Five Faves

I won’t call this a Best Books of 2023 post, because there are too many titles (A Haunting on the Hill and Beware the Woman and The Strange and Spin a Black Yarn and…) that still top my TBR list. But of the new releases that I did read this year, here are my five favorites:

 

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Hendrix’s knack for crafting flawed characters that you can’t help but fear for and cheer for is on full display here. The narrative is at once hilarious, horripilating, and heartwarming, and combines slow-mounting dread with explosions of gonzo horror (two words: Squirrel Nativity). In the devious Pupkin, Hendrix has created the hand-puppet equivalent of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Perfectly plotted and featuring a series of staggering twists, How to Sell a Haunted House is Hendrix’s best novel–at least until his next one is published, because this writer just keeps getting better and better with each release.

 

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

The middle volume of the Indian Lake Trilogy offers the same slasher-film savviness and protagonist sassiness as My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and more. Jones is careful to account for how the survivors of the first book’s climactic massacre have been physically affected and psychologically altered by the experience. The canvas gets larger here (various viewpoint characters are presented), but the time frame (thirty-six blizzardy hours) is condensed, resulting in maximized suspense. An Indigenous serial killer (with a predilection for skinning his victims alive) runs amok in Proofrock, but his monstrosity still manages to elicit reader sympathy, as Jones invokes the horrors of American history. This outsized psycho is a formidable and unforgettable antagonist, but he doesn’t overshadow defiant final girl Jade Daniels, who solidifies her status as one of the greatest horror-novel heroines ever penned.

 

Long Past Midnight by Jonathan Maberry

As a fan of the Pine Deep Trilogy (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, Bad Moon Rising), I relished the chance to return to the Most Haunted Town in America. This collection of Tales from Pine Deep expands the literary lore of the rural Pennsylvanian community; we get prequel pieces set many years prior to the events of the Trilogy, and sequel stories that dramatize the lingering effects of the nearly cataclysmic Red Wave. The entries are all winners, demonstrating Maberry’s ability as a storyteller and his facility in crossing genres (other characters from Maberry’s prolific catalogue, such as Joe Ledger, are drawn into Pine Deep intrigue). The volume also features a wonderful Author’s Introduction, in which Maberry traces the experiences that shaped him and directly influenced his creation of Pine Deep.

 

Holly by Stephen King

The author’s beloved recurring character, Holly Gibney, finally gets the chance to headline her own novel. She doesn’t falter here, rising to the challenge presented by a disturbing missing-persons case (conducted during the Covid pandemic). Her investigations this time around might not lead her to a superhuman Brady Hartsfield or a supernatural Outsider, but the American Gothic pair of retired professors encountered prove just as harrowing in their own hyper-intellectual way. There are strong echoes of The Silence of the Lambs throughout (and especially in the climax), but the narrative is by no means derivative. This is quintessential King, an absorbing and propulsive story that takes Constant Readers on quite a thrill ride.

 

Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig

Reminiscent of the apocalyptic novels of Stephen King (The Stand, The Tommyknockers) and the dark fantasy epics of Clive Barker (The Great and Secret Show, Galilee), Wendig’s latest effort (concerning a strangely addictive variety of apple whose empowering effects are too good to be true) is an absolute masterpiece. The narrative seamlessly combines elements of murder mystery, body horror, folk horror (including some of the creepiest cultist masks ever imagined), American Gothic horror (small-town prejudices and predations abound), and supernatural horror (involving diabolical bargaining). This book truly has it all: a complex (but expertly executed) plot, unique yet relatable characters, and exquisite, sensuous prose. The only negative comment that can be made about it is that readers might never look at an apple the same way again. Any Best Horror Books of 2023 list that doesn’t laud Black River Orchard should be immediately dismissed. Easily, my favorite read of the year.

 

 

 

Persistently Sinister: The 20th Anniversary Edition of Sara Gran’s Come Closer

Sara Gran’s 2003 novel Come Closer is one of the most revered texts in the modern horror genre. As such, it has long been on my radar, but I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had never read it until recently. Thankfully, though, Soho Press’s release of a 20th Anniversary Edition of the book prompted me to rectify my extended error.

