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Rich Duncan’s Favorite Reads of 2021

My list is here super late this year, which seems to be an unofficial tradition for my year end lists. The main reason are there are so many great books I want to read throughout the year and also some books get released in December, so I’m always trying to fit more in right up until the last minute. It seems like I say this every year – mostly because I do – but 2021 was truly a great year in Horror. While this list isn’t exclusively Horror, a bulk of the books are and I’m consistently blown away by all of the amazing stories that come out from independent publishers and writers each year. This list is by no means exhaustive, and that’s why I went with “Favorite Reads” instead of the traditional “Best of” list. Unfortunately, I was unable to get to a lot of books I was looking forward to reading in time to include on this list. However, of the works I did get to read, these were among my favorites. I hope you enjoy the list and maybe even discover a few new authors to add to your TBR. Thank you to all of the readers and authors who have shown us incredible kindness and support throughout the years, words can’t describe how thankful we are!


Novels

1. S.A Cosby Razorblade Tears and Lisa Quigley The Forest

I’m cheating a little bit in my list, but when I was trying to decide what my favorite book of 2021 was, I honestly couldn’t decide between these two stellar novels. I remember when I first discovered S.A. Cosby’s writing through last year’s Blacktop Wasteland. I fell in love with Cosby’s voice right from the jump and as soon as I read that first page, I knew I was fucking hooked. So as soon as Razorblade Tears was announced, I knew I had to read it. The best way to read Razorblade Tears, in my opinion, is to go in knowing as little as possible and the jacket copy gives a perfect synopsis: “Ike and Buddy Lee, two ex-cons with little else in common other than a criminal past and a love for their dead sons, band together in their desperate desire for revenge.” That’s all you need to know to prepare yourself for one of the year’s most thrilling reads. It’s a novel packed with great characters, a ton of heart, and a breakneck pace that is guaranteed to leave you enthralled and racing through the pages. This is one of those special books I see myself returning to again and again. S.A. Cosby is now an insta-buy author for me. 

One of the main reasons I do these year end lists at the end of the year is I’m always trying to fit more books, making sure I don’t miss anything I didn’t get a chance to read yet. I’m glad I take that approach as Lisa Quigley’s The Forest was one of my final reads of the year. The Forest focuses on the secluded town of Edgewood, where every Fall, residents give offerings at their festival in exchange for a life of safety. As Faye and her husband prepare to take over as the town stewards – a title that has been passed down in her family – they realize that the forest demands an unthinkable sacrifice that is far beyond the items the townspeople offer. Folk Horror is one of my favorite subgenres and Quigley puts her own spin on the genre while utilizing familiar elements to craft an addictive tale that is sure to break reader’s hearts. This story resonated with me so deeply, I’m sure it won’t be the last time I read it. This is one of the best debuts I’ve read in years and Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing nailed it when they recommended it for fans of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. 

2. J-F Dubeau The Song of the Sandman

I owe my partner in crime Shane Douglas Keene a wealth of gratitude for turning me on to J-F Dubeau’s haunting 2017 novel A God in the Shed. A God in the Shed introduces readers to the small-town Saint-Ferdinand and its residents, which are haunted by darkness, death and a sinister force that has plagued them for decades. I was late to the party when it came to A God in the Shed, but I was immediately enthralled by the balance of small-town horror, coming of age horror and sheer brutality that Dubeau unleashed within its pages. It quickly earned a spot on my “all-time favorites” list, so when I found out the story was going to continue in The Song of the Sandman, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

While sequels sometimes have varying degrees of success, Dubeau maintains the dark magic that made A God in the Shed such a thrilling read and picks up the story as Venus and her friends attempt to deal with the bloody aftermath of the previous book. In addition to diving deeper into the lives of the characters we’ve already met, Dubeau also introduces new characters into the legend of the God in the Shed that further elevate this story into one of the most brutal, unique horror novels I’ve read in some time. I absolutely devoured this book and without delving to deeply into spoiler territory, I hope Dubeau has at least one more book planned for this story. The God in the Shed is one of the most horrifying entities in recent memory and it seems that the series is being adapted into a television series. So, if you want to catch up before then and dig bleak, brutal horror, there is no better time to dive into these two excellent novels. 

