And so, as 2015 claws its way into existence, it’s time for my traditional look back over the last twelve months at what’s been going on in the world of horror writing (or Dark Fiction for those of you who prefer their pigeons out of holes) and, from where I’m standing, the view I’m getting is a pretty good one. The percentage of what I’ve enjoyed of everything I’ve read has to be in the high nineties (which, in itself, probably proves nothing other that I know what I like when it comes to buying books) but I have to say there have been the odd disappointments. Whilst the nature of how this blog operates (I usually review books I’ve purchased or requested ARCs of) means that I have on the whole avoided the “wading through shit” scenario, I’ve still encountered the odd piece of writing that has made me shake my head in despair.
It would be easy to blame self-publishing for this and – it has to be said – some (but by no means all) of the worst examples I’ve come across are by authors who have taken this route. Unfortunately, many more belonged to edited books so the blame would have to lie with the person taking on that responsibility. Given the ever-growing pile of rejection slips in my collection it seems perverse for me to state that it’s probably too easy to get published these days – but it is. I speak from experience. Curiosity (along with a barely suppressed sense of desperation) led me to use Amazon’s kindle direct publishing service to create downloads for some of my short stories. Once you’ve evaded all the tricky questions about taxes and territory rights it’s simply a case of sending your Word document and everything is done for you – a bright, shiny version of your creation available for download. Anyone – unfortunately – could do it. (To provide some context, a check of the sales charts to see how well they were selling revealed a number so huge that Stephen Hawking is undertaking research to see whether it actually exists).
Perhaps it’s my own subconscious, regarding everything I read as a potential review and thereby making me more critical but for the first time in many years I’ve given up on books, frustrated at how, well… shit they were. (This is much easier to do on a kindle I’ve discovered). Should the horror writing community be worried about this infiltration of sub-standard tosh? Possibly. Time will tell. It would be a shame if the reputation of the genre as a whole was tarnished by it. Real talent, however, will always shine through and, before I segued into a bit of a rant, I was intimating that there was plenty of it on show throughout 2014. And so there was.
So here it is, my list of the books that have impressed me the most over the last twelve months. I’ve chosen a “winner” in five categories but every book that gets a mention here is one that’s given me a warm glow of satisfaction when I’ve read it and can thus be regarded as an honourable mention.
There are of course no prizes other than my admiration and respect. However, this year, I thought it would be a novelty to create an award and here it is, the (not entirely originally named) Dark Muse:
The design is by my cousin Peter Frain who is an artist of considerable talent. This is actually the second iteration of the Dark Muse, I coerced him into changing the original (which actually fitted the remit of “Muse” a lot better) into something more demonic simply to satisfy my own compulsion for megalomania. More examples of his work can be found at his website here which is the place to contact him for any of your illustrative needs.
And so to the nominees…
I think I’ve probably read more novels this year than I have done for some time and 2014 provided a bumper crop which made choosing a favourite one of the hardest decisions I had to make. It was gratifying to see that a novel which proudly displayed its horror/fantasy credentials boldly was actually nominated for the Booker Prize. That novel was The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell and is a marvellous read, spanning time periods and location in much the same way as his earlier novels Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten did.
The plot of The Bone Clocks – or at least one of its central themes – bears a strong resemblance to Doctor Sleep by Stephen King. That was released in 2013 along with Joyland and seems to have established a pattern of two novel releases a year for Mr King, one crime one horror which has been maintained in 2014. Mr Mercedes was the crime offering which introduced some engaging characters but suffered from a weak ending and more typos than might be expected whilst the horror was provided by Revival in which the author had a (James) Whale of a time reimagining the Frankenstein story in a thoroughly enjoyable look at the whole religion versus science debate. (A Christmas treat to myself this year was to re-read The Shining and ‘Salems Lot – and I can confirm that they’ve more than stood the test of time – classics both.
Nick Cutter provided The Troop – in essence an updating of Lord of the Flies but stylishly done with the narrative interspersed with “factual” inserts cleverly providing context and back-story for the plight of the stranded boy scouts.
That technique was used to great effect in Sarah Lotz’s The Three – a book I loved for its style, ideas and – not least – its politics. Another South African writer, Lauren Beukes, provided a follow-up to the brilliant The Shining Girls with Broken Monsters – a murder mystery set in the Art scene of Detroit.
