December Horror Round-Up

December Horror Round-Up

They Were Here Before Us: A Novella in Pieces - Eric LaRocca (Bad Hand Books) *Pick of the Month*

Not only has Eric LaRocca been the “pick of the month” before, he has been this year already. In what has been a stellar few years for LaRocca, his groundbreaking cosmic horror debut novel Everything the Darkness Eats was followed up by this strange novella that acts more like a short-story collection that (allegedly) holds interlocking themes. The book begins with short and strange tales with animal (and insect) protagonists before turning to humans, each with the same macabre strangeness that marks LaRocca’s reimagining of human frailty. This stands up against any of LaRocca’s recent work, and while the thematic cohesion of They Were Here Before Us is a tad suspect, its quality is not. 

A House With the Good Bones - T. Kingfisher (Tor Nightfire)

Another hit book from T. Kingfisher, A House with the Good Bones is a Southern Gothic novel about an insect archeologist spending some time at her mom’s place only to discover a strangeness has wafted up from her past. The book is an easy, fast paced read, something perfect for a quick holiday, but with a crowded field this is hard to recommend to anyone deep in the genre world. There is nothing particularly unlikable about the book, but there is nothing to make it a stand-out example either. Our main characters are uncannily clever, filled with impractical one-liners. The characterization has been seen before, as has the half-realized personalities, relationships, and tepid familial commentary you expect from a forgettable vacation book. Kingfisher’s skill really rests in her ability to draw a story with perfect pacing and composure rather than providing anything particularly original. I’ll check back in on her next book, which I'm sure will be drawn by a capable hand, but I hope she will finally try for something that feels possessed by novel flair. 

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Gothic - Philip Francassi (Cemetery Dance)

We have gotten a lot of Francassi recently, including two novels on their way and another last year, and luckily Gothic feels wholly new when compared to his other offerings. Francassi has been known for his gut-punching cosmic short fiction, and his first novel was only released last year, so we are relatively green with his longer work. This one has the tone of a mainstream horror novel, a relatively rapid read that follows a declining horror author attempting to live up to the promise of his earlier career, and the expectations of his expired book contract. To give him a little inspiration, his girlfriend (not wife) gets him a desk with a desperately hidden past, which then takes possession and brings a creative violence into his life. While this book may not break literary records, it is a solidly produced story with just a couple of issues holding it back. As our protagonist declines into a cruel and captured creature, he engages in an act of sexual violence that felt a little ill-placed and somewhat unnecessary. Additionally, extra effort is made to mock a fat character, so much so that it felt like Francassi had returned to those passages a number of times to make their weight appear particularly repulsive. Overall, Gothic will reward fans of, well, gothic horror and demonic hauntings, and the attention to structure, tone, and progression marks Francassi as a particularly skilled novelist. 

Phantom Road Vol. 1 - Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Hernandez Walta

The collected edition of Jeff Lemire’s new horror comic Phantom Road was released and reading it in one setting solidifies that this is one of the best horror comics of the year. Austere and straight-forward, we follow two characters off of a distant desert highway and into another world a quarter-of-an-inch away from our own yet possessed by a pale imitation of humanity. A fantastic crime, road-noir, and parallel dimension tale that promises to be a fantastic inheritor to the legacy of earlier Lemire series’ like Regression and Gideon Falls.

Split Scream Vol. 4 - By Holly Lyn Walrath and D. Matthew Urban (Tenebrous Press)

Tenebrous Press recently picked up this series that prints two novellas/novelettes in one volume, sold as a double feature from a prominent new indie publisher. There are two stories in this volume, one of which, “Nonsense Words,” is one of my favorite stories read this year and follows a scholar of ancient languages into the occult history that lives behind lost words. The other story, “Bone Light,” is a queer period-piece set in a lighthouse in the 1870s. While told with impeccable characterization and in a useful diary style, it dragged a little bit and the historical element failed to keep me tied into the story. Regardless, this book is worth a read and both narratives prove that these are authors to watch. 

