As I’ve done for five previous years, it’s time again for me to list what I consider to be the top ten best books of the year. These are books that I enjoyed, and that I think my readership will enjoy. They are one man’s opinions. As Coop says, your mileage may vary. I’ve been told by authors and booksellers that my list seems to help their sales. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if so, then cool.
The rules are fairly simple. The edition of the book or graphic novel listed here must have been published during the year for which it is being considered. (For example, I recently read an advance review copy of Tom Piccirilli’s The Coldest Mile. It is spectacular, and would be on this list, except that it won’t be published until next year).
A note on nepotism. Every year, one or two douchebags will say, “The only reason so-and-so is on your list is because you know them.” Well, if that was true, then the entire list would be suspect. After working within the genre for over a decade, you pretty much know everybody. It’s a deceptively small community. Suffice to say, nepotism plays no part in this list. I read many books by many close friends this year that won’t make the list.
My reading was seriously impacted this year by the arrival of Turtle and all the things that go along with that (doctor’s visits, boiling bottles, late-night feedings, etc). Still, I managed to read over 120 books and graphic novels this year. Here are the ten that I enjoyed the most. I encourage you to buy them and enjoy them, too.
1. JUST LIKE HELL by Nate Southard – Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a seminal work within the horror genre. Not only was it a game-changer for an entire generation of writers–it also had a lasting impact on readers. If, like me, you read it when it was first published, you can probably still remember where you were when you read it, what you were doing, and how it made you feel. Just like your first kiss, the memory of the first time you read The Girl Next Door sticks with you. It lingers, not as a soft, gentle caress, but as a sucker punch to the gut. Nate Southard’s Just Like Hell has the same impact on its reader. This is The Girl Next Door for a new generation of readers and writers, and it will haunt you just like its predecessor. A powerful, gut-wrenching novella that grabs hold of you and sucks you in. Realistic and unflinching in its brutality, and all the more horrifying because it could actually happen. There is nothing supernatural here. Nate Southard shows us that human monsters are infinitely scarier than zombies or vampires. Southard has a very bright future ahead of him. He’s one of the most exciting writers of the new crop, and it’s not hyperbole when I tell you to discover him now, before everyone else does. The hardcover is sold out, but paperback copies still exist.
2. JUST AFTER SUNSET by Stephen King – With such a prolific body of work, it’s easy for literary scholars to chart Stephen King’s life and how what was going on at the time informed his fiction. Salem’s Lot is, at heart, an examination of the death of small town America. The Stand plays on our fears of government and God. Of course, It is an examination of middle age, and all of the new fears that it brings. The unjustifiably-maligned Insomnia examines what happens beyond middle age. Like the times in which his books were written, King’s style has changed over time. Just After Sunset is the work of a mature author. With the exception of “The Cat From Hell” (written in the 70′s and not collected until now), I don’t think King could have written any of these as a younger man. And, as a reader, I don’t think I would have enjoyed these stories as a younger man. The tales in Just After Sunset are more informed. They have a touch of grey. There’s still plenty of beasties and grue, but there is also a lot of introspection, soul-searching, and clinging to the everyday, lest it all slip away in the soft haze of age, dementia and death. As a young man, I identified with Larry Underwood and Eddie Dean because I shared their same fears. Now I am 41, raising children and watching my parents age, and I find myself identifying with the protagonists of “Harvey’s Dream” and the absolutely brilliant “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” (one of King’s best stories ever). This is a solid, engrossing collection. But if you’re the type who didn’t care for the subtle slow-build of Bag of Bones or Lisey’s Story, don’t worry. There’s plenty of flashes of old-school King found within. Stand-outs include: “N”, (a chilling Lovecraftian homage seen through the eyes of someone suffering from OCD that rivals “The Mist”), “A Very Tight Place” (King gleefully goes for the gross-out and succeeds in spades. My friend Bev Vincent described it as “Grumpy Old Men on steroids”. I’d add “with a dash of Edward Lee”), “The Things They Left Behind” (a beautiful 9/11 story), and “The Gingerbread Girl”. If you’ve been digging the new-millennium King, you’ll dig this. If you gave up on King because he just wasn’t pushing your buttons anymore, do yourself a favor and try this. I guarantee you have some buttons left to push, and nobody does it better than Stephen King.
