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As I Shamble Forth: A Look Back at 2021

Written by Shane D. Keene

Well, I’ve been around the neighborhood for a few years. Many of you have seen my cantankerous old ass engaged in the clusterfuck of evil known as social media, and some, I hope, have read my reviews and ravings about books and movies and whatnot right here on your favorite horror resource, Horror DNA. So, as we roll into Stoker Season—more on that soon—I’m here as a double-edged, albeit rusty, sword. One side to say thank you for another year of listening to and reading my babble without tarring and feathering me. I like to believe that’s because all five of you love me, not because you haven’t located me yet. The other edge is my annual attempt to cure you of your love for me by telling you about some things I really enjoy. Don’t get too het up for contradiction though, this is no “best-of” or even really a “favorites” list. I don’t do those things. They’re subjective and provocative and I don’t like the spirit of competition they evoke. Save that shit for peer awards—more on that soon—and let us readers do what we do and love books, talk about the ones we love, and show others what we want them to show us: a mutual respect for each other’s preferences. This is a collection of the things I as an individual loved and found most memorable about my reading and watching experiences in 2021. These are not your favorites, I get that. But check it out, I bet you’ll find one or two new things to put on the list of things you dig. Dig.

Miscellanea

Okay, yes. I plan to focus on books. The bulk of my creative year revolves around the making and consumption of poetry and fiction, so the lion’s share of love goes to them. But life would be really boring if I didn’tthe queen of black magic poster small branch out and live. Here are some of the things I loved while living in ‘21. Asia. Yes, all of Asia. Horror Movie Fantasy Land, where writer balls are huge and the stories have teeth. Films like 2018’s Korean Masterpiece, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum and the Indonesian gem, The Queen of Black Magic (2020), chewed me up, swallowed me, and spewed me back out… changed, and so did Train to Busan creator Sang-ho Yeon’s Netflix series, Hellbound. It didn’t bother to chew. It swallowed me whole, processed, and voided me, a steaming pile in its wake. I loved every second. And really quick, I want to give a nod to the wonder that is TubiTV. For the cost of a couple of commercials per movie, they have thousands of B-grade gold titles in virtually any genre at any given time. The only problem I ever have finding something to watch is having too much to choose from. One more quick one, too. When I started the Dark Fusion Podcast, I wanted some unique, passionate, and dark music to accompany it, not just some generic BS. So I approached Martin Garner, frontman of LA dare-you-to-define-the-genre band Vitskär Süden and asked for permission to use their song, “War Machine Crimson.” He not only said yes immediately, but the next time they went to the studio, they recorded an entirely instrumental track of the song for my use. This is what indie-everything is all about, kids. Grassroots love being passed around like free gold. Get in on it.

Fiction

At first, I set out to break this into categories. You know the drill: the x# novels, x# novellas…

my heart is a chainsaw stephen graham jones poster smallBut no, again. This is not a list and writing it is not my day job. I’m old and I know these truths – categories and listicles are bulleted self-torture: work. Work is a drag. I don’t work voluntarily. If I appear to be doing charitable labor, I got caught and I’m doing community service. Here’s what I do to have fun, folks. Pull up a prison cell and gather round, kids. I have stories to tell, or at least, to talk about. And I had damn good fun with every single one, new and old alike. And speaking of old, I’m like an ancient record, broken and skipping away, essgee-j—essgee-j—ohemeffgee, but, damn, you guys. Does Stephen Graham Jones havethe making of gabriel davenport beverly lee poster small a brand new masterpiece or twelve every single year now? The answer: yes, yes he does. I swear, and this last year he ripped through my horror fancy with My Heart is a Chainsaw, completely gutted a favored but previously tired trope, and sent it back out into society with its bowels on the outside. If you haven’t read it and you die tomorrow, Satan will punish you. I never lie to you. Dr. Jones is a deadly poet and he knows what your heartstrings are tied to, he knows precisely where to cut for maximum effect and it hurts, my friends. Oh, goddamn, it’s so sweet and painful and gross and awfully great fun. You should try it.

immortelle catherine mccarthy poster smallAnd speaking of tropes that got turned on their tops, I thought I’d read a vampire novel, so I picked one by a new favorite author and it was a blood-salty fucking potato-chip (crisp?): couldn’t eat just one so I  had three, guzzling down the entire Gabriel Davenport Trilogy like my own closest kin just after I’ve been turned. I dare you to read The Making of Gabriel Davenport and then try to just stop. You won’t succeed, I promise and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll seek out every dark morsel you can find by author Beverley Lee. I’ll be talking more about her work in my next Horror DNA article—coming soon (bet that’s getting obnoxious now, but I so enjoy it)--but it leads me to another point I want to make here, speaking of Brits.

