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Ellen Datlow’s Introduction to Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror

Posted on April 7, 2010 by Flames

Billed as “the finest in frightening tales,” DARKNESS: TWO DECADES OF MODERN HORROR is a potpourri of short horror stories published over the last twenty-five years. Horror authors include names that every horror fan will recognize: Stephen King, Peter Straub, Thomas Ligotti, Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite. In addition to these authors, you’ll find stories written by Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Gene Wolfe, Dan Simmons and several others hailing from the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres. is pleased to present you with the complete introduction to this exciting horror anthology. Written by the award-winning editor Ellen Datlow, the introduction provides you with a behind-the-scenes look of the idea behind this stunning anthology.

Introduction by Ellen Datlow

    I’m not a horror critic or expert. I am an enthusiast of short horror fiction, and have been for as long as I remember. I’ve also been reading most of the short horror fiction being published since 1986 when I was a judge for the World Fantasy Awards and then in 1987 I became the editor of the horror half of the ongoing anthology series The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. So I am aware of what’s out there.

    My publisher and I decided to begin with 1985 — which is the year Clive Barker’s Books of Blood volumes 1–3 won the World Fantasy Award. Although the books were published as mass market paperbacks in the United Kingdom in 1984 and Barker was heralded as “the new voice of horror,” their influence didn’t really take hold until 1985 — which is also when his second three volumes were published.

    This is not to say that short horror fiction was languishing prior to Barker’s emergence on the scene. What with the publication of Kirby McCauley’s landmark anthology Dark Forces in 1980, the general reading public could see writers from all over the spectrum producing excellent horror fiction. Some of the twenty-three contributors were Joyce Carol Oates, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gene Wolfe, Clifford Simak, Davis Grubb, T.E.D. Klein, Karl Edward Wagner, Stephen King, Joe Haldeman, Gahan Wilson, Edward Gorey, and Ramsey Campbell.

    Less monumental but just as important were the horror series anthologies Shadows, edited by Charles L. Grant between 1978 and 1991; Whispers magazine and then anthology, edited by Stuart Schiff between 1973 and 1987 (with a Best of Whispers, including original stories, in 1997); and Fantasy Tales, edited by Stephen Jones and David Sutton in the UK from 1977 to 1991. The fiction published in these magazines and anthologies, although actually publishing a variety of types of stories, was perceived by some horror readers as lacking something.

    Barker was heralded as introducing a new, more visceral form of horror fiction, something that was dubbed splatterpunk, although Barker’s work seemed less influenced by “splatter” films than some of the later members of that loosely connected group of writers. Although the early “splatterpunks” produced some excellent work, the movement unfortunately devolved into shock fiction more concerned with viscera, torture, and grisliness than in creating lasting fear or unease. What it did do is start a conversation between those who felt horror needed a punch in the guts and those who felt quiet horror more effective.

    The only three alumni included in this volume are Clive Barker, David J. Schow (who made up the term “splatterpunk” as a joke), and Poppy Z. Brite; all three of their stories were published between 1990 and 1995, long after the heyday of the movement.

    What this volume is not:

    It is by no means a definitive collection of the best stories published between 1984 and 2005. Are these stories the best? How does one judge such a thing? Some are award nominees or winners, and most were reprinted by me in my annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Are they the stories I love the best of all those published in that period? This week they are. Maybe next week, I’d pick others. With only a little over 180,000 words, this volume can merely be a taste of great fiction. I could easily fill a book twice this size with other stories (plus the brilliant and powerful novellas) that are my favorites. In fact, when pressed to say who/what I left out, although I won’t name names, I did an informal count and came up with at least fifty other writers whose stories I’d have liked to include.

    What this volume is:

    A volume of stories that I’m particularly fond of, some of which I originally published in OMNI, Event Horizon, or SCIFICTION, the three magazines/ webzines I’ve edited since 1981. Some I published in original anthologies. Some were reprinted by me in volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. What they have in common is that they are the horror stories that have stayed with me.

    That still thrill me and chill me when I read them. I remember the characters (which indicates something for one who reads hundreds of stories a year). I also believe that they are a good representation of the excellent horror that has been published between 1984 and 2005.

    So consider this just a sampling of great terror tales, supernatural fiction, and psychological horror.

    The stories have been organized by year of publication. It seemed the most natural way. Unlike most anthologies which try to start with a very strong story and end with possibly the strongest story, a book such of this, which is essentially a survey of twenty years worth of strong horror could not work that way. Not every year is represented.

    Right around when we were finishing up editing the twentieth volume of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, James Frenkel, packager of all twenty-one volumes, suggested to me and my fantasy co-editors that we compile a “best of the best” from the first twenty years of the series’ existence. That project never came to be. But since much of Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror covers the same period, and most of the stories have over the years appeared in various volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, readers might find it useful to think of this volume as an attempt to fulfill that ambition, at least on the horror side. Readers might also consider this as a complementary volume to what I hope will be an annual series: The Best Horror of the Year, first published in 2009, taking over where The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror left off.

    * * * *

    This preview for was provided and published with express permission from Tachyon Publications.

    Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror is available now at

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