Tony's Top 10 Horror Novels of 2020

Written by Tony Jones

2020 has been a stellar year for horror fiction, so selecting ten favourites is not an easy task, however, I think those chosen are worthy of any list and it is also wonderful to see so many relatively newcomers mixing with established big hitters. I have introduced them in alphabetical order, as to rank such good books does them all a disservice! I highly recommend them all and hope you have time to check a few of them out. I also have an accompanying article of my top ten novellas also on the site, which is well worth a closer look.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

Tender is the Flesh was first published in Argentina (Cadaver Exquisito) back in 2017 but did not arrive in translation under earlier this year, but it was worth the wait, as it completely blew me away. The concept behind the story is incredibly clever; a virus (GGB) makes consuming animals dangerous, with their flesh becoming deadly to humans. As a result, international governments pass a law which, under certain conditions, allows the harvesting of human flesh. After this legal ‘Transition’ it becomes common place, and the taboo is conveniently forgotten when cannibalism becomes the norm.

If you are after a novel to make your skin crawl, then this story nails it, partially because some of the plot is portrayed something akin to reading non-fiction, especially the sequences within the processing centre where the main character Marcos takes potential employees on a tour of the meat processing facility. The reader piggybacks on this tour of horrors and we find out that every piece of the human body (including the body hair) has a use, with the author almost drolly dropping horrifying bombs which do not get any lighter as the story develops.

The story is made even darker by the fact that Marcos runs a factory that raises and slaughters humans and is intimately involved with every stage of production. However, things take a different turn when he is given a specimen of the finest quality (Generation Pure) and he leaves her tied up in his barn whilst he deals with his father who has dementia and a sister he does not does see eye-to-eye with. Can he change? Does he want change? Or is he completely desensitised to it all? This is the main thrust of the story. Nothing is what is seems and be prepared for an abrupt but totally shocking ending. I guarantee you will not forget it quickly. One imagines the author is making a point about the way animals are treated in battery farms and processing factories, but as Marcos says, “In the end, meat is meat, it doesn’t matter where it’s from”. Maybe he will be right. I hope not.

Click here to read the Horror DNA review of Tender is the Flesh.

small-coverBuy from Amazon The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser

If you’ve yet to sample the subgenre ‘Outback Horror’, then Gabriel Bergmoser’s The Hunted is an outstanding place to start. After setting the scene, the story blends thriller with some gritty action sequences before moving full throttle into horror. It is presented as a ‘now’ and ‘then’ narrative of two different stories which eventually explosively meet, cleverly taking its time before revealing the true direction of the plot. The ‘now’ story involves a guy called Frank, probably in his fifties, who has been badgered by his son (who he rarely sees) to take his granddaughter Allie for the summer. Frank and Allie have hardly ever met, she has been having problems at school and suspects her parents might be getting a divorce. Frank owns a gas station and fast-food eatery, which is the only one for miles, and struggles to connect with his granddaughter. The book is written in the third person and seen from the point of view from both characters.

The ‘then’ story firstly introduces us to Simon, who is Australian, but is aimlessly driving around the country trying to find the ‘real’ Australia. The problem is he has little cash and is not sure what he is looking for. When he is nursing a beer in a remote pub, a beautiful young woman walks in and after they hit it off, start traveling together. However, Maggie has her own agenda, but for a while she is happy to travel with Simon. When the stories connect, what follows is an unrelenting page-turner which grabs by the throat and just does not let go, spiralling to a hair-raising finish. Frank, who has a dark history, is a tough-as-nails character who would not be out of place in an American hardboiled crime drama and seeks redemption of his own. I loved The Hunted, which is incredibly difficult to put down and perfectly pitched between thriller and horror. I devoured it!

small-coverBuy from Amazon Bone Harvest by James Brogden

Bizarrely, much of the story in Bone Harvest is set around a plot of village allotments and you may wonder whether it is possible to build a horror novel around potato, cabbage, and tomato patches. In the pivotal allotment storyline, retired Dennie Keeling leads a quiet life and spends most of her time on her plot and suspects the new allotment tenants, an otherwise friendly young couple, are up to no good. Although the Dennie Keeling story takes place in 2020, it takes its time reaching that point. Beginning in the trenches of the First World War with a British deserter turned cannibal, who is told by a fellow soldier to seek out a tiny English hamlet which follows an ancient cult, which is as far away from Christianity as you can get. This man embraces this new way of life with both hands and before long is adopted by the strange group. Written in the third person, the cult plays a big part of the story and is incredibly well drawn, making a bizarre contrast with the pottering around on the village allotments.

