At last, the list everyone has been waiting for – my objectively correct Top 13 Books of 2013.Read more: Madison’s Top 13 Books of 2022
A few housekeeping items:
I read more new releases than usual this year, so I’ve split this up into two lists – one for novels/novellas and another for story collections. So this headline actually lied, you’re getting 26 books.
I also didn’t get around to everything on my 2022 TBR (who did?), so there are many deserving books that I am blissfully ignorant of. But I guess that’s the nature of the beast.
Without further ado, here are my:
Top 13 Novels / Novellas of 2023
13. The Vessel – Adam L.G. Nevill (Ritual Limited)
Adam Nevill’s latest is a taut thriller featuring some very old-school feminism. A modern master of folk horror, Nevill is intimately familiar with Britain’s pagan history, and few are better at putting characters in dire situations. His protagonist Jess is a single mother caring for a dementia patient with a tragic past and a strange connection to the glade at the edge of her land; the only thing scarier than the ancient forces at work on the property is Jess’s violent ex-husband.
Based on an unproduced screenplay by the author, the prose is incredibly tight, leaving room for his striking images to jump off the page.
12. Wax and Wane – Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin (Filthy Loot)
Written in alternating voices, Wax and Wane profiles a man radicalized by a far-right werewolf cult and his wife who’s becoming increasingly afraid of him.
Ní Chiaragáin writes convincingly from the perspective of Cormac, a defeated man enchanted by the “ideal” of a patriarchal pre-modern Ireland and threatened by his compassionate, educated wife. And you feel for Ailbhe, who stays with him out of loyalty to her bedridden mother-in-law as much as grief for the man her husband used to be.
This one is chilling well before the monsters show up, and ratchets up to a tense, terrifying climax.
11. Moonfellows – Danger Slater (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing)
Bizarro writer Danger Slater returns with another offbeat sci-fi comedy as elegiac as it is absurd.
The premise: In 1906, a gravedigger, three scientists, and a military man are abducted by the U.S. government and sent on a top-secret trip to the moon. After a risky ride on a rickety ship, they find the moon populated by slugs and Viking ruins. When they fail to find massive reserves of MacGuffinite, the government loses interest in them, and the conscripts are left to live out the rest of their days on the moon, watching life on earth move on without them. Along the way, they invent the internet, succumb to the Moon Flu, and die, one by one.
To be clear: this is a very silly book packed with jokes. But Slater excels at wringing genuine emotion from nonsensical situations, and he effectively evokes the haunting vistas of the moon and the loneliness the exiles face as time passes them by. It’ll hit your funny bones but also your sad bones.
10. Bass Tape Massacre Vol. 1: Low Frequency – Breonna Hype (Castaigne Publishing)
Breonna Hype’s a pseudonym used by Lurking Transmission podcaster Evan Dean Shelton writing YA-inspired 1990s-style horror. The first volume in the series revolves around a mixtape that gets everyone dancing even as it rips a hole between the dimensions.
The action starts when DD, Walter, and Jarod (three recent grads who just want to make money, pick up chicks, and go to parties) buy a cassette from some sinister Men in Black types. What follows is crazy interdimensional Lovecraftian body horror set to a hip-hop soundtrack.
Bass Tape Massacre packs a lot of character work into a compact story (you get to know pretty much everyone in town, from the girl gang DD lusts over to the intimidating elderly lady running the snack booth), without skimping on the action or the far-out imagery.
9. #ThighGap – Chandler Morrison (Cemetery Gates Media)
Chandler Morrison’s account of a model starving herself towards transcendence is equal parts stylish and grotesque. The author’s trademark extreme horror is more restrained here, although he’s unflinching in his portrayal of the ravages of an eating disorder and the bottomless narcissism of the fashion scene.
It’s a testament to Morrison’s skill that he’s able to create empathy for a character who’s deliberately transforming herself into a monster; by the start of the book, his protagonist has already reached an advanced stage of alienation – an early phone call with her mother is chilling in its detachment. It’s a tragic character study about looking into the abyss and seeing yourself.
