2014: The Year in Reading

Cover design2014 was another in a long line of good reading years for yours truly. It wasn’t exactly full of surprises; if you compare this year’s list of favorites to that of previous years, you’ll see a lot of duplication: Ace Atkins, Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, and Robert McCammon are among the most common denominators. Atkins, King and Lansdale together dominate this year’s list, contributing two books each. That’s not something that will necessarily change in the coming year: Atkins will be bringing new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series; King has a new novel (a follow-up to this year’s Mr. Mercedes) on deck, as well as a new short story collection; and Lansdale has a new Hap and Leonard book on the horizon. Factor in Clive Barker’s Pinhead/Harry D’Amour novel The Scarlet Gospels and I can damn near give you my top ten for 2015 right here and now.

All of these familiar faces may make it seem like I’m in a rut, but that’s far from the truth. I found several new authors in 2014 that I’m going to be watching closely in the future, Nick Cutter chief among them. His debut novel The Troop was narrowly edged out of this year’s top ten; I was lucky enough to get an early copy of his second novel, The Deep (which comes out on January 13) and that one made the cut – I’ll be posting a review early next week that explains why. I was also deeply impressed by Jedidiah Ayres and Mark Morris and several others that I’ll be reading from here on out.

ForsakenCoverOne thing I’ve always struggled with is ranking these year-end lists in any kind of order. Traditionally I’ve gone numbers one through ten, but this year I abandoned that concept. It’s just too hard to pick one favorite out of this group. So, this year’s list is ordered alphabetically by author, and as I look back on it now I see ten books that I’ll happily revisit in the future.

Here are the books that sunk their hooks deep in my brain in 2014. I hope you’ll take a moment to share your own favorites in the comments – I’m always looking for suggestions for something good to read!

Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
The Deep by Nick Cutter
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Revival by Stephen King
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

And here, if you’re interested, is the complete list of what I read this year:

pwoodUndisputed by Chris Jericho
And the Night Growled Back by Aaron Dries
Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece by Jason Bailey
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, J.F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Shane McKenzie, Ryan Harding and Bryan Smith
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The Way of All Flesh by Tim Waggoner
Horror Library Volume 5 edited by R.J. Cavender and Boyd E. Harris
Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz
Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Wonderland by Ace Atkins
City of Devils by Justin Robinson
The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Joe Ledger: Special Ops by Jonathan Maberry
Rose of Sharon and Other Stories by Gary A. Braunbeck
The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
BorderlineThe King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
The Quick
by Lauren Owen
A Place for Sinners by Aaron Dries
Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
Borderline by Lawrence Block
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Deep Like the River by Tim Waggoner
Piercing the Darkness edited by Craig Cook
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale
Carrie by Stephen King
Down by Nate Southard
Brainquake by Samuel Fuller
Scream Along With Me edited by Alfred Hitchcock
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumDisease by M.F. Wahl
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Fangoria: Cover to Cover edited by Anthony Timpone
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Jackpot by David Bernstein, Kristopher Rufty, Shane McKenzie and Adam Cesare
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
Revival by Stephen King
Dark Screams Volume One edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Exponential by Adam Cesare
The Deep by Nick Cutter

Review: ‘Dark Screams Volume One’ edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar

e_chizmar01Random House chose wisely in selecting Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar to edit their new horror anthology series, Dark Screams. Chizmar, as many of you who regularly stop by October Country already know, is the founder of Cemetery Dance, one of the horror genre’s premier publishers, and Freeman is an integral part of that self-same company. Their work with Cemetery Dance has put Chizmar and Freeman squarely in the path of the genre’s biggest names and brightest up-and-coming talents. Who better to put together a lineup of stories that will educate readers new to horror on its vast potential, while still appealing to those who’ve waded deep into the genre’s depths?

To be honest, this first volume of stories is likely going to appeal more to those who don’t already have a bookshelf full of the scary stuff. Experienced horror readers may find that these stories tread some overly familiar paths in terms of the twists and surprises they have in store. On the other hand, Dark Screams Volume One could serve as a fantastic gateway drug to introduce those who aren’t overly familiar with dark fiction to that which they have been missing.

Who better to kick off a new horror anthology than Stephen King? “Weeds” is a story many people will be familiar with thanks to the movie Creepshow, which used this story as the basis for the segment “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” You know the one – it features King as a cartoonish buffoon who falls afoul of a meteor that lands on his farmland. But few will have read this version – it’s never been included in one of King’s short story collections. The movie version sticks fairly close to the original prose, although poor Jordy is not quite as inept as King portrayed him in the movie. It’s definitely reminiscent of King’s Night Shift-era work, and would have been right at home in that collection.

