Don't Make Me Tell You Twice

Some 2019 recommendations

Yesterday I wrote a little screed about a certain best-of list. I’m in a slightly better mood today, but my point still stands: it is inexcusable, in 2019, to publish a list of books by authors that is 78% male and entirely white.

After yesterday’s newsletter, I started compiling a list of horror published in 2019 not written by white men. Here’s what I came up with - without even breaking a sweat, because believe it or not, this isn’t actually rocket science.

  1. The Twisted Ones - T. Kingfisher

  2. Five Midnights - Ann Dávila Cardinal

  3. The Haunted - Danielle Vega

  4. Hollow Kingdom - Kira Jane Buxton

  5. A Spectral Hue - Craig Laurance Gidney

  6. The Bone Weaver's Orchard - Sarah Read

  7. Salvaged - Madeline Roux

  8. Theme Music - T. Marie Vandelly

  9. Ormeshadow - Priya Sharma

  10. For He Can Creep - Siobhan Carroll (free to read on

  11. Petra’s Ghost - C.S. O’Cinneide

  12. Last Ones Left Alive - Sarah Davis-Goff

  13. Inside the Asylum - Mary SanGiovanni

  14. In the Shadow of Spindrift House - Mira Grant

  15. Here There Are Monsters - Amelinda Bérubé

  16. The Devouring Gray - Christine Lynn Herman

  17. Things We Say in the Dark - Kirsty Logan

  18. Gideon the Ninth - Tamsyn Muir

  19. The Tenth Girl - Sara Faring

  20. The Invited - Jennifer McMahon

  21. The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

  22. A Forest, or A Tree - Tegan Moore (free to read on

  23. A Sick Gray Laugh - Nicole Cushing

  24. Little Darlings - Melanie Golding

  25. The Need - Helen Phillips

  26. Bunny - Mona Awad

  27. Black Wings - Megan Hart

  28. If You See Her - Ania Ahlborn

  29. His Hideous Heart: 13 of Edgar Allan Poe's Most Unsettling Tales Reimagined - edited by Dahlia Adler, with stories by Kendare Blake, Rin Chupeco, Tessa Gratton, Fran Wilde, & more

  30. The Bone Houses - Emily Lloyd-Jones

  31. Rules for Vanishing - Kate Alice Marshall

  32. Collision - J.S. Breukelaar

Plus I’ve already talked to you about The Monster of Elendhaven, Wilder Girls, and The Luminous Dead, so that brings the total up to 35.

You may notice that this is still a pretty white list - unfortunately, most of my favorite horror authors of color didn’t have anything new this year (if I missed any that you know of, shoot me a note and I’ll add them to the next newsletter), but not to worry - let me point you to Elle Maruska’s list of 25 non-white horror writers you should know:

And for good measure, here are some 2019 horror books I loved that WERE written by white dudes, who are always going to be a good and interesting voice in the room (they just need to not be, you know, the ONLY voice in the room):

  1. A Lush and Seething Hell - John Hornor Jacobs

  2. The Reddening - Adam Nevill

  3. The Remaking - Clay McLeod Chapman

  4. The Saturday Night Ghost Club - Craig Davidson

We’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming soon, but while we’re here, permit me a quick “stuff I wrote” plug, because I’ve been busy:

Final Girls:

  • Paperbacks From Hell: Wave Two [Valancourt Books]: Valancourt, in partnership with Grady Hendrix, has been releasing limited runs of long-out-of-print horror titles, and their second set of books is here - you can buy the physical books or subscribe to receive the ebooks for a frankly VERY reasonable price, which is what I’ve been doing.

  • Here Are the 10 Most Frightening Stories You Will Ever Hear [Jezebel]: Jezebel’s annual scary true story contest is here again - these always fuck me up real bad, so read at your own risk if you’re within three hours of bedtime.

Nightmare Fuel is a newsletter about scary books and related nonsense. Questions? Comments? Reply to this email, or get at me on Twitter @emilyhughes. If you’re reading this on the web, or someone forwarded this email to you, consider subscribing to have future editions delivered directly to your inbox every week or two, sent from the shadows outside your bedroom window.

