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Last Case At A Baggage Auction Eric J Guignard Main

Tony's Top 10 Horror Novellas of 2020

Written by Tony Jones

We are undoubtedly living in a golden age of horror novellas and the quality is so high I often find myself being drawn towards this shorter format than the traditional novel. Selecting ten is not easy, however, I think those chosen are worthy of any list and it is also wonderful to see so many relatively newcomer authors featured. There are a lot of very original stories included and the future of horror is certainly in great hands. When does a novella become a short novel? I am not sure of the answer, so I am going with ‘shorter than a novel!’

small-coverBuy from Amazon US And Blood Did Fall by Chad A. Clark

And Blood Did Fall is Chad’s first novella for a while, but it was worth the wait and cleverly blends horror, thriller, and oppressive police procedural. For a 96-page story (I wish it were longer), there are a surprisingly number of characters involved in the action, brought together nicely with a very clever ending with a killer side twist. Considering the shortish page length, Clark is excellent at creating believable characters, including a lonely and unhappy barfly who gets bumped off early in the action, catching me widely off-guard. Although And Blood Did Fall is clearly a supernatural horror story, it also has a convincing hard-boiled crime feel to proceedings, with much of the action taking place in a dark gloomy city, with the police chasing an unknown, but very deadly, killer. If I were to describe this story, I would snappily tag it “Q the Winged Serpent meets Jeepers Creepers”, set in a city which has a serious Gotham City vibe which is drowning in crime, with the police losing control and seemingly helpless to do much about it.

Although there are several characters, the story is dominated by stressed female police detective Kim, who is at the end of her rope. When the story kicks off, the police are tracking a serial killer which, due to the level of crime in the city, has gone largely unnoticed by the public, even though the bodies are horribly mutilated and the count is increasing. However, the detective soon begins to join the dots and a deadly game of cat and mouse begins with the creature and Kim tracking each other. I really enjoyed the gritty noir feel which permeates this story and the vulnerability that the central character has, especially in contrast to the invincibility from the enemy. Throwing in some impressive gore, action and kill scenes, the story could easily have been developed into a longer work. I sped read this in two sittings and had a fun time rooting for Kim, but the creature is very cool also, with an attitude all its own. If you have never read Chad Clark before, this is a great introduction to his impressive body of work.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US Last Case at a Baggage Auction by Eric J. Guignard

Last Case at a Baggage Auction takes us back to Detroit 1963 where two wheeler-dealer hustlers buy and sell objects they win in bids at auctions of items (luggage, suitcases and boxes) which have either been left, forgotten, or lost in big hotels. They might spend $5, but have purchased a baggage with contents worth $500, or then again, potentially it is worthless. As the main character Charlie Stewart is a gambler, he loves the excitement of opening his buy and discovering what the contents might be and does not mind coming up financially short. This was a quirky concept to lie at the centre of the story and Guignard cleverly brings the auction process to life and it had me wondering whether many of these sales really happened. Something tells me they were real.

I loved the authentic, colourful and witty first person narrative as Charlie and his best friend Joey get more than they bargained for when they buy a trunk which includes an old gramophone record player with the story revolving around what happens when they listen to the disturbing music accompanying it. I had a lot of fun with Last Case at a Baggage Auction and I am sure the haunting scratchy chanting invaded my dreams! It has an outstanding sense of time and place, very engaging narration, and a supernatural hook to savour. All together now: “Vkhodite. Vkhodite. Vkhodite.”

Click here to read the Horror DNA review of Last Case at a Baggage Auction.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US The Balance by Kev Harrison

The character of Baba Yaga pops up here and there in dark fiction and the fascinating thing about this popular figure from Slavic folktales is that she is never quite presented in the same way, and Kev Harrison’s The Balance is an entertaining spin on the old legend. If you are after a well-crafted story with a believable and unique setting, and convincing characters, this is well worth a closer look. I particularly enjoyed the vagueness of the setting, which is probably Cold War Poland, with the slow drip of clues edging it towards the fifties. The Balance opens with sixteen-year-old Natalia bringing her ten-year-old brother Kuba home after a serious accident in which he fell from a tree breaking his leg. The injury is very serious, and the bone is jutting from the wound, there are no antibiotics, and the local doctor is fearful the boy may lose his leg from infection.

Natalia was a very sympathetic lead character and cannot stand the thought of her brother losing his leg, so she heads off into the woods to find the old lady she has heard others visit when the doctor or priest cannot help. If the mysterious old woman can help, what is her price? ‘The balance’ of the title refers to the background theme which permeates throughout the story regarding the balance between nature and religion, but you could also throw science into the mix, and the fear than comes through a lack of education or accepting only one way of life. The Balance also has some excellent set pieces built around these concepts, including a church being completely infested with insects and vermin, and another at Baba Yaga’s cottage. This novella is exceptionally good company for a couple of hours, and Kev Harrison is a writer to watch out for.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US Crossroads by Laurel Hightower

There are some bleak novellas on this list and Crossroads is as dark and unforgiving as the best of them. I would have read this book in one sitting if it were not for the overwhelming waves of sadness which radiate from the pages and I needed a break! The mood and plot reminded me slightly of Andrew Cull’s magnificent Remains, which also deals with how a mother deals with the death of a child. However, Crossroads is different in that Chris has lost her adult son (not a child) to a horrific car crash and the story picks up the action a year later with her struggling to cope and seek meaning in her life. Divorced from her husband, Chris routinely visits the place on the road where her son died, as she believes she can feel his presence there. Like Remains, the book asks the question; How far would you go to bring back someone you love?

