2011: The Year in Horror Fiction
For fiction, 2011 was an only slightly better year than it was for
I’ve already made clear, cinematically it was a pretty rotten
year. Below you’ll find the latest installment of my annual Year in
Horror Fiction overview. It’s considerably shorter than most of my
previous YIHFs, for which there are several reasons (one of which is
made clear in the “Books I couldn’t Get Through” section that concludes
So let’s get started with…
The time travel opus
STEPHEN KING (Scribner) was my favorite book of
2011. It may well be the most sheerly enjoyable novel King has ever
written, being in the same league with time travel classics like Jack
Finney’s TIME AND AGAIN and Ken Grimwood’s REPLAY.
The overall concept is simple enough: Jake Epping, a
35-year-old Maine based English teacher, is encouraged by Al, a fry
cook, to travel back in time to prevent the assassination of John F.
Kennedy. It just so happens that a time portal exists in the back room
of Al’s diner that leads back to the year 1958. Long story short: Jake
makes the attempt. Before doing so, however, he decides to prevent
another past tragedy involving an adult student whose father took a
hammer to his family, which conveniently occurred in 1958.
The latter plot strand takes up much of the opening
third, which sees Jake settling in the fictional town of Derry, Maine
(the setting, you may recall, of King’s
IT). Following this Jake makes his way
to Texas, where Lee Henry Oswald will (allegedly) shoot JFK from a
Dallas book depository on November 22, 1963. In the meantime Jake falls
in love and finds fulfillment in early-1960s Texas by working as a
teacher in the friendly town of Jodie, which complicates his quest
That’s all I’ll reveal of this epic narrative (of which
I’ve probably given away too much). King rigorously follows the laws of
time travel, even if he ultimately doesn’t add a whole lot to the
subgenre. 11/22/63’s pleasures are in its unerringly enjoyable
narrative, which nicely blends nostalgia, romance and horror. Its
portrait of late 1950s-early 1960s America is impressively vivid and
atmospheric, and the novel furthermore contains one of King’s most
satisfying endings in some time.
My other favorite read of 2011 was
by ROBERT DUNBAR
(Uninvited Books), which is everything King’s novel isn’t:
demanding, introspective and deeply weird, a definite thinking person’s
horror story. It’s told in the form of diary entries by a deeply
troubled teen boy sent to a rural boarding school. This kid’s diary,
with its shaky grammar, free-form composition and numerous crossed-out
words, is among the only truly convincing fictional depictions of the
voice and world view of a teenager that I’ve encountered.
After around 50 pages’ worth of entries laying out the
protagonist’s disturbed mind-set we meet Willy. As described by the
protagonist, Willy is a brilliant but creepy boy who has a talent for
influencing his fellows--and not always for the better! In fact, it
seems that Willy’s presence has a distinctly negative effect on the
school’s teachers and students, whose lives are torn apart by frequent
bouts of madness, murder and, in the case of the main character,
Being the mentally damaged individual he is, the
protagonist rarely explains things any more than he has to, leaving us
with a lot of seemingly superfluous descriptions and occasional
self-contained mini-paragraphs whose meanings are left enigmatic (“I
feel like I’m on fire and drowning at the same time. I never felt that
way before”). To further complicate matters, toward the end a more
learned narrative voice intrudes, presumably that of Willy--who it’s
suggested (but never confirmed) may in fact be the true
Only a writer of unusual talent and discipline could
create such an assured and impressive novel from the disjointed
recollections of a frankly crazy individual. Yet Robert Dunbar has
succeeded in taking seemingly undisciplined and meaningless material and
weaving it into a whole that’s unerringly disciplined and meaningful,
not to mention complex, eerie and peerlessly disturbing.
And so ends my two-favorite-books-of-2011
listing. Let’s continue with a brief look at the 2011 output of perhaps
the most foremost independent publisher in the biz…
My friends at PS Publishing had some interesting ‘11 publications,
starting with THE
BROKEN MAN by
MICHAEL BYERS. It’s an adroit skewering of
Hollywood mores, as well as an astute portrait of Bush-era America.
Pretty ambitious, I’d say, for a 64-page story!