3. Fred Venturini To Dust You Shall Return

I’ve made no secret that one of my favorite things to read is novels that are equal parts horror and noir, and Venturini’s To Dust You Shall Return is a brutal novel that is a perfect blend of folk horror and gritty crime noir. The novel follows Curtis Quinn, a legendary mob killer who buried the darkness within him in an attempt to lead a normal life with his partner Kate. But when Kate goes missing, Quinn has no choice but to follow her tracks. His journey leads him to the small town of Harlow where residents are forced to remain within the town limits – or suffer extreme consequences. Beth Jarvis has lived in Harlow her entire life and is tired of living under the oppressive rule of the sadistic Mayor. She dreams about fleeing before the Harvest celebration, where she will be initiated into the town’s dark secrets. As their fates intertwine, it will become clear that The Mayor of Harlow is no ordinary man, and the road to the answers they seek will be filled with violence and bloodshed. To Dust You Shall Return is an action-packed novel that’s sure to keep you on the edge of your seat and if you dig Laird Barron’s Isaiah Coleridge series, you’ll love this book!

4. Cynthia Pelayo Children of Chicago

Cynthia Pelayo’s Children of Chicago is another novel that hits that sweet spot of the perfect balance of noir and horror and melds it with a modern day retelling of the Pied Piper fairy tale. Chicago detective Lauren Medina is called to Humboldt Park to investigate a brutally murdered teenager and the scene is eerily similar to murder of her sister years prior. Reeling from the recent death of her father, increasing murders, and the emergence of strange graffiti all over the city, Lauren fights to keep the city she swore to protect safe while dealing with the darkness in her past. 

I can’t remember the first time I discovered Cynthia’s work, but every time I read her work, I’m blown away. With Children of Chicago, Pelayo breathes new life into a Middle Age fairy tale to create a haunting, memorable novel that has stuck with me since I read it upon its initial release.

 

5. V. Castro Queen of the Cicadas

Castro is a top-notch storyteller and released two incredible books in 2021, Queen of the Cicadas and Goddess of Filth. Both of these books are incredibly powerful with some of the most terrifying and original scenes of the year. Spoiler Alert: Goddess of Filth will appear in my favorite novellas later in this article. The Queen of the Cicadas is a novel that spans decades and weaves together the story of Belinda and Hector as they investigate the legend of La Reina de Las Chicharras and Milagros, a 1950s South Texas farm worker. It’s an emotional story that sticks with you long after you read the final page and is a must-read for Horror fans.

 

 

 

6. Sarah Gailey The Echo Wife

In Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, award-winning scientist Evelyn Caldwell catches her husband having an affair with Martine, a clone he created using Evelyn’s groundbreaking research who is more submissive than Evelyn. When Nathan is found dead, it pushes Martine and Evelyn together and forces them to deal with the secrets and lies that haunt them both.

I remember seeing The Echo Wife all over Twitter when it was released and I’ll be honest, that buzz is what encouraged me to pick up a copy. I usually don’t read much science fiction because I didn’t think it fit my reading habits, but this was the book that changed everything for me. There aren’t enough words to describe how much I loved this book! If you haven’t read it yet, definitely pick up a copy. A powerful, engaging story that will hook you from the first page.

 

7. Ronald Malfi Come with Me

Come with Me, follows Aaron Decker as he deals with the death of his wife Allison. As he goes through her things, he uncovers a receipt for a hotel room across the country. Consumed with grief, Aaron decides to follow his wife’s footsteps in the weeks prior to her death. As he uncovers the dark secrets of Allison’s past, Aaron becomes consumed by the mystery, even as it places his own life at risk.

Malfi has been consistently putting out chilling, character-driven horror novels for over two decades. I think I discovered Malfi’s writing around the release of Little Girls and I’ve been hooked ever since. His books are heavy on atmosphere that build a sense of dread that slowly consumes readers and pack a devastating emotional punch, especially in the case of The Night Parade. That book made me a bit misty-eyed more than once and I’ll be damned if Malfi didn’t get me again with Come with Me. Malfi’s books are compulsively readable and the eerie mystery at the heart of Come with Me make it an essential addition to your TBR.

