For Horror fans, the most “awaited” publications tend to be the annual “Best of Horror” anthologies meant to represent the year’s best Horror fiction in the short story format. Of these, there are currently three: The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Prime Books), and The Best Horror of the Year (Night Shade Books). These books have a lot to offer the Horror fan and writer alike; so if you are not going to buy any other books this year in the genre, I recommend these as worth the money. Ironically, one important reason has nothing to do with the selected “best” horror: instead it is the supplemental content included in these volumes.
For most of Horror’s history, the developments of the genre have been reflected in front and back matter of individual books – especially collected works. Long neglected or abused by critics, Horror writers and editors began documenting the stirrings of the genre on their own. This has resulted in an oddly parsed diaspora of Horror history throughout varied publications, which currently is more neatly pulled together in today’s “best of” anthologies. This makes these collections indispensable references for writers seeking to understand the genre’s evolutionary path. But they also are important if one is to understand what genre “authorities” claim are indeed “the best” representations of modern Horror.
“Best” is after all, a relative term. I do find however, that these volumes at least contain well-constructed stories. If you don’t like them, you can at least see why others might have liked them – how they found their way into a “best of” anthology. But more importantly, by reading these collections you can come to understand how an editor’s personal taste affects their choices, maybe even seeing your own work as not a likely preference for a given editor. This is an important step for a novice writer to understand, because it is exactly what is behind the advice of publishers and editors to “research” a market or magazine before you submit to it – if you cannot get a feel for editorial choices, you will probably continue to rack up rejections.
The three editors of the above-mentioned “best of” anthologies are the biggest names in editing the Horror genre today: Stephen Jones, Ellen Datlow, and Paula Guran. It is important to understand what they think is the seminal work currently defining the genre, the potential future of the genre, and your place in it – whether as a writer or a fan. It also “clues” you in as to what the Horror establishment may be thinking, because in these collections the editors tend to become quite candid about the state of the genre and publishing in general. Whether you agree with them, with the “establishment,” with publishing or with the choices in authors/stories, what is important is that you develop an opinion that helps you define your work or purchasing patterns. Horror will evolve when there is a unified current to direct it.
The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror
Of these collections, perhaps the best known and most respected is the Mammoth version, edited by long-time Horror editor Stephen Jones of Great Britain. Published first in the UK and then typically re-issued in the United States (frequently with cover changes), it is this compilation that keeps American Horror abreast of the international Horror publishing scene. The anthology typically includes up to 100 pages of the year’s happenings including publishers and bookstores that open or fold, updates on the status of Horror periodicals, awards given, movies, books, television, author news and events, conventions, graphic novels and relevant comics, games, and virtually any genre gossip to be found, including an author necrology listing of those writers who died during the year.
Stephen Jones is considered to be by far the leading Horror anthologist with a stellar international reputation as an editor who continues to shape the genre more than any other editor in the business. His credentials and works read like an encyclopedia of Horror history, resulting in pages of titles and awards listed. If there is one face of Horror, it is probably his. Even if you are not a fan of Horror as the UK does it, avoiding Jones in the bibliography of the genre is impossible. His ‘short bio’ taken from his literary agent’s (Dorothy Lumley of the Dorian Literary Agency) page is the tip of the ice burg and should give all doubters pause:
“He is the winner of three World Fantasy Awards, four Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards, three International Horror Guild Awards, as well as being a twenty-time recipient of the British Fantasy Award and a Hugo Award nominee…” (See so much more at http://www.stephenjoneseditor.com )
For those who dislike what they find being published today in Horror, you have found a high-ranking champion in Stephen Jones, quoted in an interview with Matt Cardin of Cemetery Dance Magazine in December 2008: “Bad horror fiction adds to the current state of dumbing down and rising aliteracy [sic]. It’s alive and thriving in the paperback racks.” In regard to the future of the genre he states: “The majority of horror fiction currently being published is woefully lacking in both originality and the ability to inspire any emotion whatsoever… Until we can get our own genre in order, any prospective growth in the horror market looks very unlikely indeed…” (http://www.stephenjoneseditor.com/interviews01.htm#CemeteryDance)
If that is your view of contemporary Horror publishing, then Jones is your editor of choice and Mammoth is your work of Best Annual Horror Fiction, period. But even if you feel differently, it pays to remember that with our genre roots firmly planted in Europe and seeded by the UK, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror is an almost indispensable addition to any American Horror fan’s bookshelf. It helps to understand the global implications of our shared economic struggles and technological developments as they relate to the American publishing scene. Because if established writers, editors, and publishers are having troubles it inevitably means that writers will have trouble finding markets, fans will have trouble finding variety, and those seeking work in publishing will have less opportunities for employment. Mammoth is so informative, its only drawback is the year or more long delay in its American availability.
