Saturday night, I had this strange dream. In it, I was somewhere in Ireland. I had come from the airport to meet Jeff Ford. Together, we walked around a cul-de-sac of maybe four or five houses, which were the only buildings around. At the center of the cul-de-sac was a traffic island thick with grass and short trees. There were other people walking on the sidewalk beside the road. I understood they lived in the houses. They gave Ford and me suspicious glances, but he ignored them. There was also a constable with a large black and gray dog who kept walking between us. I thought maybe the dog was trained to sniff out drugs, and the cop wanted to give him a chance to get a good whiff of us. We walked onto the island, I can’t recall exactly what we were talking about–it had something to do with being in Ireland. (Maybe Ford was teaching a workshop there?) The cop and his dog followed us onto the island and once more passed between us. We stepped out onto the street to return the way we’d come, and I saw a mountain in the distance ahead of us. The sight of it stopped me in my tracks. It was wide, its slopes steep, though not too much to hike up, and rose to a long flat top. Its summit was dusted in snow almost pink in the sunlight. Its sides were deep green and dark blue, traversed by winding streams, dotted with small lakes. It seemed to glow in the afternoon light. I was awestruck by the sight of it, overcome with this feeling of wonder that hasn’t left me yet. “This was behind us this whole time?” I said to Ford, who replied, yeah, and there were more beyond it. As he said this, I could see the edges of other mountains in the distance behind this one, dark purple masses. I think I saw water at or near their bases. Looking at all of it was like hearing the swell of an orchestra as it reaches the end of a song.
The next day, I relayed the dream to Fiona, my wife, as we were making dinner. Although I couldn’t figure out what it meant, it had stuck with me since I had awakened that morning. “What do you make of it?” I said when I had reached the end of it. I didn’t think she’d have an answer; I assumed she’d say something to the effect of, “Beats me.”
As is usually the case when I make assumptions about my wife, I was wrong. She said, “I think it’s about your creativity. You were feeling low after losing the Stoker award. So your mind brought you to someone you look up to and admire. From what you’ve said, Jeff Ford isn’t too concerned about awards. While you were with him, you saw this fabulous mountain, which is an emblem of your creativity. You were amazed, but Ford wasn’t, because that’s what he’s focusing on, already. Think of it as your brain’s way of reminding you of what’s important.”
I’m very happy to have contributed a short appreciation of Ramsey Campbell’s story, “The Scar,” to this celebration of his 75th birthday. If you know anything about horror fiction, then you know how crucial Ramsey has been to it over the past half century and more. Thanks to Steven Jones for inviting me to be a small part of this very worthy project.
Well, now the shoe’s on the other hoof, with guest writer Patrick Barb having selected my story, “The Communion of Saints,” for discussion. The result is terrific. The best kinds of critical discourse open up a work for understanding, often for the writer as much as anyone. (That’s the case for me, at least.) Listening to these guys talking about my story, I learned all kinds of things about it I wasn’t aware of (not consciously, at least–leave it to the Fornits…). Thanks to Patrick, Scott, Matt, Mike, Richard, Other Mike, Little Joe, Doc McStuffins, Old Greasy, and Knock-off Big Bird for the time and attention they spent on my story.
(If you decide to listen, though, start around the 47 minute mark. What comes before is–well, it’s pretty messed up. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
A little while ago, I did a print interview with the Circulo Lovecraftiano & Horror, a principally Mexican group of horror fans, critics, and writers. Subsequently, I had the pleasure of sitting down to a zoom call with them, which developed into a wide-ranging and entertaining conversation. The other month, they asked me for my mailing address. Last week, the following wonderful items arrived:
I cannot tell you how pleased, and honored, and moved I was by these gifts. My sincerest thanks to the CL&H for their thoughtfulness, and my hopes that some day in the not to distant future, we will be able to carry on our conversations in person.
To my great surprise and joy, my collection, Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies, has been nominated for the This Is Horror awards in the collection category! Thanks very much to everyone who voted to put it there, amidst some imposing company. Frankly, I am gobsmacked. If you’d like to have a look at the complete nominations, you can do so here.
Here are two novels I recently finished that are well worth your attention. (Indeed, if I had read them in time, I would have included them in the year’s best writeup I published in Locus recently.)
Emily Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines was recommended to me by Paul Tremblay when he read it for a blurb last year. His recommendation was spot on. It’s a great big book, full of multiple points of view, multiple timelines, bees, footnotes, and cool illustrations. Every time I hear the adjective big applied to a horror novel, I think of the doorstoppers of the 1980s, but while Danforth does make reference to Straub’s Ghost Story, the vibe here seems to me much more postmodern, playful–which is not to say the book doesn’t have plenty of creepy moments, and plot twists, and a couple of endings I’m still turning over in my head. Reading it is the kind of immersive experience that drew me to horror in the first place.
