Compiling a list of the best books in any given year is always something of a mug’s game. After all, very few of us have the time to read everything that the year had to offer, and even if we rely on recommendations and word of mouth to bring us the very best stuff, we’re always going to overlook something. So, for the purposes of compiling this list, I focused on books published by smaller presses (partly because those are what I tend to read, and partly because I feel like they need the signal boost), with the occasional big splash, graphic novel, or other oddity thrown in to keep things interesting.
It may seem an odd move to open this list with a YA vampire novel set for physical release in 2018 (it's available now as an ebook), but I was asked to read Victoria Dalpe’s Parasite Life for a blurb earlier this year and was blown away. Horror has almost always played heavily to a younger audience, and the YA label doesn’t mean that Dalpe pulls any punches. While the vampire novel in general—and the YA vampire novel in particular—may feel like a scene that has been well played out by now, Dalpe breathes new life into it by resurrecting the primal, atavistic, Gothic horror that made the children of the night sing to us in the first place.
Imagine Salem’s Lot by way of Lair of the White Worm but at once more apocalyptic and maybe more personal than either of those, set in the surroundings of a rural snake handling religious sect, and you’ve got an idea of what you can expect from Kristi DeMeester’s breakout novel.
An Augmented Fourth
What if The Thing or From Beyond had starred a bunch of analogues of real-life rock stars with the serial numbers filed off, trapped in a snowed-in hotel with shape-changing monsters? You’d get something a lot like Tony McMillen’s funny and freaky short novel An Augmented Fourth, which reads a bit like a cross between Lovecraftian horror and This Is Spinal Tap.
Black Mad Wheel
The twisted mind behind Bird Box returns with a psychological horror about a strange and sinister sound reverberating from an African desert and the aging Detroit rockers tasked by the U.S. Government to investigate the disturbance. Kirkus declares Malerman's kinetic new release "dark, brooding, and slightly unhinged" and "certifiably unlike any you'll read this year."
Get ready for the gore. Nick Cutter's visceral horror novel transports readers to a remote New Mexico settlement known as New Heaven. It is here that a trio of mercenaries arrive in search of a woman's missing nephew. Not long after arriving, however, it's clear the enclave is far from heavenly. Hanging in the air is a dangerous kind of paranoia and madness—one that threatens to spill blood and swallow the town whole.
If you’re already familiar with Brian Coldrick’s work from his by-now infamous Tumblr, then you have at least some idea of what to expect from Behind You. If not, Coldrick creates intoxicating “one-shot horror stories” by combing just a few words, often only a sentence or two, with a single image of someone with something right behind them. On his Tumblr, these images are animated gifs, and while they may sometimes lose something with their translation onto the printed page, they also gain something: A permanence that allows you to really study them, to sink into the tiny world that each installment creates, and let your imagination run wild.
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Mr. Higgins Comes Home
It’s hard to go wrong with Mike Mignola, but his Hellboy comics can sometimes feel like a monolithic undertaking for new readers. Fortunately, for them, there’s something like Mr. Higgins Comes Home, a short little standalone hardcover that blends Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers with some of Hammer’s less-well-known Gothic pictures. While Mignola supplies the words, Warwick Johnson-Cadwell supplies the art, and his strange, cartoony style is an oddly perfect fit for the material, capturing the atmosphere, the comedy, and the tragedy of the premise perfectly.
The Unorthodox Dr. Draper & Other Stories
William Browning Spencer is one of the best writers working today when it comes to darkly comic weird tales, and the only unfortunate part is that he produces new work so infrequently. This is his first collection in over 10 years, and it contains some of his best stories, including “The Tenth Muse” and “Penguins of the Apocalypse.” (Which, honestly, if that title doesn’t pull you in, nothing will.)
Calls for Submission
While it would be tough to label every story in Selena Chambers’ impressive debut collection “horror,” there is plenty of horror to be found in the pages of Calls for Submission, from suicidal Beat poets to a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “M. Valdemar,” complete with rock bands. What all the stories share in common is a welcome scholarly bent combined with a punk rock attitude and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the genre’s history.
Agents of Dreamland
This novella weaves together multiple storylines into a twisted tale of menace and deep space dread: a shadowy government agent searches for the truth behind a horrifying case; an interplanetary probe encounters something otherworldly in the far reaches of our solar system; a dangerous cult leader readies his flock for what's to come. Kiernan, the award-winning author of a variety of dark fantasy works, crafts a haunting tale packed with puzzle pieces and gruesome scenes, perfect for horror fans with a taste for the interstellar.
The Stay-Awake Men & Other Stable Entities
For those who’ve never read the work of Matthew M. Bartlett before, this is a great place to start. This slim volume of seven weird short stories is a more traditional collection than his previous books, and once you’ve finished reading The Stay-Awake Men that thought should terrify you. Picking up Bartlett for the first time is a lot like when you first discovered Clive Barker or Thomas Ligotti, but Bartlett’s voice is entirely his own. Only 150 copies of this stellar collection are available through Dynatox Ministries .
Paperbacks from Hell
This one’s a bit of a cheat. Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell isn’t a horror book so much as it is a book about horror books. At once a love letter to and exhaustively-researched catalogue of the lively, lurid cover art that became synonymous with horror fiction’s biggest paperback boom, this excellent coffee table book is indispensable for fans of horror fiction, fans of over-the-top cover art, or fans of Grady Hendrix. And if you’re reading this, chances are you’re at least one of those three things
2017 has been a very good year for Mr. King. Here, the Master of Horror teams up with his son Owen to produce a twisted tale that could only come from the King family. A strange sleeping disease is afoot in the small town of Dooling, one that enshrouds women in a cocoon if they fall asleep. Stranger still: If they are disturbed from their slumber, or if the cocoon itself is violated, these women become terribly violent. A prison psychiatrist and his sheriff wife struggle to make sense of the epidemic. Could a mysterious inmate locked inside the local women’s prison possess the key to it all? Weighing in at 702 pages, Sleeping Beauties will keep you enthralled all winter long.
So that’s my (somewhat unorthodox) list of the best horror books I read in 2017. Of course, there are no shortage of books that I left out, so feel free to share your favorites in the comments!
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