Don't Make Me Do This

Some thoughts on a best-of list

I understand the logic in releasing a “best horror of the year” list at the end of October - yeah, yeah, it’s Halloween, fine, even though there’s a full sixth of the year left to go after tomorrow - so when I woke up this morning to see a link to the Washington Post’s best horror of 2019 piece being passed around, written by Bill Sheehan, I wasn’t surprised. As I clicked and waited for the page to load, I was even vaguely optimistic. And then.

Here are all the authors and books Sheehan mentions in his 1100 word piece, in order:

  1. Thomas Tessier’s World of Hurt

  2. Joe Hill’s Full Throttle

  3. Nathan Ballingrud’s Wounds

  4. John Langan’s Sefira and Other Betrayals

  5. Paul Tremblay’s Growing Things

  6. Richard Chizmar’s The Long Way Home

  7. Brian Evenson’s Song for the Unraveling of the World

  8. F. Paul Wilson’s Secret Stories

  9. Stephen King’s The Institute

  10. Elizabeth Hand’s Curious Toys

  11. Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers

  12. Richard Chizmar’s Gwendy’s Magic Feather

  13. Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju

  14. Rachel Eve Moulton’s Tinfoil Butterfly

  15. Lois Murphy’s Soon

  16. Allister Timms’ The Killing Moon

  17. T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones

  18. Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters

So - notice anything?

Eighteen authors. Four women (I’ve bolded them above). Exactly zero people of color (as far as I can tell, anyway).

It’s 2019. I can’t fucking believe we’re still having this conversation.

Listen, there are some incredibly deserving authors on this list. Ballingrud, Tremblay, Evenson, and Langan are all incredibly talented and working to push the boundaries of what horror can be. And Chuck Wendig is a mensch and a wonderful writer, and Wanderers absolutely merits the praise it gets here.

(NB: I haven’t read anything by F. Paul Wilson other than The Keep, and I probably won’t, unless I receive some compelling evidence that his views on women have gotten better since 1981. And if you have any information about the Timms book Sheehan mentions, let me know - it sounds great, but I can’t find so much as a publisher product page for it, let alone an Amazon or Goodreads listing, and it doesn’t appear to have a US publisher.)

But what’s most frustrating to me here is that World of Hurt is a retrospective collection - and yet it leads this list as Sheehan’s “book of the year.” Tessier’s heyday was in the 70s and 80s, and none of the stories in this collection are new. And yet Sheehan dedicates a full paragraph to it! Chizmar and Newman, both well-established names in the genre (Chizmar runs his own indie horror press, for god’s sake), also each get a paragraph to themselves, while the four women listed above each get one sentence, max, three of them tucked away into a section at the end about “new voices.” Elizabeth Hand only gets the barest hand-wave.

I’m so tired of this. I have a chest cold, I slept like shit last night, and this isn’t what I wanted to do with my morning. But frankly, if anyone from the Washington Post is reading this, it’s time to let Bill Sheehan go and find a new horror reviewer. Preferably someone from a marginalized background. Preferably someone with a broader set of interests, who doesn’t hold 70s and 80s horror up as the Only Worthy Standard of Horror.

Stop looking behind you, Bill. It’s time to look forward.

Sorry it’s been quiet around here - look for another email tomorrow.

Don't Wait Up

I'm back! This week, three books I loved.

Hi pals! Sorry for the radio silence - I semi-accidentally took August off, which felt highly necessary after a summer that involved a week at SDCC for work, leaving my job, and moving to another state. Also, the world is, both figuratively and increasingly literally, very much on fire, which is… distracting. A couple housekeeping things before we get to books today:

  1. My first post for went up in July, and it’s all about Southern Gothic horror – read it here.

  2. I’m officially full-time freelance for the first time in my life! It’s terrifying! I’m available for writing, editing, and embroidery commissions – shoot me a note if you’re interested in working with me on something!

Okay, onward. I don’t have a theme this week - I just wanted to dive back in with three books I loved.

Wilder Girls by Rory Power | Nightmare Scale: 7/10

I read this book in a day and the best elevator pitch I can give you is this: it’s what you’d get if you combined Annihilation and Lord of the Flies and then removed men from the equation entirely. (There are, in fact, only two men in this book, both appearing only briefly, and neither of them Have A Fun Time.)

