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Ellen Datlow: Five Things Learned Editing Best Horror Of The Year

A sin-eater plies the tools of her dangerous trade; a jealous husband takes his rival on a hunting trip; a student torments one of his teachers; a cheap grafter is selling artifacts form hell; something is haunting the departure lounge of an airport . . .

The Best Horror of the Year showcases the previous year’s best offerings in short fiction horror. This edition includes award-winning and critically acclaimed authors Laird Barron, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Nathan Ballingrud, Genevieve Valentine, and more.

For over three decades, award-winning editor and anthologist Ellen Datlow has had her finger on the pulse of the latest and most terrifying in horror writing. Night Shade Books is proud to present the seventh volume in this annual series, a new collection of stories to keep you up at night.

1: Choosing the Best

For me the “best,” is usually a combination of the several elements that I feel create the perfect storm of a story. In addition to memorable characters and delicious prose: an unusual setting, voice, I especially look for stories that work on multiple levels.

I’ll be reading the stories that impress me at least twice, often more than that. As I read during the year, I note which stories I really, really like. Then, toward the end of my reading period I’ll reread those stories. When I do a rough count of the stories I’ve marked, I initially have about twice the wordage I can actually use. So, the next step in the process is to eliminate, which means I might end up reading one story up to at least four times in order to make my final decision. The stories that stick with me, that don’t bore me, that still make an impression on me after four readings, are very special.

2: How the Dominos Fall

When crafting a Table of Contents, trying to figure out the order of the stories to come, I need to remain Big Picture; I’ve already chosen the trees, now it’s time to pull back and look at the forest.

I’ll start with an accessible story that isn’t too long. Accessibility in a story means, for me, that it invites the reader in and that it’s not too dense or complicated in structure. Last, I’ll usually end with one of what I consider the strongest stories. In between, I try to vary length, voice, point of view, and setting. For “difficult” stories (in structure or complexity) I’ll likely put them just before or after the mid-point so that the reader will have already been drawn in to the book. Of course, an editor really has absolutely no control over the order in which a reader will read an anthology. So although all planning might be futile in the end, it’ still part of the editorial process for every anthology.

3: Break The Gates Down!

One of the biggest boons not only in horror, but in the industry in general is an increasing number of writers who don’t tie themselves to one genre. This is a welcome throwback to earlier times when horror wasn’t as strict a classification as it became during its supposed heyday in the 80s/90s. Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury wrote what they wanted and were published in men’s slick magazines, in F&SF, in mainstream magazines. And no one, as far as I’m aware of, criticized them for it.

What I’ve seen over the period of time I’ve been working in the field of sf/f/h is that there are writers who now do the same. Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, Elizabeth Hand, Dan Chaon, Pat Cadigan, as well as newer writers like Robert Shearman, Helen Marshall, Alyssa Wong, Priya Sharma, and Usman T. Malik all write sf/f/h. The classifications matter less than the work itself. I love this, and feel it’s a positive situation for short story writers and short story markets. Unfortunately, it’s always been considered a problem with regard to novels because of marketing issues. Only big names can get away with writing in all genres in and still make a living. But regardless, when it comes to anthologies, embrace the story itself, and don’t worry about genre.

4: History and Its Importance

My “Summary of the Year in Horror,” at the beginning of each new volume of Best Horror of the Year began with the original Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series, co-edited by Terri Windling and myself, modeled on Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction, which was published at the short-lived Bluejay Books.

Way back then, I included news connected to the publishing industry, but over the years, because of the internet, it seemed less and less important to include that information. So I stopped.

During the late 80s and early 90s however, there was a burgeoning of graphic novels that were doing things that earlier comic series simply were not — 1988 saw the publication of the Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean collaboration, Violent Cases, Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, and John Higgins, the anthology Taboo published by Stephen R. Bissette and Nancy O’Connor, packaged by Bissette and John Totleben, and Stray Toasters, by Bill Sienkiewicz. I became very interested in what was going on artistically in the comic industry and so I covered the publishers and works I enjoyed for several years, before it got too much for me.

Writing the summary is a year-long process, as I make notes whenever I finish something. I read very few novels, relying on word of mouth or reviews for those that might pique my interest. So my knowledge of contemporary horror novels is pretty slim. But because I check out magazines from all genres (if I don’t personally skim everything–like the heavily sf or mystery magazines–I have a reader who does so, and passes the darker material in them on to me), I have a pretty good idea of who the new, most promising writers are. Reading short fiction all year round gives me the opportunity to recommend works I think my readers will find interesting–those readers who want more than just the “best,” stories.  I don’t hide my enthusiasm for what I love but over the years I’ve toned down the negative coverage and focus on what I enjoyed the most.

A few years ago I began to break down the make-up of the Table of Contents by word-length, where stories were originally published, geographic habitat of the writers, and their gender. Also, since the very beginning of the Best Horror of the Year, I’ve noted the number of writers appearing in the series for the first time. This is for my own awareness and for that of my readers. And it’s a counter to the incredibly ignorant view by some people that the same writers always get into Bests of the Year (not only mine). Overall, I’ve learned not only is it helpful to summarize the year simply so I can keep track of everything, but to help educate readers and raise awareness of new horror in every form: stories, magazines, anthologies, novels, trends, and more.

5: The Editor’s Wish

With every annual anthology, I never forget to wish: I hope I get it done. I hope I get it done. I hope I get it done! (Just kidding).

In my opinion, short horror fiction is in a new golden age and I hope to continually read far too many stories to fit into my Best of the Year anthology. And even when it seems like there’s so much to do, I never forget it’s one of the best jobs in the world.

Ellen Datlow: Twitter

Best Horror Of The Year, Volume 7: Amazon | B&N