It is time once again for my annual Top Ten of the Year list — something I’ve been doing for a little over fifteen years, give or take. (Last year, there was no list, because of an issue with my eyesight that severely hampered my reading — and writing — ability and speed).
Over the years, I have been told by authors and publishers that, in some cases, they’ve seen a significant sales bump or renewal of interest in a title after it appears on this list. Indeed, judging by the response from readers each year (“When are you going to post the list?” and “I got an Amazon gift card for Christmas but I don’t want to use it until you post the list.” are just two of the many repeated refrains), I am aware of just how many people await this annual event so that they can learn about books they might not have heard of, or bump something up that is buried in their To Be Read pile. With that being said, it is important to remember a few things:
1. All lists are subjective. Mine is no different. What appealed to me might not necessarily appeal to you. But I will argue that my lists are a bit more wide-ranging than those of others, given that I read broadly across the genre (and beyond the genre). While other lists may focus on just quiet horror or splatterpunk or New Weird or Bizarro, mine tend to feature of sprinkling of all of them.
2. I never claim that these lists are all-encompassing. I read 111 books in 2017. You can see the complete list of them here. There were many books published in 2017 that I did not get a chance to read.
3. A word about nepotism. Every year, somebody decrees “The only reason so-and-so is on your list is because you know them.” Well, guess what, cupcake? I’ve been working in this business for over twenty years, which means I know everyone at this point. If I were to confine the list to authors whom I don’t know, there wouldn’t be a list. As Maurice Broaddus once said, “As an editor, I used to worry a lot about publishing my friends. Then I remembered, oh yeah, my friends do some amazing work.” Suffice to say, nepotism does not play a part in this, and never has. There are plenty of good friends or authors I look up to who don’t make the list each year. So, if you want to shout nepotism, fuck off in advance.
4. However, I do have some criteria. Books that I was involved with — such as an editor, publisher (via Maelstrom), etc. are disqualified from the list. Also, Mary SanGiovanni’s books are disqualified from the list — because yeah, I start putting my girlfriend’s novels on here, and I think the nepotism argument would be a little more valid. It’s not really fair to her, but it’s fair to everyone else.
5. The books included on the list need to have an edition that was released in 2017. For example, I recently read Peter Kahle’s fantastic novel, THE SPECIMEN. I really enjoyed it. However, since it was published back in 2014, it wouldn’t be eligible for this list.
So, those are the rules and the disclaimers. Before we get down to the meat of it, let’s talk about why I went with fifteen this year instead of ten. The reason for that is simple — it was a phenomenal year for horror fiction. Indeed, it has been at least a decade, maybe longer, since we’ve seen such output and quality. And what’s most impressive is the number of new voices. Yes, I still read Stephen King and Joe R. Lansdale and Bryan Smith and Laird Barron and Sarah Pinborough and Carlton Mellick and all my other favorites, and I still enjoyed the hell out of them. But when it came time to compile and put some serious thought into the picks and their order, I was surprised to see that this year’s list is absolutely dominated by newer names. If those names are unfamiliar to you, I suspect that will change in the next few years. Because there was just SO MANY excellent books, I decided to expand the list to fifteen, instead of twenty, in order to better spotlight the authors and books who so very much deserve it. It was hard to stop at fifteen. I considered taking this to twenty, but then I fear titles would begin to get lost in the shuffle, so fifteen will have to suffice.
And so, here are the…
TOP FIFTEEN BOOKS OF 2017
1. THE HEMATOPHAGES by Stephen Kozeniewski
Others have described this book as “Alien meets Office Space”. I describe it as “Event Horizon meets John Carpenter’s The Thing meets Shadowrun meets Alien meets Office Space”.
Equally terrifying, funny, gory, and heart wrenching — THE HEMATOPHAGES is a masterful cross-genre blend of horror, science-fiction, and just a tiny hint of Bizarro. It takes place in a dark, dystopian future where the human male is extinct, but the matriarchy still suffers all the same old problems like greed and hubris. Humanity has finally perfected interstellar travel, but corporations own the worlds…and your ass. With that background, and an all-female cast, Kozeniewski takes us on a planetary salvage mission to a long-lost spaceship thought to be mere legend. Along the way, we have some thoughtful, tender character development, along with some horrific sub-antagonists that will make even the most jaded zombie reader squirm, and the Hematophages themselves — an alien race of bloodsucking parasites that make Alien’s xenomorphs seem cute and cuddly by comparison.
