James Keen’s Top 10 Novels of 2013
Written by: James Keen
These are not books that were released this year; these are books that this reviewer read this year, some of which may be regarded by many as being relatively long-in-the-tooth, to put it politely, but they’re novels that this reviewer regards as being amongst the very epitome of what constitutes vital and relevant horror fiction even given how quixotic the ever-changing literary genre landscape proves to be. And so, in no particular order, the list runs as follows and in no particular order of preference, but these are the top ten novels this reviewer looks forward to re-reading again…
Charles Schmidt: ‘World of Vacancy’
A cracking combination of crime fiction fused with horror. The supernatural elements are wonderfully restrained and Schmidt’s literary style can be compared to Charles Bukowski, Jim Thompson shot through with the storytelling sensibility of early Joe Lansdale. One of the wilder literary rides that appeared on this readers radar this year.
Ronald Malfi: ‘Floating Staircase’
Recommended by author (and HNR stalwart) Hunter Shea after this reviewer posted a review of Malfi’s enjoyably nuts horror epic, ‘Snow’, this proved to be an entirely different genre animal. The plot is deceptively simple and the dread builds as Malfi leads the reader on a literary journey that echoes some of M.R. James’s best work. It’s the work of an author disconcertingly confident in his ability to terrify. After checking out the bulk of this author’s output, its fair to say that he hasn’t put a bad book out there yet.
Adam Nevill: ‘The Ritual’
Colin Shand Bradley -HNR follower and writer- is responsible for the inclusion of this book on this list and culpable for this reviewer experiencing one hell of a sweaty, nerve-wracking read. This is best described as being very much like James Dickey’s ‘Deliverance’…on steroids. There’s a creepy and atmospheric vibe that is established very early on in the text that is slowly ratcheted up to near unbearable levels. Violent, shocking and truly nightmarish – this is a book you won’t forget in a hurry. And one that may put you off camping in the woods for a very long time.
Dan Simmons: ‘The Abominable’
Warning HNR kids – there are mild spoilers ahead! Following on from his previous novel concerned with an icy locale and a group of people shadowed by someone or something with lethal motives. ‘The Terror’ was Simmons homage to creature features and snow-bound horror stories. ‘The Abominable’ however is not ‘The Terror on Everest’. The intent here is entirely different and it’s surprising that so many negative reviews appeared after this monster-sized novel was published in October this year. There appears to be a strange sense of entitlement on behalf of some readers of Simmons fiction who feel somewhat short-changed, and whose response can only be expressed through what can only be described in some instances as being akin to infantile literary tantrums and inconsiderate childish indignation after being fed something that is perhaps not, on the surface, a diet of what-has-come-before. Clearly, a divisive book, a novel containing an exhaustive amount of technical information relating to mountain climbing and a work whose final revelation is, to this reviewers’ mind is far more affecting and profoundly horrifying than a glib reveal involving shaggy blood-thirsty mountain dwellers with big teeth and claws.
Joseph D’Lacey: Black Feathers
The first half of D’Lacey’s duology is an endearingly rendered post-apocalyptic tale. It’s a novel that has a tone more reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’ than say, the ruined world of Stephen King’s mammoth ‘The Stand.’ D’Lacey’s approach to this sub-genre is a refreshingly emotive one, full of a vitality and energy in his prose that propels the reader through some of the more preposterous events D’Lacey describes here. The pace is measured and assured, the language tempered by a deliberation you can almost feel as the author unfurls his dystopian scenario punching it through with episodes of heart-rending loss and explosive violence.
Steve Rasnic Tem: ‘Ugly Behaviour’
A collection of stories here that displays the extraordinary range of Mr Tem’s imagination. There are episodes of such perfectly realized nightmarish imagery contained in these pages that after you’ve finished you may feel like taking a long shower and indulging in a stiff drink afterwards.
Norman Partridge: ‘Dark Harvest’
Partridge accomplishes in this relatively short novel what most authors blunder around attempting to in twice its length. This is a fantastic piece of work by an writer who quite deliberately plays with reader expectation, giving the reader not quite what they may think they’ve signed up for.
