By SHAWN MACOMBER
For devotees of the eerie, hair-raising, fantastical corners of the lit universe, the decade ended with a bang, not a whimper. Readers truly found themselves in an embarrassment-of-riches situation—promising new authors burst onto the scene, standard-bearers carried fresh and brighter torches forward and the “to be read” pile of even the most discerning connoisseur teetered precariously.
Which is ultimately why this is not a traditional 10-best list; there are simply far too many intriguing, highly praised books left to be read from those 365 days to make such a definitive qualitative judgment. So instead, below are 10 adventurous, boundary-obliterating works of dark fiction, each of which is sure to enliven, electrify, enchant, inspire and/or otherwise affect those who dare crack its cover…
SABBATH by Nick Mamatas: You know the old accolade, “She could sing the phone book and I’d pay to listen”? Well, I’d happily lay my cash down for Mamatas’ reinterpretation of this volume: He’s as canny and dexterous a master of what we might call fiction from the edge as any writer alive today—a virtual genius on both the conceptual and structural levels. This is already established by the tear Mamatas has been on the last few years—2016’s I AM PROVIDENCE, the landmark 2018 collection THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF EVERYTHING—but his latest, the fantastically bonkers SABBATH, really should end any argument. It’s a beautiful book, truly, which I cannot describe any better than whoever wrote the cover copy: “The infamous eleventh-century warrior Hexen Sabbath is plucked from death and certain damnation by a being claiming to be an angel of the Lord, and finds himself dropped into contemporary Manhattan with no clothes, no weapons, no resources, and one mission―to track down and kill the living personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins before they bring about Armageddon.”
INSIDE THE ASYLUM by Mary SanGiovanni: For those of us who thrilled to the scintillating adventures of occult investigator Kathy Ryan in CHILLS (2016) and her first stand-alone book BEHIND THE DOOR (2018), creator SanGiovanni blessed us with two wild new entries in the series last year. And while the wry social commentary and “Wraiths from the Trapezoids” of November’s BEYOND THE GATE are excellent, overall the gobsmacking wild brilliance of INSIDE THE ASYLUM has a bit of an edge. Seriously, there aren’t many guarantees in life, but we can promise you haven’t experienced anything quite like this sanitarium-set surrealist smorgasbord. May Kathy Ryan battle a thousand more metaphysical antagonists in the years to come.
A VOICE SO SOFT by Patrick Lacey: A first-class world constructor who possesses the sort of vibrant, gleefully demented approach to narrative and pace that calls to mind the best of the ’80s paperback horror explosion, Lacey has long felt like a writer on the cusp of blowing up. (In popularity, not person, natch.) And if there’s any justice left in this world, A VOICE SO SOFT will be the accelerant that gets it done. This boisterous tale of a pop singer with a demonic backbeat who is tearing up the charts and pushing her (literally) rabid fanbase toward kicking off an earworm apocalypse on Halloween night kills—only to kill again and again and again and…
THE APOCALYPTIC MANNEQUIN by Stephanie M. Wytovich: Poetry has always thrived in literature’s horror and horror-adjacent realms, but it’s difficult to think of any writer who has dragged the darkly beautiful to the fore in recent years more than Wytovich. This, her sixth collection, is yet another deft marriage of eloquence and the outré, full of images and turns of phrase that will pick the lock on your heart and mind. The queen reestablishes her throne.
THE FEARING: BOOK FOUR—EARTH & EMBER by John F.D. Taff: From THE BELL WITCH (2013) to THE END IN ALL BEGINNINGS (2014) to LITTLE BLACK SPOTS (2018), Taff has established himself as one of the best, smartest writers of thought-provoking, emotionally resonant dark fiction working today. And if, despite this demonstrated dexterity, you somehow doubt his particular brand of sinister radiance would translate to a multi-volume supernatural apocalyptic epic…well, brother, THE FEARING is here to set you straight. This, the fourth and final entry in the series, really hammers home the scope of Taff’s talent and imagination, breathing life into a death of our world that feels only all too relevant and possible.
THE PALE WHITE by Chad Lutzke: As his growing legion of devotees will no doubt attest, there are only two things that are certain when you dive into a work by the mind-bogglingly prolific Lutzke: First, the tale is going to be built up from an ingenious, meticulously crafted premise not quite like any you’ve previously encountered. Second, he is going to aim his creative howitzer directly at your heart. Coming on the heels of the elegiac triumphs OF FOSTER HOMES AND FLIES (2016), STIRRING THE SHEETS (2018) and SKULLFACE BOY (2018), Lutzke steps on the gas a bit more forcefully in THE PALE WHITE, a harrowing, empathetic, stirring tale of three young women who break out of the sex slavery imposed upon them by a demented realtor in an explosion of viscera, rage and vampiric slaking—but then are left to grapple with the fact that liberation and revenge are deceptively thorny propositions as well.
THE NEW FLESH: A LITERARY TRIBUTE TO DAVID CRONENBERG, edited by Sam Richard and Brendan Vidito: It’s been almost six years since David Cronenberg released a feature film—a state of affairs he has suggested may become permanent—but if you’re desperate for a fix of that surrealist, reality-refracting, DNA-scrambling world, this imaginative and lively anthology inspired by the visionary body-horror moviemaker’s work certainly delivers. To their credit, Richard and Vidito assembled a murderers’ row of topnotch known quantities—Brian Evenson, whose SONG FOR THE UNRAVELING OF THE WORLD was also a dark-lit highlight last year, opens the collection—as well as a slew of vibrant, promising new voices.
BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES by Mark Allan Gunnells: Damn. I lost track of Gunnells for a while after FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER and FORT (both 2015), but this Rod-Serling-by-way-of-early-Stephen-King collection put me permanently back on track. No filler here, just an amazing anchoring novella around which a dizzyingly diverse array of killer shorts floats. BOOK HAVEN is a wonderful introduction to an author who should be approximately 1,000 times better known than he currently is. Pair it with his TED Talk from May entitled “How Horror Movies Taught Me Empathy” for maximum effect.
THE SERPENT’S SHADOW by Daniel Braum: Finally. After two breathtakingly original short story collections—THE NIGHT MARCHERS AND OTHER STRANGE TALES (2016) and THE WISH MECHANICS (2017)—Braum at long last gifted the world with a debut novel. And to say this incredible tale of reactivated Mayan jungle temples, culture clashes, young love and ancient mysticism seeking modern-day vengeance was well worth the wait would be an understatement. Braum’s prose and plotting here is as magical—and, sometimes, as terrifying—as his subject matter. THE SERPENT’S SHADOW is a book with real heart that wrestles in a real way with difficult cultural and philosophical issues that also transports you beyond the veil, so to speak. Here’s hoping it bursts open Braum’s floodgates—the world could use a whole lot more of this kind of literature.
PIECES by Michael Aloisi and Rebecca Rowland: Rowland’s gorgeously rendered, blood-chilling THE HORRORS HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT was one of the most powerful and affecting collections of 2018. So when word came down that she’d be joining forces with the great Aloisi for a serial-killer novel, expectations hit a fever pitch faster than you could say “hacked-off limb.” Happily, the pair delivered a smart, intricate, darkly humorous, truly scary thriller that took a very sharp knife to whatever presumptions readers may have harbored—and set the bar that much higher for whatever author dares next dive into this now-resuscitated subgenre. (Review)