Another year has come and gone, and it’s still an absolutely titanic time for horror. Not just in the sense of longer fiction like My Heart is a Chainsaw, Red X, and Nothing But Blackened Teeth, but also in the absolute embarrassment of riches found in anthologies and short story collections. 2021 saw tributes to classic authors, mosaic collections, anthologies on a variety of bizarre themes, new offerings from body-horror greats, and a couple of amazing modern-day gothic anthologies to keep a chill in your bones. And so, naturally, it comes time to pick some of our favorites from the list, a kaleidoscopic array of weirdness from across the spectrum, everywhere from psychedelic metafictional high strangeness to queer monstrous-feminine bizarro and all stops in between. Naturally, we couldn’t pack all our favorites on one list, but hopefully these eleven dark volumes will give you a good push out from shore into the deeper, darker, and stranger waters. Hope you enjoy.
The Secret Goatman Spookshow and Other Psychological Warfare Operations, Jonathan Raab
No one does psychedelic horror like Jonathan Raab. His short stories are the equivalent of getting slightly baked late at night while watching a playlist of conspiracy and horror videos, blending together stories of haunted video games, fictional documents, cursed cable access shows, weird phenomena, and the fears and paranoid worries of the modern world. Spookshow sees Raab at his best and most versatile, delivering bizarre tales of drug-dealing wizards, ghostly military listening posts, roleplaying games that summon cosmic horrors, and clown-masked cultists in every style and tone imaginable. While this sounds like a lot, Raab is never exhausting, with background references and recurring motifs tying the collection together in its own off-kilter universe and a nice overall flow from one story to the next. It’s a peek into a very strange version of our world, and one you won’t return from unchanged.
Standout Stories: “Core Rules,” “To Oppose Evil is to Live: A Brief Oral History of Behold the Undead of Dracula the Video Game”
Hymns of Abomination: Secret Songs of Leeds, ed. Justin A Burnett
Matthew M. Bartlett is an author whose work has resonated through recent decades of modern horror, sometimes as much felt as it is seen (and if you like this collection, The Stay-Awake Men, his most recent one, also dropped recently). From his humble DIY beginnings publishing psychedelic short stories about a fictional eldritch radio station on Livejournal to his cult-classic smash Gateways to Abomination to his consistently high-quality short story and chapbook work, his influence radiates outwards like WXXT’s creeping radio waves. In tribute to his twisted genius, a group of today’s horror luminaries took their own trips to Leeds, MA, serving up their own twisted spins on Bartlett’s mythos. What follows is a very strange, personal and touching tribute to one of horror’s weirder voices, as authors weave their own personal experiences into odd metafictional stories about Bartlett’s work, make their own bizarre additions to the Leeds mythos, and in general blend fiction, metafiction, myth, and reality to talk about the ways Bartlett’s unusual voice creeps into everything we love so much. It’s weird, but it’s also incredibly heartfelt and a lot of fun to experience.
Standout Stories: “Open Call” by Askel Dadswell “The WXXT Podcast, episode 23: Leeds High School” by Tom Breen
Beneath a Pale Sky, Philip Fracassi
Fracassi’s undergoing a bit of a renaissance lately. His amazing collection Behold the Void just got reprinted, his novel Boys in the Valley came out on Halloween, and he’s got an amazing slate of works lined up, at least one of which made our 2022 mega-list of horror titles. Beneath a Pale Sky finds Fracassi much more focused and concentrated, a series of subtle builds that spiral out into wild acid-trip visuals like only he can. Whether it’s at the top of the ferris wheel or taking a tour through a very strange small town, Fracassi’s excellent understanding of how to pace his stories and knowledge of exactly when to pull the switch make every one an exercise in tense, wire-taut horror storytelling. While you can’t go wrong with either collection, this one is definitely not one to miss.
Standout Stories: “Fragile Dreams,” “Soda Jerk”
The Ghost Sequences, A.C. Wise
An unusual collection with the general theme of “haunting,” The Ghost Sequences is a slow burn, but a rewarding one. Not every story in the collection might be about ghosts, but it’s clear that all these characters are haunted–by ghosts, by horrible things that happened in the past, by the consequences of their decisions, by trauma, grief, and sometimes just by a collective wrongness. Wise matches that mood perfectly, layering on an eerie, liminal feel, a kind of quiet melancholy that persists even in the brightest of moments. That isn’t to say it’s all muted, though. There’s a bee-like hivemind that worms its way into an extraction team, a woman changes into a bird halfway through a fall off the Hoover Dam, an odd drowning spirit who keeps appearing to teenagers obsessed with an AR ghost-hunting app–and that’s just in the first few stories. Wise walks a brilliant line between muted and vivid, eerie and downright wrenching, and it’s gorgeous to read.
