Not to be outdone by the barn-storming successes of horror cinema in 2017, horror literature bestowed a plethora of goodies on us last year. As well as fresh instalments from established institutions in the horror-writing community there were fresh faces bringing us brand new tales of terror. Here are 9 of our highlights from 2017.
Joe Hill won over horror fans with Heart-Shaped Box, Horns and his excellent comic series Locke and Key, but his next novel, The Fireman, received a far more mixed reaction. Although it still crackled with his usual energy, it also felt baggy and awkwardly paced, and had plot holes you could drive a snow plough through.
Hill seems more than back on form with Strange Weather, a collection of four novellas, any one of which could stand toe-to-toe with the best of his output. The stories are engaging and imaginative, featuring gangsters with memory-erasing polaroid cameras, a skydiver adrift on a landscape of solid cloud, a mass shooting survivor whose sanity unravels under the media spotlight and an apocalyptic downpour of deadly rain.
The emphasis on peculiar and surreal weather events in these stories serve to paint his characters as victims of seismic, unstoppable natural forces, underlining the lack of control that they have over their own stories. Strange Weather is an excellent collection that fans of Hill will love.
Buy it here.
A small-town video clerk is concerned when his customers report seeing strange home video footage spliced into his rental wares. Heavy breathing in a mysterious barn is not something you want to be faced with halfway through Disney’s Hercules, so our dutiful storekeeper resolves to investigate. Before long he’s thrust into a world beyond his understanding, struggling to make sense of his once-familiar surroundings.
It may sound like fairly conventional horror-mystery fare in terms of setup, but those looking for a straightforward tale of discovery and terror will find something far stranger and more atmospheric within the pages of Universal Harvester.
Tonally, the story is closer to surreal dark fantasy with overtones of Twin Peaks. While the plot may meander a little too much for some, those who put the book down will soon find themselves haunted by its unsettling imagery, its masterful ratcheting of tension and its ruminations on grief and loss. Those who return to it, drawn to its pages just as its protagonist is drawn to his mysterious tapes, will find themselves richly rewarded.
Buy it here.
In a small Canadian town, a murderous campaign is brought to an end when the killer is apprehended and placed in custody. Only, the killings don’t stop with his arrest. In fact the trouble has only just begun. From then on we’re thrust into a world of necromancy, sinister circuses, secret societies and a terrifying presence that lurches forth from the woods. It’s a captivating story, but not one for the faint of heart, as the town’s residents soon find themselves in dire need of a mop salesman (if you catch our drift).
It’s a great example of lean storytelling, with each character and each individual story arc contributing to the whole. Rarely does a sentence or even a word feel wasted in this taught tale of gore and terror tearing through a close-knit community.
This isn’t to say the story is simplistic. The narrative dots around the town and into the lives and heads of a huge cast of characters, all trying to make sense of the carnage being visited on them. It’s best not to get too attached to them though, as happy endings are few and far between in Dubeau’s bleak story.
Buy it here.
It’s been a bumper year for the King clan, and this hotly anticipated father-son collaboration was one of 2017’s highlights. We have to confess, we weren’t bowled over by the premise. Sleeping Beauties is set in a world where women go to sleep and become encased in a gauze that, if disturbed, causes them to wake up and become feral and violent. Against the backdrop of a male-dominated society that is increasingly desperate and fractious, a lone woman, Evie (groan), is immune to the sickness.
Bracing ourselves for a run-of-the-mill (not quite) zombie apocalypse story wrapped round a ham-fisted statement on gender inequality, we were left not only pleasantly surprised, but also kicking ourselves for thinking that King may have lost his touch. King’s a genre author through and through, and no matter how cliched a trope may appear, he can freshen it up with a healthy does of realism and a cast of believable characters whose desperate plight evokes real empathy.
The two Kings also have some surprisingly prescient things to say about Trump-era authoritarianism, toxic masculinity, media manipulation and police brutality along the way. It’s far from the best King work out there, and reads at times more like a TV show script than a novel, but it earns a place on this list for exceeding our expectations, and reigniting our King fandom.
Buy it here.