8. Philip Fracassi Boys in the Valley

I’ve been a huge fan of Fracassi’s short fiction for years now, so when news hit that Earthling Publications would be publishing his debut novel as part of their Halloween Series, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Boys in the Valley takes place at the turn of the century and focuses on the lives of the boys who live in St. Vincent’s Orphanage for Boys. The group of 30 boys have endured unimaginable hardships throughout their young lives and though they don’t always get along, they are a family. Their daily routine is shattered when one night a group of strangers show up on the doorstep of St. Vincent’s. One of the men is grievously wounded, occult symbols carved into his flesh. This chance encounter changes the lives of everyone at St. Vincent’s forever as darkness descends on the remote Pennsylvanian valley.

Fracassi’s debut carries the same emotional resonance that made his shorter works such special reading experiences and filters it through terror, isolation, and violence to create a gut-punch of a story. While Boys in the Valley has it’s fair share of terror and brutality, Fracassi also weaves in a glimmer of hope and courage throughout which really made this novel stick with me. Horror fans who are itching for vintage, old-school horror vibes will love this novel. The limited edition is sold out, but when this gets a wider release, definitely snag a copy!

9. Rivers Solomon Sorrowland

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover – and a lot of times that’s true – but in this case, I’m glad I ignored this well-worn adage. I was previously unfamiliar with Rivers Solomon’s work, but when I saw Sorrowland sitting on the shelves at the bookstore, it called to me to take a look. Then I read the jacket copy:

“Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.

But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.

To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.”

I practically ran to the register and I’m glad I did. Vern’s an amazing character who exhibits so much strength and dedication in the face of unimaginable hardship and terror, you can’t help but root for Vern the entire way. Solomon’s writing is haunting, lyrical and absolutely addictive. There are tons of breathtaking scenes in this novel, and for horror fans looking for an atmospheric read with imaginative visuals, this is an absolute must-read. I will definitely seek out anything and everything Solomon publishes from this point forward.

As a side note, I’m in love with the speculative fiction Farrar, Strauss and Giroux put out. They’re a more mainstream publisher who publishes some of the most unique and engaging horror in that space including Rivers Solomon, Maryse Meijer, Andy Davidson, Jac Jemc, and so many more. If you see their name on something, you’re in for a special book.

10. John C. Foster Rooster

Back when I first got into reading again and started reviewing Horror fiction, some of the first books I discovered were the essential Dark Visions anthologies from Grey Matter Press. These anthologies introduced me to the world of indie presses and horror authors and it was in Dark Visions – Volume 2 where I read Foster’s eerie story “Mister White”. That story eventually morphed into a full-length novel of the same name where Foster expertly combined elements of espionage thrillers with bone-chilling occult horror. Mister White is one of my favorite horror novels of all-time and after reading that and the atmospheric genre mash-up The Isle, it was clear to me that Foster had a love of noir and perfectly captured those vibes in his writing. Ever since we heard Foster would be releasing a straight-up noir novel, we knew we had to get our hands on it.

Rooster is the story of professional hitman John Gallo,  known in the criminal underworld as Rooster. He is a ruthless killer whose name and reputation strikes fear in the hearts of hardened criminals and killers alike. He’s good at his job and he knows it,  and he knows that his reputation makes him a feared and respected killer that is in high demand from various organizations. However, Gallo becomes aware of a bounty on his head that finds him on the run from every major crime syndicate in the country. Gallo races to stay one step ahead of his enemies and attempt to figure out who is behind the bounty and attempt to get some revenge of his own. I loved the ambiguity around Gallo’s past because it further elevates the mystery and legend that surrounds him throughout the novel. It’s a risky choice because too much ambiguity can make a character fall flat, but Foster uses it to his advantage to make Gallo a much more interesting character. Rooster is a high-octane thrill ride that’s sure to delight noir fans who dig complex characters and plenty of action and I hope this is the first of many novels in this vein from Foster. 

11. Stephen Graham Jones My Heart is a Chainsaw

Stephen Graham Jones is one of the most imaginative and prolific writers in the genre today and is one of those writers whose books I will automatically read without question. With each release, you never quite know what surprises he has in store for you. Last year’s brilliant The Only Good Indians took the Horror community by storm and packed tons of innovative scares throughout the novel. There’s a little bit of many different familiar horror themes that make up the story, but Jones filters them through his own unique vision to craft a novel that is wildly unique and pure nightmare fuel. That same vibe carries through to My Heart is a Chainsaw, his love letter to the slasher genre. 

