Madison’s Top 13 Books of 2021

Arts Coverage, Blog, Books

I actually only read thirteen or so 2021 releases, so this isn’t the most selective best-of. But all these books were great and you should totally read them.

Some observations: westerns had a moment this year, as did slashers. Body horror is awesome as always, and we saw lots of postmodern and surreal fiction. All good things, as far as I’m concerned.

Check out my list below:


Honorable Mention: Anonymous, Bernard O’Donoghue, & David Lowery – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Penguin Books)

This is cheating, since this poem actually came out in the 14th Century. But this Arthurian epic has been re-released in light of this year’s stunning film adaptation, with a new introduction by The Green Knight director David Lowery in addition to academic analysis from translator Bernard O’Donoghue.

The poem is rich and enigmatic, chronicling the journey of Gawain, King Arthur’s pious nephew, to meet an immortal knight who plans to behead him. O’Donoghue’s translation is vivid and lively, eschewing certain poetic devices of the Middle English original in favour of readability. His commentary is also fascinating, touching on the cultural context of the poem and the ways it subverts conventions of Medieval literature.  


13. Chandler Morrison – Human-Shaped Fiends (Death’s Head Press)

Part of Death’s Head Press’s Splatter Westerns series, Human Shaped Fiends is less a horror western than a literary in-joke that works if you’re in on it. The plot follows a group of depraved townspeople – including a drug-addicted sheriff, a matricidal ambush victim, and a sexually sadistic bounty hunter – tracking down a gang as twisted and brutal as they are.

The joke here is that the western is an awkward fit for Morrison – known for stylish and sardonic novels set in modern-day L.A. – and that the story he produces is a limp re-hash of his earlier work. The author’s father, lovers, and writer friends appear in bookend chapters, telling him how hollow and unpleasant the book is. As the story devolves into gratuitous violence, Morrison insists that he’s simply giving his readers what they want. It’s both clever self-parody and a satire of the pitfalls of trying to write a gritty western with modern sensibilities.


12. Patricia Lockwood – No One Is Talking About This (Riverhead Books)

Poet Patricia Lockwood’s debut novel is an eerily accurate representation of how it feels to be extremely online in the 2020s. Sparkling with wit and wordplay, the novel draws heavily from Lockwood’s own life, following an internet influencer who disconnects during a family crisis.

Lockwood’s deconstruction of internet mob mentality is clever and timely, but the heart of the book lies in the second part, after the narrator’s sister gives birth to a severely disabled child and everyday life seems to stop.


11. Emma Alice Johnson – Unicorn Wasteland (Everybody Press)

Marking the literary return of bizarro writer Emma Alice Johnson, Unicorn Wasteland reads like Labyrinth as a revisionist western.

On the back of her beloved unicorn, trans woman Maria journeys through a post-apocalyptic desert to find her estranged mother and lay her old self to rest. On the way, she must contend with starvation, self-doubt, and predators human and inhuman. It’s largely a heartfelt and contemplative read – but when Johnson wants to make you squirm with terror, she can.


10. Stephen Graham Jones & Maria Wolf – Memorial Ride (University of New Mexico Press)

Genre-bending author Stephen Graham Jones riffs on westerns and road movies in this fast-paced comic about a soldier on the run. Sprung from the brig to attend his father’s funeral, Cooper Town reckons with his rough childhood and his own fears about fatherhood – in between car chases, kidnappings, and emergency surgeries after he and his pregnant girlfriend cross paths with a sadistic gang.

In classic Stephen Graham Jones fashion, Memorial Ride resists conventional happy endings while doling out shocking violence, social commentary, and bizarre plot twists. Maria Wolf provides lively illustrations and stunning cover art for each chapter.


9. Grady Hendrix – The Final Girls Support Group (Berkley Books)

Grady Hendrix reveals what happens after the horror movie credits role in The Final Girl Support Group. Modelled after the final girls of Halloween, Scream, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Silent Night, Deadly Night, the book’s characters are all massacre survivors whose traumas have been mined for Hollywood. Decades later, they find themselves targeted by a mysterious killer who knows all the best ways to destroy them.

Hendrix avoids the low-hanging fruit of having the woman pursued by a traditional slasher, instead crafting a paranoid mystery thriller that explores the phenomena of mass killings. As always, his character development is superb; he provides a fascinating backstory for each of the women, revealing how they survived during (and after) the massacres that made them famous.


8. Ali Seay – To Offer Her Pleasure (Weirdpunk Books)

To Offer Her Pleasure reads like an evil fever dream, in which all that was good is corrupted, if it wasn’t already. Protagonist Ben starts the novel as a responsible, if bitter, teen who’s had to grow up fast after the death of his father. When he finds a mysterious book in his father’s collection, he’s introduced to a demonic figure who offers to repair his fractured family – in exchange for blood offerings.

Ali Seay really turns the emotional screws in this depraved fable: as Ben falls deeper under the creature’s spell, you mourn his loss of innocence and yearn for happier times – while questioning how wholesome those days really were.


