A few years ago I started paying attention to what I was reading every year. It was a natural consequence of having been caught up in the bullet journal trend, or more like my own modified, screwed up, and occasionally abandoned form of bullet journaling, which at the very least had me making pretty little lists of things I did like to keep track of, but perhaps not some things I was supposed to keep track of. But doesn't reading cover both of those categories?
As a writer, I like to go back and reflect on what I've read; any book, no matter its quality, offers some insights into an author's intent, techniques, and overall success at merging those two things into something worth remembering. As a reader, I gravitate towards literary fiction and horror fiction (which, I know, shouldn't be considered mutually exclusive), and naturally jump around the spectrum, finding myself bored with one kind of style, hungry for another. It's like a constant palate cleansing, and jumping around helps me see what all sorts of authors are up to as they try to achieve different ends with different means. I think in the online parlance that makes me a mood reader. I don't know. But anyway, here's the first batch of horror fiction from 2023 that I read and which has really stuck with me.
Daphne, Josh Malerman*
If you're looking for a spiritual cousin to Malerman's tale of a girls' high school basketball team hunted down one at a time by a vengeful specter, you couldn't do much better than It Follows. All you gotta do is swap the travails of adolescent sexual awakening for depression and anxiety, which Malerman maps onto the eponymous villain's modus operandi so that the constant, insidious threat of her appearance is more chilling and horrible (and tangible) than her actual mode of execution. Here, the eventuality of death is the killer itself. The story lives almost entirely in its characters' heads, and though it may veer too far in that direction, it's a direction I'm more apt to enjoy. I recall Malerman explaining that Daphne was blown up from a short story or a novelette into its final form, and the transformation shows once you know it. Its timespan feels overly stretched, its side characters shrouded by a lack of personality more suitable to a shorter length, and the wordcount padded with psychological exposition rather than anything that might ground the reality of these doomed girl's suburban lives. All in all, it's a dreamy affair that challenges our very real demons, and the denim-clad Daphne herself isn't so memorable as the hope Malerman wants to instill in us to fight the things that drag us down.
Wicked Stepmother, Michael McDowell & Dennis Schuetz
After Blackwater, I'll ready anything of McDowell's. Whatever Schuetz's contribution here, Wicked Stepmother continues McDowell's preoccupation with family melodrama and domestic concerns, following a grasping, gold-digging widow's schemes to cut off her adult stepchildren once and for all, no matter the cost. As expected, it's full of McDowell's deliciously dry dialogue, blackly humorous irony, and perfectly campy caricatures of tragically deluded or cynical cast members. The one thing that threw me for a loop was that I ended up rooting for the opposite side. I went in wanting to cheer for a devilish femme fatale to off a bunch of spoiled brats, but the stepmother here is written as such a narcissistic drag, such an embarrassingly tacky and opportunistic social climber, that she's more the ugly reflection in society's mirror than the stepchildren themselves, who--entitled they may be--are far more sympathetic for their various problems and endeavors. I didn't find myself laughing as viciously as I wanted, but it was excellent nonetheless.
Furnace, Livia Llewellyn
Llewellyn's slim collection of weirdly speculative and occasionally weirdly erotic stories features a few standouts that have stuck with me through the months. I like her fluid style and obscure subject matter, and found myself getting lost in her prose moreso than the actual plot in many places. I know that's a problem for many readers, but I like a literature of atmosphere over action sometimes, and if I don't totally get something the first time around, well, maybe it's just me. One second she's lulling me into an intimate little dreamscape, and the next she's digging most deeply and explicitly into pain and rage with an epic, horrific tale of ritual reproduction on a desolate beach. Another standout involves a woman and her cowboy lover whose grasp on power may not be as willing as it seems. I've seen Llewellyn lament the low marketability of her subject matter and style, which is a shame to me because I'd like to see more weird fiction like this everywhere.
A Lush and Seething Hell, John Hornor Jacobs
I'd been sleeping on this excellent cosmic double novella for some time, and I wonder why since cosmic horror is right up my alley. Needless to say, I'm glad I finally jumped on it, because Jacobs deftly marries deep research with inexplicable happenings in two excellent stories that work just as well as standalones as they do being smushed together. The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky toys with that classic trope of a forbidden text amidst the brutal controlled chaos of a South American dictatorship, descending into a complete nightmare by the end, while My Heart Struck Sorrow toys with another, perhaps newer trope that apparently I can't get enough of: old-timey American murder ballads with unknown origins. Humans are capable of the most horrific, inexplicable things, and who's to say what their motivations really are, or what's behind them? Excellent choice here.
Starve Acre, Andrew Michael Hurley
I didn't sleep on this long after having read Hurley's brilliant and subtly chilling The Loney. I'd say this novel is far more approachable. Shorter, and ever so slightly less gloomy, it follows grieving parents living in perpetually cold, cloudy, drizzly, muddy, miserable Lancashire (yes, somehow less gloomy) whose brush with the supernatural gives them some Pet Sematary-like ideas. It's a modern gothic masterpiece, full of ominous landscapes and weather and leery locals, and the centrality of the folk figure Jack Grey had me wondering what little bit of British lore Hurley had lifted for his own ends before learning he just completely made it up. I'm eagerly awaiting whatever comes next from him.