I would be grotesquely remiss not to mention Welsh author Catherine McCarthy’s brilliant—YES BRILLIANT, FIGHT ME—folk horror novella, Immortelle, and Stephaniepaused stephanie ellis poster small Ellis’s Paused, a book that came out this year but I had the extreme pleasure of reading in 2021, so it’s fair game. If you want to have your heart broken and the hell scared out of you, these books will check that box. And since I’m on novellas, what a year! Where to start. T.C. Parker’s gay AF dark western Salvation Springs sucked the breath out of me. It carved a hole in my chest for the purpose, and American author and medieval historian Coy Hall plugged it back up with A Grimoire of Four Imposters, a collection of four must-read folk horror tales forming a fascinating mythology and a vein of story possibility I hope he continues to mine for his dark inspiration.

someone to share my nightmares sonora taylor poster smallYou will have noted by now this lazy little game of segue I’m playing here, but hell with it. I’m on a roll now. Speaking of collections, this leads me to some of my favorite works of the year. It’s an extreme rarity for me to look back on a year and think, “Wow, the short stories kicked all the ass…”, but this is one of them. I have some glaring favorites in this category and I will call them by their names. First, let me say this, these are not in any particular order, but they are the most memorable collections and anthologies I’ve read in the last several years and you need them in your brainholes. First, the unsurprises. I’m not surprised Sonora Taylor’s erotic horror collection beat me to a pulp and made me like it. She’s done the same thing with previous works, but in Someone to Share My Nightmares she ripped my voice box out and took it home so she could hear me scream from a distance. She’s a dark master of evocation and deadly seduction and if you aren’t putty in her hands, are you reallythe bad book john f d taff poster small human at all?

I’m not surprised by author/editor John F.D. Taff’s The Bad Book. It’s a REALLY GOOD BOOK. John has a brilliant eye for a story, his own, and others, and if you’re looking for damn good ones, this is the first guy I’ll always direct you to. I’ve been reading his work for a decade now and I’ve long since stopped waiting to be disappointed. Taff couldn’t fuck up a story if he wanted to, though he’s really good at fucking up human hearts. If you haven’t read his stuff—edited and written—you need to remedy that soon. Which leads me to the upsets of ‘21, meaning of course,

Surprises

children of chicago cynthia pelayo poster smallSome really big surprises last year for me, not least of which was Chicago native Cynthia Pelayo, a Puerto Rican author with a flair for dark honesty, has long been one of my favorite poets, standing shoulder to shoulder with greats like Linda Addison and Stephanie Wytovich, among other such giants. But did you guys know she can write the hell out of a novel? I’ve read and loved her gritty, bleak short fiction before, but Children of Chicago was a goddamn revelation. Pelayo is a force to be reckoned with, and one of my favorite practitioners of this black magic we call literature. If there is one author in our midst that I would lay money on being a regular Big Five contender in the next few years, this one is it, and Children of Chicago is why. Don’t ask questions, just read it.

grimoire of the four imposters coy hall poster smallWhat about British author Craig Wallwork? Do you guys know this cat? Ever even heard of him? I hadn’t, but I’m here to tell you, you better unfuck that, because before you know it, you’re going to be hearing of him excessively. A close friend of mine recommended his collection The Human Tenderloin to me, a friend I trust immensely, so I looked him up. Saw that, furthermore, a favored short-story author, Stephen Graham Jones, dug him, and that was all anyone had to say. And were they ever right about this guy?! Wow. Human tenderloin, indeed. That’s the part this collection slices out and feeds to you, slow-cooked and shredded. This book, y’all! This book! Did I say, this book?! Well, it puts him right up there with the aforementioned Jones, Taylor, and the inimitable Clive Barker as a favorite author of small, unexpected surgical procedures. Wallwork starts at the tip of a finger and pares you down to bone one tender muscle at a time. Enjoy.

To wind up, here are a few final thoughts and also the revelation of a reading lifetime for me.

Poetry: notably absent, I know. Because I love it too much, and I’ll be sharing some articles about that love soon, but if I start, I’ll feed you another 4,000 words before I finish here and by then, I’ll be left alone singing to crickets.

Finishing

Okay, I’ve named books in the past as top ten reads ever, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah, and it is always an ever-changing, shifting list, and will remain so. The life of a reader is a fickle thing and I am nothing if not a fickle fucker. But I readbetty tiffany mcdaniel poster small Tiffany McDaniel’s heartbreaking, soul-wrecking, beautiful novel three times in the last two years, and I will say with an extreme lack of fickleness or doubt, Betty is my current favorite book of all-time, my holy grail of fuck-yes with an extra helping of yes. It’s essential for any horror reader, jam-packed with warning-free triggers and nightmare scenarios centered on a real-life drama and a young girl who never learned the word “quit”. When I think of genre-unidentified books that belong on the reading lists of all lovers of horror, Betty, and Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, top the list. I love it and I’m not alone. You will too.

Fucking Off…

…for now. There were far too many great reads in 2021 to limit to one essay like this, and there will be even more in the months and years to come. I’ll be back, and damn soon I think, with another annoying article full of dark fiction adoration and snarky commentary you didn’t ask for. If you stuck with me this long, you’re a star, and if you purchase and read some of the outstanding works I’ve mentioned, you’re a goddamn hero.

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About The Author
Shane D. Keene
Staff Reviewer - USA
Shane Douglas Keene is a reviewer, columnist, and poet living in Portland, Oregon. He spends his spare time drinking scotch and/or beer, playing guitar, and thinking of ways to scare small children and puppies. He pays meticulous attention to beard maintenance, mostly because it freaks people out, and he writes about dark fiction and poetry in various places, including his blog at Shotgun Logic.
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