I wasn't going to do one of these as I didn't think I'd read enough this year, but then I was thinking of novels for some reason, and it occurred to me that I could make a top five about anything. So I'm going to quickly make mention of the five things - in no particular order other than as they occur to me as a write - that have affected/impressed me in particular this year. As always, your mileage may vary, but I tend to have pretty decent taste (oh, yes I do) so might well be worth checking out my recommendations...
(click on the images to purchase these rather fine picks)
1. One of the few novels actually published in 2015 that I read was The Last Outpost by Rich Hawkins, and published by Crowded Quarantine Publications. I make no bones about the fact that Rich is a good friend - as are most people in horror and the small presses; that's how it works - but I also maintain my objectivity in regards to his work. This book, the first sequel to his debut and BFS nominated novel, The Last Plague, is near perfect. Leaner, more confident than its predecessor, and one of the most consistent depictions of the bleakness of humanity and horror I've ever read, it's a near-literary post-apocalyptic masterpiece (yes, I used 'masterpiece', a word I hate; bite me). I think Rich is an astonishingly gifted writer, someone who knows how to draw detailed images with the minimal of words, and he is not afraid to push his writing every time he creates. He's also very, very humble, and doesn't promote himself nearly as much as he should; he deserves to be much better known than he currently is, but I have no doubts he'll get there. The Last Plague may not have won the BFS award for best novel this year, but The Last Outpost could be a very serious contender in 2016.
2. The Grey Men by Laura Mauro. Appearing in Black Static #45 was my first experience of her work, but it will certainly not be my last (already isn't, though I've only read another two of her stories). Taking a slightly mad concept - the sudden, inexplicable appearance of motionless bodies hanging in a low bank of cloud - Laura weaves a deeply affecting and emotional piece of work that stands in as a metaphor for depression, anxiety, isolation and that feeling of being lost to the world; of being a 'grey man' yourself. Laura's prose is both sparse and poetic, without being fussy or obtuse. She has a very quiet yet insistent voice, and it's definitely one of the strongest stories that has spoken to me in a while, giving the very real impression that this is a work close to the author's heart. Again, she is a writer who should be much better known, but I have no doubts that her star is only just on the rise.
3. Honeymoon. Something a little bit different, and only just qualifying for inclusion (the DVD came out in the UK at the beginning of 2015), Honeymoon is a micro-budget film that has a deceptively simple premise. A newly married couple retreat to her family’s cabin in the woods on the edge of a lake to enjoy the solitude and serenity. However, a number of odd experiences begin to escalate tensions between the two until personalities seem to have fractured and altered. It’s a low-key film that rises above the average for a number of reasons. Chief among these are the performances of the two main leads (there are two other, minor characters, but the film is essentially carried by its two main actors) and the dynamics between them. The acting is natural, charismatic and convincing, the emotion subtle but authentic. And the direction of the film is assured, confident and professional. The camerawork makes the most of the relatively sparse story, eschewing cheap jump scares for brooding atmosphere and a subtle creeping dread. These elements pays off massively in the end as things escalate and the story twists and turns, because you are so invested in these characters. I utterly loved this film and feel it’s one of those underrated and forgotten gems that disappear in the hubbub of bigger, noisier movies. Definitely one of my top films of the year.
4. The Dunfield Terror by Willie Meikle. Only my second experience of Willie's work, I'm now a firm fan and am endeavouring to get everything he has released through DarkFuse press (it helps that they're generally limited editions, a particular weakness of mine). Coming at the horror genre from a definitively pulp tradition, here we have a tale of mad scientist experiments, cosmic horror, everyman heroes, shady government/military organisations in the background, and a very particular 'monster' that is both wholly entrenched in horror tropes regarding mist/fog and completely original at the same time. Taking off at a cracking pace from the first sentence, the pace barely lets up as it intertwines the double narratives of the main hero in the present day trying to deal with the re-emergence of an old threat, and the decades old diary entries of one of the scientists who may have been the cause of that threat. It's a narrative double act that could have fallen apart in lesser hands, yet Willie manages to not only keep clarity and purpose throughout, but also achieves the amazingly difficult task of making each voice distinctive. If I had one complaint, it's that I wanted a longer story; but that, to me, is a testament to how much I loved it rather than any failing on the author's part. Great stuff.
5. Finally, my number five. But this isn't my least. Not by a long shot. I've waxed lyrical about this particular book to the extent that I've probably made people nauseous with my praise, but I truly believe that when you discover something utterly transcendent and wonderful, it is your duty to scream it from the highest peaks. And such it was with my reading of Damien Angelica Walters's first collection, Sing Me Your Scars. A book full of quiet emotion, of the most breath-taking prose, of heart-breaking yearning and despair; I can never find the words to do the stories contained within justice. Sometimes you discover something that completely sings to you on every level, that feels like absolute perfection; that feels like it was tailored to your own, personal experiences, needs and emotions. My absolute highlight in this collection of gems was one called Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion), a story of such delicate despair, and quiet hope that I was crying almost all the way through it. Even if this had been the only story I responded to in the collection, it would still have been worth the price. As it is, every story had a profound effect of one kind or another on me. Damien has become my absolute number one author, and I will buy every book she releases in the knowledge that it will not disappoint.
So there you have it. Five things I read/watched this year that were actually published or released this year. I have, of course, read and watched a hell of a lot more, but as I’m always playing catch-up, most of these have been older than 2015. I am going to make a point of increasing my reading speed and viewing habits, as there are loads of great looking works I want to experience. This in no way diminishes what I’ve included above, as they are all sterling examples - in my opinion - of the best that horror has to offer currently. If you haven’t encountered any of these works, or the people who have created/produced them, I hope you’ll take the time to check them out, and I hope you love them as much as I have.