Time for my tenth annual list of what I consider to be the top ten best books of the year. These are books I enjoyed, and that I think my readership will enjoy. They are one man’s opinions. Your mileage may vary. I’ve been told by authors, publishers, and booksellers that my list helps their sales, which means you guys are buying things based on my recommendation. So here we go.
Rule #1: The edition of the book listed here must have been published during the year for which it is being considered (for example, although I read Bryan Smith’s Kayla and the Devil in early 2012, it was published in late 2011, making it ineligible for this list, which is a shame, because it would have certainly placed in the Top 3).
Rule #2: If I contributed to a book (be it an introduction, afterword, my Maelstrom imprint, etc.) then it is disqualified from the list. Cover blurbs do not apply to rule #2.
Rule #3: Nepotism. Every year, someone says, “The only reason so-and-so is on your list is because you know them.” If that was true, then there would be no point in doing a Top Ten list. After working within the genre for almost 20 years, I know everybody. Publishing is 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.
Click here for a complete list of the 103 books I read in 2012. If you are curious about the Top Ten lists from previous years, click here.
And now, in order, the Top Ten Books of 2012…
Luther Strode is just your average geek – until he sends for an exercise course from the back of an old comic book. What he gets is the instruction manual from a murder cult as old as mankind that does everything that it promised – and more!
Remember when monthly comic books from the Big Two were still full of ideas, rather than rebooting continuity or temporarily killing a character during that financial quarter’s big event and then sending out a press release to the media, timed for the lull between real news stories? Remember when comics were fun and violent and colorful and subversive, and straddled the action, horror, fantasy, and sci-fi genres comfortably? Remember when the same issue of a comic could offer soap opera, humor, social commentary, and a bloodbath, often on the same page?
Comics like that still exist, but you have to look to publishers other than the Big Two. One such publisher is Image, and while I know The Walking Dead is everyone’s darling, it is Jordan and Moore’s The Strange Talent of Luther Strode that really pushes the genre and medium forward, all while recapturing that feel of the past.
Jordan’s set-up for The Strange Talent of Luther Strode is instantly familiar to anyone who remembers those old Charles Atlas bodybuilding advertisements, or has even a casual understanding of Peter Parker’s origins. Indeed, the character of Luther Strode is Peter Parker — a geeky, awkward teenager who lives with his Mom, has a crush on the hot, sassy redhead at school, and gets bullied by the jocks. Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s a trope–variations of which can be found in a zillion comic books from Spider-Man to The Hood. But Jordan comfortably and competently knocks that tired old trope on its ass, giving us what is truly an ingenious, updated twist on a classic theme, and thus, allowing The Strange Talent of Luther Strode to tread fresh–and much-needed–new ground. Luther and his mother live in fear of his abusive father (in jail at the beginning of the story), an early indication that Luther’s concerns are a bit more realistic and worldly than the usual comic misfit protagonist. Which is fitting, because when Luther gains his superpowers, the results are certainly more horrific, grim, and ultra-realistic than anything we’ve seen in comics before. What starts as a treatise on “with great power comes great responsibility” becomes a homage to slasher flicks and ultra-violence, all complimented in glorious detail by Moore’s art and colorist Felipe Sobreiro’s liberal usage of crimson. There is more violence and gore here than in any Quentin Tarantino film or Edward Lee novel you will read this year. But it’s not gratuitous. It serves a purpose. To explain that purpose would, in my opinion, spoil the book for you, so I’m not going to do that. What I am going to do is urge you to try this out, even if you don’t normally read comic books or graphic novels. It’s absolutely the best thing I’ve read this year, and one of the few bright lights in an era of corporate comics. Buy it here.
