Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
If you’re reading this right now, chances are you, like me, love all things strange, dark, and horrific. But do you really know what’s going on in modern-day horror, beyond multiplexes and VOD outlets?
Two weeks ago, I listed the year’s best indie genre movies (so far), hoping to inspire readers to look beyond AMC and Regal to discover the best the genre’s been delivering in recent months, but horror’s current greatness is also happening on the page. I’m not just talking Stephen King, though—try prolific, longstanding writers like Stephen Graham Jones, Laird Barron, and Gemma Files. And those with shorter bibliographies but equally notable skills, like Adam Cesare and Sarah Lotz. There’s also the gatekeeper class, those tireless short story anthology editors, such as Ellen Datlow and Richard Thomas, who act as taste-making middlemen (and women) between fiction writers and their faithful, never satiated readers.
Sad fact: Most bookstores have abandoned their specified “Horror” sections and lumped scary page-turners into the more generalized “Fiction & Literature” aisles. On one hand, it’s a nice way of bridging the gap for highfalutin bibliophiles who frown down upon horror fiction. But, concurrently, it’s now that much harder for genre heads to locate the latest and greatest releases, aside from the multiple shelves occupied by Stephen King’s endless supply of paperbacks.
That’s where I and Permanent Midnight come into play. A bookworm who’s partial to horror fiction, I’m constantly reading what’s available and researching what’s on deck, and, I’m glad to report, 2014 has thus far been a remarkable year for the kinds of novels and collections I love. Here are the best new releases I’ve read since January. Hopefully this will help make the Stephen Graham Jones’, Ellen Datlow’s, and Sarah Lotz’s of the publishing world as go-to for you as they are for me.
The Summer Job, by Adam Cesare (Samhain Publishing)
There's a whole world of first-rate novelists working outside of your local Barnes & Noble. In terms of horror, one of the strongest independently published writers out there is Adam Cesare, whose excellent merging of prose panache and Fangoria-friendly genre sensibilities have been on fully display in past novels Video Night (a badass should-be '80s midnight movie in written form) and Tribesmen, a Cannibal Holocaust for the literarily minded.
Cesare's most recent long-form work, The Summer Job, is his best book yet. Claire, a college graduate looking for a new life, starts working at a rinky-dink motel that, as she quickly discovers, is at the center of a small-town war being waged between a woods-bound cult and a militant group of cult-hunting civilians. With rich characterization and the balls to blindside you with violent outbursts, leading to a bleak but earned finale, Cesare's latest is a knockout that's reminiscent of classic genre novels like Stephen King's Children of the Corn and Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home. There's a potent retro vibe running through Cesare's work, in general—he's the closest thing literary horror has to its own Jim Mickle or Ti West. He's a cult favorite author in the making.
The Mall/The Ward, by S.L. Grey (Downside)
Though they've been available overseas long before January 2014, South African writing duo S.L. Grey's (Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg) on-the-page double feature The Mall and The Ward officially launched stateside this year—folks who appreciate genre-bending, graphically hardcore fiction should be celebrating their arrivals.
Hybrids of science fiction and supernatural/fantastical horror, S.L. Grey's unique novels are tough to classify but undeniably powerful. In The Mall, the strongest of the pair, an emo bookstore employee reluctantly teams up with a druggie woman to find a missing kid deep into a shopping mall's basement and beyond; it'd be criminal to spoil what they find here, but know that S.L. Grey's clearly influenced by George Romero's Dawn of the Dead satirization of mall culture but approach their target as if Philip K. Dick just binge-played Silent Hill. A similar fate awaits The Ward's protagonists, a plastic survey junkie and a celeb photographer trapped inside the hospital New Hope, or "No Hope." As they try to escape from New Hope, The Ward's main characters run into a like-minded Dickian/Silent Hill world of ghouls and funhouse scares.
In both novels, the action is nonstop, the first-person narration are fully realized and often funny, and each book, neither of which is short on freakish imagery and wild ideas builds, is fraught with masterful tension.
The Troop, by Nick Cutter (Gallery Books)
If it's ever adapted for the big screen, Canadian author Nick Cutter's The Troop will make for the craziest and most brutal rated-R movie starring pre-teens kids imaginable. Written in a loose, experimental style that's similar to Stephen King's Carrie, with several chapters presented as newspaper clippings and in other non-narrative formats, The Troop explores what exactly happened to five Boy Scouts and their group leaders when they spent time on an isolated island and, foolishly, tried helping out a sickly stranger.
In broad strokes, The Troop is The Lord of the Flies by way of Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. In regards to the William Golding comparison, Cutter's young, inexperienced characters all have distinct personalities, and the group's various interpersonal dynamics both evolve and devolve convincingly and compellingly; as for the Eli Roth parallel, readers with weak stomachs should be warned—there's a body-consuming parasite at the story's center, and it's a harbinger of some of the nastiest literary gore this side of '80s splatter-punk fiction.
