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December 19, 2006

Installment #20: Of Books, More Books, and "We Interrupt Our Irregularly-Scheduled Column to Talk About ... Ah, Mmm, Well ... Books!" 

Ah, the holidays are upon us and the end of the year is nigh; everywhere you go, the sound of Christmas music fills the air like the anguished shrieks of the damned echoing from the bowels of hell, shoppers wander the malls with glassy-eyed stares that make them indistinguishable from the rotting zombies in Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and all around there is a feeling of DEAR GOD KILL ME NOW AND GET IT OVER WITH!

Yes, the holidays are upon us like a drug-crazed mugger who's just jumped from the alley behind you to throw an arm across your throat and press the business end of a semi-automatic against your temple, demanding that you hand all of it over right now if you want to live to see dinner.

Bubbling over with warmth, this Season of Giving will soon surrender to thoughts of the New Year, and come 11:55 p.m. on December 31, New Year's Resolutions will be contaminating the atmosphere like the stench of that last bit of Thanksgiving turkey you forgot was in the back of the fridge until someone accidentally pulled off the plastic wrap, and these heartfelt resolutions will be delivered in the same dedicated, committed, unwavering tone of voice usually reserved for "Of course I'll call you later -- have you seen my underwear?"

And I, filled with the holiday spirit (as I always am this time of year), have decided to contribute to the Joy of the Season by doing something that everyone -- it seems -- except me has been doing for years: offering up my list of the Best Books of 2006.

A few words of explanation and some ground rules, first:

People send books to me all the time, be it for review, as a gift, or to read for award consideration, and while I am always happy to receive the gift of the written word, my schedule (both writing and work-related) is such that I end every year in the red, reading-wise; I rarely have the chance to read every book that comes my way throughout the previous 11 months. But that's okay; I feel a little bit like that character from Chet Willimason's wonderful novella "The House of Fear" who believes that, as long as he goes to bed every night without having finished the book he's currently reading, he won't die in his sleep, because the unread pages of the book will protect him.

So, if you read this and find a particular book or books you've read omitted, please don't e-mail me and ask, "How could you leave (insert title here) off the list?" This list will contain only those standout books that I have read.

(Parenthetical pause: I qualify that because, on certain message boards I frequent, there are readers and reviewers who are listing novels like Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box and Dan Simmons's The Terror as among the best novels they've read this year, which isn't playing fair. While I've no doubt that both of these novels will be superb, neither one is scheduled to be released until the first part of 2007; these folks have read Advance Reader's Copies of the novels. Ain't gonna do that here, which leads us out of the parenthetical aside and makes a smooth transition to:)

The books listed here will be only those published in 2006. I will not be recapping the plots of each book because, A) If you've read any of these, then you already know what happened in them, and, B) If you haven't read any of these, then I refuse to spoiI anything for you: consider these mini-reviews an attempt to whet your appetite.

I am also not restricting the list to a "Top 10" or a "Baker's Dozen" or anything like that; the list will be as long or as short as it needs to be. I have the stack of books right beside me, didn't bother to count how many there are, and, frankly, don't really care. 2006 was a damned good year for genre books, overall (I'm talking in quality, not necessarily in sales or popularity), and looking at the stack now, I'm grateful to have been among the above-ground folks so my life could be enriched by having read these.

With that out of the way -- and in no particular order -- here is my list of the Best Books of 2006:

The Pressure of Darkness by Harry Shannon: Not only is this a first-rate thriller, a first-rate mystery, and a first-rate action-adventure, it is, hands-down, the best horror novel Shannon has yet written. One of the things I've come to admire about Harry Shannon's work is that it's among the most muscular and unpretentious being written in any field, and Shannon heartily embraces Gary's Golden Rule of Writing Good Fiction: Forget Genre. Shannon will use any element necessary in order to tell his story the way the story demands to be told, so it's no surprise that The Pressure of Darkness blurs nearly every genre line you can name. At a hefty 440 pages, it reads like a book half that length.

Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry: Everything you've heard about this impressive first novel is true; it's haunting, lyrical (God, is it lyrical), suspenseful and scary (the two are not the same thing), and, most of all, deeply humane in the depiction of its characters. This is the first book in a trilogy from Maberry, and I for one can't see the release of the second book soon enough. The atmosphere throughout this wonderful novel (which can hold its own alongside the Silver John tales of Manly Wade Wellman) is so rich and textured you can almost feel it with your fingertips.

The Nightmare Frontier by Stephen Mark Rainey: Hurt my widdle bwain trying to figure out something better to say about this novel than I said in my blurb for it and failed miserably, so I'll just repeat myself: "Remember what it was like to read a horror novel that actually made you sweat with dread and your hand shake ever-so-slightly as you turned the page? Remember what it was like to feel your heart thud against your chest as the plight of the characters became your own? Remember what it was like to have a story cast a spell over you rather than ram everything down your throat? If so, you've reason to rejoice; if not, then you need to discover what that's like. In either case, Mark Rainey's The Nightmare Frontier delivers the goods. This is the Good, Real Stuff. From its powerful opening in the jungles of Vietnam to its nerve-wracking finale, this novel never releases its grip on the reader's nerves, brains, and heart." Rainey is Old-School (Like Huigh Cave and Robert Bloch, thank God) and nowhere is his craft more refined than this novel. Get it, get it now.

Bloodstone by Nate Kenyon: Kenyon's debut novel has been compared (not without justification) to the early works of Stephen King, in that it deals with a malevolent force that all but consumes a small town populated with the usual array of small-town characters; think It but on a smaller and more intensely-focused scale. The one quibble I have with this novel is that -- unlike many debut horror novels -- it actually needed to be a bit longer. There are times when Kenyon seems to packing a little too much into his 354-page narrative, but his writing style is so clean, his confidence in his story so strong, and his overall narrative arc so compelling, that in the end, my quibble is actually a compliment: it's better to leave the reader wanting more than to leave the reader feeling his or her time has been wasted. Your time will most definitely not be wasted with Kenyon's excellent debut.

The Keeper by Sarah Langan: Horror as social commentary the way it ought to be done, with the agenda hidden in the background and illustrated by the actions of the characters rather than in long-winded didactic speeches. While I felt that the overall story arc wasn't as strong as it could have been, Langan's exquisite prose more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings in its plotting. Along with Mayberry's Ghost Road Blues, this novel overflows with prose so effortlessly lyrical there are passages where the words threaten to shimmer right off the page. Langan also understands that, in the end, it's the cumulative effect of building terror that remains with the reader, rather than the quick shock; she also knows the difference between genuine human tragedy and the merely tragic, and her fine debut packs quite an emotional punch because of it.

Forever Will You Suffer by Gary Frank: Even if I hadn't found Frank's central character immensely likable, even if I hadn't found the story gripping, and even if I hadn't found his writing style strong and assured throughout, I would still put this book on the list because Frank pulls off a remarkable balancing act with this novel; he combines dread, tragedy, pathos, and fall-on-the-floor-laughing humor so well that you not only don't know where this story is going to go from one chapter to the next, you often can't predict where it's going to go within a single scene. The book switches gears so fast you sometimes feel like you're in the last 3 laps of the Indy 500, but never once does it hit any bumps. I admired the hell out of that; that the rest of the book had me laughing, holding my breath, and even fighting a lump in the throat once or twice (something that's not easy to do to me), was just the trophy at the end of the race (to play out the less-than-subtle racing metaphor).

Again by Sharon Cullars: If you're one of these folks who have avoided reading so-called "Paranormal Romance" novels because you think all they are is bodice-rippers with ghosts, no single book could more prove you wrong than Cullars's luminous, eloquent debut novel. Reading like a collaboration between Toni Morrison and Jack Finney, Again announces the arrival of a fresh, distinct voice, telling a story that is romantic, sensual (in the dictionary sense of the word), frightening, genuinely erotic, heartbreaking and, ultimately, life-affirming, with a final line that is pitch-perfect -- as is the rest of this lovely, heartfelt, deeply affecting novel.

