As is tradition, I’ve been focusing on horror or Halloween-adjacent reads for the month of October (Shocktober), and this year I’ve got through an absurd number of them. Here’s all the books I’ve read this month with mini-reviews, for anyone looking for a horror read. I split them into two groups, overall recommendations vs ones I’d hesitate to recommend, though I’d say there’s only one on this whole list that I really felt wasn’t worth my time (see if you can guess which!). All the titles should link to the books.
My Recommended Reads from Shocktober 2020
I had heard this could be a little Marmite in writing style, so went in wary I might not like it. I loved it; the style was right up my street, though I can see why it would put some people off – the language is very clipped and colloquial. It made me think of something a bit Elmore Leonard meets Cormac McCarthy, with the kind of grim scene-settings that you could easily see coming from the latter. Except the horror angle is something else. It’s an unusual story, with some bold narrative choices – some might argue it could’ve ended about a quarter sooner, but I felt it came together very well.
This is a short and tight little sci-fi horror that very much turns the table on societal norms. I won’t say exactly how, because that’d spoil the fun, but be warned it’s not for the squeamish. It was free on Kindle, last time I checked, and well worth the short time it takes to read.
This was my first foray into Paul Trembay and I really enjoyed it; it’s a classic possession story with a very meta framing. It’s self-aware and layered with references, though with that in mind I did think it’d build to more of an unexpected twist. Not so much – it’s more a case of something where you know what you’re getting but it’s done well. Sometimes that’s more than enough.
Superb graphic novel that gives a short but sweet continuation of the Frankenstein story primarily set in modern-day America (well, with some futuristic tech). It’s suitably action-packed, violent and unusual, doing the great legend justice with an added cultural twist.
This little novella is a possession/haunting type tale that knows what it’s doing and doesn’t try to be much more. The twist in the tale doesn’t add a great deal of difference to the tried and tested tropes – which is fine, because it’s a tightly told, creepy-enough tale.
I’ve been dipping in and out of this collection for a while, as it warrants taking some time over. These are classic tales rife with proper horror details – unlike your ghosts of old that are kind-of-creepy-not-so-much these days, James conjured some really lasting visceral and haunting images. Recurring ideas include people with spider-like sinewy, hairy flesh. Yes. They’re slow burn, scholastic-style tales as you’d expect of the era, which adds to the sense of the sinister – the contrast between moments of academic drawl and sudden chilling details is great.
A fantasy world where ghosts hang around and become enslaved. Sold. Reading the premise, seeing that rocking cover (and then its black-paged paperback), and knowing Ben is a lovely chap, I’ve been looking forward to this one for ages with a sense of trepidation that it couldn’t live up to expectations. Plot twist: I really enjoyed this book. It’s conceptually brilliant and plain entertainingly readable, with an oddly endearing main character and lots of really creative details. There’s not much story progression by the book’s end (which is abrupt to say the least), but I was somewhat prepared for this as it’s the opener in a rapid-released trilogy, and I have the other two books, so nyah.
Disturbing, polished and relevant graphic novel that throws the haunted house model into an apartment block and explores themes of xenophobia. It’s hard to do really creepy horror in comic format, but this book definitely showcases how effective it can be.
Full honesty, I haven’t finished this one yet, but I’ve been really enjoying it from the start. A haunted house tale from the less common African American perspective, it’s pacy, scary and made very engaging through some excellent characterisation. I’ll update this when I finish it, but that’s probably enough said already, surely?
This one’s not horror, but definitely a suitably Halloweeny read, with its witchy theme. A feminist tour de force of a historical fantasy, full of heart, emotion and fun. Scarcely worth writing about it though because everyone knows it’s great by now, right?
Finally, a couple of honourable mentions read earlier this year: check out Mexican Gothic and The Year of the Witching, for solid, diverse horror reads, and Wytches by Scott Snyder for a chilling comic.
Very borderline over which heading to list this one under. I wanted to like it a lot; its claustrophobic, trapped-in-a-sci-fi-cave premise is great, and I found myself enjoying the narrative, always engaged. But if I ever stopped and thought about it, it felt lacking in any real texture: for a book of this length, very little happens or changes. Also, I got very little feel for the atmosphere, and the cave itself didn’t really come to life. It’s a shame, because if you crammed the same content into a novella (which really wouldn’t take much doing) it’d be great, but it didn’t have enough variety or intrigue to carry to a story this length. That said, I’d still recommend it, just don’t go in expecting a lot of surprises!
My Not-So-Recommended Reads from Shocktober 2020
I loved the concept here: a washed up crew of Scooby-Doo-style child detectives return to an unfinished case in adulthood, with Lovecraftian overtones which get out of hand. While I found it a passable book, the author tried way too hard. The writing really draws attention to itself, with overblown similes, needless tense shifts and (something that totally fails in the audio version) quips about the writing itself (e.g. referencing a character putting a word in italics). The audio was also narrated by a British guy despite being set in the States, so literally all the accents sound wrong, which kind of summed up the experience overall – a bit amateurish.
This starts out tense and creepy, charting a home invasion in a sinisterly isolated cabin in the woods. I’ve not really encountered this genre in book format before, so it felt novel, but only for a while – unfortunately it quickly loses momentum, especially when segments are confusingly rehashed from a different POV right when the action is getting going. This undermined some moments that should have been shocking or otherwise powerful, and led to a rather repetitive and unsatisfying tale.
I expected this to be one of the most solid reads on my list this year and to be honest it turned out to be the most disappointing. An ageing rock star gets haunted in what plays out to be a really overlong meander that uses up all the creepiness very early in. You can predict everything about the characters from the outset and they’re not especially interesting or engaging, so even if there was some original horror in there (which really, there wasn’t), it’d be hard to care.
And that’s a wrap. Read any great horror books this year? Let me know in the comments below!