The Year’s Best Fantasy: Second Annual Collection / Ellen Datlow ed. and Terri Windling ed.

Since I like reading the annual Year’s Best S.F. collection put out by Gardner Dozois and St. Martin’s Press, I figured it would be worth the effort to try St. Martin’s companion series covering fantasy and horror fiction. I thought that I might like it better than I do other fantasy, since I’m generally not a fan of Tolkien derivatives. Perhaps the short form would lead to experimentation and something more interesting to me. And it seems, it does lead to more experimentation. Unfortunately, not of the kind I like. Most of the works in this collection were just too confusing for me. However, toward the end, particularly with the horror stories, the collection became a lot stronger. Some of the stories are simply amazing. But overall I didn’t like it as much as I like the S.F. series. This isn’t to say it’s bad. Sometimes I think fiction is just awful. This could be considered good if I understood it, or I was into this kind of deliberately obfuscating fiction.

Cover of The Year's Best Fantasy: Second Annual Collection

But on to the stories…

Death is Different, Lisa Goldstein
I suppose these sorts of stories weren’t all over the place in the 1980s, so it was a bit more unusual. By these sorts of stories I mean stories that mix fantasy and reality. I generally like such stories over what’s called high fantasy. But this one fell flat with me. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t seem very imaginative. Monica Schwartz is a journalist, sent to cover travel stories in the city of Amaz where people speak Lurqazi and a Communist rebel leader called Cumaq is fighting a war against the government, possibly with the help of the Russians. She secretly hopes to cover something of the geo-political story, and tries to get an interview with Cumaq. And succeeds, despite the fact that he is killed within her first 24 hours in the city. See, in this country, death is different. Not that she can prove he’s alive, or find him again. That would be too easy. So she returns home empty-handed. But when she does, she finds her husband has died in an accident, and she hurriedly tries to return to Amaz. Only she can’t. The trick to anything in Amaz, I guess, is that you can’t look for what you are seeking. One has to just stumble on it or something.
The Tale of the Rose and the Nightingale (and What Came of It), Gene Wolfe
This isn’t the usual swords and sorcery high fantasy story. It’s set in Egypt, with a combination of Muslim imagery and Egyptian gods. Ali is a street urchin taken by a storyteller’s tale of a bird in love with a rose bush. Another old man listening to the story says the tale is true, so Ali accompanies the storyteller and the old man to see the rose bush. Only the old man and the storyteller have lured Ali into a scheme to get him to bring them a magical rose from the rose bush. But when Ali gets to the bush (in a walled garden of the local ruler), stuff gets all wonky and I had a hard time following it. There’s a girl Zandra, and the two of them are transformed, but I don’t know if it was revealing something they had always been, or turned them into the ancient people of the story, or what. And there’s an alligator god and Ali becomes a pasha and the tables are turned on the storyteller and the old man. Or something.
It Was the Heat / Pat Cadigan
A horror story set in New Orleans. A 35 year old woman on her first business trip encounters a wild boy who leads her astray. Everything is too hot for her, but then the heat gets into her when she’s with the wild boy. Afterward the air conditioning bothers her and she craves the heat. She can’t go back to being who she was before, because the heat’s gotten into her.
The Cutter / Edward Bryant
A former Hollywood editor now owns a movie theater where he re-edits the movies he shows to make them better. Also, he pines for the local barfly/slut, who won’t give him the time of day because he’s older. But for some reason on her birthday she agree to meet him in his theater office, but unbeknownst to him, she is bringing along her current boyfriend. They start to have sex so that the theater owner will walk in on them, and he doesn’t like it when he does. He gets angry. But I don’t get the connection to his being a film editor, a cutter. It seemed tenuous at best.
Voices of the Kill, Thomas M. Disch
William Logan Pierce rents a cabin on Pine Kill Road for the summer. He’s a teacher, so he has the entire summer off. He intends to relax, and wade in the Pine Kill stream, and maybe do some hiking. But the Pine Kill begins to speak to him at night. Water nymphs. I thought this was a nice modern take on water spirits. This takes one of the tropes of high fantasy and places it in a modern context. It was kind of sweet and kind of creepy at the same time.
Secretly, Ruth Roston
Poem about giants. Eh.
The Devil’s Rose, Tanith Lee
Mikhal Mikhalson gets stuck in a small town in eastern Europe when snow blocks the railroads. While there, he becomes intrigued by the young lady Mardya Lindensouth, who he sees stealing away from a church. He begins a brief and torrid affair with the young Ms. Lindensouth who is just as intrigued by Mikhalson. This was a great story, though how it is horror I missed. Maybe there was some bewitching going on that I just missed.
