Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror is the latest horror anthology edited by career anthologist Ellen Datlow, whose hundreds of editing projects have spanned dozens of years. Her accolades include World Fantasy Awards (nine of them), Bram Stoker Awards, International Horror Guild Awards, the Shirley Jackson Award, several Locus and Hugo Awards, and the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award given at the British Fantasy Convention for "outstanding contribution to the genre."
Her editing work has brought numerous new authors to light and reinvented the careers of others. As a fan of Datlow since I picked up my first genre anthology, I’d always imagined that she had the best job in the world (I still think she does); reading new horror and fantasy stories every day, always with a purpose in mind. Darkness, out now, covers the last two decades of modern horror according to Datlow herself.
She could never pick a favorite story out of Darkness. In fact, it would be ‘impossible’ for her to do so. But she does love all the stories she’s chosen for the anthology, deeply, and believes that they have some key ingredients in common that make them ‘modern’.
“All of them have a sense of dread,” she says, “of darkness unfolding upon the characters or their world. Non-supernatural (aka psychological) horror fiction doesn't always have "murder" in it. Torture without death and the mere threat of death and/or mutilation can also be classified as horror. To me, if a story is dark enough, I’m happy to consider it horror.”
Though some of the stories in Darkness are not, by any means, ‘traditional horror’, there are the usual suspects like vampires and murderers. Definitely not included in Darkness are stories that are “Paranormal romance,” because “with the emphasis on "romance" is in my opinion and most other horror professionals, not horror --which is not a judgment on that type of fiction. It just doesn't do what horror does: scare and/or create a sense of unease, a sense of dread.”
Datlow’s intro to Darkness describes the beginning of 'modern horror' in literature with Clive Barker's Books of Blood, when horror got a 'much needed punch in the gut’.
“By using the words 'modern horror' in the subtitle, I didn't intend to dismiss all the wonderful stories that were published in the decade or so before as not being ‘modern’, she explains. “The year 1984 and the first three Books of Blood were just a useful starting point to cover a two-decade period. I would have liked the book to actually have covered twenty-five years, up to 2010 but I didn’t have the budget to be able to do that. However, it does seem to me that the publication of Clive Barker's Books of Blood (unusually in the book publishing world, it was a collection of stories never before published) injected a visceral and often sexual element into short horror fiction than wasn’t previously present.
Sophie helps Ellen edit
If you’ve ever pondered why or how someone becomes a lifelong career anthology editor without ever penning one’s own fiction, you’re on the same page as I am.
“It’s really very simple,” says Datlow. “I love editing short genre fiction. I love reading it and I love working with its creators. I would still be editing magazines if there were jobs available. I began edited anthologies while working at OMNI Magazine because I wanted to edit more. Before OMNI moved onto the internet, I was only able to publish two or if I was lucky, three stories a month. Anthologies provided the opportunity to edit, buy, and publish more stories. Everything I publish is an expression of my taste in sf/f/h. While at OMNI I was able to bring an incredible range of short stories to a huge audience. None of my anthologies have sold as well as one issue of OMNI. However, anthologies do have a longer shelf life than magazines. At least one of my anthologies (Terri Windling's and my adult fairy tale anthology, Snow White, Blood Red) was in print continuously for more than sixteen years and is about to be reissued by a new publisher. Others fall out of print more quickly and are brought back into print years later (like my two early vampirism anthologies).
It's satisfying for editors as well as writers to be approached by a reader who says she loves one of your books and how it’s made a difference in her life. Short story editors are lucky in that we have much more visibility than book editors.
I love publishing stories that might never exist if I hadn't asked for them. I love giving a chance to new writers whose work excites me and persuading established writers to produce excellent stories. I’m only half joking when I say I love to corrupt readers—what I actually mean is that I'm happy to share and push my own tastes on readers as long as they're willing to join me on my own very personal journey through fantastic and horrific literature.
Datlow, and her oft-editing partner Terri Windling, co-edited what I consider a monumental series of dark fairy tale retellings which began with a volume entitled Snow White, Blood Red. The contributing authors, such as Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman, seemed to really enjoy making childhood stories darker and more frightening than we remember them.
“The darker stories are a return to the true roots of fairy stories. Some writers read those originals and want to emulate them while giving them new twists. Others might be writing in rebellion to the warmed over, bowdlerized fairy tales they were exposed to as youngsters.”
I’m sure many aspiring and established horror writers want to get into The Year’s Best Horror anthologies. How, exactly, does the process work?
“First, I send out a Call for Submissions several times a year and request review copies from publishers for novels, magazines, anthologies, collections, art, and nonfiction books I want to cover.
During the year I read or at least skim every magazine, anthology, and collection that might possibly contain horror stories. That includes obvious horror venues such as Cemetery Dance, Weird Tales, and Black Static but also science fiction, fantasy, and mystery magazines. Also, science fiction anthologies, crime anthologies, mainstream collections that (judging from descriptions by the publisher or reviews) might include a story dark enough for me to consider it horror.
