DarkEcho Horror Recommended Reads

DarkEcho Recommended Dark Reads from 2003
From DarkEcho #30, 12.18.03

It's (more than) half past December and time for *DarkEcho*'s ANNUAL RECOMMENDED READS. As always, most of the credit goes to those who took the time and effort to read, compile, and share their opinions. This year thanks goes to ELLEN DATLOW (a.k.a "ED" below) who, in pursuit of the finest dark fiction each year (for the horror half of THE YEAR'S BEST HORROR & FANTASY) reads practically everything of less than novel-length that is published as "horror" and a great deal that is not considered "horror" but that she knows is "horror"; HANK WAGNER (a.k.a "HW" below), that rarest of creatures -- the true horror-literature fan who really buys books and reads them (and who also reviews); and STEFAN DZIEMIANOWICZ (a.k.a "SD" below) the man whose name is the most often misspelled and mispronounced in horror and who, I think, reads everything that Ellen doesn't -- then reads the shorter works she recommends, too. I, of course, add my humble two-cents-worth [as "PG"] as well.

One problem with year-end round-ups -- and commentary -- is that we are still discovering and still reading works from 2003. Please keep that in mind. Nor are we mentioning books according to any award rules or even saying these titles are the "best" of the year. I call them "recommended reads" because that's what they are. Nothing more. Nothing less.

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Overall, it appears that high quality horror novels had a somewhat stronger showing this year than last. There are at least four 2003 novels that are being recommended without qualms and with (for us) unanimity. Last year's trend of books featuring elements of horror and/or the supernatural, but not being marketed as genre fiction, continues. Stefan Dziemianowicz mentions these examples of 2003 "literary mainstream" novels that use the supernatural to interesting effect in their exploration of themes not normally associated with horror: COME CLOSER by Sara Gran (Soho), TROPIC OF NIGHT by Michael Gruber (Morrow), SECOND GLANCE by Jodi Picoult (Atria), and BAY OF SOULS by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin).

Perhaps part of that trend is also bringing about more of what we've (more-or-less) wished for: horror -- both horror easily defined as such and horror-in-the-broader sense -- being published and reviewed as "fiction" rather than "genre" with no sense of hiding it under "any label other than horror." Tananarive Due's definitely horror THE GOOD HOUSE and Graham Joyce's maybe-horror THE FACTS OF LIFE were both released from Atria as was the aforementioned SECOND GLANCE by Jodi Picoult. (Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster spun off from their Pocket Book division only a year or two ago, is publishing a mix of nonfiction and fiction.) Peter Straub's LOST BOY LOST GIRL and Stewart O'Nan's THE NIGHT COUNTRY were both reviewed as "literate horror." Writers like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Chuck Palahniuk continue to write horrific and violent novels without labels other than the occasional designation of "suspense." Jonathan Lethem writes funny, scary, surreal fiction without category.

Whose books *are* being called horror? Laurel K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books -- just as much mystery, fantasy, erotica, and romance as horror -- and Anne Rice, whose BLOOD CANTICLE brings her vampires and witches together, but with more romance, angst and soap operatics than horror. Meanwhile, romance's hottest subgenre is "paranormal"! Go figure.

[More on novels below.]

Mixed-genre or nongenre-but-fantastic anthologies like the LEVIATHAN (Ministry of Whimsy) series and the "new fabulist" issue/anthology of "Conjunctions" (both from 2002) that include horror or dark stories also seem to be part of this trend.

[More about 2003's anthologies below.]

Whether or not horror literature benefits from being categorized in a separate marketing category is a topic of longstanding debate. Many a convention panel has ended with established authors saying they would like to see their titles shelved as fiction (or both horror and fiction, if possible) but who acknowledge that categorizing probably helps new authors who might otherwise be overlooked. Here's a new possibility: It appears that the best of the new writers of dark fiction are gaining as much and probably more recognition by straddling genres or defying labels. Established writers, with the exception of grandmasters of the field, seem to do best if they have written in sf and fantasy genera as well as horror and thus can derive benefits from more than one "camp."