Gran’s short novel–whose protagonist Amanda believes she is possessed by a ferocious, fanged female demon named Naamah–offers a masterclass in unreliable narration. Has Amanda been genuinely invaded by a force of outside evil, or is she just replete with her own inner demons, someone who finally gives in to her most impish impulses? Amanda attributes a “subtle” seduction to Naamah: “This mental voice is new, it’s a sound you’re not accustomed to hearing in your own head, but it’s not that different either, it’s done a good job of imitating your own silent voice and you like what it’s saying.” But the truest subtlety here might be Gran’s, as the author suggests that the perceived possession could be a delusion–a convenient eschewing of responsibility for all the vice and violence to which Amanda resorts. There is also a crafted ambiguity to the novel’s titular dictate: do these two words stem from Naamah, eager to draw her targeted subject into her demonic embrace, or from the lonely and unsatisfied Amanda, who on a fundamental level welcomes the idea of having “someone to love me, and never leave me alone”?

Come Closer has been hailed widely as one of the most frightening books written over the past two decades. Such buzz perhaps set me up for disappointment, as Amanda’s account proved less exquisitely unnerving than I anticipated. Granted, different readers have different triggers; as a lapsed Catholic, I don’t put much stock in the diabolical and don’t dread the malicious attention of a demon as a more devout believer might. Likewise, I can recognize that this book–in which Amanda loses control over her own body, and frequently awakens from blackouts following Naamah’s bawdy binges to find herself “naked and shivering in bed with a man I had never seen before”–will hit much closer to home with a female audience. That being said, the horror here appears to be compromised somewhat by the diaristic format. Yes, unease steadily mounts as Naamah’s seeming influence over Amanda grows more pronounced, but the sequence of short chapters prevents the narrative from achieving sustained suspense. Undoubtedly, some chilling incidents are presented (Amanda’s attempted drowning of a young girl already struggling to stay afloat; her apparent savaging of an obnoxious newsstand-operator with a boxcutter), yet these other characters are so thinly sketched by Amanda that the reader (this one, at least) fails to find their plight especially terrifying. What I actually found most evocative were the scenes centered on Amanda’s burgeoning psychic powers (byproduct of her demonic possession). She experiences ghostly glimpses of past acts of human depravity, and grows painfully attuned to suffering: “A vintage yellow dress I had saved for special occasions now made me nauseated–its previous owner had been a drunk, and when I wore it I felt my liver burn with cirrhosis.”

There were a couple of aspects of the novel that pleasantly surprised me. First, its dark humor: just as Naamah takes wicked delight in tormenting her host, Gran herself seems to revel in the opportunity to satirize the spiritualist entrepreneurs who attempt to “depossess” Amanda. There is also a strong feminist undercurrent to the narrative. Naamah claims to be the rejected second wife of Adam (the world’s original male), mentored in demonism by Adam’s first wife Lilith, who “wasn’t good enough at all, she wouldn’t lie down and take it, and she wouldn’t do what she was asked or told.” One cannot overlook the fact that a female demon is employed as the possessing entity in this novel, allowing Gran to rework the more rapacious/salacious Pazuzu-inside-Regan dynamics of a canonical text such as The Exorcist.

In hindsight, Gran’s novel neatly aligns with a long tradition of American Gothic fiction. Characters obsessively trying to locate the source of strange noises within the walls of their home hearken back to the narrator’s desperate probing of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Amanda’s suspicion that the doctors she visits are secret Satanists constitutes an unmistakable allusion to Rosemary’s Baby. There’s also a strong Fight Club vibe here, from the squalid neighborhood Amanda first lives in to the mental institution that she finally haunts at book’s end.

The 20th Anniversary Edition includes a new Postscript purporting to be “A Note from the Editors” of 2003’s Come Closer–a device that lends an added air of verisimilitude to the preceding novel. This Postscript also furthers the deliberate ambiguity and boundary-blurring of Amanda’s narrative. “In order to help the afflicted, the ruminating, and the confused,” the Editors state, “we have provided this series of questions and answers to illuminate, educate, and, hopefully, keep readers on the correct path.” But the structuring quickly breaks down, as the responding Editors prove perhaps even more disturbed than those seeking their guidance.

Come Closer might not be the scariest book published in the past twenty years, but it’s surely one of the most satisfying the horror genre has offered. Like the best of Poe’s work, its artful complexity–its vacillation between supernatural and psychological explanation–encourages continuous scrutiny. Ultimately, the book’s enticing title might be interpreted as an open invitation to attentive readers, those willing to expose themselves to utter engrossment.