2014, A Review of Books Read

Over the past year I managed to read 42 books; 25 novels, 17 short story collections. Several of these were books I’ve wanted to tackle for years, some were pleasant surprises that just came up spontaneously.

In order (from my Goodreads list!) with an asterisk beside the one I enjoyed most:

Shoot the Piano Player by Goodis, David – A good hard-boiled pulp, no sentimentality, just a hard, often violent tale of has-beens.
I, the Jury by Spillane, Mickey – I liked this way more than I expected to, this is the lowest of the low-brow pulp, but it’s fast-paced and the plot is pretty smart.
Fast One by Cain, Paul – This is a great example of (very) hard-boiled pulp fiction. The story travels at a blistering pace, the main character is tough as nails and the story has more twists and turns than a bag of pretzels.
The Way We Live Now by Trollope, Anthony – This is a big, sprawling novel with a lot of main and minor characters, full of plots and sub-plots. I wanted to like this book, but didn’t even get very interested until half through.
*The Return of the Native by Hardy, Thomas – This was an excellent tale, evoking a thick atmosphere of life on the English moor. The third novel I’ve read by Hardy after “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure.”
Black Friday by Goodis, David – A claustrophobic novel about a group of hoods holed up in an apartment in the winter.
*Child of God by McCarthy, Cormac – A gritty, realistic protrayal of a hillbilly who is kicked off his land, hides out in the woods and descends into insanity.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by McCoy, Horace – Beneath the simple, almost naive veneer of this novel, it’s a quite brutal, cynical tale of a dance marathon held during the Great Depression.
*The Name of the Game Is Death by Marlowe, Dan – The hardest of the hard-boiled. A real page-turner I read in one day, one of the best noir novels I’ve ever read.
The Drowning Pool by Macdonald, Ross – The first third of this novel bored me a bit, the prose wasn’t the snappiest I’ve read, but it was still a decent private eye novel.
The Hunter by Stark, Richard – Another really nasty, hard-boiled novel about a man out for vengeance. “‘It’s Parker,’ he said, and hit her twice in the stomach. She fell retching to the floor, and he stepped on her back on the way out.”
Green Ice by Whitfield, Raoul – An over-complicated story, about characters that aren’t interesting enough to care about. Didn’t like this novel.
*The Hot Spot by Williams, Charles – A great, small town noir with a great sense of place and atmosphere. The end was a tense page turner.
*The Human Beast by Emile Zola – Starting out of the gate with a good old fashioned wife-beating and a plan for a cold-blooded murder, Zola’s “The Human Beast” is an exciting, dark ride into the depravity of the human soul.
The Deep Blue Good-By by MacDonald, John D. – Another good PI novel, Travis McGee is a bit more human and reflective than earlier PI’s. Also here it’s not about a twisting, complex plotline, this is focused far more on building tension with fewer, but more fleshed-out characters we actually care about.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Highsmith, Patricia – Twice as long as your typical noir novel, but this feels downright literary. The plot is smart, with a gradually increasing pitch of suspense.
Jamaica Inn by Maurier, Daphne du – I read this novel because I knew it was a mystery set on a desolate moor, it delivers a decent Gothic atmosphere, but I never got as emotionally involved with the characters as I did with a novel like “Wuthering Heights,” “Jane Eyre” or “The Return of the Native.”
Pick-Up by Willeford, Charles – A bitterly dark noir about an alcoholic couple whose lives have no meaning when they’re not tilting the old glass, and when they’re sober they debate the best ways to end it all. It reminded me a little of Woolrich’s style in it’s sad, melancholy tone, but without as much melodrama.
Thieves Like Us by Anderson, Edward – A good, hard-edged on-the-run noir. I’m a big fan of the 1948 film it was made into “They Live By Night.”
The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, Fyodor – This was a great novel, long and often full of high drama in the Russian tradition. But I didn’t like it as much as “Crime and Punishment,” “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Notes From the Underground.”
Nine Ghosts by Malden, R.H. – There are few authors who write in the tradition of M. R. James, but when I heard Malden knew James, and wrote in his style, I knew I had to give this a read. I dare say he wrote some stories which are at times on par with those of the master. None of these are as good as James at his best, but they’re much better than I thought they would be.
The Woman in Black by Hill, Susan – I read this novel because, like “Nine Ghosts” it was supposed to be influenced by the stories of M. R. James. It’s got a nice sense of atmosphere and place established throughout, in a rather cozy, M R Jamesian way. There were a few genuinely good scares throughout which were noteworthy.
*The Red Tree by Kiernan, Caitlín R. – This was the best novel I read all year, and one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. It’s disturbing and ultimately very scary at times with a brooding, melancholy undercurrent to it. The last chapter is just devastating stuff which hit me like VERY few books have.
Lost Illusions by Balzac, Honoré de – It took me a while to finish this one, but I did like it a lot. This novel explores the influence of the press, and the cynical way they shape our reality. The morality of the book can be summed up in a quote, “Success is the supreme justification of all actions whatsoever. The fact in itself is nothing; the impression that it makes upon others is everything.”
Black Wings Has My Angel by Chaze, Elliott – A classic, uber-pulpy novel, exciting and does what a pulp novel ought to do — keep me engrossed.
Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories by Bill, Frank – This is a collection of very hard-hitting, violent stories set in rural Indiana. This feels like noir updated, given a harder, more realist edge.
The Other by Tryon, Thomas – A rather slow, but evocative, tragic horror novel about an evil twin.
Demons By Daylight by Campbell, Ramsey – I took about six months to read this collection of horror tales, returning to it was always a treat. I find Campbell’s stories are even better than his novels. Very few duds here, a few stories were among the most frightening I’ve ever read.
*The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Barron, Laird – THIS is an author I intend to return to, and soon. I’d read some of Barron’s work in an anthology, but reading a full collection was quite an experience. Barron’s writing is always masculine, focused around corporate spies, bounty hunters, ex-CIA men. The writing can feel noir, terse, but intelligent.
Spooky New England: Tales of hauntings, strange happenings, and other local lore by Schlosser, S.E. – This is a collection of ghost stories I found at a library book sale for a dollar, not something I’d recommend for a serious collector of folklore, definitely light, “night stand” reading.
*Teatro Grottesco by Ligotti, Thomas – This was my favorite collection of short stories I read all year, Ligotti has a way of writing horror that is unsettling, yet hilarious too at times. The worlds he describes have the unreality of a 1920’s German Expressionist film, yet he describes the horror as plain as a dog walking across the road. The thing about Ligotti is he expresses a truly dark philosophical worldview, and he doesn’t seem to just be writing fiction, on some level he seems to mean it.
The Best of Weird Tales 1923 by Betancourt, John Gregory – For someone like myself who enjoys the more obscure stories from Weird Tales magazine, this was a pleasure to read.
Collected Horror Stories by Thompson, C. Hall – A collection of two stories and two novellas by a man who emulated Lovecraft’s style and themes, but was essentially stopped due to pressure by August Derleth who published Lovecraft’s works after his death. I find this unfortunate, because these are some of the better Lovecraftian stories I’ve read.
The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by Hodgson, William Hope – These stories are often full of action and adventure, yet still manage to generate horror too. A couple even had some cosmically horrific scenes I’ve rarely read anything like it elsewhere.
The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories by Bowen, Marjorie – I’ve read a number of Victorian-era ghost and horror stories. Only a few authors manage to scare — M. R. James, comes easiest to mind. But this collection has one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. On the whole I’d say this collection in terms of overall quality is one of the best I’ve read from that era.
At a Winter’s Fire by Capes, Bernard Edward Joseph – An obscure, varied and uneven collection of supernatural and adventure stories. A few stories inspire awe of nature, some inspire real cosmic horror, a few are just outright weird while others just fall flat.
*The Unsettled Dust by Aickman, Robert – I could put this collection above Thomas Ligotti’s without a pang of conscience, they are equally good, I just enjoyed Ligotti a little more. Aickman rarely tries to truly scare his reader, he wants to unsettle him/her. These are stories I find myself thinking about, days, weeks later. Images and situations presented really get under the skin, and stay in the mind like few others. Sometimes a story will build and build, then just end. Many concepts here feel fresh and original too. Aickman has a talent for creating a setting which I almost felt like I had settled into by the end of the tale. These are stories I could even see re-reading.
The Stoneground Ghost Tales by Swain, E. G. – I read this collection because I knew the author was a colleague of, and was influenced by M. R. James. Unfortunately, excepting a few tales, these stories were largely too mild.
The Taint and Other Novellas by Lumley, Brian – This is a pretty good collection of Lovecraftian and Lovecraft-influenced fiction. The author himself admits that much of the work here is uneven, some stories are much better than others, but a few rise to some pretty high levels in my opinion. Lumley doesn’t really frighten except in a few rare instances, these are just well-written mythos tales that are steeped in great atmosphere.
*The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales by Samuels, Mark – This collection came as a bit of a surprise to me, I’d never heard of Mark Samuels, but when I heard someone had written a book called “The Man Who Collected *Machen* and other *Weird* Tales” I knew I had to read it. Samuel’s stories were influenced by Lovecraft, Machen, M. R. James, Poe, Ligotti, Borges, even Karl Edward Wagner.
Ficciones by Borges, Jorge Luis – A mind-bending, reality-twisting collection of stories. I read this primarily because I wanted to know what Borges was all about, he’s a name several of my favorite authors have dropped.
The October Country by Bradbury, Ray – A great collection of Bradbury, focused around his horror/weird writing rather than his sci-fi.

