The night is cold and dark. You smell pine, and the sickly sweet scent of earthy decay. The dense forest surrounding you is filled with the rustling of leaves, and the yawning of long dead branches. You have no idea what you’re doing here. A stiff breeze whistles through the canopy of ancient oaks obscuring your eyes from the primal comfort of familiar stars. I’m over here, by the guttering campfire in the clearing, just a few paces ahead. Come sit. These stones are smooth and comfortable to rest on, but I couldn’t possibly tell you what all of these strange carvings mean. I have a flask of whiskey to share, and maybe even a story or two to tell while you figure out how you got here, and which direction leads back home. I –
I’m sorry, spoopies and spoopettes. I can’t even write this schlocky intro anymore. We’re all living through a lethal pandemic on reduced wages, wildfires are transforming our planet into a smoldering hellscape, I haven’t hugged my mother since February, Netflix just cancelled GLOW, and our covid-addled president is out here saying he won’t leave office if he’s voted out. We live in a horror novel. I think we can safely skip my ode to 80s pulp paperback horror and get the fuck on with it.
The fifth installment of my annual scary book recommendation list is coming at a time in which we’re all sequestered from our formerly bustling lives, and at a moment in which we are all positively starving for fresh content. We’ve binged all the shows, doomscrolled through all the social media feeds, and baked all the quarantine bread. For many, myself included, surviving 2020 means shoveling distraction after distraction into our bottomless anxiety holes. I feel like I needed to pry myself away from watching the slow-motion car crash that is the 24-hour news cycle more than anyone I know, so I filled my plate to overflowing. Shit, I spent the last six months writing more than ever, teaching myself Norwegian, getting back into comic books, painting, writing pen pal letters to lonely nursing home residents across the country, remodeling a vacation condo, and reading.
Lots and lots and lots of reading.
For me, the weirdest personal benefit to lockdown ended up being an increase to my already manic reading diet. I’ve read 45 books since last October (I know, what the fuck?!), the bulk of which I chewed through starting in March. You know, when everyone’s busy schedules magically evaporated. I guess losing myself in the imaginations of the world’s creepiest novelists kind of helped me process all of the real-life trauma taking place outside. I’m a horror junkie on a good day, but monsters and ghosts and planet-devouring alien gods were all incredibly welcome diversions in a world where I’m locked inside because a very real virus is devouring and incapacitating very real people. Through the arc of their stories, horror authors offered me both problems and, for the most part, solutions, resolutions, and endings. Like most readers, I found in fiction what I was craving in reality. I like how that sounds, but I feel like Vinny Mancuso probably said it better than I did back in April. And, not for nothing, it’s a lot harder to scream bloody murder at loved ones who won’t follow basic social distancing guidelines when your nose is buried in a book. /tapshead.gif
Out of the 45 books I’ve read this year, I felt that 37 of them were good enough to add to the Spoopy List, which is honestly a solid AF ratio, and makes for the longest damned Spoopy List to date by a country mile. This will be the first time I’ve had to do this in installments, because I feel like I’ll accidentally bury some of them under the weight of this enormous blog entry.
Inside you’ll find brand new releases, century-old weird fiction, NYTBSL chart-toppers, novels from virtually unknown writers, audio books, comics, and just about everything else in between. You’ll also find that, like last year, the list is absolutely overrun with affiliate links. Use them, don’t use them. But maybe use them?
With all of that said, I hope you’re able to find something good to read from this list, and that it brings you a terrifying and wonderful respite from the churning, seething, gnashing horror that is 2020. You deserve it. We all do.
The Grand Hotel: A Novel by Scott Kenemore
The Grand Hotel is pure YA creeper fun that’s really a series of short stories as told by a host of narrators, but are all strung together by a single overarching tale. It opens up on a group of unwitting tourists who find themselves in the lobby of a once stately hotel, now fallen into abject disrepair. As luck would have it, the creepy desk manager decides he’s going to take them on a tour of the property. Each full-time resident of the hotel the group runs into ends up telling them their own haunted backstory. If you’re looking for something with which to ease yourself into the horror genre, The Grand Hotel is a good pick.
Murder by Other Means: The Dispatcher, Book 2 by John Scalzi
I listed the first installment of The Dispatcher short story series in last year’s Spoopy List, and for good reason. John Scalzi, American novelist and godfather to horrifying burritos everywhere, has done something truly special with this hardboiled detective mystery meets science fiction concept.
The premise: for reasons unknown, humans can no longer die. Well, they can no longer be murdered. They just disappear, and reappear somewhere else, alive and well (and naked). “Dispatchers” are legally certified and licensed by the government to kill people who are terminally sick or in excruciating pain, so they can pop back up without those ailments, and have another shot at life. Of course, people being people, the impossibility of murder leads to a whole slew of complications and crimes, and protagonist and consummate dispatcher Tony Valdez finds himself knee-deep in the weird shit more often than not.