Wempires, Daniel Pinkwater
Though this was first published in OMNI Magazine, I believe the text of this story is the same as that published in Wempires. Jonathan dresses up and pretends to be a vampire because he thinks they are cool. And then they visit and he learns what they are really like! This is an awesome story. If you find a copy of the illustrated book somewhere (it’s out of print), grab it to read to your kids.
Scatter My Ashes, Greg Egan
A photographer has a fascination with a serial child murderer, and it has dulled his sense of responsibility.
Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh, Ian McDonald
A re-imagining of Van Gogh’s madness from a fantasy perspective. I didn’t find this too engaging, except for the idea of how Van Gogh might have been able to cut off his ear. Rather than feeling pain, he’s been granted the gift of seeing color instead of pain. Bursts of wild colors, which he can then paint. Of course, there’s a drawback to feeling no pain.
Shoo Fly, Richard Matheson
Don’t let things get to you. Or find out the hard way like Roy Pressman as a fly in his office gets under his skin and he just has to kill it before he can do anything else.
The Thing Itself, Michael Blumlein
A love story about Laurie and Elliot. Elliot has cystic fibrosis, but he’s also visited by magical beings. Who don’t really do much.
The Soft Whisper of Midnight Snow, Charles de Lint
Tomi Douglas’s husband leaves her with no warning. She doesn’t adjust well to being alone. She starts seeing a figure watching her from the snow at her cabin in the woods. Until one day on her way home from town her Jeep skids off the road into a snowbank. Collapsing in the road while attempting to get home, her vision becomes real.
Roman Games, Anne Gay
Interesting tale of Sister Tom, on a train from the Vatican back to her home country of Ireland. She’s not exactly sure of the strength of her belief, and a dragon appears to take advantage of her weakness. Can Sister Tom save the imperiled mother? I’m ambivalent about this story. It’s well-written, but I’m already tired of the maybe it’s real, maybe it’s not theme to a lot of the stories so far.
The Princess, the Cat, and the Unicorn, Patricia C. Wrede
Children’s fantasy about a princess who sets off to seek her fortune, primarily because the king’s counselors think she’s not behaving like a proper princess. She’s accompanied by a cat, who turns out to be an enchanted prince. Love prevails. Blah blah blah. Thought this was boring.
The Book and Its Contents, Robert Kelly
Interesting, yet unfulfilling story about a country town doctor who is a little weird. He has (or is writing, I’m not really clear) a book that is all about language and words. And then the words come to life. Or something like that.
The Great God Pan, M. John Harrison
I’ve tried to read Things That Never Happen and Light based on China Miéville’s recommendation of M. John Harrison. Yeah, I just get lost. I didn’t get quite as lost with this story, but I am still in over my head. Something about something the characters did in the 1960s and now visions and demons are after them. Or something. I’m beginning to think that short form fantasy really isn’t my thing.
Lost Bodies, Ian Watson
While at their cottage in the country, four people come across a bodyless fox. Also, they play poker and it ends up getting naughty. Do these authors try to make their writing inscrutable on purpose?
Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds, Dan Simmons
Roger Colvin works for a NASA subcontractor. He feels incredibly guilty because liked the prospect of a Vice President position in his company more than he liked his principles. So he approved changing the O-ring parameters for the space shuttle Challenger. Now a two minute forty-five second fall haunts him.
Preflash, John M. Ford
Because of trauma, Griffin has double vision. He can see normally, but he also see visions of people’s deaths in his left eye. Except for a few people like super-celebrity and singer Suzy Lodi.
Life of Buddha, Lucius Shepard
Feeling guilty over how his life led his mother to worry herself to death, and his wife to commit suicide, Richard Damon (a.k.a. Buddha) numbs himself into oblivion in a crack house in Detroit. His only real interaction is with Taboo, a pre-op transsexual with whom Buddha establishes a loose friendship. Taboo has the magical power to remove warts. Taboo also has the hots for Buddha, but he can ignore that because Taboo has drugs as well as wart-removal power. And then everything goes to hell. For once, I got the story. And even liked it!
Appointment with Eddie, Charles Beaumont
Shecky King is the biggest entertainer in the world, but until Eddie the barber decides he likes him well enough to give him an appointment, Shecky feels like he’s a failure.
