Booklist's "Top 10 Horror Fiction: 2011"
--titles chosen by Brad Hooper (First published in Booklist, August, 2011); reviews attributed to their writers.
We’re all scared of something, but no one should be afraid to open the pages of these delectable horror novels, reviewed in recent months in Booklist, and see the talent on display.
American Vampire (Jennifer Armintrout) - On his way to a vampire party in New York, Graf McDonald takes a wrong turn and ends up in Penance, Ohio, which one can enter but not leave. Trying to find gas, he finds Jessa, on the run from a horrible monster called It. When Graf finds that all roads lead back to town, he takes up residence with Jessa, whose abusive ex-boyfriend, Derek, sees her as his property despite the fact that he has kids and Becky, a drunken wife, at home. The unpleasant residents of the town have been cut off from the rest of the world for the last five years while It preys on them, and they are more than suspicious of Graf, the first person to find a way in since It showed up. When Becky and the kids disappear, Graf has new terrors to face as the residents of Penance target him. Urban fantasy author Armintrout, best-known for her Blood Ties series, offers a traditional horror story that will be welcomed by fans of the genre. — Diana Tixier Herald
Dust (Joan Frances Turner) - Meet 15-year-old Jessica Anne Porter. She’s a plucky teenager from suburban Chicago who spends most of her time looking for something to eat and finding a safe place to bed down for the night. Jessie’s not a homeless person, though. She’s an undead person. Turner’s debut is a massively entertaining and seriously revisionist zombie novel. How revisionist? Well, her characters communicate with each other eloquently (although, to humans, it sounds like a lot of grunts). They remember their past lives. They have thoughts and emotions, and when a new kind of creature, a sort of human-zombie hybrid, appears out of nowhere, they feel fear. The author has taken the familiar zombie clichés and given them a good shake. Jessie, who has been dead for nine years, is as real and human a character as anyone you’re likely to meet in the pages of a mainstream novel, and Turner has created a new zombie mythology that is smart, scary, and viscerally real. Recommend this one highly to horror fans, even those who claim to have sated themselves on zombies. — David Pitt
Full Dark, No Stars (Stephen King) - King begins his afterword by stating, “The stories in this book are harsh.” The man ain’t whistlin’ Dixie. Returning to the novella — possibly his brightest canvas — King provides four raw looks at the limits of greed, revenge, and self-deception. The first, “1922,” is an outright masterpiece and takes the form of the written confession of one Wilf James. Back in 1922, see, Wilf killed his wife to prevent her selling off part of the farm, but tossing her corpse down the well didn’t exactly stop her. It’s Poe meets Creepshow by way of Steinbeck and carries the bleak, nearly romantic doom of an old folk ballad about murderin’ done wrong. A pair of the remaining tales feature female protagonists considering hiding others’ crimes: “Big Driver” is a rape-revenge tale about a writer of cozy mysteries who ends up in the uncoziest of situations, while “A Good Marriage” stars a wife whose husband of 27 years turns out to be hiding an unimaginable secret. Though the shortest story by far, “Fair Extension” is no slouch, submitting for your approval one Mr. Elvid (get it?), who is out to shine a little light on our blackest urges. Rarely has King gone this dark, but to say there are no stars here is crazy. — Daniel Kraus
Ghost Story (Jim Butcher) - Harry Dresden’s back for another adventure against forces far greater than himself — business as usual for Chicago’s favorite wizard. Except this time he has a bit of a handicap. He’s dead, and he’s been sent back to solve the mystery of his murder and make a last stab at saving the people he loves. His first stop is the household of a medium, Mortimer, who’s none too fond of him. There are nasty spirits afoot, and Harry helps Mort’s guardian spirit fight them off. In return, Mort reluctantly gives him an audience. Things are bad in Chicago, so bad that Murphy is working with Marcone. For various reasons, nobody wants to believe Harry’s now a ghost, but Harry’s cat, Mister, makes a compelling argument for the truth. Harry learns something about what’s going on in ghostly Chicago and encounters an old enemy he barely managed to defeat once before before the proceedings come to a head in the worst place imaginable. As usual, Harry bumbles through some high-tension moments, managing to be extremely effective despite himself, then to almost fail before coming out in one damaged piece. Ghost Story is a high-octane addition to the series, and Butcher keeps pushing Harry to the edge in a way that makes the next volume something to anticipate eagerly. — Regina Schroeder
The Glass Demon (Helen Grant) - Grant’s second novel, released barely a year after the impressive The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, is sure to cement her growing reputation as an original storyteller and elegant writer. Seventeen-year-old Lin Fox is not happy about being dragged to a crumbling castle in the middle of a forest in a rural area of Germany. Her father, a medieval scholar desperately in search of media attention, is intent on finding the famed but long-lost Allerheiligen stained-glass windows, said to be haunted by the glass demon Bonschariant. Soon after the family arrives, a series of gruesome deaths, with all of the corpses found surrounded by glass shards, spooks the town residents. Meanwhile, the Fox family is also suffering from its own private dramas, ranging from anorexia to parental neglect. Grant expertly builds suspense by credibly implying that the deaths could be attributable to either supernatural or human causes. And Lin is a highly appealing narrator, at once feisty and vulnerable. With its fascinating information on medieval folklore, unique setting, and increasingly claustrophobic sense of terror, this is an exhilarating page-turner that offers a cerebral blend of horror and mystery. — Joanne Wilkinson