Absolutely my favorite book of the year — enough so that I bought copies and sent them to friends because everyone should read it.
2. PAPERBACKS FROM HELL by Grady Hendrix
Okay, the first thing you need to know is this — yes, there are Kindle and audiobook editions available, but you are doing yourself a disservice if you read them in that format. One of the things that makes PAPERBACKS FROM HELL such a joy are the hundreds of reproductions of Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties horror paperback covers. I know, I know. I understand the urge to buy it on your Kindle instead. I’ve got a personal library with over 4,000 books in it. I tend to buy stuff on Kindle these days just because I don’t have anymore room. But make the exception for PAPERBACKS FROM HELL. You’ll be glad you did.
A must-read for any fan of horror fiction, this is an informed, affectionate, and often hilarious tour through our shared history. It begins in the Seventies, with the emergence of ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE EXORCIST, and Stephen King. It then goes into the Eighties, when Horror becomes a genre label stamped on the spine of books from Richard Laymon, Guy N. Smith, William W. Johnstone, J.N. Williamson, Charles Grant, F. Paul Wilson, etc. And it ends in the Nineties, with the collapse of Zebra and Dell-Abyss…and with the collapse of the genre itself, before the millennial rebirth.
If you are a young fan curious about your beloved genre’s history, or if you are a young writer who doesn’t understand why folks are telling you that your new novel about Nazi BDSM Leprechauns has been done before, then this absolutely essential, mandatory reading. And for those of you my age or older, it’s a wonderfully nostalgic and magical revisitation of what we fell in love with all those years ago.
3. THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle
Listeners to my podcast, The Horror Show with Brian Keene, will know that Victor LaValle’s name became a running bit during 2017’s broadcasts. About halfway through the year, co-host Dave Thomas pointed out that it seemed like every week, we’d report on LaValle’s THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM winning yet another award — to the point that when we finally had a week where LaValle’s aforementioned novella wasn’t one of our news stories, we decided to mention his name anyway, just so we wouldn’t break the streak. And thus, that gag continued throughout the year.
THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM certainly deserved all those awards, nominations, and accolades. I enjoyed it. I also enjoyed his BIG MACHINE and THE DEVIL IN SILVER. But THE CHANGELING is another thing, entirely. Anyone who knows me — truly knows me — knows that there’s one thing in this world that I love more than anything, and that is my sons. My sons are my life, plain and simple. Some of you probably understand that. Others might not.
As a jaded fifty-year old horror fan who’s read it all, seen it all, and written it all himself, it is very, very hard to scare me. THE CHANGELING didn’t just scare me. It terrified me. It made me uncomfortable. It challenged me as a reader — and as a father. It struck an emotional chord with me in a way no book or graphic novel or film has done in a very long time. This isn’t a novel about vampires or zombies or serial killer cheerleaders. This is a novel about being a father, and about trying to protect your children, and keep them safe, and about the terror and doubt that gnaws at all fathers late at night…that knowing certainty that no matter what you do, how best your try to raise them and teach them, how vigilantly you try to protect them from the world…the monsters can still get in. THE CHANGELING fille me with dread, filled me with wonder, and moved me to legitimate tears. An absolutely wonderful and riveting read that will appeal to both “literary snobs” and “blue-collar readers” alike.
4. THE VOICES OF MARTYRS by Maurice Broaddus
Much has been written about the oral tradition of Africans brought to America as slaves, and their dependence upon it. As scholar Darwin T. Turner put it, “Most slaves could neither read nor write; and many white Americans, acting according to law and custom, prevented the slaves from learning to read or write… Even if they had both the training and the tools, few slaves would have been so unwise as to record their actual thoughts about their history and about slavery in any form that could be discovered by their masters.” As a result, African Americans relied on oral tradition through tales and songs to remember their history and celebrate their culture.