As for the actual, process, as I read throughout the year I write down titles/authors/venues of stories that impress me on some level. Those become my Honorable Mentions. Once in a while I read a story and immediately know it's going to be chosen for the book. If that's the case I contact the author and buy the story then and there and add it to my Table of Contents. But generally, if I really like a story on the first read but am not ready to commit to it, I'll place an asterisk next to the title on my list. Then I’ll ask either the author or the publisher for the word count and for a word file so that I can reread the story at my leisure.
Towards the end of the year I begin rereading all the stories I've asterisked, and from that point on it's a process of elimination. I need to get my word count for the book down to 125,000 words, so some of the stories that make the cut are read by me several times until I make up my mind.
The stories that stay with me, that continue to have an impact on me no matter how many times I read them, are the ones that end up in the book.”
Datlow has released several other anthologies this year, aside from Darkness, including The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People.
“This is the fourth in what Terri and I call the ‘myth series’ of young adult anthologies that are also aimed at our crossover adult readership,” explains Datlow. “The stories range among a number of cultures, all of which have animal transformation tales among their traditions. There are snake people, a girl who turns into a rat, a story inspired by Swan Lake, a mysterious, seductive woman who’s rather catlike, and a shark God.”
Datlow and Terri Windling have edited over a dozen anthologies together in the fantasy and horror genres. Their working relationship began in the late 1980’s with the publication of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series, and continues today with their upcoming Teeth: Vampire Tales in 2011.
“Terri and I first crossed paths when she was living in New York City. Jim Frenkel, a book editor we both knew, asked if we’d be interested in co-editing a Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology for St. Martin’s - she’d cover the fantasy and I’d cover the horror. We said yes and Jim packaged the series for St Martin’s for the twenty-one years of its existence.”
The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror began their successful working relationship.
“Terri co-edited it with me for sixteen volumes and then decided to give it up in order to concentrate on her own writing and other projects. When we co-edited the series, we rarely communicated about it because we were each concentrating on our own half. But every once in awhile we’d discover a story that we agreed was both horror and fantasy and split the word count (we were each allowed 125,000 words) and each wrote an intro to that story.”
On original anthologies Terri and I work closely, via email. We separate some of the tasks - Terri writes up our anthology proposals and writes the brilliant introductions and I mostly edit--the bios for each contributor and most of the stories. We both read all the submissions and must agree on them. In all our years collaborating I think we’ve only disagreed on perhaps three stories-- which we ended up turning down. I also handle the administration (contracts and money).
We used to communicate by letter and phone, so the internet and email have made collaboration a lot easier, particularly since Terri currently lives mostly in England now. We enjoy working together and I hope we’ll continue to do so.”
Datlow’s 2009 anthology Lovecraft Unbound (she also released Poe Unbound this year) has been recognized widely by horror fans this year as an amazing contribution to the genre. Where does Lovecraft's appeal come from, and why do so many authors love his style?
“Despite reading H. P. Lovecraft’s own work and the multitude of stories influenced by him and editing my own anthology inspired by his fiction, I’m no Lovecraft expert,” she admits. “All I know is that when I read him as a kid, even then I perceived his deep dread and fear of the unknown - in contrast to science fiction’s embrace of the same, which I was also reading. There’s no doubt that he’s had a profound influence on horror - for better or worse. I think a certain number of writers ‘like’ his style because it’s so easy to parody, hence the innumerable pastiches of his work written even before he was dead and that continue to this day.
In fact, very few of the stories in Lovecraft Unbound use his style. Instead, the writers took what I consider his most important contribution to literature: the wondrous and dreadful worlds and gods he created; that fear and dread of the unknown, and they’ve transformed it all into stories that I hope have done Lovecraft justice and that he would have appreciated, if he were still alive.
If Datlow could create any anthology she wanted, despite negative feedback from publishers, she would create “Mothers From Hell or Angry Women (both of them proposed by me and Pat Cadigan in the late 80s),” and a real project that she can’t seem to get going is one that “Terri and I have been trying to sell - a Victorian fantasy anthology with a great title (that I won’t mention here) and with commitments from several bestselling authors. We’ve no idea why that one won’t fly.”
Datlow, as the foremost genre anthology editor in the world, does have practical advice for authors who want their stories in Darkness 2, Best Horror of the Year, or anything else she’s got going on.
“If an anthology is an open one (or even if it’s not and you’ve been invited) be aware that the sooner you get your story in the better. You’ll get paid earlier (from the first half of the advance) and anthology editors are more open at the beginning of the selection process than at the end. Toward the end we’re juggling what we’ve already bought and are trying to avoid buying similar stories, even if they’re wonderful. So the window of opportunity starts closing as the reading period gets closer to the deadline. (At least that’s how I work. Some anthologists might not make decisions until they’ve received all the submissions they expect).”
'Darkness' has some really original stuff in it, if you're into anthologies. Some of the stories vary far far away from traditional 'horror' and make you scared for completely other reasons. It really is 'modern', plus they have Barker in there, and some of Poppy Z. Brite's first stuff. I really enjoyed it.
"Another great thing about being 70,000 light years away from the nearest Starfleet vessel is that once we finally get back to Earth, we can makeup bullshit stories. Off the top of my head: 'We met Amelia Earhart,' 'We singlehandedly eliminated most of the Borg fleet' or 'Paris and I turned into giant pink lizards and mated.'"