The cult is so well developed and cleverly presented it is truly fascinating; being spread over a century, the reader gets a genuine sense of how it grows, moving with the times with the various time jumps throughout the 20th century leading us to the present. James Brodgen obviously spent a lot of time researching and creating a believable alternative pre-Christianity type of religion, which has survived so long because it deliberately flies under the radar and is very selective with whom it recruits.  I would highly recommend this novel, which is a brilliant package of horror, dark fantasy and an ancient belief system which is so clever it is worth reading just for that. And gardening. And strawberries which taste like human flesh. Yuck.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Boy in the Box by Marc E. Fitch

Four lifelong friends head to the Adirondack Mountains (upstate New York) for one last party of drinking and hunting before Jonathan Hollis gets married, and there is a terrible accident. If you do choose to read this book, hold onto your hat and prepare yourself for one of the most brutal of journeys which is topped only by the killer finish. The last sentence remains imprinted on my brain and the spiderweb of deceit which leads to that horrific final page is hard to shake off. The story takes its time dragging us back to the original events in the mountains and opens with the funeral of Gene Hendrickson, who was one of the four best friends on the trip first time around. At the funeral, Jonathan Hollis meets his former friends and they share with him a shocking revelation which brings the earlier incident back into full focus, being seen from Jonathan’s point of view.

Boy in the Box is drenched in guilt and you will not read a better novel where one single moment can define, blight and ruin lives. The man who returns home from the mountains is a mere shell and you can feel his disintegration. Coombs’ Gulch is an outstanding location, even before anything goes up the crapper it just feels wrong. Its descriptions are perfectly pitched; from the lack of wildlife to the warnings the locals give to the holidaymakers. The men stare into the darkness of the forest and although nobody says anything, none are prepared to wander far from the safety of the cabin. I would have done the same, this place is terrifying. The supernatural element is handled subtlety and beautifully worked into a gripping story. Not everything is spelled out, but the writing is so skilled it does not need to be, with the reader looking between the lines for further answers or clues. This is an outstanding horror story where the sense of deep dread slowly tightens around the reader like slow strangulation. Unmissable.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

Set in the wilds of remote north Yorkshire, Starve Acre revolves around the death of a child which is revealed in the opening pages, so the story is ultimately even bleaker than the location. The first narrative follows the events leading up to the death and the second a few months afterwards. Both sections are harrowing reads, especially as the death itself dominates both threads but is described in only the vaguest of terms until the end. On one level Starve Acre is a study of the grief felt by Richard and Juliette Willoughby and how they cope with the loss of their five-year-old son Ewan, but there is much more to it than that. Richard and Juliette inherited Starve Acre from his parents and although he did not particularly wish to return to his childhood home, his wife persuades him to do so and not long afterwards, Ewan’s behaviour becomes unpredictable, with signs of cruelty, and there is a brooding sense that something is not right. What makes this even more powerful is that the reader knows right from the beginning about the death and what follows centres upon the journey towards this horrific event and the shocking fallout.

Developing bad dreams and fear of the dark, Ewan claims to hear a man called ‘Jack Grey’, who sounds like a boogieman from English folklore. These sequences simply crackled, and the fear experienced by the child is palpable, especially as the reader knows what calamity awaits around the corner, but not how it will play out. Much of the supernatural element is exceptionally subtle and kept low key until well into the story and the scene, for example, with the hare in the pram is hard to shake off. If you ever read this book, you will know exactly what I mean. With exquisite pacing Starve Acre heads towards an outstanding ending which, with savage imagery, lives long in the memory. Did I mention the hare?