“The Price You Pay” by Kelley Armstrong reunites two old friends, Kara and Ingrid, who share a troubled past. Ingrid’s devotion to Kara has proved uncomfortably strong in the past, and Kara has found herself in a number of difficult situations as a result. When Ingrid shows up unannounced on her doorstep, Kara decides it’s time to take a stand. The story twists in on itself from there, and you’ll probably make at least one wrong assumption about where things are headed before all is said and done.

Bill Pronzini’s “Magic Eyes” features as unreliable narrator as you’re likely to find: Edward James Tolliver, currently residing in an asylum after murdering his wife. Tolliver is keeping a journal at the encouragement of his therapist, and Pronzini structures Tolliver’s entries so that we get a real sense of the hopelessness and paranoia closing in on the man. Tolliver believes that something invaded and possessed his wife, and that was what he was trying to kill – and whatever that entity was, he believes something similar has followed him into the institution. Is he crazy, or is he right? Pronzini does a great job of keeping both his characters and his readers off-balance throughout the story.

“Murder in Chains” by Simon Clark is the most brutal offering here, a visceral tale that provides plenty in the way of action but little in the way of answers. A man wakes up in a subterranean tunnel, and he’s chained by the neck to another man. His chain-mate wakes up in a nasty mood, and begins brutally murdering people who have been chained to the walls of the tunnel. From that simple, unsettling premise Clark spins a violent and unpleasant tale that’s probably going to divide readers right down the middle because of its ambiguity.

Ramsey Campbell wraps the volume of tales up with “The Watched,” a quiet tale that’s surreal and unsettling. A young boy, Jimmy, is recruited by a former policeman to keep an eye on the neighbors. Jimmy is afraid to spy, and he’s afraid not to, and even when the cop is involved in an accident the young boy can find no relief. Although the policeman couldn’t still be at their meeting spot, something is there…and as Jimmy watches, that something seems to be moving closer.

This is a solid collection of quick reads, a nice selection of appetizers that represent the horror genre and many of its incarnations well.

Review: ‘Prisoner 489′ by Joe R. Lansdale

Cover designJoe R. Lansdale spins another tall tale in Prisoner 489, a straight-up horror story about an island graveyard and an executed prisoner who ain’t quite dead. It’s part of the Black Labyrinth series of novellas from Dark Regions Press, and is up for preorder now in a variety of states ranging from ebook to deluxe, leather-bound, foil-stamped, signed-and-numbered editions.

If you’re not familiar with Lansdale’s work at this point, I both pity you and envy you. The pity is there because, damn, you’ve missed some good stuff. The envy is there because, damn, you’ve got some good stuff to look forward to, ranging from horror to the crime-and-misadventure stories of the Hap and Leonard series to his coming-of-age masterpiece Edge of Dark Water. But you can (and should) investigate those another time – right now, let’s talk about Prisoner 489.

Let’s say there was an island, upon which was built a maximum security prison designed to hold the worst of the worst. These are the people for whom parole is not an option; they have been thrown into the deepest, darkest pit imaginable, and will only emerge from the prison feet first, as they say. They’re so bad that, even dead, they’re not allowed anywhere near anything resembling civilazation. So next to this island there’s a smaller island, home to a graveyard where the bodies are unceremoniously buried, their plots marked only by a number. As our story unfolds, Prisoner 489 comes to the island for his eternal rest.

The body of 489 is received by a small crew of two current prisoners and one former prisoner. Bernard has already worked off his time but chose to stay on because he really has nowhere else to go. His co-workers, Toggle and Wilson, are finishing up their sentences on the island, which up until today wasn’t too bad for a work release program.

By the time the man they know as Kettle shuttles 489’s corpse to their island, the guys are on edge. It’s their tradition to watch the prison across the water on execution nights; when the lights dim, they know the job is done. But this night is different. The lights dimmed, and dimmed again, and then two times more. When Kettle arrives he comes bearing a metal coffin wrapped in chains, and he’s eager to share stories about the man inside it, how it took all that juice to kill him, and how they finally had to finish the job by wrapping a plastic bag around the criminal’s head.