Rosemary's Baby, Ira Levin
I finally got around to giving this a read, and I'm glad I did, if only for the lessons it can convey on a writerly level. Rosemary's Baby is seared into our cultural subconscious so that every little twist and turn is spoiled by the story's foregone conclusion, but that doesn't stop it from being so tightly and immaculately plotted and delightfully told. The secret lies in Levin's lively characterizations of Rosemary Woodhouse and her fellow tenants, whose true natures continue to shock no matter how much you know ahead of time. The story perfectly inhabits its mid-20th century urban American time and place, so that the details are what you come for, and the ending, dreadful as it may be, comes as a dark little cherry on the top.
The House Next Door, Anne River Siddons
I snagged a hardcover of this (a reader's group version, but nonetheless an excellent oldie with an intact jacket!) at one of West Michigan's quaintest little used bookshops, and I read it pretty much immediately. This is a direct recommendation from the man Grady Hendrix himself, whose taste has yet to let me down, and it encompasses everything Hendrix seems so lovingly obsessed with in his own work. Domestic concerns, family melodrama, timeless horror tropes transferred into modern life (sounds a lot like Michael McDowell!). Maybe it's a tad on the long side, but I loved the steadily building dread and the cringe-inducing social horrors that sprung out of each character's worst impulses. It reaches the point that even its blissfully bourgeoisie couple at its center must reach the ultimate Holmesian conclusion that once you've eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true. Siddons' one-off horror story is highly recommended.
Exquisite Corpse, Poppy Z. Brite
my intro to Brite was Lost Souls, and I fell in love with its early '90s grunge aesthetic, made all the more moody and tortured by Brite's lyrical style. It felt meandering when it wasn't really, and its cast of nobodies living in or touching upon virtually every taboo known to modern society felt more knowable than most characters I'd read in recent memory. Maybe this is all to say I like Lost Souls more than Exquisite Corpse? Which might sound crazy to some, because Corpse follows the same successful rubric of intertwining plot threads (with roadtrips!), harrowing glimpses into the human condition via unspeakable taboos, excruciatingly intimate characterization, and beautifully lyrical prose. It's also more propulsive than Souls, and more topical, too. I didn't realize I was getting into an Unsolved Mysteries-era fictionalization of Jeffery Dahmer until I was like, huh, this dude's basically Jeffrey Dahmer, who Ryan Murphy just made a big ole TV show about. If there's one thing Corpse does bigger than Souls, it's the ultraviolence, which made for some very difficult passages to get through.
How To Sell A Haunted House, Grady Hendrix
Kakawewe! If I had my way, Pupkin the bastard puppet would join the ranks of the Babadook, Trick 'R Treat's Sam, and Billy the Puppet in the pantheon of 21st century horror icons. As you've seen, I've already gone through a list of books that's heavily influenced by Hendrix's enthusiasm for the genre, so let's end on the latest novel of his own creation. House is a bit of a double bait and switch, making you think you're getting a haunting, inserting you into a possession/cursed object/who-knows-what narrative, then right back into a haunting again. I almost wonder how he was able to sell the idea in the first place, and interviews certainly make it sound like this concept has been bouncing around in his head for years. In any case, it's got all the classic Hendrix hallmarks: a David Sedaris-level skill for observing and exploiting interpersonal dysfunction for darkly hilarious results, and a Sam Raimi-level panache for tangible disgustingness that makes you recoil from the grue and grime on the page. He hasn't topped the revoltingness of the attic scene in The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires, at least in my mind, but House has its own setpieces that had me laughing and squirming in equal measure. Whatever horror trope Hendrix next wants to reinvent and drop on the poor denizens of Charleston, South Carolina, I'm ready.
* I first stumbled on Josh Malerman when he was on the brink of Bird Box superstardom, hosting a reading of Black Mad Wheel (trippy and underrated, go seek it out) at my local Schuler Books. I was unemployed, I had a few months to go before I embarked upon my first NaNoWrimo, and I wasn't up on contemporary horror authors. I was still stuck on older authors and classics of the genre, not widening my horizons to newer authors beyond what I found in Ellen Datlow's Best Of collections. But seeing as how there was a fellow Michigander writing blockbusting, Hollywood-enticing bestsellers, I figured, why not? Let's see what he's all about. And for those of you who haven't listened to literally thirty seconds of on any podcast episode he's appeared in, just know his energy and optimism are wackily infectious. I came away with a signed paperback of Bird Box, and wonder to this day if it counts as a book signing faux pas to pass over the new hardcover for a cheaper paperback, but, I was out of a job and I'd really rather not ask Reddit if I'm the asshole. I never actually watched the movie, because my spidey sense told me I wouldn't like it (that's a blog post for another day), but Bird Box the novel had me jumping at noises in broad daylight and gorging on its interwoven plotlines mixing utter dread with blind (pun!) hope.