Being referred to as "horror" does not hurt a book's chances; it can, in fact, help -- but it doesn't help *enough* for publishers or authors to go out of their way to look for horror readers, reviewers, or awards. Why haven't those mainstream books SD mentioned been recognized as horror while some of the books we recommend below -- books that are, in some cases, less easy to call "horror" than those mainstream ones -- regarded as horror? Mostly because the mainstream authors never associated themselves with genre or identified themselves as a "type" of writer and their publishers are not "genre publishers."

Compared to last year, there are, perhaps, fewer stellar *DEBUT NOVELS* that can be easily recognized as horror this year. The exception is Matthew B.J. Delany's JINN (St. Martin's) which we all recognize as an excellent debut *horror* novel. SD comments: "Matthew B.J. Delaney throws in just about everything but the kitchen sink, which is to say that just when you think you know what's going to happen next Delaney tosses another plot twist in. A memorable balancing act for a first time novelist." Jeff VanderMeer's VENISS UNDERGROUND (Prime) and K.J. Bishop's THE ETCHED CITY (Prime) are both certainly dark and I, at least, recommend them, but they may or may not be horror. I'd also probably add Jeffrey Thomas's MONSTROCITY (Prime) to that group.

Hank Wagner also recommends FAT WHITE VAMPIRE BLUES (Ballantine) by Andrew Fox, THE DANTE CLUB (Random House) by Matthew Pearl, and THE RISING (Delirium) by Brian Keene. THE RISING is a post-Romero zombie novel so it's easy to call that one horror. THE DANTE CLUB includes a serial killer, but is probably more historical or literary detective novel than horror. Fox's amusing novel is about vampires, but it falls into that "is it /isn't it horror?" crack.

While pondering the best horror titles of 2003, SD found it hard not to notice that the year has been extraordinarily rich in *GHOST STORIES* He continues: "That may seem a given for a genre chockablock with the supernatural but the truth is, even though there have been some very memorable ghost stories published in the past two decades, the ghost, once the mainstay of horror fiction, has pretty much been out of favor for most of that time--certainly when compared to, say, the vampire. Memorable books that brought the ghost back to life in 2003 include:

"Stewart O'Nan: THE NIGHT COUNTRY (FSG). A powerful small-town ghost story narrated by the ghosts of teenagers killed in a Halloween car accident a year before, and who know something crucial but unspoken that is clearly shaping the maladaptive behaviors of the survivors. O'Nan gets the rebelliousness and mischievousness of his teenagers down perfectly. The novel has much of the same emotional resonance as Russell Banks' unforgettable THE SWEET HEREAFTER.

"Peter Straub: LOST BOY LOST GIRL (Random House). Tim Underhill is back in a story where not much separates the ghosts from the living. As always, Straub offers some of the most psychologically credible characters in contemporary fiction. The carefully wrought ambiguity of the supernatural calls to mind the work of Robert Aickman.

"Donna Boyd: THE AWAKENING (Ballantine). A ghost story that builds to a genuine surprise ending and does a nice unreliable-narrator trick to pull it off.

"Richard Matheson: COME FYGURES, COME SHADOWES (Gauntlet). A fragment of a novel Matheson had hoped to write as a young man, but put aside because it would have run to 2000 pages. This extant bit of it is a genuinely creepy account of a young girl's indoctrination into/enslavement by her family's history of spirit mediumship. A good 40 years old, and very much ahead of its time.

"Tananarive Due: THE GOOD HOUSE (Atria). A traditional haunted house tale with a few other supernatural elements mixed in and Due's usual cast of sympathetic characters. As always, she uses the supernatural to explore issues of race and family in contemporary America.

"Glen Hirshberg: THE TWO SAMS (Carroll & Graf). This book is subtitled "Ghost Stories," but you would have to look hard to find anything resembling a traditional ghost in these five novellas. Hirshberg presents the readers with characters haunted by ordinary human fears that take extraordinary shapes. With this book following close on the heels of his debut novel, THE SNOWMAN'S CHILDREN, Hirshberg stakes his claim as one of the most exciting new writers of horror fiction to emerge in the past decade.