The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror
Meanwhile, back across the pond, American Horror has had its difficulties in keeping even anthologies with an established audience in publication. One well-known and respected collection still publishing is the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror.
It derived from a concept established by another annual publication titled the “Year's Best Horror,” a collection originally published in 1971 by DAW Books, as part of an anthology series that included The Annual World’s Best Science Fiction and the Year’s Best Fantasy Stories. It was edited first by Richard Davis, then Gerald W. Page and finally Karl Edward Wagner, and was discontinued after Wagner’s death in 1994. Significantly, it included the same type of format as the Mammoth series – including an informative forward designed to track relevant genre happenings which makes those anthologies important collector’s items for those who want to follow the evolution of our genre.
When the collection concept fell victim to competition, an also-ran title emerged first in competition with and then to supplant the Wagner anthology with The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (1987-2006). It was edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling and maintained a similar format, eventually replacing fantasy editor Windling with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant. But the economic turmoil was just beginning, and when the slash-and-burn tactics collided with the publishing industry, once of the casualties was The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. A game of musical publishers ensued, editorial and a title changes were made and long-time editor Ellen Datlow was succeeded in a new version by Paula Guran (former editor/producer of Horror newsletter Dark Echo 1984-1991, whose credentials include winning “two unprecedented back-to-back Bram Stoker Awards” in 1998-1998, and the International Horror Guild Award in 1999, and includes producing the horror portion of the pioneering professional Web publication OMNI Online in 1996 and being the Literature Editor of Universal Studios' HorrorOnline in October 1998 (http://www.darkecho.com/darkecho/web/about.html).
The title changed to The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror for the 2010 edition (reflecting 2009 works). The series continues today as published by Prime Books, but no longer contains the informative forward, which has been replaced by a standard introduction or editor’s essay. The series continues today with no other changes.
The Best Horror of the Year
With the unexpected change in publishers and the emersion of the new The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror in 2008, Ellen Datlow founded a competing “spin-off” anthology titled The Best Horror of the Year, published by Night Shade Books, and now publishing annually. The first in the series saw publication in 2009 issuing as a kind of “what would have been” version of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series, and which does continue to include the year’s annual summation of genre news. It continues with the same format, and just issued the long-awaited Volume 4 (2011 works) for those Datlow fans who simply cannot do without their annual fix.
Ellen Datlow remains an editorial icon of American Horror, having set the standard for many of us during her long tenure at The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. An editor of Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy short fiction for over twenty-five years, she and co-editor Terri Windling are tied for winning the most World Fantasy Awards (nine total), is co-winner of two Bram Stoker Awards, and sole winner of a third, and is a winner of multiple International Horror Guild Awards and Shirley Jackson Awards, The Locus Best Editor Award (2005,2006, 2007, 2008, 2009), the Hugo Best Editor Award (2002, 2005; including Best Editor Short Fiction 2008, 2009), and nine Fantasy awards. (http://www.datlow.com/biobiblio.html) It is most often her editorial “voice” that readers recognize in published American Horror short fiction, and she has a dedicated and loyal following which makes any collection edited by her a high-seller; no small accomplishment in this genre or these times.
In the constant struggle to keep good Horror published, these three editors are the ones to watch and support. While some may argue that they represent the Old Guard who have navigated the treacherous downfall of quality in our genre, one has only to read their essays, interviews, and commentary to understand that they share the concerns of readers and writers for the future of the genre. There is additionally something to be said for those who like their editing Old School: there are no big content issues. One may or may not like a given work of short fiction, but one can acknowledge that its artistry has merit, and that the work is relatively representative of the publisher’s intent that it is in fact an example of the Year’s Best.
Meanwhile, the reader can’t help but get a ‘feel’ for how these editors think, and to understand why there is unbridled frustration even at the top of the genre. With less Horror being published and less venues to choose from, whether you merely want to read good Horror or you write it and need a place to submit, these volumes can be the one light in a dark room, illuminating the reasons your author seems to be missing or why a favorite magazine isn’t accepting submissions. With online sources publishing intermittently and all sources at risk of indefinite or permanent closure, finding a consistent stream of information about all things Horror is increasingly difficult. These collections can keep you informed and frequently manage to entertain. If your intention is to become a published author of Horror, or to understand what is happening and why, these collections are precisely the place to start.