Today we kick off our “Favorites of 2019” coverage at Ink Heist with a list of stellar novellas that were among contributor Tony Jones’ favorite reads of the year. If you’ve read Tony’s work here on Ink Heist or over at HorrorDNA and Ginger Nuts of Horror, you’ll know that Tony is an avid reader and one of the best when it comes to uncovering great reads that may have slipped under your radar. We’re honored to have Tony as a contributor and we’re certain you’ll find a lot of books to add to your TBR piles, so get those holiday gift cards ready! We’ll continue our coverage next week as we finalize our lists and squeeze a few last-minute reads in. Enjoy!
Tony Jones’ Favorite Novellas of 2019
2019 has been a truly stellar year for horror and dark fiction novellas, in recent years I have published YA and adult top 10s, but as the quality has been so strong (and I’ve read so many) I’m publishing a novella ‘best of’ for the first time. My YA top 10 can be found at the Ginger Nuts of Horror and my adult top 10 over at Horror DNA. As I’ve had a lot of fun working with Shane and Rich here at Ink Heist on various contributions over the year, so I’m very happy to see my novella top 10 feature on this great site.
When does a long short story become a novella? When does a long novella become a short novel? I’m not sure of the answer to either question. The shortest entry in the 10 featured below is just 59 pages and the longest 168, so they should all qualify. They are ranked alphabetically. Enjoy.
Gemma Amor – Dear Laura
If you’re looking for a riveting read to devour in two hours flat, without any toilet breaks, then look no further than Gemma Amor’s Dear Laura. Once you start this baby, you will struggle to drag your eyes from the page in a raw story that beautifully blends thriller, mystery, and horror. The action opens with a woman, Laura, stumbling through a forest and although she has a destination in mind, she is also fearful of reaching it. Whilst she battles through the rain, she clutches a sodden letter, one of many she has received over a thirty-year period; all of which she has memorized due to the countless times she has read them seeking hidden messages lurking within the words. These letters are all from the same elusive man; always on her birthday, seemingly providing clues, numbers, coordinates, and half-truths to a tragedy that has dominated her entire existence.
Dear Laura is soaked in pain and feels genuinely raw and authentic, none more so than in the scene when the main character extracts her own tooth. This scene was so realistic and gross I had to read it with one eye closed, but you’ll fully understand why she had to do it. This riveting novella tackles a difficult subject with style, substance, and characters which were sympathetic and realistic. The mood was dark and oppressive throughout but stick around for a possible glimmer of sunlight at the end. Very impressive writing.
Jon Bassoff – The Drive-Thru Crematorium
It is genuinely difficult to know what to compare this bizarre story with. The blurbs are bang on 100% accurate, Jake Hinkson says: “Bassoff is the Kafka of Colorado, a writer who spins feverish nightmares out of the insane realities of modern life”. Much of the book is a series of hilarious and grotesque set-pieces where the life of Stanley Maddox (or is it Mallory?) goes from bad to worse. The story begins with our hero going to work for Evergreen Lending, where he has been employed for the last six years, however, when he arrives nobody remembers who he is. Eventually, his old boss says he can continue working for free (which Stanley bizarrely agrees to), however, when he returns to work the next day his desk has been removed and he is forced to work on the floor. Before long he is kicked out of the office after making a fuss when someone eats his lunch, in a scene which was a real hoot, on the way out the door his old boss asks him to take some files home to work on. Which Stanley also agrees to, and the weirdness escalates as pace. That was surely a job from hell!
Why is it called The Drive-Thru Crematorium you may ask? You’ll have to read it to find out. If you like strange books, you’ll love this, if you prefer something which makes sense with a standard plot, character development, and a proper ending then this book might not be for you as you’ll be scratching your head. However, if you went to work, one fine Monday morning and everyone had forgotten who you were, and you later found another bloke smooching with your wife you’d probably crack up also. Highly recommended, especially for the small man who feels downtrodden by life, which is all of us probably. Easily the most batshit crazy book on this list.
Daniel Braum – The Serpent’s Shadow
Dave, his elder sister Regina and their parents head to Cancun, Mexico, for a much-anticipated week-long holiday during the Christmas vacation of 1986. Having never traveled anywhere of any significance, except for Disneyland, eighteen-year-old Dave is looking forward to practicing his Spanish, hanging out with his outgoing sister, exploring Mayan ruins and perhaps even striking lucky with a holiday romance. Over 105 strange, but oddly captivating pages, Dave does indeed manage to tick all four boxes in a story which is heavy in ambiguity, symbolism with plenty of nods to Mexican and Mayan mythology and culture. The novella also has a weirdly oppressive atmosphere which is very effective, vaguely giving the vibe that the Americans were not welcome and intruding upon something which was not their business.
