In no order of preference, here are my favourite reads of 2013. I thought every book was terrific and I recommend them all. What strikes me here is my patterns as a reader; I tend to catch up on a movement or area of fiction, and rarely ever read randomly. If I like a book, I then fall upon other titles by the same author. There’s often a completest strategy at work.
DARK AWAKENINGS BY MATT CARDIN
I found the combination of philosophical and religious ideas and cosmic horror absorbing. With Lovecraft and Ligotti lighting this approach in the past, it was great to read a new author who really goes for the bigger themes around existence and consciousness. All the stories reach for the numinous, and the perpetual threats of chaos are really well wrought.
NORTH AMERICAN LAKE MONSTERS by NATHAN BALLINGRUD
The exceptional quality of the writing aside, what most impressed me about this collection was how the uncanny and the supernatural was used to augment stories that a chronicler of everyday tragedy and misfortune, like William Gay for example, often wrote about. At times I felt like I was reading a new approach to horror fiction, and that’s a very refreshing prickle to feel across my scalp. There’s a fantastic idea at the heart of every story too.
I think my favourite story is the one that is enduring most vividly in my memory, and that is the last story – THE GOOD HUSBAND. Which I think has its first publication in this volume, and ends the book to give a suggestion of the continuance of quality. SUNBLEACHED and the title story are also sublime. I read SUNBLEACHED at a time when I don’t think I could take another vampire in any form but that of confectionary jelly, but this story restored and re-empowered the spectre in my imagination.
I think this is a collection of fiction that anyone who appreciates quality horror should read. Said it before, but horror fiction is in a fine place right now and it’s exciting.
CASTLE by J ROBERT LENNON
Wonderful writer – insightful, and masterly with description. Also the author of MAILMAN, which is one of the funniest portraits of outright despair I have read. CASTLE is very different to MAILMAN, and the first two thirds had me spellbound and walking into walls. Very ambitious novel about memory, abuse, mental illness, with a mystery at its heart that actually reminded me of LOST. I think it takes a great writer to be able to render moving to a small town and renovating a house in such an interesting and absorbing way. A keeper.
FAMILIAR by J ROBERT LENNON
Very ambitious time-slip novel, in which a woman is transported into a future version of her life and self. In her second time around most things are the same – family, locations, the wider world – though her personal life has altered: her appearance, her relationships with her family, her career. So this is science fiction in concept, but the novelist primarily concentrates the narrative on two things: Elisa’s psychology and how she deals with the changes after being transformed into a parallel self in a parallel existence (a self that made different choices in a parallel past); and the relationships this emotionally fragile and unstable woman has with her “new” family and those she encounters. Lovers and friends she once knew are now strangers she has never encountered before in her new history (which has to be explained to her by her husband, who is also subtly different to how she remembered him). And places of work she once knew intimately have never known her presence. I found that totally absorbing and frightening – your past is no longer your past, your friends are strangers, your family still exists but your relationships are different because your experiences with them have been different in your parallel life that you now inhabit. If you confess to what you think has happened, people will think you are mad. Perhaps you are and have imagined something outlandish that seems like reality to you.
Often novels based on such a fantastical concept struggle when the reader is distracted by pulling threads from the concept, ie with time travel. I’ll admit I am one of the few who didn’t rate Before I Go To Sleep; I just didn’t buy the principal the story was founded on. But Lennon really thought his ideas through and creates, to me, an authentic experience, no matter how outlandish the central idea (the fact that it isn’t outlandish as you read is another testament to the subtlety of his craft and approach). And that is an indication of really intelligent and insightful writing.
My edition has an after word by the author in which he says that the novel was his reaction to how America changed in subtle but disorienting ways the day after 9/11. It’s also an idea that he considered for ten years until he was ready to write the book. In addition he says it’s about parenting and how you change as a person, whilst remaining partially powerless over keeping your offspring on the right path. Not an approach I’ve come across often.
I found Elisa almost unbearably high maintenance at times, which says more about what experience of similar people I brought to the reading experience than the character. But the psychological insights are superb, as are the characters (there’s a seemingly sociopathic son reminiscent of Kevin from ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ in both worlds, who is rendered so well), and I always prefer an authentic character who isn’t particularly likeable to a “hero”. I tend to find North American writers handle this depth of psychological insight so well in their literary tradition. What I like about Shriver, Cheever, Bellow, Malamud, McCarthy, Ford, Salinger etc in how they explore psychology and consciousness, I also admire about Lennon’s fiction. No one is good, or necessarily all bad, they’re all “assholes” to each other at one time or another, they’re confused and battling with their own ghosts – they’re mixed, they’re real.
The ending is superb, and I found it chilling and unconventional – a bit Nigel Kneale, which is no bad thing. It also features the best rendering of a genre convention I have read, and I have been to a few. So I highly recommend the novel, and for me, it’s the kind of science fiction I like to read – how a character responds to a major event, rather than space operas in which adventures occur amidst advanced physics and technology. The fact that it might not even be science fiction but the story of a woman unhinged by a monumental series of breakdowns, I also liked. My jury was in and out on occasion, but I ultimately decided that she did “dimension-slip”.