Authors I will read again: Cormack McCarthy, Mickey Spillane, Caitlin Kiernan, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron

Authors I won’t read again: Raoul Whitfield

So 42 books, to me this just isn’t enough. One book a week is what I’d like to have done, but then some of these books took a couple weeks to finish, primarily the big classic tomes like “The Idiot,” “The Way We Live Now” and “Lost Illusions.” But a lot of the pulp novels took a day in some cases. I recall reading three over one long weekend.

I started some short story collections, but have them on the backburner for the time being. Two were collections of Lovecraftian fiction; Stephen Jone’s “Shadows Over Innsmouth” and S. T. Joshi’s “Black Wings I: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror.” I’ve read about half of those collections and, although I love my Lovecraft, I need a break.

I read about two-thirds of H. R. Wakefield’s collection “They Return At Evening” which seemed like a fairly average collection of Victorian-era ghost tales. I was hoping for something on the scale of M. R. James and was pretty underwhelmed thus far. I made a small dent in the massive, and so-far-excellent collection of weird fiction “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories” by Jeff VanderMeer. I’ve finished about a quarter of the Wildside Press collection “The Pulp Fiction Megapack: 25 Classic Pulp Stories” which is always incredibly, outrageously pulpy in a so-bad-it’s-good way. There’s dozens of short stories from various sources too, primarily pulp magazines like Weird Tales, and some science fiction.

My full book reviews are at: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/11331153-andy

My New Year resolution is going to be a reading list. I kinda O.D.ed on pulp novels this year, I think I’ll focus a bit more on horror novels and some classics, Zola, Dostoevsky, Hardy and a few others are on the list. So much to choose from…

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