Those voices echo through Maurice Broaddus’s THE VOICES OF MARTYRS — an intense, challenging, and engaging short story collection that stretches from the far past of the African diaspora to the potential far future. Horror, fantasy, and science fiction are all here, but regardless of which genre Broaddus chooses, each story is brimming with triumph, loss, heartache, and joy. They are in turns celebratory, scary, and awe-inspiring. The stories are also imbued with Broaddus himself, not as some sort of metafictional narrator, but with his hopes and fears and soul.
THE VOICES OF MARTYRS is a moving reading experience, and the culmination of centuries of storytelling. Highly recommended. As a reader, it was a pleasure to hear these voices. As a writer, I stand in awe of what Maurice has done with this collection.
5. THE FORGOTTEN GIRL by Rio Youers
Earlier this year, a fan asked me, quote “This new author I hear you and Joe Hill talking about — Rio Youers — is he any good?” The comment made me smile, because Rio isn’t a new author. WESTLAKE SOUL and MAMA FISH both earned him some critical acclaim and accolades from authors such as myself, Joe, Christopher Golden, and Tim Lebbon. He was nominated for a British Fantasy Award. He’s been doing this for a while now. And yes, he is very good.
But THE FORGOTTEN GIRL marks Rio’s deserving debut to a much wider mainstream audience. It’s marketed as a thriller, but it’s a horror novel. It’s also a mindfuck of a book — smart, fast-paced, violent, riveting, and very difficult to discuss without spoilers (which is why I’m not going to say much here) — that deals with memory loss and (perhaps) long lost loves.
A masterful, lovely blend of crime-suspense and the supernatural, THE FORGOTTEN GIRL is a spiritual successor to William Hjortsberg’s FALLING ANGEL (which you might also know as ANGEL HEART) or perhaps Daniel Quinn’s DREAMER, by way of an author with a unique, passionate voice. Will appeal to fans of Paul Tremblay or the late Tom Piccirilli.
Yes, that new author Joe Hill and I have been talking about — Rio Youers — is very good.
6. THOSE WHO FOLLOW by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason
I saw a reviewer chide the Sisters of Slaughter (aka Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason) for their popularity among other horror writers (sort of an acerbic, less polite variation of “This new author I hear you and Joe Hill talking about — Rio Youers — is he any good?”). The reviewer went on to seemingly suggest that the glowing reviews the duo received for their first novel, MAYAN BLUE, were due more to their popularity with their peers than their writing ability.
Fuck that noise.
MAYAN BLUE was my first introduction to Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason. I bought it for my Kindle at the Harrisburg International Airport while waiting to board a flight to Los Angeles (during 2015’s END OF THE ROAD tour in support of THE COMPLEX and PRESSURE). I bought it because I saw people saying good things about it on Twitter. To the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t spoken to or interacted with either of the sisters before that point. I thoroughly enjoyed it — enough that I remember where I was when i bought it. Hell, enough that when I got made a showrunner for THE DOOR, I suggested the two of them be part of the writing team. Not because they’re popular, but because they can write.
THOSE WHO FOLLOW is a fantastic second novel — unrelenting and visceral. It owes a lot to Splatterpunk and the early stylings of post-Splatterpunk authors like Bryan Smith and J.F. Gonzalez. But there’s also a dreamlike alternate world surrealism in THOSE WHO FOLLOW that brings to mind the work of William Hope Hodgson or Clark Ashton Smith. Part road story, part psychological thriller, part supernatural squirm-fest, and part monster novel, it’s a glorious example of young authors doing fresh, new things with old tropes — and knocking said tropes on their ass. It’s delightful to find new authors who know this genre’s history, and are capable of bending it to their will and shaping it into something original.
Count me firmly as one of those who follow the Sisters of Slaughter.
7. BLACK MAD WHEEL by Josh Malerman
Josh Malerman is another newer author whom I’ve had my eye on for some time. His horror novel BIRD BOX blew me away, and I was eagerly looking forward to BLACK MAD WHEEL.