8. We Can Never Leave This Place – Eric LaRocca (JournalStone)
We Can Never Leave This Place reads like if Kafka’s Metamorphosis ended in an orgy of gore and dismemberment.
In a country ravaged by war (we’re never told which one), a young woman is trapped in a rapidly deteriorating house with her father’s corpse, her mother who hates her, and a new baby. This already unstable family unit is knocked even more off-balance by the arrival of a literal parade of vermin – a circus troupe of gigantic bugs and reptiles who quickly make themselves at home amid the filth.
Few are better than Larocca at constructing baroque studies in cruelty, which shouldn’t be mistaken for mindless exercises in sadism. Larocca uses body horror to explore warped power dynamics in intimate relationships – how the people we love can hurt us by harming themselves.
We Can Never Leave This Place features what might be Larocca’s most shocking ending – a happy one. The final scenes are tender and well-earned, choosing kindness and hope where nihilism would have been understandable.
7. Three Days in the Pink Tower – E.V. Knight (Creature)
E.V. Knight draws from personal experience for this tale of a kidnapped teenager, imprisoned in a pink-painted hunting cabin and subjected to brutal sexual abuse. Watched over by a mystical tarot reader, Knight’s protagonist studies her captors, learning their traumas and triggers in order to repurpose their histories into her own escape plan. She understands them intimately, but never sympathizes with them. They don’t deserve it.
Three Days in the Pink Tower is a searing story of violation and survival, though it’s not an easy read. It also boasts one of the most shocking – and satisfying – climaxes I’ve ever read.
6. Gemini Rising – Justin Lutz (Castaigne Publishing)
I’ve been hoping for a full-length Justin Lutz book since reading his self-help body horror story “Start Today” in Filthy Loot’s Teenage Grave (seriously, read that now if you haven’t). Well, my wish came true, and the result totally lived up to my internal hype.
Gemini Rising follows a neurotic journalist investigating evidence of extra-terrestrial activity, which seems to coalesce around a remote phone booth. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, because everyone deserves a chance to peel that onion themselves.
The book has the eerie tone of a good X-Files episode, with offbeat side characters and a surreal sensibility that suggests reality melting at the edges. With concise writing as precise as a scalpel, Lutz masterfully ratchets up the sense of paranoia and danger – there were several moments of pure anticipatory terror that made my stomach drop.
5. You’ve Lost a Lot of Blood – Eric LaRocca
After scoring a breakout hit with last year’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, Eric Larocca returns with another addictive epistolary novella. This one purports to be a collection of writings and recordings by an artistically-inclined serial killer, including a full novella of the same title supposedly published by the fiend.
Because Larocca narrators are more eloquent than mere mortals, the featured poems, journal entries, and fiction are compelling on their own merits, the murderous author’s flair for melodrama allowing Larocca to luxuriate in deliciously disturbing imagery. The novella-within-the-novella, which reads like an gothic take on Ex Machina, is an oppressive and unsettling story that advances the overarching themes of identity, resentment, and dependency.
You’ve Lost A Lot of Blood is also, in a way, a mystery, one you don’t realize you’re reading until everything comes together. It’s an ambitious trick that Larocca is clever enough to pull off; this is a novella you admire the craft of, even as you’re carried away by the story.
4. Below – Laurel Hightower (Ghoulish Books)
I hate moths and shuddered every time our hero’s hand brushed a furry limb in the dark. But this tale of a horror writer trapped in a cave a giant moth is more than just a monster mash.
Laurel Hightower knows what makes cryptids creepy – the subtle hints of conspiracy, the suggestion that there’s more to their existence than just a quirk of evolution. Her Mothman is an enigmatic and sinister being, and the book is filled with unsolved mysteries and sick surprises that will leave you off-kilter.
3. Reluctant Immortals – Gwendolyn Kiste (Saga Press)
The feminist gothic horror mash-up/1960s period piece you didn’t know you needed.
Reluctant Immortals sees Dracula victim Lucy Westenra alive and living in Hollywood with her equally undead friend Bertha “Bee” Mason (Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic,” the first wife of Edward Rochester). It’s the Summer of Love, but that’s the farthest thing from Bee and Lucy’s minds; the women are in hiding, Bee aware that her immortal exes are tracking her, Lucy duty-bound to guard Dracula’s chattering ashes. When Jane Eyre shatters an urn and a resurrected Dracula meets Rochester, Lucy and Bee must stop the men’s predations from infecting the 20th century.