Eyes Everywhere by Matthew Warner: Yes, I have a certain bias when it comes to this novel, I'll admit it -- but consider: if I had not thought so highly of this dazzling psychological horror story and its unflinching depiction of an Everyman's rapid and tragic descent into paranoid schizophrenia, I wouldn't have agreed to write the Aftwerword for it, would I? Light-years beyond Warner's debut novel, The Organ Donor in both plotting and execution (i.e. the quality of both the macro- and microwriting) -- and I say this as one who thoroughly enjoyed The Organ Donor.

Headstone City and The Dead Letters by Tom Piccirilli: Yeah, two superb novels in the same year. I considered not including either one because I have now decided that I hate Piccirilli -- no one should be this consistently excellent. I then realized that he's much bigger than I am, knows where I live, and could tie knots in my spine without breaking a sweat; so, here they are. Not only is each novel a fine reading experience in its own right, but if you read them in the order they were published (which is the same order in which they are listed here), you'll note the further evolution of Piccirilli as a story-teller; while both novels contain supernatural elements, those elements become increasingly downplayed as you move from one novel to the next; to the point where, in The Dead Letters, they're peripheral in the story yet essential to it. Piccirilli has been reaching the height of his power for the last few years; with these two stunning novels, he's even closer to the summit. The world will shake when he gets there, so hang on.

Lisey's Story by Stephen King: Like Bag of Bones (to which this novel serves as the companion piece), Hearts in Atlantis, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and From A Buick 8, King's Constant Readers are divided about this one; I have no such quibbles. When King puts his heart and soul into something, he can be devastating, and Lisey's Story is one of the most unflinching explorations of grief, love, and unachieved potential you'll ever read. The "secret language" of marriage that is grappled with throughout this book has made more than a few readers grit their teeth, if not abandon the book altogether. Their loss. This is, in my opinion, King's finest achievemnt as a novelist, genre be damned.

Pandora Drive by Tim Waggoner: Though much less serious in its intent and execution than Waggoner's previous Leisure novel, Like Death, Pandora Drive is nonetheless further proof that Waggoner, intentionally or not, has picked up at the torch where Clive Barker placed it before he took a left turn into fantasy. Often wildly over-the-top (especially in an exhilarating, funny, shocking, and endlessly creative 115-page set piece right smack in the middle of the book) but never succumbing to the outright ridiculous, Waggoner's second Leisure novel is marred only by a less-than-satisfying conclusion, but not so much that it taints the rest of the story that has come before. If you go into this expecting a serious and terrifying horror novel, you won't make to the halfway point; if you go in knowing that Waggoner has turned the surreal comedy dial all the way to 11, then you're in for one hell of a ride. Just don't be eating anything once you hit the midway point.

The Conqueror Worms by Brian Keene: Good old-fashioned, gross-out, breakneck-paced, gross-out, fun, gross-out, pulp horror, period, delivered by the writer who's arguably revitalized the extreme horror sub-genre. You'll think twice about what you use for bait when fishing season comes around. Did I mention gross-out?

Breeding Ground by Sarah Pinborough: Following on the heels of her wonderful debut The Hidden and its follow-up, The Reckoning, Sarah Pinborough has fast become my favorite new horror writer. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that Pinborough was not born, but rather created in a lab by some literary-minded scientist who decided to combine the DNA of Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, and Angela Carter. Breeding Ground contains the same eloquent, richly dense prose as The Hidden while building upon the flair Pinborough displayed for the dreadful and shocking with The Reckoning. Imagine Rosemary's Baby as a 3-way collaboration between the hosts of Pinborough's DNA and you'll have some small idea of the scope and subject of this terrific, often electrifying novel.