Gary Rivoli is a filmmaker specializing in slasher
flicks. Like so many others in Hollywood, he’s
put aside his ideals to concentrate on trashy films he doesn’t like but
which make money. This guy is a type extremely common in Hollywood,
driven by equal amounts of self-loathing and arrogance (during a Houston
sojourn he ponders how “when outside Los Angeles he was reminded how
rich and beautiful his friends were and how relatively ugly and poor
everyone else was”).
The horrific portion of the book involves Alice White,
a creepy monster maker who creates an imposing creature called The
Broken Man for Gary’s latest film. The critter terrifies Gary, who comes
to believe that Alice is a witch who’s cast a spell on him. Not a bad
set-up, but the way in which it works out is less than inspiring. Gary
Rivoli himself could have pinpointed what’s wrong with this novella, as
by its end I was hoping for the type of exploitation he’d no doubt
willingly provide. No such luck!
Also from PS:
SCOTT NICHOLSON, a minor novella but a fun one
It opens with the just-killed P.I. Richard Steele
finding himself in an otherworldly waiting room. Ushered into the office
of an afterlife social worker, Steele learns he’s a “tweener” who can
end up in either Heaven or Hell. He fills out an application to get into
Heaven, but reaching “The Bright Place” entails far more than mere
paperwork: Steele will have to go back to the Earthly plain and solve
his own murder. Steele’s ensuing adventures contain many noir standbys,
including a suitably gritty setting, specifically the skuzzy side of Los
Angeles; a femme fatale in the form of a hottie named Bailey who has
some inside information on Steele’s murder; and a cold-blooded killer,
who with Bailey’s assistance murdered Steele and now has Lee in his
Steele’s first person observations are suitably
hard-boiled (“I’d discovered God has a great sense of humor, despite
being a heartless bastard”) and sprinkled with quite a few jokes, many
of them actually funny (“when you have no bones, the chill doesn’t
bother you as much”). This is far from the best work of the talented
Scott Nicholson, but as fast and witty entertainment
it hits its mark.
My final PS selection is
THE DEAD by the incomparable JOE R. LANSDALE.
Running a quick 29 pages and packed with inventive carnage, it’s
precisely the type of thing Mr. Lansdale could likely dash off in his
sleep (zombies aren’t exactly an unfamiliar theme in Lansdale’s oeuvre).
Yet this novella has a quirky and endearing arc, even if it does feature
many over-familiar elements.
It starts with Calvin, a lonely man who’s among the few
survivors of a zombie conflagration (an event that’s become so
ubiquitous in horror fiction it no longer requires an explanation) that
has claimed the lives of his wife and daughter. It’s Christmastime, and
Calvin decides he’ll be putting Christmas lights and decorations up on
his house, zombies or no. It seems that despite the all the nastiness in
Calvin’s life the spirit of Christmas is alive, as proven by the
unexpectedly touching finale in which Calvin goes about putting up his
hard-won holiday decorations--which have a most interesting effect on
the local zombies.
Lansdale is his usual irrepressible self here, dishing
out excess gore, raunchy humor and hard-bitten wisdom as only he can.
There’s admittedly not a whole lot to this tiny tale, but I say it’s
worth the twenty or so minutes it’ll take you to read it.
Let’s turn now to the ‘11 output of one of
the genre’s most vital talents, and certainly one of the most prolific…
Michael Louis Calvillo Mike wins this
year’s most prolific horror writer award, having published three books
in 2011. First was the splatterific novella
BLEED FOR YOU
(Delirium Books). It may lack the maturity and intelligence of
Calvillo’s previous output (the novels
I WILL RISE and
AS FATE WOULD HAVE
IT, the collection
BLOOD & GRISTLE), but as a
straightforward exercise in sheer nastiness it more than succeeds.
The opening chapters portend dark things to come, with
the nerdy teen protagonist Freddy infatuated with the way-hot Emily. She
makes the mistake of leading Freddy on, unaware that he’s recently been
released from a mental hospital where he was interred for unspecified
violent behavior. It’s clear that Freddy still has issues, and his
troubled psyche isn’t helped by the fact that he’s writing a term paper
on the Hungarian countess Erzsebet Bathory, who murdered hundreds of
virgins and bathed in their blood.