"Ellen Datlow (ed.): THE DARK (Tor). An anthology of all "New Ghost Stories," one of which is the stand-out story in Hirshberg's collection, "The Dancing Men." The stories run the gamut from the traditional to the modern (and even postmodern) ghost tale, and from straight supernatural horror to light fantasy. Some excellent work here from writers not normally associated with supernatural fiction."

SD ends his musings on ecotoplasmic entries with THE DARK, an anthology that Hank Wagner and I both enthusiastically put on our lists of recommended reads. Let's stay on the *ANTHOLOGY* category and take a look at what Ms. Datlow herself (an editor who has racked up eight World Fantasy Awards for editing anthologies as well as a Stoker and a Hugo) recommends this year:

"Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, Jack Dann (eds.): GATHERING THE BONES (Tor). A non-theme anthology with an international flavor. The three editors -- from the United States, Great Britain, and Australia -- each chose one third of the stories. The stories are an entertaining mix of supernatural and psychological and a number of them are quite excellent.

"Bill Congreve (ed.): SOUTHERN BLOOD: NEW AUSTRALIAN TALES OF THE SUPERNATURAL. (Sandglass Enterprises): An excellent, mostly original anthology with terrific new stories and novellas by Rick Kennett, Geoffrey Maloney, and Lucy Sussex and strong work by a host of other Australian writers. Each story is illustrated in B&W and the cover illustration is by Nick Stathopoulos.

"Brian A Hopkins (ed.): 13 HORRORS (KaCSFFS Press). Celebrates the thirteenth World Horror Convention in Kansas City. Thirteen writer guests of honor were asked for original stories -- most are excellent.

"Nalo Hopkinson (ed.): MOJO: CONJURE STORIES (Warner Aspect). Provides a nicely mixed brew of tales about the uses of personal magic emanating from African traditions. Many of the nineteen original stories are very dark and should appeal to horror readers. Some of the darkest are by Eliot Fintushel, Neil Gaiman, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Nisi Shawl, Jarla Tangh, and Steven Barnes.

"Stephen Jones (ed.): BY MOONLIGHT ONLY (PS Publishing). Follows last year's [British Fantasy award-winning] KEEP OUT THE NIGHT as another entry in this new mostly reprint anthology series was inspired by the classic "Not at Night" series edited by Christine Campbell Thomson. The first in the series was published in October 1925 and Selwyn & Blount in the UK published subsequently eleven further volumes during the 1920s and 1930s.

"In mixed genre anthologies [ED continues]:

"Kelly Link (ed.): TRAMPOLINE (Small Beer Press). A non-theme anthology of twenty stories, some quite dark including those by Glen Hirshberg, Richard Butner, Christopher Barzak, Beth Adele Long, and Shelley Jackson. It also contains an amazing mainstream story called "Insect Dreams" by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson.

"Jay Lake & Deborah Layne (eds.) POLYPHONY 2 (Wheatland Press). Has some very good dark stories by Lucius Shepard, Honna Swenson, Jack Dann, and Alex Irvine.

"'Dr.' Jeff VanderMeer & 'Dr.' Mark Roberts (eds.) THE THACKERY T. LAMBSHEAD POCKET GUIDE TO ECCENTRIC & DISCREDITED DISEASES (Night Shade Books). A marvelous invention that is like no other book out today. Some of the diseases are horrific, others funny - all ingenious. With a gorgeous cover by John Coulthart, who also designed the interiors."

SD (on anthologies) agrees with Datlow on GATHERING THE BONES ("A lot of the usual suspects, and some exciting new voices. Proof that good horror is good horror no matter where it comes from.") and BY MOONLIGHT ONLY ("Jones reacquaints readers with a couple of old, overlooked stories, and a lot of relatively new fiction well worth a second look.") SD also recommends these two:

"Joel Lane (ed.): BELOW THE GROUND (Alchemy Press). Lane has written enough urban horror fiction that he knows how to spot the good stuff by others. Some genuinely unsettling stories in this book.

