Every autumn the “Best of” books begin to run and spawn, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy Horror 2013 (Prime Books; August 20) is the first out of the gate, with the upcoming The Best Horror of the Year and Mammoth Book of New Horror nipping at its heels. The literary preferences (and perhaps networking skills) of each book’s respective editor will determine which anthology will triumph in the end––for ultimately, there can be only one.
As it states in the title, editor Paula Guran’s anthology is a mix of dark fantasy and horror, with dark fantasy clearly dominating the proceedings. With the exception of the few stories that declare their dark fantasy roots from the first sentence (“Azriel tugged on his wizard’s cap and straightened his wand,setting his gaze firmly toward the hills of Greatbellow”), there’s a certain amount of fun to be had in trying to predict what type of story you’re in for. Some tales begin as dark fantasy before veering violently towards horror; others keep their genre intentions close to the vest up until the very last word.
Mike Carey’s “Iphigenia in Aulis” is a perfect example. Beginning as a “juvie prison/government experiment” story, it slowly evolves into something else––a surprisingly moving post-apocalypse yarn that thoughtfully explores zombie ethics and what it means to be human. This is one of those stories you find yourself pressuring your friends into reading (trust me, they’ll thank you later). Other standout stories include Ellen Klages’ “The Education of a Witch”, which sees a young child discover her true calling, and Laird Barron’s “Hand of Glory”, a genre-busting mash-up of Boardwalk Empire and Angelheart. (Although Barron fans may want to wait a couple of weeks for The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, his oft-delayed, much anticipated anthology, which happens to include “Hand of Glory”.)
The biggest problem with The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror comes down to issues of quality. With 35 stories spread out over 500+ pages, there seems to be a lot of filler here. Frankly, some of these stories ain’t up to snuff. Sometimes editors adopt a “take what I can get” approach to compiling an anthology, rather than refusing to accept anything but the best. Other times it comes down to personal tastes. I found Garan’s opinion of what is the “best” to vary widely from my own, but that’s not to say all readers will feel the same way. There’s a lot of good stuff to be found here, as long as you’re not afraid to do a little digging.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Skulls