Another year means another entry in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, a yearly release that pulls from both seasoned authors and relative newcomers to highlight all things dark fiction. The new 2020 edition eschews the usual “year in the title” approach in favor of the streamlined The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: Volume One. That said, have no fear as the book is still edited and introduced by Paula Guran, whose tenure extends to over forty anthologies who has been compiling The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror since at least 2011.
It’s difficult to pin down the identity of a multi-author collection as vast as this one: there are twenty-five contributors to this behemoth, which stretches to easily over four hundred pages. With that in mind, if I had to generalize a concept for the book I’d say that the majority of stories are of the more cerebral (and often surreal) variety. If you’re looking for light and fluffy reading you’ll find very little of it here, as most of these entries tend towards a more literary and elevated style although, again, there are twenty-five (!) stories here and that can’t hold true for quite all of them.
Rather than assess the sum in a less productive way, here are a few of the stories which most appealed to me along with my thoughts:
Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart by Sam J. Miller: This is something of a character study by way of King Kong, who acted as a symbol of hope for otherwise downtrodden and marginalized New Yorkers. This story is both very heartfelt and original, with an ending that’s chilling in how comforting it is. That may sound confusing, but trust me, it’s appropriate.
Thoughts and Prayers by Ken Liu: Set in a believable near future, a family deals with the aftermath of their daughter’s murder in a mass shooting with troubling consequences. This story felt gritty and real, at times deeply uncomfortable but well worth the read. A lot like an episode of Black Mirror.
Logic Puzzles by Vaishnavi Patel: This is a pretty straightforward piece about a girl discovering that she possesses a strange sort of magic. Dark and effective in its simplicity, plus I’m biased because I used to love logic puzzles.
Conversations With the Sea Witch by Theodora Goss: One of the stories that more cleanly falls into dark fantasy rather than horror, this is a spin on The Little Mermaid which is touching and melancholic. I liked the motivation given to the sea witch and the new perspective granted to the characters by age.
Glass Eyes in Porcelain Faces by Jake Westlake: A very direct take on mental illness and delusion. One of the scariest piece in the anthology, as the author uses the uncertainty of an unreliable narrator and the certainty of a delusion to keep the reader off-balance.
Boiled Bones and Black Eggs by Nghi Vo: The account of a girl sent to work with her aunt in a restaurant which serves the dead to send them along in peace. This story felt very homely and a lot like a folk tale, plus (if I’m not mistaken) it drew from Chinese history and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which feels underexplored in dark fiction.
His Heart is the Haunted House by Aimee Ogden: The story of an aging monster hunter and the ghosts he carries with him. Haunting in more ways than one, this story competes with Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart for my favorite in the collection. The author is able to do a lot in a short span and manages to not lose sight of being entertaining and playing with horror tropes while addressing the heavy concepts of grief and guilt.
In That Place She Grows a Garden by Del Sandeen: A magical realism piece that centers on institutional discrimination, in this case with regards to a Black girl’s hair being deemed distracting by the principal of her private high school. The realism is gut-wrenching but the magic is evocative and full of great imagery.
The Coven of Dead Girls by L’erin Ogle: The story of a haunting told from the perspective of a serial killer’s victims. Also one of the scariest pieces, this one is visceral and is made all too real by the subtlely embedded details.
Some Kind of Blood-Soaked Future by Carlie St. George: A meta take on slashers that plays with the final girl trope. That in and of itself isn’t reinventing the wheel, but the found family dynamics and the quick writing style make this one reflective and fun.
All that and I’ve only scratched the surface for you, there are fifteen stories not mentioned and plenty of winners there too. The benefit to an expansive collection like this is that there’s such a range of stories that it’s unlikely that you won’t find anything you like. In the same breath, you probably won’t like every single thing in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: Volume One, but that’s less a statement on quality than sheer quantity. This may not be a big hit with readers looking for pulpy genre fun (at least not overall), but if you like your horror a bit more sophisticated and on the cutting edge of social dialogue, there will be a lot for you here.