I’ve been a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) for several years. During that time, I’ve heard many complaints about the Stokers, some valid, some not. One of the biggest complaints has always been about how the Stokers really don’t mean anything; they are nothing more than a popularity contest. I’ve heard allegations of “rec swapping” where an author or group of authors would recommend works for the award, not because the stories were the best of what had been published that year, but because they knew they would get a recommendation for their own story quid-pro-quo. And while I’m sure things like that have happened, I’m glad that the HWA is moving in a direction that will hopefully prevent things like that from happening going forward.
2011 was the first year of partially juried system. I was honored to be the Jury Chair for the Long Fiction category. I would like to personally thank my fellow jurors: Chris Welch, Nate Kenyon, and Rich Payne for their service over the past year. We read more than 100 stories and had to trim that list down to a maximum of 5 stories for Jury recommendation.
And I’ve got to tell you, that part of the job was not easy.
I sometimes hear people say, “Horror (as a genre) is dead.” I say those people are looking in the wrong places when it comes to fiction anyway. Were there some real clunkers in the 100+ pile of stories that the Jury received? Yes. There were. But what I found encouraging is how many great stories there were. There were easily another 10 stories that I felt could have made the cut. I know many of the other jurors felt the same way.
So if you are looking for something good to read, here are my “Top 10” picks (in no particular order) from my Long Fiction reading last year:
1) “Alice Through A Plastic Sheet” by Robert Shearman. Remember the days when you knew your neighbors? The days when people actually talked to each other, in person, instead avoiding human contact? This story explores that social dynamic, the trend toward passive-aggressive behavior that might easily be resolved through a conversation and the degradation of relationships between the people who should know each other best.
2) “Beyond The Door” by Jeffrey Thomas. Two strangers meet in a train station bathroom and become engaged in a wild storytelling duel. The sense of competition is the quest to “one-up” the other guy adds to the excitement and pacing of the tale as it unfolds. Be prepared to devour this one in one sitting. It was a hard story to put down.
3) “But For Scars” by Tom Picirrilli. Two of Tom Picirrilli’s stories were submitted to for Stoker consideration. And they were both wonderful. The problem comes in when the Jury has to narrow their choices. While “Every Shallow Cut” could have easily made my list, “But For Scars” resonated with me more. There is an emotional complexity in Tom’s writing. He can make you feel what his characters are feeling. A writer who can do that will hook the reader every time no matter what the story is about.
4) “Ghosts With Teeth” by Peter Crowther. This one really surprised me. The story I was expecting, something with a quiet an eerie feel, took a turn to a nastier place. I love it when the author can trick me into thinking I know how the story’s going to end.
5) “Recalculating” by Jennifer Weiner. This story is about spousal abuse and how it can exist even after the abuser is dead. Some readers might not get totally on board with the plot. You have to believe in ghosts for this one to work. But it stuck with me long after I read it.
6) “Roots And All” by Brian Hodge. Another author with two stories I could have easily picked. Failure and regret are often themes in Hodge’s work, but his take on those themes is always different. There’s always some new insight that keeps the stories interesting. Set in a rural community ravaged by meth addiction, Hodge explores the pursuit of justice and its price.
7) “The Cranston Gibberrer” by Martin Mundt. Readers who like H.P. Lovecraft and have a sly sense of humor will love this offering from Martin Mundt. This story is very different in terms of style from its competition. A fun and fast-paced read.
8) “The Door To Lost Pages” by Claude Lalumiere. The story reminded me why I love to read. Ever since I can remember, I’ve spent countless hours in bookstores and libraries, hoping to find books that would transport me to worlds greater than the one I live in. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m the only person in the world who cared that much about the joy that reading could bring into your life. But I know now that I have a kindred spirit out there in Claude. If I was stranded on a desert island and only had one book to read, I hope it would be this one.
9) “The Ghost In You” by Gary McMahon. This one is as heartbreaking as it is scary. Another one that stuck with me long after I’d read it.
10) “The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer” by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Possibly my favorite of all the stories I read last year. Maybe it’s because I have two kids that are taking piano lessons that this one hit a chord. Like “Ghosts With Teeth” this story takes the reader to a creepier and nastier place than they might want to go. You might want to read this one with the lights on.
There were so many great stories in 2011; it was hard to narrow 100+ down to 10, and then to 5. Just because you didn’t see these stories listed on the final ballot, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read them. I hope you will seek them out and enjoy them as much as I did.
• “Death Light” by Michael Marshall Smith.
• “Every Shallow Cut” by Tom Picirrilli.
• “Torment” by Greg Chapman.
• “The Red Empire” by Joe McKinney.
• “Hate The Sinner, Love The Sin” by Brian Hodge.
• “Rusting Chickens” by Gene O’Neill.
• “Urban Legend” by Lisa Morton.
• “Island Funeral” by Keith Minnion.
• The anthologies SUPERNATURAL NOIR, BLOOD AND OTHER CRAVINGS and NAKED CITY edited by Ellen Datlow. All three had several gems worthy of being read. A couple of my favorites were: “The Last Triangle” by Jeffrey Ford, “The Third Always Beside You” by John Langan, and “King Pole, Gallows Pole, Bottle Tree” by Elizabeth Bear.
• The 2011 novella series by Delirium Books. Lots of gems in here, including “Nancy Goats” by Weston Ochse and “Unearthed” by Gina Ranalli.
The complete final ballot selections can be found here.
Congratulations to all who were nominated. “Good Luck” to all of you.