Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror edited by Ellen Datlow
Tachyon Publications (November 2016)
432 pages; $12.79 paperback; $7.99 e-book
Reviewed by Blu Gilliand
Ellen Datlow has been charting the course of horror fiction for over 35 years. In that time, she has maintained a balanced perspective in her numerous anthologies and collections, always casting an appreciative eye toward the established masters of horror while shining a light on the talent tasked with carrying the genre forward.
Her latest effort, Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror, looks back at the period of 2005-2015 (picking up where her Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror left off) with 24 hand-picked stories that Datlow says “have had a lasting impact on me.” Those words carry a lot of weight; although Datlow takes pains in her Introduction to classify herself as a horror enthusiast rather than a horror expert, you would be hard pressed to find someone with more knowledge of modern horror literature. With that in mind, these stories are as good a map of the genre’s journey as you’re likely to find, drawing a definitive line from where it’s been to where it’s going.
What this particular map shows is that horror may not be venturing into new territory—there are a number of familiar tropes here, including post-apocalyptic futures, creepy dolls and urban legends come to life—but writers are finding new ways to tell familiar stories.
“Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle, for example, deals with the power of hope. Here it’s presented as a good and powerful thing, but Tuttle eventually flips things around to show that, while hope can sustain you in the darkest of times, it can also, and easily, break your heart.
Laird Barron’s “Strappado” examines the dangers of gratification through two bored businessmen who seek to witness an art installation that only an elite few are invited to attend. They get their wish, and plenty more that they didn’t bargain for, including an emotionally-crippling aftermath that neither is prepared to deal with.
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix is an interesting blend of espionage and horror. An old agent, still on the job of watching an ancient and unspeakable horror that has taken on the guise of a man, finds a new enemy in the form of bureaucracy and red tape.
Those are three standouts among many. Like most anthologies, not everything will be to every reader’s taste; there were a few here that didn’t grab me, but I see no need in listing those as they are sure to be the favorites of someone else. But Nightmares is an overall success, mainly because Datlow is not just an expert (sorry, Ellen, but it’s the right word) at recognizing great horror; she’s an expert at recognizing great storytelling. That she’s drawn to horror and has chosen the genre for her life’s work is good for the genre, and good for us.