This year was an interesting one for horror. Not only did genre fans see new books from established heavy hitters, they welcomed a grandmaster’s novel back into print after 52 years, encountered incredible debuts, rafts of new and disturbing short stories, and at least one satire that frightens just as easily as its source material. If there were room to list every horror book released this year, we could easily just do that. The competition was tough, and many late nights were spent pondering the list and debating where the line lays between horror and dark fantasy. Finally, final selection of contenders emerged from the chaos. Submitted for your approval, here are the 15 best horror books of 2016.
[Editor’s note: these books are still terrifying, but if you need a fresh scare, here’s our list of the best horror books of 2017.]
Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones
Told from the point of view of a 10-year-old half-human boy, Mongrels follows a family of werewolves as they move from place to place in the American south, always one step ahead of the hunters and police who are after them for a variety of crimes and misdeeds. While Jones has a gift for the grisly imagery and body horror werewolf mythology requires (that section about pantyhose haunts me to this day), the real heart of the novel is the way he builds on werewolf tropes as a metaphor for those who live as outsiders, and explores the dynamic of a displaced people chafing under a set of rules and expectations that are not their own.
Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Blending equal measures of morality tale, gothic horror story, and dystopian surveillance-state nightmare, Heuvelt’s twisted slice of suburban darkness is a standout of this year. The story follows the town of Black Spring, home to an undead witch who wanders through the town chained, her eyes and mouth sewn up against some unknown calamity. Before long, a few of the town’s rebellious teenagers decide to “experiment” on the witch and post the results to the internet, setting off a chain of events that spiral into grisly violence and Dark Ages-style retribution. Heuvelt instills Hex with atmosphere and a creeping sense of dread that, when paired with a gift for creating lasting and horrifying images, make for uncomfortable and electrifying reading.
The Brotherhood of the Wheel, by R.S. Belcher
With his dark horror-fantasy, Belcher takes the secret history of America and its roadways, adds numerous urban legends, conspiracy theories, and even some of the darker bits of American history, points it towards the reader, and opens the throttle. Within this hard-hitting, hard-driving tale of knight errant truckers and bikers facing off against a shadowy eldritch abomination, there lies a rich setting that’s easy to get lost in, and exciting action sequences galore. While that would be enough on its own, Belcher threads it together with interesting characters and high narrative stakes that up the ante page after page, daring readers to follow it to the end of the road.
Nightmares, edited by Ellen Datlow
Culled from a decade’s worth of dark and disquieting fiction, Ellen Datlow’s followup to her essential collection Darkness offers another helping of terrifying short reads, spanning black comedy, Lynchian fever dreams, absurdism, gothic fiction, and more besides. Datlow assembles a host of horror’s heaviest hitters for Nightmares, and the collection finds them at their best, spinning tales of outsider art, murderous writers, vengeful fairies, and deadly urban legends. The result is a perfect roadmap for where to start getting into dark fiction, with entries to suit just about any taste.
Standout Stories: “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey, “Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files, “Dead Sea Fruit” by Kaaron Warren
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, by Paul Tremblay
Switching to horror after spending his timeon incredibly imaginative crime fiction, Paul Tremblay’s newest release fulfills all the promise of A Head Full of Ghosts, delivering another disquieting psychological thriller, this time about a town dealing with the loss of a teenager. There isn’t a clear answer whether or not the ghostly visitations in Disappearance are actually supernatural, and it’s better for it—the focus isn’t necessarily the ghostly visitations or the disquieting legends or the weird messages from a long-dead son, but the psychological effect a loss has on friends and family. Having said that, Tremblay’s subtle disturbances definitely help the book, heightening the unnerving atmosphere already present.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks, by Jason Arnopp
Arnopp’s novel, as the title would suggest, follows the final days of journalist Jack Sparks as he investigates an unusual YouTube video and its ties to the supernatural. The novel works as an excellent character study of Sparks, a music journalist-turned experiential writer whose last book finds him biting off a bit more than he can chew. Sparks is a frustrating and compelling character, and while it’s fairly obvious he’ll meet his end, Arnopp gives his anti-hero a distinct voice and slowly adds layers of complexity. To make it all more believable, the book presents itself as a “found document” from Sparks, drawing the reader into its world.
The Fireman, by Joe Hill
Joe Hill turns his practiced eye towards post-apocalyptic horror with the tale of a spontaneous combustion plague known as “Dragonscale” and the attempts of infected pregnant nurse to find a safe haven for her unborn child. Hill’s book brims with interesting characters and terrifying situations, from the terminal patient who does her best to help sufferers of the disease, to the zealous Marlboro Man, a sadist who takes a particular pleasure in murdering the infected. The result is a dense epic with terror and wonder in equal measure, as well as one of the most unusual and imaginative fictional diseases in recent history.
