This year had its ups and downs...well, mostly downs. Okay, it was basically a plague of downs while we shivered in a cave, desperately trying to ration our ups while the downs pounded upon the the rock walls with their unholy screeching. But their were some gems in the world of books, and that can't be overlooked so easily. Here are ten of my favorites, in the realms of horror, literary, and everything in between.
The Fisherman by John Langan
This novel is, without a doubt, the most beautiful I've read all year. In the beginning it's obvious to see the influence of greats like Melville in Langan's writing – in fact, this entire book might be viewed as a twisted spiritual cousin of Moby Dick. But thankfully it isn't exactly like that. Langan borrows from an omnivorous assortment of fiction writers, at times incorporating aquatic abominations that could have sprung from Lovecraft's darkest nightmares, to a hodgepodge of references to the lore from throughout time and cultures. But like a perfect meal, it can't just contain too much of any of it, but an equal balance. The pacing of the story is consistent, page-turning, on par with the bestsellers of Stephen King.
Furnace by Livia Llwellyn
True to the title, Livia Llewellyn's collection of short stories is a white-hot forge where horror, erotica, and weird fiction are melted together into something dark, seductive, and dangerous. Many of Llewellyn's stories are imbued with a gothic style right down to their DNA, but use the medium as a means of transcendence rather than limitation.
A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell
Crafters of all types are fueled by obsession. To create anything that only exists in your mind takes a certain degree of persistence that can defy logic, and the more intricate the vision, the more dedication it demands to become reality. Matt Bell is an author that exemplifies this kind of method: his writing is imbued with the emotional complexity of a Swiss watch. His new book A Tree or a Person or a Wall – which includes the novella Cataclysm Baby and more recent unpublished fiction – paints a portrait of obsession with each grim tale. Specifically, the effect that obsession has on the delicate minds of humanity, and how easily our realities can be ripped asunder by the circumstances of fate and our own most primal drives.
Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay
Every town has its Devil's Rock. It might be called something else - "Bunny Man Bridge," or "Dead Man's Curve," or "Devil's Peak" – but it's a spot in which the landscape seems somehow imbued with evil, possibly from a supernatural force; its power exists largely in rumor, as cautionary tales pass from teenager to teenager, from generation to generation. Many of these stories feature a unique blending of truth and untruth, vague allusions to "that one kid" who died at that very spot under mysterious circumstances in a time long past. Paul Tremblay explores a modern take on this kind of ancient terror in his latest book.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
Mongrels cracks open the ribcage of the werewolf novel, beyond the clean white bone, and shows readers the shit-stained guts of true horror. It describes the reality of being a monster, where no real rules or regulations exist. It acknowledges but not ignore the unspeakable consequences of taboos, the particular visceral fear that exists in the primal human heart. It recounts the terror of being an 'other' in a world full of people who would exterminate you if they knew the truth. It agonizes the pain of modern life and dives into the ecstasy of embracing a wild spirit without committing to one or the other, acknowledging the complicated nature of a being in between worlds.
Sing the Song by Meredith Alling
Opening lines can make or break entire novels. Meredith Alling has taken this kind of thinking to heart, as evidenced in the first sentence of her story, "Ancient Ham": "Once a year the Ancient Ham crawls out of the sewer to sit on a curb and answer questions." Already the reader intuits that Alling has a deep understanding of flash fiction and knows how to hook readers like steelheads in spawning season. This lies at the heart of Sing the Song, her new collection of flash fiction available now from Future Tense Books.
Patricide by D. Foy
Patricide is a literary gut-punch on the most personal of levels, even if the narrator's experience with his home life is not the same as yours. It will take the most traumatizing memory of your childhood and beat you to a pulp with it. Then it will stand you up, dust you off, and walk away without a single word of remorse. Only then will you be ready to begin.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle
Victor Lavalle has wrest the tales from Lovecraft's racist legacy in the best way he knows how – with a horror story. In this way, The Ballad of Black Tom stakes a claim for those who love the man's writing but hate his xenophobia. Lavalle creates a story around a lesser-known tale (The Horror at Red Hook) with exceptional skill, haunting writing, and a brilliant social commentary. It doesn't just turn the tables on Lovecraft, it flips the table over and, with delicious irony, turns the 'monster' against itself.
Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria
Reading Juliet Escoria's work is like dreaming about an abandoned childhood home. There are enough recognizable things about it to make you feel familiarity or nostalgia, but the fact that it's dark and abandoned only makes you feel cold. The frustration of remembering certain details, plus the creeping questions of whether we remembered it wrong or if it happened at all. It serves as a blurry reminder that even though the past may have been good or bad in that place, it is gone forever and only exists in scraps of memory. What matters now is our lives and what we choose to do with them, the choices we make and ignore, and how we shape the beautiful horror of our future.
The Warren by Briean Evenson
In Brian Evenson's novella The Warren, the narrator labeled as X knows he exists. He also knows that his predecessors exist as well, represented by dozens of pairs of eyes which watch his every move, occasionally using his body for their use. He knows the Warren, the space he has lived in his entire life, and he knows the Monitor, the Siri-like device he can pose questions to when he reaches the limits of his predecessor's training. He knows that Horak, a man frozen in a stasis chamber just outside the Warren, exists and that he is a human person. But after freeing Horak and having fundamental principles challenged, X is haunted by the query: what am I? Am I a person? Am I human? Or more importantly, as the Monitor chillingly articulates when he poses this question to it: "What do you mean by, 'person'?"
Matt E. Lewis is the editor of The Radvocate magazine and co-editor of the horror anthology series States of Terror from Ayahuasca Publishing. His reviews and short fiction have also appeared on Entropy, The Nervous Breakdown, PANK magazine, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Electric Literature, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.