tony jones best novels of 2023 poster large

TONY'S TOP NOVELS OF 2023

Written by Tony Jones

2023 has been another stellar year for horror fiction, so selecting ten favourites was an impossible task and in light of that fact, I have pushed the boat out and plumped for fourteen (sheesh, it could even have been twenty). Those chosen are worthy of any ‘Best of’ list and are testament to the quality of horror being released by both the big publishing houses and the independents. Apart from Marc E. Fitch, Philip Fracassi, Laurel Hightower and Kristopher Triana, the ten other authors are making their debut on my annual list, which I have been releasing since 2017. Looking forward, with this calibre of authors bringing out new books, the genre is in very safe hands.

I have introduced the books in alphabetical order, as it is a pointless exercise to rank such high-quality and wide-ranging fiction. I highly recommend all fourteen books, even if they are not to all tastes, as they touched me for all sorts of varied reasons and remained in my thoughts long after completion. I hope you have time to check a few out and have the opportunity of uncovering a new favourite author or exciting back catalogue to dig into.

the strange nathan ballingrud The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud

Nathan Ballingrud blends to perfection the mix of weird, western, horror and science fiction in his beguiling and hypnotic The Strange. The action is set on Mars, some years after this first colony has lost all contact with Earth and is slowly collapsing into madness, with their technology also disintegrating into junk. The core of the story revolves around a teenage girl trying to recover a stolen recording of her mother, and along the way discovers a mineral called the Strange, which has changed the locals in unsettling and unpredictable ways.

The story is set in the past with an alternative historical timeline, which is a clever mashup covering several genres carried by a sense of childhood longing, family ideals and a credible leading character trying to hold onto her identity in a world which is changing in ways nobody could fathom. I found the dust bowl of Mars and the broken-down settlements to be both totally captivating and absorbing, but I would not want to live there!

Buy from Amazon The Monsters in our Shadows by Edward J. Cembal

Edward J. Cembal’s The Monsters in our Shadows is a clever post-apocalyptic novel which takes familiar ideas and gives them an almighty overhaul. The narrative takes place a century on from what is referred to as “the great consumption,” when humanity was overrun and consumed by demons called Shivers. Each Shiver has a unique connection to an individual person, which might manifest at any point in their lives. Those who are afflicted are then followed 24/7 by their demon, even if for most of the time it lurks in the periphery of their vision, but ultimately the afflicted will be killed and eaten by their shadow beast. Part of the story concerns a man who has responsibility in monitoring how this bleak end plays out.

There is a medicine which can slow this grim process down, but stocks are depleted, and the novel concerns the man selected to search for more supplies in the wastelands beyond their walled town. The process in which the Shivers claim their human feast is an unnerving concept, which is incredibly well described, lurking in the background could be any number of Shivers edging closer as mealtime approaches. This novel also has first-rate world building, a killer ending and creatures to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Buy from Amazon The Broken Places by Blaine Daigle

Being entirely set in a remote part of Canada’s Yukon Territory, Blaine Daigle’s The Broken Places is a superb survival-style story of three old friends stranded in an isolated cabin while something dangerous and ancient lurks in the forests. The novel is developed around Ryne’s childhood connection with the cabin and forests, which was built by his ancestors generations earlier, but there are secrets his father and uncle chose not to pass onto him. Early on, the forest animals exhibit unnerving unnatural behaviour. The men are warned not to eat the animal meat, and as the temperature drops, the atmosphere gets tenser and more threatening.

The book is top-heavy with outstanding sequences which use restraint to perfection, expertly blending dreams and nightmares with the natural perils of the weather. The slow escalation is overseen with powerful effect, with the bickering friends dealing with weird whispers, sleepwalking, the feeling of being watched and the serious possibility they are not alone. The ending and how things connect together is also nicely managed, but the final epilogue is outstanding and pitched perfectly between melancholia, closure and a tiny smidgen of hope.

