Following on Part 1 of my top horror reads of 2023 comes this selection of books I read in the latter half of the year. Still bouncing between subgenres, styles, and eras, I kept coming across new things that I greatly enjoyed.
Spectral Shadows, Robert Westall
I certainly see why Westall is called "the dean of British war novelists" after reading this three-story collection, even if that observation is mostly based off of one story. Blackham's Wimpey follows the crew of a haunted Wellington bomber, and of the many story tropes I'm a sucker for, wartime supernatural weirdness is a big one (I have a few ideas cooking on that front myself). It's not just the horror he does well. It's the attention to minute details that brings his bunch of airmen to life, through the lived-in realities of their job, their at-turns jaunty and sardonic attitudes, all tied together with a wonderfully British dryness. Its ultimate reveal couldn't be more horrific, given how the crew is so intimately tied to the haunting's origins. Second story The Wheatstone Pond is also a delightful slow build filled with quirky little details, while third story Yaxley's Cat left me wanting, though I can't quite put my finger on the reason why. Valancourt Books has more of his works out there, and I figure I'll be giving him another go soon.
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
For some reason I abandoned Blood Meridian years ago, and I can't remember why. I'm not normally a DNF'er, and I certainly didn't drop it because of the violence, as some might think. I hadn't even got to the worst parts yet. I remember it being at a time when I was over-ambitious with my reading goals, and I think I abandoned it out of frustration with its overly taxing prose. In any case, I finally plowed through it this summer in the wake of McCarthy's passing, and I'm glad I finally did. Virtually every line is flush with poetic invention, and the baroqueness of it all, rather than collapsing into pretense, creates a storm-embroidered hellscape of pre-twentieth century America that you can only wish was more of a fantasy than it probably really was. It's quite the feat to make something so violent and repellent into something you can't look away from. Quite the transcendent read.
Black Ambrosia, Elizabeth Engstrom
Another Valancourt Books edition here. The Paperbacks From Hell crowd has been giving Engstrom a boost in appeal lately, and I figured I'd give this vampiric roadtripping story a try. She describes in her intro how this book was an unusual pitch to make in the '80s, following as it did an antiheroine engaged in a meandering plot without straightforward horror tropes to exploit. Being a fan of the uncategorizable, I did like this one, though it felt slow in some places. What helps the momentum is the flip-flopping chapter format, following the wandering Angelina in her own time and her ex-boyfriend in the future, commenting ominously on the culmination of her adventure. I give it a thumbs up for style and subject matter, as it traces Angelina's simple desire to live life on her own terms and to refuse to bow down to the (male) expectations all around her, and showing how such motivations have led her to lean into her vampiric delusions.
Mapping The Interior, Stephen Graham Jones
This is a quickie, much like Jones's Night of the Mannequins, for instance, but one I liked a lot more. I see Jones catch a lot of hell for his style online, and for some of his longer works, I get it. Its stream-of-consciousness affectation isn't the most conducive to action scenes that require a stricter control on choreography or for transitional details that could use a straightforward explanation (he could stand to write a few more sentences like "Marley was dead: to begin with"), and I admit I found myself getting lost in the latter half of My Heart Is A Chainsaw. But to get back to Mapping the Interior, it's super tightly paced and ends on a gut-wrenching, awful revelation. Which is awesome. It takes his familiar themes of poverty and intergenerational Native American relations and brings them to an unsettlingly familiar conclusion. There's little hope in this story, but a whole hell of a lot of agonizing reflection. I reserve the word "powerful" for a story like this.
The Hollow Places, T. Kingfisher
I'd seen Kingfisher's name around enough to give this a whirl, and I mostly liked what I found. Kingfisher's novel follows a recent divorcee who discovers a portal to another dimension in her uncle's museum of curiosities and taxidermy, and from what I understand it stands as a tribute to Algernon Blackwood's The Willows, which I have to admit I haven't read, so maybe the value of its callbacks were lost on me. Nevertheless, it struck a good tone of cosmic horror that obsesses its main character, whose attempt to rebuild her life is only further goofed up by her quirky surroundings and maybe-dangerous, maybe-not tropical Narnia. It was dryly funny, as well, and I appreciated the camaraderie between Kingfisher's heroine and the barista next door. Knowing now that Kingfisher homages other classic authors in more of her novels makes me willing to see what else she has up her sleeve.