The underlying atmosphere works effectively, and you can never be entirely sure the developing weirdness is Dave’s imagination or something unexplainable. The ambiguity will have the reader wondering whether Dave is an unreliable narrator or not, as the story is only seen told from his point of view. The plot slowly builds around the charismatic character of Anne Marie and Dave’s overtures towards her and the excellent second stanza in which he is truly under her thrall. The part of the story which concerned the mythology/folk history was cleverly integrated into the narrative and had me searching Wikipedia to see whether it was based on a true cultural Mexican movement. Overall, The Serpent’s Shadow was a very creative and imaginative yarn that encapsulated what it meant to be young, in lust, and to be led down a path where the flow may hold unseen dangers or consequences. You’re open to experimentation, free to try new things, but darkness lurks in the shadows for those who are careless and treat local traditions and cultures lightly.
S.H. Cooper – The Festering Ones
If you are seeking a quick and fast-paced slice of cosmic horror, then SH Cooper’s The Festering Ones is well worth a couple of hours of your time. The story is narrated by Faith York, who is reflecting upon the final time she saw her father alive and the psychological impact this terrifying incident had upon her; shadowing her entire childhood and well into her twenties. Her life has been littered with a host of psychologists, therapists and a pile of medication to dull the pain. This ordeal occurs in the opening sequences when nine-year-old Faith is embarking upon her first overnight camping trip with her father. Whilst hunting in remote mountainous woods they stumble upon a body of what looks like a dead naked woman, which quickly springs into life morphing into a spider-like creature that instantly wraps itself around her father and drags him down a hole never to be seen again. The story is then picked up twenty years later after the death of Faith’s mother.
Written in the first person, once the scene is set, the novella moves at a gallop taking in mysterious cults, dodgy librarians and very nasty otherworldly evil. Other characters are thrown into the mix, and the closer Faith gets to the cult (‘The Gathered’) the more dangerous things become for her. There are several other impressive aspects to the story; including the clever use of local folklore, strong pacing and a supernatural angle which makes great use of cosmic horror in the Lovecraftian tradition. Without going into specifics, the world SH Cooper develops around her gods and monsters was highly convincing and presented the cult as a truly frightening proposition.
Michael Patrick Hicks – The Resurrectionists
Taking us back to the 1780s The Resurrectionists is an intriguing tale of cosmic horror and graverobbing, set in America a few years after the country gained its independence by kicking out the British overlords. Sam Hawley is the principal of the three main leads, a black man who fought for the colonies (America) against the British and is now a free man drawn into a graverobbing conspiracy. Set in New York, where it is common-place for graves of black people to be robbed for medical experiments, a friend of Sam’s spouse is dug-up and he attempts to help catch the culprits. This leads us to the two other main characters Jonathan Hereford and Dr. Richard Bayley who are amongst the Resurrectionists of the title, both are very nasty pieces of work and occultists, leading to the supernatural element of the story. Bayley is obsessed with pain and, specifically, with the idea that extreme pain (through torture) can bring forth something otherworldly to tap into.
I enjoyed Hicks’s vision of the dirty dangerous city where unwanted body-parts were randomly scattered by Resurrectionists attempting to feed the needs of medical and scientific advances. Of course, Sam Hawley, himself a former slave, treads very carefully as he lives in a white man’s world which cares little about graverobbing in black cemeteries. But when a young white woman is exhumed that is a different matter entirely and moral outrage features all over the newspapers. I was interested in how the author would merge the cosmic horror element into a story about graverobbing with the background theme of race. I was pleased to see them blending effectively and I’m sure this aspect of the tale will play a bigger part in the proposed sequel which I will most certainly be keen to read. It is very nice to see an author I have enjoyed in the past coming up with something completely new.
Dave Jeffery – A Quiet Apocalypse
I’ve read a fair bit of Jeffery, and A Quiet Apocalypse may well be his darkest work yet; the tongue in cheek humour of his trashy werewolf and yeti romps is entirely absent in this powerful excursion into post-apocalyptic fiction. It might be a familiar path, but Jeffery’s take is refreshingly original and entirely non-sensational, taking in disability as a major thread in his cripplingly bleak vision. The story is set sometime after a mutant strain of meningitis (MNG-U) has wiped out most of mankind, the majority died horribly with symptoms which began with pneumonia before developing into bacterial meningitis and eventual death with catastrophic brain damage. The few who survived the epidemic were left deaf, an even smaller percentage retained their hearing and the focus of the book concerns the horrible relationship which develops between those with hearing and those deprived of it.
The novel is told, in the first person, by ex-schoolteacher Chris, who has been enslaved by a deaf man called Crowley who uses Chris to be his ears and part of his early-warning-system, as unknown and unheard threats may come suddenly and without warning. Although A Quiet Apocalypse never comes across as preachy or worthy it also has a lot of say about the struggle of minority groups such as the deaf. The drama picks up intensity as it heads into the second half spiraling towards a nihilistic and uncompromising ending which will have you wincing.