The New Black: A Neo-Noir Anthology, edited by Richard Thomas (Dark House Press)
Genre fiction anthologies are my thing—my personal library is overflowing with them, frankly. I point that out to say this: The New Black is the hands-down best new short story collection I've read since 2008's Poe's Children, edited by the great horror writer Peter Straub. With The New Black, editor Richard Thomas has assembled a towering collection of neo-noir, covering horror, crime, dark thrillers, and magical realism without ever reaching too deeply into fantasy of heightened supernaturalism.
Fiction anthologies are typically tough books to review, with how for every five or six memorable stories, there are one or two dismissible missteps; The New Black, though, is damn near flawless. It's 20 for 20, packing more than enough thematic and tonal diversity and, impressively, maintaining a uniformity of vision and scope. For fans of psychological darkness, Benjamin Pearcy's "Dial Tone" unravels a horrific murder through the disorienting ramblings of the man who might be the killer; Lindsay Hunter's "That Baby" merges postpartum depression with the grotesque, bringing a motherly perspective to a story no doubt inspired by Richard Matheson's "Born of Man and Woman"; Craig Hallwork's "Dollhouse," meanwhile, takes what Rod Serling so beautifully captured in The Twilight Zone's "Miniature" episode and gives it a homicidal twist.
Too often, I'll read a fiction anthology, have a blast while doing so, but then rarely feel prompted to revisit the book as a whole, instead cherry-picking two or three stories and wondering why I paid full price. I finished Richard Thomas' The New Black a few weeks ago and I've been anxious to start it over from Story No. 1. In my book, there's no greater praise for a short story collection.
Lovecraft’s Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow (Tachyon Publications)
Like how indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg or jack-of-all-trades James Franco seemingly never sleep, always releasing new projects, genre fiction editor Ellen Datlow apparently lives in a world where days are comprised of more than 24 hours. Or she's just the hardest working woman in the game. It's the latter, of course—come December, Datlow will have released five new collections, all of which are dedicated to horror and, rest assured, are four-star material. She's the reigning queen of short-form literary scares.
Datlow's first 2014 offering, Lovecraft's Monsters, features many of horror fiction's best writers paying homage to the grandaddy of them all, H.P. Lovecraft. Whether they're evoking Lovecraft's sense of cosmic dread or directly referencing his otherworldly monster all-stars (i.e., Cthulhu, the Deep Ones, the Shoggoths), Datlow's roster of imagination-heavy scribes avoid pastiche to create their own brands of fantastical madness. Neil Gaiman checks in with "Only the End of the World Again," with its werewolf protagonist having a run-in with the Elder Things, Lovecraft's sea-dwelling gods; the great Joe R. Lansdale uses musical appreciation to achieve Lovecraftian macabre with "The Bleeding Shadow," my second-favorite story in Lovecraft's Monsters following the enigmatic and reliably nightmarish Thomas Ligotti's "The Sect of the Idiot," an existential creep-show set in a strange little town.
As if the stories themselves weren't enough, Lovecraft's Monsters also includes original artwork by illustrator John Coulthart, each drawing more stunning than the previous one (and two of which you can see at the top of this post). Seriously, Coulthart's beautifully grotesque images are worth the expense alone.
Long Lost Dog of It, by Michael Kazepis (Broken River Books)
When describing movies, TV shows, and/or books that are weird, creepy, and surrealistic, critics love using the comparison to David Lynch's singular kind of cinema. But I'll take them one step further: Michael Kazepis' Long Lost Dog of It is David Lynch meets Pulp Fiction meets government conspiracy fiction (think Three Days of the Condor), spiked with a certain dose of what-the-fuck-ness.
Set in Athens, Greece, in the summer of 2011, Long Lost Dog of It takes place against a series of protests from the city's have-nots, but that's just what's happening in the background of Kazepis' multi-perspective descent into hysteria. Through a batch of colorfully drawn and individually fascinating characters, Kazepis achieves reality-based yet existentialist horror that's never bound to form or, frankly, mental stability on the author's part. The homeless cop, the pair of bonehead bar bouncers who want to make a silly-sounding film called Ghost Wraith, the lesbian lovers with morbid preoccupations—they're all on a fast track to Hell in Long Lost Dog of It. Experiencing the downward spirals along with them is, well, wonderfully Lynchian. (Sometimes, allusions to Sir David are just unavoidable.)
The Three, by Sarah Lotz (Little, Brown and Company)
The ambition on display throughout Sarah Lotz’s novel The Three is staggering. It’s the first fiction book since Max Brooks’ sprawling World War Z to wow me like Brooks' fictional, zombie-filled oral history initially did. (It’s worth noting that World War Z was a primary influence on Lotz.)