"William Sheehan (ed.): NIGHT VISIONS 11 (Subterranean Press). Excellent novella length fiction from Tim Lebbon, Lucius Shepard and Kim Newman, which show horror's malleability and cross-pollination possibilities with other genres."

HW includes MOJO: CONJURE STORIES, NIGHT VISIONS 11, THE DARK, and BY MOONLIGHT ONLY on his list. And don't forget the always-excellent "Year's Bests" volumes from Datlow & Windling and Jones)

Moving on to *STORY COLLECTIONS*, we'll have SD lead off with comments from Ellen Datlow [ED] and me [PG] with Hank Wagner (HW) signing in where apropos:

Jack Cady: GHOSTS OF YESTERDAY (Night Shade). Fantasy and the supernatural with a regional flavor; [ED] an excellent -- and beautiful-- new collection by this multi-award winning author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Of the several original stories in the volume three are among the best Cady's written. [PG] Cady's been writing stories for over 40 years and, incredibly, just gets better and better. [HW agrees.]

Ramsey Campbell: TOLD BY THE DEAD (PS Publishing). Another collection of witty, eerie, precision-crafted weird tales from Campbell. Need more be said? [PG] Since PS is a British publisher, and I don't seem to be on their reviewer's list, I have yet to see this one. You can't go wrong with Campbell, however. HW has and it's on his list.

David Schow: ZOMBIE JAM (Subterranean Press). Entertaining, gruesome zombie stories with intelligent subtexts [PG] Definitely on my list, but with the additional comment that Schow's concise explanation of the emergence of "zombie fiction" is required reading, too.

David Prill: DATING SECRETS OF THE DEAD (Subterranean Press). Horror themes as vehicles for gentle humor, nostalgia and thoughtful reflection. The novella "The Last Horror Show" is a moving rumination on the consolations of horror that just about anyone interested in horror fiction will respond to. [PG] One of my favorite books of the last TWO years -- I've had the galley at least that long. (I suppose Bill Schaefer was waiting for a groundswell of preorders for this little gem to actually publish it.) Rumored to be the secret love child of fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor and Morticia Addams, Prill is one of the most underappreciated writers of the fantastic around. Darkly droll and delightfully original. [Oh, and HW likes it, too.]

Dale Bailey. THE RESURRECTION MAN'S LEGACY AND OTHER STORIES (Golden Gryphon). Excellent first collection from a writer who moves effortlessly back and forth from horror to fantasy and science fiction. [PG and HW have it on their lists, too. Here's an excerpt from my review that will be in "Cemetery Dance # 48": "Bailey's stories are a sort of literary 'comfort food' -- extremely well-made, reminiscent of the familiar, and filling. At this point in his career, he seems to be a reliable writer to whom readers can return over and over with satisfaction: never spectacular, but always worthwhile.')

Michael Marshall Smith. MORE TOMORROW AND OTHER STORIES (Earthling). Smith is one of the best writers of horror and dark fantasy to have earned his chops in the last decade. This book is proof that his American publishers blew it when they didn't bring out a stateside edition of his first big story collection, What You Make It, a few years back. [ED] Contains over two dozen of this brilliant author's short stories and a novella. Some of the stories are original to the collection. This Smith's first collection published in the U.S. and is far more comprehensive than What You Make It, published by HarperCollins UK (and never reprinted in the U.S.) in 1999. [PG] HW has it on his list and I thoroughly agree with SD and ED Again, quoting from a CD#48 review: "Invariably, something from a Smith story will adhere permanently to your psyche. Presented together, Smith's stories stick even more firmly and impressively."

Elizabeth Jane Howard: THREE MILES UP (Tartarus Press). The complete weird fiction (four stories) of a mid-century British writer best known for social comedies and dramas.

Arthur Machen. THE WHITE PEOPLE AND OTHER TALES (Chaosium). If you've never read the classic title story, here's your chance. The second volume from this publisher bringing Machen's work back into print for American readers.

