Johannes Anyuru’s novel They Will Drown in Their Mother’s Tears (translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel) begins with a scene that seems all too familiar. An artist being interviewed at a comic book store finds himself under attack. His name is Göran Loberg, and his aesthetic is one of provocation—specifically, provocation of conservative Muslims. (There are echoes here of 2010’s “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in 2015.) One of the extremists involved with the attack, a young woman, is periodically overtaken by the sense that something is fundamentally wrong, that events are not playing out the way they should.
What a difference a decade makes. 2010 saw the release of Benjamin Percy’s novel The Wilding, a novel with a subplot about a man who finds release wearing a suit made from animal pelts. Percy had, initially, written fiction with a sense of horror lurking just below the surface, but from there, he embraced genre elements more fully. His later novel Red Moon focused on werewolves; and now, one of the stories in his new collection Suicide Woods focuses on a bear who, after a harrowing encounter with hunters, begins to have a go at emulating the life of a human.
The idea of unearthly or folkloric creatures living alongside humanity is one that plenty of writers have embraced over the years. Using that as a starting point, countless authors have told stories that range from the mythic to the comic, from the horror-laden to the sublime. Trolls, the new novel from Stefan Spjut, also makes use of this conceit, but the author takes it to a very different place than most of his peers—somewhere decidedly bleak and disquieting. It doesn’t always click, but when it does it’s bone-chillingly effective.
Sarah Pinsker’s A Song For A New Day starts with an ending and a beginning. Luce is a touring musician in the near future; while on the road, Luce and her band start to notice things happening around them that suggest their society is on the verge of something big. A bomb threat prompts their hotel to be evacuated. Soon, they band learns that this isn’t an isolated incident, that something larger is happening. By the end of it, an element of American society will have been pushed past its breaking point, with large gatherings of people—concerts, sporting events—made illegal. Luce will find herself with the dubious distinction of being the last major musician to perform live before society changed forever.
Content Warning: mention of animal death.
Cold Storage is David Koepp’s first novel, but odds are good that you’re familiar with his work as a writer in a different medium. As a screenwriter, he adapted Jurassic Park for the big screen and wrote the David Fincher-directed thriller Panic Room. As a writer-director, he channeled the menace and social commentary of vintage Twilight Zone with his film The Trigger Effect and told an unsettling ghost story with Stir of Echoes, his adaptation of Richard Matheson’s A Stir of Echoes.
It will likely shock no one to hear that Cold Storage, a novel about the effort to contain a mutated versions of the cordyceps fungus, has a decidedly cinematic quality.
When the term “dystopian” has become shorthand for nearly any vision of a future that isn’t all friendly robots and rejuvenation technology, it’s nice to have a reminder of what a genuinely horrid vision of tomorrow might look like. Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive sits uneasily between science fiction and horror, which places it in an ideal place to offer readers a harrowing vision of the near future. Davis-Goff’s novel details a future hostile environment, and charts out the effects of living in such a world. This isn’t a place in which the objective is to rule or acquire cool skills; instead, it’s one where survival means doing terrible things, and where the collapse of civilization has allowed the worst of humanity free rein to entertain their worst impulses.
Paul Tremblay’s fiction gets inside your head—sometimes literally: his novel A Head Full of Ghosts is about what may or may not be a demonic possession, and The Cabin at the End of the World centers around a home invasion by a quartet of people who may be menacing invaders, or who may be on a desperate mission to prevent the apocalypse. Tremblay’s fiction pulls off the difficult task of making the ambiguous scary: rather than show you a monster or demon, he creates the barest hint of one, offers an equally compelling mundane explanation, and allows the reader to grapple with which one is more terrifying in its implications.
His latest book is a story collection, Growing Things. In its range and assortment of techniques, it’s Tremblay’s most ambitious book; it’s also a work that abounds with references to his other novels, although prior knowledge of them is not required to make sense of these. (With perhaps one exception, which we’ll get to in a moment.) Given the range showcased here, it may not be quite as successful as some of his other books—The Cabin at the End of the World was, for me, one of the most unsettling novels I’ve read in years—but it’s still got plenty of kick.
Whose horror fiction would you least like to be a character in? For my money, it would have to be Brian Evenson. As with the work of many of his peers, there’s the not insubstantial chance that I might be murdered, devoured, or otherwise harmed by a zealot, creature, cult member, or creeping eldritch horror. But in Evenson’s work, there’s also the possibility of being unmade on a more primal level, of being erased from the world entirely. (The title story of Windeye, his previous collection, taps into this in a magnificent and horrific way.) Even when he’s venturing into more nominally science fictional territory, as in Immobility and The Warren, Evenson continues to explore questions of identity and the malleability of both it and the body, combining futuristic plot elements with deeply disquieting meditations on the nature of the self and the human capacity for deception.
Evenson is an acclaimed author and translator; he’s also collaborated with the creator of The Purge on a horror novel, Contagion. This, in many ways, exemplifies his appeal: Evenson understands both the precision of language and the gut-level appeal of the grindhouse, and the best of his work skates along the border between the two, combining aspects of both.
Some fiction explores the known; other fiction delves into the unknown. Michael Blumlein’s fiction takes another route altogether, revealing the unknown and the mysterious in some of the most nominally familiar places out there. It’s something that makes his work simultaneously revelatory and disconcerting: like a host of authors in the speculative realm, he concerns himself with myriad forms of alienation, but Blumlein’s take on these themes is distinctive and unique.