The premise is thus: at a girls’ school on a remote island off the coast of Maine, a group of teenage girls have been isolated for two years by a mysterious condition that causes gruesome mutations, fits, and, inevitably, death. Most of their teachers are dead, and the girls who’ve survived this far have gone a bit feral within the quasi-military/survivalist confines of their new reality. They don’t venture past the edge of the school grounds - the plague hasn’t just affected the island’s human inhabitants, and the horrifying local fauna aren’t exactly friendly. But when Hetty’s best friend goes missing, she finds herself beyond the fence and beyond anything she’s ever experienced before.

Wilder Girls is YA, and accordingly there’s a prominent theme of “teens learning that authority figures are not to be trusted,” but even if you tend to avoid YA, this book is entirely worth it both for the gut-wrenching body horror and the way it immerses you in different modes of female friendship, and the powerful way romance and friendship tend to blur when you’re 16.

CW for this book: oh my god so much body horror; the author has a comprehensive list of CWs on her site here.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay | Nightmare Scale: 9/10

Paul Tremblay has a very well-deserved reputation as a modern master of horror lit. He’s an expert at emotional terrorism (I very much mean this as a compliment), and is extremely accomplished at walking the line between “supernatural evil” and “a series of uneasy coincidences.” I had to read this book in sips because it was so dark and intense it was giving me stomachaches.

I just want you to know what you’re getting into.

Eric and Andrew and their adopted daughter Wen are spending their vacation at a remote cabin in New Hampshire. You already know the drill - no cell reception, miles from the nearest neighbor, etc. Over the course of a single day, four armed strangers appear and trap the family in their cabin. The strangers are distinctly-drawn characters from disparate walks of life, united by one thing: they’ve all been brought to that cabin on that day by a vision. And that vision tells them that Eric, Andrew, and Wen have to make an impossible choice, or the world will end.

I really don’t want to say any more about the plot here, because it’s a book worth going into cold. Just know that Tremblay is a tremendous writer, and the abiding terror of the plot is that it’s real - real enough that it could happen to you or me, next weekend or next month. It’s cerebral and visceral in equal measure. And it’s a hell of a read.

CW for this book: child endangerment & harm, fairly gooey violence, and home invasion

The Hunger by Alma Katsu | Nightmare Scale: 6/10

Donner! Party! Horror! Novel!!!! If that doesn’t sell you on this book, I don’t know that anything else I say will either, but really and truly you should pick it up.

This is not a fast-moving narrative, but it is a deeply engrossing one. Katsu takes time to fully develop the cast of characters in the wagon train - we spend time with at least half a dozen flawed, complicated point-of-view characters, each running from something back east, each hungry for what they think waits for them in California. For the first three-quarters of the book, character development is the focus, with the supernatural goings-on in the margins, there to make you uneasy. This is a beautiful set-up for the novel’s climax, though - Katsu lays out beautifully how hubris, greed, power struggles and other all-too-human failings leave the group vulnerable to something that lurks just outside the light of the campfire.

Katsu’s monstrous hunger is stitched together from a number of intriguing sources: there are elements here of prion diseases, the Wendigo myth from Ojibwe and Cree folklore, and werewolf-inspired creature transformations. I want to point out here too that Katsu deftly dodges the trap of letting her monsters be symbolic stand-ins for indigenous tribes - I won’t say too much more for risk of spoilers, but just know going in that colonizers are always responsible for their own downfall.

(Two things: first, I’m including the cover for the hardcover edition here because I hate hate hate the paperback cover. Second, Katsu has another book coming next March called The Deep, which is another historical horror novel set – where else – on the Titanic. You can preorder at the link.)

CW for this book: attempted sexual violence, mutilation, child endangerment/harm, and (duh) cannibalism

Final Girls:

Don't Come Back

Revealing & reviewing The Return by Rachel Harrison

As a child, I had a profound fear of sharks, which mostly manifested when I was taking a shower. When I closed my eyes to put my face under the water, a part of my brain I’ve come to think of as the asshole corner would serve me a vivid, intrusive daydream of being in the water and turning to find a great white behind me, eyes rolled back, jaws open, poised to bite. These visions were so real that my body would freeze up and flood with adrenaline, so frightening that I stopped washing my face in the shower and started washing it in the bathroom sink instead.