Click here to read the Horror DNA review of Starve Acre.

small-coverBuy from Amazon It Will Just Be Us by Jo Kaplan

Wakefield Manor is one of the finest haunted houses I have entered in quite a while. It is a monstrous creation which is vividly brought to life and described entirely through the eyes of Samantha Wakefield, the youngest of two daughters who live alone with their semi-hermit mother in the decrepit family home. Samantha has an unhealthy interest in a particular room, which she has only ever known to be locked, and will soon have you reading between the lines looking for the true reasons for its closure. Why will her mother not give her a satisfactory reason why no key exists? The plot slyly revolves around this room and Sam’s fascination with it and the reader is eagerly pulled along.

Ghosts play a big part in It Will Just Be Us, but the plot cleverly bucks what you might find in the traditional haunted house tale by avoiding the usual clichés, as Sam is not scared of ghosts at all; she sees them all the time and they are part of her daily life. This house is full of ghosts from different periods, portrayed almost as memories, many of which are of dead relatives. Some wander randomly, others appear connected to certain rooms, but the core of the story revolves around the appearance of a new ghost Sam begins to see, which acts slightly different to all the apparitions. This little boy can most definitely see her and is not at all friendly. This is a very clever development, as the familiar ghostly presences move from benign to something darker and the way in which this major part of the plot plays out is superb with some great shrouding of the later developments. It Will Just Be Us is a very stylish and original ghost story and although it may be a tad quiet for some tastes, if you’re a fan of thoughtful and atmospheric supernatural tales with a convincing narrative, then you can’t go wrong. Highly recommended with a sublime ending.

Click here to read the Horror DNA review of It Will Just Be Us.

Buy from Amazon Devil's Creek by Todd Keisling

Devil’s Creek truly got under my skin and in the background I’m certain I can still hear the hum vibrating from Jacob Master’s remote Kentucky church, preaching “that old time religion”, which is guaranteed to scare the absolute crap out of you. Do not go thinking Devil’s Creek is yet another story of a dodgy religious cult; it brings significantly more to the table than that, with a fiendishly clever and multi-character plot which silkily moves from 1983 to the modern day with the memories of the earlier period casting a pitch black shadow over the present-day storyline. Jack Tremly returns to the small town of Stauford to settle the estate of his late grandmother Imogene, who raised him after a notorious and well documented incident at the church led by Jacob Masters, which remains shrouded in the shadows of the plot.

Devil’s Creek is breathtaking and has an exquisitely slow pace which builds towards a major apocalyptic plot shift in the final 30%. The main characters are convincing, and the recreation of small-town American life and its conflicts with religion are first rate. Equally impressive are the support characters who help in adding extra flavour to the book. My favourite is Skippy, a brain-damaged old man who was a school football star in his youth and can feel the approaching shift in atmosphere towards darkness, which is so effective throughout the book. I recommend this novel very highly and for fans of supernatural horror, you are unlikely to read many better tales this year. Finally, if you hear anybody singing “Oh, give me that old-time religion. It’s good enough for me”, then turn tail and run in the other direction! Jacob Masters is a truly monstrous creation. A stunner.

Buy from Amazon Tomb of Gods by Brian Moreland

Tomb of Gods completely knocked me out from beginning to end, with some of the sequences so unrelentingly fast moving it was impossible to put down. Set in the mid-1930s, eminent British archaeologist, Dr Harlan Riley, vanishes inside a recently discovered Egyptian cave whilst searching for a famous tomb. A year later, he reappears covered in mysterious scars, which look like tattoos, and is completely disorientated. Sent to a mental hospital, he is rumoured to have uncovered the afore mentioned tomb, which promised both great riches and the opportunity to solve some of the mysteries of the ancient Egyptians. In true Indiana Jones style, the hunt to find the tomb and decipher Riley’s cryptic diary is on, with the baton being passed to Egyptologist Imogen Riley, who is Harlan’s granddaughter.

