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Ellen Datlow has edited a huge number of horror and dark fantasy anthologies in the last thirty years, and one of the more important volumes was Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror. This book collected some of the best horror short fiction from 1984 to 2005, a veritable who’s-who of horror’s movers and shakers: from King, Barker, Simmons, Straub, Lansdale, Schow, Gaiman, Steve Rasnic Tem, George R.R. Martin, all the way to Joe Hill, Kelly Link, and Elizabeth Hand. Darkness isn’t the best of the genre, but it’s an excellent cross-section; it holds up as an invaluable, must-read anthology, and I consider it a foundational work for those who want to see the evolution of horror as a genre.

Now, ten years later, comes a book called Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror, also edited by Datlow. If you can’t tell by the title, this is pretty much Darkness Part II, collecting 24 stories from 2005 to 2015. The table of contents ranges from established authors dipping their toes into horror, to new masters, to young up-and-comers already making their mark on the genre. The list includes Caitlín R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, Gene Wolfe, Richard Kadry, Brian Hodge, Gemma Files, Lisa Tuttle, Stephen Graham Jones, Garth Nix, and more. The bottom line, though, is that this volume contains some of the best short horror of the last ten years.

Tachyon Publications - 2016.

Tachyon Publications – 2016.

Twenty-four stories is a lot to cover in one review, more so when there’s such a wide range and variety like with this collection, so I’ll hit on some of the ones that left most of an impact on me. (Besides, with some of these, you’ll want to read them without even the hint of a spoiler.) And really, the overall quality of fiction here is so high, it’s hard to figure out where to begin. “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix seems like a good place to start, because it’s such a weird story, where old soldier Sir David attempts to disarm an elderly bloke who could well destroy the world as we know it. Or maybe “Dead Sea Fruit” by Kaaron Warren, about a dentist working in a clinic for anorexic girls; all the girls talk about a strange man whose kiss causes them to waste away to nothing. Everything seems to be going right for the protagonist, though, until her mysterious new boyfriend refuses to kiss her…

Many of these tales are downright chillers, unflinching tales of blood and death and moralities twisted beyond what we know. When you find yourself kept up at night yet unable to look away, you know you have some winning horror at hand. Margo Lanagan’s “The Goosle” is a bloody and beautiful retelling of Hansel and Gretel that sent shivers down my spine; the word choice and structure is excellent, but it’s one of the more unsettling stories in the collection. “At Night, When the Demons Come” depicts a post-apocalyptic hell infested with female demons, a place where nobody is safe, least of all women. “Strappado” by Laird Barron is about businessmen on various trips to Asia who meet at a bar, then head out looking for something exotic and exciting… and who end up finding something bloodier and more dangerous than what they wanted.

Some of these stories take themes or set-ups we’re already familiar with, and runs with them; they may not reinvent their tropes, but they get the most mileage out of them. Gene Wolfe has a delightfully eerie story about a horror writer who invites a friend’s family for a visit, having planned every nuance of how to abduct their teenage daughter; it’s oh-so-satisfying when he gets his just desserts in a surprise end. Richard Kadrey’s “Ambitious Boys Like You” takes another familiar old setup: two kids break into the “old haunted house” owned by some crazy old guy, looking to rob the place and kill the old man. The joke’s on them when they find a murderous layout of traps and creepy dolls, but ambitious boys sure don’t back away from this kind of thing, leading to a horrific, bone-crunching revelation.

Some stories deal with sick relationships and sexual violence, the kind of deep psychological horror I find most chilling. “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan was one of my favorites here, about incestuous twin sisters who ride the highways in an old Impala murdering hitchhikers. The sisters tell each other to stay awake, not to sleep, and the story reads like an insomniac’s dream, the writing wonderful in its off-kilter, almost stream-of-consciousness cadence flowing as if from someone who’s been awake far too long. Livia Llewellyn’s “Omphalos” follows one disturbed family on a weird vacation up north, whose teenage daughter’s pleas for escape are finally answered when the void grants her oblivion as the cycle begins anew. “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” by Robert Shearman starts with brother-sister sibling rivalry and ritual doll executions, and ends with the sister, all grown up, re-enacting the ritual with her meek husband. It’s a short and brutal love story, though not one of conventional love. And “Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle is a true nightmare about a girl kidnapped and held in closet, by a man she thinks she encounters again later in life.

I think Nightmares is a worthy successor to Darkness, an excellent collection in its own right. There’s a variety of stories here, and no matter what kind of horror terrifies or fascinates you, there’s probably a few stories here perfect for your taste. Datlow has a nigh-immaculate eye for stories, often passing up on obvious choices in favor of an author doing something new or unique, making the collection feel more personal and interesting. Die-hard horror aficionados may have seen these already—I read Brian Hodge’s chilling “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” just last year when I reviewed Datlow’s The Monstrous anthology, for example, and a vigorous reader of Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series will have read most of this volume. But for the novice or neophyte, this is another invaluable collection. It’s not exactly the “best of the best” of the last ten years… but it may as well be. Nightmares works as a great introduction to recent horror short stories, and includes some downright chilling stories. Pick it up and prepare to have the crap scared out of you.

Contents List:

  • “Shallaballah” by Mark Samuels
  • “Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe
  • “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
  • “Dead Sea Fruit” by Kaaron Warren  (Aurealis Awards nominee)
  • “Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle  (International Horror Guild winner/Bram Stoker nominee)
  • “Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files
  • “Hushabye” by Simon Bestwick
  • “Very Low-Flying Aircraft” by Nicholas Royle
  • “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan  (Ditmar Award winner)
  • “The Clay Party” by Steve Duffy
  • “Strappado” by Laird Barron  (Shirley Jackson nominee)
  • “Lonegan’s Luck” by Stephen Graham Jones  (Shirley Jackson nominee)
  • “Mr Pigsny” by Reggie Oliver
  • “At Night, When the Demons Come” by Ray Cluley
  • “Was She Wicked? Was She Good?” By M. Rickert
  • “The Shallows” by John Langan
  • “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska
  • “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn  (Shirley Jackson Award nominee)
  • “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” by Dan Chaon  (Shirley Jackson Award nominee)
  • “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” by Robert Shearman (Shirley Jackson Award nominee)
  • “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
  • “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix  (Shirley Jackson Award nominee)
  • “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
  • “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey

Book Details
Title: Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror
Editor: Ellen Datlow
First Published: 1 November 2016
What I Read: Tachyon Publications ebook, 2016
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via Netgalley and Tachyon)
MSRP:  $16.95 tpb / $9.99 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 1616962321 / B01G5V6FNS