Apropos of absolutely nothing, I decided to compile a list of my favourite horror novels of the last ten years (to be honest, it’s probably simply because I like making lists; that and procrastination). I should possibly have waited until 2020 to do this but I didn’t, because time is an illusion and calendar dates doubly so. I stress that this is a list of my favourite novels, not necessarily the best: I haven’t read nearly enough of a cross-section of the genre to attempt such an objective assessment, and these matters can only be assessed with a degree of distance anyway. I’ve even ranked the list chronologically, because trying to establish an order of preference would be futile. I should also point out that the list is heavily biased towards quiet horror, folk horror, cosmic horror and the ghost story. Anybody looking for slasher fiction, vampiric romance, zombie apocalypses or torture porn will be sorely disappointed.
Dark Matter is a pure ghost story which deploys all the techniques of the genre to considerable effect, but what really distinguishes it from the majority of such narratives is its setting at the limits of human endurance and habitation: the remote hyperborean archipelago of Svalbard. The novel achieves the paradoxical feat of feeling simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic, contrasting the confinement of the research station with the vast, pitiless Arctic landscape beyond and making both seem utterly oppressive—and that’s even before the addition of the supernatural element.
This is a book ostensibly written for children, or young adults at least, but that fact should not be allowed to obscure its potency: it’s as frightening as many adult novels that I’ve read, and I dread to think how it would’ve traumatised me had I read it as a child. The plot is inspired by a macabre Border ballad of the same name—although Barraclough relocates the action from Northumberland to Essex—and it offers everything you could possibly want from a work of folk horror: a decaying mansion beside a foggy marsh, a grisly local legend, hints of witchcraft and a truly ghoulish bogeyman.
The ambience of the Pacific Northwest has proved fertile ground for weird fiction over the years, most famously as the setting for the classic television series Twin Peaks. But whilst Skillute—the settlement which provides Knock Knock with its location—only slightly resembles David Lynch’s eponymous town, it has a similar atmosphere, evoking the isolation of the community and the implacable hostility of the wilderness beyond its precincts. The lives of Skillute’s residents are also beautifully drawn, lending a very human dimension to the persistent horror which lies at the novel’s heart.
The centrepiece of Barron’s Old Leech mythos, it is not essential to have read the author’s short fiction to enjoy The Croning, but to have done so undoubtedly adds context and depth to the experience. Barron has steadily built a reputation as the finest writer of cosmic horror to have emerged since Thomas Ligotti and this novel shows exactly why. All the author’s most characteristic traits are in evidence: the gonzo prose, the noirish tropes, the persistent sense of dread, and a portrait of an extraterrestrial god and its acolytes which surpasses even the horror of the Cthulhu mythos.
I have confined myself to one book per author, otherwise several novels by Adam Nevill would appear on this list. House of Small Shadows is probably his most divisive work: a number of critics were disappointed by it, but others—including myself—consider it to be the most viscerally disturbing thing he’s written. It is also the most imaginative, with a plot that revolves around Reformation martyrs, animate manikins, macabre taxidermy, deviant sexuality and millenarian idolatry. Like all Nevill’s novels, the atmosphere of dread is suffocating throughout and builds to a profoundly bleak climax.
Graham Joyce’s early death from cancer in 2014 robbed weird fiction of one of its most sensitive and subtle voices. Perhaps fittingly, his final novel is one of his most poignant: an elegiac and evocative portrait of the summer of 1976 set in the most spectral of landscapes—the English seaside. As in so many of the author’s works, it is the juxtaposition between the supranormal and the mundane which gives this tale its power. To categorise it as a horror novel almost seems inappropriate; rather it is a ghost story in the truest sense and its lingering sense of loss will haunt the reader as it haunts the protagonist.
An eerie meditation on faith, tradition and spirit of place, The Loney is an astonishingly assured début novel and it is no surprise that it was so highly acclaimed by critics, gaining it a reputation that brought a much wider readership than such works typically enjoy. However, an unfortunate corollary of this is that it has been much maligned by genre fans expecting something more lurid. It is instead an archetypal example of quiet folk horror—a subtle and ambiguous work which does not offer an obvious solution to its central mystery, and depends substantially on vivid atmosphere and characterisation.
This work of historical weird fiction is the author’s first novel, and it perhaps suffers from a common fault of such efforts, in that it tries to cram in too many ideas. However, when compared to the interest of the premise, this is a minor quibble—better too many ideas than too few—and does not detract overall. The action takes place in England during the Dark Ages, a period to which I am always partial, when early attempts to Christianise these isles still had to contend with the atavistic pagan past. It is this conflict that forms the basis of the story and the result is best described as Beowulf on acid.
The title of this novel does not exactly scream “folk horror”, but that is exactly what the plot provides, uniting the early history of experimental film in Canada with the crypto-pagan folklore of the Wends to exceptionally eerie effect. Whilst the cynical protagonist—a frustrated cinema critic with an autistic child—is clearly a proxy for Files herself, she is no mere Mary Sue and her character flaws are very much on display; indeed they often drive the narrative. This act of self-insertion also allows the author to explore the condition of autism, which affirms the novel’s importance in the genre.
This short novel manages to combine two of my favourite things: weird fiction and the psychedelic folk music of the early 1970s. Happily Elizabeth Hand does full justice to that compelling premise. The author is one of the genre’s finest stylists, and her prose imbues the narrative with a bewitchingly ethereal and elegiac atmosphere; a delicate portrait of the uncanny steeped in awe as much as dread. My only criticism is that it’s over too soon, and whilst the succinctness undoubtedly lends the novel potency—like some exquisitely crafted miniature—I believe it could’ve accommodated further material.
Another début novel that suffers slightly from trying to incorporate too much, but which proves so compelling in other respects that it transcends that flaw. Rawblood sits firmly at the heart of the Gothic tradition: there is a brooding mansion, family secrets and an ancestral ghost. However, Ward has all the innovations of modern literature at her disposal and makes fine use of them to create something like a deconstruction of the Gothic novel. It is also worth mentioning the stark beauty of the author’s terse prose, which reads like Cormac McCarthy or Ted Hughes rewriting Horace Walpole.
Like Laird Barron, John Langan has made his name over the last decade as one of the most accomplished writers of short-form weird fiction; he also resembles Barron in that he has developed a vision of cosmic horror, which, although in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, does not borrow directly from that revered pioneer. Langan’s second novel, The Fishermen, marks a definite progression from his unwieldy first attempt: its premise is an original one and the author consummately escalates the tension and dread throughout, with some particularly effective foreshadowing in the early stages.
All the highest accolades seem to go to Tremblay’s preceding novel, A Headful of Ghosts, but for me this is the more powerful work. Like its predecessor, it is really a psychological thriller and dark coming-of-age tale—like a cross between Picnic at Hanging Rock and Stand By Me—rather than overt supernatural horror. The paranormal elements that do feature are only hinted at and the author leaves the authenticity of these manifestations ambiguous. But either way, it’s a thoroughly disturbing novel which culminates in a shocking act of violence that will prey on your mind long after reading.