Four Octobers by Rick Hautala: The flap copy for this quartet of novellas from Hautala (who some of you may know as A.J. Matthews) would have you believe that the four tales are "...loosely connected..." Well, sure, if all you look at are the physical locales and the element of some characters making peripheral appearances from tale to tale, but look closer and you'll see that more connects them than just people and places: there is a palpable sense of overwhelming loss that permeates every story, so that "loosely" thing? Not so much. This beautiful edition from CD Publications boasts a gorgeous cover and interior artwork from the redoubtable Glenn Chadbourne, and collects 2 of Hautala's most accomplished novellas -- "Miss Henry's Bottles" (a personal favorite of mine) and "Cold River" -- as well as 2 brand-new works, "Tin Can Telephone" (reminiscent -- and deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as many works -- of Ray Bradbury) and "Blood Ledge". The result is one of the year's finest single-author collections, and further proof that Hautala is much, much more than just "...that other author from Maine."

Thundershowers at Dusk by Christopher Conlon: As with Eyes Everwhere, I have to confess to a certain bias; Chris asked me to read this collection in manuscript form with an eye toward providing a cover blurb. After I finished reading it, I told him, "No, I won't do a blurb -- I want to write the Introduction!" So I did. Conlon is best known as an award-winning poet and anthology editor (the most recent anthology being the excellent Poe's Lighthouse from CD Publications), but he's also a stellar writer of fiction -- he just doesn't write it all that often, which is a real loss for readers. Thundershowers at Dusk is a hands-down brilliant collection from first page to last, every story is a winner, and it contains one of the finest novellas I have ever read in any genre, period, "The Unfinished Music". As rich and rewarding a collection as you'll ever read. (And I will add here, for any publishers who happed to read this, that Conlon is now shopping around a stunning first novel entitled Midnight on Mourn Street that is going to bring a lot of sales and accolades to whichever publisher is smart enough to snatch it up.) I maintain that Conlon is a better writer now than I could ever hope to be, and Thundershowers at Dusk more than proves it. Hence my deep-rooted resentment of him.

American Morons by Glenn Hirshberg: Paul Miller's Earthling Publications gets the Hat-Trick Award this year for having published 3 exceptional books in 2006, the first being this collection, Hirshberg's follow-up to The Two Sams. While I greatly admired the first collection, American Morons surpasses it on several levels, mostly because Hirshberg's writing has become even more focused and polished; he's going to be a major force in the field in the next few years, and while his writing has more in common with that of Steven Millhauser than Stephen King, it is nonetheless some of the most nerve-wracking and unapologetically literary work being produced in the field. All of the stories are winners, but the book is worth its price for "Safety Clowns" and "Devil's Smile".

The Tenant by Roland Topor: A million thanks to Millipede Press for putting this short novel back into print, along with 4 rarely-seen short stories and Topor's own artwork (which reminded me of the surreal work of Heinrich Kley). It's an utterly gorgeous book, boasting an intelligent and articulate Introduction from Thomas Ligotti ... but mostly, there is The Tenant, which remains today just as terrifying, eloquent, and compelling as it was when originally released in 1965. The 4 shorts accompanying it are equally impressive, resulting in a genuine must-have collection.

The Collected Stories by Amy Hempel: Hempel, in case you've not read her work, is one of the finest short story writers of the last 25 years, and this omnibus assembles all 4 of her collections, including the hard-to-find At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. With the exception of the jaw-dropping novella "Tumble Home", most of her stories run less than 10 pages in length, and stand as a testament to what a skilled writer can do in a very limited amount of time. This collection contains one of my all-time favorite short stories, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried". If all so-called "literary" fiction were as exquisite as Hempel's, the world would be a better place.

The Ocean and All Its Devices by William Browning Spencer: It's been 10 years since Spencer's last collection, The Return of Count Electric and Other Stories left readers screaming for more, and Spencer delivers in a big way with this follow-up. For my money, Spencer;s work -- be it in short stories or novel form -- has always read like a head-on collision between John Cheever and Donald Barthelme; which is to say, it's rooted both in the humane and the surreal. The title story is both tragic and nightmarish, containing some of the most chilling imagery you'll encounter. Spencer doesn't write nearly enough, so grab this superb collection and keep it near to bide your time until he releases his next book.

