Some of you asked, so here are my best horror novels of 2016.
2016 was a banner year for horror fiction – there were so many amazing new books released that it was all but impossible for me to read them all, let alone distill them down into a Top 10 list. Yet, after much struggle and internal debate, I’ve managed the latter – although the list is by no means definitive, and subject to change from moment to moment. That’s a good problem to have – having too many great books to choose from is always better than the alternative – but it certainly makes the act of compiling a list of 2016’s essential reads a real challenge. I gave it my best shot, anyway – so without further ado, here are my top 10 horror novels of 2016, presented in no particular order.
Mongrels – Stephen Graham Jones
I’ve been a fan of author Stephen Graham Jones for years now (and not just because I made the footnotes of his novel Demon Theory), and he gets better with each new release. His latest, Mongrels, is a beautiful re-envisioning of the werewolf subgenre. Evoking strong memories of the vampire film Near Dark, Jones’ novel follows a family of werewolves as they move across the southern half of the United States carving out an existence for themselves. Featuring evocative prose, interesting characters, and a perfect blending of fantasy and reality, Mongrels is sure to be heralded as one of the landmark novels of werewolf fiction in the years to come.
End of Watch – Stephen King
The third and final novel in King’s Bill Hodges Trilogy is arguably the weakest of the bunch – featuring a plot that’s one part Mario Landi’s Patrick Vive Ancora, and one part Jonestown pastiche, End of Watch is a bit patchwork in terms of narrative (particularly compared to Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers). And yet, it may still emerge as my favorite book in the trilogy because it highlights one of the thing’s King is so great at: creating unforgettable characters. It’s nice to see Hodges, his partner Holly, and former lawnboy Jerome again (although Jerome is largely relegated to the background for much of this outing) – and the return of Mr. Mercedes killer Brady Hartsfield is welcome as well. Seeing these characters come back to finish their story arc is wholly satisfying – and makes up for any of the minor issues I have with the structure of the book’s plot. We’re in a second Golden Age of Stephen King – enjoy it.
The Fireman – For as great as Stephen King is, it’s getting harder and harder to shake the feeling that his son, author Joe Hill, might be even better. It feels like there’s nothing Hill can’t do at this point – from stories reminiscent of his father’s best work (NOS4A2), to comics, to striking out to territory all his own, he’s got all the bases covered. His latest, The Fireman, finds him riffing on the post-apocalyptic grandeur of his father’s beloved The Stand – all while putting his own unique spin on things. And that, really, is what makes Hill so special – he takes these familiar things and spins them into something unique. His latest continues that trend. It’s a bit of a door-stopper in terms of size, but the story is worth the investment.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism – The ‘80s were big this year, thanks in no small part to the retro vibe of Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things, but if that didn’t completely scratch your itch for the era of Bananarama, then Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism should do the trick. Set in the “Greed is Good” decade, Hendrix’s latest finds a young woman trying to save her friend from the Devil’s clutches after she pops some acid one dark night. Funny (you’ll not read another book this year that features a body building exorcist who lifts weights for the Lord…), filled with period detail, and genuinely scary, My Best Friend’s Exorcism proves Grady Hendrix is a name you’re going to be hearing more from in the coming years.
The Empty Ones – Robert Brockway
Writer Brockway’s sequel to The Unnoticeables proves that David Wong isn’t the only guy writing for Cracked who can craft a bizarre and compelling novel. Filled with punk rockers, angels, cults, Hollywood types, and assorted other oddities, The Empty Ones defies easy categorization. That being said, it’s wholly original tale is compelling, the characters interesting, and Brockaway’s voice so assured that I’m eager to see where he goes next.
Stranded – Bracken MacLeod
One part Dan Simmons’ The Terror, one part Christopher Smith’s film Triangle, Bracken MacLeod’s latest is a harrowing tale that will have you wondering what exactly is going on, then stunned at the revelation. When a vessel becomes stranded in the artic ice, the crew succumbs to a strange illness – can they survive and figure out what is lurking in the darkness all around them? Stranded offers up a cleverly constructed tale filled with desolation, paranoia, and an ever-present sense of menace.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock – Paul Tremblay
Tremblay follows up his amazing Head Full of Ghosts with another chilling tale that will wallop you in the final act. To talk too much about the plot of Disappearance is to risk ruining it for readers – but it gives off a nice Stranger Things vibe, and it’s easy to see fans of the show being swept up in the novel, which finds a small town coping with the disappearance of a teenaged boy. If Head Full of Ghosts didn’t convince you that Tremblay was the real deal, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock will.
The Complex – Brian Keene
Brian Keene is a cottage industry at this point – cranking out books for a ravenous fanbase that always wants more. 2016 was no exception, which saw the author release a mass-market hardcover (Pressure) this summer. That book is an entertaining tale about a massive undersea creature threatening humanity – and is well worth your time. However, I’m including Keene’s smaller, more intimate novella The Complex on my list as the official choice. The Complex is vintage Keene – graphic, gory, filled with unforgettable characters trapped in a terrible situation, and highly entertaining. The Richard Laymon influence is everywhere in this tale of a group of apartment dwellers forced into a fight for survival after the locals mutate into murderous, rampaging monsters. If you miss the good ol’ days when the splatterpunks still ruled the roost, you’ll enjoy this book. It’s a midnight movie waiting to happen.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks – Jason Arnopp
Perhaps the best way to describe The Last Days of Jack Sparks is to call it a “found footage novel” – but before the masses of you who are tired of movies like The Blair Witch Project bolt for the door, allow me to reassure you that the structural conceit works far more effectively (and is far less intrusive…) in a novel than it does on the screen. The title character is ex-music journalist who know writes experiential non-fiction. His latest outing is designed to debunk the supernatural, but Sparks quickly finds himself sucked down the rabbit hole when a strange YouTube video enters his life. Deftly plotted (seriously, the last third of the book – where everything is revealed – is fascinating), beautifully written (Sparks is a complete wanker – you’ll find him intriguing anyway), and genuinely creepy, The Last Days of Jack Sparks has me excited to see what Arnopp brings us next.