It's that time of year, so we thought we'd better pick some of our favourite books that we've read in 2015 (though not necessarily books published this year). Enjoy.
George Sandison, managing editor
Yuri Herrera – Signs Preceding the End of the World
This book from And Other Stories is staggeringly good, and perhaps the most evocative and strange thing I’ve read for years. Herrera’s writing (translated excellently) has an essential mythic quality to it that transforms the mundane. It’s short, but each sentence is poignant and rich in detail, so much so that you quickly slip into its symbolism.
Makina’s search for her brother takes her from Mexico, across the border into the US and it is a dark and dangerous world. Leaving a town ‘riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored from five centuries of voracious silver lust’, crossing the wilderness, passing the dead, the Mexico-US border doing a great impression of the Styx, and the realisation that crossing it changes you fundamentally. Nearly everything about the book is epic in scope, despite it being little more than 100 pages long.
Migration is the topic of 2015, and this is a puissant evocation of it. If you’ve ever wondered what myth means to the real world this book will tell you.
Boris and Arkady Strugatsky – Roadside Picnic
I’ve been catching up on classics this year and this is one of them. Perhaps more famously known as the basis for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, this is also an ancestor of Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy.
It’s an oblique book, but elegant. Redrick’s journeys into the zone are strange affairs made all the more weird by the language that’s built up around it. Meatgrinders, witch’s jelly, canisters, black sprays, needles, so-sos and all the rest of it. It’s a thin veneer painted over that which we don’t know. Like Rendezvous With Rama happened in your back garden. It’s hard to tell if alien technology is an opportunity when you put it like that.
The golden sphere at the centre of it all is one of those beautiful metaphors in genre fiction. It’s surrounded by traps, it’s alien, it’s unknowable, maybe all-knowing itself, it’s indifferent to humanity and it might just give you everything you’ve ever dreamed of. That’s why I loved this book; it’s not interested in telling you every last detail of the setup, of dissecting the idea. You’re on your own here, just like Red. There’s treasure to be had and traps to fall into. Careful now.
Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita
The thing about The Master and Margarita is it works whichever way you spin it. As a straight up romp through 1930s Moscow, it’s great, exciting stuff; comedy abounds and there are more cool ideas than you can shake Neil Gaiman at. It’s acerbic and absurd, funny and creepy as all hell in places, like Kafka with jokes. Behemoth, the vodka shooting, gun toting, chess playing smartarse steals the show, which is saying something.
But that’s the least of it. Because this is a story about the Devil coming to Moscow to torment the artists and intelligentsia, the madhouse filling up more and more with every passing day. That’s the genius of it for me, to be such a vibrant and entertaining piece of writing, yet communicating across very real and dangerous political and cultural barriers. The same as with Roadside Picnic, I am in the privileged position of having to imagine how important this book must have been at the time of writing.
Bulgakov burned the first copy in 1930, because he saw no future for artists in the Soviet Union. But as we all know, you don’t choose to be an artist. The book says it all when The Master tries to burn his writing to free his mind of impurity. The Devil gives it back saying, ‘Didn't you know that manuscripts don't burn?’
Various – Feast, Famine and Potluck
It’s a short story collection that starts, 'I had meant to summon my father only long enough to see what his head looked like, but now he was here and I did not know how to send him back.' You need more?
This anthology collects the best entries to the Short Story Day Africa 2013 competition. With entries coming from all over the continent, from all walks of life, the result is a powerful and fascinating collection. Ghost stories, family tales, realistic or shot through with the supernatural, about refugees or the affluent, white or black – this collection contains perhaps the most diverse range of technique and talent I’ve seen in an anthology. The hints of magic and the supernatural probe mystic spaces we all know and recognise, though maybe under different names.
Stand out stories for me included 'Chicken' by Efemia Chela, 'On Time' by Achiro Patricia Olwoch, '44 Boston Heights' by Catherine Jarvis and 'Burning Woman' by Michelle Preen. Though really, picking any out seems arbitrary.
Claire North – The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
That rarest of things, an accessible thriller with commercial legs, that’s well written and intelligent! What North does so well here is capture Harry’s character. His age and weary wisdom are excellently gauged, so it’s a delight to read throughout. The unfolding of the plot is a carefully constructed thing as well. The way Harry’s growing awareness of his shrinking world develops is a metaphor to run with, fading memory with old age being just a starting point. Add in the great ending – none of this open-ended writing till you stop here, North clearly had a plan – and you’re on to a winner, basically.
M. John Harrison – Viriconium
This might be cheating as it’s a collection of three books and some short stories, but I read them as one and it’s my list . . .
Harrison is one of those rare writers. Same as Herrera, every sentence is a treasure trove. There’s far too much to recount here but imagine corroded high fantasy: elves with dementia, Gandalf with Alzheimer’s, Aragorn the poet, mecha-Gimli and more. Prepare for existential threats, not in the form of rings and armies but metaphysical conflicts and refugees.
Viriconium is little less than the deconstruction of Tolkein’s fantasy, through the lens of lurid science fiction. It’s all swords and knights, queens waging war and towers in the wilderness, but you’ll also find skyships, vibroblades and plasma cannons, even the man in the moon. Add in the occasional stab of unsettling horror and you have a book that wins at every genre in one go. Seminal stuff.