Kiste weaves a tie-dyed tapestry while capturing hippie culture’s eerie fringe (there’s a Manson Family vibe to Rochester’s house of devoted women). Endlessly clever, the book combines the high camp macabre of gothic horror with the sinister psychedelia of the 60s, giving a voice to the women forgotten by history.
2. What Moves The Dead – T. Kingfisher (Tor Nightfire)
T. Kingfisher’s reimaging of “The Fall of the House of Usher” begins much like the original: a soldier arrives at the decaying Usher estate in the hopes of assisting a troubled friend and his ill sister, to find that both of them have declined beyond salvation.
But where Poe’s story is enigmatic, a gothic Rorschach Test that lends itself to countless interpretations, What Moves the Dead recalls the rationalism of antiquarian horror, with a cast of level-headed veterans and a mycologist set on identifying the cause of the disturbance. The resulting tale is equal parts grotesque and funny, witty without undercutting the terror. That makes it a must read not just for Poe devotees, but fans of Machen and Blackwood, too.
1. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau – Silvia Moreno Garcia (Del Rey)
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is a darkly romantic retelling of the H.G. Wells story, set against the Caste War of Yucatán. In this version, the good doctor is being funded by wealthy landowner Hernando Lizalde to produce animal/human hybrids to be used as labourers. But the hybrids are frail, and Moreau’s patron is impatient. Fearing financial ruin, Moreau concocts a risky plan to unite their two families by marrying off his daughter Carlota to Lizalde’s impulsive son.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia introduces a cast of intense, well-imagined characters and conjures a breathtaking view of a lush Mexican peninsula, where natural beauty co-exists with the unnatural results of Doctor Moreau’s cruel experiments. The tension – both romantic and political – is palpable throughout, and builds to a thrilling climax.
2022 also birthed an abundance of excellent short story collections. Below you’ll find my Top 13, in reverse alphabetical order (because the thought of ranking collections in any subjective order made my head spin):
13 Collections for 2022:
13. Where Night Cowers – Matthew M. Bartlett (JournalStone)
Where Night Cowers merges the technological with the esoteric, in style as well as story. Cosmic entities recruit new followers through radio waves. A troubled man’s body is possessed by a haunted house. A woman’s death mirrors her boyfriend’s favourite children’s book that may not exist. There’s even a Hammer Horror homage with an apocalyptic twist. Bartlett’s text has an unsettling inhuman feel, like a sentient machine writing the religious manifesto of a doomsday cult.
12. We Are Here To Hurt Each Other – Paula D. Ashe (Nictitating Books)
Paula D. Ashe plumbs the darkest recesses of the human psyche, filling her pages with mutilations, compulsions, and perversions. Some of her most disturbing tales explore how survivors can become abusers themselves, and vice versa (see the disturbing aftereffects of trauma in “Bereft” and the intergenerational torture porn of “The Mother of All Monsters”). Sometimes the villain gets what’s coming to them. Sometimes it’s not clear who the villain is. That said, her more conventional monsters (such as the living ghosts in the epistolary “Exile in Extremis”) are also batshit terrifying.
11. The Sharp Edge of the Rainbow – Madeleine Swann (Heads Dance Press)
Madeleine Swann’s collection walks the line between darkness and whimsy, crammed with bite-sized bizarro tales of dreamlike apocalypses, impossible cults, unhealthy relationships with non-human entities, and more. Swann is very good at putting characters with relatable problems into surreal situations; “Dream Job,” for instance, sees a cash-strapped janitor offered a lucrative job torturing sentient plushies. She also has a flair for offbeat historical fiction; one of her best is the Victorian tale “Mistress Peregrin’s Nightmare,” in which a yellow journalist accuses the wrong socialite of witchcraft.