The protagonists of BLACK MAD WHEEL are The Danes, a down-on-their-luck Detroit-based rock band at that phase of their career where the stadium tours have been replaced with back to playing in bars, and their hit single is a distant memory, more apt to be a trivia contest answer than heard on the radio. As it just so happens, Malerman in addition to being a horror novelist, Malerman is the lead singer of The High Strung, a band out of Detroit who had a hit with “The Luck You Got” (which is a good tune, although I prefer “The Life That Got Away”). Like Victor LaValle above, Malerman deserves props for his characterization. The bond he develops between the band members reminded me of the bond I have with my fellow service members, evoking quite an emotional response in me, the reader.
If it sounds like Malerman is mining real-life for fiction, and perhaps bleeding on the page — that’s because he is. As a result, BLACK MAD WHEEL is imbued with an authenticity and realism that you don’t often get in novels with musicians as the protagonists (except for perhaps the works of Skipp and Spector, or the written portions of Shooter Jennings’ wonderful Beyond the Black podcast, which examines the conspiracy theories behind the BLACK RIBBONS album).
Speaking of conspiracies, that’s where this novel really shines. See, the U.S. government has enlisted The Danes to travel to the African desert in search of a mysterious — and potentially able-to-be-militarized — sound. While his will appeal to fans of The X-Files, or listeners to Clyde Lewis’s Ground Zero, or people like me (who is a fan of both), Malerman’s writing style and solid characterization elevates BLACK MAD WHEEL to something much more than just a pulpy conspiracy theory novel. This is literary fiction at its finest. Standing ovation.
8. ARARAT by Christopher Golden
With the exception of Maurice Broaddus, this list has so far been dominated by what would be considered “new voices” in horror fiction. Christopher Golden is a veteran author. He’s been doing this as long as I have, and indeed, has written even more than I have. When windbags like the increasingly-addled S.T. Joshi smirk at my profilicity, as if it were a scarlet letter, I just grin and point to Golden. We wear those letters with pride.
It is the size of Golden’s backlist that, in part, makes ARARAT such a stunning achievement. In the minds of the readers, most prolific authors write their “best” work early on. I remember Richard Laymon telling me how people still responded to his first novel, THE CELLAR, despite the fact that he’d written a good forty or so after that. THE STAND remained my favorite King novel for years, until the release of 11/22/63. Graham Masterton is another prolific author who seems to invoke a different “favorite” depending on the reader (for me, it’s MASTER OF LIES aka BLACK ANGEL). I myself have experienced this phenomena, as well (and I always remember Laymon’s words to me about it). Forty plus books later, people are still asking me about the ending to THE RISING.
But I digress…
ARARAT is Christopher Golden’s one-hundredth book (give or take), and it is his best. As I said in the cover blurb I gave him, “Ararat is Christopher Golden’s masterpiece. A chilling thriller in the spirit of Dan Simmons’s The Terror, H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. I loved it!” And I stand by that.
A fantastic horror – adventure tale, ARARAT concerns a group of explorers who discover what they think is Noah’s Ark… but turns out to contain something monstrous and evil. It reads like a movie. It should be a movie. And yeah, Chris, you can retire now and let me claim the prolific award for our generation, because I don’t know how the hell you’re going to top this.
Mark my words — twenty years from now, ARARAT will be seen as a seminal and important work from this era of horror fiction, and deservedly so.
9. THE CORPSE AND THE GIRL FROM MIAMI by John Urbancik
Another veteran author among this list of up-and-comers, John Urbancik is the author I feel is most criminally under-read by fans of this genre. His work is hard to classify — a genre of its own (much like the work of Joe R. Lansdale or Neil Gaiman). Indeed, it is Gaiman who Urbancik’s work is most often compared to, along with China Mieville and perhaps Jeff Vandermeer. His stories and novels have elements of horror, fantasy, magic realism, science-fiction, folklore and the occasional fairy tale.
THE CORPSE AND THE GIRL FROM MIAMI builds on this unique repertoire. A horror and crime noir mash-up, it shares a kinship with Rio Youers’ THE FORGOTTEN GIRL, in that it features a protagonist who suffers from memory loss. The difference is that this protagonist might already be dead. He awakes in a Boston cemetery atop the grave of Armando Luis Salazar. Our hero may or may not be the name etched into that tombstone. The identification in his pocket matches the name on the tombstone. There’s just one problem… it may not be him. The only thing he knows for sure is there’s a bullet hole in his chest.