Dave Jeffery – Tooth and Claw
The secluded stately home of Cofton Grange is owned by a very rich and dangerous career criminal, Jacob Rothschild. This guy is a truly nasty piece of work, who specializes in crimes that are very hard to prove, and which net his organization huge profits. However, his latest racket involves a wheeze which is substantially trickier than fencing a nicked Picasso. Werewolves! If you’re after an easy to read, trashy, shaggy-dog story then look no further, this is great cartoon level horror with a nice balance of dumbness and readability. All the killers are desperate to have a werewolf head adorning their mantlepiece and the hide tickling their toes as a rug, but you just know it’s not going to pan out that way in this fun and speed read style novella which has a fast mounting body-count, and you’ll cheer when most of them bite (quite literally) the dust.
Throw an undercover policeman and a dodgy snitch into the mix, and you have a well-crafted and self-contained yarn that does not take itself too seriously. It might bring anything particularly new to the werewolf myth, but when the story ended at 89% on my Kindle I was disappointed and could happily have seen everything spin out into something longer and I was recently delighted to hear there is a sequel in the pipeline which might delve into the origins of the werewolves. Tell me more!
Renee Miller – Howl
As in the previous novella by Renee Miller, Stranded, a group of unfortunates are stuck and stalked with no hope of rescue by a vicious beast that picks them off one by one. If you like short and violent stories, there is a lot of fun to be had here and a fine example of a pulpy, trashy, page-turner. Three work friends are on a road trip to Denver for a work convention they visit every year. Their sat-nav takes them on a detour down an isolated road which goes nowhere and before long they are low on fuel and running on fumes. Abandoning the car, sensing they are not alone, they discover a cabin with another two, armed, people hiding inside. They are very scared.
Once the five are thrown together in the cabin the waiting game begins, tempers flare, food dwindles (you can probably guess what is going to happen) and claustrophobia really bites as they are stalked by something nasty outside. The three city boys are way out of their depth, one keeps an online blog and a very entertaining game of cat and mouse with the beast outside begins. Towards the end, there are also a couple of very gross sequences, including a guy inserting his penis into an eye-socket (after he has plucked the eye out) that was a new one on me. But amongst the mounting body count, there is an engaging sly sense of humour. The cabin in the wood’s horror trope might be as old as the hills, but Renee Miller has fun dusting it down for another outing. I was happy enough to tag along for the ride and if you fancy some gross and gory fun then Howl is well worth barking at the moon with.
James Newman & Mark Steensland – In the Scrape
Coming in at a lean 108 pages, I devoured this story in a solitary evening and almost a single sitting. This deceptively simple, but emotionally powerful, tale details the struggles of two brothers who are abused, physically, verbally, and mentally, by their broken-down father. This very realistic human horror is built upon the atrocities that man inflict upon each other, often in the name of love, and on those closest. In the Scrape is narrated, in the first person, by thirteen-year-old Jake who is reflecting upon a particularly difficult and traumatic period of his childhood. Jake spends much of the time watching out, defending, and caring for, his nine-year-old brother Matthew. Due to the volatile temper and probable alcoholism of their unpredictable father, Jake is very protective of his little brother and would rather take a savage-double-beating than see his father turn his belt on Matthew. The dynamics between the two brothers was exceptionally convincing and was the backbone of a story which was built upon the fractured dynamics of the Bradersen family.
In the Scrape deserves to be widely read beyond the horror readership and fans of dramas and thrillers could enjoy it immensely. The personal story of Jake and Matthew is a moving one and this is a tale of both compassion and survival which deserves to be read. Even though this is dark subject matter, with many of the boy’s brighter moments and aspirations being extinguished by their brutal father, it is not without hope. It also shows that for many children, the true monsters are very close to home and not in the cinemas or under their bed. A very powerful piece of fiction.
Jackson R Thomas – Paradise, Maine
Although Paradise, Maine has a rather innocuous front cover, be well advised to heed the author’s ‘Fair Warning’ before the start; “For mature audiences only. This is a splatterpunk novel…” Do not scoff, Jackson Thomas speaks the truth, Paradise, Maine is a very violent read; expect cannibalism, rape, torture and an impressive body count all squeezed into 155 brutal pages. If you’re a fan of nasty, fast-paced horror, continue reading; there is a high probability you will get a kick from Paradise, Maine, otherwise, check out some of my other some sedate selections. It covers a lot of ground and is so fast you’ll hardly have time to catch your breath with a story that fans out into unexpected areas. The characters are sketchily but skillfully drawn, and one of the strengths of the novel is the fact that it is seen from multiple points of view.
Darren and Vanis have been married for a few years, but after she catches him watching a live sex cam, their marriage hit the rocks. Trying to paper over the cracks, he stumbles upon an amazing opportunity to stay in a cabin in the scenic town of Paradise. After their arrival, everything looks perfect until Vanis is certain she spots someone lurking in the shadows spying on them. From that moment on, you know exactly what territory this brutal novel is heading into. They are not alone, and someone is hungry. Paradise, Maine will not be for all tastes and although it treads familiar ground, the unrelenting pace, great set pieces, and terrific forest set action sequences make it a treat for horror fans who like their fiction hard-hitting and with a serious Jack Ketchum Off-Season style mean streak.