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.
I am surprised and delighted that the voters for the This Is Horror Awards have selected Sefira and Other Betrayals in the single-author collection category. My sincerest gratitude to them for bestowing this honor on my work. My fellow nominees in this category represent some of the best short fiction currently being written and it has elevated my book for it to appear on the ballot alongside them. While I’m sure everyone’s to-be-read pile is already mountainous, if you’ve yet to read these books by Nathan Ballingrud, Brian Evenson, Laura Mauro, and Sarah Read, I urge you to rectify this oversight posthaste.
I would like to thank Derrick Hussey and Hippocampus press for publishing my collection and doing such a good job at it. I’d also like to acknowledge the editors in whose anthologies much of its contents first appeared: John Joseph Adams, Ellen Datlow, Nick Gevers and Jack Dann, S.T. Joshi, and Simon Strantzas. The fabulous Santiago Caruso provided me with a brilliant cover painting, and while you probably still shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, maybe it’s okay just this once. My agent, Ginger Clark, continues to be in my corner even though that corner is full of weird monsters.
All of these stories benefited, to greater and lesser degrees, from the friendship and counsel of Laird Barron and Paul Tremblay. Seriously—I don’t know where I’d be without these guys. The love and support of my sons, Nick and David, makes my life fuller. And my wife, Fiona, is the reason for…everything. Thanks, love: this is for you.
This guy is very happy at the award. Really.
An extra congratulations to Sarah Read, whose mighty collection, Out of Water, was runner-up in the category.
For a complete list of the winners and runners-up, as well as to listen to interviews with all of us, head over to the This Is Horror site.
Most of my dreams are confused, fragmentary affairs. There are elements I recognize from dream to dream, mostly large, labyrinthine structures through which I wander, sometimes alone, generally in the company of a small group of people, but I don’t experience the kind of long narratives some of my family and friends have related to me.
In some ways, the dream I had the other night wasn’t much different from usual, but its effect on me was and continues to be profound. In it, I was floating in the ocean; I think I was wearing a wetsuit (which I also think was orange and black). I am, as a rule, made very nervous to the point of panicking by the thought of being in deep water, but I was oddly calm. In the mid- to far distance, I could see the low, jagged spine of a mountainous island, which, in the weird way of dreams, I knew was tropical. Directly to my left, maybe eight or ten feet away, there was a man in a kayak, also wearing a wetsuit (which I think was also orange and black), a life-vest, and a safety helmet; he was holding a paddle in one or both of his hands. I don’t remember recognizing him, but we were familiar enough for him to warn me to be very careful.
The reason for his caution was the blue whale floating directly in front of me, no more than two or three feet away. The top of its head was barely out of the water; what I could mostly see was one brown eye the size of a saucer, set in blue and gray skin traversed by deep grooves and lines. I was aware of the immensity of the whale just underneath the water next to me, and of that great brown eye studying me as it slowly moved from left to right in front of me. I had the sense the whale was female, though I can’t say how. The man in the kayak was telling me how dangerous my position was, how you weren’t supposed to be this close to a whale, how if it decided to dive you could be sucked underwater. I wasn’t afraid, which struck me even in the dream: I knew I should be, next to so massive a creature in so perilous a location, but all I was aware of was a kind of emotion–I want to call it a subdued or muted gladness at the sheer size of the whale, at something like this existing.
And that was the dream, just floating beside this blue whale as she regarded me. The next night, as we were preparing dinner, I told it to Fiona, my wife, who almost immediately had an interpretation for it. “I think it was your imagination,” she said. “I think you were meeting your imagination. In a lot of Jungian psychology, the ocean is a symbol for the unconscious. I think you were having a meeting with your imagination.” Which is far cooler than anything I could have come up with. I love the idea of a whale as the image for my imagination: there’s a whale scene in my first novel, House of Windows, and then there’s The Fisherman, which started life as my riff on Moby Dick. Funnily enough, the night I had the dream, I had just had a breakthrough about the long project I’m trying to get started on now. So there you go.