If Lotz's name sounds familiar, it's because I just wrote about her a few paragraphs ago—she's one half of S.L. Grey, the team behind earlier list selections The Mall and The Ward. The Three is her first solo foray into horror, and it's amazing. The Cape Town, South Africa, native really swung for the fences in this rookie at-bat. It begins with Black Thursday, recognized on calendars as January 12, 2012—that’s the day when four airplanes crashed simultaneously in South Africa, Japan, Florida, and into the ocean. Amidst the countless fatalities, three young children incredibly survived, a trio of miracles that, gradually, invoke a string of worldwide paranoia and fear-mongering.
The mounting insanity is all documented by Elspeth Martins, a journalist and author of the made-up book-within-the-book, Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy. The bulk of The Three is Martins’ Black Thursday, a World War Z-like oral history comprised of journal entries, interview and chat room transcripts, radio broadcasts, and other seemingly non-literary methods of storytelling. Somehow, Lotz expertly keeps The Three’s myriad characters, plot threads, and journalistic contradictions in check while building up a surplus of dread through unreliable narrators and by treating the pre-teen crash survivors as slowly answered question-marks.
The Fever, by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown and Company)
Have you ever watched high school movies like Mean Girls and American Pie and said to yourself, "I wish this was 1,000 times darker and more disturbing"? If so, Megan Abbott's superb teenage nightmare The Fever should be your new favorite book.
With its teen characters and coming-of-age themes, Abbott's follow-up to her critically acclaimed cheerleaders-raising-hell novel Dare Me comes from the same DNA as those aforementioned movies, but it's the opposite of a comedy. At the heart of The Fever is a clique of high school girls who, together, are navigating their way through sexual awakenings, erotic thoughts, and the anxieties that stem from first-time dating. Which would be terrifying without any horror-movie interferences, but Abbott goes for the figurative jugular here, adding a garish wrinkle to their collective existence: Inexplicably, the school's female population is suffering from random seizures, vomiting attacks, frothing, and unnatural facial movements. And the residents of their small town don't embrace the girls' dilemma with open, comforting arms.
Inspired by The Fault in Our Stars, debates sprang up last month about whether it's cool for grown-ups to read young-adult fiction, leading those on argument's positive side to point out that just because a novel's protagonists are below the legal drinking age, that doesn't mean the authors in question aren't worthy of a mature readership. If those discussions come back into play anytime soon, the anti-YA crowd need only to read Megan Abbott's The Fever in order to realize that teenage drama—or, in this case, horror,—can be more powerful and expertly crafted than whatever they consider "adult adult."
The Girl With All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey (Orbit)
"The end of the world" this and "the end of the world" that. Labeling a work of fiction "post-apocalyptic" has become almost as common as rappers calling their just-released albums "classics." Thus, one can't blame me beginning M.R. Carey's novel The Girl With All the Gifts with reluctance. Everything I'd read about it, from early positive responses to the book's own back cover synopsis, implied that it'd be yet another story set after the world's collapse, and, frankly, I've had about enough of that narrative gambit. With so many movies (This is the End, The World's End) and TV shows (The Walking Dead) satisfying my after-the-fall needs, the end of days needs to, well, end.
It won't, obviously, but The Girl With All the Gifts would be an exceptional final look. Written in a beautifully authentic and deeply realized first-person voice, Carey's heartbreaking and enthralling novel follows ten-year-old girl Melanie, who's incredibly special for reasons that are slowly revealed as she learns and grows inside a classroom sanctuary. Melanie has big plans for the future, but Carey has other, much darker plans for his pint-sized protagonist. He populates her world with baddies known as the "Hungries" and the "Wild Junkers," monikers that should give you a decent idea as to where The Girl With All the Gifts is heading. What you won't be able to anticipate, however, is the emotional wallop that Carey's novel unleashes in its closing chapters.
Fearful Symmetries, edited by Ellen Datlow (ChiZine Publications)
It wouldn't be a legitimate "best genre fiction" collection without multiple Ellen Datlow releases. This inclusion, though, has a unique backstory. Fearful Symmetries, an anthology of all-new horror stories, was funded via the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter. Unlike the Veronica Mars movie or millionaire actors like, say, Zach Braff utilizing that we-need-your-money route, Fearful Symmetries doesn't have an air of falsity; as Datlow puts it in the book's introduction, "Non-theme anthologies have always been a hard sell, and it's even more difficult in today's publishing climate."
And, thankfully, the final product is a treasure trove of scary stories written with elegant prose. My personal favorite stories: Stephen Graham Jones' "The Spindly Man," a love letter to Stephen King that centers on a book club whose meeting takes a turn for the worst; "The Worms Crawl In," a ghastly look into the mind of a psychopath from weird-fiction master Laird Barron; and Pat Cadigan's "Will the Real Psycho in This Story Please Stand Up?" about a high school loner's unsuccessful prom night that's like Carrie without the pig's blood.