Sometimes it can help to begin with the text behind the text. Masande Ntshanga’s Triangulum is a surreal puzzle box of a novel, presented as a series of found documents spanning both the recent past and the near future—but its first few lines come via a quartet of epigraphs, encompassing everything from the fiction of Kōbō Abe to the history of South Africa. Triangulum doesn’t lack for ambition and, as it gathers momentum, it conveys a sense of approaching dread, of events both historical and metaphysical approaching some horrific end point. This is a paranoid novel about the end of the world; this is also a novel about the power and ambiguity of apocalyptic narratives.
Triangulum opens in 2043, with a Foreword by Dr. Naomi Buthelezi. An acclaimed writer (with Hugo and Nebula wins to her credit), she is recruited by her colleague at the University of Cape Town, Dr. Hessler, for her assistance in reviewing a series of anonymous manuscripts suggesting that the world will end in 2050. This wouldn’t necessarily be something that merits an investigation, except that, in Hessler’s words, “[i]t predicted the present.” A bombing has taken place, one which created a trianglular symbol that features prominently in the manuscript.
This year, not even half over, has brought with it a number of novels in which alternate timelines play a crucial role. K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived followed the lives of a group of refugees from an alternate Earth and their efforts to, in part, figure out exactly where their Earth’s timeline diverged from our own. Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me posits that a world in which Alan Turing had not died in the 1950s would be one in which certain technological advances, from the internet to artificial humans, would be a part of the world by the 1980s. In both of these novels, like many alternate histories, the changes to the world are seismic; it’s easy to pinpoint just where things changed.
Paul Kerschen’s novel The Warm South also tells the story of a world in which something occurred differently than it did on our own. But it falls into a more modest scale: think of Bruce Sterling’s story “Dori Bangs,” or Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Remaking History.” In these stories, certain alterations to history as we know it have occurred, but the focus is less on dramatic social or political changes, but simply to how individual lives might have been altered in unexpected ways.
Ian McEwan’s fiction frequently grapples with grand moral issues and explores the grey areas that can arise when imperfect people—or, you know, people—attempt to solve problems that may not have a perfect solution. Ian McEwan’s fiction has also been known to possess an unnerving or even uncanny streak: his novel Black Dogs stops just short of venturing into the horrific, for instance. So it’s less bizarre than it initially seems for him to be venturing into the realm of science fiction.
Machines Like Me is a curious work, though. At times it reads like two shorter novels woven together, linked up by the couple at its center. One of these narratives is overtly science fictional, while the other ventures into the same unsettling moral territory as some of McEwan’s best fiction. But it’s also set in an alternate timeline, an early 1980s Great Britain where the timeline shifted from our own several decades earlier.
Sometimes, you have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Case in point: before you read a word of Liz Harmer’s novel The Amateurs, you’ll encounter a comprehensive-looking table of contents. The novel, it tells you, is divided into three parts: “The Amateurs,” “The Professionals,” and “The Travellers,” each with distinctly-named chapters and a brief interlude. If you’re prone to reverse-engineering novels from their tables of contents, and I’m sure some of you are, you’ll find plenty to ponder here.
Sometimes, you have no idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Case in point: the situation faced by the world of Harmer’s novel. When the book begins, it’s the aftermath of an event that’s decimated the Earth’s population. Initially the novel centers around a small community in a Canadian city: specifically, one which is “down to forty-two, not including pets” as the novel opens. This isn’t the result of a war or a global pandemic, however—though Harmer’s novel does neatly encapsulate the tried-and-true scenario of a handful of survivors grappling with the end of the world that they’ve always known. Instead, the responsible party is a device known as Port, the invention of a tech visionary named Albrecht Doors.
The stories found within Sarah Pinsker’s collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea are a wide-ranging bunch. There’s a meticulously-constructed examination of life and culture on a generation ship; a tale of a young mariner endeavoring to outwit a group of sirens; and a neatly metafictional mystery involving a gathering of the Sarah Pinskers of various parallel Earths, including one who, just like the author, is a Nebula Award-winning writer.. But this book isn’t simply a showcase of its author’s range—although that’s certainly (and memorably) on display. Instead, it illustrates another aspect of her work: the ability to juxtapose meticulous worldbuilding with a thoughtful exploration of ambiguity.
What happens when a profound alienation from the world takes a turn for the surreal? While it’s not explicitly a tale of the fantastic, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled avoids realism as it tells the story of a musician whose circumstances are in a state of constant flux; add a mysterious device or two and you’d have a prime Philip K. Dick-style narrative on your hands. Michael McDowell’s Toplin eschews the outright supernaturalism of some of his other works but abounds with plenty of horror nonetheless.
The last few years have seen an abundance of work by the late Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll being translated into English: first Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel, and now Lord. (Adam Morris translated the preceding two novels; Edgar Garbelotto handled translation duties for Lord.) All three novels tell tales of profound alienation from the outside world. The narrator of Quiet Creature on the Corner is imprisoned in a space where time seems to move differently for various people, while Atlantic Hotel centers around a man who arrives at the hotel in question and finds that his identity is in a state of constant flux. Lord is somewhat more buttoned-down, at least at first: Its narrator is an aging Brazilian writer visiting London who finds himself extremely disoriented upon his arrival in a new city.
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