As a writer, one of the things you dream of is thoughtful, nuanced responses to your work. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to receive a number of these kinds of reactions to my stories. Recently, Ryan Whitley wrote a terrific analysis of my story, “The Horn of the World’s Ending,” which appeared first in Darrell Schweitzer’s That Is Not Dead in 2015, and which will be part of my forthcoming collection, Children of the Fang. I’m extremely moved by the care and attention Ryan has brought to his reading of the piece, and I thank him for it.
Ryan included this illustration with his essay, and it’s pretty cool.
Today the 2019 Shirley Jackson Awards were announced, in a terrifically produced video (if I do say so myself). If you didn’t have a chance to watch the video, here’s a link. (Don’t worry: it’s pretty short.) Congratulations to all the winners, as well as to everyone who was nominated. Thanks, too, to this year’s jurors, Linda D Addison, Aaron Dries, Josh Gaylord, Gabino Iglesias, Kate Maruyama.
During the annual meeting of the Board of Directors, I was somehow given the role of Vice President. My goal during that one year period will be to assist as best I can in following through on our pledge to diversify both the Board of Directors and Board of Advisors for the award with all due haste. Just think of me as the Agnew to Brett Cox’s Nixon! (Wait…)
I don’t know if you did this when you were a kid, but I was always interested to find out who else shared my birthday (July 6). There were a number of kids in my elementary school who were born on the 5th, and even more, it seemed, on the 7th, but the day in between, I had all to myself. When it came to celebrities/historical figures of note, I didn’t fare much better: Sylvester Stallone and Nancy Reagan (I kid you not). John Paul Jones was born on the 6th, which I guess was something, except that my middle name is, you guessed it, Paul, and my fellow students took great delight in calling me “John Paul Jones.” Not that any of the little thugs knew about the birthday connection: it was just something obnoxious to say.
(During college, I think it was, I found that both Guy de Maupassant and William Faulkner had died on July 6th–not the same July 6th, mind you, but I supposed that was…well, you couldn’t call it auspicious, exactly, unless you believed that one or both of their souls/essences had traveled through the ether to take up residence in my infant brain. Which I never thought. Never.)
More recently, I learned I share a birthday with the great Frida Kahlo, which pretty much makes up for the whole Sly/Nancy thing. But I also learned I have it in common with a fellow writer of weird fiction, the very talented Jayaprakash Satyamurthy.
As you can see from the photo above , he and his wife run an animal rescue/shelter operation out of their home. That alone would make him okay in my book. But he’s also a fantastic writer. Over the last several years, he’s released a pair of slim collections of weird stories, as well as a standalone story (I think it’s a long novelette, but it might cross into novella territory) called Strength of Water. All of it is excellent work, its prose elegant and lucid without being overly stilted or formal. Set in and around Bangalore, which is where he lives, the shorter stories evoke those of M.R. James and Robert Aickman without ever feeling derivative, while deftly evoking day to day life in contemporary India. In terms of both story and ideas, Strength of Water packs more into its pages than many long novels. I like to describe it by evoking the scene in Gaiman’s American Gods where Shadow gets to see the space behind the world, and then telling whomever I’m talking to to imagine that what you’re seeing when you’re in that space is actually the ideological constructs that shape and govern our societies brought to life. And that’s not to mention the psychic kids and the painfully sharp portrayal of India sliding towards authoritarianism.
Recently, Satyamurthy has released a new collection of stories, Come Tomorrow: and Other Tales of Bangalore Terror, which brings together the material of his previous two collections with new work. I purchased it the second I found out it was available: that’s the kind of writer Jayaprakash Satyamurthy is, the kind whose every new story you snap up the minute you hear about it. If you want to wish one of our finer writers of weird fiction a Happy Birthday, head over to your preferred vendor and treat yourself to his work.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to do an interview with Australian writer and interviewer Glenn Parker for his Does the Dog Die in This? podcast. (You have to follow the website links to Spotify for the podcast episodes; I’m episodes 9 and 10.) I had a blast talking with Glenn about things like impostor syndrome, getting past being too self critical, and the mysteries of canine consciousness. Thanks to him for allowing me to ramble on.