Buy from Amazon Wild Spaces by S.L. Coney

Wild Spaces is a captivating 128-page novella, written in quite simple language, almost as if we were reading a fable or fairytale aimed at youngster readers. The story describes an eleven-year-old boy who lives a happy childhood exploring the remote coastal plains and wetlands of South Carolina alongside his parents and dog. This perfectly normal existence becomes unbalanced when the boy’s grandfather appears without warning. Cracks immediately begin to appear in the family as hidden secrets resurface, none of which is openly spoken about, confusing the boy even more.

Wild Spaces beautifully captures the feelings of a different kind of puberty, with the boy struggling to understand this unnatural shift. Deep down he realises his grandfather is the cause or catalyst and the part he has played in fracturing the tight family unit is core to the success of the novella. The story is structured around much subtler nuances, family relationships, secrets, and toxic relationships rather than fireworks. It is hard to explain how unsettling the arrival of the grandfather, upsetting the daily interactions of the family, is, but the confused viewpoint of the boy who is kept in the dark is pitch perfect.

Buy from Amazon Dead Ends by Marc E. Fitch

Dead Ends is a highly original and decidedly odd dark drama which encompasses small-town horror, paranoia, families in crisis, politics, gossip, social problems and a house which may or not be haunted. There is a lot of ambiguity in this beautifully-pitched novel, and it would undoubtedly have been simpler to author a story about an ‘evil’ house which infects or pollutes the area around it than the significantly subtler whispering and twitching drama Marc Fitch delivers with great style.

This is a very bleak and downbeat book, as none of the four narratives the story is developed around are especially happy or content with their lives and are ultra-quick to point the finger or blame others for their woes. Once the blighted haunted house burns down early in the plot, this ripple effect spreads and the locals have a prime teenage outsider suspect to accuse. The end of the novel is truly haunting. However, I had a feeling in my guts that might be the case with very normal people doing horrible things, with the novel having a lot to say about modern-day America, gun crime and why many feel they are forgotten by the system or have a voice which is ignored.

small-coverBuy from Amazon A Child Alone with Strangers by Philip Fracassi

If you were to sum-up the plot of A Child Alone with Strangers in a couple of sentences it would undoubtedly resemble many trashy horror titles from the seventies or eighties, but due to the depth of characterisation, particularly the boy Henry Thorne, and the compassion the reader feels for the child, the novel soars above most genre fiction. 550+ pages is long for a kidnapping/monster novel, but it never becomes a slog and I whizzed through it over three days with Henry, the entity, and the darkening circumstances genuinely getting under my skin. After an incredibly powerful and heart-breaking opening, Henry is kidnapped and held prisoner in a remote farmhouse surrounded by miles of forest. But they are far from alone.

However, coincidentally shortly before being snatched, due to a serious accident, Henry begins to develop ESP powers and connects with a strange force lurking in the woods. Hell, even though there are some truly brutal body horror style killings, you will still end up feeling compassion for the creature! Although the action is deliberately restrained, hold onto your hat for a truly outstanding and bloody final one hundred pages, where everything explodes in the most memorable and cinematic of finishes. A Child Alone with Strangers is a fine example of old-school horror, where the monsters of the humankind variety are just as nasty (or worse) than the creatures, and as the temperature rises, you might start cheering for the other side.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Red Rabbit by Alex Grecian

I am a sucker for strange novels and few from 2023 rival Alex Grecian’s Red Rabbit, a slow, mediative, meandering and sprawling odyssey across the southern states of America in the years following the Civil War. Set in Kansas, Arkansas, and other southern states, the participants have a peculiar acceptance of the supernatural; witchcraft is tolerated and seeing ghosts seems to be fairly normal. This is a fascinating backdrop to a literary odyssey of a ragtag group of characters thrown together to find the witch Sadie Grace. Most have personal reasons for seeking her out, but principally the large bounty on her head is enough for most.