ED adds: PEACEABLE KINGDOM by Jack Ketchum (Gauntlet Press) -- A large collection, with over two dozen stories published between 1992 and 2002 (three stories are original to the collection). Two of the stories "The Box" and "Gone" won Bram Stoker awards and were reprinted in YBFH series. Ketchum writes clean, sharp prose, believable characters, and his short work has the ability to draw readers into the action immediately. [PG] Ellen says this one was actually published in 2003. I thought it was 2002. Whatever: It's *the* definitive Jack Ketchum collection.

SD covered THE TWO SAMS by Glen Hirshberg with his "Ghosts" theme. ED adds that it is "the first collection of a writer who specializes and excels in the contemporary ghost story. Since his 1999 story 'Mr. Dark's Carnival' Hirshberg has been dazzling readers with his elegant and disturbing tales. HW has it on his list and I have it on mine. [PG] "Publishers Weekly," btw, named it as one of the best of books of the year.) Hirshberg is a rare and exquisite talent who has emerged as a major new voice in dark fiction in the last few years.

HW also mentions UNINTENDED CIRCUMSTANCES by Alex Irvine (who made an award-winning debut last year with his first novel A SCATTERING OF JADES) and BIBLIOMANCY by Elizabeth Hand. BIBLIOMANCY is another PS Publishing title I haven't seen, but I have read the four novellas --"Cleopatra Brimstone" and "Pavane for a Prince of the Air" (both IHG award-winners); "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol" and "The Least Trumps" (both nominated for World Fantasy awards) -- it collects, so I can recommend it without hesitation. The Irvine is a good collection, but, overall, his stories are not as good as his novel.

I'll also mention three collections that are each "dark" or partially "dark," but may not be considered "horror." BUDAYEEN NIGHTS by George Alec Effinger (Golden Gryphon), M. John Harrison's THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPEN (Night Shade), and M. Christian's THE BACHELOR MACHINE (Green Candy Press) by M. Christian. The Effinger collection berings together stories from his future-Arabic-noir universe for the first time. THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPEN is the first U.S. collection of some of the superlative stories of M. John Harrison. THE BACHELOR MACHINE is a collection of erotic science fiction that proves that at least one writer (and he may be the only one who does it with consistency) can make an oxymoron ("erotic sf") into a reality.

That brings us, finally, to *NOVELS*. There are at least four novels definitely recommended by the three of us who have been reading novels. (Ellen doesn't have time to read novels because she's too busy reading short fiction.) SD's comments on the first three are included above, so I've added mine below:

Tananarive Due: THE GOOD HOUSE (Atria) [PG] I want to add that my 20-something daughter thought this novel so "awesome" that she finished reading it -- in public -- in her usual booth at a 24-hour eatery at 3 A.M. And no, she's not much of a reader. Hello? Simon & Schuster promo-people? How clueless can you get?

Peter Straub: LOST BOY LOST GIRL (Random House) [PG] There came a point for me when I realized that Straub had taken my mind out of its convenient plastic egg-shaped container, played with it like silly putty, then tucked it gently back into an altogether different receptacle. The man is peerless, unless you include the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Henry James.

Stewart O'Nan: THE NIGHT COUNTRY [FSG] [PG] O'Nan updates Bradburyesque small-town America to suburbia and has teen-aged ghosts provide p.o.v. Quoting Bill Sheehan in "The Washington Post": "O'Nan has written a ghost story that deliberately subverts the conventions of the genre...The result, while not easy to categorize, is satisfying and complex."

John Shirley: CRAWLERS (Del Rey). [SD] "Entertaining science fiction horror B-movie novel, with a none-too-subtle 'what's wrong with America, and especially the military industrial complex?' critique woven through it.

SD adds (and I will second) David Schow: BULLETS OF RAIN (HarperCollins). "Is it horror? Is it suspense? Whatever -- it's a helluva roller-coaster ride." [PG] It's great to see Schow back in the novelistic saddle with this clever divertissement. Whatever you are expecting from Schow, he'll surprise you with this one.

