Another year is ending. The days grow shorter; the nights, darker. The weird noises two streets over are a little quieter, and a little weirder, when muffled by the snow. With these black nights comes the harvest of the best dark fiction of the year. The past 12 months was an interesting time for horror, especially for experiments in form: two established masters sank their teeth into new veins of the genre, we shuddered at an absolutely brutal novel written entirely in a single running monologue, fictional oral histories explored terror from every angle, and even the oldest tricks in the blackest of books were given new life.
Whatever dark corners you might wish to curl up in, rest assured, you’ll find them below. Submitted for your approval: the best horror books we read this year.
I Am Behind You, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
A slow-burner compared to Lindqvist’s previous works, which tend to favor nauseating descriptions of undead biology and the horrifying aftereffects of trepanation, I Am Behind You is no less terrifying. The latest entry in Lindqvist’s literary canon sees the Swedish master of horror tackling more atmospheric and existential themes, depicting four families who become inexplicably stuck in an endless expanse of grass and blue skies that slowly reveals more about its itself only by turns, from the way it exploits its victims’ secret fears and flaws, to the strange creatures that stalk its distant borders. From the jump, there’s a weirdly claustrophobic air about the wide-open field, not the least of which is the music floating through it, seeming to cue up directly with the action (even creepier: the only tunes on offer are songs written by pop composer Peter Himmelstrand). That eerie feeling only builds to greater disturbances as Lindqvist reveals the true scope of his world, bringing to the fore the idea that all this torment is happening for a reason, but not a comprehensible one. Read our review.
Sleep Over, by H.G. Bells
On the surface, the premise invites comparisons to World War Z,: the gathered oral accounts of an apocalypse, in this case a sudden pandemic of sleeplessness. But from those roots, Sleep Over quickly blooms into a terrifying outgrowth of body horror, as the infected become trapped in their own waking delusions, minor scratches trigger a slow and painful death as the unsleeping bodies are unable to heal, and those desperate enough to close their eyes for even a few moments slip into catatonia or fall prey to mad science. While Bells leaves room for a small sliver of hope—albeit only in that all of this is being narrated in the past tense—she never once shies away from depicting the very real and truly horrifying implications of a world without sleep. This is a harrowing read, both for the micro-narratives it contains—even the happier ones seem to share a general sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop—and for the chilling plausibility of the wide-scale societal collapse. Bells’ debut novel will keep you turning pages, if only to see how the waking nightmare finally ends. Read our review.
Bedfellow, by Jeremy C. Shipp
Jeremy C. Shipp, author of some of the weirdest novels ever to be classified as “bizarro,” has long been known for finding ways to make the unusual seem commonplace just long enough for unsuspecting readers to put down their guards before he flings them headlong into even stranger waters, gleefully submerging them in pools of pure weird. In Bedfellow, he uses this gift to shift and change the landscape around an imperiled family being visited by an unusual interloper. “Marvin,” as the…thing calls him/itself, appears first as a homeless transient with odd eyes, but then, he changes, and every new detail he invents to change his appearance of explanation for bring there is added to the family’s memories without question. With terrible ease, he invades their heads, and takes up residence. Compounding the sense of unease, Shipp lets us in on what Marvin is doing, but in a way that portrays the family as helpless against him, their memories and sense of reality mere food for Marvin’s bizarre appetites. It’s a home invasion story as unusual as it is insidious; every moment in which Marvin consolidates his control is another moment in which you hope desperately that someone in the story will realize what is happening, the way you did.
The Cabin at the End of the World, by Paul Tremblay
Tremblay is something of a modern master in the realm of psychological horror, twisting familiar premises (demonic possession, suburban gothic ghost stories, home-invasion horror) in such a way that they reflect the characters’ interior landscapes as much as any external supernatural threat. Cabin begins with a simple home-invasion premise: as Andrew, Eric, and their daughter Wen summer at a lakeside cabin, four strangers with unusual-looking farm implements attempt to force their way inside, telling the three that they have to choose which one of them dies, in order that the wider world can be saved. While the small family is at first skeptical, a series of strange disasters shown on television—and the odd behavior of their captors—seems to point to bizarre events on a global scale; coupled with the weird visions one one the vacationers begins experiencing, the house soon erupts into a philosophical and psychological uproar. It’s a horrifying thriller that manages to maintain the suspense over the mere question of its premise—a tiny, cunning bit of uncertainty that makes reading experience that much more terrifying. Read our review.