Imagine if Raymond Chandler wrote a love story, or Stephen King wrote a fairy tale, or Melanie Tem wrote a hard-boiled crime novel, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from THE CORPSE AND THE GIRL FROM MIAMI. A loving ode to pulp fiction by a versatile and consistently excellent master craftsman of the literary form, this is a surprisingly sensual and thrillingly written page turner that will leave you pondering and awestruck long after you have finished the book.
10. WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR by Matt Hayward
If 2017 was Victor LaValle’s year for mainstream horror fiction, then it was Matt Hayward’s year in the horror fiction underground.
Like Josh Malerman, Hayward is primarily known as a musician — one of Ireland’s most renowned rock guitarists. in addition to his solo work, he has written and recorded with various bands and notable musicians, including Lace Weeper, former Nirvana drummer Chad Channing, Mike Starr of Alice In Chains, My Sister’s Machine singer Nick Pollock, Clannad singer/bassist Ciaran Brennan, Edie Brickell, Malfunkshun guitarist Kevin Wood, and many others.
Burned out on the music business, Hayward looked up at his bookshelf full of novels by J.F Gonzalez, Bryan Smith, Alan M. Clark, and others, and decided to try his hand at writing horror fiction.
And we should all be glad he did.
2017 saw the release of his collection BRAIN DEAD BLUES and his novel WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR. If this list had gone to twenty instead of fifteen, the former would have been at number sixteen (right before Amber Fallon’s TV DINNERS FROM HELL). It’s a remarkable showcase of a young author with plenty to prove. Simultaneously, WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR is a solid debut novel that promises great things to come.
Back in 2005, in a novel called GHOUL, I asked the question “Who are the real monsters?” It’s an old question in horror fiction, but one that still provides fresh material in the right hands. Hayward does a commendable job of asking a variation of that question in WHAT DO MONSTERS FEAR, and his answer is much better than mine.
Like Malerman, Hayward bleeds onto the page in a brutal and blistering tale of madness and horror that hearkens back to the best of the Splatterpunk movement while also straddling the line between extreme horror and bizarro. Possessing an emotional depth and resonance, and expertly rendered characterization, it’s hard to believe this is his first novel. It doesn’t read like one, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
11. BAD DOGS by Nate Southard
Currently Out of Print
This latest novel from Nate Southard was released as a limited edition hardcover in 2017 from Thunderstorm Books. It is sold out. Broken River Books will release it in paperback this April.
Nate Southard is the odd-author-out on this list. He’s certainly not a “new” writer or an “up-and-comer”, but he doesn’t quite yet have the years of veterans Maurice Broaddus, Christopher Golden, John Urbancik, or Ronald Malfi (who — spoiler warning — appears soon on the list). Much like Urbancik, however, I think Southard is another one of the most criminally under-read authors in the business, particularly if you are a fan of crime-horror mash-ups. He is very much the Norman Partridge of his generation, and his writing invokes Partridge (as well as a good dose of Tom Piccirilli and Jason Aaron, and a touch of Laird Barron).
He’s also been known to bleed on the page from time to time. If that’s so, then I suspect BAD DOGS was a hemorrhage, and as readers, we are all lucky he shed this blood for us.
BAD DOGS features an antihero protagonist named Charlie Crawford, sort of a hillbilly version of John Constantine — a redneck occultist who runs afoul of the Dixie Mafia. It’s a seedy, violent, unsettling, and at times darkly hilarious crawl through the blackest backwoods of rural Indiana, and an uncomfortably realistic portrayal of some of the people you’ll meet there. Indeed, in lesser hands, the book might have devolved into caricature — the same old depiction of rednecks we’ve seen in countless horror novels, which nobody seems able to make work save for Joe R. Lansdale, Garth Ennis, and Edward Lee. Southard makes it work, too, with marvelous aplomb.