HW adds GATEWAYS (St. Martin's) by F. Paul Wilson, TO WAKE THE DEAD (Leisure) by Richard Laymon, and WOLVES OF THE CALLA by Stephen King. I haven't read King's latest, but I did read the first two. I love Wilson's Repairman Jack novels and am particularly enjoying Wilson's growing cosmology as well as seeing Jack, a man with no legal identity, deal with both post 9/11 security and impending fatherhood. In this one he travels south to Carl Hiassen and James Lee Burke territory. I'm just not sure if you can enter the series with this, the fifth (or, really, sixth) book. All I can say about TO WAKE THE DEAD is -- if you like Laymon I suppose you'll like TO WAKE THE DEAD.

SD also adds two published as stand-alone novellas by Lucius Shepard that may count as "short novels" to his novel list: FLOATER (PS Publishing), "urban voodoo with great characters" and LOUISIANA BREAKDOWN (Golden Gryphon), "bayou voodoo with great characters." HW included LOUISIANA BREAKDOWN as a novella recommendation. (Did I mention already that I never get review copies of PS books? I suppose I did.) I can say that I recommend LOUISIANA BREAKDOWN, and my guess is that FLOATER is as good.

PG adds: Caitlin Kiernan: LOW RED MOON (Roc). Less eerie and atmospheric than the previous THRESHOLD, more H.P. Lovecraft this time than Algernon Blackwood. Kiernan's dropped some stylistic conceits with this one that may serve her as a writer. I can envision Kiernanian fiction growing into an intelligent, annotated, cross-referenced dark fantasy franchise over the next two or three decades.

Steve Rasnic Tem: THE BOOK OF DAYS (Subterranean Press). Hard to know what to call this one -- collection? episodic short novel? It's probably not "horror," either, but it's well worth reading.

Charles Dickinson: A SHORTCUT IN TIME (Forge). Am I the only person to have read this novel? If so, it's a shame, because this time-travel fantasy does a wonderful job exploring the (dark) realization that even small acts and very personal responsibility can alter everything.

Wiliam Owen Roberts: PESTILENCE (Four Walls Eight Windows). Roberts places horror into the context of daily life in 14th century Europe. Call it "dark historic fantasy" if you want, but it is so stygian it becomes horrific. The novel was Roberts' second, but first to be translated from the Welsh. Originally published as Y PLA (THE STENCH) in 1987, the English translation (by Elisabeth Roberts) was published in 1991 in the U.K.

(Both Campbell's THE DARKEST PART OF THE WOODS and THE FACTS OF LIFE by Graham Joyce were published in 2003 in the US, but we mentioned both last years as 2002 "Recommended Reads," so they aren't included here.)

As far as *NONFICTION* for 2003, Erik Larsen's THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY: MURDER, MAGIC, AND MADNESS AT THE FAIR THAT CHANGED AMERICA (Crown), a book about the creation/building of Chicago Exposition of 1893 and the murderous H.H. Holmes (probably America's first serial killer), is unanimously recommended by all four of us (and just about everyone else). HW adds Thomas F. Monteleone's collection of essays, THE MOTHERS AND FATHERS ITALIAN ASSOCIATION (Borderlands Press) and SD points out: David E. Schultz and Scott Connors (eds.): THE SELECTED LETTERS OF CLARK ASHTON SMITH (Arkham House). Clark Ashton Smith wrote unlike any other pulp writer in his day. Unfortunately, his work often got butchered by editors who wanted him to write just like everyone else. An excellent, comprehensive collection of his correspondence wherein he outlines his poetics and aesthetics and occasionally cuts loose on the dismal literary scene. Writers today will nod their heads in recognition at a lot of what he has to say.

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Two more recommendations (from me anyway, I forgot to ask anyone else). In the *MAGAZINE* category, I wanted to mention both THE THIRD ALTERNATIVE and THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION. TTA , in the able hands of Andy Cox, has always been well designed and intelligent. (It has an outstanding cinema column from Christopher Fowler). But lately it has slipped into a solid groove of disparate but identifiably "TTA-type fiction" that, as often as not, is quite dark. F&SF, has always been synonymous with great fiction, but in the last two years, editor/publisher Gordon van Gelder has hit a comfortable stride as an editor who can pick a variety of well-written stories that appeal to a range of different tastes.

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Copyright © 2004 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.