3. TEATRO GROTTESCO by Thomas Ligotti – When entertaining visitors to the Heart of Darkness, I often like to let them try some of my homemade moonshine. After they’ve spat it out and are finished choking and gasping, I caution them that it’s an acquired taste. The same can be said of Thomas Ligotti. His stories are not usually an easy read. They are not the type that you scan while waiting in the doctor’s office or in study hall or during your commute home. Ligotti’s fiction is meant to be read slowly. Indeed, there are passages that should be savored – mulled over and appreciated like artwork before you move on to the next sentence. Ligotti is often compared to Lovecraft. So are about a bazillion other authors. Ligotti is the only one for which the comparison is apt and true. This collection, a trade paperback reprint of the 2006 hardcover, is a fine sampling of some of his best work. It’s also a wonderful primer for those who have yet to read him. If you are ready for some heady, complex reading, this is a great place to start.
4. SEVERANCE PACKAGE by Duane Swierczynski – With his recent work on Iron Fist and Cable, as well as his Moon Knight one-shot and upcoming Dead of Night: Werewolf By Night series, you might have forgotten that Duane Swierczynski also writes some killer crime novels. If you did forget that, punch yourself in the face immediately. You deserve it. This follow-up to The Blonde is a lightening-paced, white-knuckle thriller that will have you eagerly turning the pages long after you should have gone to bed for the night. It’s The Office meets Die Hard with the heart of Reservoir Dogs, and it’s very much like literary meth–a great high that will leave you jittering and amped up, and craving more.
5. JOHN CONSTANTINE, HELLBLAZER: THE LAUGHING MAGICIAN by Andy Diggle and Leonardo Manco – It’s no secret I’m a Hellblazer fan. When Alan Moore first introduced him as Swamp Thing’s mysterious sidekick back in the 80′s, I was one of those fan-boys clamoring for him to get his own book. I’ve been there ever since, though Delano, Gaiman, Ennis, Ellis, Azzarello, Carey, and more. I cheered when Constantine gave the Devil the finger. I laughed when he pissed on the Phantom Stranger’s foot. I cried when he lost Kit. I nodded in sympathy each time he turned around and saw all those ghosts from his past. I was there for Newcastle and The Golden Boy and his trek across America and his triumphant return to London. I’ve feared for Chas and wondered how long it will take for John’s sins to finally trap him up once and for all. On the flip-side, I also gnashed my teeth and wept in frustration during some other authors’ runs on the book, and during that insipid Keanu Reeves film travesty. There’s nothing worse than a writer that doesn’t “get” the character of Constantine. Luckily for us, Andy Diggle gets him very well. Diggle is the best thing to happen to the character of John Constantine since Garth Ennis’ legendary run on the book. Diggle has made him dangerous again. Like Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey, we once again root for Constantine even when we should be appalled at the lengths he’ll go to save himself–and the world. The Laughing Magician returns the character to full glory, and gives him a new adversary worthy of Nergal and The First of the Fallen. If you’re a fan, READ THIS. If you’ve never read Hellblazer, this is a good place to start.
6. GUN WORK by David J. Schow – Rejoice, horror genre! The master has returned with a new novel. Wait, what’s that you’re saying? “But Brian, it’s not a horror novel. It’s a crime novel.” Well, yes. Yes it is. But it’s a David J. fucking Schow crime novel. Look, it’s very simple. David J. Schow could write a goddamned Disney cartoon starring Miley Cyrus and that kid from Malcom in the Middle and it would still fucking own because it’s David J. Schow. David J. Schow is God and the sooner you realize this, the happier I’ll be. His style is unique, his prose razor-sharp, and no matter what genre he turns his attention to, the end-result is absolutely unlike anything else you’ll read. David J. Schow is a genre unto himself, and we are very lucky to have him. Gun Work features the same distinctive, brutal, and at times shockingly funny writing that you’ve come to expect from Schow. It’s been many years since the publication of The Kill Riff or since Scoop made his first swirly, but one thing hasn’t changed–a weekend spent with a new Schow novel is a weekend you’ll never forget. This time, it’s quite literally like a weekend of debauchery South of the Border. Final note: if, like myself, you are a firearms enthusiast, this book will give you an erection.