I’ll refrain from giving away the remainder of this
twisted tale, but will reveal that it contains murder, mutilation,
necrophilia and true love (of a sort). It’s drafted in admirably focused
and straightforward fashion, and with a good eye for how modern
teenagers interact. Readers desiring refinement and sophistication will
be left hungry, but those in the mood for a bloody (and I do mean that
literally) good time will be sated.
In the same vein was Calvillo’s
7 BRAINS (Burning
Effigy). It’s been said the ultimate compliment you can give a
horror story is it makes you question its author’s sanity. I’ll confess
that was the case with this deeply sick novella, meaning 7 BRAINS is a
It’s not really like anything else, with a decidedly
unique tone set by the dedication: “For Michelle (the author’s wife)…I
promise I will never eat your brain.” Unfortunately Malcolm, the
protagonist of 7 BRAINS, makes no such promise. Not in the opening
chapter, at least, when he inexplicably smashes in his wife’s skull and,
under the guidance of a foreign accented voice in his head, ravenously
devours his beloved’s brain. It turns out the voice belongs to a
split-off part of Malcolm’s psyche that’s concerned about him, and
mankind in general, losing humanity. To regain Malcolm’s lost humanity
his chatty alter ego--who Malcolm christens Einstein because it’s such a
know-it-all--demands that Malcolm devour six more brains, each belonging
to a person with specific attributes: ambition, innocence, love,
honesty, benevolence and anger. Going about this is obviously easier
said than done, and, needless to say, involves a LOT of unpleasantness.
Calvillo also gave us
DEATH AND DESIRE IN THE
AGE OF WOMEN (Morning Star), a bold and idiosyncratic
riff on the concept of female empowerment. The focus is on Victor and
Claudia, a happily married couple who like everybody else are
irrevocably impacted by a hallucinatory worm that turns up in the head
of every woman on Earth. Claudia brutally kills her young son(!) during
the worm-instigated uprising while Victor manages to elude the suddenly
homicidal females around him--initially at least.
He’s eventually caught and incarcerated while Claudia
is put to work in the new worm-dominated world, run by different
stratifications of brainwashed women (meaning some gals are more
affected by the worm than others). But Claudia longs to see her husband
again and for things to go back to the way they were before “Bloody
Tuesday.” She arranges a clandestine meeting with Victor, who will have
to be broken out of prison; that’s a good thing, as Victor isn’t doing
too well behind bars.
To his credit, Calvillo provides little in the way of
reassurance: in this novel love does not conquer all and the ending is
far from happy. Calvillo sustains the nastiness of the early scenes
throughout, and concludes things on a decidedly tangled and unresolved
note. The issues explored in DEATH AND DESIRE IN THE AGE OF WOMEN are
thorny ones that have vexed mankind for centuries, and are here given a
fictional treatment that feels entirely appropriate.
Authors/Publishers I also
WOMAN by the great JACK KETCHUM and LUCKY McKEE
(Dorchester Publishing). It’s essentially a novelization of the
2011 film of
the same name, whose director Lucky McKee is credited as the co-writer
of this quintessentially Ketchum-esque novel. It was conceived as a
direct sequel to Ketchum’s OFFSPRING, while the same author’s
masterpiece THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is reflected in THE WOMAN’S main plot
strand, which sees a cannibal woman kidnapped by a psychotic lawyer who
shuts her up in the cellar of his house and, together with his cowed
family, subjects her to all manner of torture.
For the most part it’s all quite edifying, with
Ketchum’s trademarked spare prose, page-turning readability and shocking
violence all fully in evidence. The novel, however, could be a bit
stronger overall: the characterization of the evil lawyer is a bit
one-dimensional, and some of the developments of the climactic
sequences--which include the long-belated introduction of a monstrous
character and an equally unexpected home visit by an inquisitive
teacher--are less than unbelievable.
But once the lawyer and his family meet their joint
fate and it seems the novel is over, we get “Cow,” a more-or-less
standalone fifty page vignette. Unlike the rest of this third-person
narrative, “Cow” is related in the form of diary entries by a snooty
playwright with no relation to any of the previous characters. This guy
is captured by the cannibal woman, who’s escaped her captivity (no fair
revealing the hows and whys) and moved back to her seaside cave home
base. Here the playwright is made to witness the Woman’s talent for
killing and gutting people in an impressively concentrated bit of
sustained grotesquerie that is in many respects the book’s most
memorable portion, and certainly the most gruesome.