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Plush - Don Wagner (Image Comics)

Wagner’s Plush is part of a new semi-imprint at Image Comics that offers bombastic, contemporary genre books, this time in the form of a furry cannibal cult. The story is appropriately absurd and grisly, but no less entertaining as we follow a convoluted plot about a man being coerced by a demonic police chief into marriage, only to be liberated by flesh-eating plushies who then convert him to their sacral lifestyle. But, if we zoom out a bit, there isn’t much here. I mean that rather literally in that this six-issue miniseries is shorter than most, with each issue being truncated by nearly a third its length to make way for ads. This is an amusing, but rather tepid, foray into the apparently popular world of neo-cannibal comics. 

To Wallow in Ash - Sam Richard (Weirdpunk Books)

This is a second edition of an earlier collection published by Weirdpunk, by “bizarro” fiction writer and publisher Sam Richard. It comes a particularly emotive example of grief-driven cosmic horror, the kind of devastation that the genre so skillfully processes. After his young wife died of a sudden aneurysm, Richard wrote this series of stories, some that read as barely a fictional account of surviving the weeks and months after half your heart has collapsed. The book is strongest when it’s centered on the wrenching inner lives of the characters, and it is hit and miss in its horror elements, many of which are only there to bring the stories of trauma and loss to their close. The best stories in the collection are “Love Like Blood,” “Those Undone,” “Nature Unveiled,” and “There is Power in the Blood.” This may be the most honest book I’ve read all year.

I Would Haunt You If I Could - Sean Padraic Birnie (Undertow Publications)

I Would Haunt You If I Could is a brilliant, subtle and sublime collection of short fiction by author and photographer Sean Padraic Birnie. While it is billed as horror, and it is, I suspect this would act as a standout for the literary crowd more suspicious of genre publishing, and some stories read almost as though the only thing terrifying is the characters’ lives themselves. The book opens strong with “New to It All,” and “The Turn” offers a roadway ghost story that feels equal parts familiar and invigorating. “Holes” is a creeping turn into body horror that stands out, and is joined by “You Know What You Do,” “Dollface,” and “Lucida” as among the book’s best. The book’s title story, more of a novelette, may be the least horror specific of the volume, but completes the lyrical style that Birnie has crafted. One of the strongest voices I’ve read all year, even if it can be difficult to pin down the horror of it all. 

Azathoth: Ordo ab Chao - Ed. Aaron J. French (Journalstone)

Azathoth: Ordo ab Chao is the first of a new series of anthologies, each themed around one of H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters. This mythos collection came after other similarly titled and themed anthologies, The Gods of H.P. Lovecraft (which this series was inspired by), and The Demons of King Solomon, which was a similar model based on the Goetic demons from the Lesser Key of Solomon the King. Both of those books were perfect Lovecraftian shorts, so one could be forgiven to assume that Azathoth would be as well. The book largely lives up to this expectation, with a “hit and miss” model where some stories act as the perfect incarnation of the genre, while others feel like pastiche or period dramas. The best stories on the collection are “Expatriate” by Jamieson Ridenhour, “The Grove” by Erica Ruppert, “An Unusual Pedigree” by Richard Thomas, and “Dust-Clotted Eyes” by Samuel Marzioli, as well as a predictably interesting read by Adam Nevill. 

Wild Spaces - S.L. Coney (Tor)

Reviewing books is a particular challenge since there are two metrics that really matter, and they are often at odds. There is one marker that a discerning reader makes of quality: aesthetics, skill, narrative structure, themes, commentary, etc. Here you can identify a good book, or at least assess one as such, on its merits. The second metric is if you enjoyed it, or, more precisely, if it matched (or exceeded) your expectations. I thought about this while reading S.L. Coney’s charming family fable Wild Spaces, which tells the story of a grandfather’s entry back into a family and the reignition of the abuse that he carried with him. The book is a masterful case of horrific metaphor, but as a horror novella, which is what I intended for it, it simply lacked the frightening genre notes. This sacrificed much of my attention, but that is because I had imprinted certain expectations that the author is simply not obliged to grant. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book immensely, but that I think Wild Spaces will appeal more to those interested in family dramas and the subtlety of understated horror rather than some type of shocking scare. 

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