First off, I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable labeling the following novels “the best of 2012”. When compiling a list of top 10 horror films of the year, it’s easy to narrow the selection group down to 50 or so candidates. Not so with horror novels. In the wake of the e-reader, the number of horror fiction titles released each year has swelled into the thousands. And while most of those novels aren’t necessarily good, there are dozens that are. Considering the varying marketing and distribution methods, it’s literally impossible to catch up with all the greatness out there.
But in my defense, I am a voracious reader, and a longtime fan of horror fiction. If anything, let the following 10 entries serve as a list of humble recommendations from a man who has sampled the goods in 2012. I’m certain many of our readers have read more books than I have, and better books than I have. And I’d especially like to thank you guys, the readers who read and discuss the book and comic reviews. Drop your favorite fiction titles of the year in the comments if you get a chance. It’s gift card season and daddy needs a new pair of hardbounds.
10. 14, by Peter Clines (May 7; Permuted Press)
Like a cross between The Burbs and an episode of Scooby Doo, Clines’ dialogue-driven tale follows the exploits of a handful of building residents investigating the mysterious happenings in their inner-city highrise. Flirty neighbors and mutant cockroaches abound in 14, resulting in a novel that’s more suspense than horror––at least until it’s Lovecraftian closing act. This is the book that Dean Koontz’s 77 Shadow Street wanted to be.
9. Zombie, by J.R. Angelella (June 5; Soho Press)
This coming of age tale doesn’t really qualify as horror, but the genre roots run so deep, it’s begging for a spot. Angelella’s story of a nerdy teenager using his love of zombie films to cope with an increasingly depressing reality manages to tap into the collective subconscious of horror geeks worldwide. An impressive debut.
8. Them or Us, by David Moody (November 8, 2011; Thomas Dunne Books)
I realize this was released in hardbound late last year, but what the hell, I‘m including it anyway. A genuine internet success story, Moody’s apocalyptic Hater series is addictively bleak, and while the trilogy as a whole may have its flaws, Them or Us wraps everything up in a satisfyingly gruesome bow.
7. Kill You Twice, by Chelsea Cain (August 7; Minotaur Books)
Cain is one of those authors who can really get your stomach churning, but the fourth entry in her Sheridan/Lowell series, The Night Season, was disappointingly tame. Fans will be pleased to know that she brings her gory “A” game back to Kill You Twice.
6. Penpal, by Dathan Auerbach (July 11; 1000Vultures)
When considering our place in this world, our memory is one of the greatest tools we have. But as Dathan Auerbach so eloquently reminds us in his riveting debut novel, memory is not to be trusted. In a series of six vignettes, an unreliable narrator reflects on the mysterious memories of his childhood, and with each passing page, a bigger, more harrowing picture is revealed. Auerbach manages to turn passive childhood memories–– like walkie-talkie friends and balloon penpals––into the stuff of godawful nightmares. This one sneaks up on you.
5. This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It!, by David Wong (October 2; Thomas Dunne Books)
I liked John Dies at the End. I really did. But This Book is Full of Spiders is such a vast improvement, it’s not even funny. Or rather, it’s very funny. Far funnier than John Dies at the End could ever hope to be. The continuing adventures of John and David––two hardcore slackers occasionally pressed to investigate inter-dimensional breaches in their unnamed hometown––hit action-packed heights as the duo fights a full-on zombie outbreak following an infestation of mutant spiders the size of beer-cans. It’s hard to explain. Just read the book.
4. Pines, by Blake Crouch (August 21; Thomas & Mercer)
This trippy, mind-bone of a novel reads like an episode of the Twilight Zone set in Twin Peaks, presumably directed by a wicker man. After a head-thumping car accident, a Secret Service agent wakes in Wayward Pines, Idaho, without a car, I.D., or a phone. And while Wayward Pines is quaint and inviting on the surface, something mysterious is lurking beneath the plastic smiles and dodged questions. Pines cruises with the breathless power of forward momentum, the story seams bulging with the agonizing futility of a bad dream. The final chapters are guaranteed to punch you in the throat.