Mutilation Song, by Jason Hrivnak
Hrivnak’s (The Plight House) second novel, released through the illustrious ChiZine Publications (fast becoming a stamp of quality in the world of bizarre fiction) begins with its demonic narrator DINN gleefully walking the reader through his torment and disappointment with his most recent “trainee,” a young neuro-atypical man named Thomas. While the framework will immediately evoke memories of similar disturbing works (Three Hundred Million is a fair readalike), anyone who’s struggled with the more persistent strains of mental difficulty will immediately see real-life parallels in DINN’s training program. The demon’s harsh and horrifying lectures about how he desires nothing more than to break Thomas in mind and soul create a curious portrait of the struggle against the sorts of internal forces (depression, anxiety) that would like nothing more than to snap their bearers in half, to turn them into something unrecognizable. While it might not be as explicit as far as “extreme horror” goes, putting the reader in the passenger seat for DINN’s process results in a pretty brutal experience—and one of the most psychologically disturbing and effective horror novels of the year.
Lost Films, edited by Max Booth III and Lori Michelle
Lost Signals was a collection with an fascinating premise: ask a bunch of modern horror heavies to pen stories involving the loose shared theme of radio or broadcast signals. The result was an eerie and unusual collection of works, from T.E. Grau’s story about a strange AM signal, to Josh Malerman’s dark tale about a cemetery’s sensor board. Booth and Michelle released their followup this year, carving the same dark paths through a different communication medium: movies. Horror stories about the movies have captured the imagination for a while now, and Lost Films is a worthy entry into that canon, featuring versatile writers like Brian Evenson and Eugenia Triantafyllou telling stories of missing films, an obsession with a historically infamous recording of a politician, lost entries in a filmic canon, and twisted film festivals. It’s also a great introduction to writers you might not be as familiar with, including a large number of smaller-press regulars who definitely deserve your attention.
Standout Stories: “The Church in the Mountains” by Gemma Files, “Ghost Mapping” by Eugenia Triantafyllou
The Hunger, by Alma Katsu
Bringing together historical fact and horror fiction in a story every bit as eerie and twisted as Cormac McCarthy, Katsu outlines the story of the Donner Party, a caravan hoping to make it from Missouri to California in the mid-19th century. Anyone familiar with the infamous history of the name “Donner” already knows that half the people hitting the trail are going to die as things go to hell in the mountains near California, but Katsu’s blend of supernatural horror, western-gothic flavor, psychological horror, and the eerie landscape of the American West all combine to make The Hunger unusually suspenseful anyway. It’s a work of unusual atmosphere and appetite, mining the harrowing story of the historical disaster of all its potent, terrifying potential. It’s a book that lingers—unforgettable from the first image of a corpse picked clean, to its final, haunting moments.
We Sold Our Souls, by Grady Hendrix
Dürt Würk was poised to be a major force in the rock world—until their lead singer ditched them all and became a mega-successful metal act. Now, years later, strange events force former lead guitarist Kris Pulaski (now the night manager of a Best Western, where a pillowcase-headed man harasses her nightly) to travel through America and get the band back together in the hopes of figuring out what happened. Hendrix brings a certain frantic energy and power to writing about music—often a difficult thing to in the soundless medium of prose, and Pulaski’s an incredibly strong lead, standing out in a killer lineup of them, from the opening recounting of how she practices “Iron Man” in her room, to the numerous knocks she takes in her nail-biting road trip. Hendrix’s horror chops are nigh-unassailable at this point, and this rock ‘n’ roll nightmare is a perfect reflection of America and its music: paranoid, dark, moderately insane, and heavy as all get out.
A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising, by Raymond A. Villareal
Another novel told as a fictional oral history, Villareal’s horror-satire begins with the CDC discovering the first case of what is later known as the “Gloamings,” and what popular culture would call vampirism. The corpses of victims of a mysterious disease that turns blood solid begin to pile up, only to disappear and then rise again as a new species that subsists on a diet of human blood. As newly-minted Gloamings start to gain power and visibility—and healthy people follow their desires to join the ranks—a series of mysterious terror attacks target bloodsucker settlements and a political campaign from a Gloaming candidate threatens to throw the nation into disarray. Villareal has a good sense of modern medicine and politics, and his skill at blending genres (from Crichton-style scientific thriller, to horror, to political satire) with a strong sense of distinct character voices makes this a biting (pun definitely intended) takedown of the modern world.
