It’s surprising when a debut book is a masterpiece, but here we are. My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris arrives perfect and out of nowhere. A graphic novel about a werewolf girl investigating a murder in 1960’s Chicago, it’s a new classic, reminiscent of other identity-driven comics such as Fun Home, Maus and Persepolis. Maybe Swamp Thing too.
The story begins in a tiny Chicago apartment, where 10-year-old Karen Reyes has turned into a werewolf. Or at least she thinks she has. Whether Karen’s werewolfism is real or metaphorical is left up to the reader, but one thing’s for sure: Karen loves her monsters. She sees them everywhere. Her upstairs neighbor looks as wrinkled as an Egyptian mummy. Her classmate’s facial scars resemble Frankenstein’s monster. And when she tries to imagine what he looks like, her absent father takes the shape of the Invisible Man.
Karen’s gothic imagination draws her into the murder investigation of her upstairs neighbor, Anka, a Holocaust survivor with a mysterious past. But along the way, her detective story turns into an investigation of identity. Karen is beginning to realize that she is a lesbian, and as she encounters other people that society regards as outsiders, she begins to understand the difficulties that she is going to face. It might sound sad, but make no mistake: Karen is tough as nails, and her identification with monsters is never portrayed as any kind of self-loathing. Remember, to a certain kind of kid, being a monster is the coolest thing in the world! Monsters don’t want acceptance. They’re empowered and interesting and full of stories. Monsters are the ones worth listening to.
It’s hard to imagine a richer book coming out this year. My Favorite Thing is Monsters feels like an accumulation of lifelong obsessions: horror movies, art history, EC comics, Holocaust narratives and a childhood spent in Civil Rights-era Chicago. Somehow Ferris has brought them all together into a page-turning murder mystery. Who knows how.
Primarily known as a musician, John Darnielle has hidden his literary chops in plain sight through his narratively dense lyrics in The Mountain Goats and a consistently sharp-witted presence on Twitter. But after the success of his first novel Wolf in White Van, Darnielle has announced himself as an impressive novelist in his own right.
Darnielle’s new novel Universal Harvester introduces us to a strange mystery surrounding a video rental store. Jeremy is a 22-year-old sales clerk at the Video Hut who appears to be riding the clock on his days, avoiding commitments toward a career or college, but this rudderless existence masks a deep hurt caused by the recent death of his mother in a car accident. Now, his existence revolves around the shared comfort of quiet frozen dinners with his father and little else. This routine gets upset when customers begin complaining to Jeremy about strange scenes appearing in the rentals. Disturbing footage of people tied up in sheds and masked individuals abusing their captives, spliced randomly into harmless fair like She’s All That. Jeremy’s investigation into these crimes finds him pulled into the orbit of strange rituals and bizarre organizations, ultimately leading to a confrontation with the trauma he’s been avoiding.
Set in the '90s (as you probably guessed by VHS being back in style), the novel is written in clean and precise prose that is endlessly inventive. One of the neatest inventions of the novel is the narrator, a mysterious party with a secret to hide. They seem strangely omniscient, speculating about alternate paths and choices the characters could have made, while dropping sinister hints about their involvement in the story. It gives the novel a sense of impending tragedy that elevates its most languid moments. Pop-culture obsessives will enjoy the deluge of references to film and '90s ephemera, but fans of white-knuckle thrillers like Gone Girl will find themselves pulled in by the mounting suspense of Darnielle’s narrative.
Robert Brockway’s The Empty Ones is a punk rock take on a weird and spooky world full of butt kicking, hard drinking and surprising emotional investment. This book will turn the volume up to 11, and follow it up with a punch straight to the heart when you least expect it.
A continuation to the first book in the series, The Unnoticeables, this book picks up shortly thereafter. Telling the next step for our rough–around-the-edges “heroes,” it also tells a little more of their history. Brockway does a great job of gradually revealing the mysteries of its world and the nature of the eldritch enemies his characters face while darkly foreshadowing the future ahead of them. The ending completes a satisfying story while setting up the next chapter, leaving readers excitedly waiting for the third and final volume of the series.
Readers who enjoy more bizarre humor and “out there” fiction will enjoy it for sure; this book is weird and there’s just no way around it. Joyously counter-culture and unrelentingly vicious at points, it balances this with surprising heart and depth of character in ways you won’t always expect. It’s is a heck of a ride that readers may just need to strap in for and enjoy. Brockway also does a good job of capturing the unique feeling of the exhaustion you get when it feels like the world has nothing but further misfortune for you, no matter what you do — but you push on anyway.
I highly recommend reading The Unnoticeables before starting on this one — the mythos is convoluted enough that it could be a little confusing to try and jump in midstream. If you enjoyed this title, you should also try David Wong’s John Dies at the End, which similarly is a story full of strange humor and surprisingly dark moments. Both Wong and Brockway write for the internet humor site Cracked, and they share an esoteric style of writing. Readers might enjoy other stories of magic and adventure, such as Jim Butcher’s Storm Front or Daniel Polansky’s Low Town.
