Dark Novels for the Dark Half of the Year

Over the last year (I fudged it – I finished A Dark Matter on October 24, 2015), I’ve read a number of excellent dark-minded books.  Here are the ones that stuck best with me–horror, noir, suspense, and one non-fiction.  No books in the middle or end of a series; some short stories; one novella.  One book that’s the first in a series.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that if you don’t want to be up late at night, don’t read any of these–they’re all that good, and that disturbing on one level or another.

The order here goes from most recent to least recent, because that’s how I have them listed on Goodreads.  Links are to Goodreads.

The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle (supernatural horror)(novella)

A riff on a Lovecraft horror story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” which is extremely racist–which this story fixes.  A con artists gets sucked into a bigger con than he can handle–one spanning the cosmos.

Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith (noir/suspense)

The most suspenseful novel I’ve ever read.  I started listening to this on audio and had to finish it in print because I was sure it was gonna give me an ulcer.  An ordinary guy inadvertently “trades” murders with a psychopath.  Good luck figuring out which one’s the psychopath…

The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons (supernatural horror…or madness?)

The suburbs.  Oh, the suburbs.  A truly suburbian haunted house story.  A talented architect builds a house of many strange and elegant angles, and loses his talent when he invites something unintended into the house.  Told from the POV of the neighbors.

The Savage Season – Joe Lansdale (noir/black humor)(first in series)

The first of the Hap & Leonard books.  A caper gone so wrong for two Southern boys that you have to laugh so you don’t cry.  Hap’s ex is back in town with a caper that should pull in a lot of money and scratch his ol’ doo-gooder itch.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (weird fiction)(short stories)

Disorienting, somewhat-entertwined short stories involving a lot of keys, a lot of doorways, a lot of regret.  Mysterious and poetic…one of the most gorgeous books I’ve read this year.  If you like Kelly Link, you should be reading this.

The Fireman – Joe Hill (post-apocalyptic)

For all that it’s 750 pages, a quick read.  A satisfying, action-packed post-apocalyptic novel.  Not so much with the subtle, but sometimes that’s just what you want.  A strange plague spreads throughout the world, causing people to start on fire.  There’s a guy with a mysterious past who tries to help the infected survive, despite every effort of the uninfected to kill them all…

The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (non-fiction)

Non-fiction that reads like a novel.  The story of one of the first actual detectives, set in Victorian times.  Focuses on the resistance he faces in trying to solve the horrific murder of a little boy:  sometimes the people closest to the murder are the ones who least want it solved.

Audrey’s Door – Sarah Langan (supernatural horror)

The case of the unfortunate architecture strikes again.  A young woman fleeing commitment, a suspiciously cheap apartment in a historic building, a tragedy in the making.  What made this so memorable and delightful was the voice of the novel, which keeps you grounded one second and drops you into the abyss the next.

Lovecraft Country – Matt Ruff (supernatural horror)(short stories/novellas)

Entertwined short stories and novellas that together become a gestalt of horror!  That statement is melodramatic but true.  A rich old white guy who lives in a creepy Northern mill town invites a young black man to step into his parlour…racism, family, and the horror of living while black in the 1950s…which may not be all that different than today.  I’d call it the author’s masterpiece but I think Matt Ruff already hit that with The Mirage.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories – Flannery O’Connor (noir)(short stories)

I put off reading this collection for years.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Because everyone called them literary.  Which…okay?  I think “literary” likes to claim things that maybe doesn’t belong to it sometimes.  These are some of the finest noir short stories I’ve ever read, the blackest condemnation of human nature you could ever hope to meet.  And if you’re like, “Oh, but noir is supposed to be set in the big city and have detectives,” then try Otto Penzler’s The Best American Noir of the Century.  About half the stories in the book are set in the back woods of somewhere…

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Stay Awake By (horror & thriller)(short stories)

I found it annoying that the stories are alphabetical by author:  the flow was so awkward!  But they’re all page-turners, so you get over it.  Some supernatural horror, a couple of sci-fi horror, but mostly thrillers.  “Don’t do it!” seems to be the common theme of all the stories in this collection…oh, but you know that they have to, they must!

Beloved – Toni Morrison (supernatural horror)

This is the most horrific book that I’ve ever read.  I had to go through a small grieving process when I finished it…the heartache.  A young black woman during the slave era has to make a terrible choice when escaping from her owner.  The choice she makes never lets her go.

A Dark-Adapted Eye – Ruth Rendell (noir/suspense)

The eye of the title belongs to that of the reader:  this is one of those books that you have to read, then at least read the opening chapter again.  When you do, you’ll see the events more clearly–not just because you know how it all comes out, but because your perspective has been changed.  I hate to say more…a woman, Faith, goes back over her memories of an aunt who was hanged for murder, and finds more than she bargained for.

Zombie – Joyce Carol Oates (noir/suspense)

No actual zombies were harmed in the making of this book.  I think.  Anyway, it’s a toss-up over who’s creepier: the main character, a serial killer, or the author, who puts on his persona like a skin suit.  Either way, short and perfect.

Peace – Gene Wolfe (weird fiction/supernatural horror)

One of Gene Wolfe’s earliest books.  Another one where I hate to say too much, so I’ll quote Neil Gaiman instead:  Peace really was a gentle Midwestern memoir the first time I read it. It only became a horror novel on the second or the third reading.”  Alden Dennis Weer looks back over his life, which has been filled with small, surreal oddities–and even weirder stories, told to him by family and friends…

A Dark Matter – Peter Straub (supernatural horror)

I listened to this on audio about the same time as I was reading Peace in print, which turned out to be a fabulous combination.  This is not the most straightforward of horror novels:  the resolution of the main questions/themes of the novel happens about four-fifths of the way through the novel, almost as an aside–you have to watch for it.  But it was lovely, subtle, layered, thoughtful, and covered me in goosepimples more than once as I realized something the narrators had been taking for granted.  Don’t read this for the jump scares.  Read this for the moment when you realize the horror implied by the casual comments, and for the suspense.


I hope you enjoy these–I did!


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