In the recently-released The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, editor Ellen Datlow collects her choices of the top stories from the past decade of the anthology series. But what’s the best of The Best of the Best? Naturally, the competition for such title is stiffer than Mr. Olympia in rigor mortis, and lot of extraordinary stories have to get left off the list, but here’s my New Year’s Eve countdown of the top ten pieces in this wonderful volume:
10.”Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones
The zombie apocalypse has never featured two more unlikely survivors: an anthropology-department grad student and his dissertation director (Rick Grimes and Daryl Dixon, they ain’t). Jones’s tale offers a wicked-smart contrast of the heady and the visceral.
9.”The Callers” by Ramsey Campbell
A hapless grandson has a disturbing encounter with a group of bingo-hall hags. Campbell is the undisputed champion of subtle, unnerving detail–nowhere more evident than in this witty and slyly sinister masterpiece.
8.”Wild Acre” by Nathan Ballingrud
The typically exceptional Ballingrud scripts another winner: a werewolf story that deals with a survivor’s guilt following the massacre of his colleagues. Strong characterization here helps show that economic hardship is no less horrifying than a lycanthrope’s rampage.
7.”Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor
Dark times in the sun-punished Death Valley, domain of some unbelievably creepy vultures. Taylor’s terrific descriptive powers brings a beauty to the grotesquerie and brutality of the desert.
6.”In a Cavern, In a Canyon” by Laird Barron
Barron’s fictional hallmarks are on display: hard-boiled narration (by a female lead, in this case), an atmosphere of steadily-mounting dread. This one reads like an episode of The X-Files set in the remotes of Alaska, but that show’s Monsters of the Week seem like Sesame Street castoffs compared to the horrid carnivore preying on good Samaritans here.
5.”The Moraine” by Simon Bestwick
A Lake District twist on Stephen King’s “The Raft.” Bestwick’s haunting narrative furnishes a classic example of how the monsters we don’t actually see (but can hear all too well) can prove the most terrifying.
4.”At the Riding School” by Cody Goodfellow
A modern Gothic shocker concerning a very private school in the California hills that teaches young girls more than etiquette and equestrian skill. Goodfellow, one of the most accomplished contemporary writers of the weird tale, delves deftly (and unforgettably) here into “a Greek myth that Bulfinch left out.”
3.”Tender as Teeth” by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski
Anyone who grouses that the zombie subgenre has lost its bite never feasted eyes on this stunningly original take (concerning the ostracizing of a since-cured flesheater who remains infamous thanks to a photo that captured her mindless chomping on a baby). Gripping throughout, the story builds to a surprising–yet highly satisfying–climax.
2.”Black and White Sky” by Tanith Lee
Lee’s imagery here is jaw-dropping, as is the unsettling premise she extrapolates from: Britain eclipsed by a gigantic cloud formed of mysteriously uplifted magpies. This epic apocalypse tale would make for one of the weirdest and wildest disaster films ever to hit the big screen.
1.”This Stagnant Breath of Change” by Brian Hodge
Imagine if H.P. Lovecraft had lived long enough to write an episode of The Twilight Zone. In a quaint town whose normalcy is rooted in the paranormal, everyone is curiously hellbent on keeping a dying city father alive. The cosmic horrors of the conclusion are undeniably chilling, yet almost overshadowed by the preceding scene of angry-mob violence. Incredible on multiple levels, Hodge’s clever riff on the Cthulhu Mythos also forms one of the most harrowing works of American Gothic short fiction that I have ever read.