I joined the HorrorTalk book review team earlier this year and have had a lot of fun thus far. I’m interested in all aspects of horror, but books are my main thing, so in this article I’m sticking with them. By day I work in a library, so I like to think I’m a fairly organised guy, and with that in mind I’m going to break down my favourites ten dark fiction reads published in 2017 into five categories: novels (5 selected), novellas (2 selected), single-author collection (1 chosen), multi-author anthology (1 chosen) and YA (1 chosen). I’ll conclude with the book I’m most looking forward to reading in 2018.
Under a Watchful Eye by Adam Nevill
2017 started off in blistering form with Britain’s finest supernatural horror writer returning with a fiendishly well-plotted cracker. Sebastian is a horror writer who has found success in early middle age after years of struggling. Whilst whiling life away quietly on the coast of south England, he begins to see startling visions of a man who is an unwelcome visitor from his days living in London. Before long we’re knee deep into very scary Adam Nevill territory, with Sebastian investigating astral projection, out of body experiences and a terrifying cult which was almost deleted from history. All whilst trying to write his next novel. If you’re a fan of supernatural horror, nobody does it better than Adam Nevill.
Little Heaven by Nick Cutter
Little Heaven is the mind-bogglingly over-the-top fourth horror novel Craig Davidson has written under his pseudonym Nick Cutter. This isi a mad tale which I enjoyed immensely, zipping through it in three days as I was pulled, with the characters, deeper into Cutter’s vision of what ancient evil truly is.
Three dangerous mercenaries head to a remote part of New Mexico to find the nephew of one of their group, Ellen, who believes her brother-in-law has absconded with his child and joined a dangerous religious cult. Arriving at the village of Grinder’s Switch, they then find the remote religious survivalist compound and discover a group of downtrodden fanatics who are led by ‘Prophet’ Reverend Amos Flesher. God is peculiarly absent. Everybody looks unhealthy, their kids seem to be very cruel, nobody is particularly Christian and something unnatural moves in the forest at night. A world of pain is about to begin as the congregation begins to thin out. Expect monsters, madness, murder and a relentless over-the-top pace which I found staggering and an ending sequence which delivers vicious punch after punch.
Bone White by Ronald Malfi
There are few better writers of supernatural horror than the superb Ronald Malfi, and Bone White is an absolute beauty which grips vicelike from the first page until the chilling conclusion. This tremendous odyssey into the frozen heart of Alaska keeps the reader dangling on tenterhooks as we slowly realise what awaits in the foul town of Dread Hand. Malfi has the great knack of shrouding what horror lurks around the next corner. Like the main character Paul Gallo, you’re going to lose something along the way; frostbite claims a couple of his toes, you’ll probably lose a few nerves. It takes a gifted writer to produce a book which although it is slow, still has brooding levels of intensity.
The novel opens with Paul listening to the news on TV, hearing of a mass grave being discovered in a remote part of Alaska, very close to where his twin brother Danny disappeared a year previously. Danny then sets off for the town of Dread Hand and finds the police and the locals unhelpful and secretive, but why? It has terrific atmosphere, characterisation, descriptions and levels of fear which is as good as you’ll get in any novel published in 2017.
Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman
I can’t publish a top ten without the enigmatic Josh Malerman, who has been a favourite of mine since he blessed us with Birdbox. Black Mad Wheelis virtually impossible to follow, but Malerman gives it an almighty shot with another truly one-of-a-kind outing.
Written around two timelines which eventually converge, the novel opens with Philip Tonka near death in a hospital bed having broke almost every bone in his body, spending months in a coma. In the alternative timeline, we discover Philip and his band The Danes were exposed to a sound so powerful it had capabilities of breaking bones, overpowering minds and even making guns and weapons permanently malfunction. The military had suckered the band into travelling to Africa to investigate the origins of the sound thinking that musicians might be able to solve a mystery they could not. This hallucinogenic and captivating novel centre upon the memory loss the recovering Philip experiences whilst in hospital and what hides behind his blackouts. And ultimately, what really happened in Africa? I chatted for a good while with my brother about this strangely beguiling book; if you’ve read it, you do need to chat to someone, as we both scratched our heads at the crazy ending. It really is a musical book, and can you imagine that sound?
Kill Creek by Scott Thomas
It’s great to feature a debut novel amongst the genre greats elsewhere on this list. At first glance Kill Creek looks like nothing special, an idea which has been well used in horror fiction. A group of people spend the night in a supposed haunted house, which is streamed live on the internet. However, do not think for a second this is some sort of Shirley Jackson rehash; it is much, much more and has some terrific scares and jolts. The house itself is a monstrous character and although nothing happens to the four famous horror authors who are paid to visit Kill House, the influence of the house runs much deeper as it begins to infiltrate their lives. The four authors are beautifully drawn characters, with sneaky comparisons to household names we are familiar with likely to be made, but in no time at all you’ll be rooting for Sam and TC, who have most page-time. I also particularly like the way the author avoids stereotypical haunted house stuff; there are no creaking staircases or branches clicking against the windows, instead you have a paranoid and complex haunting story which is well worth seeking out. Scott Thomas is a horror writer to watch out for.