World of Hurt by Brian Hodge: The 2nd Earthling book to appear on this list, this nerve-shattering and heartbreaking novella showcases Hodge at the top of his form, taking a tired old storyline (a character who is revivded from the dead, only to discover that something has followed him or her back into the corporeal world) and infusing it with a heavy doses of intelligence, emotional realism, and existential (in the dictionary sense of the word) terror. The most emotionally challenging and richly-rewarding a novella of the year, Hodge's prose has never been more eloquent, his storytelling never more powerful and affecting.

Mama's Boy by Fran Friel: It's almost impossible to discuss this nasty little story without giving away or hinting at its many twists and turns, so you're just going to have to settle for this: This blackest of black comedies, ingeniously structured, will leave you thinking that Norman Bates maybe wasn't all that bad a fellow. An impressive and memorable debut, and deliciously wicked to the core.

Bloodstained Oz by Christopher Golden and James A. Moore: When I first saw that Golden and Moore had collaborated on a novella, I thought it was a mis-print. How could these 2 writers -- who, in my eyes, anyway -- are polar opposites in so many ways, possibly write something together that wasn't going to read like 2 clashing styles meeting in the literary equivalent of a car crash? The answer? Bloodstained Oz, easily the nastiest work on this list (sorry, Fran), and one guaranteed to forever ruin the Judy Garland film you've come to know and love. The voice employed here in a singular one, smooth and assured; the pacing is a wonder to behold; and the story itself is, well ... oddly inspiring, in a twisted sort of way. A bloody winner, this, and Earthling's 3rd book to make this list.

The Colour Out of Darkness by John Pelan: I have a confession to make: most Lovecraft-inspired stories make me cringe, and Lovecraft pastiches make me despair, because more often than not, they bring out the worst in writers. Luckily, John Pelan's Cemetery Dance novella is an exception. Eschewing a lot of the usual trappings of the Cthulhu Mythos, Pelan adds more than a few original spins to the Lovecraft canon while never resorting to tired imitation of Lovecraft's style. Another winner.

The Bad Season by Dennis Latham: This lean and mean entry would make a great double feature with Jonathan Maberry's Ghost Road Blues, as both rely heavily on folklore and how it manifests itself -- with terrifying consequences -- in the modern world. Latham's prose makes Hemingway's look wordy and purple. A fast, hard, unnerving ride from first page to last.

For the best on-going series of books. This was a no-brainer: Gauntlet Press's The Twilight Zone Scripts of Rod Serling: Now at #3 in the series of 9 volumes (#4 will be released in March, 2007), this series of books is a must-have if you're a Serling and/or Zone freak like me. These beautifully-designed oversized books may be a little pricey for the casual reader, but they're worth every cent. Containing not the text of the scripts but reproductions of the scripts themselves (hence the size of the books), each volume is signed by Carol Serling, features Appreciations by some of the biggest writers in the business, as well as photographs from the episodes and behind the scenes, and -- and this is the biggie -- reproductions of Serling's hand-written notes on the scripts. Copies purchased directly from Gauntlet also include a chapbook with alternate versions of scenes from the broadcast shows. Each volume is a treasure chest, and invaluable to admirers of Serling and/or Zone.

And that brings us to the end of my list for 2006. I realize that the absence of an ANTHOLOGY category may seem a bit puzzling to you, but the truth is most of the anthologies I read this year also happened to have stories by me in them, so it seemed a little self-serving to list them. I'd like to say to apologize to all the wonderful editors who saw fit to purchase and publish my stories in their anthologies this year, and hope all of you will understand why I decided to forego the ANTHOLOGY category this time round.

Thanks for taking the time to endure yet another list. If you haven't read some of the books mentioned here, I hope you'll seek them out; there's a lot of great stuff here, and gives me a lot of hope for what we'll see in the year to come.

Until then....



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