In the more than 20 years that Hellboy has been engaged in supernatural pulp adventures, he’s been everywhere from Mexico to Romania and crossed paths with countless fantastic figures from history and myth. Though Hellboy made himself comfortable all over the globe throughout his life, there was only one logical place for him to end his journey: home. Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola is a somber and surreal swan song that finally forces Hellboy to face the infernal heritage he spent his life rejecting.
Creator Mignola announced in 2015 that Hellboy in Hell would be his final art duty on a comic before an extended break to focus on traditional watercolor painting, and this series truly reads like a fond farewell to a beloved friend. Minimalist compositions present the majestic architecture and unholy denizens of the underworld in a way that invoke melancholy rather than horror. Fans of Mignola will recognize returning motifs throughout the glorious hellscapes he illustrates here, and new readers can look forward to being introduced to his unique style with a story that showcases him at the top of his game. Longtime collaborator Dave Stewart provides most of the book’s color, bathing each page in dismal limited palettes that perfectly compliment the gloomy tone of the story.
This is the sendoff Hellboy deserves. The unmistakable artwork and understated writing that readers have come to expect from Mike Mignola are here, presented in perhaps their most moving use since Hellboy’s origin. Whet your appetite with Hellboy: The First 20 Years and then settle in for a quiet evening navigating the depths with Hell’s lost son himself. Full disclosure: I cried a little.
Dust off your Ouija board, draw a salt circle and prepare to get spooked. The creepiest season of all is upon us, and what better way to celebrate than with six ghastly graphic novels sure to keep you creeped out all month long?
American Vampire follows the often macabre adventures of the immortal bloodsucker Skinner Sweet throughout American history. Look no further for an inventive and twisted take on traditional vampire lore with an ever changing backdrop.
Baltimore is a long-running series that follows the titular character from the horrors of the trenches in WWI to the nightmarish dwelling places of ancient evils, and everywhere in between. This is a masterfully-paced suspense story that just keeps getting better.
Batman: The Doom that Came to Gotham is the only superhero book you’ll find on this list, but its quirky combination of classic Batman characters and the otherworldly horrors of H.P. Lovecraft make for a spooky and surreal read.
The Beauty is a new series that imagines conventional physical perfection as a sexually transmitted disease with horrifying side effects. Dealing equally in body horror and suspense, this is an unsettling story that explores the disturbing lengths to which people will go in the name of beauty.
Colder is the story of Declan Thomas, a man with the incredible ability to cure mental illness in others. What Declan doesn’t realize is that his newfound power draws the attention of unsavory entities that seek to undo his work. Feel free to judge these books by their covers, because the frightening artwork that graces them perfectly suits the stories inside.
Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight is a double feature that pays homage to the outlandish B-movies of years long past. “Bee Vixens from Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares” channel the over-the-top absurdity and low budget charm of grindhouse cinema, even down to the fake posters paired with each story.
Nick Mamatas manages the rare feat of making the reader feel utter disgust and laugh hysterically without having to turn a page in I Am Providence. Mamatas alternates between two narrators, an unsuccessful curmudgeon author and his platonic green-haired vegan roommate at a hotel in Providence, Rhode Island — one of whom tells their tale from the beyond after they are murdered and their face is removed. This particular disfigurement happens after it is revealed that the victim had been hired to act as a go-between in the sale of a book bound in human skin.
If you are curious as to why unsuccessful authors, book dealers, green-haired vegans, a face-removing murderer and a variety of other characters are all staying in a Rhode Island hotel, the obvious answer is notorious racist and occasional horror author H.P. Lovecraft. The Summer Tentacle is an annual con of sorts for fans of the Rhode Island native and his short story "The Call of Cthulhu." To keep things interesting, wine and social anxiety fuel this crowd, best summed up when Mamatas quipped; “The crowd drank with an intensity that only comes with the combination of free alcohol, unsuccessful writers and high stress.”
To those out there that have never heard of Cthulhu or find Lovecraft’s work to not your taste, don’t fret about not being able to enjoy Mamatas’ tale of murderous social commentary.
Robert Kirkman is already a seasoned veteran of horror-themed graphic novels, so it should come as no surprise that Outcast, his latest offering, is an unqualified success. Scary, tense and mysterious, this book checks all the boxes to make readers love the story and want to come back for more.
Outcast tells the story of Kyle Barnes, a man hiding from the world. Haunted by memories of violence in his childhood and divorced after an incident with his wife and daughter, he is entirely alone. He is given new life when he is offered the chance to help a possessed child. When the possessed child calls Kyle “Outcast” and speaks about Kyle’s childhood, he becomes determined to get to the bottom of it all. To tell any more would be to spoil the many, many surprises awaiting readers.
Kirkman does a great job of revealing just enough to keep the readers hungry and guessing — each answer leads to more and more questions. Just what does “Outcast” mean? How does this all tie into Kyle’s troubled life? And what is the sinister endgame behind it all? He also does not spare us from the gory horror and violence — panels are viscerally painted with the bloody results of interactions with the possessed. With his trademark prose, Kirkman makes us feel the exhaustion of Kyle’s struggle against darkness on all sides.