Raised in a clan of small-time thieves and grifters, Terrier Rand decided to cut free from them and go straight after his older brother, Collie, went on a senseless killing spree that left an entire family and several others dead. Five years later, and days before his scheduled execution, Collie contacts Terry and asks him to return home. He claims he wasn’t responsible for one of the murders–and insists that the real killer is still on the loose. Uncertain whether his brother is telling the truth, and dogged by his own regrets, Terry is drawn back into the activities of his family: His father, Pinsch, who once made a living as a cat burglar but retired after the heartbreak caused by his two sons. His card sharp uncles, Mal and Grey, who’ve recently incurred the anger of the local mob. His grandfather, Old Shep, who has Alzheimer’s but is still a first-rate pickpocket. His teenage sister, Dale, who’s flirting with the lure of the criminal world. And Kimmy, the fiancée he abandoned, who’s now raising a child with his former best friend. As Terrier starts to investigate what really happened on the day of Collie’s crime spree, will the truth he uncovers about their offenses and secrets tear the Rands apart?
Tom Piccirilli is often described as a writer’s writer. It’s an apt description, in that many writers (including myself) feel equal parts awe and jealousy in his ability to craft words together in a way that is sensual and spiritual and hits you equally in both your mind and your gut. It is not uncommon for a writer to come across a particular sentence or paragraph in Piccirilli’s work and say, “Damn, I wish I could write like that!” He is also an author that has moved easily from one genre to another throughout his career, penning horror, dark fantasy, comic books, and more recently, crime-noir. It’s interesting to note that, no matter what genre he chooses to write, his distinctive style and voice carries over into them all. Indeed, Tom Piccirilli is a genre of one, and in a long history of exemplary novels, The Last Kind Words is among his finest work. Buy it here.
Madison is the thirteen-year-old daughter of a narcissistic film star and a billionaire. Abandoned at her Swiss boarding school over Christmas, she dies over the holiday, presumably of a marijuana overdose. The last thing she remembers is getting into a town car and falling asleep. Then she’s waking up in Hell. Literally. Madison soon finds that she shares a cell with a motley crew of young sinners: a cheerleader, a jock, a nerd, and a punk rocker, united by their doomed fate, like an afterschool detention for the damned. Together they form an odd coalition and march across the unspeakable landscape of Hell–full of used diapers, dandruff, WiFi blackout spots, evil historical figures, and one horrific call center–to confront the Devil himself.
Like Tom Piccirilli, Chuck Palahniuk is another author whose work has always blurred genre lines. That cross-pollination boundary jumping has never been stronger than it is with Damned. Part Neil Gaiman dark fantasy and part Carlton Mellick bizarro-fest, Damned is full of acerbic wit, disgustingly delightful scenery, and razor-sharp social commentary. It also provides the reader with 2012′s most likeable protagonist, and a scene involving demonic cunnilingus that would make even Wrath James White squirm. Buy it here.
An unvarnished, unauthorized, behind-the-scenes account of one of the most dominant pop cultural forces in contemporary America. Operating out of a tiny office on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, a struggling company called Marvel Comics presented a cast of brightly costumed characters distinguished by smart banter and compellingly human flaws. Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil—these superheroes quickly won children’s hearts and sparked the imaginations of pop artists, public intellectuals, and campus radicals. Over the course of a half century, Marvel’s epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers. For the first time, Marvel Comics reveals the outsized personalities behind the scenes. Drawing on more than one hundred original interviews with Marvel insiders then and now, Marvel Comics is a story of fertile imaginations, lifelong friendships, action-packed fistfights, reformed criminals, unlikely alliances, and third-act betrayals—a narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop cultural entities in America’s history.
There are three groups of people for whom Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is required reading. Group 1 is comprised of writers and artists, regardless of where they are in their career or whether or not they’re working on comics, novels, storyboards, etc. Group 2 is comprised of people who are comic fans, especially those who, like myself, came of age on 70′s and 80′s Marvel (the Bronze Age). Group 3 is comprised of American historians, because Marvel’s history is very much a history of America, from the counter-culture 60′s to the yuppie-greed of the 80′s, to the corporations-as-people mindset of today.