These days that overactive imagination manifests in new, more adult ways. In an empty apartment, the asshole corner whispers, there’s someone waiting in the closet, a gnarled hand under the bed about to wrap itself around my ankle, a face behind me in the mirror when I close the bathroom cabinet.

These fears aren’t debilitating - I can ignore them or cope with them as needed. This past weekend I spent the night alone at our new apartment for the first time, and after 6 hours in the car was so exhausted that when my asshole brain suggested a murderer might be hiding in the closet, the rest of my brain told said imaginary murderer to have at it, but just let me get some sleep first. But they don’t go away with time, either.

To be afraid, as a woman socialized in American society, is to constantly push your fears to the back of your mind, to tell yourself you’re overreacting, that if you voice your fears, the people around you will think of you as weak, silly, feminine. In college I told my ex I wasn’t comfortable walking to his apartment alone after midnight, and would he maybe come meet me at the subway station? He told me I was being ridiculous and waved off the request. That’s a message it’s hard to unlearn – frankly I’m a little trepidatious even writing about my fears here, lest you all think I’m an idiot. But I think the context is necessary for the book I’m writing about today.

The Return is Rachel Harrison’s debut horror novel. I read it in 24 hours - it would’ve been more like 10 if I hadn’t had to do things like “eat” and “go to work.” But in devouring it, I found myself feeling uncomfortably seen.

The plot is thus: Julie disappeared on a solo hiking trip two years ago. Her husband and friends have come to accept that she’s never coming home - they’ve had a funeral and done their mourning, both together and separately. But Elise has never accepted that Julie was really gone. She knew in her heart she’d see Julie again someday, and that day comes when Julie shows up on her husband’s doorstep with no memory of the last two years.

Now Elise, Molly, and Mae are on their way to see their friend at an isolated hotel in upstate New York. It’s a strange place, and Elise isn’t comfortable there. She keeps hearing scratching in the walls, noises on the balcony, seeing something moving in the shadows under the bed. Is it real, or is it Elise’s own asshole corner acting up? But she pushes her fears aside - the weekend’s not about her, and she doesn’t want to make a fuss, doesn’t want Mae, who chose the hotel, to feel responsible for her discomfort.

When Julie arrives, the three friends are overjoyed to see her - it’s a miracle that she’s home safe. But something’s not right. One minute she’s normal, the same old Julie, but the next she’s acting like somebody else, saying things Julie would never say. At dinner, she looks gaunt and ill, but by the next morning she’s bright-eyed and healthy.

And though she was a lifelong vegetarian before her disappearance, now she’s eating a lot of meat, cooked very, very rare.

It’s not really an exaggeration to say I’ve never read such an incisive depiction of the irrational fears I’ve lived with my whole life, the fears borne of a vivid imagination and an anxiety disorder. And in this novel, those fears we tell ourselves are silly are made rational and very real: what happens when you convince yourself there’s nothing in the shadows under the bed – and then there is? What happens when your friend comes back from the dead – but it’s not really her?

Harrison also hammers home the discomforts and dynamics of groups of female friends in excruciatingly relatable detail - the absolute certainty that your friends are all just barely tolerating you, that you’re the one they don’t really like, that they judge you for being the broke one, that they’re talking about you when you’re not there, that the things you secretly hate about yourself are the things they hate about you.

I love a horror novel that also helps me work through some personal stuff – that’s what the best horror should do, frankly, since it’s a genre fundamentally about undergoing change (traumatic change, but change nonetheless). I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The fine folks at Berkley have kindly offered three very early advance copies of The Return to Nightmare Fuel readers – you can enter the sweeps here until August 18th - and they’ve given me the opportunity to unveil the cover, which is so eerie and beautiful, and perfectly, violently, queasily pink. Take a look:

The Return is on sale March 24, 2020

Don't Go Far

Folk horror: because small towns are weird

Speculative fiction has a laughably large amount of subgenre terminology floating around: steampunk, hopepunk, silkpunk, splatterpunk, biopunk, godpunk, sword & sorcery, space opera, science fantasy, slipstream, dying earth, generation ship, first contact, etc, I could go on for several hours, please help, my family is starving. Authors and sometimes fans wear these terms as badges, but the purpose these categories ultimately serve is to tell you what elements you can expect from stories that fall under those umbrellas.

