Tony's Top 10 Reads of 2021

Written by Tony Jones

2021 has been another fine year for horror fiction, so selecting ten favourites is not an easy task, however, I think those featured are worthy of any list. It is also wonderful to see so many relatively newcomers mixing with established big hitters. Adam Nevill and Ronald Malfi never disappoint and have both appeared in my ‘Best Of’ lists from previous years. These guys have outstanding back catalogues and if you have never sampled them, think about rectifying that in 2022, you will not be disappointed.

Simon Bestwick, Clay McLeod Chapman and Philip Fracassi have all been around for a while and also have a wide range of impressive fiction to explore, with the other five authors included all being relative newcomers: R.L. Boyle, Gus Moreno, Matthieu Simard (debut translation into English), Rob True and Jonathan Walker. I look forward to seeing what they all come up with next and I am sure promising careers lie ahead.

Almost all of these novels come from independent or small presses, highlighting the strength of the non-mainstream horror sector of the market and are books you are, sadly, unlikely to see resting on the shelves of very many traditional bookshops. However, in the shadows of the online world, horror continues to thrive, and for the reader who is ‘in-the-know’ of where to look, the genre is in a very strong place.

I have introduced them in alphabetical order, as it is a pointless exercise in ranking such high-quality fiction. I highly recommend them all, even if they are not to all tastes. I hope you have time to check a few of them and the opportunity of uncovering a new favourite author or back catalogue to delve into.

small-coverBuy from Amazon A Different Kind of Light by Simon Bestwick

A Different Kind of Light is top-heavy with genuinely standout creepy scenes which leave a lasting impression once the final page is turned. The very sly narrative is a major plus point, told in the first person in which the restrained voice sucks the reader in, giving the impression that central character Ash is looking back upon a troubled period of his life. Out of the blue he receives a message from Dani, an old university friend, who is seeking help in authenticating a piece of vintage sports film footage, which features the aftermath of the 1955 Le Mans Disaster. In this crash, the driver Pierre Levegh swerved into spectators, killing 84 and injuring 120 in the deadliest accident in motor racing history. The pair agree that there is no way this footage could have been faked and investigate further, buying the oddity on behalf of a third-party collector.

Building horror novels out of real historical events is a tricky business and A Different Kind of Light totally nails it. When Ash realises there is something very dodgy with the film, his research takes the story into unpredictable directions, with the balance of the developing supernatural storyline convincingly interconnected to the dynamics between the two main characters, and an enticing investigation into the origins of the film. This haunting novella will remain with you long after the killer ending.

small-coverBuy from Amazon The Book of the Baku by R.L. Boyle

R.L. Boyle’s The Book of the Baku is my favourite YA novel of 2021, but absolutely anybody will love this haunting and moving tale. For the most part, it is astonishingly bleak for a kid’s story and although the blurb calls it “A Monster Calls meets The Shining”, I would amend that to “A Monster Calls meets The Babadook”. This highly unsettling debut novel is very much its own beast and does not lean on anything, except for the pain of broken families, isolation, guilt and tragedy. If you think this sounds too dark or heavy, do not let that put you off. Sean is a brilliant leading character whose personal circumstances will move anybody, struggling bravely with a disability, whose cause is revealed in tragic and powerful flashbacks.

The Book of the Baku plays out in two ‘before’ and ‘after’ narratives, but it is enticingly unclear what happened to Sean’s mother when he arrives at his estranged grandfather’s house. A family tragedy has led to him developing a Conversion Order, which means he cannot talk, his leg disability also hampers his mobility and has been bullied because of it. In the past, his grandad was a writer who wrote a collection of short stories about a mythical creature, called the ‘Baku’, which feeds on the dreams of children. Sean discovers and reads this terrifying collection and begins to lose touch with reality as the stories from the book blend into his everyday world, with some real Bababook-style moments. This is one of those books where you will be shouting for the main character to confront their internal demons, and I was cheering with relief when some glimmers of light appeared in the darkness of the tunnel. In many ways, the life Sean leaves behind is considerably more harrowing than anything the Baku could do to him and it is brilliantly written into the big reveals later in the plot. The Book of the Baku is one of the bravest and most impressive horror novels I have read in a good while and deserves to be read widely in both the YA world and beyond.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman

In recent years there have been many books, both fiction and factual, about the Satanic Panic era of the 1980s, in which Evangelical Christians believed Devil worshippers walked amongst everyday Americans. Clay McLeod Chapman draws inspiration from these events, weaving a totally gripping and entirely non-sensationalist account of how the power of suggestion can ruin lives. The strength of Whisper Down the Lane is that it is not explicitly about Satanic Panic, which is never specifically mentioned, with the mood of the nation at that moment in time being brilliantly captured through the eyes of five-year-old Sean, who wonders why adults might find the cartoon He-Man: Master of the Universe or The Smurfs dangerous?

The events in the story are partly inspired by the 1984 McMartin preschool trial, in which allegations led to expensive court cases which continued into the 1990s. This thought-provoking novel should be enjoyed by traditional horror readers, psychological thriller fans, as well as those who dig true crime. The reader never truly expects the Devil himself to jump out from behind the elementary school library bookshelves, but you never know, and the ambiguity levels which envelope the 1983 and 2013 storylines are first-rate. Another strength of Whisper Down the Lane is figuring out how the timelines connect and as I headed into the last twenty percent I was totally enthralled as the coincidences started to build and reality blurred. This might be fiction inspired by reality, with a final product which is significantly deeper than your average horror novel, which concludes with a surprisingly emotional ending. This is a terrific read and even if you’re bored reading about Satanic Panic, this novel adds an extra dimension of realism to a familiar story.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Boys in the Valley by Philip Fracassi

Philip Fracassi’s Boys in the Valley has the pain, hunger, and fear of orphaned boys literally bleeding from the pages of his debut novel. The action takes place in St. Vincent's Orphanage for Boys, which is located in a remote Pennsylvanian valley, with the nearest town over twenty miles away. Set in 1905, thirty orphan boys live, work and worship under the tutelage of a small group of priests isolated from the outside world. Peter Barlow is the only character whose story is told in the first person, interested in becoming a priest himself, is the most fleshed out and given the most comprehensive backstory. His first-person narrative nudges the plot into the realms of a coming-of-age story, with other sympathetic younger male characters complementing the story beautifully.

Late one night a group of men arrives, one of which is tied up and badly wounded. Seeking sanctuary, the orphanage takes in the man whose body is covered with strange symbols carved into his flesh. It is believed the man is possessed, and shortly after he dies it becomes clear that he has brought an evil presence into the orphanage. Things then quickly take an unexpected turn when the boys suddenly confront their elders, and the atmosphere in the sleeping dormitory darkens as battle lines are drawn. Boys in the Valley could be read as a traditional good versus evil story which moves at great speed, being built around a great range of well-drawn characters of which even the most brutal garner sympathy. Once the plot shifts through the gears, there is a great deal of violence and some horrific imagery with Fracassi’s lean and brutal prose spilling over the page, with events spiraling out of control and the smallest instruments becoming deadly weapons of attack, defence or survival.

Buy from Amazon Come With Me by Ronald Malfi

I guarantee you will quickly speed through the 400-pages of Come With Me, with its very clever plot twists and intense narrative, over a few evenings. The novel opens shortly after Aaron Decker’s wife, Allison, is murdered in a random mass shooting. Loss is undoubtedly one of the major themes of Come With Me and the fact that Aaron is not particularly open with his feelings, and his struggles with the outpouring of sympathies and media interest make things worse. The narrative is a major strength of the novel, being written as if Aaron is talking to his wife, and at times you will be forgiven for forgetting the woman is dead. However, this is deliberate and allows the reader to piggyback deeper into his fractured psyche and the unanswered questions which are eating him up.