 

 

12. Caitlin Starling The Death of Jane Lawrence

I’ve been a massive fan of Caitlin Starling’s work ever since I read her jaw-dropping debut The Luminous Dead. It was the perfect balance of horror and sci-fi that was loaded with tension from start to finish as Gyre was put through the wringer of isolation and both physical and psychological horrors. Starling’s more recent works are heavily influenced by Gothic literature and as much as I loved the futuristic world of The Luminous Dead, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the alternate histories created in Yellow Jessamine and The Death of Jane Lawrence. I never really got into Gothic fiction earlier in my life, but with these two books Starling has completely opened my eyes to a world of awesome books I’ve been missing out on.

The titular Jane Lawrence is a character reader’s will love to root for as she goes head to head with the dark and esoteric history of Lindridge Hall and with rumblings of a sequel, I would LOVE for that to happen. The Death of Jane Lawrence is a masterfully told story that honors the traditions of the genre but also utilizes them in bold, exciting new ways.

13. J.S. Breukelaar The Bridge

Meerkat is one of our favorite indie presses here at Ink Heist due to their reputation for putting out compulsively readable, boundary pushing fiction. That reputation makes Meerkat the perfect home for Breukelaar’s latest genre-bending novel. The Bridge follows Meera as she deals with crushing grief years after surviving her childhood in the Blood Temple cult, which claimed the life of her twin sister Kai. She lives with the mysterious and powerful Narn, who also lost a sister, until she takes advantage of the Redress Program. Alone for the first time, Meera struggles to find herself until an elite group of Regulars recruit her to participate in a reading series that caters to the elite and their desire for fear. Meera quickly makes a name for herself and it seems like maybe she can start a new life. But danger lurks in the shadows and Meera must confront her past and potential future to truly find her place in the world. The Bridge is a gripping novel full of memorable characters, a rich mythology and plenty of darkness, making it a must-read for fans of Dark Fiction.

 

14. P.J. Vernon Bath Haus

P.J. Vernon’s Bath Haus has one of the best opening chapters I’ve read in years and I knew as soon as I read it I was in for a wild ride and that it would be making my year end list. The writing is phenomenal and Vernon establishes tension in that opening chapter and it just keeps building throughout, creating a mystery full of deception and secrets that keeps readers riveted from start to finish. This novel had a lot of early hype and all of it was warranted. Make sure you carve out some free time when you pick up Bath Haus, the thrills and twists Vernon sprinkles in throughout the novel combine to create an edge-of-your-seat thriller you won’t want to put down. 

 

 

 

15. Mike Thorn Shelter for the Damned

Looking for a secluded place to hang out and smoke cigarettes, teenagers Mark, Adam, and Scott stumble across a mysterious shack in a suburban field. The friends had been through this area countless times, but this is the first time they remember seeing the shack. Adam and Scott aren’t all that impressed, but the first time Mark enters The Shack, it feels like the perfect escape and he already feels the pull of The Shacks energy. Over time, Mark realizes there is an intelligence residing in The Shack, one that expects things from Mark in exchange for the refuge it provides from his life. As Mark grows more dependent on The Shack, his life starts changing in ways he could’ve never imagined. Shelter for the Damned is loaded with nightmarish scenes and if the idea of a dark coming-of-age story meeting Kathe Koja’s The Cipher intrigues you, this is definitely the book for you.

 

16. Tim McGregor Hearts Strange and Dreadful

Hearts Strange and Dreadful is a beautifully written and engaging horror novel about a mysterious traveler who arrives in the small town of Wickstead, followed by a mysterious plague that rips through the pious town. As conditions worsen, the townspeople begin to turn on each other, they also begin to seek salvation in old superstitions. McGregor crafts an eerie atmosphere that serves as a perfect backdrop for this novel of historical small-town horror and is sure to keep you reading late into the night.