So what constitutes folk horror? I’m not a prescriptivist about genre – ultimately if something feels like folk horror, it probably is – but a good rule of thumb is that if there’s a creepy pagan ritual somewhere in the countryside, it’s folk horror. (The genre is generally understood to be a riff on/reaction to the back-to-the-earth movement of the 1960s, with communes becoming cults and neopagan belief systems morphing into dark pagan rituals.) It’s the occult, but less esoteric. It’s rural and insular, the pastoral uncanny. Folk horror should smell like tilled soil and sap and hay and hot blood on cold wet stone, all hung about with woodsmoke.

What folk horror isn’t is any scary story that incorporates elements of folklore, because that’s… honestly just most horror. Also, some people will tell you that it needs to focus on European paganism in order to count, but that edges too close to white nationalism for my tastes, and anyway it’s silly to say that something has to come from a specific region in order to qualify. (Genre is a construct!!!)

The last round of folk horror discourse we had here on Al Gore’s own internet was when The Witch (or The VVitch, as my husband insists on both spelling and pronouncing it) premiered in 2015. Now, with Ari Aster’s much-anticipated Midsommar hitting screens in early July, we’re getting primers aplenty. Pretty much all of them are gonna tell you to get into the genre by watching the “unholy trinity”: The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General, all released between 1968 and 1973 – and in fact it was Piers Haggard, director of Blood on Satan’s Claw, who coined the term “folk horror” in the early 2000s. And that’s all well and good – you should absolutely watch those movies, and The Witch, and buy your tickets for Midsommar.

But I really want to highlight that there’s so, so much great folk horror happening in literature right now, and if you’re not reading it, you’re not getting a full picture of the genre. Here are a few of the best:

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley | Nightmare Scale: 6/10

I read this book in one frenzied sitting on a long train ride a few years back, and it’s one of those debut novels that leaves you thinking how unfair it is for anyone to get it so right on the first try.

This is the story of a devout Catholic family who make a pilgrimage each year to a shrine on the blasted northwest coast of England, full of hostile locals, gloomy weather, and dangerous tides. They have two sons, Smith and Hanny, the latter of whom is mute, and these journeys are made in the hope of a divine cure for his condition. This isn’t stolid institutional religion, though - this is cultish, wild faith, with effusive offerings and ritual baptisms in mossy grottos.

But this is really the story of Smith and Hanny and their explorations of the coastline, particularly the spit of land that becomes an island during high tides, where the townsfolk go under cover of night. What happens on that island becomes a secret that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

CW for this book: animal harm, child harm/death

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon | Nightmare Scale: 8/10

A phenomenal entry into the category of “protagonist who’s afraid of women and, frankly, should be.” Published in the early 70s, the book follows Ned, his wife Beth, and their troubled daughter, Kate as they move from New York to an isolated, charmingly backwards town in rural Connecticut (the idea of an “isolated Connecticut town” is maybe the part of this book that’s aged the worst). Before long, of course, Ned grows suspicious of his new neighbors, especially the straight-out-of-a-morality-play Widow Fortune, the town matriarch and resident herbalist (she’s a wonderful character, swathed in black with a pair of shears hanging from her belt). The townspeople celebrate a number of arcane festivals tied to the year’s growing cycle, the most important of which is Harvest Home – but no one will tell Ned what exactly Harvest Home involves.

There’s some midcentury benevolent paternalism shit going on in this book, as well as some deep-seated fear of being cuckolded, but I didn’t find it affected the read for me – if anything, I think the men in this book largely get what they deserve.

