If horror fiction had a history class, John Pelan and Cemetery Dance have just delivered its textbooks in the two volumes of The Century's Best Horror Fiction. The ground rules were simple: one story per year from 1901 – 2000, and only one story per author. Well, they sound simple, but as Pelan relates in this exclusive interview, those rules made the selection process a uniquely difficult one.
Those same rules also helped this set stand apart as one of the most diverse and important anthologies in recent memory. There are authors in the books that all horror fans have likely heard of; likewise, there are going to be a huge number of names that are brand new to even the most well-read among us.
Pelan was kind enough to answer some questions about the new books, his selection process, and all of the stories that got left behind (a staggering amount, as you'll soon see). The interview itself could stand as a supplemental reading list to the books. For those who think that horror fiction's "Ground Zero" was the publication of Stephen King's Carrie – prepare to have your eyes opened.
Did the idea for Century's Best originate with you, or was it something that Cemetery Dance approached you to work on?
Well, it was at the second Horrorfind convention and (Cemetery Dance publisher) Rich Chizmar and I were talking when all of a sudden he said "I've got an idea to run by you." Of course I asked what it was. (When a publisher tells a writer that they "have an idea" this is a sign that there is money in the offing… New writers, please be alert to this) He said, "Well, it's kind of crazy, let's get together tomorrow." Grudgingly, I agreed to discuss whatever it was the following day and went on to look over the rest of dealer's room.
I came back to the Cemetery Dance table a couple of hours later and said, "Look, I'm racking my brains trying to figure out what you want me to do. If it was just writing another novella, you'd have said ‘How soon can you deliver another novella?'"
He finally acquiesced and replied, "Stop me if this is too crazy, but would it be possible to pick out the best story of the year for the last hundred years? More importantly, could you do it?" I had to think a moment before responding with, "Sure, it could be done, it would cost a hell of a lot, but it could be done, and as immodest as this sounds, there's only about five people that could do it and I happen to be one of them. However, just to nit-pick, we'd actually want to start with 1901 and end with 2000…"
The selection process had to have been…
I think "hellish" is the word you're looking for…
The ground rules had to make it even more difficult. How did you go about making these selections?
Well, without the ground rules which I came up with, you might be holding a book with twenty stories by Fritz Leiber, another dozen or so each by Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, and Clark Ashton Smith, and then a handful each by Michael Shea, Wyatt Blassingame, Bob Leman, etc.
Anyway, I started with two lists off the top of my head: (1) Writers who should logically be included; and (2) stories that should logically be included. From that starting point much chaos and gnashing of teeth ensued.
How much reading did you do in putting this book together…sources…references… year's best anthologies?
Well, contrary to popular belief, I haven't really read every word of horror fiction published in the last two hundred years, but I have read more than any sane person should. For starters, if I haven't read every issue of Weird Tales, Unknown, Fantastic, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, Horror Stories, Twilight Zone, Fantasy Tales, Whispers, Weirdbook, Fantasy Macabre, Supernatural Stories, and most genre fanzines from 1930 on as well as a huge amount of general fiction magazines and newspapers going back into the 1800s… I haven't missed many. Oh, let's not forget the complete runs of Arkham House, Ash-Tree Press, The Creeps series, the Not at Night Series, Shadows, etc. etc. etc.
As to references, other than the basic stuff like Barron, Bleiler, Monthly Terrors, and the fictionmags index, I've done a lot of research myself. I forget how many entries I wrote for Supernatural Fiction of the World, but I could easily have done another twenty or thirty that had to be left out. The one book I kept referring to was David G. Hartwell's The Dark Descent, as I know that we have similar tastes and I was concerned about overlap. However, that didn't mean I was going to drop a story because it was in Dave's book; it just meant that I was concerned about it. Haha. As to the Year's Best, while I've religiously bought Ellen Datlow's book every year, you must remember that Year's Best books are a relative new phenomenon and didn't exist prior to the 1950s.
Were there some stories you knew right away that you wanted to include? Which ones and why?
Sure, there were several that came immediately to mind and the funny thing is that most of them wound up not being in the book! As I mentioned the process started with twin lists, authors and stories that I thought would be logical inclusions; then the fun began.
Authors like Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, and Robert Bloch all could have had multiple entries in the books. When it came time to narrow it down, how did you go about it?
Not the four I would have named… Much more difficult were authors such as Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell, Bob Leman, Clark Ashton Smith, Donald Dale, Wyatt Blassingame, and Ralston Shields.
Let's look at Leiber for starters: "Gonna Roll the Bones," "Coming Attraction," "The Black Gondolier," "Smoke Ghost," "A Bit of the Dark World," "The Dreams of Albert Moreland," "The Button Moulder," "Horrible Imaginings," "The Glove," "You're All Alone," "The Girl With the Hungry Eyes," etc. Any one of these could make the grade. I could do a similar list for Ramsey Campbell or Charles Birkin. Working with notes, each author would have over a dozen good possibilities for inclusion.
Then there are those with incredible quality and a very short career or small body of work - guys like Bob Leman, and L.T.C. Rolt have less than twenty stories and 90% of them are brilliant. Hell, look at Ralston Shields, the best author the weird menace genre produced - a total output of eleven stories within a four-year "career." Had he written in any other decade than the 1930s, he'd be in. Same goes for Donald Dale and Wyatt Blassingame.
Then there are those with a huge body of work that's always very good but seldom hits great. Hugh Cave and Arthur J. Burks come readily to mind. And then there's the toughest pair of them all - Clark Ashton Smith and Charles Birkin. In both cases some 75% of their work was done in a five or six year window. One of the recurring situations that struck me as odd was that often times an author's best story didn't make it, but one of their next-best happened to be in the right year and did get in. Some of the best writers aren't in because of reasons given above. Right stuff at the wrong time.
An entire genre is excluded due to timing! The weird menace genre lasted only eight years (and that's pushing it, its heyday was more like four years), and I've produced some twenty single-author collections from the weird menace magazines and have another twenty books in the hopper, so obviously there was a lot of good material there. However, you also had what a lot of people consider the "Golden Age" of Weird Tales at the same time so you have about twenty five top names in the field fighting for the six spots from 1934-1939.
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End of part 1 of this interview. Part 2 will be posted soon
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The Century's Best Horror Fiction edited by John Pelan is currently available on the Cemetery Dance Publications website.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.