 

 

 

17. Nicholas Kaufmann The Hungry Earth

I’ve made no secret that I’m a “sequel” person, asking more guests on Ink Heist then I could ever remember if they plan to revisit a world they’ve created. The main reason is because when I find a book I really love and it has a great cast of characters and a well-developed setting, I never want to leave that story. The feeling of losing yourself in a good book is one of the best feelings there is in my opinion, and despite the horrors unleashed in The Hungry Earththat’s the feeling I had reading this.  The Hungry Earth, the first book in a series focusing on Medical Examiner Laura Powell, is a pulse-pounding Horror novel with a terrifyingly plausible premise and puts a fresh spin on familiar tropes. This was simply a BLAST to read!  You won’t get any spoilers from me, but there are a few gruesome scenes in here that will stick in my head for quite awhile.

 

18.Johann Thorsson Whitesands

I want to give a shout out to author Mark Matthews, who recommended Thorsson’s Whitesands to me. He knows I’m a huge fan of the shows Black Spot and True Detective and suggested I check this out. This definitely carries the same dark atmosphere as those shows and Thorsson creates the perfect balance of police procedural with elements of the supernatural and uncanny. I’m a sucker for these sorts of novels and Thorsson hit all the notes I look for in something like this. Thorsson crafts vivid, haunting imagery throughout Whitesands and sets up a series following Detective Dark which promises to be a must read for anyone looking to scratch that supernatural procedural itch.

 

 

19. Camilla Sten The Lost Village

Camilla Sten’s The Lost Village was easily one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, especially when I saw the tagline describing it as The Blair Witch Project meets Midsommar. The Lost Village is a dual narrative with one following filmmaker Alice Lindstedt and her crew as they attempt to uncover the truth behind the mystery of “The Lost Village” Silvertjarn and the other focusing on the events of 1959 prior to the disappearances occurring. Sten’s atmospheric US debut explores the power of secrets and plunges readers into a mind-bending mystery that will keep you glued to the pages.

 

 

 

20. Jonathan Edward Durham Winterset Hollow

One of the best things about being a reviewer and reader in the literary community is discovering new indie authors whose books really blow you away, which is what happened when Jonathan Edward Durham sent me a copy of his debut novel Winterset Hollow. The premise of the novel is what immediately drew me in – what if your favorite book was real? What if you could meet the characters? That’s the situation Eamon finds himself in when he brings his friends Caroline and Mark to Addington Isle, the inspiration behind Winterset Hollow, on Barley Day.

Honestly, the less I say about this book the better. I went in only knowing the synopsis and the surprises were that much more effective. Durham does an excellent job intertwining horror and fantasy to create a thrilling novel about trauma, revenge and survival. I’m really looking forward to reading whatever Durham puts out next.

 

Novellas

1. Eric LaRocca Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke

What have you done today to deserve your eyes?

Eric LaRocca took the Horror community by storm with his novella Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke. There is a good chance that if you read indie horror, you instantly recognized that line and if you read LaRocca’s novella, felt a shiver go down your spine. Set in the early 2000s, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke details the dark relationship between two lonely women who meet when one of them places an antique family heirloom for sale online. Written as a series of chat transcripts and emails, LaRocca documents their relationship as it grows into obsession and offers readers plenty of shocking surprises along the way.

There are so many reasons I fell in love with this novella, but what really made it burrow deep into my soul was the setting of early 2000s chat rooms. I was in my teens during the time period the story takes place and I practically lived on Instant Messenger. Sure, I talked to my friends from school, but through a series of random chances, I also had a bunch of friends that I only knew through AIM. This novella really dives into that need for connection but also explores the terrifying reality that, at that time, you never really knew who was on the other side of the screen. I have a feeling Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke will haunt me for years to come and it also cemented LaRocca as an instant buy author for me.

2. Alan Baxter Ghost Recall

I’ve mentioned my love of horror and noir no less than a million times in the history of Ink Heist – hell, I think I’ve done at least 3 times just in this list- and Alan Baxter’s Eli Carver series is everything fans of both genres could want. It’s loaded with plenty of weirdness, pulse-pounding action and a breakneck pace that will keep you repeating the “just one more chapter…” mantra in your head. Eli is a former mob enforcer who is constantly surrounded by the ghosts of some of his former victims. Throughout the series, Eli has always been on the run or smack dab in the middle of violence and chaos, but Ghost Recall opens with him having some semblance of a normal life. Eli is in Las Vegas, living in luxury with his girlfriend and enjoying the most peace he’s had in awhile. But Eli’s brief respite from a world of violence is upended when he unknowingly places himself on the radar of a dangerous secret society connected to powers far more deadly than he’s ever encountered.