The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow
We’ve talked about Best of the Best Horror before, and with a name like that, there was little chance of it not ending up on this list. It’s an amazing anthology spanning a decade’s worth of year’s best fiction, drawing on diverse subgenres and modes. But even apart from being an absolute feast for horror fans, Datlow’s editorial magnum opus lowers the barriers of entry for new readers of dark fiction. It’s the perfect volume if you’ve always been curious about horror but don’t know quite where to start, and an excellent volume otherwise, packed with heavy hitters in every way, from John Langan’s story of a secret assassination gone very wrong, to Livia Llewellyn’s tale of time-looping Lovecraftian madness. After no less than three recommendations of this book, we’ve probably said all we need to, but it bears repeating: don’t miss it.
Standout Stories: “The Man from the Peak” by Adam Golaski, “In Paris in the Mouth of Cronos” by John Langan, “In A Cavern, In A Canyon” by Laird Barron
We Are Where The Nightmares Go, by C. Robert Cargill
C. Robert Cargill is a force to be reckoned with, an author and screenwriter whose dark fantasy and science fiction push the envelope of their respective genres and create heartfelt and imaginative (if sometimes downright scary) worlds. In this collection of eight stories, he turns his practiced hand to horror (maybe not entirely new ground for the screenwriter of Sinister, but still), with tales of nightmare dimensions, zombie dinosaurs, a tale set in the Nightbreed universe and other, stranger terrors. Cargill brings his off-kilter sensibilities to all of it: from nightmare clowns who can’t eat children (it’s against the rules), to a butcher who takes people apart for an unknown purpose. It’s all twisted, terrifying, and yet darkly funny and endlessly, disturbingly enjoyable. And all of it is very distinctly Cargill.
Standout Stories: “We Are Where The Nightmares Go,” “The Last Job Is Always The Hardest”
Alice Isn’t Dead, by Joseph Fink
After her wife Alice is declared dead, Keisha attempts to get on with her life and deal with her grief as best she can. But Alice can’t seem to stay out of her thoughts, appearing in the background of news broadcasts about major disasters. At first it seems to be a hallucination, but it’s clear Alice isn’t as dead as she might seem. So Keisha takes up a job driving a truck for Alice’s former employer, hoping to finally understand what exactly has happened to her wife—and falls deep into a monstrous backroads conspiracy stretching back centuries. While fans of the critically acclaimed audio drama will note many similarities with the text (the unusual atmosphere and worldbuilding—ominous billboards, hooded strangers, and utterly hypnotic and eerie roadways—make the transition from audio to prose completely intact), the novel hones in on the central thread of Alice, Keisha, and the unusual war they find themselves wrapped up in, creating a much more personal story of loss and the endless journeys we all undertake to understand the people we love. Read our review.
Baby Teeth, by Zoje Stage
Beginning with the birth of its unsettling central character from her own point of view, Baby Teeth alternates chapters, pitting a beleaguered mother with chronic conditions against her precocious but somewhat… off daughter, who might be actively trying to psychologically sabotage her mother so she can have her father all to herself. The alternating narrative only ups the tension, showing things from Hanna’s unusual point of view while simultaneously casting doubt on exactly who or what she is, exactly, as well as the question of how much of her behavior has been colored by her mother’s clear psychologically disturbed nature. Each branch of the narrative is told in a distinct voice, and Hanna sounds plausibly childlike, a difficult thing for adult writers to pull off. Stage ably sustains an air of menace and tension, each chapter piling up evidence for each narrator’s version of events. It’s an unnerving take on the classic “bad seed” story.
The Outsider, by Stephen King
Beginning with a child’s mutilated corpse found in a park, King’s latest novel finds the master author on familiar ground. Yet as it goes, the book blends the police procedural elements of Mr. Mercedes with the unnerving suburban-gothic flavor that has defined most of his body of work. The synthesis is impressive: King builds dread as the investigation of beloved little league coach Terry Maitland and the possible atrocities he commits continues to mount evidence and reveal new facets of the sordid life teeming underneath the friendly surface of small-town Flint City. If you ever wished to see King bring the full brunt of his mature talents to bear on the subject matter of his earlier days, The Outsider shows he’s still a force to be reckoned with—and still has a ton of stories to tell.
Someone Like Me by M.R. Carey
In the midst of another of her husband’s violent “episodes,” suburban wife Liz feels something take over her body, just long enough to pick up a bottle and act in her defense. While it saves her life and rebuffs Marc, Liz can’t help but feel a little off, especially as the “puppeteer” keeps pacing back and forth in the dark part of her mind, hoping to take control again during any high-stress situation. Meanwhile, a traumatized and vision-prone teenager named Fran sees Liz as two superimposed people, and feels compelled to figure out what exactly is going on with the older woman—all while trying to keep her own head and hallucinations in check. While Carey’s psychological horror paints a disturbing picture, there are enough real-world touches and genuine emotional honesty to set the novel apart from others trading in the usual psychological horror tropes. Anyone who’s experienced similar real-world situations will immediately find something to recognize, and the idea of mental health professionals who attempt to help the protagonists is surprisingly novel (and closer to reality) than most psychological thrillers get. All of it just serves to drive Someone Like Me deep into its readers’ minds, and mess with them all the more. Read our review.
The Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch
Taking its cues from Scandinavian mystery novels and adding in a scoop of cosmic horror, The Gone World begins with NCIS investigator Shannon Moss called to the scene of a brutal series of murders involving the Navy’s secret expeditions into “Deep Time” and “Deep Space”—areas of time and space travel that remain relatively uncharted and difficult to explore. But this is just the tip of an iceberg of interlocking conspiracies involving a horrible future that indicates the end of time itself is approaching, and seeming to get closer every time Moss travels back in time to view the murders from another angle. Meanwhile, in the shadows lurks a group of villains who will do anything to survive and right what they believe history got wrong. It’s twisty, bleak, and complex thriller, but backs up a byzantine plot with clear motivations for the heroes and villains alike, and it definitely helps that the horror comes not from the unknown, but from the little-known, upping the scares as both side realize just how little they really understand about the things they thought were completely under their control. Read our review.
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The Conspiracy Against The Human Race, by Thomas Ligotti
Out of all the books on this list—all the derangement, the creepy events, the sheer brutality—this is the one that comes with a warning. Reprinted by Penguin as part of their project to bring the author to wider audiences, Conspiracy is a book about horror, and probably a book that counts as horror, but is not horror fiction. Instead, it’s one part philosophical treatise, one part examination of the underpinnings of horror fiction, one part discourse on the nature of pessimism and why it makes sense to the author, and, well, one part collection of allegories about all of those things. What it is not is the feel-good hit of the year, and as it’s a nonfiction book, it doesn’t offer the same detachment one can find in fiction. It also inspired most of Rust Cohle’s more pessimistic tirades in the first season of True Detective, so if that’s not your thing, this book is probably not for you. But what it does offer is true insight into the philosophy of pessimism, the philosophical underpinnings of cosmic horror, and the why of existential horror. If you can endure the sheer tonnage of pressure delivered by such a pessimistic worldview, it’s a fascinating read.
Unbury Carol, by Josh Malerman
Malerman’s tale of revenge wears its influences clearly on its sleeve while giving a modern spin on several classic pulp storylines. It’s an unnerving story of a woman prone to comatose spells that leave her corpselike, her outlaw former lover, and the murderous abusive husband who aims to have her declared dead and bury her alive. Malerman establishes the horror from the very first scene, showing Carol and Dwight’s relationship and building Dwight’s menace as he whispers ominous asides during Carol’s friend’s funeral. It’s uncanny how perfectly the author captures the tone and atmosphere of the best Western pulp and gothic stories, thickening the dread in the air slowly with each scene and conversation, just enough to keep readers riveted while moving at its own measured pace. The result is a dark and fascinating story from an author whose talents in horror go above and beyond.
City of Ash and Red, by Hye-young Pyun
An unnamed rat-killer is sent to the country of C for a long-term assignment, only to be detained for quarantine and kept from doing his job. He soon finds he’s been accused of the murder of his ex-wife, sending him spiraling further downward as the world around him similarly falls into chaos. Pyun’s narration creates a wonderful sense of desperation in his central character, sending him scrambling towards any attempt at salvation even as his life falls to pieces, and finding horror in the desperate yearning for something as simple as a couple of aspirin. The Kafkaesque Country C mirrors the protagonist’s unwinding, presenting its own mysterious pandemic and twisted customs, but it’s that feeling of paranoia as things continue to dissolve within the narrator’s mind that truly sets the book apart.
The Merry Spinster, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
Taken from his viral series of fairy tales gone wrong originally published on The Toast, Ortberg’s acclaimed collection spins horrifying visions out of children’s stories and beloved fairy tales. Included is a version of “The Velveteen Rabbit” reimagined as a body horror fable worthy of Clive Barker, a take on “The Little Mermaid” incorporating bizarre marine biology, and still others, all skewed as glimpsed through a modern lens and the author’s off-kilter sense of humor. What truly drives the stories home, however, is Ortberg’s ability to expertly mirror his subjects’ tone and voice, creating retellings that sound enough like the originals to stick in the imagination, and become terribly, immediately timeless.
Standout Stories: “The Thankless Child,” “The Rabbit”
What novel scared you the most in 2018?