The Boatman’s Daughter, by Andy Davidson
When her father died, Miranda Crabtree ended up inheriting his profession; transporting drugs up and down the kudzu-choked Prosper River in an aluminum johnboat for an insane bayou preacher and his partner, the lecherous town sheriff. There’s a swamp witch, a boy who’s not quite all boy, a little girl with a clandestine past, and an esoteric ritual that threatens to shred the bonds of the natural world. This is a supernatural crime fiction with a Texarkana lean, and a strong nod to Cormac McCarthy. I fell deeply in love with this novel, and experienced the greatest / worst heartache when it was all over.
The Sun Down Motel, by Simone St. James
Every year, I yell at myself for not reading enough work from women. I promised to do better in last year’s Spoopy List, and while I managed to double last year’s count, I still feel like I’m not getting enough horror from women in my diet. I don’t know if it’s a genre specific issue in that we don’t have many women putting out horror novels, an issue with publishing houses not marketing women well enough, or if I just have a fucking brain tumor, but this is something that consistently bothers me. I typically select what I’m going to read from what’s getting buzz on Twitter, what my favorite authors are reading, and from online reviews, so if you find yourself in one of those categories, THIS IS ME BEGGING YOU TO PROMOTE MORE WOMEN.
With that out of the way, Simone St. James’s New York Time Bestselling effort takes place in 1982 and 2017 simultaneously. In 1982, Viv Delaney takes a job at the Sun Down Motel in a town called Fell in order to save up enough money to move to New York City. She disappears during one of her shifts, and is never seen or heard from again. In 2017, Viv’s niece Carly Kirk travels to Fell and takes a job at the still running Sun Down Motel in the hopes that she can solve the mystery of her presumably late aunt’s disappearance. The narration toggles back and forth between Viv and Carly, and commands the reader’s total attention with the care and precision of an author who truly cares about the arc of their characters lives. Like The Boatman’s Daughter, The Sun Down Motel is a expertly wrought supernatural crime thriller that deserves your eyes and dollars.
The Queen’s Road by R. S. Belcher
If you’re a longtime reader of the Spoopy List, you’ve seen this dude pop up here on more than one occasion. I love me some R. S. Belcher. The Queen’s Road is an Audible Original from the creator of The Six-Gun Tarot, The Brotherhood of the Wheel, and Nightwise. In it we meet a man named Ramon Cosa, a man living a very unfulfilling life as a convenience store clerk while taking care of his addict mother. Once day he comes across a dying man in a vintage Ford Galaxie who offers him a strange ring, after which nothing in Ramon’s life will ever be the same. This is definitely more of a science fiction read, but I decided to include it in the Spoopy List for those of you looking for a read (er, listen) that isn’t going to give them a fright stroke.
Terminus by Peter Clines
What can I say about Peter Clines that I haven’t already said about Peter Clines over multiple Spoopy Lists? He was born in Cape Neddick, so I already feel like I have to Stan a fellow New Englander from down the road. Better still, this dude has serious chops in the dark science fiction space, and routinely makes my nerd boner stand at attention with works like The Fold, 14, Paradox Bound (if you’re reading this Peter, for the love of Harry Pritchard, give me a sequel), and The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe. If you pick up Terminus and like what it, I heartily recommend you jump on the rest of his shit posthaste.
Terminus takes place in the same universe as The Fold and 14, and follows the paths of three characters – Chase, Murdoch (not altogether human) and Anne – all looking to escape their respective pasts, and embrace futures of their own design. They all end up on a lost island that’s not on any map, and that’s when the Lovecraftian cosmic horror really kicks into fifth gear. Old Ones, alternate realities, deformed cultists, secret machines keeping the world from being devoured by – I’ll stop there. Terminus is a twisty, turny, exciting ride that keeps you buckled in until the very end, fits snugly within the known Peter Clines multiverse, and is well worth the price of admission.