Ghost Recall is another blazing entry in the Eli Carver series and gives fans more insight into Eli and his gallery of ghosts and leans even harder into the weird and supernatural. I love this series so much that every time I try and put it into words, the only that comes out is “incredible”. Each time a new installment is released, I devour it in a single sitting because Baxter is a master of pacing. If you’re reading this Alan and Tony at Grey Matter, please please please keep the saga of Eli Carver going!

3. Eve Harms Transmuted

Eve Harms Rewind or Die novella Transmuted follows Isa, a micro-celebrity who runs a successful fundraiser to make her gender affirming surgery possible. When she has to give up her money, she’s crushed and left with few options until she finds a sketchy ad seeking a transgender women for a free, experimental procedure. She answers the ad and meets Dr. Skurm, whose methods are terrifying, but give Isa the results she’s been looking for. However, there are unexpected side effects to the treatment and Isa must race against time to figure out Dr. Skurm’s secrets before it’s too late. Transmuted is a brilliant body horror novella that features some of the most wild, unique scenes in recent memory. Harms debut is jaw-droppingly awesome and I can’t wait to devour more of her books in the future!

 

 

4. V. Castro Goddess of Filth

As I mentioned above, 2021 was one hell of a year for V. Castro as she released two knockout books that are essential additions to any horror library. I remember when we first spoke to V. on Ink Heist and she mentioned this novella well before publication and the influences and inspirations and it immediately shot to the top of my most anticipated list.

Goddess of Filth puts a fresh spin on the possession genre as friends Lourdes, Fernanda, Ana, Perla, and Pauline hold a séance and quickly make contact with a powerful, ancient entity that kicks off a chain of explosive events that will keep you guessing. I loved the portrayal of the girls’ friendship and that first chapter? It goes from zero to 100 in the best possible way. 

 

 

5. Samantha Kolesnik Waif

Samantha Kolesnik’s True Crime was a jaw-droppingly good debut that explored the darkness lurking within humanity that blew all of us at Ink Heist away and left us eagerly awaiting her next release. So when Grindhouse announced her newest novella Waif, it was an insta-buy for me. Waif follows Angela, who has everything she ever thought she wanted – a successful husband,a nice home and lots of money. But a chance encounter with a man at a grocery store has her questioning her happiness and sets her on a path of underground pornography and illegal plastic surgery.

Waif is another stellar novella from Kolesnik that focuses on underground communities and doesn’t flinch away from highlighting the extreme. This is a bold, inventive story that pulls no punches and is a must-read for Horror fans.

 

6. Beverley Lee The House of Little Bones

I owe a debt of gratitude to my Ink Heist partner in crime Shane Douglas Keene for introducing me to the work of Beverley Lee, whose The House of Little Bones totally consumed me when I read it. Bestselling horror writer David Lansdown is used to being in the spotlight.  But when his relationship with his best friend and  publisher’s son Luca Fox-Waite goes public, it threatens to not only derail his now struggling career, but also his relationship with his best friend. In an attempt to salvage his career and give the gossip a chance to fizzle out, David heads out to the desolate moors of Bone Hollow. David thinks the isolation will do him good, but David quickly realizes he’s not as alone as he thought. There is something buried in the grounds of Bone Hollow, bound to the land and thirsting for vengeance. Beverley Lee’s lush, beautiful prose is a joy to read and is a perfect fit for her brand of chilling Quiet Horror. The House of Little Bones is a book that should be read at any time, but Lee’s talent at building atmosphere makes it the perfect book to curl up with on a chilly autumn or winter night.

7. Catherine McCarthy Immortelle

Catherine McCarthy’s Immortelle is a story of grief and the lengths a parent will go to protect their child. Elinor is heartbroken after the death of her only child, Rowena and while it seemed like an unfortunate accident, Elinor can’t shake the feeling that the strange local priest is somehow connected to it. Elinor deals with her grief the only way she knows how, by relying on her artistic talent to create an immortelle for Rowena’s grave in a desperate attempt to communicate with her daughter. As requests for similar immortelles flood in from others in the community, it becomes clear there is more to these immortelles than just a comfort from the grief for Elinor.