Although well known in Bizarro-fiction circles, Jeremy Robert Johnson has yet to garner mainstream acclaim from either literary or genre critics. That was, until the publishing of his latest collection, Entropy in Bloom. In a Johnson story very little is off the table. His is a fiction that will shock if it needs to, going out of its way to jolt readers from the complacency and comfort of recognisable tropes. Johnson’s work mines some of the darkest and most icky crevices of the human psyche, and finds horror gold within.
Like all of the best collections, Entropy in Bloom has ambition and scope, taking us from a forest of mighty redwoods to outer space on the dawn of the apocalypse by way of Steroids, horse tranquilisers, scalpels and malevolent parasites. always inventive and never predictable, Johnson is living proof that creativity is ever bubbling away beneath the surface of genre fiction, waiting to be discovered.
Buy it here.
The cover of this anthology draws immediate comparison with Amelia Gray’s exemplary collection Gutshot, which, to us, is a bold choice. However, It makes sense when you begin to read Carmen Maria Machado’s collection. Like Gray, she treats generic boundaries with utmost contempt, mixing neo-gothic fairytales with queer feminist sci-fi and a healthy dose of body horror into the bargain. Gritty realism is married to fantastical allegory in a heady mixture that never loses its distinctive quality.
Although replete with invention and experimentation (a playful novella in which Machado re-imagines 272 episode summaries of Law and Order SVU to include supernatural creatures is especially enjoyable) Her Body and Other Parties can be a gruelling read. If something as mundane as a theme can be applied to the collection it would be that of violence against women’s bodies, and the many varied angles from which this violence can arrive.
Machado’s stories can be violently confrontational one moment and sensual, witty or creepy the next. Hers is a fiction that defies categorisation but that vibrates with a potent, vital energy.
Buy it here.
Hailed by critics as the best haunted house novel since Mark Z. Danielewski’s mind-warping House of Leaves, The Grip of It pulsates with much the same hypnotic power. Eerie and Weird, with a capital E and W, it’s the tale of a couple leaving their troubled pasts behind, only to find something waiting for them in a house between the woods and the waves.
Unlike many haunted house tales, The Grip of It maintains a brisk pace and careens towards a satisfying conclusion. The immediacy of the first-person narration and the economy of language belie a richly textured world, which will intrude on your thoughts long after you put the novel down.
As in many of the most successful haunted house novels, the house of The Grip of it is a manifestation of the dark, subconscious recesses of the characters within. It’s a smart and surreal take on the genre, bringing a freshness with it that places it alongside Shirley Jackson, Mark Z. Danielewski and Peter Straub.
Buy it here.
Josh Malerman is fast becoming a leading voice in contemporary horror fiction, and Black Mad Wheel, following the success of Birdbox, does much to help cement his reputation. The premise is intriguing; a washed-up Detroit band are hired by the military to discover the source of and purpose of a mysterious, malevolent sound in an African desert.
Drawing heavily on Konrad’s Heart of Darkness and more contemporary horror/conspiracy/mystery thrillers like Lost, the narrative of Black Mad Wheel is split between the journey of the band into the desert, and the hospital bed recovery of band member Phillip. Phillip’s mind is fractured, perhaps irretrievably, by what he has heard.
Little can be said of what they uncover in the desert without spoiling the story, but suffice it to say that mad doctors, PTSD and mind-altering sonic experiences are on the menu in what turns out to be a striking anti-war allegory.
Buy it here.
Victor Lavalle earned critical acclaim with his Lovecraftian novella The Ballad of Black Tom, now he’s back, once again mixing fact and fantasy to create a vivd and dynamic vision of a supernatural New York. This time it’s the story of an antiquarian book dealer on the hunt for his ex-wife, who has disappeared after apparently committing a heinous crime.
It’s the signature blend of grimy realism and the supernatural, with each element perfectly counterbalanced by the other, that make Lavalle’s strange geographies so captivating. This dynamic is at play in the plot as well, with witches and trolls pulled from European folklore counterpointing a harrowing tale about fatherhood, responsibility in the age of technology, and grief. Lavalle’s New York, very much a character in its own right, is creepy and unsettling but also strangely enticing.
Buy it here.
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