An indispensable (though extremely
expensive) 2011 volume was the Subterranean Press omnibus
DANGEROUS WAYS, featuring three mystery-themed novels by the
incomparable science fiction/fantasy specialist JACK VANCE.
Among DANGEROUS WAYS’ contents is 1973’s
It’s a “hider in the house” tale in the mold of the
1989 film of
the same name and
THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS--as well as the so-so BAD RONALD
TV movie adaptation from 1974--but it actually predated them all by
several decades, having been initially drafted back in the 1950s.
Ronald is a deeply maladjusted teen living with his
aging mother in a California suburb. After raping and accidentally
killing a young girl in his neighborhood, Ronald returns home--where he
remains for the next several years, as his mother elects to “protect”
Ronald by sealing him up in the downstairs bathroom. Unfortunately the
old woman dies just as Ronald is starting to get the hang of his new
environment; he stays put, spending his days constructing a private
fantasy world called Atranta. In the outside world, meanwhile, Ronald’s
house is sold and the Woods, a highly conservative family, move in. This
brood includes three luscious girls who interest the increasingly horny
Ronald to no end.
Vance showed particular daring in electing to tell his
story largely from the confined Ronald’s point of view. This was
necessary, of course, in conveying the minutiae of Ronald’s private
universe, which Vance lays out with all the immersive detail of one of
his fantasy sagas. Ultimately, though, BAD RONALD works primarily
because its protagonist is so compelling. Ronald may be a murderous
psychopath, but he’s also a complex and tragic figure whose exploits
always seem worth following, regardless of how dark
and/or strange they become.
Uninvited Books, publisher of the
above-mentioned WILLY, put out one of the more noteworthy reprints of
2011, T.M. WRIGHT’S
LITTLE BOY LOST. It begins with a disappearance
that occurs in a shopping mall parking lot in upstate New York, where
young Aaron is snatched out of the back seat of his father's car by what
appears to be his stepmother Marie--who herself disappeared a year
earlier. As if that weren't enough, Aaron's mother was previously
murdered by an unknown assailant. The police naturally suspect Aaron's
father Miles was behind the killing and subsequent disappearances, and
Aaron's brother C.J. is grilled at length by a kindly but firm
All this is but a setup for the dreamlike horrors to
come, as Miles and C.J.'s reality gradually dissolves. They increasingly
find themselves in a prehistoric landscape of arcane rituals and
sacrifice, populated by shadowy and malevolent figures.
What resonates about this novel are its many quirky
details, such as the precocious C.J.'s penchant for blurting out random
details about where he's been and what he's seen to anyone who will
listen. Even more impacting is the vivid yet spectral atmosphere of
rural menace; Wright is a master at this sort of thing, and, as is his
custom, keeps the explanations to a minimum, with the emphasis on
immersive low-key horror.
THE LIFE OF POLYCRATES & OTHER STORIES FOR
by BRENDAN CONNELL (Chomu
Press) proves that genuinely vital avant-garde fiction is alive and
well. Every conceivable type of experimental quirk is evident in this
weird and wonderful collection, which represents a terrific sampling of
Connell's peculiar genius.
The novella-length "Life of Polycrates" is a fitfully
bizarre history of the ancient Greek ruler Polycrates, his achievements
and the many eccentric personalities surrounding him. It's written in
the form of a mock history text, complete with copious footnotes.
"Brother of the Holy Ghost" is about the 13th Century life of the man
who was situated by Dante at the gates of Hell in the INFERNO, while
"The Life of Captain Gareth Caernarvon" concerns a late-19th Century
hunter whose game includes the most dangerous one. Then there's "The
Search for Savino," concerning a psychotic Symbolist painter, and
"Collapsing Claude," about a man obsessed with a repulsive woman.
Chomu Press is to be commended for giving Connell's
eccentric drafting free reign. I won't pretend to "understand" this
book's various oddities and enigmas, but do feel it's a vital work whose
puzzles are well worth your time to work out.
