I'm not a big horror fan, but when there's a collection of both great fantasy and horror, I'm able to adapt. Open-minded genre readers will be rewarded with some great fiction in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006, produced by esteemed editors Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant. This is a huge book full of short fiction, and unlike some of the science fiction anthologies, there's only one novella. Thus there is room for a lot more stories, and this volume is made all the better for it. In fact, this is a standout edition, with very few indifferent stories and no really bad ones. There were a few poems included as well, which are fine if not my cup of tea. Readers of fantasy poetry may find them interesting, though.
The book is laid out, like many annual Best of anthologies, with an overview of the year in the specific genre's fiction. Unlike Gardner Dozois' books, there isn't really a "state of the short fiction field" comment. Datlow handles horror, Grant and Link handle the fantasy selections, and the reader can tell which genre a story is in by who wrote the introduction to it. There are also sections on fantasy/horror movies, comics, music, and the annual obituary list. One other aspect of the front of the book that is much better than the other anthologies is that the editors actually include which issue of the specific magazine a story is from in the list of acknowledgments. I found this very handy when looking at my own collection; other anthologies only give you the magazine's name.
Surprisingly, given my usual tastes, the best stories in the book actually fell into the horror category. My favourite has to be "Boatman's Holiday" by Jeffrey Ford (a writer good enough to get two stories in this year's edition). Charon is a busy man. It's hard work ferrying souls across the river to Hell, and it's a never-ending job. However, once a century, he's allowed a day off. Usually he games with some of the other demons of Hell, but this time, he's going on a little quest. There is an island in the river Lathe, an island that might offer an escape from Hell - or at least an escape *in* Hell. Is it right to offer even an employee of Hell hope? This is a beautiful story, wonderfully told. The imagery of Hell, not to mention of the river that Charon navigates, is exceptional, and the ending is just perfect. There is little dialogue as Charon is usually by himself, but the tale he tells is great. If this doesn't make you feel for a denizen of Hell, I don't know what will. As soon as I read this story last year, I knew it was destined for at least one anthology.
Another wonderful story is "Northwest Passage" by Barbara Roden, a very creepy horror story wonderfully told. Peggy Malone is an older woman who lives in the backcountry of British Columbia, in a house that she and her now-deceased husband built many years ago. She loves the solitary life there, but a couple of young men out on an adventure stumble upon her. She befriends Jack, but Robert keeps her at a distance. Over time, she begins to get through Jack's walls and gets to know what the relationship between the two men is, but then things start to get weird. Jack gets odd feelings about the area, and though Peggy has never felt the "eyes" that Jack does, she begins to once Jack mentions them. When Jack disappears, things get even stranger. Is there something living on the mountain with them? Roden does a fabulous job with the atmosphere in this story, increasing the tension level with each page until things start to get worse. Her character work is wonderful too, with all three of them being fully fleshed out and interesting to read about. If not for Ford's exquisite story, this would easily be the best.
Finally, there is "Ding-Dong Bell" by Jay Russell. This rather sick story takes some historical characters (mainly J. Edgar Hoover) and adds a bit of a serial-killer aspect to their pasts. In this story, Hoover has just formed the FBI when he receives a strange note that brings back horrible memories. It seems that his brother, who had extremely psychotic sexual tendencies that evolved into bloody murder, may be on the rampage again. Hoover may have to deal with this once and for all, but to do that, he'll have to track his brother down. This is a disturbing story that seems to contain a bit of alternate history as well as using some of the more recent rumors about Hoover that have been circulated over the last twenty years. It provides a fictional rationale for his alleged cross-dressing (in a very shocking sequence) and alludes to his being born in the South (a recent allegation that hasn't been proven yet but could very well be true). Russell covers up most of this by calling the character "The Director" in the "current" time and "The Boy Detective" during the flashbacks, never specifically calling him "Hoover." The storytelling is excellent, with each flashback illustrating what's going on in the present, with interesting dialogue. Fans of the "bloody knife" genre may find this story a bit simple, but otherwise very enjoyable.
There are certainly other good stories in this book as well, with every story being well worth a read. The weakest, in my opinion, is probably "Proboscis" by Laird Barron, mainly because it didn't make a lot of sense to me. I have to admit that it was a lot clearer the second time around (I read it when it was originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction), so maybe multiple reads is the trick for this one. I still didn't really care for it, though, as it still seemed like weirdness for the sake of weirdness.
The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006 is an excellent anthology, and a must-have for anybody with even a remote interest in short fiction in these respective genres. It makes a perfect companion piece to Gardner Dozois' Year’s Best Science Fiction, giving a broad overview of everything that's going on. It also has some wonderful stories that will keep you up late at night.