Vanishings, Apocalypses (Apocali?), Plagues, Secret Agents, Tumbling Time: These Are a Few of My Favourite Things...
We made it! This year is in the home stretch.
You bet your bottom dollar, or wherever you like to keep your change, that I'm going to keep reading but my two delectable holiday tomes: Madhouse 3 Burn, the latest in G Wells Taylor's clicking, hissing, skin-eating Variant Effect series; and Tom GH Adams' Wandering in the Witchwood; look likely to stretch into Jan.
Currently reading, through to 2019:
So I'm feeling ready to call my Best Reads of 2018. Quick note: these are stories that I read and loved during 2018, not specifically things that were published in 2018.
Best Reads of 2018!
Scariest Read: Nothing on Earth, by Conor O'Callaghan
"Hours the sound went on, or seemed to, a rhythmic thudding that was slight but still insistent enough to tremble the glass on George and Georgina in their frame. Then it just stopped. She stayed there until the enamel light that precedes sunrise had made everything vaguely visible, expecting whoever it was to emerge at any second and walk across the close. It was going to be another roasting day."
Squatting in a show home in an abandoned housing estate, a small family's life becomes imperceptibly unmoored. This surprise entry to the list is not strictly horror. However, the languid unstoppable dissolution of social connections and eventual fraying of reality got right under my skin in the best of ways. A story to make you question the permanence of your place in the world.
Weepiest Read: Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter
"We'll take her back a seashell, I replied, and I thought perhaps we should do that, choose a seashell and give it to the teacher, my son's first love, yep, give her his first seashell. Now that made Kevin smile, and I was proud of myself, I know how to handle my kids, I thought, I just need to be left to get on with it."
A single mother struggles to provide an unaccustomed pleasure: a trip to the seaside. Reading this you are provided a front row seat to the disorientation of severe mental illness, and how unpleasant persisting in the world can be. A shattering read, but an important one.
Most Fun Read: This was a tie between Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor; and Mycophoria by Tom GH Adams
"The stain ran in a sloppy streak across the counter and up a pencil holder. Jackie rose up on tiptoes and peered into the cup, which at first appeared empty, but the longer she stared into the small darkness, the more she could make out a pattern - or texture - at the bottom. She could not be certain, but there seemed to be a small lump of wet hair in the bottom of the pencil holder."
From the podcast of the same name, Welcome to Night Vale invites you into a mysterious, insular town where odd things happen so often, how could you even define "odd"? It was dark, but also charming and whimsical. It involved gentle play, which I adore, without shying from more gritty, meaty themes. Reading this felt oddly cuddly, like the writer cared about me and every ordinary person struggling through life.
"The realization struck Olivia that she'd just pronounced the woman dead. How did she know? The same way she'd known her Dad was gone that late November. Not the lack of breath from the nostrils or the fact that his chest didn't rise or fall anymore. It was to do with the absence of something. Like the essence of the person had departed. She'd seen this in the way the woman's hand was splayed open, the phone laid in the center of her palm."
Mycophoria's killer fungus romp was the kind of fast paced, gory thrill I used to get sneaking Dean Koontz or James Herbert as a preteen. It promised a lot and delivered with oozing magnificence, fielding characters who were engaging and believable, and putting them right in the firing line.
Shock and Awe: Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlin R Kiernan
"The Signalman picks up one of the photographs, the one with his shadow in frame, the one where some trick of the light makes a corpse appear to be smiling. Every time he looks at these, every time he touches them, he feels unclean. He went through decon with the rest of the response team, but he only has to revisit these souvenirs of a horror show to be reminded how some stains sink straight through to the soul and are never coming out."
Kiernan gets two rounds of applause here as I devoured Agents of Dreamland and related novella Black Helicopters one after the other, loving her complex spy-riddled world of predestiny, plague and impending doom. You have to be on your toes, stretch your mind around inferences and accept the world is not as you perceive.
Best Vision of the Future: The Electric State, by Simon Stalenhag
"Lighthouse keepers were once warned they shouldn't listen to the sea for too long; likewise, you could hear voices in the static and lose your mind."
Told in breathtaking imagery as well as words, a girl and her robot traverse the crumbling commercial end of civilization. They are heading for ground zero of a new type of consciousness. I think there is a lot of hope in this apocalypse as well as devastation, with the girl determined to see the future birthed by an everyday, ordinary sort of love.
Top Three Shorts (I get to pick three because they're short)
The Book of Dreems, by Georgina Bruce
"The door opened into an overgrown garden. A sea of green, swaying and dripping in the rain. The water pummeled against her, soaking her through to the skin. Cold, shivery ... and something not quite right. There was something out there with her. Something that crawled and mewled piteously under the bushes."
I found this one in Best British Horror 2018, Ed. Johnny Mains, because Kendall Reviews was straight up live tweeting reading every single story and it was great. The way this story gradually built understanding from disorientation and chaos was magnificent, the final assertion a steel rod driven through the whole to bind it together.
Elephants that Aren't, by Betty Rocksteady
"Something sticky writhed across the screen. An elephant. No. Not quite an elephant. Emaciated, with legs too long and wriggling. It lurched across the screen, rubbery truck pulsing, quivering."
Lindsay's struggle to draw, and her encroaching memories of elephants are as horrific as they are compelling. I encountered this in Lost Films, Ed. Max Booth III and Lori Michelle, and in this edition the text is accompanied by gleeful unnerving drawings of little elephants that would make great tattoos.
Archibald Leech, the Many-Storied Man, by John C Foster
"He passed a brick high school building spitting fire from its windows, the roof ablaze like a thatch of wild red hair. The misshapen lumps in the yard were likely corpses, but Leech ignored them in favor of a wooden sign welcoming him to town with the words A FRIENDLY PLACE."
Also appearing in Lost Films, Archibald Leech is the paranormal secret agent to end all secret agents. Sent to investigate an abnormality affecting a small town, before it manages to crack his own mind like an egg. While this short is perfectly self contained I desperately want to read more about Leech's world.
And finally, drumroll please, my Best Read of 2018 was:
Best of 2018: The Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch
"Already the future receded from her, like images half retrieved from dreams or like her memories were waves breaking against the shores of the real, washing away."
To solve a murder, Shannon probes an infinity of possible futures. All the while the Terminus, the mysterious and baffling end of humanity, is drawing nearer. This is a novel that will seriously bend your noodle but Sweterlitsch does it gently, with a deft hand. I read it early in the year and despite 2018 being a year of really incredible stories, The Gone World remained my firm favourite throughout. Be ready to radically revise your perception of observed reality and outcomes.
Hope you add as many of these great titles to your to-read list as you can handle, and that they set your brain on fire as intensely as they did mine.
Also wishing you a very happy and safe time over the holiday period, and all the best reads in 2019!