Howe does a commendable job of delivering exactly what the book’s copy promises–presenting a factual, unvarnished look at Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Jim Shooter, Len Wein, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane, and all the other personalities and creative types who — let’s face it — were more responsible for our childhoods and the adults those childhoods transformed us into than even our parents or George Lucas were. With that sort of reverence in mind, it would have been easy for Howe to gloss over some of the absolute dickery Lee has engaged in over the years (to offer one example) or downplay how the use of certain “mind-altering substances” informed work on such books as Captain Marvel (to offer another). But Howe presses on and perseveres, and as a result, delivers the best look (so far) at what really went into the creation of these character. Were this a movie, it would handily sweep the Oscars. The only reason the book isn’t higher on my list is in what it lacks. Given my age, I certainly appreciated the space Howe devotes to 70′s Marvel or Jim Shooter’s 80′s, for example, but I would have loved to have seen the same attention given to the current Quesada, Brevoort, Alonso-era. Maybe it’s too soon, or maybe a follow-up is forthcoming. Regardless, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is an absolutely mesmerizing, loving, and engrossing read, full of caution and danger and wonder and epochal characters larger than life — just like the comic characters they created. Buy it here.
May Lynn was once a pretty girl who dreamed of becoming a Hollywood star. Now she’s dead, her body dredged up from the Sabine River. Sue Ellen, May Lynn’s strong-willed teenage friend, sets out to dig up May Lynn’s body, burn it to ash, and take those ashes to Hollywood to spread around. If May Lynn can’t become a star, then at least her ashes will end up in the land of her dreams. Along with her friends Terry and Jinx and her alcoholic mother, Sue Ellen steals a raft and heads downriver to carry May Lynn’s remains to Hollywood. Only problem is, Sue Ellen has some stolen money that her enemies will do anything to get back. And what looks like a prime opportunity to escape from a worthless life will instead lead to disastrous consequences. In the end, Sue Ellen will learn a harsh lesson on just how hard growing up can really be.
Joe Lansdale has one of the most distinctive voices in modern fiction, and (like Piccirilli and Palahniuk above) he easily crosses the imaginary lines between genres. With Edge of Dark Water, both Lansdale’s gift for cross-genre storytelling and unforgettable narration are very much prominent, but the voice has changed, however slightly. In my review of All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky (which made last year’s Top Ten list), I said that it was “the work of a more mature, measured author whose muse and style have grown as he has grown (quite like the more recent work of Stephen King, F. Paul Wilson, and Gene O’Neill). There are echoes of Steinbeck and Twain in this Dust Bowl coming-of-age novel set during the Great Depression…” Edge of Dark Water brings that maturity to the forefront, and the influence of Twain is much more prominent. But don’t let that fool you. This is unmistakeably a Joe Lansdale novel, and that’s fitting, since in my opinion, he is very much our modern-era’s equivalent of Twain. (And long time Lansdale readers should keep a lookout for a subtle connection to Hap and Leonard — one that Hisownself has confirmed to me is indeed what I think it is). Edge of Dark Water is like a visit from a good friend — thoroughly engrossing, over far-too-quickly, and thought about fondly months later. Buy it here.
In a storytelling tour de force, Stephen King explores an uncharted corner of the Dark Tower universe—and the early days of the gunslinger Roland—with the twice-told tale of a murderous shape-shifter, a “skin-man,” who inspires fear and wonder, fantasies and bedtime stories, and one boy’s savagely real nightmares.
The Wind Through the Keyhole is part of King’s multi-volume Dark Tower series, and although it serves as a stand-alone novel, and could, in theory, be read and enjoyed by those who are not familiar with the other books in the series, I suspect some subtleties of the story would be lost in translation. Unless, that is, you’ve never read the Dark Tower series but are a fan of such post-apocalyptic fare as Thundarr the Barbarian, Daybreak 2020, Gamma World, Kamandi, or the Fallout video game series. If that’s the case, I urge you to read this book anyway, because the Dark Tower segments only serve to bookend a story that is every bit as awesome as all of those, but then cranked up to 11 with the power of King’s still-formidable imagination. If you’re looking for the usual King-fare — rabid dogs, evil pet cemeteries, possessed cars, or heart-wrenching tales of unrequited love and time travel — you will not find it here. But if you are looking for a balls-out, wickedly fun story of post-apocalyptic swamps inhabited with mutant monsters and freakish weather patterns and brooding, mysterious ruins (including a zoo) then this novel will satisfy you immensely, just as it did me. Buy it here.