Dan Chaon: ‘Stay Awake’
Languishing on my shelf for far too long, this proved to be a shockingly delightful surprise. More in line with what many may consider to be ‘quiet horror’, this is actually a much more delicate affair entirely. Starting with the perplexing ‘The Bees’, through the mildly diverting ‘Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted’, the tales at times elicit an infuriating response, but if the reader perseveres, he/she will discover what the author is up to and by the final pages will feel rewarded for their perseverance. A sprawling, seemingly disconnect lot of tales, Chaon’s stories deal with the fragility of memory, loss and the whimsical nature of what we consider to be consciousness.
John Avide Lindqvist: ‘Let The Old Dreams Die’
Another short story collection here, and another author whose breadth of imagination is astounding. Much like Chaon and Tem, Lindqvist is extremely adept at developing his characters with an admirable verve and literary economy. And much like Tem his stories are at times, unnervingly bizarre and surreal. Cthulhu-like horrors, off-kilter insurrectionists and strange obsessive expressions of idolatry, this author displays a collection of tales here that are at times imbued with a dizzyingly creative near-deranged sensibility.
Conrad Williams: ‘Head Injuries’
Taking standard tropes of horror fiction and making it his own Conrad Williams delivers a unique reading experience. Three people drawn together by a series of odd events in a spiritually dilapidated seaside town try to make sense of the unsettling circumstances in which they find themselves. Guilt, atonement and gloriously menacing imagery permeate this first effort from Williams. It is also, in places a work that exudes a heart-rending sense of loneliness and disconnection as Williams protagonists experience expertly defined set-pieces of surreal terror.
Obviously I had a blast with all of these this year and as soon as I fix the sizeable dent in my wallet made by the holiday season I’m looking forward to a new year pan-handling for genre-gems here on HNR.
Todd Keisling: ‘A Life Transparent’
Tom Piccirilli: ‘November Mourns’
John Shirley: ‘Wetbones’
I am pleased to see this posted here…but ashamed to note that I have only read Malfi and Keisling’s stories…I believe I have Charles Schmidt on my kindle and will need to start there because it will be available. A great list …Thank you…my slightly bi-polar friend…just me…Vitina
Thank you very much for taking the time to comment, Vitina. Some of these are relatively old, but they’re works of fiction that I haven’t had the opportunity to check out over the last ten years,for whatever reason and upon finishing I simply couldn’t resist giving a heads-up on to the HNR community.
Great list of books to read. Thanks to you I already have five of them turned sideways on the bookshelf about eight feet away from me, waiting to be read: Charles’, Norman’s, Todd’s, Tom’s, and John’s novels. I also still have Phases of Gravity by Dan Simmons to finish reading. All the books appear to be pearls of excitement just waiting for the boards to be opened and the pages avidly turned. Can’t wait to jump whole-heartedly into them. Many thanks for your rightous suggestions.
Thanks for the kind comments, Wayne. I just hope the books you’ve got piled up there don’t disappoint you, my friend, and I’d love to hear what you think of them.
Malfi’s is one of my top 20 favorites of all time.
The ‘Malf’ is seemingly incapable of turning out a bad book; currently halfway through his ‘December Park’ and I can’t put the damn thing down.
Word on the street is that World of Vacancy is Maya Angelou’s favorite book of all time.
That explains the free Mp3 copy of ‘Miss Calypso’ that I received with my copy of W.o.V…. 😉
I heard former President Bill Clinton was reading it, too.
Very good James! Based on your review I will throw caution to the wind, forgive Simmons for “Drood” and read Abominable. Picked it up today. Great list!!
Thank you, sir! I’ve not read ‘Drood’ yet so I don’t know how it compares. The horror in ‘The Abominable’ is a more nuanced, less supernatural affair. I hope you enjoy it , but your in for a long hike here…
Yeah…I do have ‘ World of Vacancy’ and ‘ Dark Harvest’….too cool…I am looking forward to them…just me..Vitina
Well, obviously, I’m biased but I hope you have a blast with them.