CW for this book: suicide (not graphic), child harm/death, weird sex stuff

The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson | Nightmare Scale 7/10

This novelette (which you can read for free at the link) is a spectacular accomplishment, layered and thorny and painful. In the late 1800s, after the end of slavery, in a town called Rosetree, a family of Black farmers work the tobacco fields. Their young daughter, who can see angels, makes a tragic mistake, and, panicked, makes a deal with a man who says he can fix it. But when her debt comes due, it’s in a tidal wave of violence and blood.

This is supernatural horror, sure, but it’s real-world horror too. Wilson grapples solidly and tragically with the way American slavery dismantled cultural knowledge, folklore, and family tradition. But when a six-year old girl named Easter faces down a devil who can cross a field in a single step, she ultimately can only rely on herself, and the consequences of what she’s done.

CW for this book: graphic anti-Black violence

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand | Nightmare Scale 8/10

The gothic haunted-house tale meets folk horror in this delicious novella. It’s the story of a legendary acid folk band who spent a summer at the titular manse after the death of one of their members. Julian, their lead singer and songwriter, a young man of ethereal beauty and arcane interests, is fascinated by the house and surrounding grounds, which are home to barrows, Bronze Age ruins, House of Leaves-style passageways, and one mysterious girl in white. By the end of the summer, Julian is gone, presumed dead, but the band’s last recording session becomes a cult (hah) sensation, and the band’s legend lives on in infamy.

The book is written as an oral history, a series of interviews with the surviving band members, their manager, and a journalist who profiled the band that summer, which I love as a narrative choice, because you’re immediately plunged into a plethora of narrators of varying degrees of unreliability. Add that to the fact that the interviews are taking place forty years after the events of the story, and you’ve got a nice haze of uncertainty over what actually happened at Wylding Hall.

It’s not the most frightening book in the world – though Hand excels at persistent low-level disorientation throughout the narrative – but there is one culminating scare in this story that really, earnestly fucked me up (email me if you’ve read it, you know which one I’m talking about, I need to commiserate over the lost sleep).

Note: this one is out of print in physical editions but I highly recommend you pick up the ebook. Even if you prefer not to read on a screen, it’s worth it.

Further Reading:

  • Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt: I’ve had this weird thing where I’ve been holding off on writing about this book, because it’s one of my favorite horror novels and also one of the flat-out most terrifying things I’ve ever read. I’m likely going to dedicate a whole edition to it at some point in the future, but I wanted to include it here because it’s a great example of contemporary American folk horror (even though it was originally set in Europe, but that’s neither here nor there).

  • The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen: A classic! It caused quite a scandal at publication in the 1890s – readers were aghast at the fact that Machen dared to acknowledge that sex existed – and it’s still a weird and unsettling and sexual and visceral read. It’s about a scientific experiment to prove the existence of the god Pan which goes awry and results in a young girl with unsettling powers. You can read this one for free at the link via Project Gutenberg.

  • Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange by Adam Scovell: Scovell quite literally wrote the book on the genre – this is a nonfiction cultural history of English folk horror and the cultural forces that informed and shaped it as a genre.

Final Girls:

  • When is a Myth Not a Myth: The Origins of the Green Man []: Speaking of folklore (though not of horror), I just adore this piece from Emily Tesh (author of the gorgeously romantic and lush gay Green Man novella Silver in the Wood) about the syncretic origins of the Green Man figure and the ways we conflate ancient and recent history – it really and truly could not be MORE my shit if it tried.

  • On the Edges of a Haunting: Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall []: This is a 2016 piece from friend-of-the-newsletter and very talented author Kat Howard, and it’s a lovely deep dive into everything that makes Wylding Hall wonderful.

  • British Folk Horror Is Back, and It's Scarier Than Ever [Vice]: If you’d like to do some further reading on folk horror, this is a good place to start (even though it’s mostly focused on cinema).

  • The trailer for season 2 of The Terror is here and it looks GREAT (and, unfortunately, extremely fucking timely). Season 1 was an exceptionally well-made piece of television – Jared Harris is an understated powerhouse of an actor – and I’ll be writing about the show and the book it was based on in an upcoming newsletter, but this is your official notice to watch the first season now (summer is the perfect time for it).

    And now, as is traditional, a couple spectacular covers, this time for Harvest Home and Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch:

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