greasy rat's tails.
As far as he could make out, all Italian women belonged to one of two groups: over twenty-five and overweight, like the whores at the hotel, or under that age and curvaceous. He'd seen one Dachau-thin woman in, he surmised, her late thirties, a walking skeleton who served in the cafe near the station. But she had to be the least attractive woman he had ever laid eyes on, a woman who seemed thinner each time he saw her. Still, the opposite sex wasn't on his list of priorities.
He lit another cigarette while the woman dialed. The brown stain disgusted him. Rome was potentially the dirtiest city he had ever visited, the buildings heavily blackened from the cancer of carbon monoxide. And as soon as he stepped off the airport bus he'd trodden in a sizable turd—human, not animal. Great. Dirty. Smelly. Winos in the gutters near the pensione, rubbish spilling from the bins by the Villa Borghese. Shit in the Tiber. Meredith had had enough.
He had, however, much more to worry about than shit and magazine articles. More to the point were screenplays and movie deals. If Masullo would agree to read one or two of Meredith's novels he felt certain they could get a deal going. Film Comment would have to make do with what he sent them. At least he'd interviewed Dario Argento, Joe D'Amato, and Ruggero Deodato. But he had a lot riding on the idea of selling Masullo the rights to at least Blood Stunt, if not A Killing for Christmas. Throwaway thrillers deserved to be made into movies by hack producers, and Meredith was under no illusions about art: all he wanted was money. And soon. If he could get Masullo hooked he could be out of debt for the first time in seven years.
A grunting noise made him look up. The green blob vacated the phone booth, bustling past with a florish of body odor. Meredith belched in response as he fished in his pocket for a gettone and re-entered the cubicle.
Misquoting Argento, "....the porno theaters shall be their cathedrals and the suburbs shall be your tombs" is not inaccurate if we're trying to define splatterpunk's aesthetic. For readers unsatisfied by Laymon, Garton, and Gorman, "Churches of Desire" exceeds expectations.
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"A Scent of Roses" by Jeffrey Goddin begins as a missing person case in "an old decaying factory city along the Ohio River." In the summer heat, tyro social worker Cindy searches door to door for a missing child. Ultimately, she finds a door that rends the veil.
Like Karl Edward Wagner's own sublime "Where the Summer Ends," "A Scent of Roses" achieves the heights.
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"With the Wound Still Wet" by Wayne Allen Sallee is a record of a horror writer named Wayne Allen Sallee as he rides along with photojournalist friend Clay Louden on a rainy January day in Chicago. The horror they witness is mundane everyday city carnage. But make no mistake: it is also horror.
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A short story of scalding perfection, "The Bacchae" by Elizabeth Hand is an erotic, sanguinary experience. Like Robert W. Chambers' "The Repairer of Reputations," its depiction of brutal and topsy-turvy near-future city life beguiles. It also erases usual horror borderlines, triangulating on the gory fecundity found in Euripides, Nietzsche, and the scholarship of E. R. Dodds. It is a story of great intensity and concision.
In introducing "The Bacchae" to Year's Best Horror Stories XX readers, Karl Edward Wagner commented: "Look for more strangeness from [Hand] in future, as she has quickly established herself as one of the genre's foremost stylists."
How right he was.
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20 March 2023