The Sorrows, an island off the coast of northern California, and its castle have been uninhabited since a series of gruesome, unexplained murders in 1925. But its owner needs money, so he allows film composers Ben and Eddie and a couple of their female friends to stay a month in Castle Blackwood. Eddie is certain an eerie and reportedly haunted castle is just the setting Ben needs to find musical inspiration for a horror film. But what they find is more horrific than any movie. For something is waiting for them in the castle. A being, once worshiped, now imprisoned, has been trapped for nearly a century. And he’s ready to feed.
We’re at number seven on the list, and by now, there is almost certainly an element among you who are shouting, “Where’s the horror, Keene? Yes, that Luther Strode comic is fucking scary and bloody, but it’s a graphic novel, and Piccirilli, King, Lansdale, and Pal-however-you-spell-his-name have some horrific elements but those aren’t horror novels, and Jack Kirby getting fucked over doesn’t count as a horror novel either! Where’s the best horror novel of 2012, Mr. Zombie Guy?” Well, the answer is The Sorrows by Jonathan Janz, which I’m delighted to report has absolutely nothing to do with zombies. Instead, The Sorrows focuses on one of the genre’s most underused but absolutely iconic antagonists. I don’t want to tell you more without giving away major spoilers, but I will say this. I’ve seen some folks online comparing The Sorrows to my own Dark Hollow. Here’s what I think about that. Remember when I said that we, as authors, need to build what’s been done before us, and figure out new things to do with those tropes and stories? Well, Jonathan Janz has done just that, and I’m damn eager to see what he does next.
Like John Hornor Jacobs, Kelli Owen, Nate Southard, Laird Barron, Cameron Pierce, Brian Moreland, Livia Llwellyn, Robert Swartwood (who we’ll come to in a minute), and others, Janz is another exciting stand-out from this new crop of horror and bizarro authors we’ve seen spring up over the last five years. He’s got an easy, mass-market style that is sure to appeal to most readers, a solid understanding of what came before him, and, I predict, a bright future ahead of him. Start with The Sorrows and ten years from now, you can say you’ve been reading him since the beginning. Buy it here.
Two years ago Ben Anderson woke up in a rundown motel, three thousand miles from home, his family missing, and the words LET THE GAME BEGIN written in blood on the back of the bathroom door. Now, with his past life gone, Ben has become a soldier in Carver Ellison’s army against Caesar. But when a mission goes wrong and one of their team members is murdered, it’s the last cryptic word spoken that will lead Ben and the team one step closer to the Inner Circle — a step that may bring them salvation … or get them all killed. With his trademark action and suspense, Robert Swartwood has delivered his most ambitious thriller yet.
The Inner Circle is a sequel to Man of Wax, and as such, you should read Man of Wax first (which you can buy here). I find Swartwood to be one of the most fascinating, engaging, and constantly surprising writers to have emerged out of this new crop. He watches publishing trends with the same zeal and understanding that veterans such as myself do — and he often understands their ramifications before we do. Which explains his meteoric success and popularity via self-publishing. Indeed, this is self-publishing done right, with competent design, professional layout, dazzling covers, and writing that will absolutely knock your fucking socks off. Swartwood writes thrillers that stand head and shoulders above ninety-percent of the crap currently being churned out by New York’s mass-market houses, and I’m glad that neither he nor his rapidly expanding audience of readers are beholden to that corporate sewer.