7. LEATHER MAIDEN by Joe R. Lansdale – I should just type ‘see above’ and then follow it up with ‘ditto’ but that would be cheating. Like David J. Schow, Joe R. Lansdale is a genre all to himself. Westerns, mysteries, horror novels–all of them have that distinct Lansdale flavor that so many (including myself) have tried to imitate at some point in their lives and have (like myself) failed miserably. That’s because you can’t ape Joe Lansdale. The man is too good. He makes it look so easy, but I suspect it’s anything but. Leather Maiden displays all of Lansdale’s hallmarks–fast pacing, spot-on dialogue, bizarre characters, black humor, and an easy, accessible language. It’s a nuclear explosion captured in print. It’s Joe Lansdale at his best, and that, dear reader, is about as good as reading gets.
8. THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman – A beautiful, mesmerizing story that appeals to both adults and children. This tale of a young boy who is adopted by ghosts in a graveyard after his parents are murdered by a serial killer is an intoxicating blend of suspense, fantasy, and humor. It has some very horrific moments (especially the scenes with the ghouls) and a bittersweet soul that builds throughout the book, culminating in an emotional end. Share it with your children. You’ll be glad you did, and so will they.
9. FOOLKILLER: FOOL’S PARADISE by Gregg Hurwitz and Lan Medina – It seemed so fitting. Even as we lost Steve Gerber, one of the most unique and influential comic writers of the last four decades, Marvel Comics unleashed a new crop of comics that re-vamped Gerber’s classic creations. This meant that a whole new generation of readers could finally experience what we’d been raving about all these years. Finally, he’d get the credit he deserved! Sadly, that didn’t happen. While the new Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown series certainly introduced a new generation of readers to Gerber’s classic characters, they paled in comparison to Gerber’s originals. The books lacked the spirit and social commentary that Gerber had originally infused them with. Not so for the Foolkiller re-vamp, though. Gregg Hurwitz has done a remarkable job with this re-imagining of Gerber’s bizarre vigilante and his campaign against an increasingly foolish society. Gone is the flamboyant costume and the ray gun that turns people into smoking piles of ash. Yet the sentiment remains the same. Darwin’s Law is broken, and somebody needs to keep the stupid people from breeding. The new Foolkiller is more along the lines of the Punisher. You won’t see him wasting jaywalkers or people who park in handicapped spaces. He’s going after the very worst that society has to offer–the bottom feeders that leech off the pain and misery they cause for us all. At first glance, this gritty, hyper-violent, and emotionally nihilistic graphic novel might seem a far cry from Steve Gerber’s original vision–but read closer. It’s there. Society has changed, and so has the Foolkiller, but his mission remains the same. A remarkable comic achievement and the best thing to come out of Marvel’s Max line this year.
10. THE BEST OF LUCIUS SHEPARD by Lucius Shepard – Like others on this list (Ligotti, Schow, Gaiman and Lansdale), Lucius Shepard is an incredibly distinct writer no matter what genre he dabbles in. Indeed, his work can’t really be pigeonholed into any one genre–it transcends the field of speculative fiction, bringing elements of fantasy, science fiction and horror to passionate, intelligent tales. If you’re a fan of the genre, and you haven’t read him, you do yourself a serious disservice. If you want to be a writer, and you haven’t read him, then my advice is to stop writing until you correct that mistake. Shepard is a writer that other writers point to when asked who they think is the best. This massive 300,000 word collection is a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his work, and it’s a must-have for Shepard fans. A beautifully produced hardcover that does justice to the wonderment contained within the covers.
HONORABLE MENTION: Every year, at least one person asks what #11 would have been on the list. This year, it would have been MIND THE GAP by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon. My wife wants you to know that it is number one on her Top Ten of 2008 list.
So there you have it. I hope that you’ll try some, if not all, of these, and I hope that they bring you as much enjoyment and entertainment as they’ve brought me.