What are the best horror novels of the 21st century? Which books will loom largest upon the Gothic landscape to come? Do we have a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the years after 2000?
We are almost sixteen years into this new century, giving us a substantial body of work to reflect upon.
Caveats: let's draw some boundaries around this quest. We're talking novels, not short story collections, not novellas, nor movies. Let's assume English-language work, including recent translations. And published after 1999.
How to determine these grand books? We can start with the Bram Stoker Award winners, which are the horror field's leading awards. Let's pick the best novel award winners.
EDITED TO ADD: we've also taken this question to writers and critics participating in the 2015 Necronomicon conference.
What to rule out? Goodreads has a list, but it is unfortunately far too long, with hundreds of titles.
Now we have a dataset of sorts, from which we can build a bibliography.
What follows is in alphabetical order by author, and by title when multiple responses occur for a single author. Two asterisks (**) appear beside any title that appears in two or more sources.
Jeffrey E. Barlough, The Cobbler Of Ridingham Laird Barron, The Croning Lauren Beukes, Broken Monsters Laird Barron, The Croning Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War Ramsey Campbell, The Grin Of The Dark Justin Cronin, The Passage Mark Z. Danielewski, House Of Leaves Bret Easton Ellis , Lunar Park Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects Neil Gaiman, American Gods< br> Ray Garton, The Folks Joe Hill, Heart-Shaped Box ** " " , Horns " " Twentieth-Century Ghosts Charlee Jacob, Dread in the Beast Brian Keene, The Conqueror Worms " ", Ghoul " ", The Rising Jack Ketchum, The Lost Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Drowning Girl Stephen King, Doctor Sleep " " Duma Key ** " ", Lisey’s Story ** " ", Under The Dome Sarah Langan, Audrey's Door " ", The Missing ** Richard Laymon, The Traveling Vampire Show John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let The Right One In Bentley Little, The Walking Jonathan Maberry, Ghost Road Blues Josh Malerman, Bird Box Michael Marshall, We Are Here Joe McKinney, Flesh Eaters David Morrell, Creepers Adam Nevill, Last Days Weston Ochse, Scarecrow Gods Chuck Palahniuk, Haunted " " , Lullaby Norman Partridge, Dark Harvest ** Tom Piccirilli, A Choir Of Ill Children " ", The Night Class Dan Simmons, Drood " " , The Terror Bryan Smith, The Freakshow " ", Soultaker Scott Smith, The Ruins Peter Straub , A Dark Matter ** " ", In the Night Room " ", lost boy lost girl Steve Rasnic Tem, Blood Kin<
Jeffrey Thomas, Boneland
" ", Punktown Paul Tremblay, Head Full of Ghosts Jeff Vandermeer, the Southern Reach sequence David Wong, John Dies At The End Rio Youers, Westlake Soul
Which of these do you recommend, dear Infocult reader? Are there other titles we should add?
From its infancy as a punk fanzine, it grew in scope, covering the esoteric obsessions of its “Propaganda Minister”—post-punk, death rock, fetish fashion, body modification, BDSM, vampirism, horror literature, androgyny, and paganism were all tossed into its smoking cauldron. Over time, these disparate influences became codified into what we know today as “goth” culture. Never billing itself as a “goth” zine per-se, Propaganda had as much to do with developing the aesthetic of goth as any black-clad scare-band you’d possibly care to name.
“He’s been great,” Lehman says. “He’s very creative. He’s also dogged about expanding the senator’s vocabulary.”
Case in point: Talley says he keeps trying to get the word “hobgoblin” into a speech.
The speechwriter is also into the ghost detective scene.
Talley began going out with the Tuscaloosa Paranormal Research Group while clerking for a judge after law school. The group would explore old plantation homes or abandoned insane asylums armed with thermal cameras, electromagnetic field meters and digital voice recorders to search for signs of the supernatural...
On a foggy evening in early December, Talley takes me to the Holy Rood Cemetery in Northwest Washington to show me how to hunt for ghosts. He has come from the Hill, and his black trench coat and suit combination makes him look like he was a lobbyist for the undead.
Infocult has not yet perused Talley's work.
Infocult: describing the world as it falls into the Gothic, one shadow at a time.
The recent book about atomic weapons Command and Control has some terrific Gothic passages, as one might expect.
