Given the amount of first-rate fiction published this year, it’s difficult, perhaps foolish, to designate any one volume as “best of the year.” But let’s be foolish and do it anyway. For me, the book of the year — the one title any serious horror reader needs to own — is Thomas Tessier’s massive retrospective, “World of Hurt,” which assembles 28 stories and novellas from a quietly distinguished 40-year career. Each story in this collection resonates. Each, without exception, is chilling, unsettling and beautifully composed. Tessier is one of the genre’s reigning masters, and “World of Hurt” may prove to be the centerpiece of his legacy.
Overall, 2019 was a particularly strong year for dark fiction collections. Here’s a much-too-quick look at some of the best. Joe Hill’s generous second collection, “Full Throttle,” offers 13 varied tales that, at their best, have the impact of compact novels. A particular favorite is the collaborative chiller “In the Tall Grass,” recently filmed by Netflix. In only two slender collections, Nathan Ballingrud has emerged as one of the field’s most accomplished short story writers. His latest collection is “Wounds: Six Stories From the Borders of Hell,” and it lives up to the title. The novella “The Visible Filth,” in which a lost cellphone leads a New Orleans bartender to a horrific denouement, has recently been made into a film titled “Wounds.” The always reliable John Langan weighed in with his third and best collection to date, “Sefira and Other Betrayals.” The title piece, a short novel about a woman’s cross-country pursuit of the sexual succubus who has upended her life, is a beautifully crafted gem. Paul Tremblay, one of modern horror’s rising stars, gave us his first collection, “Growing Things,” which features both independent narratives and stories that connect directly to Tremblay’s earlier work, such as the Stoker Award-winning “A Head Full of Ghosts.” Richard Chizmar’s “The Long Way Home” offers nearly 500 pages of consistently readable horror and suspense, with an occasional piece of nonfiction for variety. “Song for the Unraveling of the World” is Brian Evenson’s latest collection of enigmatic, superbly rendered slices of fear, uncertainty and paranoia. Finally, we have F. Paul Wilson’s “Secret Stories.” Over the course of many years, novels and stories, Wilson has been elaborating a complex secret history of the world. This new collection, which ranges from post-World War I Germany to the New Jersey Pine Barrens, serves as an ideal point of entry to that world.
Horror novels also made an impressive showing in 2019. Two of the most prominent, Stephen King’s “The Institute,” Elizabeth Hand’s “Curious Toys” and Stephen Chbosky’s “Imaginary Friend,” have been addressed elsewhere, but here are a few of the year’s other notable entries. Chuck Wendig’s massive “Wanderers” concerns the outbreak of a sleepwalking plague whose cause and purpose remain obscure. Comparisons to King’s “The Stand” are inevitable, but ultimately beside the point. The book’s nearly 800 pages fly effortlessly by and offer both first-class entertainment and a clear-eyed view of the forces dividing contemporary society. As I finished this one, I found myself thinking: Where has this guy been all my life?
One of the most anticipated — and high risk — projects of the year comes, once again, from Richard Chizmar. “Gwendy’s Magic Feather” is a novel-length sequel to “Gwendy’s Button Box,” a novella written in collaboration with Stephen King and set in the heart of King’s fictional backyard: Castle Rock, Maine. Both volumes deal with Gwendy Peterson’s stewardship of a doomsday machine, and Chizmar carries the tale forward into Gwendy’s future with sympathy and grace. The result is at once an independent creation and a particularly intimate form of collaboration, one that could have gone badly wrong. But Chizmar’s voice and sensibility dovetail neatly with King’s own distinctive style, and the book ultimately reads like a newly discovered chapter in King’s constantly evolving fictional universe.
One of the most heartening developments of recent years has been the reemergence of Britain’s Kim Newman and of his signature creation, the Anno Dracula novels. The series, which began in the early 1990s and now extends to six volumes (plus a graphic novel), is based on the premise that Van Helsing and company, heroes of Bram Stoker’s original novel, failed to defeat Dracula, ushering in an alternate world in which Dracula is ascendant, and vampirism has taken hold across the world. The latest installment, “Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju,” takes place in Tokyo on the eve of the millennium and is as readable and ingenious as any of the previous volumes. In addition to publishing the Anno Dracula novels, Titan Books has also reissued the bulk of Newman’s earlier work, which includes “The Quorum,” a brilliant account of a Faustian bargain that goes horribly — and inevitably — wrong.
The health of a genre depends, of course, on its ability to attract gifted new writers, and the past year has seen the emergence of several talented first-time novelists. “Tinfoil Butterfly,” by Rachel Eve Moulton, is a visceral account of two lost souls — a desperate young woman and a sexually confused girl — confronting external dangers and internal pressures in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In “Soon,” Australia’s Lois Murphy posits a world in which an entire community is decimated by lethal forces hiding in the darkness. “The Killing Moon” by Welsh novelist Allister Timms sets the ancient Germanic legend of the Erl-King against the backdrop of war-torn Europe. Fantasy writer T. Kingfisher’s horror debut, “The Twisted Ones,” connects contemporary regional horror with the work of the great Welsh fantasist Arthur Machen. Shaun Hamill’s “A Cosmology of Monsters” leads off with the most compelling opening sentence of the year (“I started collecting my older sister Eunice’s suicide notes when I was seven years old”) and goes on to create a seamless merger of horror and family tragedy. With the advent of so many distinctive voices, the current horror renaissance seems likely to continue. The world around us may be spinning out of control, but the future of dark fiction seems bright and secure. I look forward to whatever comes next.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”