Sacculina by Philip Frascassi
2017 saw Philip Frascassi fast become one of my favourite writers of short fiction, reading everything out there in a few months after my first taste.
Sacculina is a very tight and compact story set entirely on a one-day tourist fishing trip with a family taking to the sea in way of celebrating Jack being released from prison after six years. Undisclosed angst is in the air, but Fracassi’s easy knack with words quickly sketch believable backstories as the four men hit the sea, looking to find an escape in fishing, and possibly from themselves. The boat is an old banger and the trip does not go as planned, with foul diesel fumes polluting the atmosphere. The real problems begin after they land their first fish, which looks odd and has weird bulbous barnacled lumps on it. These barnacles are everywhere and soon the men are in deep trouble.
There is a knack to writing great novellas, the balance between too many ideas and the one-dimensional story is the key, and Fracassi is superb at hitting the balance pitch perfect. Sacculina cleverly develops one small barnacled horror idea and builds a punchy self-contained story you’ll happily devour in one sitting.
Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence by Richard Farren Barber
This meditative near post-apocalypse tale is set in the aftermath of a deadly virus which has decimated most of the population of Britain. Meandering at a deliberate and thoughtful pace, there is little in the way of action or violence. Don’t let that put you off though, this character driven tale is a cut above most post-apocalyptic tales.
Hannah leads a clean-up crew whose job is to gather and burn the infected bodies of the vast numbers of people who have died in this plague. As many as 2,000 bodies are scattered on the outlying fields waiting to be cleared, moved, then incinerated in a huge pit. The action takes place in an isolated town which has fences keeping survivors who may still be infected from entering their perimeters. Because the other town members are wary of contamination, they are equally suspicious of Hannah and her crew who live in a separate part of the compound. Before long, Hannah’s crew clashes with the enigmatic Dr Andrew Hickman (The Esteemed Leader), who is the charismatic self-appointed top-dog of the group, using motorcycle hard-men (The Caretakers) as his muscle to control the town. This novella is an excellent apocalyptic horror story which the author reflects upon a comparison to a post-Brexit UK in his informative endnotes.
We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone by Ronald Malfi
We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone effortlessly blends supernatural horror, dark humour, madness, psycho killers, dark fiction with the downright weird, featuring twenty stories penned between 2002 and 2015. Ronald Malfi’s short stories are impossible to pigeonhole, so don’t bother, he really does his own thing and that’s the beauty of this wide-ranging collection. If you want an anthology to widen your eyes, keep you guessing, or provide a nasty chuckle, then dive straight in. There are dinner parties from hell, sleazy nightclubs where anything goes, shrinking rooms, babies in ovens, child terrorists, haunted houses, cars which are gods and Halloween tricks which go badly wrong. And much, much more, along with some truly brilliant endings. Read this and you’ll enjoy taking a huge leap into the deep waters of dark fiction with a master storyteller leading you by his sweaty hand.
The Ravenous by Amy Lukavics
YA horror teen queen Amy Lukavics does what she does best in The Ravenous, crafting a terrific horror story which has complex family issues beating at its dark heart. There is no better YA writer anywhere in cross-pollinating the issues of everyday life, damaged teenagers with that of the supernatural.
The Ravenous is told from the point of view of Mona, the middle of five teenage sisters. The eldest of the girls acts as a surrogate parent to the others, as their mother is an alcoholic. However, tragedy strikes when their mother causes a drunken argument and the youngest falls into the deep basement, tumbling to the bottom and dying instantly after breaking her neck. In her madness, the mother claims she can “Bring Rose back” and then disappears for a few days with the body. When she returns she is not alone and Rose is alive again. But at what cost?
This exceptional exploration of teenage isolation and pain works equally well as a horror novel and as a dark twisted family drama. Nobody does this sort of stuff better than Amy Lukavics who is amongst the best YA horror writers in America today.
New Fears, edited by Mark Morris
Horror anthologies are a dime a dozen these days, but don’t let that put you off experiencing New Fears, edited by Mark Morris. The strength of this anthology lies in the diversity and depth of its parts; ironically, it could easily have been called “Old Fears”, as there is little modern technology or current issues of the day to date any of the superb tales it features. In his enlightening introduction, Morris nostalgically recalls the classic horror anthologies of his childhood and how he hoped to recreate a book with the same type of kick. New Fears succeeds on every level and no two tales have even the remotest similarities; use a lucky dip as a starting point, you’re not going to be disappointed in what you read. Open the book and expect the unexpected, which is what the best of these types of collections should do, starring Josh Malerman, Ramsey Campbell, Adam Nevill, Kathryn Ptacek, Christopher Golden, Alison Littlewood, Stephen Gallagher, Brady Goldon and many other wonders. Some of the stories I love most are from authors I had never come across before, which is very cool.
I Am the River by T.E. Grau
I’m a massive fan of the shorter fiction of Ted E. Grau, who is one of the best short story writers in America today. So, I am particularly excited to see how this debut novel pans out when it is released in February 2018; thus far I’ve deliberately not read much too about it. I want it to be a surprise. However, I’m sure Grau’s journey into the dark madness of the Vietnam War will be a memorable one and an early highlight of 2018.
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.