The Best Horror of The Year Vol. 11 (2019) edited by Ellen Datlow
It had been a while since I took a deep dive into some new horror, so I decided to check out one of the fantastic Best Horror of the Year collections. These are edited by the prolific Ellen Datlow, a person who has composed some excellent horror anthologies since the 1980s and served as the editor-in-chief of Omni magazine. Like all anthologies, this is a mixed bag of stories that will depend on the individual reader’s tastes. I wouldn’t say there is anything bad here, but I enjoyed specific stories more than others based on my personal preferences.
I loved the pieces by authors I was familiar with. John Langan’s Haak is a brilliant reimagining of a classic fantasy story that never feels derivative but builds up the source material in new and exciting ways. A pretty great Laird Barron story, Girls Without Their Faces, is a final girl story interwoven with an apocalyptic Lovecraftian premise. Barron remains my favorite of the current “weird” horror authors writing today, and I need to take a look at his Isaiah Coleridge series sometime soon. There’s a wonderful “author jam” style piece written by Kristi DeMeester, Richard Thomas, Damien Angelica Walters, and Michael Wehunt. It’s titled “Golden Sun” and tells about a family vacation that takes a dark turn. Each writer takes a turn at a different family member’s perspective, adding missing details to an increasingly haunting tale.
As for new authors and their stories, I discovered a few great ones here. I really enjoyed Ralph Robert Moore’s eerie “Monkeys in the Beach,” another family vacation narrative but with a series of strange gut-sinking events. What happens to this family feels completely done at random as just cruel acts of nature. The Donner Party by Dale Bailey is a brilliant piece of alternate history that has nothing to do with the American pioneers but everything to do with cannibalism. Bailey takes that foreboding title and delivers something readers probably won’t expect. German writer Steve Toase provides a pair of nasty little classic horror tales. One involves a gruesome new drug derived from a fluid coming up from the earth, and the other is about a knitting circle and the murders happening in their small town. No Exit by Orrin Grey is a heart-aching story about an adult reflecting back on a tragic event in their childhood and returning to the place where it happened. All in all, I quite enjoyed this volume. Datlow has such an incredible eye for fantastic work.
Or Something Like That: Stories by Bud Smith
I’d come across Bud Smith’s name on a list of recommendations and what stood out to me was the unique fact that he drafts and sometimes edits all his work on his iPhone. Smith is a very blue-collar guy who works a day job out of an oil refinery. The nature of his employment leads him to sit around waiting for his next contribution to the process, and he’s been writing while doing that. Smith has a couple short story collections, some poetry, and even novels under his belt, all written out on his smartphone. As someone who would like to stretch my writing muscles, I’m very interested in how people can succeed outside the cliche aesthetics of writing. It’s annoying how many people think you have to have a typewriter to be a proper writer when, from what I can see, it is more about getting into the work and finding that flow with the material.
Or Something Like That is undoubtedly a mixed bag in tone and content. Some pieces read like a memoir, others like long-form jokes a friend is telling you, and others hit like a Raymond Carver story. It’s a varied collection for sure, and I can see how some readers are just not going to gel with what Smith is doing. Because many of the author’s characters are based on the working-class people he sees every day, there can be moments where the reader may be offended by a crass or insensitive remark. However, I would argue that he captures a distinct voice, which is not the same as an endorsement. In the same way, I appreciate The Sopranos and its complicated characters; I don’t think David Chase is giving their racism & misogyny a pass. However, it would be dishonest to not present them how they are.
The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee
This text was written anonymously by a French anarchist group. It rejects the Leftists reforms of Western governments that still cling to the ideas of electoralism and incremental changes through policy. Instead, the authors outline how radical revolutionary changes are needed to create a society that will help humanity thrive alongside the planet. There are twelve sections, each outlining a specific institutional ill and why it must be stopped. The end of the book offers encouragement and hope to those struggling against the destructive systems they live under.
Throughout the text, the authors explain how capitalism has alienated people from things they need to be connected with. They begin by talking about how we are alienated from ourselves through hyper-individualism that pushes us to take on forms that aren’t in sync with our nature. Next, they explain how mass entertainment is used to dull our minds to the reality around us. Work is designed to ostracize us from meaningful communion with others. The economy is meant to be cycles of crisis to keep us unnerved, and the real trouble is the destruction of our planet. War, particularly the “War on Terror,” is meant to destabilize movements to improve humanity but creating a manic frenzy of fear.
It is a decent book and a lot more accessible than a lot of more theoretical socialist texts. I did feel that it was preaching to the choir with me, but I could see how a college student who was just opening their eyes to the ills of Western civilization could be given a solid foundation to build off of. If you are interested in exploring actual anarchy, not the gross stereotype promoted by mass media, this is an excellent place to start.
Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant
Lauren Berlant passed away in June of 2021 and left behind a vital body of work centered around affect theory. Affects are another word for emotions, but specifically in reference to the work of Silvan Tomkins. He was a psychologist who labeled nine primary subjective feelings that people experience in their lives. These are Enjoyment & Interest (grouped as positive affects), Surprise (labeled as neutral), and Anger, Disgust, Dissmell, Distress, Fear, and Shame (considered negative affects). While Tomkins sought to learn how humans have developed subconscious scripts around these affects and how we could harness them to improve communication, Berlant and her contemporaries are far more interested in figuring out why we cling to these scripts and can’t seem to work outside of them.
Berlant surmises that people within Western culture, specifically America, have adopted life scripts they are following without any genuine regard for the long-term damage they can do. “The American Dream” is one such script that people follow despite it creating an increasing sense of anxiety and frustration as it plays out in the way we are told. The accumulation of more money, property, and family/friends can often lead to unfulfillment. This script is focused on ignoring the inner gut feelings that tell us something is wrong and making sure we follow the path to the satisfaction of external forces. These are ultimately futile pursuits that do not reward us with what they promised.
This can be seen in the agitated state of politics today. It is becoming more apparent than ever that people in leadership positions have no idea how to fix the problems that are crumbling society around us daily. The climate is collapsing, and with that has come a world whose future is entirely unsure. Our agitation begins to manifest as these negative affects are often at odds with the scripts we’re running in our work & lives. On a basic level, people overeat or horde objects in their homes. Right now, people reject mainstream medicine and prefer to eat horse deworming paste. It doesn’t make sense, but it does reflect an understanding that the systems in place have become untrustworthy for good reason. You can see it in the manic mood swings of social interactions online, people who seem to wake up with a hunger to scream at faceless strangers all day long. None of them can clearly articulate why; they are just possessed by a mood, an atmosphere of wrongness in the world.
This is a profoundly dense academic work, and I would not recommend you try to read it for fun. I was quickly reminded of one of my favorite, but most difficult, classes in undergrad, Literary Theory & Criticism. I know Berlant has penned some other works, and she did write a more digestible text (from what I have heard) called The Hundreds with Kathleen Stewart. The ideas here intrigued me enough that I hope to pick that book up sometime soon and delve further into this incredibly relevant field.
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