A high concept that paid off in spades was Bird Box by Josh Mallerman. A novel set in a world where everyone must hide indoors and wear blindfolds when venturing outside might seem on the face of it restricting and limited in scope but the book is far from either of those, a taut, tense, gripping novel where the real monsters turn out to be… Well, that would be spoiling it.
Stephen Gregory shows that likeable characters aren’t necessarily a prerequisite for an effective book with Wakening the Crow in which everyone is horrible with nary a redeeming quality between them. It’s a disturbing book though, and one which will take you to some very dark places. And I mean very dark.
There are a few dark places in Gary McMahon’s The End too but that shouldn’t put you off reading one of the best PA novels I’ve read in some time.
Mark Morris provided a house-brick of a novel at the end of the year with The Wolves of London – another high concept novel which is the first in a planned trilogy. I’m already looking forward to the second one. It was a big book but the novel it took me longest to get through was Simon Bestwick’s Black Mountain. Took me over a year to read that one but it was worth it, a multi-layered epistolary account of dark goings on around the titular peak. It’s great news that the serial release format is to be continued this year with James Everington’s The Quarantined City. Fans of subtle, Aickmanesque horror will be falling over themselves to get a copy.
Much as I hate to disagree with Morrissey, I actually don’t hate it when my friends become successful and so I was extremely chuffed to see my old forum sparring partner Ben Jones have his debut novel Pennies for Charon published. It’s a cracking crime novel and its publication is just reward for the years of slog Ben’s put in.
Adam Nevill’s No One Gets Out Alive confirmed his position as the most consistently reliable horror novelist currently plying their trade and was an overwhelmingly tense and terrifying read. Adam writes genuinely scary stuff, recreating those childhood feelings of fear lost in adulthood (or as Stephen King puts it in ‘Salems Lot: “the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties”). This is a good thing.
However, the novel that most captured my attention in 2014, which made the biggest impression on me was James Cooper’s Dark Father – a brilliantly constructed, multi-stranded novel that was a triumph of form and content. A terrifying tale of obsession, paranoia and the darkness that lurks within families.
James Cooper (now the inaugural recipient of a Dark Muse) also provided one of the year’s best novellas in Strange Fruit – another forensic examination of familial relationships, in this case mother/daughter rather than the father/son of Dark Father.
A re-acquaintance with an author I read a lot of in my “younger” days – Chaz Brenchley – allowed me discover Being Small – another weird family tale that put me in mind (in a good way) of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. There’s a poetic quality to Chaz’s writing style which makes it a pleasure to read.
Crime was mixed with horror in Gary McMahon’s Chasing the Dark and stood all on its own in Mark West’s Drive – the latter a tense, white-knuckle chase through darkened streets that will keep you gripped to the last page.
In a weird kind of synchronicity, Richard Farren Barber’s The Sleeping Dead shared a theme with Gary McMahon’s The End – focussing as it did on events following a mysterious “suicide plague”. It’s a subtle and understated piece of writing and all the more effective for that.
Less subtlety is displayed in John Llewellyn Probert’s The Hammer of Dr Valentine – a rip-roaring homage to Hammer Films which was just as enjoyable and entertaining as the good Doctor’s first outing in Nine Deaths…
Gary Fry continued to carve out a Nietzsche for himself in the philosophical horror sub-genre with two novellas, Savage and Mutator. Both provided the trademark combination of horror and philosophy but both also – in some bizarre, meta-fictional, synergistic way proved that size is important, in particular length as both stories could have benefitted from longer word counts to allow the ideas the room they needed to be fully realised. At the very least, Gary’s books allowed me to release into the wild some truly awful puns. God bless ya Gary. (Or whatever philosophical construct you use to explain away the mysteries of the universe).
The novella that I enjoyed most in 2014 though was a debut, an atmospheric, old school yarn which transported me to the high seas in the most effective of ways. The Dark Muse for best novella 2014 goes to Neil Williams for his referential, yet respectful and downright creepy The Derelict.
Best Multi-Author Collection
The Terror Tales of… series of books from Gray Friar Press continues to impress and, indeed, appears to be going from strength to strength with the last three in particular (Seaside, Wales and Yorkshire) providing some brilliant stories.
Tom Johnstone did a great job with continuing the editing of Horror Uncut following the tragic death of Joel Lane and has produced a collection that Joel would be proud of. How you receive the stories will to some extent depend on your political inclinations but it’s a book I recommend highly.
