REVIEW: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror Volume Three by Paula Guran

Last Updated on February 12, 2024

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Volume 3) is the latest installment in Paula Guran’s annual compilation of top short stories published over the preceding year. Despite its name, this is actually Guran’s thirteenth entry in the series. After publishing the first ten volumes, Guran switched publishers to Pyr Books, and the volume numbering was reset with the new publisher.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and HorrorPaula Guran is the two-time Bram Stoker Award-winning editor of fifty short story anthologies and over fifty novels and other collections. Guran’s taste is impeccable: every story in this compilation is a winner. Here I’d like to highlight several of my favorites.

The first story of the collection, “The God Bag” by Christopher Golden, is a beautifully written tale of death and the supernatural. After a lifetime of smoking, the narrator’s mother is dying from cancer. She has a so-called “God bag” in which she places her short prayers written on slips of paper. Normal prayers are written on white paper, while those of a more vindictive variety are written on red. The atmosphere of the story becomes increasingly menacing as the narrator tries to unravel the meaning of the God bag and gain insights into his mother’s deepest desires.

The next story, “The Nag Bride” by A.C. Wise, is also the longest of the collection. Extracted from her recent short story anthology, The Ghost Sequences, “The Nag Bride” concerns a local legend of a bizarre horse-woman ghost. A.C. Wise creates an eerie, disorienting atmosphere as she addresses the long-lasting impact of violence within a family.

Another standout is “Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow, which is narrated by a junior grim reaper working for the Department of Death. Having lost his own son, the narrator is haunted by grief. His next assignment involving the impending death of a young child becomes too much for him to bear. Harrow’s story is emotionally devastating, demonstrating the unnerving nature of death, even for someone who works continually with dying souls.

One of the most entertaining stories in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Volume 3) is “Wolfsbane” by Maria Dahvana Headley. Headley’s story is a dark twist on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, told from the point of view of a sourdough starter. The story strikes a perfect balance between comedy and carnage.

Another story that I particularly enjoyed is “For Sale by Owner” by Elizabeth Hand, which features three middle-aged women who enjoy letting themselves into other people’s houses when no one is at home. The women become entranced by an abandoned house in the woods that is somehow still listed as for sale by owner. Could this be a new HGTV series, perhaps?

The shortest story of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Volume 3), “Barefoot and Midnight” by Sheree Renée Thomas, is also the most horrifying. Thomas vividly portrays the horrors faced by freed slaves in Memphis after the end of the Civil War with the murder of orphaned schoolchildren by arson. The horrors experienced by freed slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War are a harsh reminder of the racism and hatred faced by so many people during our own time.

The award for most creative narrative format in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Volume 3) belongs to “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” by Sarah Pinsker. Pinsker’s story is written in the style of a Reddit thread with discussion comments added by a variety of contributors. The story focuses on analysis of a traditional English folk ballad with the same title as the story. I particularly enjoyed how each participant contributes a new layer to the story.

These are just a few of the outstanding stories in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Volume 3). Other featured authors include Stephen Graham Jones (“Refinery Road”), Rebecca Campbell (“The Bletted Woman”), Chimedum Ohaegbu (“And for My Next Trick, I Have Disappeared”), Richard Kadrey (“Across the Dark Water”), Alison Littlewood (“Jenny Greenteeth”), and many more.

While The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Volume 3) is an excellent compilation of stories, I have just one minor quibble. The back of the book promises a story by Zen Cho. However, she does not actually have a story in this volume. This is disappointing, as I really wanted to read her contribution.

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Volume 3) certainly lives up to its title. Paula Guran has compiled an outstanding collection of short stories, highlighting some of the most exciting voices across dark fiction. Each author brings something fresh and horrific to this compilation, from the quietly ominous hauntings to the darkly humorous adventures. These stories may be brief, but the creeping dread of each tale lurks long after the last page.

4.5/5

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.