Definitely a great read for fans of the horror graphic novel genre or Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, this was so well received that it’s currently showing as a TV series on Cinemax. If you enjoyed this, I’d also recommend Joe Hill’s Locke and Key, James Tynion’s The Woods, and Scott Snyder’s Wytches — all series that are terrifying in their own right.
A great read whether you’re new to the genre or a seasoned veteran of horror fiction, Joe Hill’s The Fireman is a complex and unsettling book that will leave you with a lot of deep questions but thrilled that you came along for the ride.
The Fireman tells the tale of Harper Grayson, a school nurse who is living in New England when a plague erupts across the world. Dubbed “Dragonscale,” this parasite covers its victims in luminescent scales before eventually causing them to combust into a pyre of flames. Although infected and facing her end, Harper finds a new will to survive when she becomes pregnant, and decides that her child will survive even if she does not. She must attempt to survive the dangerous parasite as well as the groups of people who begin hunting and killing the infected to prevent its spread — a group that includes her husband.
This book has a subtle burn — a gentle build of horror that occasionally sparks into a blaze of terror but typically smolders in the background. Hill masterfully uses foreshadowing to build tension and unease, letting you know that disaster waits just ahead but leaving it agonizingly uncertain when and how it will strike. The real terror of this book, though, is not in looming villains or gory scenes, but the darkness in man. The story examines how evil can grow and live in all people, and how all it takes is circumstance to fan it into a flame. Impressively, the story also crafts a believable protagonist who maintains her positivity throughout, remaining strong despite the horrors she faces.
With his latest offering, the son has truly surpassed the father. Joe Hill, son of Stephen King, is one of the freshest and strongest voices in horror fiction. If you enjoyed The Fireman, I’d also recommend NOS4A2, an earlier work of his that also deals with a mother seeking to protect her child. I’d also recommend Stephen King’s Cell, which shares a focus on humanity trying to survive after an apocalypse.
For suburbanite Ben, what starts out as a dull business trip to the Poconos rapidly becomes a horrifying ordeal of epic proportions when he decides to go for The Hike through the local woods. Pursued by a menagerie of monsters through locations found nowhere on Earth, Ben struggles to survive. As he stumbles from one nightmare into the next, he longs for a way to escape the path and return to his family. But to leave the path is to die, and Ben will have to find his way if he ever wants to make it home again.
The Hike is a bloody mash-up of genres, as if author Drew Magary threw The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland and the top 10 B horror movies of all time into a blender to see what would happen. The book is a wild ride from start to finish; once the action starts, it never really lets up. Some of the images are gory, yes, and some of the monsters are really grotesque, but Magary never lets Ben’s experiences on the path descend into the literary equivalent of torture porn. There is a purpose to what Ben is enduring and a destination he has to reach, and the quest-like feel of the narration keeps the plot from being bogged down by too much horror. The violence and heartbreak Ben endures is balanced by Ben’s deadpan humor and determination to see this journey through to the end. The inclusion of some seriously fun characters, including a talking crab, is an added bonus, and there are plenty of surprise twists awaiting Ben and the reader.
These twists make The Hike the engaging and fun read that it is, culminating in a shocking revelation right up to the last page. The Hike is a quick read, with enough bizarre world-building and action to make it perfect for any fan of shows like The Twilight Zone, video games like Limbo or podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale.
What happens when author and former Washington Post Best Science Fiction & Fantasy winner Victor LaValle writes a story that combines horror, science fiction and mystery? The result is his latest novella The Ballad of Black Tom.
The Ballad of Black Tom takes place in 1920s New York. Readers quickly enter the world of Charles Thomas Tester, a 20-year-old African American hustler from Harlem. On the streets of New York, Charles goes by the name of Tommy, and Tommy likes to put on a show. He portrays himself as the “dazzling, down-and-out musician” by wearing a gray flannel suit, an aging seal-brown trooper hat and brown leather brogues with nicked toes and completes the look by toting around a guitar case (once in a while there's an actual guitar inside). Although Tommy has no musical talent, it doesn’t stop his hustle. Yes, he'll play the role of a musician, hum a few sour notes and scam people all for the sake of supporting himself and his ailing father. Things take a turn for the worst when Tommy attracts the attention of a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. A cop and private detective, who are watching Suydam, now have their eyes on Tommy, after witnessing their first encounter. Suydam offers Tommy a couple hundred bucks to play a few tunes at his upcoming party. Astonish that someone actually likes his non-vocal abilities, but not one to turn down money, Tommy accepts. Suydam introduces him to a realm of crime and magic that sets off a chain of dark events that will forever change Tommy's life. Suydam tells Tommy about awakening a Sleeping King that sleeps at the bottom of an ocean. Once this Sleeping King awakes, he’ll create a new world where a select few will be rewarded. Tommy is intrigued. When he immerses himself into this magical world, he becomes a different person, a monster, who no longer goes by the name of Tommy, but "Black Tom."
If you're looking for a quick entertaining read, I recommend The Ballad of Black Tom. This book is a page-turner and would make for a great film. If you’re interested in more books by Victor LaValle, check out Big Machine and The Devil in Silver.