The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison
Dennis Etchison is a British author who has been pumping out scary novel after scary novel since the god damned 1950s, and has won just about every friggin’ literary award for his efforts. You might not have heard of him before, but if someone in your life is a big fiction reader, I’ll bet you $5 there’s at least three extremely well-worn Dennis Etchison paperbacks tucked away somewhere in their house. The dude is a legend.
The Dark Country, published in 1982, is a collection of dark, visceral short stories from Campbell, who is genuinely killer in this format. The title story actually won the British Fantasy Award and World Fantasy Award, which is apparently the first time a piece of writing won both. They’re not all perfect short stories, but god damn, do they ever paint a grim picture with an economy of words. My favorite out of the bunch was Sitting in the Corner, Whimpering Quietly.
Walking Alone: Short Stories by Bentley Little
You might know Bentley Little from, I don’t know, one of the countless books this dude has put out. He legitimately writes one book a year, and has been at that pace since god damned 1990, which is a genuinely insane feat. He’s one of those writers you hear masters like Stephen King regularly praise in interviews. His 1996 book Dominion is still one of my top 5 favorite novels of all time (read: I’ll be getting a tattoo of Dionysus at some point this winter).
Most published short story collections are heavily curated. This collection of Bentley Little’s short stories is particularly weird, as it is set on a timeline that spans his entire writing career. The first story, Milk Ranch Point, was originally written in 1984. It’s good, but not great; a little clunky. You then get to watch the author get better and better with each subsequent entry as the years march on, and his writing chops become honed to an obsidian scalpel’s edge as we reach modern day. Children’s Hospital is a great read, but The Smell of Overripe Loquats blew my fucking mind.
Ellison Wonderland by Harlan Ellison
It’s Harlan Ellison. I don’t need to review this to let you know it’s good.
FUN FACT: I watch Pay the Writer at least once a month to make sure I always charge my clients enough for what I do.
FantasticLand: A Novel by Mike Bockoven
Whewwww. This one was a panic attack in a bottle for me. This novel is set up as a series of interviews with survivors of a colossal hurricane who took refuge at their place of employment; a massive Florida amusement park (think Disney or Universal Studios). Weeks went by without rescue, and over a hundred FantasticLand employees were somehow murdered before help arrived. This book is especially terrifying if you’ve ever worked for any kind of themed entertainment business, like a ski mountain, beach club, sports center, or if you’re me, seven long years pulling obese folks down slides at a local water park.
Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Horrorstör is a novel that is equal parts scary and funny, and takes place in ORSK, a haunted knockoff Ikea store. Grady Hendrix is the guy behind The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and We Sold Our Souls, which convinced me to pull the trigger on this purchase. If you get the audio version, you’ll be treated to phenomenal narration by Bronson Pinchot. That’s right. Balki.
The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
This is the first of two T. Kingfisher (the pen name of artist Ursula Vernon) novels I’ll be recommending in this year’s Spoopy List. I picked this up the very morning it came out, and blasted through it all in one sitting. Not by choice, mind you. I had tons of shit to do that day. I legitimately couldn’t help dropping everything to find out what happens next until I’d finished it. That’s how good this book is. PREMISE: There’s a doorway to another world hidden in a roadside oddity museum. Think Night at the Museum meets Chronicles of Narnia meets Peter Cline meets…Annihilation, maybe? The combination sounds insane, but I promise it works. PRO TIP: Watch out for the boatman, and don’t touch the willows.
Devolution by Max Brooks
I famously (read: loudly) hated World War Z, and promised myself I would never read another Max Brooks book as long as I lived, but Marcus Parks from Last Podcast on the Left mentioned he’d just bought Devolution, so I figured I’d stop being such a baby and give this guy another shot. I’m really glad I did. This was fantastic. Following in the same vein as World War Z and the aforementioned FantasticLand, Devolution is organized as a collection of interviews and found journals centering on a volcanic eruption that sparks off an invasion of yetis in rural Washington state. If that concept sounds so stupid and weird that you’re compelled to see what this shit is all about, welcome to the club. I came for the stupidity, but stayed when I realized this is actually a super solid read.
What’s the big takeaway here? Don’t be a lame ass who swears off authors when they put out one thing that’s not your personal cup of tea.
Haggopian and Other Stories: A Cthulhu Mythos Collection by Brian Lumley
Mike is once again recommending some Lovecraft-adjacent
bullshit? Shocker of the century, I know.