I saw a number of writers I trust mentioning Jo Kaplan’s It Will Just Be Us a couple of months ago on social media, so I ordered a copy. In comparison to Plain Bad Heroines, it’s a slender book, but one Kaplan packs with a maximum of character and incident. There’s a haunted house–which is another way of saying it’s a place where images from the past flicker in and out of view, some momentarily, others for longer. To the women who live in this house, on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, the house’s manifestations are not usually frightening–though the tendency of its rooms to meander, for new hallways to lead to new parts of the house, can be disorienting. There’s plenty of history for the house to display, from those of its current residents to those who have called it home in the past. There’s also a room that has remained closed, and whose key seems to have disappeared. And then a family member returns to the house, split from her husband and hugely pregnant, and things get worse. Jo Kaplan is a terrific stylist; there is prose in these pages that is as good as any you’re likely to find being written right now. There are plenty of disquieting images, too, the kinds of things that make you decide you had better read another couple of pages, so you don’t go to sleep with that picture in your mind’s eye. Best of all (from my perspective), this is an unabashed horror novel. As the end drew nearer, I kept wondering how and if the narrative was going to evade the conclusion it seemed to be racing toward–only to find that it didn’t, it went all the way to the terrible end and beyond. The result was a darkly splendid delight.
So if you’re looking for a couple of examples of contemporary horror writing at its finest, may I recommend each of these?
Over at Locus Online, they’ve posted my summary of what I read and liked in horror in 2020, which originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of the magazine. As I note in the essay, it’s a fragmentary list. Looking over the article, I realized that it had been lightly edited, omitting my mentions of Ellen Datlow’s Final Cuts and C.M. Muller’s Oculus Sinister. Sometimes you need to cut content for space requirements, I understand, but I wanted to make sure I recommend both of these anthologies, in which, yes, I published stories but which contain some stellar material. In the interest of completeness, here’s the summary as I originally wrote it:
2020 in Review: Fragments From a Fragmentary Reading List
For the first three or four months of 2020, I had a difficult time focusing on anything, reading, writing, watching movies, for long enough to complete it. I devoted the spring to forcing myself to sit with a book or piece of writing or film long enough to engage it, and to keep engaging it until I was at the other side of it. The result was a summer in which reading, in particular, saved me in a deeply profound way it hadn’t for some time. So to begin with, a sincere thank you to all the writers whose novels and stories helped me through this past year as only good fiction can. (And to the editors who work with them!)
At the end of 2020, three novels stood out not only as the best of the year, but of their respective authors’ careers: Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. Hendix’s novel, a kind of spiritual successor to his earlier My Best Friend’s Exorcism, concerns the efforts of the members of a 1980s, pre-Oprah book club to reckon with James Harris, the handsome newcomer whose name nods in the direction of Shirley Jackson, even as the plot he sets in motion pays homage to the horror classics of the decade in which the novel is set. Jones’s novel follows the fates of four friends who took part in an illegal elk hunt-cum-slaughter, which created a metaphysical imbalance so severe it takes on flesh in order to wreak bloody vengeance upon them. Moreno-Garcia’s novel starts as a self-confessed homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, then becomes something much stranger, a hallucinatory fungal extravaganza. It’s fascinating to note the similarities among the novels, from their attention to characters positioned various degrees from their cultural centers, to their engagement with prior texts in the horror and Gothic traditions, to their willingness to follow their premises to the most extreme destinations. Of the three, I thought The Only Good Indians the most successful, in part because of its ending, which swings for the fence and sends the ball rocketing past it, but it was cheering to note the presence of each of the books on major bestseller lists.
There were a host of strong novels from established writers. Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song imagines an extremely contagious and ferocious strain of rabies and portrays its outbreak in the Boston suburbs with an accuracy so intense as to be unnerving, particularly at our current historical moment. Danielle Trussoni’s The Ancestor takes the concern with heredity at play in her previous works of fiction and memoir and makes it the center of a neo-Gothic set in a remote castle in the Alps and featuring (possible) cryptids. Max Brooks’s Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre tells the story of a series of encounters between the inhabitants of a Utopian community and a group of Sasquatch, employing the faux-journalistic format of World War Z to almost surprisingly effective ends. With Worse Angels, the third in his Isaiah Coleridge books, Laird Barron brings his mob-enforcer-turned-p.i. across the border into the universe of his weird fiction, resulting in a narrative equally parts compelling and creepy. Gwendolyn Kiste’s Boneset & Feathers, the follow-up to her award-winning The Rust Maidens, focuses on a witch whose efforts to hide her identity run up against the threat of witchfinders returning to her village to burn her. The Boatman’s Daughter, Andy Davidson’s sophomore effort, sets a blend of noir and dark magic in a vividly evoked Arkansas bayou. Todd Keisling’s Devil’s Creek is an eighties-style novel dealing with the lingering after-effects in the surrounding community of a religious cult’s disastrous end. Ramsey Campbell’s The Wise Friend concerns a middle-aged father attempting to navigate his changing relationship with his teenage son and his son’s new girlfriend, who is most assuredly not as (and what) she seems; it’s a fine reminder of Campbell’s continuing efforts to challenge himself as a writer, his artistic restlessness. Daniel Kraus’s posthumous collaboration with George Romero, The Living Dead, is an epic companion to the late director’s six zombie movies, one that places the films within an overarching context, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
This year also saw a number of noteworthy debuts. Of these, Rachel Harrison’s The Return, Premee Mohammed’s Beneath the Rising, and Molly Pohlig’s The Unsuitable stood just a little higher than their fellows. In Harrison’s novel, a group of twenty-something college friends must deal first with with one of their group’s unexplained disappearance, then with her equally inexplicable reappearance two years later. When the friends decide to reconnect at a boutique hotel in the Catskills, the narrative takes a frightening, nightmarish turn. Mohammed’s novel concerns the efforts of sinister supernatural entities to return to Earth form their prison beyond space and time, with the only people able to oppose them a young genius and her lifelong friend. The resulting novel has the kind of chewy density of a nineteenth century doorstopper, even as it offers a melancholy reminder that the worst sins are often committed by those closest to us. Pohlig’s novel combines the ghost story with the marriage novel, alternating third person passages of witty (and occasionally gruesome) narration with dialogues between the protagonist and her mother, who died giving birth to her but whom she believes lives on in the scar on her neck. It’s thrillingly strange work. To be frank, I find it difficult to pick a favorite among them, so let’s call this a three-way tie.