Fragments of Papyrus from the Temple of the Older Gods, William Kotzwinkle
A dead Pharaoh finds himself on the wrong boat on his journey to the afterlife. See, Pharaohs are supposed to have their own golden craft. This one finds himself on the boat of his chief praiser. The praiser’s wife is a little ticked too; she didn’t appreciate being summarily tossed into the Pharaoh’s tomb on his death.
Spillage, Nancy Kress
A coachman is flung from a coach in an accident. I think he dies, but it’s hard for me to tell what the hell is going on. I’m getting pretty tired of this in these stories. Seriously, is it that hard to make it clear what the hell is going on in a fantasy story?
Snowman, Charles L. Grant
Harry helps a lost woman in Leicester Square during a snowstorm. Everything becomes quiet, people and the crowds disappear. The woman thinks she has died and she’s in the afterlife. But she’s not. Harry is hoping she’s the love of his life that he’s been waiting for.
The Scar, Dennis Etchison
A woman, her daughter, and a man walk the highway into a small town. But there’s something a little off about the man. A little too on edge. And then the busboy takes his plate and he goes just a little berserk. An okay story though by the standards of this anthology I love it.
Laiken Langstrand, Gwyneth Jones
The king of a destroyed land becomes obsessed with finding the last object that is part of his kingdom, a fishhook. He’s drawn to a beach where everything lost in the sea legendarily returns to be eventually found. He never finds his fishhook on the beach, but he strikes up a relationship with the girl in the next hut over. Turns out she’s a banished sea creature, the daughter of the sea serpent that destroyed his kingdom. Finally! A fantasy story that I thought was interesting and one that I could follow! Awesome!
The Last Poem about the Snow Queen and Pinocchio, Sandra M. Gilbert
Pinocchio, Sandra M. Gilbert
If I don’t get the obtuse fiction that comprises most of this anthology, I’m really not going to get poetry. I’m not against poetry. It’s just mostly over my head. In my collection of 1200+ (and growing) books, only two are of poetry. Just not my thing. So I’ll skip commenting on these two poems.
Game in the Pope’s Head, Gene Wolfe
Please re-read the comments I’ve made about several other stories and make like I made them about this story too.
Playing the Game, Ramsey Campbell
Loved this story! All sorts of dread induced! Hill is a newspaper reporter for a local newspaper in a washed up town. He gets information that a former carny (Matta) has set up as a healer in the run-down and nearly abandoned docks on the river, docks that boats can’t even reach anymore. Hill actually ran into Matta as a child, and came out of the experience worse for the wear. So he has a vendetta to expose Matta. His editor says Hill can’t do investigative work, so he heads out after work with the intention of selling the story elsewhere. But he knows Matta is up to something in the docks, drug smuggling perhaps. Of course, after work is after dark, and the alleyways between the abandoned warehouses are forbidding. He finds Matta though. Matta knows immediately that Hill is there to expose him, so Matta sends Hill on his way. On his way out, he can see Matta’s assistant giving him some kind of game to play. Just awesome! Campbell doesn’t tell you everything, but enough that I wasn’t confused as to what the hell was going on. Enough to follow the story, but not enough as well, so I got a good feeling of dread.
Faces, F. Paul Wilson
Though a bit heavy on the bad parents make monsters of children shtick, this is still a great story. Kevin Harrison is the detective working on the Facelift Killer case. Seven good looking young women are found, mutilated with their faces chewed off. Standing at the scene of the seventh killing, he feels someone watching him. He directs the other officers to search the rooftop where he felt he was watched from, where they find telltale traces of blood. Later in the early hours of the morning, the killer makes contact with Harrison at the police station, starting a short but brief dialog between the two.
Snowfall, Jessie Thompson
This story just makes me sad. Sad that there even has to be stories about child abuse.
Seal-Self, Sara Maitland
Maitland writes about a man who has to cross-dress as a woman in order to kill a baby seal to make a cloak for the lovely lass he fancies. Whoosht! That’s the sound of something going over my head. However, the story does have a great line worthy of repeating. She is taller than he is, and her legs run up under her skirt, legs so slender and long that they must lead somewhere good. That’s about all that’s good in the story.
No Hearts, No Flowers, Barry N. Malzberg
A half-crooked columnist for a newspaper makes a brief mention of an overheard conversation in a restaurant. Something about a Valentine’s Day Massacre, which takes place perpetrated by the local mob. The mob summons the reviewer to met with them, and he’s quaking in his boots thinking he’s gonna get offed for blowing their cover. A nice story, but it didn’t have that sense of dread a horror story should have.