BAD DOGS is — I suspect — a deeply personal novel by a writer who, in recent years, has really come into his voice — a comfortable and confident professional who has delivered one of his best. A note to publisher Broken River — hurry up and release the paperback! This book, much like its author, deserves a much bigger audience.
12. HEX-RATED by Jason Ridler
My old friend Nick Mamatas reached out to me, and recommended this book before it was published. He thought I would like it. So, I got an advance review copy, and boy, Nick was right. I liked it a lot.
HEX-RATED hits all of my sweet spots, particularly my passion for occult detective yarns. Protagonist James Brimstone easily takes a place in those hallowed literary halls alongside Van Helsing, Carnacki, Doctor Spektor, Silver John, Repairman Jack, Anita Blake, Harry Dresden, and the three Johns (John Silence, john thunstone, and John Constantine).
In my blurb for the book, I called it, “Deliciously uncomfortable, wonderfully gritty, and a worthy successor to the occult detectives of old.” And that’s exactly what it is.
Perfect weekend reading, and immensely entertaining. I hope to see more of the character and more from Ridler. HEX-RATED is a win.
13. BONE WHITE by Ronald Malfi
Ronald Malfi is renowned for being an author who consistently delivers, regardless of what genre he writes in.
BONE WHITE is no exception. This ominous and grim thriller is a master class of how to build atmosphere and tension, and new authors would do well to study it. It starts out as seemingly another serial killer mystery, but slowly unfolds into a sweeping and spiritual tapestry of good versus evil that will challenge the reader. Malfi also creates a wonderful sense of place, and although the location may be wide-open under far-ranging skies, a sense of intense claustrophobia will creep over you.
A perfect example of modern quiet horror, delivered by a writer at the absolute top of his game. Will appeal to fans of True Detective, Michael Marshall, Mary SanGiovanni, and Charles Grant. BONE WHITE is easily one of Malfi’s best works yet.
14. KILLER CHRONICLES by Somer Canon
Currently Out of Print
Like Nate Southard’s BAD DOGS, this novel was released as a limited edition hardcover in 2017 from Thunderstorm Books. It is sold out. Currently, several publishers have expressed an interest in doing a wider release, and I have no doubt you will see such a release later this year.
KILLER CHRONICLES is an extreme horror fairy tale — in that it’s like the original fairy tales, the ones that weren’t cleaned up and sanitized for mass consumption. It’s cautionary and harrowing, the tale of an aspiring true-crime writer seeking to make a name for herself and her website, who runs afoul of one of her subjects.
It’s sexy and violent…and funny. Not in the style of Jeff Strand, in that the intent is comedic writing. Don’t get me wrong. KILLER CHRONICLES has some gasp-out-loud darkness. But Canon’s style is deliciously quirky, and she deftly knows how to use it to counterbalance the novel’s more shocking turns.
Finally, it’s also a tale of female resilience, but while classic female protagonists like Alien’s Ripley are inherently selfless, Canon’s protagonist Christina is out for herself, and perhaps more in line with Netflix’s adaptation of Brian Bendis’s Jessica Jones than Bram Stoker’s Mina Harker. It’s refreshing to see a female lead getting away with things and behaving in a manner that in the past, was seen as the purveyance of male characters.
A thoroughly entertaining work by another writer to watch.
15. THE BETRAYED by Wesley Southard
First-time novelists often wear their influences on their sleeve. In some cases, this can lead to unfortunate pastiche. In more talented hands, it can lead to energetic and engaging stories that take that nostalgia and make something new.
THE BETRAYED is definitely a case of the latter. A novel out of time, perhaps, and one that could have easily found a proud home in the Eighties horror section alongside Graham Masterton and Richard Laymon. Indeed, there’s no denying either of those authors (as well as perhaps Bentley Little’s) influence on Wesley Southard, but THE BETRAYED never strays into pastiche territory. Instead, it builds on what has come before it, and what follows is a fine example of New Pulp that will appeal to fans of Bryan Smith, J.F. Gonzalez, and Gord Rollo.
THE BETRAYED is a wonderful blue-collar horror novel — a brutal, riveting funhouse ride that is over all-too-quickly and will leave the reader wanting more.