Mystery Walk by Robert McCammon
Raise your hand if you’re an unapologetic Robert McCammon superfan! You might remember Robert from last year’s Spoopy List, in which I included his entire Matthew Corbett series, to which I am loyal in an almost manic NXIVM cultist kind of way. He is an incredibly accomplished and prolific author, and he’s responsible for inspiring countless fledgling novelists to give it a go for themselves. If they made Robert McCammon posters, I’d have one hanging in my home office.
Mystery Walk is Robert McCammon’s 36743475890th excellent novel, and it centers on two young men with very special gifts. Billy Creekmore, a half Chocktaw boy from Alabama who can help the spirits of the dead pass over, and Wayne Falconer, the son of a fire breathing Southern evangelist with the power to heal. Both are soon set on a crash course with each other when an ancient evil presence makes itself known to them through shared dreams, and one of them decides to partner up with it. It’s a wonderful coming of age story as told with Robert McCammon’s trademark character development, pacing, and tension building (there are moments in this book where I felt I needed to eat a gummy to get rid of the manufactured anxiety I was experiencing), and a great way to introduce yourself to the master himself. If you end up liking this, I recommend starting on the Matthew Corbet series, or go with Swan Song, which is my favorite thing McCammon has ever done.
Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter
This is about as YA science fiction / dark fantasy as it gets, folks. Junkyard Cats is the first in a new series from Faith Hunter that will transport you to the glory days of your junior high school library, where a world of unread literary treasures was just waiting for you to check them out, bring them home, and tear through them over a 3:00 pm bowl of Rice Chex. We have Shining Smith, the story’s reluctant heroine. We have bug aliens. We have humans evolving strangely due to otherworldly presences. We have sentient computers. We have cats. CATS, god damn it! It’s a story that’ll be great for the whole family. Junkyard Cats is the Frosted Mini Wheats of this year’s Spoopy List. The adult in me appreciates the author’s craft, but the kid in me just loves the fucking cats.
The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
“Then I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.”
Did that spook you right the fuck out, even without context? It’s an excerpt from Arthur Machen’s 1904 short story The White People, which T. Kingfisher has lovingly borrowed for the creation of her very, very good folklore horror novel The Twisted Ones. Our protagonist Mouse is tasked by her father to clean out her dead grandmother’s hoarder house in the rural wilds of North Carolina, so she takes her gassy dog along for the ride. She discovers her grandmother’s strange journal midway through the cleaning project (I know, the age-old lost manuscript trope can get a little tired, but it’s great here), and the contents seem like the scrawling of a madwoman. You know, until shit from the journal starts happening to Mouse. This novel is a fairy tale gone horribly awry in the best possible way. It’s funny, heartwarming, and downright chilling in equal measures.
The Twisted Ones almost made it on last year’s Spoopy List, but I wasn’t able to finish it in time for my publishing deadline. Very excited to be able to recommend it now.
Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay
Paul Tremblay made it on the Spoopy List twice this year, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all me. It’s been a great year for the veteran author in terms of successful releases, including Growing Things, a collection of Tremblay’s short stories. If you’re familiar with Tremblay, you’re well aware of his occasionally maddening tightrope act between the supernatural and the psychological. Nowhere better is this talent better showcased than in A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin and the End of the World, but you get even more of the same WAIT IS IT AN ACTUAL MONSTER OR IS THIS DUDE FUCKING CRAZY here in Growing Things. Nineteen Snapshots of Dennisport was superbly done and will absolutely wreck you if you experienced a challenging upbringing, The Thirteenth Temple involves a character from A Head Full of Ghosts, and Her Red Right Hand is a fucking Hellboy story, which is surprised the ever-loving dogshit out of me.
Grim, devastating, unresolving. These are the tools of Tremblay’s trade. Only proceed with Growing Things if you’re willing to peer into the void within yourself.
Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky
Hoo doggy, did this one push some private childhood pain points for me. Kate grabs her son Christopher and hits the road to escape her abusive husband. The two eventually find themselves in Mill Grove, a cute little community in rural Pennsylvania. Everything goes great, until one day, when Christopher straight up vanishes. The entire town searches for him for six whole days until he stumbles out of the woods, completely unharmed. The only problem is that Christopher is now different. Christopher has a voice in his head, and it’s telling him to build a treehouse in the woods before Christmas, or everyone in town is going to die.