Told from numerous perspectives, including Sadie and even some ghosts, she is aware of the group approaching her farm in Burden County and their apparent threat. Red Rabbit puts its many characters through the wringer with some being lost along the way, blame horrible toad possessions, demons, cannibal towns and all manner of other unpleasant episodes in this threatening but captivating landscape. If you are patient, Alex Grecian’s version of the Wild West is a revelation; vibrant, haunting and soon you will be hedging your bets as the big showdown against the dangerous witch approaches with it difficult to decide who is good, bad or neither.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Silent Key by Laurel Hightower

Silent Key, Laurel Hightower’s outstanding genre-bender, opens with recently retired police detective Cam Ambrose struggling to cope with the death of her fellow police officer husband Tony, who died in horrific and unexplained circumstances. To make things worse, Cam’s five-year-old daughter Sammy apparently sees ghosts. Combined, these are the two main reasons the pair are abandoning their New York home to move to a rural ranch in Texas, which is owned by Cam’s uncle, who passed away earlier in the year.

When Sammy begins to see her ghostly father, Cam realises the girl has been keeping secrets, much of which is revealed deliciously slowly, with a complicated past resurfacing to haunt them after they realise the suspicious nature of the uncle’s death. I have read most of Laurel’s previous work, however, Silent Key is her most convincing yet, and is refreshingly unique to those earlier pieces, except for the recurring theme of loss, which she often returns to, bringing a raw personal edge to her fiction. The story concludes a million away from where it kicks off, which is highly unpredictable, so avoid spoilers like the plaque with this one.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Wasps in the Ice Cream by Tim McGregor

I love coming-of-age novels, and Tim McGregor’s superb Wasps in the Ice Cream ranks amongst the absolute best of them. The protagonist Mark Prewitt is sixteen and narrates this late eighties set tale in the first person, becoming infatuated with the enigmatic Georgina. Ultimately, Wasps in the Ice Cream is about what happens when you fall for the girl everyone else despises, as they think the family are witches. The story cleverly explores Mark’s inner internal conflicts, taking in lust, infatuation and the lengths he will go to keep his dream girl a secret.

How he keeps this hidden from both his friends and family is both a key and important part of the story and anybody who has ever sneaked a girl or boy into their family home will feel and identify with Mark’s pain. The use of the supernatural is subtlety handled and beautifully restrained, you will have to read the novel yourself to decide whether it exists at all and interpretations may differ. Mark does some crappy things, but his voice is so authentic I guarantee you will forgive him. The ending is also both outstanding, reflective, moving, and not dissimilar to any of us looking back upon a pivotal part of our own teenage years with a combination of nostalgia and sadness.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Claw Heart Mountain by David Oppegaard

What would you do if you found a massive life changing sum of money? is the question asked in the initial stages of David Oppegaard’s highly memorable Claw Heart Mountain. When the group of mainly rich spoilt college kids approach their remote Colorado destination, they discover an abandoned armoured van with a massive sum of money in the back, which looks like it has slipped off the treacherous mountainous road. After a vote, they decide to keep the cash and hide it close to their property. Main character and outsider Nova opposes this, but ultimately goes with the flow.

However, this is the mob’s money, who send a dangerous hitman and fixer to retrieve it at any cost, but nobody realises there is something significantly nastier than the mob lurking in the mountains, and when that turns up, the book truly begins to rock and roll. When the creature appears, it is dealt with a very straight bat; this is a vividly drawn naturalistic killing machine and it is an edgy, brutal creation, which is more of a freak of nature than supernatural. As things worsen, it is easy to root for Nova, who becomes more likable as the novel progresses. Although it dances around the idea of the Final Girl trope, it sidesteps the most obvious cliches with some terrific action-based sequences and a sweet ending. To call this tight and literary bloodthirsty novel a mere ‘creature feature’ does it a major disservice, as it is a supreme blend of horror, thriller and survival novel.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Knock Knock Open Wide by Neil Sharpson

Even if it takes some time to reveal its importance to the main plot, an unsettling children’s TV show lurks in the background of Neil Sharpson’s ultra-creepy Knock Knock Open Wide, which even though it is outdated, remains peculiarly popular. This story strand is a perfect blend of sinister and unsettling, as ‘Puckeen’ is built around what lurks inside the box which sits centre stage on the show. Trust me, you do not want to know. There are several storylines over multiple timelines, starting in 1979, with it taking a while for them to interconnect with Puckeen, but it is well worth the wait detouring through sinister priests, man-eating dogs, kidnappings, and dangerous conspiracies.