Johnny Mains and Robin Ince managed to persuade a lot of comedians to turn their hand to writing horror stories and, as a result, produced the highly entertaining Dead Funny. The stories which work best are those in which the writers aren’t trying to be funny (with the exception of Stewart Lee whose genius shines through regardless) and the book begins with a corker of a story from Reece Shearsmith.
Two anthologies dominated the multi-author format in 2014 though, the first being The First Spectral Book of Horror Stories edited by Mark Morris. (Quite how he had time to do this as well as write a huge novel is beyond me although it’s well known he spends a lot of time with Dr Who so time isn’t perhaps that much of an issue. Perhaps he has his own obsidian heart. Who knows?) This is a great collection of stories and augurs well for future editions.
The Dark Muse however, goes to Shadows & Tall Trees 6. This whole series of publications has been a joy to read, full of intelligent, literary horror. Particular highlights in this edition were Conrad Williams’ Shaddertown, Alison Moore’s Summerside, F Brett Cox’s Road Dead and CM Muller’s Vrangr. It’s sad news indeed that this could be the last of S&TT, the world of weird fiction will be a poorer place without it.
Best Single Author Collection
An eclectic, literary collection of stories of the highest quality was provided in Simon Strantzas’ Burnt Black Suns with a wide variety of themes and styles of story that never failed to engage.
Anyone purchasing Jasper Bark’s Stuck on You and expecting a biography of Motown legend Lionel Richie would soon discover it was not what they’re looking for… The titular story was pre-released on its own and then joined by a selection of Prime Cuts to form a hugely entertaining collection from Crystal Lake. It’s not a collection for the faint of heart. The title story begins with a man waking up to find he’s been fused to the corpse of his lover by a lightning strike and then proceeds to get even more disgusting. It takes real skill to write deeply unpleasant stuff and yet still make it an “enjoyable” experience for the reader and it’s a skill Mr Bark has in abundance. Amidst the gore there’s real writing going on here and the book has within it one of the best (and cleverest) ghost stories I’ve read in a while in Haunting the Past.
William Meikle resurrects the character of Professor Challenger in a new collection of stories in Professor Challenger and the Kew Growths. Willie also does sterling work with legendary fictional characters Sherlock Holmes and Carnacki and that skill is demonstrated in these hugely entertaining tales.
The author who takes home the Dark Muse however, (well, doesn’t actually take it anywhere but you know…) is Frank Duffy whose collection Unknown Causes blew me away last year. It’s a marvellous collection that, as all the best horror writing should, messes with your head, often leaving you disorientated and uncertain. You’ll be impressed too though, at the quality of the writing on display here.
Best Short Story
The Terror Tales Series threw up a number of contenders for the title of best single story. Those tales that stuck in my mind long after reading were Stephen Volk’s The Magician Kelso Dennett which worked just like a magic trick itself leaving you with a feeling of how did he do that? at the end of it; Ragged by Gary McMahon which was the literary equivalent of – and induced the same shivers of discomfort as looking at – those Victorian post-mortem photographs and Stephen Bacon’s The Summer of Bradbury, a touching and yet disturbing coming of age tale.
Anthony Cowin set a precedent – and a high standard - which will hopefully be maintained and even built upon in the new sub-genre of “reviewers as authors” (I predict big things coming from this) with a cracking little dark fable The Brittle Birds.
Black Static continues to be the flagship magazine of horror and weird fiction with some really strong issues in 2014. Personal individual story highlights for me were Andrew Hook’s A Knot of Toads, Malcolm Devlin’s Passion Play and Ralph Robert Moore’s Drown Town.
This is Horror’s chapbook series produced the brilliant The Elvis Room by Stephen Graham Jones which was full of clever ideas, all of which were resolved perfectly at the end of this creepy, hotel-based story.
The best individual story I read in 2014 though was found in The First Spectral Book of Horror Stories and is Eastmouth by Alison Moore. (My second favourite was Summerside by the same author in Shadows & Tall Trees…). It’s subtle and perfectly paced and constructed, an exercise in “quiet” horror that slowly builds up an atmosphere of paranoia and culminating in an absolutely brilliant last line.
So there you have it. My thanks to all the authors for providing such marvellous diversions from real life. Here’s to more of the same in 2015…