7. Hailey Piper – Queen of Teeth (Strangehouse Books)

Queen of Teeth does for the Blob what The Shape of Water did for the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Suffering from a genetic mutation, Yaya lives at the whim of a sinister pharmaceutical company – until she undergoes a visceral transformation. Vagina dentata is only the first symptom; as she evolves into something more than human, Yaya is forced to rely on an ex-lover and rogue scientist to save her from becoming a specimen – and possibly stop her from destroying the city.

In the tradition of Frankenstein, the book asks complicated questions about identity, scientific ethics, and consent – not to mention revenge, redemption, and how much one would sacrifice for love.


6. Jo Quenell / Sam Richard / Brendan Vidito / Justin Lutz – Teenage Grave (Filthy Loot)

Transformation is achieved through pain in these four razor-sharp stories, compiled by Ira Rat.

Contributing writers Jo Quenell (The Mud Ballad), Sam Richard (To Wallow In Ash & Other Sorrows), Brendan Vidito (Nightmares In Ecstasy), and Justin Lutz use surreal horror to viscerally convey the agony of addiction, grief, infidelity, and insecurity. I was especially sucked in by Lutz’s “Start Tomorrow,” a body horror tale that explores the fine line between self-help and self-destruction.


5. Hailey Piper – Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy (The Seventh Terrace)

Hailey Piper’s talents are on full display in her debut collection. Frightening, funny, and feminist, these horror stories feature everything from exorcisms and ghost stories to futuristic sci-fi, and all sorts of sinister beings that defy classification. (One of the creepiest is “We All Scream” in which a trans girl is tormented by an interdimensional ice cream man in the men’s washroom she’s shamed into using).

Piper has a flair for visuals and a strong sense of character, and puts her unique stamp on each tale.


4. Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (Weirdpunk Books)

This year’s breakout horror hit. Eric LaRocca’s epistolarynovella begins with a listing for an apple peeler, a family heirloom that the owner is selling out of desperation. A prospective buyer turns into a guardian angel and then into something more sinister, as the two women enter into a contract. One party wants total control, but the power balance shifts when the other is all-too happy to give it.

The result is an unnerving and compulsively readable psychodrama that veers into body horror, in which the obsessive relationship between the characters is mirrored by the addictive quality of the book itself.


3. Jody Wilson Raybould – Indian in the Cabinet (HarperCollins)

Canada’s first Indigenous Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Jody Wilson Raybould became a whistleblower when the Prime Minister’s Office tried to pressure her into interfering in a criminal prosecution. Her memoir is a fascinating inside look at one of Canada’s most dramatic political scandals.

Wilson Raybould doesn’t pull punches in her account of the SNC Lavalin affair, and the way she was marginalized and undermined by her own party. She also provides an interesting and slightly wonkish look at the inner workings of government. A must-read if you want to know how politics really works.


2. Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Harper Perennial)

Quentin Tarantino puts his magnum opus through a blender in this novelization of his Oscar-winning film. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (the movie) was a seedy love letter to Hollywood of the 60s, following talented but washed-up actor Rick Dalton and his unflappable stuntman Cliff Booth (who’s had a hard time finding work since he killed his wife). The film’s explosive climax (a gruesome rewriting of the Manson murders, in which Sharon Tate survives) is mentioned here only in passing. Instead, Tarantino fills the book with glamorous tall tales and lets us spend more time with Rick and Cliff.

If you like to hear Tarantino analyze movies and share industry gossip (which I do), you’ll love this. Where the book really won my heart, though, is in the character work. We really benefit from learning more about these people; the book’s juiciest stories concern Cliff, who turns out to be even more of a sociopath than we knew, but the emotional core of the story is Rick, who remains Tarantino’s most sympathetic and human creation.


1. Stephen Graham Jones – My Heart is a Chainsaw (Saga Press)

It’s no secret this was my favourite book of the year. Stephen Graham Jones’s postmodern love letter to slasher movies follows a teenage horror fanatic convinced a killer is on the loose in her community. And who could blame her? The lakeside town of Proofrock is home to enough grisly legends to spawn a dozen slashers, including campground murders, a mysterious fire, and a drowned witch, not to mention sinister goings-on involving the wealthy families buying up prime real estate along the bay.

Jade is an all-time great protagonist, a goth loner who still manages to be generous in spirit, even though she herself can’t catch a break. Her fixation on horror films is, in part, an escape from her troubled home life; Jones effectively portrays how her traumas shaped her without letting them define her.

The book has a wild climax and ends on a beautiful and violent note that provides emotional closure, while leaving more story to tell. I can’t wait for the sequel.


Obligatory Self-Promotion

I also released two books this year:

The Forest Dreams with Teeth is an occult horror novelette set during the anti-heavy metal panic in the 80s, about a metalhead teenager who gets accused of murder and caught up in a sinister ritual. Fans of folk horror and old-school weird fiction will enjoy. Buy it from Demain Publishing off Amazon.

The Doom That Came to Mellonville is a horror comedy about an accountant who inadvertently unleashes a curse on his small town, after selling off his late son’s collection of oddities. As cursed knickknacks wreak havoc and an angry mob stalks the streets, Lawrence must work with his son’s ghost and the daughter of a local hoarder to reverse the spells. For fans of macabre horror comedies like Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, and Elvira Mistress of the Dark. Buy it from Filthy Loot or off Amazon.

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