With Chris the answer is very far indeed and from a reader’s point of view this is both wincing and brutal reading. I could feel Chris’s pain and as the supernatural elements began to ramp up, it was impossible to drag my eyes from the page as ghosts become real and the broken woman plays a dangerous and obsessive game with powers she does not fully comprehend. Crossroads is an incredibly powerful 93-pages, and rarely have I read a book with such a broken character who is willing to turn an emotional corner towards redemption, only to find that there are demons lurking everywhere. Or maybe the internal demons are worse? A truly outstanding and haunting novella.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones

Night of the Mannequins features a classic unreliable narrator, Sawyer Grimes, who completely steals the show with the unburdening of his bizarre tale. I love an unreliable narrator and Sawyer ranks amongst the best fiction has to offer, telling his story with a convincing and informal teenage voice which will take you right back to the angst of your own formative years. The opening paragraph reveals that one of Sawyer’s best friends, Shanna, lands a new job in a movie theatre and her friends decide to pay a prank on her. The five teenagers pose a discarded store mannequin as though it is a real patron in her cinema, even providing ‘Manny’ with a ticket, whilst they sit elsewhere and watch the hilarity from afar. According to Frank, this prank goes horribly wrong and the deaths which follow can be traced back to this misguided attempt at humour. This is very strange stuff.

How can a prank involving a mannequin’s dummy lead to a tragic loss of life? That is all part of the wild journey our young friend Sawyer takes the reader on. I adored the very droll sense of humour which Sawyer’s narrative injects into Night of the Mannequins, which masterfully balances making a villain out of ‘Manny’ the dummy with the obviously troubled psyche of the teenager narrator, who has more problems that he realises, or is willing to reveal. As Manny begins to play a bigger part of proceedings, the novella just gets odder and I was fascinated in discovering how events were going to play out. The author obviously had a lot of fun messing around with the tropes normally found within the horror genre, particularly the slasher film, and the result is a superb blend of absurdity, thriller, and horror which has a cool YA feel to proceedings.

Click here to read the Horror DNA review of Night of the Mannequins.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik

True Crime is narrated in the first person by a troubled teenage girl who has been systematically sexually abused by her mother over many years. The opening pages set the scene for what Suzy has been through; her mother asks her to take her top off so she can check out her breasts and then calls Suzy’s older brother, Lim, to also take a look. He downplays it and we find out that Suzy’s brother has, in some ways, protected her from worse abuse involving the mother’s numerous boyfriends. Early in the novella the siblings run away, and although the cycle of abuse with the mother is at an end, much of the story has the reader figuring out just how broken Suzy truly is, as her reactions to different situations are far from normal and her complete lack of empathy is startling. Being inside Suzy’s head is a very disturbing experience.

You are unlikely to read a better story about the long-term effects of trauma and the cycle of abuse than True Crime. This plays out perfectly as we learn more about Suzy’s brother Lim, who is partially portrayed as a closed book. There is no mention of him ever being abused; but if you read between the lines he is as damaged as Suzy and is in a similar type of horrible cycle. Their relationship is one of the most intriguing elements of this outstanding story. True Crime is a difficult book to read, but having said that, I had tunnel vision as I ate up the pages. The blunt language and short sentences suit the style perfectly and mirrors the ‘True Crime’ magazines that Suzy likes to read as a form of escapism. If this debut is anything to go by, a major new talent has arrived.

Click here to read the Horror DNA review of True Crime.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US Blood Lake Monster (Rewind or Die Book 12) by Renee Miller

Blood Lake Monster resides in the same zone as both Howl and Stranded, which are other highly entertaining Renee Miller novellas which you can speed through in a couple of hours. It packs much into its 111-pages with quirky plot shifts and family drama, but at heart it is a monster story. Most of the action takes place around a trailer park outside the nondescript Canadian town of Tweed, which Maribel Daniels dreams of departing for university. Maribel is the first great strength of Blood Lake Monster; as an outsider she was very easy to root for. Bullied at school because of her ordinary looks and with a question mark over her sexuality, she is repeatedly singled out by one of her classmates. The second major character is her younger sister Anya, who is twelve when the story opens but is developed substantially when the plot cleverly moves forward a decade to when she is a young woman in her early twenties and returns unexpectedly to the park.

