I’m thrilled to hand over the blog to Gemma Files today for her Fave Reads of 2014. Gemma is the author of the Hexslinger series, and her newest book, We Will All Go Down Together, just came out in Oct., so be sure to check it out!
My likes are pretty specific—I tend to the dark, though that covers a full spectrum of variations on a theme. If you’re looking for uplifting hearts and flowers-type narratives, therefore, you’re unlikely to find those amongst my faves for any given year, and 2014 has been no exception to that rule. Consider yourselves forewarned.
In terms of novels, I’d like to begin with two by Adam Nevill, one of my favorite current British horror authors—House of Small Shadows (St Martin’s Press), available right now outside of the U.K., and No One Gets Out Alive (Pan), which won’t come over here until 2015. Both nominatively haunted house stories, they also both present a striking mixture of morbid psychology, weird mythology and body horror; in terms of choosing between them, I’d say that if you’re fascinated and off-put by false faces of all sorts (puppets, dolls, anthropomorphic taxidermy displays in which stuffed animals take on all the grosser human characteristics) and heretical religious mummery, then House is probably for you, but if you’re more into suffocating kitchen sink awfulness and True Crime creep with a hidden vein of Wicker Man-esque paleolithic human sacrifice narrative lurking underneath, I’d go with No One. But then again, to quote Miguel and Tulio from The Road to El Dorado: “Both, both, both are good.”
All right, on to two of the best vampire books I’ve read in quite a while: Motherless Child (Tor), by Glen Hirschberg, and The Lesser Dead (Berkley), by Christopher Buehlman. Buehlman I’ve had pegged as one to watch since his insanely inventive debut, Those Across The River, which reframes lycanthropy within the bone-deep racial guilt left behind inside the Southern psyche by slavery’s historical fallout. The Lesser Dead, on the other hand, is the first story since John Skipp and Craig Spector’s splatterpunk classic The Light At The End to take full advantage of the grimy, low-rent possibilities raised by the idea of vampires taking refuge in New York’s subway system—its “hero” is an eternally-teenaged bloodsucker who spends his nights parasiting on the city’s underbelly, a classic unreliable narrator whose lines should be scrupulously read between indeed, if you hope to emerge from his story with anything like the full picture.
Though Motherless Child is also set in the South, meanwhile, it’s a different beast entirely, aside from the overall commitment to offhand gore and utter ruthlessness—an after dark-only road trip which centers around Sophie and Natalie, two new mothers/trailer park besties who go out on the town, find themselves in a post-hypnotic threesome with a legendary country singer called the Whistler, then wake up with a very specific sexually-transmitted disease: vampirism. What follows is their quest to get revenge on their maker before their humanity completely disappears, rendering them unable to remember what they were so mad at him for. One way or the other, Hirschberg and Buehlman are both literary stylists of the highest order with a gift for percussive, forward-driving narrative, and both books are great additions to any horror-oriented library.
Switching genres, both Cold Hillside, by Nancy Baker (ChiZine Publications), and Through The Woods, by Emily Carroll (McElderry Books), fall under the heading of dark fairy tales—literally, in Baker’s case. Set in Lushan, an iron-protected, mountain-bound fantasy kingdom which pays yearly tribute to the queen of the fey, the former explores what happens when one particular human being—best friend/most trusted advisor to Lushan’s ruler—is forced to spend an entire year as the queen’s hostage-guest, finding out firsthand that her hospitality, though seductive, always comes at a hidden but irreparable cost. The latter, on the other hand, spins Carroll’s inventive and disturbing web-comic work into a series of elliptical, suggestive stories—half monologues, half call-and-response prose poems—about ghosts, monsters and murderers, all the “strange things” which can rise up out of an untamed natural landscape full of holes and darkness, as well as the not-so-simple harm people can do each other, often without even wanting to.
In Megan Abbott’s The Fever (Little, Brown), the witchcraft and possession hysterias of Salem and Loudon are transplanted to current-day small town America, where one high school student’s classroom seizure sets off a literally viral wave of imitative crises, increasingly febrile rumours and frightening Youtube confessions. City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett (Broadway Books), on the other hand, takes place in Bulikov, former capital of a shattered empire that once used gods and miracles to conquer half the known world, before their patheon was finally magically exterminated by the leader of one of their own former colonies. It kicks off with the murder of a low-level bureaucrat that opens up inquiries into matters both sides would rather be kept secret, then moves briskly along through a strikingly familiar political system informed and undercut by some of the most ruthless magic I’ve ever come across.
From the department of all things Lovecraftian, in Cherie Priest’s epistolary crypto-historical novel Maplecroft (Roc), we learn the real reason that Lizzie Borden wielded her infamous axe: her parents were possessed by something eldritch, an undersea monstrosity which invades and transforms, and she and her older sister Emma have been pursuing it ever since. Meanwhile, John Hornor Jacobs channels his own interest in the Great Old Ones into The Incorruptibles (Gollancz), a pitchblack, Cormac McCarthy-esque Western in which representatives from the “Ruman” Empire—Civil War-era Romans, basically—are engaged in using their literally infernal mechanisms to clear out the Hardscrabble Territories, a borderland wilderness populated by settlers, outlaws, prehistoric monsters and deadly cannibal elves. Both books are wildly entertaining and immensely disturbing, especially in hindsight.
Finally, a New Weird tour de force from one of the genre’s foremost propnents, followed by two slightly lighter palate-cleansers: like everyone and their dog this year, I read Jeff Vandermeer’s frankly brilliant Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, all from Harper Collins) with mounting terrified admiration; the story blends Kafka with Cronenberg, revolving around a sudden interdimensional anomaly—Area X—which engulfs part of the American coastline, as well as the secretive, self-deluding government agency set up to study and police it. Vandermeer’s prose is gorgeous, and much like the fungus slowly engulfing everything inside Area X or the viral paranoia turning its characters’ minds against themselves, the deliberate subversion of institutional horror and science fiction clichés which powers all three books definitely creeps up on you.
But if you want to emerge from this holiday season feeling slightly better about yourselves, let me recommend either Child of A Hidden Sea (Tor), A.M. Dellamonica’s sly yet swashbuckling examination of portal fantasy tropes, or Francesca Forrest’s Pen Pal, a self-published YA delight (you can order it through Amazon) in which two people leading similarly precarious lives—Em, a sea-harvesting nomad, and Kaya, a reluctant ecological activist—inadvertantly enter into a long-distance correspondence which ends up altering both their destinies. Both are sweetly resonant but not without punch, and much like everything else I’ve covered here, they’d make excellent Christmas gifts.