Standout Stories: “The Stories We Tell About Ghosts,” “Exhalation #10”
Big Dark Hole, Jeffrey Ford
Ford’s collections are always a welcome addition to the year, and while Big Dark Hole might see him experimenting with gentler, more innocuous starts and more grounded premises, he still flings you straight down the rabbit hole when he wants to. Big Dark Hole finds Ford discussing more personal territory, as well–a number of the stories feature a fictional “Jeffrey Ford” and his family, finding them confronting the realities of life through things like a “professional monster” who works out of a parking lot, and a wrestling match against an angel for tenure at a college. While there are still weird, dreamlike passages, there’s also a much more grounded view, with stories taking on topics like death, loss, and aging. But while it might be gentler and more personal, it’s still weird, beautiful, gothic, and strange, all of it definitively Jeffrey Ford.
Standout Stories: “Hibbler’s Minions,” “The Jeweled Wren”
Read Sam’s full review of Big Dark Hole here.
The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, Brian Evenson
What makes Brian Evenson’s work so terrifying isn’t simply the bizarre premises his characters find themselves in. It’s how wearily they accept it all, and how much it seems like damnation is a certainty. A lot of the time, even before the horror starts, there’s already a sense of doom hanging about the proceedings. Glassy Burning Floor is probably the best example of this in his oeuvre, blending the apocalyptic images of destroyed human-preservation efforts, domed cities, sapient legs, and other scenarios with the unnerving malaise and sense of doom that creeps up through Evenson’s stories. But while there’s certainly a bleak outlook to a number of them, the absurdity of some of the stories, and the off-kilter sense of humor some of them have create compelling and incredibly readable works that linger with you like the chill on a cold night.
Standout Stories: “Curator,” “Come Up”
Never Have I Ever, Isabel Yap
Blending modern issues with Filipino and Japanese legends, Isabel Yap’s short story collection manages a balance with “modern mythic” stories that’s easy in theory and difficult in practice. While the creatures and concepts–an image of a saint causing a miraculous harvest, a lovelorn kappa and the human woman they saved as a little girl–are familiar to those who read older stories, Yap’s voice and grasp of more modern sensibilities makes them seem new. That’s the beauty of Never Have I Ever, that you might think you know something of the story in front of you, but in Yap’s hands, it turns, twists, and becomes something quite differnt. It results in a collection that’s very much its own thing, gorgeous, strange, and a little melancholy.
Standout Stories: “A Cup of Salt Tears,” “Only Unclench Your Hand”
Read Gabino Iglesias’ review of Never Have I Ever here.
There Is No Death, There Are No Dead, ed. Aaron J. French and Jess Landry
There’s no shortage of ghost stories in the world, but there are significantly fewer about spiritualism, the odd set of practices and beliefs regarding contact with the dead. This collection, showcasing a séance group’s worth of names you know and names to know, aims to fix that en masse. In There Is No Death, there are spirit mediums who work inside theme park costumes, gothic-horror monologues from unnerving morgue workers, automatic writers, a spirit in a cabinet who resorts to drastic measures, and other tales of people who–willing or not–take a peek behind the curtain that separates life from death. It’s an unnerving proposition, to be sure, but the authors of There Is No Death make it all the more unnerving, whether it’s automatic writing on skin, or something much darker.
Standout Stories: “The Bone Eater” by Lee Murray, “Talitha Cumi” by Chesya Burke
When Things Get Dark, ed. Ellen Datlow
Inspired by a discussion at Readercon 2019, Ellen Datlow (who by this point needs no introduction) issued a challenge to some of the best horror writers on the scene: come up with a tribute to Shirley Jackson. But rather than riff on her style or use her work as a jumping off point, they were to create their own stories inspired by the themes and voices they saw in Jackson’s work. The results are fascinating, a mix of dark humor, pastoral gothic, and intimate character sketches, very much of a similar flavor to Jackson’s works, but distinct to the authors you know and love. It’s nice to see the list of heavy hitters work within those constraints, and the stories are all the better for them.
Standout Stories: “For Sale By Owner” by Elizabeth Hand, “Refinery Road” by Stephen Graham Jones
From the Neck Up and Other Stories, Aliya Whiteley
Whiteley’s no stranger to the unusual, as anyone who read her skin-crawlingly perfect novella The Beauty can attest. From The Neck Up sees her entirely in her element, with stories of body horror, strange plants, weird science, and oddly intimate settings. There are single-celled organisms that hold consciousnesses, dystopian agricultural domes, and a pandemic of adorable monsters, all weaving the line between deeply human moments and outright absurdism. It’s unsettling, to be sure, but it’s also weirdly touching, vividly strange, and full of heart.
Standout Stories: “Many Eyed Monsters,” “Loves of the Long Dead”
Read Aliya Whiteley on crafting a short story collection here.
Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy, Hailey Piper
Piper is an interesting, intense writer, taking a wild mix of surrealist literature and B-movie excess familiar to those who read works in the “bizarro” genre and applying her own themes of power, abuse, gender, and the horrors of the patriarchy. The results are wholly unique, stretching from twisted dystopian fantasy to musical cosmic horror dark comedy, every bit as lurid and gruesome as the B-movie excess and absurd surrealism of her peers but much more focused, pointed, and with much sharper teeth. It’s a wild ride, one of unforgettable images like grinning statues and gigantic women made of moonlight, and with Piper getting some serious traction these days, it’s definitely one to track down.
Standout Stories: “Demons of Particular Taste,” “Aggressive Mimicry”
Read Gabino Iglesias’ full review of Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy here.