Well, the world didn’t stop burning and COVID refused to go away, but 2021 was slightly better than 2020, and it was a superb year for speculative fiction. It was also a year in which I found great balance while reading outstanding work from Big Four publishers, independent presses, and self-published authors. This matters because it speaks volumes about the quality of work out there and the fantastic way in which different publishing systems have truly helped make this a new Golden Age for dark fiction. Now let’s talk books!
Some of horror fiction’s giants were in fine form this year. Josh Malerman’s Goblin and A House at the Bottom of a Lake were both outstanding for different reasons, but the worldbuilding and character development in both served as reminders of why Malerman is one of the leading voices in contemporary horror. Richard Chizmar’s Chasing the Boogeyman, which bridged the gap between fiction, biography, and true crime, was perhaps the most unique book I read in 2021. In a way, Chizmar invented his own genre, and that’s more than enough to cement his status as one of horror fiction’s greats. Chuck Wendig’s The Book of Accidents had an amazing mythology and saw the author playing with time in interesting ways. Wendig’s talent for creating long, complex, immersive narratives remains a strength, and it makes me look forward to the Wanderers sequel he has coming out in 2022. Sarah Langan’s Good Neighbors, which delved deep into the darkest corners of American suburbia, had a unique format and a creepy, dark plot that I was still thinking about at the end of the year, despite having read a galley of it very early in the year. Stephen Graham Jones’s My Heart is a Chainsaw was a love letter to horror and slasher films that fans of both have to read. Despite finally achieving NYT bestseller status, it’s great to see Jones isn’t slowing down (the man is ridiculously prolific) and is still creating narratives unlike anything we’ve read before. Cartriona Ward’s The Last House of Needless Street made a lot of noise, and with good reason. A very interesting novel about murder and broken psyches, this one has something for everyone, so I’ll just say this: read it for the cat. While it wasn’t a new book, the reissue of Tananarive Due’s The Between was definitely one of the highlights of the year. Bringing this classic to new generations of readers was a great move. Caitlin Starling’s The Death of Jane Lawrence brought a breath of fresh air to Gothic horror with equal doses of ghosts, creepy atmosphere, and gore. Lastly, Stephen King gave us Later, which was a mixture of crime and horror wrapped inside a coming-of-age narrative that added another hit to his already ridiculously impressive oeuvre.
Before moving on to the biggest hits from indie presses, I want to take a moment to shine the spotlight on some of the best debuts of the year… or at least books that definitely put their authors on the map. Gus Moreno’s The Thing Between Us was an atmospheric, wonderfully creepy narrative about loss that put its author on my ‘‘immediately request a galley of whatever they do next’’ list. Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke was everywhere and it helped LaRocca’s career skyrocket, and he deserved it. This novella was intense, dirty, gory, and smart. Cassandra Khaw exploded onto the speculative fiction world with two books: Nothing but Blackened Teeth, a short, dark novella, and The All-Consuming World, a superb science fiction novel that was truly gripping, wonderfully foul-mouthed, violent, and wildly entertaining.
My career was built in indie publishing, and talking about and reviewing indie titles makes me happy because indie presses are putting out some of the most important work out there. This year, things were no different, and indie presses delivered the goods. V. Castro’s Goddess of Filth brought Latinx flavor and a different kind of deity to a possession narrative. David Leo Rice’s Drifters, a short story collection, proved Rice deserves to be named amongst the best short story writers out there. Brian Evenson’s The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, perhaps the best collection I read this year, showed once again that Evenson is a master, regardless of form or genre. Hailey Piper’s Unfortunate Elements of my Anatomy was a great collection that had something for everyone. Lastly, Cynthia Pelayo’s Children of Chicago, which was nominated for more things that I can name here, twisted the old Pied Piper fairy tale into a mix of horror and noir that brought the history of Chicago to the page with tons of flare.
Finally, I saved three of the best collections I read this year and one great possession narrative for the end for one simple reason: they were all self-published. I teach creative writing and talk to my students about self-publishing, teach a self-publishing workshop, and have written for two large venues that focus on reviews of self-published titles, so I’m fully aware of the stigma it carries and have no problem telling you there’s a lot of trash being published (although that goes for Big Four and indie presses as well!). However, that three of the six short story collections mentioned here come from self-published authors (and the other three from indie presses) says a lot. Also, that four out of those six were written by women is also worth noting. In any case, here the three collections: Dismal Dreams by Red Lagoe, The Sound of Breaking Glass by Christine Makepeace, and Next Door: A Collection of Twelve Twisted Tales and One True Story by Kimberly Davis Basso. These three superb collections are packed with great stories and should be on the shelves of every horror fiction fan out there. Last but not least, T.J. Tranchell’s Tell No Man, which puts a Mormon spin and a lot of heart into a classic possession story, is a must for those who love their fiction packed with demonic mayhem.
As great as 2021 was, it looks like 2022 will be even better, so good luck to you all. Be good to each other, and long live the dark stuff.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
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