Brian Lumley is a legend in the Cthulu Mythos space, and is most famous for his crazy successful four-decade spanning Necroscope series (there is a 100% chance your eyes have glanced at a Necroscope book cover at least once in your life). Haggopian and Other Stories is a collection of mythos-themed stories, and, if we’re all being honest here, are more often than not better than the original stuff HPL was putting out. The title story is god damned fantastic, but I really found myself falling in love with Lumley’s Titus Crow character, and I’m THRILLED to discover there are a bunch of other stories featuring the witty occult researcher waiting for me to burn through.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
I truly enjoyed everything on this year’s Spoopy List, but I have two books out of the lot I consider my favorites, and this is one of them. Admittedly, I was a Stephen Graham Jones virgin before I started hearing rumblings about The Only Good Indians on “Book Twitter”, and I had it on my to read-list, but the hype train for this novel was so loud I had to drag it to the top of the stack so I could see what everyone was raving about.
Fuck, this is good. The story is fantastic (read: four American Indian kids do something fucked up that ends up haunting them in their adulthood) and the seamlessly interwoven social commentary is as beautiful as it is heart wrenching, but what really draws me to Stephen Graham Jones is his brutal economy of words. He paints such a decadent, gloomy picture with no frills or fanfare. I just can’t get enough of it. I’m going to go ahead and call him the indigenous John Kennedy Toole, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.
PRO TIP: You’re probably going to want to watch out for elks. You’ll get what I’m saying later.
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman has churned out some of the most amazing fiction this world has ever seen. Full stop. If you ask anyone what their favorite piece of the Gaimanverse is, they’re probably going to blurt out SANDMAN before you even finish your sentence. The award winning DC comic series has changed the lives of countless readers, dreamers, and creators since it first dropped in the 90s. I read it ages ago, but the reason I’m putting it in here is because I was fortunate enough to be able to listen to the Audible audio drama version a few months ago (what a cast!), and a gorgeous new Sandman box set just came out. Treat yourself with some of that money you haven’t been able to spend at a bar in seven months.
Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay
Too soon. This book came out too soon. Why do I say that? Oh, no reason. IT’S JUST A STORY ABOUT SURVIVING A FUCKING PANDEMIC, THAT’S ALL. My heart was racing a mile a minute throughout this entire thing. Reading Survivor Song in the middle of the covid outbreak is like reading about plane crashes on a cross-country flight. Beyond unnerving. It was far too easy to imagine this series of events taking place in real life. I guess this is the best I’m ever going to get at putting out a trigger warning. If you have balls of steel, give this a whirl.
Malorie by Josh Malerman
Malorie is the sequel to Bird Box, the novel turned movie starring America’s sweetheart Sandra Bullock, and the inspiration for 2018’s most popular meme. This story takes place twelve years after the events of the first book, and Josh Malerman does a fucking great job maintaining the pace, action, and specter of unseen horror that made Bird Box such a smash hit. If you like Bird Box and Malorie, I totally recommend reading through Malerman’s other works, like Unbury Carol and Inspection, both of which I covered in last year’s Spoopy List.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Haunted house tropes can get mighty stale. I have to sift through a sea of lazy, contrived novels and movies and video games and comic books just to get to one truly good, inventive haunted house narrative, and I feel like it’s getting harder and harder to find the good ones every year. Am I being a little unfair? Sure, maybe. Am I being honest? Definitely. Mexican Gothic was another Book Twitter recommendation for me. Early reviews were through the roof, and the concept of a haunted European style mansion nestled in the secluded backcountry of Mexico intrigued the shit out of me. PREMISE: Gorgeous Mexico City socialite Noemi Taboada receives an extremely concerning letter from her cousin Catalina, who’d recently married into an old white family who long ago amassed their fortune in silver mining. Noemi’s father asks her to check in on her cousin in the countryside, and promises Noemi he’ll allow her to attend university in order to get her to agree to the travel plans. For me, Mexican Gothic is a wonderfully creative combination of The Haunting of Hill House and a moody John Langan novel, with a silver thread of illuminating Mexican social commentary woven into the fabric of the story.
Children of the Dark by Jonathan Janz
High school freshman Will Burgess does not have it easy. The child of a pill-popping absentee single mother, Will lives in a ramshackle house in a town called Shadeland, and is primarily in charge of caring for his six-year-old sister. A vicious bully is dating the girl he’s in love with, and if this doesn’t sound bad enough, The Moonlight Killer has broken out of prison, and is heading straight for Shadeland. Oh, and the forest surrounding Shadeland is suddenly filled with abhorrent creatures. Jesus, Will. You poor bastard.