Here are two. First, a spooky silo:
One [Titan II missile] launch complex, however, stood apart them the rest: 373-4 was known as the "ghost site". It was the first complex where [Al] Childers was stationed, and odd things seemed to happen there. Pumps that could be operated only by hand suddenly went on by themselves. Lights turned on and off for no reason. Childers didn't believe in the supernatural, and most offiers laughed at the idea that the complex might be haunted. But some crew members thought that every now and then it felt petty odd down there.
There's one story about that ghost site:
Rodney Holder was once working in the silo at night with another crew member. The silo had a majually operated elevator that traveled from levels 2 to 8, and then men had left its door open The bell in the elevator started to ring. It rang whenever the door was open and someone on another level needed the elevator. Holder couldn't think of anyone who might need a ride. He called the control center and learned that nobody else was in the silo. The bell kept ringing. Holder and his partner were spooked, quickly finished thir work, and returned to the control center. (22)
Next, horror by shadows:
After the fire killed fifty-three workers [in Launch Complex 373-4 in Searcy, Arkansas)... Thick black soot covered almost everything. But handprints could still be seen on the rungs of ladders, and the bodies of fallen workers had left clear outlines on the floor. Scallorn could make out the shapes of their arms and legs, the positions of their bodies as they died, surrounded by black soot. All that remained of them were these pale, ghost silhouettes. (227)
This is a novel best suited to two audiences: those looking for innovative horror, and people interested in visionary possibilities of new media. It would also be good for fans of first-time novelist David Cronenberg's work in film, but I suspect they'd fall into the first two categories.
(I fall into all three, being a lifelong Cronenberg fan since I first saw the mad genius of Videodrome.)
Consumed is, as one might expect from the author, a challenging and strange book. I can describe the plot like this: two journalists investigate a Parisian crime, wherein a husband killed and ate part of his wife. The (former) couple were influential philosophers, Célestine and Aristide Arosteguy, and a cute parody of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They made waves with a theory of consumer society (hence one meaning of the title). Naomi and Nathan are lovers and colleagues, fellow gadget hounds, but they usually live apart, and follow their joint inquiry along separate, parallel lines.
What follows is a picaresque or road trip, as the two N's travel the world: Paris, Japan, Canada, Hungary, Cannes, Holland. Cronenberg teasingly refuses to give us much local color, offering instead the thin, usually tech-mediated views of our protagonists, or sketches of the people they meet.
So much for the plot's initial action. But I'd also need to tell you more about the book's style. Consumed adores its surfaces and fetishes. It lovingly describes clothing, technologies, record covers (oh yes), body parts, and interior decorating exactly as far as major characters obsess over them. Technology looms large; this is very much a novel about modern digital devices and how we intimately use them.
Consumed is also about pushing against discussing awkward or awful topics, mostly in a horrific way. Without spoilering too much, I can mention offhandedly cannibalism, murder, autocannibalism, apotemnophilia, acrotomophilia, deformed body parts, sexually transmitted diseases, cancerous body parts, and medical fetishism. Which brings us back to Cronenberg's tone. He doesn't revel in these topics, but comes to them thoughtfully, from a character's mind, almost (and sometimes literally) clinically.
Back to the plot, and now I must hide some words after the cut:
Penguin Books has decided to use the uncanny valley as a book marketing tool. Or so it seems, from their new cover for an edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So wrong:
Three notes about this.
The cover has nothing to do with the book. Maybe, if you stretch things, the book does feature a girl, and the doll represents a girl, sort of. As child of Infocult notes, "Veruca Salt isn't even a main character! The book isn't about dolls!" Otherwise, zero connection. No Willie Wonka, no factory, no Bucket family, etc.
Perhaps it's a shameless ploy to market a book with a boy's name to the female market.
Anything can be a marketing implement, and we know the Gothic has always been available. Watch for more Infocult materials as ad fodder.
Here's a passage from a murder mystery offers a very nice take on uncanny media.
It begins with a police officer listening to another one over a wire:
Her voice was low and even, expressionless. The speakers hollowed it out, underlaid it with a whispery echo, and in the background there was a rushing sound like some faraway high wind.
I thought of those ghost stories where the voices of the dead come to their loved ones from crackly radios or down telephone lines, borne on some lost wavelength across the laws of nature and the wild spaces of the universe.