I’m not a reader of horror, but I do occasionally read tales from the darker side of prose, and I had a good run this year with books that are more bloodthirsty, or creepy, or unsettling than usual. So, again, as I try to take some time to discuss great books I read this year for other readers (or, as it’s the holidays, for those buying for readers who like books with a dark turn), here are some titles I think it would surprise me not at all to find in Krampus’s sack, alongside some terrified (but deservedly punished) children.
I love urban paranormal, and to find an urban paranormal series set in Sydney is just an added bonus. Beginning with The Beast Without, Christian Baines’s Arcadia Trust series delivered a gripping follow-up with The Orchard of Flesh. Reylan is a vampire (sorry, blood-shade) unlike any I’ve read before, and where Beast got a bit grimmer and darker than most urban paranormal I’ve read, Orchard doubled and tripled down. Baines has a gift for twisted psyches, playing the supernatural to expose the human evils at play, and a talent for turns of phrases that leave you shuddering even as you turn the page.
That isn’t to say lovers of Urban Paranormal who also like their books to have a slice of the erotic will be let down, as that’s there too, just through Baines’s lens of the darker side of the psyche. And in this second volume, there’s not just lust and bloodlust, but a protectiveness against something so powerful that even Reylan might not be able to keep those he cares about from coming to harm.
I also started Baines’s Skin, and though I’m not finished it yet, I can already tell you at the half-way point it will fulfill the loves of readers who lurk at the corner of darkness and desire.
Ohmigosh, this book. First off, Michael Thomas Ford never met a genre he couldn’t nail, and Lily nails the twisted, dark, lesbian, folk-tale-ish retelling vibe completely. That’s a thing, by the way, not just something I made up. Honest.
Lily is a brilliant character who is facing life with a terrible gift: by touch, she sees how someone will die. It’s a gift that seems completely without merit, and it also brings her nothing but anguish from the moment it first manifests at her father’s touch. What follows is a fantastic weaving of Baba Yaga, folklore, carnival sideshows, and a twisted and tangled journey where Lily has to risk it all to find a way to happiness, while she is surrounded by those who would use her, abuse her, or lead her to greater darkness.
You can get this one on audio, which was performed to freaking perfection by Pyper Down and chilling to listen to, or in gorgeously illustrated volumes from Lethe Press. It is so freaking lovely.
I can’t resist a good short, and don’t believe anyone should, so this next piece of just-a-shade-darker-than-my-usual-fare from Matthew Bright being a short fiction piece will likely not surprise anyone.
I loved this. The Library of Lost Things is full to the brim with a slightly off-kilter weird fiction vibe that, in the hands of a skilled writer such as Bright, is entirely endearing.
A library of lost works? A librarian with a dark desire for those of zero imagination or expansiveness to sort–without reading–those works? Rats who’ve nibbled enough fiction to learn polysyllabic verbiage? And maybe, just maybe, a little bit of romance of a forbidden sort? Bring it.
Oh, and because even though all of that should be enough, if for some reason you still need more, allow me to point out you can read it for free, at Tor.
Another piece of shorter fare, The Head I listened to as an audiobook via Audible. The audio performer really did a great job of sustaining the off-kilter vibe of the story: A woman finds a head in a garden, and the head starts to speak. She doesn’t call 911, despite her initial freak-out, and what develops between her and the head (who can talk, and drink, and seems otherwise pretty ‘together’ for a head without a body) is a relationship that might just spell doom.
The narrative voice of this short piece has a kind of drip-drip-drip of tension to it. It starts off weird, and almost a little silly at first, and the listener has at least a little amusement when considering the heroine (who isn’t completely socially adept, and is, frankly, falling for a head). But that amusement fades into something that chills, then darkens and then, so gradually it’s almost an unnoticed shock, steps right into a horrifying conclusion. I had no idea which way the tale would turn, and I enjoy that feeling when it doesn’t feel like a cheap trick, and at no point did The Head feel like a cheap trick.
A collection of weird and dark and horrific (and sometimes all three), Seventeen Stitches has a worthy place on any weird fiction or horror lover’s shelf. I’ve read enough Sean Eads to know, upon starting his collection, that I was in for a mix of dark and disturbing tales. With Seventeen Stitches, however, Eads often dialed up both beyond my expectations.
As I said, I rarely read horror, and when I do read horror, I shy completely away from zombies as something I know I will never enjoy. Given that many of the stories in Seventeen Stitches are ones I could describe as horror, and more than a few of those are also zombie stories, this collection left me more than a little off-balance, but honestly, the whole had me disturbed in a good way, and like I said, for those of you who like things a bit dark? Eads is there for you.
Waiting. Probably smiling and making little humming noises, too.
Insatiable is the first novel-length Derek Maclaine story, and it is so undeniably Jeff Mann that it leaves me struggling for a good term. The dichotomies that Mann handles so deftly: pain and pleasure, dubious consent and erotic release, death and renewal, vengeance and justice… I don’t know anyone else who can write a character so violent, so fueled by anger and vengeance and a passion for defending his own that completely engrosses me. Derek should be terrifying and horrifying in turns, instead, in no small part I think due to the setting and contemporary placement of the villains being so recognizably representative of everything that seeks to ruin both nature as well as certain political slants that have never been friendly to queerfolk, I cheer him on. I want to see him rain death and destruction down on those around him. He’s a vampiric Magneto, and he’s right, and I want him to make the world safer for his kin, and all those he protects, to hell with the body count.
If anything, Derek evokes the Green Man and the Horned God he worships: of nature, yes, but of the merciless tooth and claw sort. And if he also happens to be a leather daddy with more than a passing interest in bondage and BDSM..? Well, in Mann’s capable hands, even the most deadly scenes have a habit of turning erotic, and that’s just another dichotomy to watch him skillfully juggle for the reader. Indeed, there are many kinky, unapologetic odes to leather and hairy bodies and knots and gags that those seeking erotica are bound (no pun intended) to be satisfied on that level alone.
Insatiable is an all-too-rare sort of read for me, and almost especially so at its darkest and most visceral: here, the queers gather and face off against literal demons of capitalism and conservative politics, and together this pack of powerful, merciless queer people prove they are exactly that: powerful, and merciless.