MIDNIGHT MOVIE was the premiere
novel by filmmaker TOBE HOOPER, written in collaboration with
ALAN GOLDSHER (Three Rivers Press). Its
RING inspired narrative could
admittedly be a bit stronger--and scarier--overall, but the novel is
never less than thoroughly readable and inviting, driven by Hooper’s
hard-bitten, quintessentially Texan worldview.
Further influences on this novel would appear to be
HOUSE OF LEAVES and WORLD WAR Z, evident in its documentary overlay of
various documents and interviews, many of them with Hooper himself. As
it happens, a no-budget zombie comedy he made as a teenager called
DESTINY EXPRESS has been dug up and is set to receive its first
screening in decades at a shithole Texas venue called the Cove. Hooper
is summoned to introduce the screening by Dude McGee, an obnoxious
internet maven who resembles a “low-budget Harry Knowles.” Also along
for the ride is Janine, a hot college gal summoned to be the
ticket-taker, and quite a few assorted horror geeks.
The screening is marred by violence, but the real
horror is what occurs in the following days. In short order, Janine’s ex
boyfriend, who was also present at the screening, brutally assaults her,
while some other patrons become “meth arsonists.” Clearly, DESTINY
EXPRESS has unhinged its viewers, although I’m a little hazy on the
details of the movie virus and how it came into being. As a filmmaker
Tobe Hooper isn’t exactly known for his storytelling prowess, so I guess
I shouldn’t be surprised that this novel is a bit light on narrative
clarity. In ghoulish invention and black humor, however, it excels, and
the film geek milieu it describes feels accurate.
I normally go out of my way to avoid vampire
series novels, which
JON F. MERZ’S THE KENSEI (St. Martin’s Griffin) is, but
its premise was simply too wild to resist: a ninja vampire hunting organ
traffickers in Japan! The vamp is Lawson, the headliner of several
previous novels by Merz (none of which I've read). In THE KENSEI Lawson
shows himself to be an irrepressibly cynical martial arts enthusiast
with a wisecrack for every occasion.
The author, it should be noted, is an actual back belt
ninja, having passed the Godan ninja test which Lawson takes twice in
these pages. As described here (and seen on YouTube, which contains
video footage of Jon Merz's Godan test), the test consists of dodging a
sword swung at one's back by a grandmaster ninja--as Merz writes in his
acknowledgments page, "To Dr. Masaaki Hatusmi...my sincerest and humble
thanks for nearly cleaving me in two on that drizzly cold day in
In short, THE KENSEI is fast, fun and informative. It
won't change the world and nor does it intend to, registering as a good
pure and simple.
by TERRY GRIMWOOD
(Eibonvale Press) is a quintessentially British apocalyptic
nightmare that makes for a strong post-9/11 addition to the
English-centric likes of BRAVE NEW WORLD, 1984, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and V
FOR VENDETTA in its pitiless vision of a catastrophic war that destroys
England (and, it’s implied, much of the rest of the world), a vision
that in grit and sheer bleakness far outdoes most every other recent
It tells the story of Pete, a Londoner who finds his
comfortable life thrown into turmoil upon learning of a war his country
is fighting against a shadowy force known only as the EoD, or Enemies of
Democracy. Nobody seems to know much about the EoD except that they
apparently want to do everyone in.
If the above sounds downbeat, be advised that it’s
merely a warm-up for the bleakness to come. The actions of the corrupt
authorities and the shadowy EoD are not at all unconvincing in these
days of terror alerts and mass rioting in London (in light of which
BLOODY WAR seems far more topical than when it was initially published).
So too Pete’s befuddled mental condition: he finds it difficult to
properly mourn his loved ones or even think clearly amid the unceasing
onslaught of explosions, gunfire, blood, falling debris, severed body
parts and dashed hope, all vividly portrayed and anything but
Now let’s turn to the lone nonfiction
publication horror-themed publication I read in 2011. Yes, I only read
one nonfiction horror book last year (although in this case the
adjective “read,” as you’ll find, isn’t entirely accurate).
