TWO FAVORITE BOOKS READ THIS YEAR
I definitely don’t have the time or budget to read every horror novel or collection that comes along, so I’m pretty choosy when picking things to read. Often, I go with recommendations from authors I follow on Facebook, or if I see that a bunch of writers I love are all in an anthology. In other words, don’t look to me for any kind of completist take on the genre.
With that in mind, here are two books that knocked my socks off this year…
SWIFT TO CHASE by Laird Barron
Laird Barron consistently blows my mind. He’s like an old jazz guy at this point, just oozing style and creative chutzpah. SWIFT is a collection of stories all set, for the most part, in Alaska—or at least dealing with characters who hail from there. Some, like “Frontier Death Song” or “The Worms Crawl In” are stand alones, while others fall into his cosmic horror cycle embodied by past stories like “The Broadsword” and his first novel THE CRONING. Then there is a cycle of tales about Jessica Mace, who figures both in his mythos tales and also as a kind of dark crime hero, wandering the world and getting sucked into noirish tales that are sometimes supernatural, sometimes not.
It’s a lot to take in, especially the linked stories that follow Jessica Mace and friends from their high school days, to young adulthood and terrible mishaps, all the while looping back and forth into cosmic terror. It’s those stories that really do it for me—“Termination Dust”, “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees” (best title EVER!), “(Little Miss) Queen of Darkness” and “Tomahawk Park Survivors Raffle”. The style of those stories is particularly amazing, kind of a surreal, stream of consciousness hard-boiled vibe that is dense and just fun as hell to read. For those of us trying to make sense of the greater Barron mythos, plenty of clues are strewn about in these bizarre plots.
Barron proves his genre street cred throughout the book, touching on sci fi and crime fiction (as I mentioned), as well as some really dark humor. This book is a feast, people!
THE GRIN OF THE DARK by Ramsey Campbell
I’ve long been a fan of Ramsey Campbell’s short fiction, but have a mixed history with his novel stuff. Though some of his book-length fiction is great for what it is, I’ve often wondered what it would be like if he took the boiling, claustrophobic style of his short stories and applied it to a novel. With THE GRIN OF THE DARK, now I know—it’s powerfully dark and compelling and surreal.
The book deals with a writer, Simon, who is asked to write a book about the legendary silent comedian Tubby Thackeray (based in some ways on Fatty Arbuckle), whose films were known to cause audiences to go berzerk, literally. All of the Campbell earmarks are there: extreme social anxiety for the main character, who is dumped on by his girlfriend’s disapproving parents and just about every other character he meets, creeping dread that becomes noticeable to us readers long before Simon sees it, and a style somewhere between fever dream and nightmare.
There is something magically malignant going on with this book, which is hard to put into words. There is creepy imagery in this thing that taps into almost genetic fear it’s so potent—I’m thinking especially of a bizarre circus performance in a deserted park, off squishy white clown faces slithering across the floor, etc. And as things get more and more dire, Simon just doubles down and consistently says and does the wrong thing, over and over. The sheer unrelenting nature of this book is something to behold. Freaking amazing.