Gerald's Game, Stephen King
I don't come close at all to being one of King's constant readers, but I make a point to pick one up every once in awhile for a dose of Kingsian weirdness and highly specific cultural references. As for whether he delivers on making the premise of a woman chained to a bed for days on end into a thrilling ride, I'd say he mostly does. Sure, it's a bit bloated in the midsection with some inner dialogues going on too long and some sequences testing your patience (like sliding the water glass from one end of a shelf to another), but he makes up for it with narrative inventiveness. Super-recent widow Jessie's backstory unravels nicely over time, the stray dog's POV chapters make for amusing breaks from Jessie's problems, and the creeping terror of another mysterious threat keep you on your toes. Although I haven't outright disliked any King I've read, I'd say this goes higher on the list than some others.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
Wanting to bone up on some classics I've neglected over the years, I gave Dorian Gray a whirl. It's short, it's sweet, and Wilde's florid, aphorism-filled prose is more immediately appreciable than some of the denser language I've encountered from the same era (looking at you, Henry James!). Another reason to pick this out was to discover the actual source behind a story that's been so chewed up and recycled by pop culture that I couldn't even say how closely the pop culture version hues to what Wilde actually wrote. It's not like you can really complicate the concept of a painting that ages and absorbs the lived corruption of its subject so the subject doesn't have to, but I just wanted to know what actually happens in the story? My biggest surprise was how straightforward it treats its premise, unlike say, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which keeps Dr, Jekyll at a distance so you have to piece together what's going on. Here, Dorian Gray is a POV character himself, and you not only get the gist of the supernatural phenomena from the man himself, but you also see how much he struggles with the dissolute lifestyle he's chosen to lead, rather than acting as a two-dimensional villain who knows he'll get away with whatever he wants. I'm very pleased to have finally got around to this one, and it made for a good gothic Halloween-time read.
Thin Places, Kay Chronister
I don't think I can get into the specifics of this collection because, honestly, I'm awful at remembering the details of several short stories I've read in quick succession. That's not to say this isn't a wonderful collection, because I really enjoyed Chronister's darkly whimsical style and speculative elements thrust into stories that might otherwise have worked as equally dark exercises in literary realism. The fantasy and horror elements seep out of the woodwork here, making you question how much else beyond the story's confines might just be off, too. Standouts for me include the tale of a girl who feels trapped by her murderous mother in a dingy motel in the middle of nowhere, and the story of a girl whose haunted village in Southeast Asia has brought yet another Western documentary crew to report on her village's impoverishment and supernatural curse in equal measure. I'll be visiting more of Chronister's work based on the strength of this collection.
Maynard's House, Herman Raucher
This should've been a January read for me, since the story takes place in the wintry dead of the month when Vietnam vet Austin Fletcher takes up his deceased comrade's offer to inherit his house in the hinterlands of Maine. There may be echoes of King here, if only from the setting and vernacular, but Raucher's style stands out on its own, and I enjoyed watching the slow unraveling of Austin's mind as his situation gets stranger and stranger. From the unsettling reveal of the house's disturbed history to the introduction of a couple pixieish kids who seem to appear out of nowhere, Austin is given more reasons to question what's going on, and tearing him between wanting to leave and wanting to stick it out. The locals portrayed in this book are more sarcastic and dry and mechanical than any characters I've ever encountered, and at several points I wanted to see Austin shake them by their collars to elicit some sort of human passion. Things just keep getting weirder, and we transcend the concepts of hauntings and witches and faeries to enter the realm of the mind bending and cosmically surreal. I really quite liked this in the end.