Welcome to the Year of Horror. No, friends and
neighbors, I’m not talking the pandemical matter. I’m talking about the genre
According to my notes, here are some of the standout books of the year. The first book I finished was Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. Turns out, it was the best horror book to start the winter with—it’s cold, unforgiving, paranoiac, and manic. Jones blends the Indigenous experience on the reservation with dark-ass horror tropes. I would venture to say that Jones is the inheritor of Pynchon’s free indirect third person narrative voice. Jones isn’t Tex Avery-zany like Good Ole Pynch, but he’s well-attuned to popular culture the same way. So what you get is a voice-y, kinetic, knowing narrator mentioning music, food, and Wal-Mart-esque purchases, guiding you through the history of five friends’ botched takedown of an elk. The novel is also unusual in that it takes formal risks, too. I shan’t spoil much, but to say that around page 100, the business turns fuliginous. There was a reason this topped so many lists this year.
Then I read a hard-to-find novel by one of my Top Three Authors—Barbara Comyns. Comyns is known primarily for her NYRB reissues like The Vet’s Daughter, The Juniper Tree, or Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (all of which are excellent and worth buying immediately). But the one I got my hands on through interlibrary loan (a much-neglected resource) was The Skin Chairs. And that title’s not a metaphor, y’all. Apparently on Jan. 22, I tweeted: “So the good news is that Comyns’s THE SKIN CHAIRS is delightful and oppressive at the same time. It’s like uplifting mildew.” Plot is worthless here. The aims are the character interactions and just reading Comyns’s mind coruscate with deleterious wit. But here’s the best one I could find: “When her father dies, ten-year-old Frances, her mother and siblings are taken under the wing of their horsey relations, led by the formidable Aunt Lawrence. Living in patronised poverty isn’t fun, but Frances makes friends with Mrs Alexander, who has a collection of monkeys and a yellow motorcar.” A copy of this out of print novel is worth hunting down for passages like the following:
The hospital was nearly two miles away and I ran most of the way and arrived there breathless and untidy, which did not make a good impression when I rushed into the hall demanding to see Jane. A calming-down sort of woman pushed me down on a shiny bench and told me to wait. Sitting opposite to me were two people who appeared as if they were growing there: one an old man with a deep slimy cough, and the other a bearded woman. They did not appeal to me at all; I was particularly put off by the bearded woman, in case the beard was catching.
All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook is a farrago of a book. It’s a collection of highly charged essays. But I won’t even bother with what it purports to be, but just describe what it felt like to me as I read it. A bangarang death tour of the Kentish seaside, visiting has-been actors, ghostly sightings, and ever implied sex-trade. The book is a blister. It’s fun to touch, mess with, and you eventually want to see it explode. But when it does, it’s more of a mess than you expected, hurts, and takes a while to heal. Whether or not you want to read it will depend on your relationship to pain.
Next was a one-two punch of novels that I would call the best two reads of the year from two of my favorite presses (Grindhouse and Apocalypse Party, respectively). First, True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik. I’ve never had such a short book slice a pouch in my skin and crawl inside and use it as a corrupt hideaway. But this book is brutal where it should be gentle, delicate where you’d expect it to be gross, and intelligent in all the places that are barely covered in clothing. It’s a dark horror novella built on the vicious murder spree of a brother and sister, but that should not dissuade you from falling in love with the main characters anyway. Negative Space by B.R. Yeager broke my brain. My favorite book of the year, but I’m speechless/wordless when it comes to how to discuss it. All I can say is that: teenagers have rituals that are unanchored and when acted out enthusiastically will kill the world. I recently read that piety without identity equals nihilism. That about sums it up.
I taught a course on science fiction in the spring, so we read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. This book is one of my favorites. It has some of her best lines (the opening about the wall), some of her best characters (Shevek is sweetly cold but passionate), her best set pieces (when the boys on the anarchist moon of Anarres learn what a prison is and then recreate it for play). And every time I read it, I take a different tack on who’s got the right idea. It’s not simplistic; it’s metamorphic. Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents is, perhaps, the best duology ever written. They’re more properly considered socio-economic thrillers. Butler got more right in these two novels about where America was heading in the next quarter century than any political philosopher of the past 100 years. If there was any novel I felt cheated out of, it’s the third book in what was meant to be a trilogy here. And yet, the two books still give a realistic and brutal portrait of a world myopically walking right into Christian nationalism, fascism, and desperate strongman-hood. Sickening but believable. Read it.
The following two may not seem horrific, but they are. Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is what I call “nightmare fiction.” It’s a person in a situation that on the outside (the reader) is obviously unjust. But everyone around them in the story allows them to suffer unjust guilt. The novel is about women’s prisons, incarceration, and the way any notion of rehabilitation is absolute bullshit. If Foucault was ever right about anything it’s that we live in a disciplinary society. Those who may break the law will never be truly rid of the stain of their crimes, prison or no. Whereas Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is the absolute opposite of this. Prison is the body mangled in war. Joe Bonham is blown apart in World War I and stuck in a hospital room where he has to deal with the reality of his own consciousness. His entire world shrinks down to the memories he has or the sensorium of his torso. No eyes, no ears, no tongue, no nose. He eventually communicates with a nurse by Morse code by banging his head against the pillow. How David Lynch never made this into a movie, I’ll never know. But the book is devastating for its anti-war message, its empathy, its raw, hateful hope, and the lack of commas.
P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout had a scene in it where the main characters traverse a metaphysical crack in space to a place where hateful entities (which are actually KKK members in this universe) make up a kind of evil Voltron. It was the most creative scene I’d read in a long time. Since I released my own cosmic horror novella this past April, I was highly (paranoiacally) aware of this cosmically clever novella. This book pairs well with Lovecraft Country.
The Wingspan of Severed Hands by Joanna Koch is another novella that I was hyper-aware of while reading it because the style is so rhetorically refined and aggressively poetic. (As are most of the books released by Weirdpunk Books.) And then there was the amazing pile of indie horror authors that I’ve made connections with online. Gird yourself for a litany. All of these are great examples of why horror is doing its best work outside the confines of the culture industry’s trope templates. A long, but by no means comprehensive list would include: A Mouth Full of Ashes by Briana Morgan, The Potted Plant by Thomas Gloom, I Hear the Clattering of the Keys by Jamie Stewart, The Bell Chime by Mona Kabbani, Smolder by Michael R. Goodwin, The House on Harlan by Mike Salt, The Miracle Sin by Marcus Hawke, The Fear by Spencer Hamilton, and Take Your Turn, Teddy by Haley Newlin.
I am finishing the year in my first climb up the sewer clown mountain with Stephen King’s IT. What impressed me about this “Moby-Dick of horror” (such a shitty comparison, really) is that King (even at his Reagan-era height of suburban-reader fame) dared not to deliver the usual goods. I would suggest that there’s not much in the King canon that rivals the sweetness and love between big brother Bill and little brother George Denbrough in the first chapter of the book. He foreshadows his recent dip into crime fiction with the Adrian Mellon sections that take the form of the police blotter style. And, in the sections that I found most terrifying, Mike Hanlon’s diary entries record his visits with old time Mainers wherein we intuit the presence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown somewhere in the past, pulling the strings. Yes, terror, gore, and the horror of hatred are woven throughout this novel. But right when you think that the story has flagged or King has spent his gas, another set piece will blow you away. (Junkyard leech attack anyone?) Point being: the imagination is limitless. And some writers plug into that constant image feed with ease. Others, not so much. But the horror waxes and wanes, and the imagination isn’t going anywhere. That is, not until we (eventually, painfully) do.
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