McCarthy’s novella puts reader’s through the emotional wringer with her mesmerizing blend of emotional and folk horror and I was spellbound from start to finish. If you love those subgenres as much as I do and are looking for something with a bit of Gothic flar, this is an essential addition to your library.

8. Mark Westmoreland A Violent Gospel

I discovered Mark Westmoreland’s debut novella A Violent Gospel completely by chance and it ended up being one of my favorite discoveries of 2021. I’m a huge fan of rural noir and this novella has everything a fan of that genre could possibly ask for. In A Violent Gospel, brothers Mack and Marshall Dooley steal money from a church and their viper-handling preacher who are involved in shady dealings in Tugalo County. When all hell breaks loose, the Dooley Brothers will need to do whatever it takes and confront their past in order to stay alive. I really can’t say enough about how much I loved A Violent Gospel. It’s loaded with memorable characters, plenty of action, a dash of humor and blistering pacing. There’s a sequel coming in September called A Mourning Song and I hope that’s the first of many, many books featuring the Dooley Brothers!

 

9. Gordon B. White Rookfield

Cabot Howard’s life is falling apart. As a pandemic rages across the country, his ex-wife flees with their son to her isolated town of Rookfield. Cabot heads off after them, determined to get his son back and maybe try and set things right between them. However, when Cabot arrives, he finds Leana is in hiding and everyone refuses to help him, including his former in-laws and the sheriff. The town seems off with children roaming the streets dressed as little plague doctors and townspeople determined to drive him out of town by nightfall. Despite these obstacles, Cabot is determined to find his son. But the more time he spends in Rookfield, he begins to suspect the town is harboring strange and deadly secrets.

Rookfield is a gripping page-turner that takes its unlikable protagonist and puts him through the ringer of dark secrets and paranoia. White does an amazing job creating an unsettling atmosphere through his portrayal of the town of Rookfield and even though Cabot is unlikable, White masterfully makes him a balanced character that readers will still find themselves invested in his journey. It’s a quick, fun read with some truly original surprises lurking for readers in the shadows of Rookfield.

10. Peter Danielsson The Year Under the Machine

I owe a huge thank you to Steve Stred, whose review helped me discover Peter Danielsson’s The Year Under the Machine. Anyone who knows me or has listened to me ramble on the podcast knows I’m obsessed with alien stories of any genre. So when I saw that The Year Under the Machine followed unnamed characters as they tried to survive the aftermath of an alien invasion, I was all in. I don’t want to talk about the plot too much because it’s a shorter story, but this was one of the most original and terrifying alien invasion stories I’ve read. This is a unique book that is half bleak, atmospheric narrative and half hauntingly beautiful black and white painting. The artwork is stunning and each one fits the emotional tone of its accompanying chapter. I read an e-copy of this book but I fell in love with the artwork and I need to pick up one of the physical copies. This story really struck a chord with me and was one of my favorite surprises and discoveries of 2021.

 

11. Ali Seay To Offer Her Pleasure

2021 was the year I discovered and fell in love with Weirdpunk Books and the bold, daring Dark Fiction they put out. I devoured all of the novellas they’ve released in 2021 – Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, Maria Abrams’ She Who Rules the Dead, and Ali Seay’s To Offer Her Pleasure (Spoiler Alert: All 3 made this list).

In Seay’s To Offer Her Pleasure, Ben realizes the only person he can truly count on is himself after his mother left him in the wake of his father’s death. He’s been taking care of himself for awhile, but the loneliness begins to gnaw at him…until he discovers a strange book in his father’s collection. As Ben begins to read the book and uncover its dark secrets, he realizes he can have the support he craves, but it comes with a price. I love coming-of-age stories, so I was immediately drawn to To Offer Her Pleasure. Plus, it has one of the most badass covers of the year in my opinion. What made this one of my favorite reads of the year was the way Seay was able to take what I love about Coming of Age Horror and take it to a whole other level of darkness by incorporating Splatterpunk elements throughout. This is a bloody, haunting novella that is a blast to read and an essential addition to your TBR.