The Suicide Motor Club, by Christopher Buehlman
A group of vampires in sleek classic cars prowl the roadways for fun in Buehlman’s tale of revenge and trauma. The Suicide Motor Club creeps across the highways and byways looking for prey and others to join in their twisted game of high-speed bumper cars. But when their chance encounter with Judith’s family that leaves her seriously injured, her husband dead, and her son kidnapped, the Club and Judith are set on a collision course that neither party may survive. Buehlman’s depiction of the roadways in the mid-to-late ’60s is treacherous enough (much like some actual roadways of the era), but the Club, a roving band of hedonistic bloodsuckers, pushes things from treacherous to outright life-threatening.
I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas
Beginning with the murder of an unlikeable and pretentious author at the Summer Tentacular Lovecraft convention, Mamatas’ latest blends the weird with hints of conspiracy and a deranged narrator spinning navel-gazing monologues from some vague afterlife. The author seems to delight the grotesque touches he applies to his heroes, villains, and monsters in equal measure, creating a vivid and unsettling world even before the plot kicks into gear. While the novel places one foot in Lovecraft’s oeuvre, Mamatas revels in the unfurling tentacles of his narrative, which is a many-toothed, many-eyed beast all its own.
Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff
Ruff’s existential horror riff directly engages with the racist and problematic elements of H.P. Lovecraft’s dark and dread-filled stories by recasting ol’ Howard’s terrified white heroes with resourceful and witty black heroes and heroines. The result is a triptych of stories that are one part pastiche, one part social commentary, and one part biting satire of an embarrassing science fiction and fantasy institution. Ruff’s prose and colorful cast move beyond the simple elevator pitch of “race-bent Lovecraft stories,” creating an unforgettable world that both interrogates and celebrates the material at its heart.
The Fisherman, by John Langan
Any year where we get new work from John Langan is a good one, but this year’s offering from the master of disquieting is a standout even then. Langan’s story of two men who deal with loss and grief by fishing in upstate New York only to run afoul of a terrifying local legend, begins with a series of allusions to the terrifying events later in the book, and proceeds to deliver on every skin-crawling promise. The nods to the future also work in with the general narrative tone, which has a lot to do with loss and regret. The result is the kind of quiet, emotional, character-driven horror that explodes into supernatural terror, an American gothic horror novel like no other.
The Late Breakfasters and Other Strange Stories, by Robert Aickman
Aickman, a writer of “strange stories” and one of the godfathers of modern weird fiction, first wrote this novel in the 1960s. The dark comedy of manners only made its way to the United States this year, and while it may be cheating to put it on a roundup of 2016’s best horror, well, it deserves as much attention as anything else listed. Aickman is known for a subtle attention to detail and a method of story construction that draws the reader in even as it builds towards the idea that something is off, all of which is well on display here. Something is happening on almost every page, and Aickman’s warped sense of humor is a a welcome delight.
Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt
By now, those who follow the horror articles here have heard of this book at least three times. If that’s not a recommendation enough, consider this a last appeal. A lyrical, dark, and haunting work, Mr. Splitfoot travels the darker sections of Appalachian New York, mixing fundamentalist cults, foreboding woods, ghost stories, and psychic phenomena fraudulent and otherwise to tell the story of two women bound by family and an event in the past. If that doesn’t sell it for you, then understand we’re not alone in our adulation: the book has drawn comparisons to Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, good company to be in if your aim is lyrical horror with strong elements of the weird.
The Empty Ones, by Robert Brockway
The screaming sequel to The Unnoticeables begins with a self-proclaimed god replacing someone’s eyes and hands with gaping, toothy maws. That sets the tone for a novel loaded with disturbing visuals and black humor in equal measure, featuring a reality TV star who talks cheerfully and placidly about the atrocities he’d visit upon sapient creatures, a mysterious cult in the desert that wants to “solve” human beings for some nefarious purpose, and the jabbering balls of light everyone calls “angels” that have their own alien and unnerving plans for humanity. Brockway refuses to slow down for an instant, and the result is a wild ride from start to finish.
The Hidden People, by Alison Littlewood
Drawing from the same atmospheric well as classics like The Wicker Man and The Witch, The Hidden People is the story of Albie, a young man who receives word that his odd cousin from the country, Lizzie, has died at the hands of her shoemaker husband. When he talks to the husband about it, he finds that the man believes his wife was taken and replaced by one of the fair folk. Stranger still, no one in the town seems to think he acted in the wrong. The novel has a strange and dreamlike quality to it, almost as if a fog is hanging over the town, and when combined with the bizarre townsfolk and the disturbing mystery at its center, it makes for a book that disturbs the reader as new dimensions unfold piece by piece.
Did your scariest picks make the list?