The horror elements, ultimately very Irish in theme, are deftly woven into a story of complicated family history, damaged people and convincing coming-of-age drama with an LGBTQIA+ college relationship. Everybody has secrets and the novel implies that weird supernatural forces might guide Irish life, hell, I almost believed it! The second half of the novel ramps up beautifully when more revelations are dropped with everything circling back to a key aspect of Irish mythology and, of course, what is in the box.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Sister Maiden Monster by Lucy A. Snyder

Lucy A. Snyder’s impressive Sister Maiden Monster totally blind sided me, finding myself both mesmerized and grossed out by the astonishing levels of body horror which would give prime David Cronenberg a run for his money. Be prepared for skulls being nonchalantly cracked open, with the contents devoured by infected individuals who have developed an insatiable hunger for human brains. The very clever way the deadly virus which beats at the core of Sister Maiden Monster mirrors Covid-19 is slyly and cleverly done.

This is a gripping blend of what starts out in ‘speculative’ territory before going full-blast Lovecraft. Similar to Covid-19, the virus effects people in diverse ways and is a clever part of the narrative. Some are completely asymptomatic, whilst you do not want to know what happens to others. I have a feeling this incredibly graphic pulsating novel will excite and disgust readers in equal measures and the author would undoubtedly see that was a win. The levels of violence are unflinchingly brutal, but at the same time strangely captivating. In recent times, the end of days trope has been flogged to death, but Lucy A. Snyder still manages to bring something fresh (not just brains) and juicy to the party.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Last to Leave the Room by Caitlin Starling

Caitlin Starling’s Last to Leave the Room drops a few wild concepts in the mixer, and its result is an intoxicating blend of science fiction, horror, paranoia, obsession, and doppelgängers. As a backdrop to the main story, all buildings in the city of San Siroco are slowly sinking a few centimetres every month and science is unable to explain why. Coincidentally, the internal dimensions of the main character Tamsin’s basement are expanding and these distorting proportions are unexplainable and debunk every possible law of physics. Tamsin is the head of the research team assigned to find the source of the weird subsidence and is strangely conflicted when a door (which refuses to open) mysteriously appears in her wall of her slowly expanding basement.

Things get even stranger when Tamsin discovers an exact duplicate of herself sitting beside the weird new door in her basement. Around this point I advise reading this novel even more closely, as you will be desperate for clues of what lies beyond the door, whether the new entrance is related to the buildings sinking, and what the duplicate genuinely wants. I do not claim to have cracked Last to Leave the Room 100%, but had a great time trying to decipher its secrets. Confusion is bliss.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Along the River of Flesh (Gone to See the River Man Series Book 2) by Kristopher Triana

If ever there was a book which did not need a sequel, it is Kristopher Triana’s hypnotically brutal Gone to See the River Man (2020), which graced one of my previous ‘Best of’ annual lists. Considering this sequel arrived with little advance notice or fanfare, I was expecting a substandard cash-in (humble apologies to Triana!) and was instead blown away by a fresh narrative which takes the story in clever new directions, reheating little from the original. Along the River of Flesh is exceedingly difficult to review without heading into spoiler territory and should you investigate further, ensure you tackle the original first for a deeper, more immersive and richer reading experience.

In roundabout ways some of the characters from the original return and whilst that first book concerns the groupies of the incarcerated ‘River Man’ serial killer, this sequel is much more about Edmund Cox himself, who has escaped from prison and is heading back, committing murder along the way, to his old stomping grounds of Killeen, where he has a special bond with the river and an entity which lurks within its banks. As with the original, the level of threat is incredible with groupies, police, private detectives and others all on his tail in a beautifully described landscape, which is vividly described. It feels dangerous and alive. The mythology behind the River Man is greatly expanded upon, with the musical connections being particularly fascinating. Ultimately, Kristopher Triana has given us a monstrous creation, who is every bit as captivating as Hannibal Lecter.

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Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
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