A SUMMER OF DROWNING by JOHN BURNSIDE
An immediate personal favourite. More than a flicker of Machen, echoes of Salinger’s CATCHER’, though with a more precocious character, a possible homage to Tove Jansson, and much that reminded me of Joan Lindsay’s PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK.
I’ve not yet read a Burnside novel that didn’t both spellbind and quietly horrify me. But this is my favourite of those I have read; I even prefer this to GLISTER, which is saying something. Be prepared for considered (and rewarding) insights into consciousness, as well as unusual characters that are studied in forensic detail.
Would suit a Wheatley, Haneka or von Trier adaptation. There is much to be learnt about enigma and restraint from this Scottish poet and literary novelist and great rewards await a patient reader.
THE DEVIL’S FOOTPRINTS by JOHN BURNSIDE
A remarkable story of one man’s emotional and psychological breakdown in a small grey Scottish town, via murder, abduction, alienation, separation. All of the startling insights into the human condition, and a poet’s deep scrutiny of landscape and memory, that you expect from Burnside’s prose are also in place here. Reminded me of Nabokov’s Lolita too; and Burnside is a novelist who writes about uncomfortable subjects without flinching. Sixth novel I have read by this author and they have all been both marvellous and disturbing
HOUSE OF WINDOWS by JOHN LANGAN
I thought the novel was another confirmation of what a good place horror fiction is in these days. I thought this was an exceptional novel that set me reading at a careful and patient pace to savour the quality of the writing, the psychological insights, and the deft handling of the supernatural. The social milieu reminded me of the stories of Cheever, Updike or Tartt, more than you tend to find in horror (with the exception of some Peter Straub) and I think the sophistication of the author’s style really distinguishes this book in the modern horror field. The supernatural elements in the haunted house carried the ideal combination of being simultaneously sinister and enigmatic. Particularly admired what was done here with art history, expressionism blended with the occult, and the interpretation of an afterlife. More please, Mr Langan.
THE CRONING by LAIRD BARRON
Another novel that came highly recommended, and I will pass on that recommendation like a piece of parchment festooned with occult runes to the next innocent idler, is THE CRONING by Laird Barron. For me, this was a most authentic rendering of the true spirit of Lovecraft, packed with eldritch lore, anthropology (and any number of academic pursuits to augment the story), epic adventure and cosmic terror. Great writing, great ideas. Fantastic.
SEVEN DAYS OF CAIN & THE KIND FOLK both by RAMSEY CAMPBELL
While it would be very hard for me to shortlist my favourite Ramsey Campbell books, because there are too many to make a list that would qualify as “short”, two recent titles are immediate personal favourites: THE SEVEN DAYS OF CAIN and THE KIND FOLK. One of the few writers, who seems to open a rarely used part of my consciousness when I read their work (same with Robert Aickman and M John Harrison). One day I fear I may become trapped in that consciousness … and will eventually be found grinning in the dark …
AT FEAR’S ALTAR by RICHARD GAVIN
Another gem of a single-author horror anthology. To my taste, at least five great modern horror stories are included in this volume. There’s terrific writing here and a powerful imagination on full power to the last page, delivering a sense that something vast, though often unseen, is close to each story, which I love in weird tales. Outstanding.
WHERE FURNACES BURN by JOEL LANE
One of the best single-author collections of horror fiction I’ve read. Even though I’ve read most of these stories before in other collections and magazines (I often buy the latter because Joel Lane has a story in them), they’re compiled here with a unique chronology and continuity so I enjoyed them even more second time around. Some of the most original horror I’ve come across, blended with police investigations and urban tragedy (all set in my home town), and so well-written. It takes a true poet to re-imagine the world like this.
KILLER MOVE by MICHAEL MARSHALL
Fantastic thriller from a writer I’ve long admired. With the Straw Men books Marshall combines a literary style in very effective commercial plot-driven fiction, at the border where the thriller touches upon and then mingles with horror. And the plot here is superb: inventive and surprising. I’d have been happy to just read a novel about the real estate agent’s life in Florida, because even without the more fantastical element, the book stands up as a model of a particular time and world. I always enjoy the insights into life and identity in Marshall novels, though you also get much more through the escalation of a dilemma and mystery that falls upon an ordinary man. The author has a more sensitive and philosophical approach to the genre, which I particularly enjoy (also check out INTRUDERS), without eschewing drama and action in which every thing is at stake. Highly recommended to those who like intelligent thrillers.
THE SLEEP ROOM by FRANK TALLIS
Much to enjoy and admire in THE SLEEP ROOM, that is, quite literally, a novel of psychological horror, as it is set in a psychiatric hospital. Echoes of McGrath’s ASYLUM, with a twist of Aickman and M R James. Some masterly set-pieces and a fascinating study of a man of science confronted by the uncanny, old school. Highly recommended.
EDGE by KOJI SUZUKI