THE YEAR’S BEST DARK FANTASY & HORROR
Edited by Paula Guran
Same Old Stories
Cassandra Khaw begins her story “Don’t Turn Out the Lights”:
Stories are mongrels. It don’t matter whether they were lightning-cut into stone or whispered over the crackle of a dying flame; no story in the world has pedigree. They’ve all been told and retold so many times that not God himself could tell you which one came first. Yes, every story in creation.
That sentiment has been expressed in various ways by others, and some have also added the rest of the truth about it. Anna Quindlen completed it well: “Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had.”
And that is what makes the speculative fiction—dark or not—being written today especially exciting. Once, not all that long ago, readers found the vast majority of published fiction was written by white heterosexual men who were primarily from the United States or the United Kingdom. Sure, each individual “brought themselves” to it, but the worlds, characters, and stories they created tended to reflect Western European culture from a male viewpoint. It is a valid way to tell a story. It’s just not the
Things, thank goodness, have changed. Now, even with all our stories written in English, a book like this is chock full of tales told by all sorts of people from a multitude of backgrounds, races, sexualities, and ethnicities, with different views of the world and unique voices.
When you are looking for the “best” you don’t have to go out of your way to find this diversity. It is easily found.
Well, maybe not yet as easily as it should be or ultimately will be, but the point I am making is that it has become impossible to deny the “best” is vibrantly diverse. And the best of the “pale male” writers are no longer so monocultural or confined by their own gender. There’s no excuse to fill a book with the same old stories told in the same old ways.
This is the ninth volume in this series. I’m grateful for the chance, every year—despite the grousing I grumble, the blood, sweat, and maybe a few teardrops I shed—to be able to read so many fine tales crafted in so many ways, to choose from them, and present to you here. The fact the stories can be so different while still resonating with us in a common human way gives me some faith that we may yet be able to keep reality from being overtaken with darkness.
The Crow Palace
Birds are tricksters. Being small necessitates all kinds of wiles to survive but Corvidae, in all their glory as the raven, rook, jay, magpie, jackdaw, and crow, have greater ambitions than that.
They have a plan.
I used to go into the garden with Dad and Pippa every morning, rain or shine, even on school days.
We lived in a house called The Beeches. Its three-acre garden had been parceled off and flogged to developers before I was born, so it became one of a cluster of houses on an unadopted cul de sac.
Mature rhododendrons that flowered purple and red in spring lined the drive. The house was sheltered from prying eyes by tall hedges and the eponymous beech trees. Dad refused to cut them back despite neighbors’ pleas for more light and less leaf fall in the autumn.
Our garden was an avian haven. Elsa, who lived opposite, would bring over hanging feeders full of fat balls and teach us about the blue tits and cheeky sparrows who hung from them as they gorged. Stone nymphs held up bowls that Dad kept filled. Starlings splashed about in them. When they took flight they shed drops of water that shone like discarded diamonds. The green and gold on their wings caught the sun.
Pippa and I played while Dad dug over his vegetable patch at the weekends. The bloody-chested robin followed him, seeking the soft bodied and spineless in the freshly turned earth.
Dad had built a bird table, of all things, to celebrate our birth. It was a complex construction with different tiers. Our job was to lay out daily offerings of nuts and meal worms. At eight I could reach its lower levels but Pippa, my twin, needed a footstool and for Dad to hold her steady so that she didn’t fall.
Elsa taught me to recognize our visitors and all their peculiarities and folklore. Sometimes there were jackdaws, rooks, and ravens but it was monopolized by crows, which is why I dubbed it the crow palace. Though not the largest of the Corvidae, they were strong and stout. I watched them see off interlopers, such as squirrels, who hoped to dine.
After leaving our offerings we’d withdraw to the sun room to watch them gather.
“Birdies,” Pippa would say and clap.
The patio doors bore the brunt of her excitement; fogged breath and palm prints. Snot, if she had a cold. She touched my arm when she wanted to get my attention, which came out as a clumsy thump.
“I can see.”
Hearing my tone, Pippa inched away, looking chastised.
Dad closed in on the other side with a forced, jovial, “You’re quiet, what’s up?”
It was always the same.
“I’m fine.” Not a child’s answer. I sounded uptight. I didn’t have the emotional vocabulary to say,
I put my forehead against the glass. In the far corner of the garden was the pond, which Dad had covered with safety mesh, unfortunately too late to stop Mum drowning herself in it. That’s where I found her, a jay perched on her back. It looked like it had pushed her in. That day the crow palace had been covered with carrion crows; bruisers whose shiny eyes were full of plots.
I sit in a traffic queue, radio on, but all I hear is Elsa’s voice.
“Julie, it’s Elsa. From Fenby.”
As if I could forget the woman who brought us birthday presents, collected us from school, and who told me about bras, periods, and contraception (albeit in the sketchiest terms) when Dad was too squeamish for the task.
“Julie, you need to come home. I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just come out with it. Your dad’s dead.” She paused. “He collapsed in the garden this morning. I’ll stay with Pippa until you get here.”
“You will come, won’t you?”
Ten years and they jerk me back with one phone call.
The journey takes an hour longer than I expected. Oh, England, my sceptred and congested isle. I’m not sure if I’m glad of the delay or it’s making my dread worse.
The lane is in dire need of resurfacing so I have to slow down to navigate the potholes. I turn into the drive. It’s lined by overgrown bushes. I stop out of view of the house and walk the rest of the way. I’m not ready for Pip and Elsa yet.
The Beeches should be handsome. It’s crying out for love. Someone should chip off the salmon-pink stucco and take it back to its original red brick. The garden wraps around it on three sides, widest at the rear. I head there first.
The crow palace is the altar of the childhood rituals that bound us. It looks like Dad’s lavished more love on it than the house. New levels have been added and parts of it replaced.
I stoop to pick something up from the ground. I frown as I turn it over and read the label. It’s an empty syringe wrapper. Evidence of the paramedics’ labors. The grass, which needs mowing, is trampled down. I think I can see where Dad lay.
A crow lands on the palace at my eye level. It struts back and forth with a long, confident stride as it inspects me. Its back is all the colors of the night. It raises its head and opens its beak wide.
It’s only then that the patio doors open and Elsa runs out, arms outstretched.
Job done, the crow takes flight.
Elsa fusses and clucks over me, fetching sweet tea, “For shock.”
“What happened to him?”
“They think it was a heart attack. The coroner’s officer wants to speak to you. I’ve left the number by the phone.”
“How can they be sure? Don’t they need to do a post-mortem?”
“They think it’s likely. He’s had two in the last three years.”
“I didn’t know.”
“He wouldn’t let me phone you.” I don’t know if I’m annoyed that she didn’t call or relieved that she doesn’t say
Elsa opens one of the kitchen cupboards. “Look.”
I take out some of the boxes, shake them, read the leaflets. There’s twelve months of medication here. Dad never took any of it. Aspirin, statins, nitrates, ACE-inhibitors. Wonder drugs to unblock his stodgy arteries and keep his blood flowing through them.
I slam the door shut, making Elsa jump. It’s the gesture of a petulant teenager. I can’t help it. Dad’s self-neglect is a good excuse to be angry at him for dying.
“We used to have terrible rows over it. I think ...