Gary Budden, Editorial Assistant
Robert Aickman – Cold Hand in Mine and The Unsettled Dust
I’m a relative newcomer to Robert Aickman, his books being out of print or prohibitively expensive for as long as I’ve been aware of him. The recent reissue of his work from Faber in affordable paperback editions has been warmly welcomed; as one of those writers always talked about as a key figure of the weird, it was frustrating to be unable to read the actual stories.
The two collections I’ve mentioned contain my very favourite Aickman stories, that worried and gnawed at me long after I put the books down. Aickman was one of the finest short fiction writers ever to come out of Britain, regardless of what genre you want to slot him into.
His own preferred term for his work was ‘strange stories’; his fictions do feature elements that are familiar from horror and fantasy fiction (a highly intelligent take on the vampire legend, in the form of ‘Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal’), and from myth and folklore (the maybe-naiad in ‘The Stains’) but the very best stories are the ones were something is essentially wrong, without the reader ever fully being able to explain why. This sense of unspecified unease is there in the nightmare-cum-farce of ‘The Hostel’, the possibly-naked man and snarling yellow dog in ‘The Same Dog’, the paranoid sexual nightmare of ‘The Swords’ and the middle-class dread saturating ‘The Next Glade’. Aickman’s work is literary, disturbing, nightmarish, melancholy and revelatory – he is an essential writer.
Nathan Ballingrud – North American Lake Monsters
North American Lake Monsters was published by Kelly Link’s Small Beer Press back in 2013 but I’ve only recently discovered it. It’s an incredibly strong collection, grounding the elements of weird horror fiction in a masculine blue-collar American world where the horror is as likely to come from the threats of far right neo-Nazism as from unidentified lake creatures washing up on a remote shore.
At times the elements of the fantastic seem almost incidental, with a focus on the fallout from traumatic events being much more important. Was that really a werewolf who ripped apart the narrator’s friends in ‘Wild Acre’? Regardless, the aftermath ruins his life. Can the ghost of an entire city make itself present, and is it really possible to step into another’s skin? Possibly, but Ballingrud is always concerned with the very human aspects of his characters first and foremost.
Imagine Raymond Carver doing weird fiction and you’re almost there.
Dominic Cooper - Dead of Winter and Sunrise
I am a huge fan of the British anti-pastoral landscape novel, having shelves stuffed with the works of writers like Niall Griffiths, Cynan Jones and Ben Myers. It was through Myers, in fact, that I was recommended the works of Dominic Cooper (not the actor), once a Faber-published novelist who won the Somerset Maugham award, only to give up on writing altogether and go live on a remote Scottish coast.
His work is having a bit of a reappraisal lately, perhaps due to the renewed popularity of the landscape novel in recent years. Dead of Winter and Sunrise, his first two novels, are both stunning tales of isolated human lives dwarfed by the beautiful and brutal Scottish island landscapes. They’re being reissued so no excuses not to read them.
For a bit more information Cooper I’d read this interview.
Nicola Barker – Darkmans
Who’d have thought you could write an 800-page novel about the riotous and chaotic medieval past making itself known on the streets of Ashford. Yes, Ashford. Plot is minimal. The book features characters called Beede and Kane, children who are possessed by the spirit of an anarchic jester, and a Kurdish man afraid of salad. There’s a memorable section where a man wades in the mud on the coast near the Romney Marsh attempting to find a lost forest (which, incidentally, is absolutely real – it’s at the Pett Level, and at low tide you can see the petrified trees) which he believes should still be there.
Thematically, linguistically and structurally daring, but somehow still immensely readable (almost a page-turner in fact) Darkmans (and old word meaning ‘nighttime’) is at essence about the weight of history bearing down on the present, and how we understand our links with that history.
It probably shouldn’t work, but it does, brilliantly.
Thomas Ligotti – Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe
Thomas Ligotti was once the subterranean dark-prince of horror fiction’s most esoteric and nightmarish reaches, taking the themes found in Poe and Lovecraft, upping the pessimism and mixing in a hefty dollop of European nihilism. He did this with a refined literary prose style and a vision so dark and odd that he remains, essentially, in a genre of his own.
Amazingly, that same guy now has his first two collections reprinted by Penguin Classics. This a very good thing, as original editions of Ligotti’s early works are as hard to find as the Necronomicon and about as cheap, and more people deserve to be reading his work. Maybe it’s because his profile was raised by Matthew McConaughey’s memorable turn in True Detective, or maybe it was just that point where a writer finally gets the recognition they’re due, either way I’m very happy this book is finally out. It contains such brilliance as ‘The Frolic’, ‘Sect of the Idiot’ and ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin’, all of which are more upsetting than they sound.
If you have any interest in speculative fiction, you need to be aware of Ligotti. This is dense, mind-bending and bleak stuff, strangely compelling but best dipped in and out of. A binge read of Ligotti could end you up like one of the inmates in ‘Dr. Locrian’s Asylum’.
Aliya Whiteley - The Beauty
I’m going to add Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty to the list, nepotistic though it may seem. I read it this year just after starting work at Unsung, and it would be a lie to not to put it on my best books of the year.
The Beauty is one of the most startling, disconcerting (and occasionally revolting) explorations of gender I’ve ever read. It’s a book about the power of story, a book about men and women, and about mushrooms too. This is a book you want to lend to people, just to see what their reaction is – it will say a lot about them.