IV: A FAN’S HOPE was by the pop
documentary filmmaker MORGAN SPURLOCK and photographer ALBA
TULL (DK Adult), being a large format coffee-table hardcover
about the inimitable pop culture phenom that is the San Diego Comic Con.
It’s essentially an adjunct to an upcoming documentary of the same name,
which explains why the book is so visually oriented and light on text.
In fact, I’d say Tull deserves the lion’s share of credit, as her
sprightly and colorful photos comprise at least 80 percent of the book.
As a pictorial document of the event this book is quite
strong, adroitly capturing the numbing Technicolor swirl of the Con,
where costumes of every imaginable stripe are constantly on display.
Also pictured are various famous folk--among them Harry Knowles, Kevin
Smith, Stan Lee, Eli Roth, Bill Plympton and Spurlock himself--who are
quoted on what Comic Con means to them, the consensus being that it
allows people to indulge their geekiness in a safe and non-judgmental
Not the definitive study of this essential event, but a
fun book nonetheless!
The following section is something I haven’t
done before. It’s in response to criticisms that I give too many
favorable reviews. That’s something I’ll readily cop to, but only
because when it comes to reading I’m like most everyone else: if a book
doesn’t grab me I’m apt to put it down. I’m not exactly lacking in
reading material, and don’t see any point in forcing myself to finish a
book I know won’t get any better (experience has taught me that if a
book doesn’t grab me in its first 3-4 chapters it’s most likely not
As occurs every year, there were several books in 2011
that for whatever reason I was unable to complete. Those titles, and my
reasons for abandoning them before their respective ends, follow.
I Couldn’t Get Through THE FIVE
by ROBERT McCAMMON (Subterranean Press) isn’t
a bad book by any means, and it’s not like I quit reading it in disgust.
Rather, I simply put it down and felt no particular compulsion to pick
it back up.
Robert McCammon was and is one of the sharpest
novelists around, yet THE FIVE’S opening chapters are notably rambling
and expansive, detailing the problems faced by a small time rock band.
There’s supposed to be a supernatural component but I couldn’t find any
evidence of such in those opening chapters, a lapse the McCammon of old
would never have let occur.
In 2011 the “unknown classic of the
macabre” THE HOLE OF THE PIT by ADRIEN ROSS had its first
standalone publication since 1914, courtesy of Oleander Press. I
attempted to read this short novel years ago, when it was republished as
part of the Ramsey Campbell anthology UNCANNY BANQUET, and didn’t get
very far. I tried again in ‘11 and this time managed to get through four
turgidly drafted chapters before quitting--and believe you me,
so was quite a chore!
TONY BURGESS’ IDAHO WINTER (ECW Press)
began promisingly, detailing the life of a tortured individual everyone
hates, but around page fifty it got all postmodern, with the protagonist
declaring war on his creator and the third person narrator becoming a
character in his own right.
Dennis Potter could get away with this
sort of thing, but with most every other writer I find postmodernism
boring and pointless, an abdication of the author’s role as a
storyteller to highlight his own cleverness--although in truth I didn’t
find Tony Burgess’ postmodern pratfalls in IDAHO WINTER especially
clever, just annoying and self-indulgent.
One of the bigger disappointments of the
past year was THE SILENT LAND by GRAHAM JOYCE (Doubleday),
a novel I was really looking forward to. Joyce is a master of sharp and
concise prose, yet THE SILENT LAND’S opening description of a woman
trapped in snow is bloated and overwrought in a most un-Joycean manner.
That doesn’t make it bad, mind you; as with McCammon’s THE FIVE (see
above), I wasn’t especially offended by what I read here. I just wasn’t
compelled to read onwards.
THE WHITE DEVIL (Harper) is a learned
but middling literary horror fest by JUSTIN EVANS, of 2007’s
obnoxiously overrated GOOD AND HAPPY CHILD. THE WHITE DEVIL’S setting is
a boarding school where one or more ghosts are afoot, which inspires the
protagonist to research the life of Lord Byron.
I’m not opposed to highbrow horror, but I do hold such
fare to the same standards I do other horror novels--wherein the content
must equal if not surpass the form (and the Lord Byron references are
kept to a minimum!)--and for me THE WHITE DEVIL, like Justin Evans’
previous novel, had very little to it outside its upscale trappings.