10. The Memory Librarian – Janelle Monae with Yohanca Delgado, Eve L. Ewing, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, & Sheree Renee Thomas (HarperCollins)
Singer-songwriter Janelle Monae and a team of acclaimed sci-fi writers collaborated on this collection based on her futuristic concept record Dirty Computer. With rich worldbuilding and lyrical prose, The Memory Librarian explores how “dirty computers” (queer people, people of colour, and anyone else who doesn’t fit a normative mold) find ways to thrive and resist in a dystopian society that wants to wipe them clean.
Focusing on the activities of Jane 57821 and other freedom fighters who find refuge at the Pynk Hotel, “Nevermind” (written with Danny Lore) is the most directly drawn from Monae’s music; it also addresses the marginalization of trans and non-binary people in what should be inclusive spaces. The strongest standalone story is “Timebox” (Monae with Eve L. Ewing) in which a couple’s relationship breaks down when they can’t agree on how to manage the temporal anomaly in their pantry.
9. The Envious Nothing: A Collection of Literary Ruin – Curtis Lawson (Hippocampus Press)
Curtis Lawson destroys the earth in his first tale and spends the rest of the collection exploring the void. A boy spends the apocalypse at Disneyland as an all-consuming mist gets closer and closer. A woman is gradually hollowed out as her father’s ghost eats away at her sobriety and sanity. An orphaned punk rocker who finds his lost family when a gig gives way to a ritual.
Well-written and bleak, this collection is heavy on cosmic horror, with interesting takes on dystopian fiction and the ghost story.
8. The Box – Scott J. Couturier (Hybrid Sequence Media)
The Box‘s Scott J. Couturier is equally adept at writing chilling ghost stories as surreal experiments in cosmic and body horror, and provides fresh twists on monsters, cannibals, aliens, and other genre staples. The best stories have a slightly meta feel: “Monster of the Mind” sees a Ligotti-esque cosmic horror writer returning to his classic monster roots (and turning his biggest critic into one), while “#1 Fan” profiles a mostly-forgotten novelist who finds immortality not in his work, but in the undead offspring he spawns. This eclectic collection manages to retain a strong undercurrent of darkness while remaining consistently clever and fun.
7. The Black Maybe: Liminal Tales – Attila Veres (Valancourt Books)
Hungarian writer Attila Veres shares dark visions with a side of pitch-black gallows humour.
The best stories here are experimental in form. “The Amber Complex” is a metaphysical wine tasting, while “Multiplied by Zero” reads like a TripAdvisor review of a guided tour through a Lovecraftian wasteland. The most subtly audacious is the multilayered “Fogtown,” which takes the form of an article about a book about a man’s attempt to write a guide to obscure local rock bands; by the end of the tale, writer has become indistinguishable from subject.
I appreciated how Veres portrays (and provokes) extreme emotions without stooping to manipulation or cheap sentimentality. “In the Snow, Sleeping” and opening tale “To Bite a Dog” explore power dynamics in romantic relationships, while “The Black Maybe” “and “The Time Remaining” are surreal and disturbing accounts of parental cruelty. And his tales of cults are suitably immersive while retaining enough distance to clearly see the atrocities.
I’d be remiss not to mention “Walks Among Us,” an insular account of the followers of a Lovecraftian cult struggling to retain their traditions after being assimilated into mainstream society. One of the freshest takes on the Mythos I’ve come across in a while.
6. Pornography for the End of the World – Brendan Vidito (Weirdpunk Books)
Futuristic sexuality, enigmatic cults, and surreal apocalypses (sometimes in the same story!) dominate this excellent collection from Sudbury-based bizarro writer Brendan Vidito. The stories are beautifully written, employing a sort of sterile carnality and clinical grotesquerie that will remind you of another Canadian body horror master.
Vidito’s Cronenberg influence can be seen in stories like “The Human Clay” (written for the excellent Weirdpunk tribute The New Flesh, which Vidito co-edited), as well as the gory, Brood-ish “Apate’s Children” and the bizarrely erotic “Chimera Session.” Meanwhile, “The Living Column” reads like Clive Barker doing chilly sci-fi, and “Mother’s Mark” is a brief burst of pure bizarro that reminded me of Madeleine Swann. Vidito opens and closes the volume with two of his most emotionally compelling stories – “Walking in Ash” and “Nostalgia Night at the Snuff Palace,” visceral tales which ponder the role of love and hope in a world that doesn’t have much of either left.