Once the coffin is in the ground, their bellies are full of liquor, and Kettle has boarded his boat back to the prison, the guys settle in for the night. There’s a storm bearing down on them, but something else out in the darkness doesn’t sit right with Bernard. He’ll find out what that is soon enough.

What comes next, I’ll leave Mr. Lansdale to tell. He does a magnificent job, as the second half of the book is an exercise in tension, humor, and outright horror. Lansdale’s storytelling is a joy to behold; his voice is so natural, so fluid that it’s like you’re hearing the story straight from his mouth rather than reading it on the page. Prisoner 489 is Lansdale at his finest, which is pretty much what you can expect any time he puts out something new. Highly recommended.

Review: ‘Dangerous Denial’ by Amy Ray

DangerousDenialTroubled pasts abound in Dangerous Denialthe debut novel by author Amy Ray. Few of the characters we meet in the course of Ray’s time-hopping story have happy childhoods: BK’s family shuns her for being overweight, among other things; Lenny is a caustic bully; Trevor tries to survive his abusive father (a grown-up Lenny) without the help of his mother, who ODs under suspicious circumstances. Each of these people seems to find a way to survive and move on; but, as Ray’s tense opening shows, none of them fully escape what they were running from, and they soon find their futures intertwined when they collide in a very public way.

Ray takes a Pulp Fiction-inspired approach to the layout of her story, starting in present day, looping backwards, and then slamming home again for the conclusion. She also incorporates a third-act twist that will be familiar to constant readers of mystery/thriller fiction, but works nicely for this particular book.

There’s a lot of potential here, and it’s clear that Ray is ambitious in her approach to plotting and story structure. My issue with the book is the writing itself; it’s so tentative that it comes across in some places as bland. It’s very readable – the book breezed by – but also very workmanlike, with little of the style or flair that helps authors and their books separate from the pack. My hope is that Ray will take some of the fearlessness she exhibited in imagining her story and apply it to the craft of getting that story on paper.

A lot of people are probably going to enjoy this book. There’s a familiarity to it that will help it go down easy. But I suspect Ray may be capable of more, and I hope she’ll build on that with whatever project follows this ambitious, if not wholly successful, debut.

Review: ‘Jackpot’ by Shane McKenzie, Adam Cesare, David Bernstein and Kristopher Rufty

JackpotTake a look at that cover. When it comes to tone, Jackpot is definitely a book you can judge by its cover. There’s not a lot of subtlety in that illustration, and there’s none in the book’s pages. This is sledgehammer fiction, coming at you swift and hard and with murderous intent. If you’re weak of heart – or weak of stomach – this ain’t the ride for you.

Jackpot (out now from Sinister Grin Press) is the story of Booker, a burgeoning serial killer with big plans and, when he hits the lottery, a big bankroll to make those plans reality. Two hundred million dollars, to be exact. His method of picking the winning numbers is but the first of many egregious acts Booker commits in the course of this short novel, and the thought of a guy like him with unlimited funds is a chilling one, indeed.

Like me, you’ve probably seen enough news stories about the downfall of lottery winners to know what kind of vultures a big windfall attracts, and even a twisted individual like Booker isn’t immune. In short order he’s intercepted by Frank, a lottery-chasing lawyer who’s willing to do anything for his percentage of the payday, and the Rollins family, a backwoods clan whose mother figure, Winona, stakes her own twisted claim on Booker’s prize. But Booker is determined, and with his brand-new tricked out murder van in operation, and the blueprints for a dream house (complete with functional dungeon) already in hand, he’s not going to be easy to take down.

Look, Jackpot is not going to win any awards for its thoughtful prose or resonant characterization. The four authors (Shane McKenzie, Adam Cesare, David Bernstein and Kristopher Rufty) are not coming to whisper dreadful things in your ear; they are coming to shout obscenities in your face until you cry uncle. They come armed with blow torches, scalpels, super glue, hungry dogs and chains, and absolutely nothing is taboo.

This may not be your kind of horror. It’s not typically mine – I usually prefer something creepier, quieter, with short bursts of shock thrown in for seasoning. This is the literary cousin of something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one long note of horror building to an overwhelming crescendo. And while this style might not be my first choice in horror (I prefer Halloween to Chain Saw), I can recognize when it’s done well. If  you’re into the wet stuff, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.

