The compilations of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror come annually as a great blessing to those of us who, from time to time, descend clandestinely out of the literature section of our premiere retail bookstores into the horror and fantasy shelves. We go to see what's new, hoping against hope that our adolescent love affairs with these genres can be rekindled by a resurgence of quality which, like all fantasy, is both impossible and always in the offing.
We need look no further for guidance than Ellen Datlow's and Terri Windling's extraordinary anthologies. Each year's edition begins with a comprehensive roundup of books, films, magazines, and comics from the previous year, which by itself is worth the price of the book.
The lone nonfiction piece among the current year's vast and delightful heap of stories and poems is "The Pathos of Genre," by Douglas E. Winter. A distinguished critic of horror fiction (a dubious distinction, but there it is), Mr. Winter struggles manfully over a proper definition of "horror," and laments the genre's evolution in recent years along market lines, rather than aesthetic ones. His investigation takes for granted that an aesthetic of horror and of fantasy, for that matter actually exists. It might help a potential reader of this collection to try to set such principles forth:In horror fiction, no matter how good things seem, they will always get worse. The pleasure of the genre derives from the reader's trust that the author will unleash on her characters a fury of mortal pain and inevitable death unfolding in a manner as ingenious, outrageous, and poetic as possible. Whichever characters survive the ordeal are not stronger by virtue of it, but are invariably bound together by their shared nightmare. In the current collection, Gene Wolfe's "The Tree Is My Hat " offers a powerful realization of all these elements of horror, all the more exemplary because of its classic format of diary entries, so familiar to readers of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
In fantasy fiction, no matter how bad things get, they will always be redeemed, either by the characters' capacity for wonder, or (paradoxically) by their wise acceptance of their own mortal limitations in a supernatural context where almost anything can happen, and usually does. "At Reparata," by Jeffrey Ford, is a glorious example of these core aspects of fantasy fiction. The light touches of Ford and certain other authors in the anthology draw the grateful reader back to read the best of these beautiful tales over and over again.
Michael Rose is a music professor at Vanderbilt University.