Review: Best New Horror 21
I just finished reading The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 21, the latest in editor Stephen Jones's long-running anthology of contemporary horror fiction from the preceding year. This year's volume contains stories from such luminaries as Stephen King and son Joe Hill, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, and a host of usual suspects who reliably publish remarkably similar stories each year. (Full disclosure: I submitted a story to Jones for consideration in BNH 21, but it was not accepted.)
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.
Publishing Odds and Ends
I found out today that my story "The Writing on the Wall" has changed publishers and anthology titles upon publication. Originally scheduled for No One Can Hear You Scream from Lame Goat Press, it is now housed in the anthology's new title and publisher, Deep Space Terror from Static Movement under the editorship of Chris Bartholomew. Sure, it's been six months since it apparently came out (June 17, according to Amazon), but I only learned of this now.
Additionally, my contribution to 21st Century Gothic is now in-press, and the anthology of literary criticism is scheduled to go on sale from Scarecrow Press next moth.
Anthropology without Science?
The American Anthropological Association has remove the word "science" from its official statement of long term goals, according to the New York Times. The article quotes the changes in the official statement:
Until now, the association’s long-range plan was “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” The executive board revised this last month to say, “The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.” This is followed by a list of anthropological subdisciplines that includes political research.
The purpose of the revision is to purposely include anthropological researchers who see themselves operating outside of science, including those who view anthropology as a form of political activisim on behalf of native peoples and minorities. In the United States, "anthropology" includes archaeology and physical anthropology under its umbrella as well as race, class, and gender studies. These areas have experienced tension over the role of science in anthropology.
I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of a discipline serving political ends, since choosing to say that a discipline forwards "public understanding" insttead of "stud[ying] humankind" seems to invite a semi-official understanding of what the public is supposed to understand--which, given the political views of many anthropologists, is a grab bag of post-colonialist theory and advocacy of the political rights of indigenous groups. These rights may be worthy in and of themselves, but they are subjects for political, rather than anthropological, discussion. Confusing the two can cast aspersions on the findings of anthropologists and archaeologists, which only makes more room for pseudoscientists and frauds to attack archaeology and promote their own extremist positions as morally and factually equivalent.
For now, the AAA will keep "science" in its official statement of purpose.
Over at James Randi's website, Jamy Ian Swiss has a fascinating blog post discussing Daryl Bem's claims in "Feeling the Future" that the college students were receiving information from the future to aid them in the present. Swiss says much more thoroughly and eloquently what I tried and failed to say about Bem's work a couple of months ago--that this claim is highly suspicious, likely specious, and utterly devoid of the context needed to prove what it claims to demonstrate. Highly recommended.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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