5. How to See Ghosts & Other Figments – Orrin Grey (Word Horde)
I’m struggling to describe the vibe of this collection better than forward-writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who notes the old-school Hollywood vibe and “mix of nostalgia and grotesquerie” shared by the stories. Reading this collection is like sitting down at a diner with a raygun gothic aesthetic – at midnight, when the only other patron is a weirdo who keeps staring at you.
Many of these tales explore the existential possibilities of art in all its forms, from music (“The Splitfoot Reel,” which evokes old folklore about the demonic potential of fiddle music) to video games (“The Drunkard’s Dream,” in which a man copes with his wife’s suicide by immersing himself into an arcade game), not to mention monster movie F/X and theme park rides. Grey’s crown jewel here is “Anum’s Fire (1987) — Annotated,” an experimental tribute to Conquest, Lucio Fulci’s surreal sword and sorcery epic. This book will make you elegiac for songs you’ve never heard and movies that never existed.
4. Horrors of War – Tim Curran (Weird House Press)
The “fog of war” hides supernatural terrors stalking the battlefields of history, in this vicious collection from Tim Curran. Gruesome accounts of ghouls in the trenches and werewolves on the Eastern Front; encounters with plague-ravaged Mongol conquerors, Napoleonic cannibals, and Vietnam War tunnel rats; even a Lovecraftian horror summoned at an American testing facility in the dying days of WWII. The longest story is also the most compelling, a sadistic western that lays bare the brutality of the American frontier. Viscerally violent with authentic dialogue, Horrors of War sets a benchmark for tales of battlefield terror.
3. Ghost Games – Brooke MacKenzie (Gravestone Press)
Brooke MacKenzie’s riffs on spooky children’s games invoke the unnerving thrill of a good Creepypasta. While every story involves a person playing some sort of summoning game, the collection never gets repetitive. MacKenzie uses the games and their consequences to explore the internal lives of her characters. A popular teen summons a demon in “The Closet Game,” and his appearance is less disturbing than the realization that she isn’t the friend she thought she was. The finger-eating ghost of “The Telephone Game” is a manifestation of a student’s secret shame. A battle with a killer doll exposes a house sitter’s insecurities about her family life.
The collection closes with a list of the actual rules of each game – but by that point, you’ll be too creeped out to risk it.
2. Convulsive – Joe Koch (Apocalypse Party Press)
Tortured artists, haunted lovers, and other lost souls populate this powerful collection from The Wingspan of Severed Hands author Joe Koch. The stories here range from striking literary horror like “Offerings” (which reads like Shirley Jackson leaning into occult fantasy) to surreal experiments that leave the reader no option but to drift in the tide of the language, floating through a river that’s sometimes beautiful and sometimes putrid.
And I mean that in a good way – two of my favourite stories here are “Aristotle’s Lantern,” an arthouse take on a snuff film, and “The Buried King,” which in which a boy undergoes a metaphysical alteration while being murdered by a vagrant. And there’s a dark beauty to be found in the sublime – but too short! – transformation of an office worker in “Peaveman’s Lament.
These works display Koch’s incredible command of language; he knows exactly where he’s going even if the reader gets lost in layers of imagery and meaning. It’s not a casual read, but something you’ll want to immerse yourself in; an abstract painting that demands to be viewed from multiple angles.
1. Breakable Things – Cassandra Khaw (Undertow Publications)
Nothing But Blackened Teeth author CassandraKhaw lends their prickly, surreal style and lyrical prose to a range of tales that draw from campfire legends, fairy tales, and folklore from around the world, as well as deep space sci-fi and Lovecraftian horror.
Highlights include “An Ocean of Eyes” (a dreamlike riff on Lovecraft’s “The Cats of Ulthar”) and opening tale “Don’t Turn on the Lights,” (a disturbing deconstruction of the urban myth); my personal favourite is “You Do Nothing But Freefall” (written with A. Maus), which recounts the lifelong friendship between a shapeshifting fox and a maneki-neko.