Critics love to attach comparisons to this new generation of authors (Kelli Owen is the new Brian Keene or Nate Southard is the new Norman Partridge). I don’t know that such comparisons do anyone any favors, but they do alert the previous authors audience to the presence of an author whose work they might also enjoy, so it is with that in mind that I offer this: Robert Swartwood is the next F. Paul Wilson — if F. Paul Wilson’s DNA was spliced with Michael Marshall Smith. The Inner Circle is a crafty, clever, white-knuckle thriller. If you haven’t yet read Swartwood, you’re missing out. Buy it here.
David Holbrook is a scrawny kid, the victim of bullies, and the neglected son of insane parents. David Holbrook is the Kallis Episkopos, a vicious murderer turned imprisoned leader of a death cult dedicated to Eris, the Hellenic goddess of discord. David Holbrook never killed anyone, and lives a lonely and luckless existence with his aging mother in a tumbledown New Jersey town. Caught between finger and trigger, David is given three chances to decide his fate as he is compelled to live and relive all his potential existences, guided only by the dark wisdom found in a bottle of cough syrup.
Bullettime will make you uncomfortable. It is a decidedly unsettling read. I don’t say this because of the school-shooting plot, or the way the narrative jumps from first to third person. I say it because of the brutal, energetic prose Mamatas has infused into this, his finest work to date. This is a novel by an author who is not afraid. An author who does not give a fuck. He doesn’t care about the expectations of you the reader, or David the protagonist. That’s because you are part of the problem. You and people like you are one of the forces that shaped David’s world, just as his parents and others did. And just as Mamatas did. Equally moving and hilarious, delicate and savage, gentle and callous, Bullettime is a challenging, all-consuming read about life and death, and paths not taken. Absolutely brilliant. Shame on you if you don’t rise to the occasion and read it. Buy it here.
It’s the story no one thought existed -Steve Gerber’s final Man-Thing tale! First, in the classic “Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man,” Man-Thing stumbles across a lone man, desperately scribbling down his thoughts in the halls of an abandoned insane asylum. But this man’s inner demons appear in the flesh to torment him – and it’s driving the Man-Thing mad! Will Brian Lazarus succumb to the madness of everyday life? Then, in Gerber’s never-before-seen sequel, what is the mystery behind the “Screenplay of the Living Dead Man”?
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, reading Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, as well as other accounts of Gerber’s treatment at the hands of various incarnations of Marvel management, and then adding this graphic novel, a posthumous publication to my Top Ten list. But it’s Gerber, and he was my first and perhaps (alongside Laymon, King, and DeMatteis) my biggest influence, and some of his best work was done in the pages of Man-Thing, and goddamn it, I’ve waited a decade for this to come out.
As I told my friend Jared Wolf, who manages the York, PA Comix Connection store, if you ever want to understand why old guys like me rave about Bronze Age Marvel, and how today’s stories just don’t hold a candle to them, and why more-recent incarnations of Man-Thing, Howard the Duck, Omega, or The Defenders don’t work (with Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’s and Cullen Bunn’s versions of The Defenders being the sole exceptions) look no further than this slim graphic novel. All of the pathos, weirdness, and cynical-yet-hopeful worldview that made Steve Gerber’s work so influential and profound is on display here, for one final time. This is a horror comic, but it does what we practitioners of the horror genre (be it in comics, prose, or film) know our genre does best — examine the human spirit with a dignity and thoughtfulness not found in other genres. It’s a shame Gerber is no longer with us. I’d love to know what he (through Howard the Duck) thought of AvX or the New 52 or the Tea Party and the Occupy movements and today’s pop music. But reading this, albeit for a short time, it’s like he never left.
11. Tumor Fruit by Carlton Mellick. Buy it here.
12. Demon by Erik Williams. Buy it here.
13. Deadpool Kills The Marvel Universe by Cullen Bunn and Dalibor Talajic. Buy it here.
14. Lights Out by Nate Southard. Out of print.
15. Prepper’s Home Defense by Jim Cobb. Buy it here.