Reading through the volume, I was impressed with just how similar this year's stories were. Almost all of them followed the same formula: a pseudo-literary tone, an unassuming narrator (himself a horror writer more frequently than chance would predict), an uncanny happening, and a slowly dissolving narrative that peters out into no resolution. While some of the stories were interesting (Michael Marshall Smith's "What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night" is perhaps the standout with its Twilight Zone plot and atmosphere), this was perhaps the weakest year for horror fiction since I started reading the Best New Horror series in 1998. I don't believe there was a single story with genuine fear in it, just quiet unease mixed with varying degrees of fantasy and gross things. Robert Shearman's "Granny's Grinning" exemplified both trends, taking the form of a light fantasy that descends into a disgusting form of inter-generational incestuous trans-gendered pedophilia.
But overall the feeling BNH 21 gives off is that of an echo, faintly recalling older, better stories. In just this one volume, there were stories that were explicitly modeled on works by Richard Matheson (the King/Hill collaboration "Throttle") and Edgar Allan Poe (Nicholas Royle's "The Reunion"--a superior fantasy riffing on "William Wilson" but more akin to the Twilight Zone than anything horrific), as well as a posthumous collaboration between Reggie Oliver and early twentieth century writer M. R. James ("The Game of Bear"), a story imagining the Fay Wray character from King Kong's first sexual encounter "After the Ape," and Brian Lumley's contribution, which mixed a variant of the monster from "Mimic" with a classic ghost story whose title eludes me. All in all, BNH 21 seemed to be looking distinctly backward rather than forward.
Part of the problem is the collapse of the short story market. There are few paying venues left for horror, and fewer readers. Most short horror stories are now published as parts of collections, and collections come only from the pens of established horror writers since few publishers take chances on new, unproven genre writers. As a result, while some original material leaks through, the lion's share is dominated by the same names who have been writing for thirty, forty, or more years. The other part of the problem is that many of these writers have made nods toward the literary mainstream for either artistic or commercial reasons, and their work consequently lacks some of the wild energy of more full-on genre horror. All of which is a long way of saying that I am thoroughly tired of reading quiet little tales about the futility of existence or misunderstood monsters. The essence of horror is fear, and BNH 21 is a bit lacking in that department. This isn't Jones's fault--he is one of the best editors the horror field produced--but it is a problem if your book is entitled Best New Horror, and there isn't enough horror to go around.