Come With Me has an outstanding hook: Aaron finds a receipt amongst Allison’s belongings for a two-night stay in a motel when from when he was out of town some months earlier. Thinking the worst, and struggling to cope, he suspects his wife was having an affair. Aaron’s complex investigation into Allison’s final movements begins deliciously slowly with Ronald Malfi weaving a web guaranteed to suck both thriller and horror readers in. Lurking in the background is the question, did Aaron really know his wife at all? From the moment where the seed of doubt is sown, the plot bobs and weaves in and out of thriller territory with the mild-mannered Aaron finding himself way outside his comfort zone, with the reader joining him on his terrifying journey.

Buy from Amazon This Thing Between Us by Gus Moreno

Gus Moreno’s strange and beguiling debut novel This Thing Between Us knocked me for six, and fans of vague weird fiction where there are no clear explanations or answers will find this irresistible. Written in a peculiar style, the reader piggybacks on a long conversation, almost a confession, between narrator Thiago and his recently deceased wife Vera. Wracked with guilt over the circumstances of her death, Thiago both reflects back upon their relationship whilst also telling the story in the present with him struggling to move on. Around this time, a supernatural presence manifests itself, which we realise might have been tracking the couple for some time. This is unsettling and off-beat stuff and if you are looking for easy answers, nothing is spelt out and is a more memorable reading experience because of its vagueness.

Even though This Thing Between Us is not a long novel. It crams much into its page length, with the first half setting the scene and the second seriously upping the ante, where things get pitch black. Do not think part two is simply twitching curtains and ambiguous shimmering shadows, hell no; blood spills and the dead rise. Part of the plot revolves around the couple buying "the world's most advanced smart speaker" known as an Itza (obviously an upgrade of Amazon’s Alexa) and the strange occurrences which follow, with them repeatedly being delivered purchases they did not buy, followed by odd noises and scratches. This Thing Between Us is a bold and highly original horror novel built around the power of grief, guilt, isolation, loneliness and the entities which might feed on those feelings. When you get to the end, you may well ask yourself “what the f**k did I just read?” and then backtrack over the previous pages for missed clues you may or may not find.

small-coverBuy from Amazon Cunning Folk by Adam Nevill

Cunning Folk opens with Tom, Fiona and Gracey arriving at their new home in the south England countryside. They have finally realised their dream of getting on the property ladder by buying a dilapidated house and escaping city life with their daughter now able to mix with nature. With Cunning Folk, Nevill asks a serious question: How well do we know our neighbours? In a big city, it is very easy to remain anonymous, but what if your only neighbours for miles turn out to be anti-social or dangerous weirdos? Things get off to a bad start when the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Moot notice Tom spying on them from an upstairs window and although he tries to smooth things over, the Moots are aggressive and unfriendly and soon an escalating tit-for-tat campaign of petty damage and disruption begins. The developing sense of isolation and paranoia is superb as Tom begins to teeter on the edge of obsession.

Before long Tom’s every waking moment concerns the Moots; bad dreams occur and their daughter is unsettled by unpleasant experiences in the local woods. Much of the horror is beautifully restrained, as ambiguity is used to full effect and the reader truly begins to appreciate how out of place Tom and his family are in this remote location. In reality, most of us only truly notice our neighbours when they become problematic and Cunning Folk amplifies this in spades with the developing supernatural story. This novel is littered with great sequences, none better than the outstanding plank scene (you will know what I mean when you read it), with most of the violence saved for the final 20% with a cool curveball in the final 10%. The final chapters still had my eyes nailed to the page for the knockout ending, which I loved right to the haunting final paragraph.

small-coverBuy from Amazon The Country Will Bring Us No Peace by Matthieu Simard

The Country Will Bring Us No Peace is a quality example of Weird Fiction, with a story laced with ambiguity and a deep sense of melancholy which can only come from grief and loss. Ultimately, it is a powerful tale of a broken relationship, the attempts to repair it and the cause of the anguish. When the reason is revealed, and the fallout which follows, I was genuinely moved by the flashbacks, seen from the points of view of both main characters Simon and Marie. The couple alternatively and often abruptly tell their stories in the first person, after arriving at an unnamed town, abandoning their life in the city and seeking a fresh start. It is an incredibly stylish read and I loved the way the storyline switched between the pair and also in and out of sync, with the same incident being played out on through alternative eyes, which makes the narrative deliberately jarring and fractured.

