"The Lion's Den" by Steve Duffy
From: The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two edited by Ellen Datlow (2010 by Night Shade Books)
....Inevitably, you see, a zoo will attract certain types of people, over and above its core visitor group. These range from the mostly harmless—the lonely and inadequate, the homeless, the community-care brigade—through to the more problematic types, the obsessives, the neurotics, and in extreme instances the dangerously, even suicidally unhinged. With the former, our job consists mostly of moving them on at closing time, rousing them if they try to sleep in the dark musty tunnels of the nocturama or the vivarium, making sure they don't present a nuisance to the staff or to other zoo users. With the latter, it can be very different....
"The Lion's Den" begins as a story about a UK zoo crisis: a teenage boy enters the lion enclosure, strips off his clothes, and begins to harangue the big cats in an unknown language. This opening set-piece is well-executed. Duffy's audacity and skill are much in evidence. Then events take a very strange turn, and then another; as weeks go by the crisis becomes generalized throughout the facility.
"....Over the last three months, our animals here have demonstrated profound behavioural alterations, across all species, across all hierarchical relationships. Now, we either assume this change is a non-volitional response to external stimuli—that is, they used to behave this way, and now they behave that way, because there's something in the water, or they all had the same sort of brainstorm, or whatever—or else . . . "
Manoj looked as if he was chewing a wasp. "Or else what we're seeing here is a volitional behaviour shift."
"You mean—they decided to do it?"
"They chose, yes. That would be the other alternative." I could see Manoj liked this option even less. "According to that scenario, what we're seeing here would be interpreted as possibly the first recorded instance of altruistic co-operation across species towards a common, mutually desirable goal—though what that might be, I have no idea. How could I? Now that sort of conceptualisation would require a level of self-awareness . . . " He broke off, lost in his own thoughts.
"The Lions Den" is robustly speculative. It gives us a setting and a team of characters we rarely see. And its implications are terrifying.
"The Ice Beneath Us" by Steve Duffy
From: The Best Horror of the Year Volume Nine by Ellen Datlow
( 2017: Night Shade Books)
"The Ice Beneath Us" is one of Duffy's Americana tales: horror stories richly imbued with echoes of historic traumas braided into U.S. history. (Other stories in the sequence: "The Clay Party," "The Oram County Whoosit," "The Vanishing Hitchhiker").
Bob and Claude, retired from Boeing, are ice fishing on Bent Iron Lake, near the Snoqualmie National Forest. They share a secret flowing from an encounter they had the year before. When a Native American named Jimbo paid them a visit.
....Maybe when the wolf put on Grandmamma's clothes as a disguise to trick Red Riding Hood, they kind of had the same look about them.
"I been hunting," he said, and his smile was like an axe split in his face. "Messy work, you know?"
"What do you hunt up here?" I asked him.
He laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. "Can't you guess?" he asked. "Your buddy there, I think he knows. Why don't you ask him?"
The raw coldness of the setting is beautifully married to the tale's folk content.
18 November 2019