Final Cuts by Ellen Datlow
Ellen Datlow, short story editor extraordinaire and purveyor of the renowned The Best Horror of the Year series (and my personal favorite of hers, Lovecraft’s Monsters) put together a collection of film-themed horror shorts, and I am here to tell you it is very, very good. It featured some of my favorite authors of all time, including some mentioned in this Spoopy List, like Josh Malerman, Stephen Graham Jones, Laird Barron, John Langan, and Nathan Ballingrud, among others. As far as I’m concerned, Brian Hodge’s “Insanity Among Penguins” and John Langan’s “Altered Beast, Altered Me” stole the show in this anthology.
Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs
This is just a truly masterful amalgamation of Lovecraftian horror and dark Southern tones that had me hooked from page one. It is the second book I’ve read from author John Hornor Jacobs, the first of which we’ll talk about in a little bit. PREMISE: A thug hired by an Arkansas radio DJ to find a blues musician named Ramblin’ John Hastur, a man who is said to be manipulated by demons, and creates music with the power to drive folks insane. We follow said thug, a hulking World War 2 vet by the name of Bull Ingram, through the humid underbelly of the Deep South in his pursuit of Hastur, which gets stranger and more dangerous by the second. It’s no wonder Southern Gods was nominated for a Bram Stoker award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. As far as first tries go, this is a motherfucking home run.
The Collaborations of H.P. Lovecraft by H.P. Lovecraft
Lo and behold, more Lovecraft. I’d say this is more for the HPL completionist than for anyone looking to get into reading Lovecraft for the first time, as many of these stories are, well…they’re not that good. This is offered exclusively as an audio book, and narrators Andrew Leman and Sean Branney from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society do not mince words when it comes to the least compelling entries in this collection of writing he did with other authors. The Curse of Yig and The Night Ocean were my favorite entries out of the bunch.
A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs
Told you we’d get back to John Hornor Jacobs. This is the first book I’ve read of his, and it compelled me to order his first effort Southern Gods the very second I finished this. A Lush and Seething Hell is comprised of two novellas; The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, and My Heart Struck Sorrow (this last one is extremely reminiscent of Southern Gods). I love both of these stories very dearly, and I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite between the two. John Horner Jacobs really hit the sweet spot between psychological thriller and supernatural horror with this novel, and it would have been one of my two favorites of the year if I hadn’t read one particular book that we’ll discuss about later. Can I have three favorites? If you’ll let me, this is definitely one of them.
If It Bleeds by Stephen King
I am a loud and proud Stephen King super fan, and I had If It Bleeds pre-ordered months before its release in April. It is a collection of four novellas, two of which will be forever jockeying for first place in my heart; Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, and the story after which this collection is titled, which features Holly Gibney, my absolute favorite character from the Mr. Mercedes trilogy. You know what? Fuck it. If It Bleeds is the best story out of the bunch for that reason alone. If you want to read some Stephen King but don’t have the time or energy to invest into one of his monolithic novels, this is a great pick for you.
A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill
Another excellent debut novel makes the Spoopy List. A Cosmology of Monsters centers on Noah Turner, a young man who sees monsters nobody else can. It is a curse that afflicts his entire family to varying degrees, but while the rest of them deny the horrors just behind the veil of objective reality, Noah accepts it wholeheartedly. It is a coming of age story swaddled in spellbinding, supernatural giftwrap, and fed to us at a gripping, thoughtful pace. This one also features a year-round haunted house, which makes it a doubly relevant read for spooky szn.
Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud
This is it, guys. This right is my favorite book of the year.
In Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell, Nathan Ballingrud has somehow discovered the tone and scope of my most paralyzing nightmares, the ones so terrifying they send faint ripples through my waking existence, and brought them to life for the world to experience and survive. I liken Ballingrud to genre authors like Nick Cutter and Clive Barker; ordained priests of the remorselessly guttural. But this Massachusetts-born author peppers his dark narratives and supernatural viscera with what I can only describe as an “exhaustion of living” that resonates and resonates and resonates with anyone who’s ever felt pulped by the unforgiving machinery of the world. For me, it’s what makes his writing so unbelievably fucking effective.
Each story in Wounds takes place in the same dismal universe, and is loosely connected to each other in ways both expected and rather subtle. In this collection of short stories, Nathan Ballingrud has purchased us all a train ticket to the grotesque marchland of hell, and if you have the stones to remain seated after you’ve arrived at your stop, who knows. Maybe you’ll go all the way in.
The title story was adapted into a rather excellent Hulu Original movie starring Armie Hammer and Dakota Johnson, but you’re expressly forbidden to watch it until you’ve finish the book. You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat.
That’s it for part one! Part two will be served up ASAP.