It would be wrong, however, not to mention the other writers who produced strong first novels in 2020, from John Fram (The Bright Lands), to Jessica Guess (Cirque Berserk), to Alexis Henderson (The Year of Witching), to Samantha Kolesnik (True Crime), to Elisabeth Thomas (Catherine House). I can’t wait to read each writer’s next book.
In addition to novel-length works, there were several outstanding novellas published in 2020. P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout uses horror tropes to interrogate the history of Ku Klux Klan violence in the 1920’s American south, concentrating on a trio of young African-American women who fight the Klan and its (even) less human allies. Laurel Hightower’s Crossroads is a gut-punch of a narrative beginning with a mother’s sudden loss of her child and proceeding to the lengths to which she will go to return him to life. Tonia Ransom’s Risen is a zombie story of a different stripe, told from the point of view of a zombie derived more from Haitian tradition than Romero movies. Extending what was a banner year for him, Stephen Graham Jones published two novellas, the first, Attack of the 50 ft. Indian, a fast-moving fantasia of Native American identity ending in a vision of transcendent escape, and Night of the Mannequins, a surreal take on the slasher narrative.
As anyone following such short fiction outlets as Nightmare and Vastarien can attest, the horror story remains vibrant, to the extent that Undertow Press publisher Michael Kelly launched a new venue, Weird Horror. 2020 saw the release of several terrific collections. Daniel Braum’s Underworld Dreams brought together his continuing takes on the Aickmanesque strange story, while Thomas Ligotti’s presence informed Christopher Slatsky’s bizarrely wonderful The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature. Gordon White’s As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions, Clint Smith’s Skeleton Melodies, and Robert Ottone’s Her Infernal Name and Other Nightmares drew on an assortment of horror traditions and narrative approaches. Adam Nevill’s Wyrd and Other Derelictions presented stories focused on location rather than character, resulting in a book of uncanny beauty and force. Richard Gavin’s Grotesqueries was the latest in the visionary Canadian writer’s assault on the heights of genre, a further development in his fiction. Emma J. Gibbon’s Dark Blood Comes from the Feet assembled a stunning group of stories whose elements ranged from punk rock litanies to an orphanage for sea monsters. Written in a voice at once lyrical, compassionate, and brutal, these stories announce the arrival of a mighty new talent, and mark their collection as the best of the year.
I didn’t read much in the way of anthologies in 2020, with the exception of the two in which I published stories, Ellen Datlow’s Final Cuts and C.M. Muller’s Occulus Sinister. My own contributions notwithstanding, I can recommend both books without any qualms. I did, however, read several nonfiction books worth a mention. Peter Counter’s Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays, Claire Cronin’s Blue Light of the Screen, and Edward Parnell’s Ghostland: In Search of a Hidden Country mixed autobiography with elements of horror culture including fiction, film, writers, filmmakers, folk traditions, urban legends, and strange experiences to entertaining and enlightening effect. As its title suggests, Colin Dickey’s The Unexplained: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained considered similar material from more of a cultural history perspective. Andy Sharp’s The English Heretic Collection brings together a decade and a half of semi-Fortean articles on English culture, history, and geography; I’m not sure about all of its claims, but it makes for fascinating reading.
So there you have it: a partial list of some of the books that supported me this past year. If you can afford to, I have no doubt their authors would appreciate your support.
I’m delighted to report that my most recent collection of stories, Children of the Fang and Other Genealogies, is on the shortlist for this year’s Bram Stoker awards, amidst some intimidating company. I’m thrilled to see worthy work by friends and acquaintances recognized; if you’re interested in some of the best fiction currently being written, you could do a lot worse than use this list as a reading guide. Thanks to the members of the HWA for selecting my book as a nominee.
The contracts have been signed, so I can announce that, later this year, Ross Lockhart’s Word Horde Press will be releasing my next collection of stories, Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies, and will be re-releasing my first collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters.
Corpsemouth will feature nine previously published stories and one new one, together with story notes and an introduction by Sarah Langan.
Mr. Gaunt will be newly copyedited and will also feature a new story.
Both books will have covers by the terrific Matthew Jaffe.