I Don’t Want to Kill You (Dan Wells) - John Wayne Cleaver, the teenage sociopath introduced in I Am Not a Serial Killer (2009), is fighting his demons in the follow-up to Mr. Monster (2010). Well, really, he’s fighting two sets of demons — his own internal ones, which he fears are driving him to become a serial killer, and some actual demons, who are taking human form and killing off the citizens of Clayton County. Everything about this book is clever and exciting, from its protagonist’s name (John Wayne from serial-killer Gacy, Cleaver from Beaver) to young John’s narration (he’s a sociopath but damned likable) to the thrilling story (during which we, like John, don’t know who the villain is until it’s too late). Wells isn’t afraid of shocking the reader — death is a very real element in the narrative — and while the age of the primary cast puts the book in YA territory, some of the imagery might be a tad graphic for teens. Horror and fantasy fans of all ages, especially those who get a kick out of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, should embrace this third and perhaps final novel about John Wayne Cleaver. — David Pitt
Jane and the Damned (Janet Mullany) - Mullany rewrites history in more ways than one in this novel, which sets up Jane Austen as a vampire. In 1797, Jane is attending a ball when she’s bedazzled by a seductive young man named Mr. Smith who happens to be one of the Damned, a genteel group of vampires who operate on the edges of polite society. A stolen moment with the dashing Mr. Smith has grave consequences for Jane, who wakes to find she has been transformed into one of the Damned. Her family takes her to Bath, where the waters are reported to be the only cure for vampirism. But soon after the Austens arrive in Bath, the French militia takes over the city. The only ones who stand a chance of defeating the invaders are the Damned, and a powerful, handsome vampire offers to take Jane under his wing and show her how to use her new abilities to help fight the French. A fast-paced adventure for those who don’t mind the vampire craze impinging upon historical events and beloved authors. — Kristine Huntley
Stories from the Plague Years (Michael Marano) - Few horror authors are better equipped to write about madness than Marano. With an expansive vocabulary, a tenacious commitment to poetic prose, and a willingness to follow whatever discursive paths his whim takes, Marano is an acquired taste — but without doubt possessed of a unique talent. He’s at his best when striving for clarity, as in “Displacement,” the novella that anchors this book of short stories. Dean is a serial killer describing the brutal justice he handed out to those whose emotional poisons gave him a deadly cancer. It’s a tale that takes several unexpected and delicious turns, somehow combining a Poe-like belligerence and a Clive Barker–like vividness with pop-culture touchstones as commonplace as Sex and the City and Dr. Phil. The other, mostly first-person stories are hit and miss, but when they hit, they hit big: “Burden,” about the ghosts of an AIDS-ravaged gay community, possesses an unusual power, and “Little Round Head,” about a feral child raised by subterranean beasts, is nothing short of a horror classic. — Daniel Kraus
The White Devil (Justin Evans) - Readers of this thoroughly upsetting horror-mystery hybrid will find their nightmares imprinted with several unshakable images, the worst of which is that of a withered child hunched over a bed, vomiting bile into the mouth of a sleeping girl. The child — known as “the Lot Ghost” by students of England’s esteemed Harrow School — is revealed to be an early gay lover of Lord Byron, brought back to bloodthirsty life by the arrival of 17-year-old Andrew Taylor, who has fled his American school following a disastrous drug incident. Andrew is the spitting image of Byron, which gets him cast as the lusty poet in a school production written by housemaster Piers Fawkes, ex-genius and current alcoholic. Two boys who befriend Andrew are abruptly taken with a horrific respiratory illness, the details of which dovetail with the play’s foremost concern: Who was Byron’s greatest love? Evans’ crackling literary mystery is resolutely academic; part of the climax actually involves the writing of an essay. If that sounds dry, fear not: the scourge of tuberculosis provides visceral, icky counterpoints, while Harrow itself contains Shirley Jackson levels of gloomy passages and dark secrets. Smart, scary, sexy, and gorgeously written to boot. — Daniel Kraus
The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse (Steven C. Schlozman) - With the recent successes of films like Zombieland and the TV series The Walking Dead, zombies have never been trendier. In this fictional “secret notebook” describing a zombie research project, Harvard-trained physician and avowed horror fan Schlozman capitalizes on the undead craze with an inventively framed apocalyptic tale embellished with black humor. Embedded within the recovered journals of zombie expert Dr. Stanley Blum is the story of a viral research team quarantined on a remote island with specimens from a future worldwide plague dubbed Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Disorder, otherwise known as zombiism. Alas, the team inevitably succumbs to the illness themselves but not without, apparently, finding the cure. Hence, the World Health Organization’s urgent “release” of the notebooks, complete with illustrations of zombie anatomy and graphic descriptions of toothsome mayhem. While medical professionals may reap a few laughs from Schlozman’s meticulous faux scientific research, the target audience is comprised of horror fans and zombie enthusiasts. — Carl Hays