This year's edition of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror contains some good stories, with tales by Joan Aiken, Ramsey Campbell, Christopher Fowler, Mark Samuels, Alison Littlewood, Paul Kane, Gemma Files and many others.
If you're looking for a book of good horror stories, there you go. This book does what it says on the tin. I'd read a few of these in their original publications, and it is good to see them all in one place. And for a good price. Etc.
Where the book gets a little more controversial (and therefore fun to review), is in its introduction. Editor Stephen Jones begins the book with a lengthy summary of the year in horror. For the most part, this is pretty dry. It is, after all, a survey, and the poor man has a lot to get through. Still, there's some cool stuff in here: auction prices for Universal Movie posters, for example, and a shout out to Stories of the Apocalypse (woo!).
However, there are also some more provocative inclusions. Since I don't have my own Mammoth Book in which to respond, I figured I'd crack out a review instead.
After some deliberation, my issues with Mr. Jones' introduction fall into two broad categories:
1) He's using a professional platform to air personal grievances. Don't get me wrong, if I had something like Best New Horror at my fingertips, I'd be tempted to sneak in the occasional "hi mom" as well. But this isn't the place to settle old scores.
2) I disagree with his interpretation of events. Mr. Jones has the right to his opinion - he just can't let it colour what is set up as an authoritative review of the year in horror.
2b) I've also got a big problem with his opinion.
Starting from the top - Mr. Jones takes the opportunity to - again - excoriate the winners of the 2011 British Fantasy Awards:
"I've talked about integrity and the validity of awards in these pages before, and I don't plan to go into the controversy surrounding the 2011 British Fantasy Awards any more than I have already done so elsewhere, other to say that I believe that people know when they really do or do not deserve to win an award, and they have to live with their actions - and the consequences of those actions - for the rest of their lives. I'm not sure how worthwhile any award is if you know that you have actively campaigned to win it." (86)
After winning the British Fantasy Award himself twenty-one times, Mr. Jones is no doubt keenly attuned to what constitutes a deserving victory. But this diatribe is particularly ungracious coming off the back of his initial summary of the BFA, in which he lists the winners, points out the irregularity in the process and concludes:
"While there was no evidence of any wrongdoing on anyone's part, the subsequent online controversy, which also made the national press in Britain, resulted in the formation of an interim BFS committee and the entire voting process being made far more transparent in the future." (85)
The above actually passes for an objective summary of events, although it does gloss over Mr. Jones' own role in generating the 'online controversy'. So why then does he revisit the topic later in the same essay if not solely to have the last word?
But the 2011 BFA winners are not the only recipients of Mr. Jones' ire:
"You may also have noticed that with this volume, the editorial matter is shorter than in recent editions of this series. This is because, according to my publishers (and a handful of "reviewers" on Amazon), the non-fiction elements are superfluous to the rest of this book, and they have ordered me to cut this material, despite the fact that it costs them nothing extra in editorial fees to include." (86)
I take exception to the air-quotes around "reviewers", but that comes from being one of the unwashed masses myself. Still, it is hard not to be impressed by his ability to offend both his publishers and his readers in a single sentence.
As long as this premise is out there, let's challenge it: when is something free not worth printing? Or, more specifically, why would his publisher "order" this of him, despite the fact that Mr. Jones' editorial costs them nothing?
"My only criticism would be the 140+ pages' worth of other material - a not-so-brief essay on the machinations within the horror genre in 2009, and a long list of anyone connected to the genre who happened to have passed on recently"
"I would just like to add that this 496 page compendium has a 100 page Introduction and an 88 page Necrology/Useful Addresses section. In other words, nearly 40% of the length is devoted to content other than horror stories."
"What really annoyed me is, the huge amount of space given over to lengthy sections summarizing the events of the year..."
"You still have to trawl through 16% of the book before you get to the first story."
In several of the "reviews", the "reviewers" went on to say that they would have given five star "reviews", except the introduction actually made them like the book less. (This "reviewer" sympathises.) Which, I suppose, answers the initial question: "It isn't actually free if it costs you readers".
Meanwhile, this year's volume contains 154 pages of non-story content - 27% of the book.