The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein
Here we have an oldie, and god damn it, it’s also a goodie. Originally published in 1984 (when it won a British Fantasy Award for Best First Novel), The Ceremonies was recently fully corrected by T.E.D. Cline, and adapted into an audio book in June of 2019. An ancient evil is taking great pains to make everything is aligned just right in order to invoke a series of timeless ceremonies which will bring an end to the world. This is a fascinating read, mixing the concepts of rural paranoia, cosmic horror, and good ol’ ham-fisted 80s social commentary. Pick it up if you feel like taking a stroll though horror’s yesteryear.
Full Throttle by Joe Hill
Joe Hill came out with a new collection of short stories, and you guys aren’t going to believe this, but it’s really good. Alright, I’ll drop the sarcasm. Of course it’s fucking amazing. Hill’s short story game is nearly unparalleled (If you haven’t read 20th Century Ghosts yet, do so after this one), and there’s nothing in Full Throttle that even comes close to disappointing the reader. Much like investing in toilet paper or booze, clicking “buy now” on this collection is the safest bet going, and guaranteed to net you a tidy ROI. If you get the audio version, you’ll be treated to celebrity narrators such as Neil Gaiman, Wil Wheaton, Kate Mulgrew, Ashleigh Cummings, and Zachary Quinto (who actually does a lot of great audio book narration outside of this particular project).
My favorite out of the bunch? Oh man, it’s definitely Faun. Faun needs to be adapted into a screenplay like yesterd – ah, it looks like Netflix already secured those rights in February of ’19. Niiiiiiiiice.
Gideon Falls by Image Comics, Jeff Lemire
I used my time during lockdown to get back into comics, which have always been near and dear to my heart. I struck up a curated monthly shipment from Jetpack Comics, who have done an absolutely incredible job easing me back into the piping hot waters of the comic industry. This was how I was introduced to Gideon Falls, a series from Image Comics (Spawn, et al) that is the brainchild of the same team responsible for Old Man Logan. In Gideon Falls, we follow the independent storylines of a Catholic priest with a dark past and a conspiracy theory obsessed man who both become wrapped up in the hunt for a mysterious black barn that somehow keeps appearing and disappearing, and is said to be responsible for numerous deaths. I was instantly drawn to the bleak storyline and supernatural elements of Gideon Falls, as well as the almost brutalist art and robust, honest dialog courtesy of Jeff Lemire. This is the kind of work that makes me seriously consider adapting some of my stuff for this medium, and especially for Image, whose risk-taking in publishing atypical content is very appealing to me.
As of this writing there are four collected editions available for purchase, but the fifth one should be popping out of the oven on November 25th of this year.
The Call of Cthulu by Francois Baranger
It’s a fucking coffee table book! Seriously! I mean, it’s my recommendation list. I can put whatever I want on it.
I’ve excitedly followed Francois Baranger and his depictions of Lovecraftian settings for the past several years. In this offering, Baranger’s illustrated adaptation of The Call of Cthulu is just plain gorgeous; too gorgeous to leave stuffed in a bookcase. You’ll never guess where I keep my copy.
It’s on my coffee table, dummy. How was that not your first guess?
The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
This isn’t a horror novel, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the scariest entry in this year’s Spoopy List. The 1974 Pulitzer prize winning Denial of Death is Canadian philosopher Ernest Becker’s treatise on how humanity is forever distracting themselves from thoughts about mortality. Our busy lives, our packed schedules, our endless scrolling, our…our…book recommendation lists. All are just obstacles we place in in between ourselves and the fact that we’re all going to die. It is the realist thing I’ve ever read, and it terrifies the fuck out of me. I’d like to treat The Denial of Death like that Paqui One Chip Challenge thing, in which I dared people to read it just so I can watch the lights go out in their eyes, but it’s honestly so god damned important to keep in mind every day. It’s something that horror dances around, but never quite puts such a no-bullshit emphasis on it. We’re all going to die, we don’t know what happens when we die, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Yay!