Re-Reading King: ”Salem’s Lot’

''Salem's Lot' (Doubleday Hardcover, 1975) (First Edition)

”Salem’s Lot’
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1975)
(First Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Doubleday | October 1975

My most recent read of ‘Salem’s Lot took place in a variety of settings: under the harsh, cold fluorescents of my office during lunch; under the softer glow of the lamp in my living room; in the bright sunlight on my back porch; and, on a couple of occasions, underneath the lone bulb on that same porch, with night creeping in all around.

It’s a testament to the power of Stephen King’s writing that, in each of those places, he managed to thoroughly creep me out.

I don’t remember how many of King’s books I’d already read when I got to ‘Salem’s Lot the first time – I know I read Pet Sematary first, and after that it was a big blur as I gobbled up everything of his I could find. Looking back at it in its proper place in the bibliography, ‘Salem’s Lot signifies for me the first real glimpse of the Stephen King who would go on to dominate the horror field. It has several of the characteristics that would define the early years of the “Stephen King brand” in my mind; most notably, the pointed, accurate portrayal of a small town and its people, and the use of classic horror tropes in modern settings.

For pure scares-per-page, ‘Salem’s Lot ranks high in that initial bundle of books, the ones that led to King being known as “America’s Boogeyman.” I wasn’t exaggerating up top when I said I got creeped out a couple of times; that rarely happens to me when reading anymore (a side effect, I suppose, of a steady diet of the scary stuff over the years), and I was pleasantly surprised at the power King’s vampires held over me. Danny and Ralphie Glick walking through the woods; Royal Snow and Hank Peters descending into the belly of the Marsten House with a huge, ominously shifting crate; Ben Mears and Jimmy Cody, sitting in a mortuary with Marjorie Glick’s body, and the way her body first begins to tremble and then to twitch underneath its sheet…those are a few scenes that stand out in a book that lives under a dark cloud of dread and tension from the very first page.

Character-wise, it’s always been Ben Mears that I remembered the most. That’s not surprising; he is, after all, the main character and our entry point into the world. But this time around it was Father Donald Callahan who came alive for me. Maybe it was having the full weight of The Dark Tower series, and Callahan’s role in it, behind me this time around; maybe it was the way King introduced a character that sounds like a cliche (Catholic priest with fading faith and a drinking problem) and elevated him into something more. Here is a man who knows he’s begun to coast through life and yearns for something more:

He had been pining for a Challenge….He wanted to lead a division in the army of – who? God, right, goodness, they were names for the same thing – into battle against EVIL….He wanted to see EVIL with its cerements of deception cast aside, with every feature of its visage clear.

'Salem's Lot (Doubleday Hardcover, 1991) (Reading Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1991)
(Reading Edition)

Callahan would get what he yearned for, here in this book and much later, when King picks up the thread of his story in the last three Dark Tower books. In ‘Salem’s Lot Callahan is a man who fails, utterly and completely, in his chosen mission, but knowing that he eventually gets a chance to make things right casts his failure in a whole new light.

I don’t know where I’d rank ‘Salem’s Lot in the overall King bibliography – high, but I’m not sure how high – but among his pure horror novels it reigns near the top. I’ve always had fond memories of reading it, and I’m happy to say revisiting it bore those memories out.

Up next is the book that many consider King’s masterpiece: The Shining.

Re-reading King: The Index
Re-reading King: Carrie

A Halloween Treat from Kealan Patrick Burke

DeadLeavesKealan Patrick Burke is a favorite here in October Country, an extremely talented (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) writer who combines a keen eye for detail and atmosphere with an innate understanding of the importance of the human element in horror fiction. He’s got a deep catalog of stuff out there, but if I had to recommend my favorites I’d include his update/overhaul of the hillbilly slasher genre, Kin, as well as his excellent Timmy Quinn series: The Turtle Boy, The Hides, Vessels, Peregrine’s Tale and Nemesis: The Death of Timmy Quinn).

Those are all longer works, and they’re all excellent, but Burke’s greatest strength as a writer may be his short story work. So it’s great news indeed that Burke has made a collection of his Halloween-flavored short stories, Dead Leaves: 8 Tales from the Witching Season, available for free from Smashwords through November 1. In addition to stories like “Carve the Pumpkins,” “Tonight the Moon Is Ours” and “The Tradition,” he’s included a list of his favorite books and movies for the Halloween season and a new introduction.

I’ve followed Burke’s writing from the beginning, and I can tell you that this collection is worth a whole helluva lot more than the “nothing” that he’s charging, so please take advantage and check it out. I think  you’ll discover, as I did several years ago the first time I cracked open my copy of The Turtle Boy, that this is an author worth reading.