There are several other snide remarks that seemed out of place, including references to "yet another zombie novel" (22) (from the editor of Zombie Apocalypse and the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse: Fightback) and another editor's "irritating story introductions" (19) (slightly ironic).
Still, this all pales in comparison to my second issue with the Mammoth Book's introduction: the way that Mr. Jones chooses to present several of the year's events.
The most egregious example is Mr. Jones' summary of the World Fantasy Awards:
"In a surprisingly feminist list of winners, the Best Novel Award went to Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, who subsequently complained about the award being in the form of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft, because she considered the author "a talented racist". Her reaction was mostly based on a poem Lovecraft wrote almost a century earlier, when he was in his early twenties." (86)
Fox News would be proud.
First, here's Ms. Okorafor's exact "complaint". The paragraph above makes her sound - frankly - ungrateful. But if you read her statement, that couldn't be further from the truth. Her reaction isn't spontaneous pettiness, it is a considered response. Nor is her stance on the trophy an isolated one - it is shared by, among others, the award's previous winner, China Miéville.
Second, Mr. Jones makes it sound like Lovecraft's racism is solely a matter of Ms. Okorafor's misguided personal interpretation. But let's be clear: Lovecraft was both a talented writer and a racist. He was also anti-Semitic, a misogynist and a hideous xenophobe. Lovecraft: Great writer. Kind to cats. Big. Fucking. Racist.
Third, even if that "poem Lovecraft wrote in his early twenties" (old enough to know better) was the only racist thing he wrote (it wasn't)... that poem alone would do it. Mr. Jones actually demonstrates this point himself by not referring to the poem by name: "On the Creation of Niggers". Kind of puts a different spin on things, doesn't it?
Fourth, and there's a theme that starts to develop from here, I'm not sure that's the right way to use "feminist". If all the award-winning works were united by overtly feminist themes: yes, that is a "surprisingly feminist list". But to label it thus because all the winners were female belittles the winners' achievements, as it implies that the judges were favouring women.
Of course, Mr. Jones' broader criticism of the same awards is equally puzzling:
"I would also not be surprised if many readers are now scratching their heads at some of the winners of the World Fantasy Awards above and asking themselves 'Who?'". (86)
Really? (The answer, for those playing at home: Elizabeth Hand, Nnedi Okorafor, Karen Joy Fowler, Kate Bernheimer and Joyce Carol Oates.) Were this even true (...that these authors were complete unknowns... which they aren't) shouldn't the role of a book like The Year's Best New Horror be to support new voices, not to mock them?
"Feminism" strikes again in Mr. Jones' summary of Weird Tales' 2011 activity:
"The two issues of the magazine that continued to call itself Weird Tales was [sic] filled with the usual whimsical nonsense... Thankfully, in August, editor Ann VanderMeer announced in a surprisingly self-congratulatory press release that publisher John Betancourt of Wildside Press was selling the magazine to author/editor Marvin Kaye. However, as the result of the change in ownership, VanderMeer - who had been reading fiction for the magazine for five years - and her all-female management staff would be let go." (42)
...and, truly, the Marvin Kaye era is off to a great start, as the magazine returns to its Lovecraftian roots (poetry anyone?). But thankfully, Ms. VanderMeer, who presided over the magazine's only Hugo win, is out of the picture. And she's taken her flock of pesky wimmenfolk with her. (Here's her 'press release'. Aren't primary sources grand?)
There's a disconcerting theme here of women being singled out as ungrateful, forgettable, undeserving and - in Ann VanderMeer's case - well shot of. But then, the number-crunching done by James Nicoll shows that The Mammoth Book has never been unduly plagued by the presence of said wimmenfolk.
As I said above, Mr. Jones has a perfect right to his opinions, and, in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, he's got one hell of a soapbox to stand on. But statements this provocative should never go unchallenged - and this is especially true when they're delivered from a position of authority and presented, not as opinion, but as a matter of record.
Simply put: I don't just disagree with what he's saying, I disagree with where he chooses to say it.
Mr. Jones' taste in horror may be the Best™, but he should really consider getting a blog for this sort of thing. It is a less impressive place to hold forth, but sometimes, it is the right one. (Plus, you can go on for as long as you want!)