Sunday, December 20, 2015

Best Reads of the Year

It's a rare complaint that there's simply TOO MUCH good writing on one's plate, but that's the case this year. 2015 was filled with too many excellent releases. So many, in fact, that I find myself struggling to pare down the selections into something resembling a "Best of" list. However, what I present to you here is my attempt at just that -- a paring down, a tightening up, a creaming of the crop (which sounds as messy as it is). Undoubtedly, given the quality of releases this year, I've probably forgotten several worthy books that could have (or should have) made the list and, as always, I still have a tower of books on my "to-be-read" pile -- a pile that threatens to crush me flat if it ever topples. So this is not necessarily a comprehensive list; it's a list of books I've managed to get to and can readily recall that made an impact on me this year. Without further ado, then...

My 2015 Best Reads from Everywhere in the Multiverse (in no particular order)

A Quartet of Fine Chaps (the chapbook resurrection is upon us! long live the chapbook resurrection!):

"These Last Embers" - Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications)

Classic Strantzas here. A deliciously ambiguous and unsettling (and in that sense Aickmanesque) fairy tale of loss, separation, and rediscovery. It proves that we CAN go home again, but what we find there may be far from what we expected. Buy it... well... on ebay maybe? It was a limited run, so if you get your hands on one, you're a lucky devil.

"The Visible Filth" - Nate Ballingrud (This is Horror)

Everything you've come to expect and love from Ballingrud. It's visceral, gritty, and unremittingly bleak without losing sight of the common humanity of even the most morally fallible characters, which makes it doubly disconcerting. Buy it here.

"X's for Eyes" - Laird Barron (Journalstone)

Barron Gone Wild. There's no other way to describe this. It's parts gleeful bizarro and cosmic horror that feels as though Barron uncorked the champagne bottle of ideas in his head and let them fly to tremendous effect. Buy it here.

"After" - Scott Nicolay (Dim Shores)

The weight of this novella will crush you in all the best ways. The monstrosity of domestic abuse meets the monstrosity of the unknown in a deeply disturbing tale that forces us to consider whether we accept monsters of all variety a bit too easily. Buy it... well... um... this one's sold out, too. TWICE. Which should tell you how good it is and why you want to track down a copy.


Sing Me Your Scars - Damien Angelica Walters (Apex Publications)

Imagine a glowing, opalescent rose sprouting from a bush of bloodstained razorwire. That's Walters' writing. It's an electric amalgam of visceral imagery, beautiful wordplay, and feminine empowerment, and every one of the tales in this collection showcases it. There's a bladed edge to these stories, a bite that's infectious, but also a strong, beating heart of survival and perseverance in the face of terror and oppression. Buy it here.

The End of the End of Everything - Dale Bailey (Arche Press)

Bailey's collection presents us with the personal and ultimately haunting side of apocalypse in its many forms. The stories herein conjure innumerable dark clouds of gloom and terror but also reveal a silver lining -- however dim or obscured it may be -- within each and every one. It's rare to find stories that are cognizant of the full scope of horror's effect, but Bailey's manage to do exactly that. Buy it here.

Head Full of Ghosts - Paul Tremblay (William Morrow)

Novels need to be pretty special to hook me (which is why there are only three on this list), and so it is with Tremblay's apparent channeling of Shirley Jackson in HFoG, a subtle and unnerving soon-to-be classic exploration of possession, psychosis, the nature and role of family, the haunting power of our own pasts, and the exploitation of it all. Remarkable in every way. Buy it here.

Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales - Christopher Slatsky (Dunhams Manor Press)

I've said elsewhere that I believe Slatsky's work is some of the most singularly weird fiction I've encountered in the field, and I stand by that statement. By mining the outer limits of science and the occult to craft for us strange puzzle boxes of stories that make our heads spin and send us to other realms of reality, he cranks the weirdness knob to 11 without ever wandering into absurdity or bizarro territory. An astonishing feat. Buy it here.

Voices in the Night - Steven Millhauser (Knopf)

The Master releases another superb collection of tales that alternately challenges our conceptions of middle class normalcy and conjures up contemporary myths and legends. As always with Millhauser, there's a deep sense of unease and melancholy here, permeated with bursts of revelation and insights into the nature of humankind. Superb in every way. Buy it here.

Aickman's Heirs - Ed. Simon Strantzas (Undertow Publications)

Two anthologies blew me away this year, and here's the first. A tribute to a writer who's still relatively overlooked by the general public, all the stories in here pay respect to Robert Aickman's signature ambiguity and slowly building dread and disquiet without ever falling into pastiche or parody. A superb assemblage by Strantzas and a remarkable consistency by the authors that would make Aickman proud. Buy it here.

Nightscript Vol. 1 - ed. C.M. Muller

Here's the deal: Muller's anthology is Shadows & Tall Trees volume 7 without being Shadows & Tall Trees. Yes, it's that good. Just as as S&TT showcased some of the absolute best weird fiction and quiet horror in the biz, so too does Nightscript. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising to see a couple of the stories in here picked up by Year's Best editors. Get on board with Nightscript now, because it's sure to be a flagship publication for horror and the weird in years to come. Buy it here.

Let Me Tell You - Shirley Jackson (Random House)

Maybe not the best work Jackson ever produced, but this collection is worth reading for its first section -- Sudden and Unusual Things Have Happened -- alone. Those 150 or so pages contain plenty of Jackson's signature quiet weirdness to make it worth your time and your money. I shouldn't have to say more. Buy it here.

Vermilion - Molly Tanzer (Word Horde)

Supernatural Western is one of those subgenres that usually presses the right buttons for me, and Tanzer's steampunky romp certainly does the deed. As with all good alt-history novels, Tanzer builds a subtly off-kilter world we'd love to further explore and populates it with intriguing characters crying out for further adventures. A delight you'll want to revisit for certain. Buy it here.

Neil Spring - The Watchers (Quercus)

I'm also a sucker for sci-fi horror, and when it's wrapped up in an X-Files-ish, folkloric conspiracy narrative, I'm totally on board -- which is exactly why Spring's novel is here. An interesting and engaging amalgam of paranormal phenomena and high strangeness a la John Keel or Jacques Vallee, the story spins out somewhere between weird tale and traditional mystery all tinged by a goodly amount of dread. Buy it here.

Skein and Bone - V.H. Leslie (Undertow Publications)

Leslie's stories are the contemporary echo of the great ghost story tellers of old (the Jameses, the Bensons) as viewed through a blood-stained lens. Built of fluid, muscular prose, they contain the same tension-building and malign supernaturality all wrapped up in a slightly more violent and more compact package than that of her venerable elders. A magnificent debut collection. Buy it here.

The Sea of Blood - Reggie Oliver (Dark Renaissance)

This is mostly a "Best of" collection, but there are a few new offerings mixed among the already well-polished gems. Any excuse to revisit Oliver is a good one and this collection proves why: rich and foreboding atmosphere, bibliophilia and occult religion as oft-centralizing themes, and prose that's as melodious as it is intricate. Oliver collections are pure literary sustenance, and here we're treated to a feast. Buy it here.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe - Thomas Ligotti (Penguin)

It's a reissue of two classic collections, I know, so it doesn't really count as "new," per se, but given the rarity of SoaDD and Grimscribe, a reissue was welcome and necessary so that new readers might have a chance to experience the greatness of Ligotti. Cosmic despair and existential horror at its best. Buy it here