Interestingly, no names are even given, but ‘the town’ is a terrific location which is clearly down at heel and full of empty properties. In the background, a broadcast antenna is mentioned and some of the ill-fortune of the dying town is blamed on this ominous construction which lurks in a nearby forest. The plot dances around the antenna and its purpose, which is perhaps a metaphor for something else, whilst other oddball characters drift in and out of the action. If you like strange, mediative and eerie books which are tricky to classify, this beautifully bleak novella is unmissable but provides zero straightforward answers. It is an emotional tale with a punch but is also very dark with an off-the-wall ending which fits perfectly with the tone of the preceding events. What happened in the end? Send me your answers on a postcard.

Buy from Amazon In the Shadow of the Phosphorous Dawn by Rob True

In the Shadow of the Phosphorous Dawn refuses to follow any writing rule book, giving multiple snapshots of a broken drug user, drifting in and out of hallucinations, receiving and dishing out savage beatings in equal measures, whilst trying to solve a series of gruesome murders. Events open with Carl struggling to recover from the death of his brother and is attempting to leave behind an existence of drugs, petty crime and street life. However, a series of brutal gangland killings which perplex both the police and the various lowlifes mean that Carl is sucked back into the scene. In his attempts to go clean, he has been working as a private investigator, with most of his income coming from using surveillance equipment to bug offices, homes and cars. His old boss Mick wants Carl to use his devices to listen in on rival gang chat and drug users to pick up potentially useful street intel on the murders all of which begins to mess with his head.

The plot is a brutal downward spiral involving pain, paranoia, and blackouts. You are unlikely to come across a raw and more visceral debut than In the Shadow of the Phosphorous Dawn with the reader piggybacking upon Carl’s journey into psychosis, with his seemingly endless supply of bugs and their nonsensical chatter and the toxic relationship he has with his on/off girlfriend Anna. A murderer lurks in the background and as the plot blends elements of crime with psychedelic horror, paranoia comes tapping as shadow men lurk on the edges of Carl’s vision as he staggers further down the tunnel into darkness. Rob True has given us a debut which does not play by the literary rulebook and the end result is an intoxicating blend of genres and a stumble through both the crumbling inner-city landscapes and the mind of a broken man.

small-coverBuy from Amazon The Angels of L19 by Jonathan Walker

The beautifully written The Angels of L19 sends the reader to Liverpool 1984, building a fascinating story around a small community of Evangelical Christians who all attend the same local church, go on identical camps and whose lives are united around Jesus. The church aspect of the novel is perfectly pitched and 100% convincing, but things take a stranger turn when the main character Robert is visited by beings, which he believes are angels. Instead of going to the church elders for guidance, he bottles everything up and his visions escalate. Other themes include undiagnosed mental illness, eating disorders and bereavement, all of which help develop an already captivating story. Robert is also seen through the eyes of the second major character, Tracy, and I loved the way their friendship is framed. At age sixteen, she is a year older than the boy, but as she perceives his faith to be so strong, he becomes the natural leader of the pair. Tracey features in some truly memorable scenes, like when she is being baptised (totally submerged in water) and trying to connect with Jesus, she has the classic New Order song ‘Blue Monday’ stuck in her head. The pair contrasts each other perfectly, but combined provides the reader with a deep exploration of how faith might work in teenagers and the trials they face in modern society.

This novel is literary fiction, but also an outstanding example of ‘Christian Weird’, which began life as part of a doctorate in creative writing. If you are after head-spinning exorcist-style thrills or the gates to Hell opening then look elsewhere. However, if you enjoy thoughtful and mediative explorations of faith, then The Angels of L19 provides much to ponder. The outstanding sense of time and place and clever use of music place add extra flavour to a story which is a million miles from kitsch ‘Christian message’ fiction, and whatever you believe this is a fascinating and intelligent read. I was shocked by the powerful ending and when you get there you may wonder whether redemption is possible. A memorable and highly refreshing read.

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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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