Fun fact: as a child, I was the world’s biggest wimp. If I saw a spider, I screamed. If I was stuck in the dark, I screamed. If I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I screamed and had unending nightmares for a month of orange-faced little people in psychedelic tunnels while chickens were beheaded. So it’s somewhat surprisingly that as an adult, I’ve fallen in love with the horrific and grotesque. According to my all encompassing spreadsheet of book stats, I read 5 horror novels in 2014. That number doubled in 2015.
Like with most genres, what I find compelling is not always the immediate go-to standard of the genre in question. I’ve read my fair share of King, but the horror I’m most drawn to tends to be less flashy and more subtle. I enjoy my horror creepy and off-putting vs. slashy and in your face. That’s not to insult the type of horror I dislike, it very clearly has its audience and it’s well earned its praise. But don’t expect Stephen King or his offshoots on this list.
The Girl with All the Gifts, M.R. Carey
I couldn’t bring myself to make a straight up “top ten books” list for this year, but if I had, The Girl with All the Gifts would have definitely been in the top 3. It might have been my favorite book of the year; it’s certainly been my most recommended book of the year. Several of my friends made new years resolutions to read more in 2016 and when they asked for recs, this book has been on every single list.
I went into this book completely blind. I had remembered reading the summary at some point and knew it sounded interesting, but I thought the book was going to be much more similar to a darker version of X-Men, with the “gifts” they mentioned being superpowers of some sort. Protip: that’s not the plot of this book. Unfortunately, I cannot fully articulate the actual plot of this book. I’m going to need to write a spoiler-filled extended thoughts on this one, but it takes a sub-genre I thought dead, and somehow makes it feel completely new and fresh. Every single character in this book undergoes an arc of some sort and has aspects to them that the reader will find both sympathetic and repulsive.
So much of this book is the journey of learning the exact situation Melanie and the other children find themselves in, and what has happened to the world. Your feelings on who you find to be good and who you think is bad change throughout the book as you learn more things. Everyone is complex and interesting, and even the characters I never truly liked as people I could understand and relate to on some level. And all of this amazing character building is taking place in a truly horrific setting that again, can’t elaborate on due to spoilers. If you haven’t read this book, you really owe it to yourself to give it a shot. Seriously.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
The Girl with All the Gifts might have been my most recommended book of 2015, but Bird Box is hands down the best horror book I’ve read, period. There’s something outside. Something that if you look at it, you will be compelled to gruesomely murder those around you before taking your own life. No one knows exactly what it is, where it came from, or how to stop it.
Our main character is Malorie, mother of 2 young children living in a world where this presence exists. They live in a barricaded house, its rooms empty and floors stained with blood. They only venture outside with blindfolds on, and have learned to rely solely on their non-visual senses to survive the world outside. But the house cannot be their shelter forever. Malorie knows of a compound where other people live and where they might be safe. But to do that they have to traverse the now desolate city. While blindfolded. Down a river.
The story jumps back and forth between Malorie and her children’s dangerous journey to hopeful safety and Malorie’s past when people first started seeing the presence. We see the changes Malorie undergoes in order to survive in such a world, meet a variety of people attempting to cope with the horrific situation they find themselves in, and slowly learn the specifics about what the presence can and can’t do. All the while you’re left wondering how the Malorie of the past becomes the Malorie of the future in 9 short months of her pregnancy and 4 short years of child rearing.
The old adage with horror films is that less is more when it comes to your monster. You want the audience to catch glimpses, letting their imagination do the work until the final climax. Bird Box masters this brilliantly. The reader learns along with the characters how to infer what’s happening without any visual cues. The descriptions are full of sounds and touch, Malorie groping around the floor, checking to see if the thing is in the room with her; checking whether or not it’s safe to open her eyes. I highly recommend the audiobook for this one. Hearing a narrator amplifies the experience, in my opinion. Any horror novel in the future is going to have a tough road ahead of it to surpass Bird Box.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
So on goodreads, I don’t technically have a “horror” shelf but instead file things under “dark/creepy.” I feel that description above anything else is where Broken Monsters falls into. It’s not horror in the way Bird Box is, is not meant to cause the reader to be scared, or have a wayward spirit causing trouble in a haunted house, it’s just extremely dark and creepy. Reading Broken Monsters gives you a constant feeling of unease at its imagery. It takes place in the real world as we know it, no world ending event transforming society as we know it, but it has just enough of the strange and unnatural to keep the reader uncomfortable and unsure.
The book starts off with Detroit Detective Gabriella Versado being called in to a crime scene where a very….unusual… body has been left. The legs of a young boy, not older than 13, have been left, fused together to the torso of a deer like a grotesque art sculpture.
Lauren Beukes is a master of multiple storylines interweaving in one coherent story. Her previous work, The Shining Girls, featured a dozen or so different points of view as different girls in different time periods are being murdered by a time-traveling serial killer. The same craft and care is shown in Broken Monsters. Gabriella Versado might be the first character we see, but she is by no means the only or primary character. The book also follows her teenage daughter, engaging in a catfishing scheme to try to apprehend a man preying upon young girls via chatrooms. There’s an increasingly desperate and rather obnoxious journalist turned youtuber named Jonno and his girlfriend, who are trying to get whatever scoop they can find. There’s a homeless man named TK, trying to help out the members of his ill-begotten community and keep his fellow homeless safe. And finally, there’s the killer himself, crazed and seeing visions that drive him to create this “art.”
Beukes maintains all of these competing storylines seemingly effortlessly, interconnecting them at key moments so that the reader is slowly able to piece together what is happening just before the characters do. Not once did I feel a pang of annoyance to return to a certain character or leave another. They were all interesting and had their own plotpoints that I genuinely cared about. As the killer’s plan unfolds and his deeds become more and more terrifying and otherworldly, I felt legitemate fear for our characters, knowing that any one of them could fall victim to the killer’s schemes, in more ways than one. If you enjoy murder mystery and don’t mind the story having otherworldly elements not based in our reality, Broken Monsters should be on the top of your list.
Well then. All the dark and scary stuff is out of the way. How about something a little lighter? How about ~*~**~ROMANCE~**~*~? Wait, why are you all running away? COME BACK, DON’T YOU WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE KISSING BOOKS????