Before long, after a series of deaths, it looks like the dig is cursed, as Imogen’s party descends deeper into the underworld, through a series of newly discovered levels. But what lies beneath the pyramid? That is when things really begin to kick off, when the book begins to move into an entirely unexpected, but very cool, new direction. This is an outstanding horror novel featuring some of the best underground descriptions I have read in a good stretch. Also, the mythology explored in the second half of the story is simply outstanding, expanding into unexpected supernatural and theological directions. Tomb of Gods is a book of two halves, both are excellent; the first sets the scene in the tomb, but the second goes completely mental and is unrelentingly unhinged. Imogen soon finds herself in a world of pain as everything spirals out of control, with old superstitions spooking her team, the journey for lost riches becomes an exhilarating battle for survival. An absolute delight and not a cliched old mummy in sight!

small-coverBuy from Amazon The House of a Hundred Whispers by Graham Masterton

Graham Masterton’s latest, The House of a Hundred Whispers, continues this fine run of form and if you have never sampled this author before, this genuine page-turner is a great place to start. In many ways the setting is a classic location for a haunted house novel; All Hallows Hall is a rundown Tudor mansion set on a rural part of windswept Dartmoor and its owner, the former Governor of Dartmoor Prison, is murdered in the opening chapter. The story then jumps forward to the reading of the will, which throws a few unexpected curveballs at the three siblings who are expecting to split the near two million the house will generate when sold. The siblings were on very poor terms with their father at the time of his death and we find out more about him as the story develops. Meantime, at the reading of the will, five-year-old Timmy disappears, with everybody swearing he never left the house and what appears to be a deceptively simply mystery story slowly turns supernatural, and ultimately morphs into a fiendishly well plotted hair raiser.

The novel also has an outstanding and very convincing connection with history which might have you checking Wikipedia to see what is based on fact and what is not. You will be quickly sucked into the world of architect Nicholas Owen, hidden priest holes and witching rooms, which are crucial to the plot. The supernatural connects to the folklore of the Dartmoor area is also fascinating, with ‘Gleaners’, ‘Charmers’ and ‘Old Dewar’ all added to the entertaining spin. I am not going to say too much about the ghosts, other than the fact that they are superb and play an increasingly significant part in proceedings as the novel develops, with the story also being told from their point of view. Also, have you ever given a thought to whether ghosts breathe? A fascinating thought, which this book considers, breathing your last breath repeatedly for eternity. This is a gem of a horror novel, and I am amazed that after so many novels Masterton can return from the well with such a corker. The horror legend takes the skeleton of what you might expect to find in a genre based haunted house novel but adds several extra dimensions and quirks. Great stuff.

Buy from Amazon The Residence by Andrew Pyper

Enticingly, The Residence is based around solid fact and personal tragedy laced with an unnerving supernatural twang. The main character is Franklin Pierce, who was the fourteen President of the United States from 1953-57, and when the action kicks off, he is in the very early stages of his presidency. In the opening pages of the story, his wife Jane and son Bennie are on a train to Washington, which derails, leading to the death of the boy. The story is also told from Jane’s point of view, a sickly woman who is wasting away and hates life in the White House. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a stunning location and Andrew Pyper genuinely breathes life into the old house, which becomes alive as any character. The President rattles around the rundown empty rooms, which sigh and groan, many are cold and unfurnished, and it does not feel like home. It is an outstanding location to base a ghost story.

The plot cleverly taps into the mood of the period, which had both a belief and healthy respect for the supernatural, when the President’s wife uses two renowned mediums to help connect her with the dead son. The best horror novels must have a convincing supernatural creation beating at their black heart and The Residence has a beauty. Whenever “Sir” appears, the pages positively crackle, and he features in some genuinely outstanding scenes which are laced with tension, fear, and threat. Like a cat playing with a wounded mouse, with the mice being the President and his beleaguered wife. Some of the other chilling occurrences which are developments from “Sir” are equally good and this was writing of the finest quality. Subtle, sinister, and deeply unsettling, the sort of thing I love. Watch out for the toy soldier in the bed scene! Simply put, the blending of supernatural and convincing historical setting does not come much better than this.

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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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