12. Maria Abrams She Who Rules the Dead

In Maria Abrams’ debut novella She Who Rules the Dead, Henry is on a mission to sacrifice five people to the demon that’s been communicating. He’s already killed four people when he abducts Claire and ties her up in the back of his van. Henry’s overjoyed that the power promised to him is finally within his grasp, but Claire harbors a secret that makes her different from Henry’s previous victims. Told through the main narrative, transcripts of news interviews, and police reports, Abrams crafts a wildly inventive story that will keep readers on the edge of their seat. Without venturing into spoiler territory, Abrams lays the foundation for more stories set in this universe and I’m desperately hoping for more after how much I enjoyed this novella.

She Who Rules the Dead is a blistering, fast-paced read that takes a familiar horror set-up and injects it with plenty of shocking surprises and twists. Abrams new novel The Doctor’s Demons comes out in April from CLASH Books and I can’t fucking wait!

13. Kyle Winkler The Nothing That Is

Based on premise alone, Kyle Winkler’s The Nothing That Is was hand’s down the weirdest book I’ve read in 2021, and I fucking loved it! Set in 1986, The Nothing That Is follows Cade McCall, an assistant manager for a catering company as he struggles to raise money to strike out on his own. He’s good at his job and has the respect of his co-workers, but his bosses make life miserable for him and he dreams of starting his own business. After an explosion at the local graveyard, his hopes are answered when he receives a call from the bizarre Mr. Dinosaur, offering Cade $11,000 if he caters one event for his Extreme Food Club. What follows is a capital-W Weird story that will stretch the limits of Cade’s sanity.

Honestly, nothing I can say will do a better job of selling this book than this line from the jacket copy: “Involving female biker gangs, cults, possessed furniture, and a full dose of cosmic horror, The Nothing That Is serves up the weird”. If you’re a fan of Cosmic Horror, this is an essential addition to your library. Winkler offers a wildly imaginative take on the subgenre that honors its trademarks, but obliterates any preconceived notions of what to expect. I can’t wait to read more of Winkler’s work!

14. Catherynne M. Valente Comfort Me With Apples

This year I’ve tried to be a little more adventurous in my reading habits by picking up books I’ve seen mentioned by other reviewers I follow pretty much sight unseen. One of those impulse reads was Catherynne M. Valente’s stunning novella Comfort Me with Apples. This was my first time reading Valente’s work, but from what I’ve been able to gather, her work spans multiple genres and formats and often incorporates unique twists on folklore and myths.

In Comfort Me with Apples, Sophia seems to have the perfect life – a loving husband, a home in the exclusive Arcadia Gardens, and friends that adore her. But slowly, Sophia begins to question her life. Where does her husband go when he goes away for days at a time? And just what is in the locked basement she’s not allowed to enter? Comfort Me with Apples is a tension-filled read that harbors plenty of shocking revelations and even the seemingly innocuous inclusion of Arcadia Gardens community rules fills readers with dread. This is another novella that is best experienced with knowing as little as possible. Valente’s lush prose is the perfect contrast to the sense of dread that slowly and steadily builds throughout Comfort Me with Apples and held me captivated from start to finish. I can’t wait to dive into her other books!

15. Cassandra Khaw Nothing But Blackened Teeth

Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing but Blackened Teeth was one of the most buzzed about novellas in Horror circles from the intriguing and haunting cover and being one of the initial titles in the launch of Tor’s new Nightfire imprint. Based on the reactions I’ve seen, it is also one of the most polarizing titles of 2021. However, I absolutely LOVED Nothing but Blackened Teeth and I’m going to check out anything and everything Khaw publishes in the future.

Khaw puts their own unique spin on the haunted house genre in this terrifying tale inspired by Japanese folklore. Packed with plenty of haunting, hallucinatory scenes, I felt this novella was a breath of fresh air for this style of Horror. I love a good haunted house story and I was not disappointed with the eerie and frightening way Khaw unleashed the horrors they created on unsuspecting readers. Your enjoyment may vary, but I applaud the bold direction Khaw took in Nothing But Blackened Teeth. They write in a variety of genres and I already have The All- Consuming World in my TBR, but I can’t wait to read another straight-up Horror novel from Khaw.

7 replies »

      • It’s okay! Immortelle is a captivating read, whether or not I know a character is going to meet his or her doom. (If it’s from the publisher’s description, the death probably happens in just a page or two from where I’m at.)

        Like

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