The trailer park backs onto a large lake which has a reputation for being dangerous and the story has fun playing around with the idea of local myths and how they are passed on. Most people avoid going into the water as at one stage there was a large chemical spill, which turned the water red, hence the nickname ‘Blood Lake’. The story is built around a disappearance and the myths associated with the lake. Although Blood Lake Monster has its fair share of violence, with intestines spilled, decapitations and other murders, it is nicely balanced with Anya driving the story and reminiscing about her sister, whom she wished she knew better. I also enjoyed the fact that the action is also seen from the point of view of the creature, whom I found to be a very sad and lonely being.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US The Window in the Ground by Steve Stred

The Window in the Ground opens with a man (probably very old) reflecting on a time in his life when he was around fifteen and everything gets turned upside down when his grandfather decides to reveal a secret which adults normally keep from their children until they are older. Somewhere in the surrounding forest there is a very large window which is built into the ground. Nobody knows exactly how long this oddity has been there, where it came from or what lurks underneath the glass. The town has a council which monitors it but knows or understands very little. The grandfather warns the teenager that the window can impact individuals in disturbing ways and has been connected to many violent deaths. The strange and unexplainable hold it has over people is portrayed like a cross between magnetism or addiction, it is unsettling, but you are unsure why.

The story is skilfully built around this elusive window and the author gives just enough information away (but not too much) to keep the reader 100% invested. Along the way a couple of very clever curveballs are thrown, which raise the story to the next level, including a shocking moment involving the fate of the grandfather. All too often novellas or short stories which are built around a single concept become unstruck in their ending, with the author struggling to connect a great ending to the big idea. This is not the case with The Window in the Ground, which closes with a killer finish.

Although first and foremost this is a horror story, it is written with a certain sense of nostalgia which you might see in more traditional coming-of-age stories. However, take the narrator’s recollections with a pinch of salt, as this story has serious edge and if you ever stumble across a window in the ground make sure you run a mile! A brilliant introduction to the wild and crazy fiction of Canada’s finest, Steve Stred.

Click here to read the Horror DNA review of The Window in the Ground.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US Gone to See the River Man by Kristopher Triana

Cult singer Nick Drake’s sad and whimsical ‘River Man’ song is a million miles away from the monstrous interpretation which appears in this powerfully written novella which is so gripping it might be read in a single sitting. Much of Gone to See the River Man takes the shape of a journey and the reader is never too sure of what awaits at the final destination, with the cosmic horror remaining shrouded until into the very end. The story is built upon two split narratives around 25 years apart; the focus of both is Lori who is just about to turn 40 in the present-day story. Lori has a rather morbid hobby; she writes to serial killers, and when the story begins is on the way to prison to meet Edmund Cox. Lori is in love with Edmund, even though she knows he has tortured and killed many women. When the pair meet, Edmund gives Lori a mission, or a test, and this lies at the dark core of Gone to See the River Man.

Whilst Lori embarks upon her quest, we also head back into her childhood, as her past has a major role in shaping the present and Lori’s current predicament. Gone to See the River Man is mostly written in the third person from Lori’s point of view but does occasionally jump to her sister Abby and back and forwards through the two time periods. This is a deliberately jarring technique which keeps the reader on their toes with little being spoon-fed or telegraphed. Also, as Lori’s journey gets more dangerous, we begin to see how fractured her soul truly is and why. The ending is brutal, brilliant, and totally unforgettable. This is such an impressive piece of writing, you are unlikely to come across a better example of how to build dread over a relatively short page-count, with the split narratives both holding very different types of shocks and twists. An outstanding novella with genuine bite.

Click here to read the Horror DNA review of Gone to See the River Man.

small-coverBuy from Amazon US The Ethereal Transit Society by Thomas Vaughn

Pulling in at a lean and slick 136-pages, Thomas Vaughn’s trippy mind-bender The Ethereal Transit Society gives us a doomsday cult which has more of a science fiction than demonic twang to it. The action opens in deepest/darkest Arkansas with a group of three Californians looking for what they refer to as “Mecca”. However, the Mecca they are searching for is the grave of the recently deceased cult leader Quintessence (Quint for short), who recently died in a mass suicide, which was partially botched by the narrator Simon, who now has a metal plate on one half of his face where he turned the gun on himself. We quickly find out that the Ethereal Transit Society (nicknamed ‘ETs’) was an exceptionally well-known cult who preached about UFOs and the end of days, much of what is revealed in partial flashbacks. The story takes the form of a road trip with Simon, Astra and Xi driving to Boatwright Cemetery, the remote location where the cult leader wanted his corpse returned to, which is also the area where he grew up.

We quickly realise that the three are not following a traditional road map, instead they believe the dead body of Quint is radiating a ‘Transit Frequency’, a sound which is guiding them close to his grave. This weird sound echoes throughout the local area and even unsettles the hillbilly non-believers, making them do irrational things such as drown newly born babies in buckets, with animals also going crazy. Although this was not a long read, you will be quickly pulled into the quest of the three to track down Quint’s final resting place and unlock the mysteries of the coming apocalypse before they become victims of it, throwing in a large dollop of undiagnosed cosmic horror. Some of it might not make a lot of scene, but that does not matter, go with the flow, and follow the frequency!

About The Author
Tony Jones
Author: Tony Jones
Staff Writer
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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