The Boy Who Drew Unicorns, Jane Yolen
This is the story of a traumatized boy who is picked on in school. He doesn’t talk. He just draws unicorns. Of course, that’s that sort of different thing that other kids jump on like sharks to blood in the water. The kids doesn’t seem to mind it that much, mostly because he is in his own unicorn world. Sort of a children’s story, and I liked it.
The Darling, Scott Bradfield
The Darling is the story of a serial killer woman, who kills most of the men in her life, as well as possibly a few other people. I’d say it’s creepy more than horror-inducing, but it’s still a pretty good story. One thing that came to mind though is towards the ends when the doctor is treating Delores for her pathology and he takes a turn for the creepy, I didn’t mind so much. Perhaps it’s a bit of moral relativism at work in me.
Night They Missed the Horror Show, Joe R. Lansdale
The dedication at the beginning of this story reads: For Lew Shiner. A story that doesn’t flinch. For damn sure this story doesn’t flinch. Leonard and Farto are small town racist hicks. Even in a racist environment, they outdo their neighbors so much that no girl will look kindly on them, and so they begin the story alone in the 7-11 parking lot drinking whiskey. They are bored, but too racist to go to Night of the Living Dead at the drive-in because it stars a black man. Instead, they tie up a dead dog behind Leonard’s ’64 Impala and drive around drinking watching pieces of the dog fall off. Until they drive by a group of students from the rival high school beating on a black man on the side of the road. Not really wanting to help him, they do so because he plays quarterback on Leonard and Farto’s team, and he’s their nigger. So they help him, but things go from bad to worse both for Scott (the black quarterback) and then for Leonard and Farto. Lansdale’s story doesn’t flinch at all. For one, he has Leonard and Farto using epithets like nigger to show how grotesque they are. And his story doesn’t flinch from a very scary vision of racism that probably isn’t too far off from that experienced in some southern small towns in the 1960s.
Winter Solstice, Camelot Station, John M. Ford
This is a poem. I read the first stanza or so and realized it’s not one of those poems that I really get, so I just skipped the rest. It’s probably pretty good for those who are into this sort of thing.
The Boy Who Hooked The Sun, Gene Wolfe
A little fable. Very eh. Didn’t do anything for me.
Clem’s Dream, Joan Aiken
Not my thing. Tooth fairy accidentally steals a kid’s dream when she takes his tooth. So he quests to retrieve it with the help of other fairies.
Love in Vain, Lewis Shiner
This is a story about a serial killer. A troubled prosecutor is sent to trip up the killer, who has been confessing to pretty much every murder around. He carries a wholly made-up case file, and yet the killer still knows intimate details of the murder that only the killer could know despite it being a fiction. Just an awesome story. Also, Shiner has made the story available under a Creative Common license. I’m a big fan of Creative Commons, and the license allows anyone to put together or repost Love In Vain so long as they don’t charge for it, don’t change it, and credit Shiner. I’ve got a copy in case he ever pulls down his site, and I’ll post it in that case. But Shiner deserves some kudos for making his fiction available this way, so go read the story over at his site.
In the Darkened Hours, Bruce Boston
Poetry. I read this one though. Still no tingly feeling though.
A Golden Net for Silver Fishes, Ru Emerson
A woman’s child is stolen by a dryad, and in order to get the child back she has to collect fish for the dryad’s pond. If she ever fills the pond with fish, she can get her child back. Of course, the dryad eats the fish nearly as fast as the woman fills the pond. But the creatures of the forest have another plan to defeat the dryad and return the child. Will the woman follow their advice?
Dancing Among Ghosts, Jim Aikin
Terri Windling’s introduction to this story calls this her pick for the best fantasy story of the year. I think it’s one of the best in this book. It’s the story of Carla and Tony, two ad executives dating and by the end of the story planning to get married, and Carla’s friend Joann from college. Joann is a painter, and a little off her rocker. Her very last painting before she suicides by overdose is a ballroom scene, people among ghosts, dancing. Joann heard the ghosts and the music calling to her, even while she was painting the scene. And in one brief moment in Joann’s apartment just after she and Tony find Joann dead, she touches the painting and is drawn into the world of ghosts. Joann is there, not dead after all. Or perhaps she is dead in the real world as a way to prevent herself from returning. The rest of the story is about Carla hearing the music from the ball, and fighting being drawn back there, and at other times questioning her own sanity.
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