3. The Twelve, by Justin Cronin (October 16; Ballantine Books)
While 2010’s insanely popular The Passage wasn’t loved by all, it’s impossible to deny Justin Cronin’s ability to tell a good story. Yes, this is a series about vampires, but not the bullshit glittery kind. Cronin’s vamps are feral, predatory monsters that have forced humanity to near extinction. The Twelve follows several surviving characters from The Passage as they attempt to fight back against the “infected”. More than anything else, Cronin is a spinner of yarns, a teller of tales, an author who isn’t afraid to back-burner his primary plot in order to fill in some character details. And even his minor tangents, like one involving a midday massacre at a picnic, are as enrapturing as any good campfire story. By deliberately doling out his narrative, expanding his already expansive chronology, and introducing a host of new characters, Cronin reminds us that he is crafting something truly epic here.
2. The Last Final Girl, by Stephen Graham Jones (September 16; Lazy Fascist Press)
Reading Jones’ post-modern take on the American slasher film is like watching a really clever horror movie. And I mean that as the best possible compliment. His novel, about the hometown return of a once-vanquished slasher villain, both milks and mocks the subgenre––while simultaneously bear-hugging it close. When Billie Jean––a mindless killer in a Michael Jackson mask––threatens to crash the Homecoming Dance with a host of murders, the catty nominees for homecoming queen are forced to step up and determine once and for all….who will be the last Final Girl? Jones has got an eye for even the most subtle of horror film cliches, and his clever winks at slasher tropes will leave genre fans cackling with knowing glee.
1. Little Star, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (October 2; Thomas Dunne Books)
While it’s true that I’m a sucker for any Carrie-esqe tale about empowered outcasts, there’s no denying the lasting impact of Little Star. Lindqvist’s story––about an abandoned infant raised to become a star on the Swedish version of American Idol––pulls off a mind-blowing twist at the end of the first act before mounting a slow-burn build to a magnificently violent crescendo. Shocking, ambiguous and haunting, this is the stuff that great horror fiction is made of. Each novel from Lindquist (Let Me In) has been better than the last. This is his best yet.
A Book of Horrors, ed. Stephen Jones (September 18; St. Martin’s Griffin)
Editor Stephen Jones takes a break from his occasionally stuffy Mammoth Book of New Horror series to helm this gloriously diverse anthology. Lacking an overall theme, each new tale comes as a somewhat startling surprise. Including heavy hitters like Stephen King, John Ajvide Lindqvist, Brian Hodge, and Michael Marshall Smith, this one is a veritable treasure trove of exceeded expectations.
Most Disappointing Follow Up:
Home, by Matthew Costello (October 30; Thomas Dunne Books)
Last year’s Vacation, the first entry in Costello’s not-quite-zombies apocalypse series, was a textbook example of pacing done right. That thing moved. His sequel is the complete opposite, a downright drag. Self-reflection dominates, while action and plotting are a mere afterthought. Good luck staying awake during this one.
Best Picture Book:
Prometheus: The Art of the Film (June 12; Titan Books)
There are movie tie-ins and then there are movie tie-ins, and this gloriously lavish coffee table book belongs in the latter category. Rich in photos and behind-the-scenes mythology, this is one well-conceived piece of work from “visual companion” specialist Mark Salisbury.
Stay Awake, by Dan Chaon (February 7; Ballantine Books)
Dan Chaon is not a horror writer, but a few of the stories in his anthology rank among the most haunting I’ve ever read. Horror fans need to check out “The Bees“, “I Wake Up“, and “Slowly We Open Our Eyes“. You can thank me later.
Hexcommunicated, by Rafael Chandler (July 12, 2012; CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
My apologies to Rafael Chandler, a solid writer and a hell of a role-playing game designer (Dread, Spite), but the cover of his vampire-action novel is silly as shit. I feel guilty picking on something self-published, but not since 50 Shades of Grey have Americans been so embarrassed to be seen reading a book on public transit.
Finally, I’d like to offer my abject apologies to the dozens of sweet-ass books I desperately wanted to read, but somehow missed. Here are a few:
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
The Haunted, Bentley Little
Nocturnal, Scott Sigler
Haunt, Laura Lee Bahr
The Devil in Silver, Victor LaValle
The Hollow City, Dan Wells