Ellen Datlow -- best of 2009

The novels I enjoyed in 2009 were:

Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca (Word Riot Press) is a lean, very well told novel that grabs the reader from the first line to the last, about a man drawn against his will to accompany the ghost of a murdered boy who wants to revenge himself on his murderer. No fireworks: just good writing, fine characterizations, a meditation on death--and a slowly mounting sense of menace.

The Domino Men
by Jonathan Barnes (William Morrow) is the follow-up to the entertaining The Somnambulist. If you liked that novel, you’ll love this. If you didn’t care for that one, I suspect you’ll enjoy this. A secret war is being waged in contemporary London for the very soul of the city and its inhabitants. A mild-mannered file clerk is dragooned into the Directorate, the organization in which his grandfather played a great part. The terrifying, monstrous, and hilarious Hawker and Boon, two supernatural creatures of a destructive nature that appear as humans dressed as British schoolboys (I always thing of them as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum) play more important roles in The Domino Men thank in The Somnambulist. A few unexpected (and punch in the gut) twists and turns towards the end keep the plot moving towards its --just right--conclusion.

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry (Penguin Press) is an utterly charming first novel that brings to mind G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and some of the works of Franz Kafka. Despite some superficial similarities to The Domino Men: a lowly clerk is promoted within a large organization whose job is to prevail against the chaos being created by evil personages, the protagonist comes of age while solving the dangerous mysterious around him. In The Manual of Detection, too, a clerk in a detective agency is promoted to detective when the detective he reported to disappears. But from there, the Berry veers into very strange surreal territory.

The Little Sleep by Paul G. Tremblay (Henry Holt and Company) is an intriguing and first novel that drags the reader along with its narcoleptic detective protagonist through the pain, powerlessness, and humiliation of his medical condition while forcing her to accompany him on his search for truth no matter where it leads. Mark Genevich’s car accident several years before the beginning of the novel has left him battered and odd looking and with the condition of narcolepsy--i.e. he falls asleep at the drop of a hat, as a result of stress or sometimes just living. He’s a private eye whose biggest case falls into his lap while he’s asleep. Compromising photos of a young woman who might be the DA’s daughter are left by …someone --who hires him to ..what? Mysteries abound and Mark’s the only one who can (or wants) to solve them.

Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press) is the culmination of the author’s series about the imaginary city of Ambergris. Another reluctant detective, the eponymous protagonist, has a past that comes back to bite him in the ass, a girlfriend he doesn’t trust, and a partner who is turning into something not human. Past wars among the various factions inhabiting Ambergris over the years are nothing compared to the enemy contemporary citizens face --the fungoid current rulers of their world.

Last Days by Brian Evenson (Underland Press) combines the novella “The Brotherhood of Mutilation,” published in 2003 as a chapbook, with a new section added. A former undercover cop is lauded for not only surviving an attack that leaves him mutilated, but killing his attacker one-handed after he cauterizes the wound. His notoriety brings him to the attention of a cult that takes literally the biblical entreaty to cut off the hand that offends thee. The detective is abducted and brought to the religious compound to solve a mystery-- or else--as he becomes involved in a power struggle between two warring groups within the cult--those who continue to self mutilate to move up in the organization and those who follow a different path. A scary and sometimes graphic, well-written book about obsession.

Darling Jim by Christian Moerk (Henry Holt) opens with the shocking discovery of the bodies of two sisters and their aunt in a suburb of Dublin and unfolds into even more horror, all radiating from a seductive traveling story teller who enchants every woman and girl within reach of his uncanny charms. Darling Jim, as he is dubbed by those he seduces, entrances the inhabitants of every pub he visits as he weaves his tale of two brothers, a wolf, a curse, and a princess. The mystery of the three deaths is painstakingly unraveled by a young mailman who really wants to be a graphic novelist as he doggedly searches for clues to the truth when he accidentally discovers the diary of one of the dead sisters.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing all Signs of Death by Charlie Huston (Ballantine Books) is a macabre, moving, and darkly humorous novel about an emotionally damaged ex-teacher who’s living off his oldest friend until he’s offered the job of a lifetime--to work with Clean Team, a company that mops up after violent, or just messy, deaths. The plot careens from hilarity to tragedy, often in the same paragraph, as our protagonist meets a young lady “cute”-- being hired to clean up after her rich dad, who blew his brains out with a 9mm. This is the first Huston novel I’ve read and it’s not the last.

The City & The City
by China Miéville (Del Rey) is a dark, metaphysical police procedural that opens with the discovery of a body. The mystery is contingent on the unusual world Miéville creates, a world as bizarre in its way as any Miéville has previously envisioned: in an alternate reality from our own, two eastern European cities-- Bes?el and Ul Qoma--overlap in the same space, yet their citizens are forbidden to interact or acknowledge the existence of any person/event/physical location in the other, overlapping city. Breach is invoked for those caught breaking the law, and the guilty are taken away, never to be seen again. A detective from the Bes?el Extreme Crime Squad is assigned to the murder and his life is utterly changed. It’s a great read.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Shaye Areheart Books) is a disturbing, multi-stranded tale that begins one wintry January night in 1985, when most of a family are slaughtered, apparently by the fifteen year old son, in what is dubbed the “Satanic Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas. One seven year old girl survives, her testimony sending her brother to prison for life. The fallout from the crime and its aftermath haunt Libby Day for the next twenty-five years. Then, intruding into her depression, bitterness, anger, and unhappy solitude is a member of a club that studies and even celebrates the perpetrators of violent crimes. Some of the members think Ben is innocent and want to get Libby to recant. She’s gradually forced to face the past and slowly becomes interested in discovering the truth of what actually did happen that night.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer
by Jonathan L. Howard (Doubleday) is a darkly macabre and entertaining deal with the devil tale about a necromancer who realizes that without his soul (given up years before the novel begins) he cannot accomplish his best research. So Satan, a bit bored, makes a new deal in which Cabal must get one hundred suckers to sign their souls away in exchange for the return of his own. Satan helps Cabal along by giving him a traveling circus--all the necromancer’s got to do is populate it with the animated dead.

Bad Things by Michael Marshall (William Morrow) is a fine, tense novel of supernatural and psychological horror. It begins with a four year old child dying--of nothing--after falling off the pier at the family home in a small town in Washington state. Three years later, the father--divorced and still dealing with his grief-- is living in a summer resort town in Oregon and working as a waiter. A mysterious email he receives churns up the past, forcing him to return to Black Ridge, Washington and confront the dark practices of the founding family. It’s more complex than it sounds and is a very good read.

Slights by Kaaron Warren (Angry Robot) is the long and complex debut novel by a talented Australian teller of dark tales. At eighteen years old, Stevie (aka Stephanie) is responsible for the death of her mother in a car crash. Her beloved father, a cop, was killed in a shootout a few years before. The story follows the troubled eighteen year old Stevie through her mid-thirties. When not attempting suicide she works in a nursing home, keeps the front yard of the house she’s inherited filled with manure, and spends hours sifting through the detritus of decades of her family’s existence…including bones of all kinds.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Riverhead) is a terrific historical novel that slowly ratchets up the tension as it becomes a disturbing psychological puzzle and haunted house story. The story is told from the point of view of a middle-aged local doctor in a post World War II Britain still suffering shortages. Dr. Faraday becomes physician to the owners of Hundreds Hall, the now-dilapidated estate on which his mother worked as a maid years earlier. Are the members of the household becoming unhinged from stress or is there something at Hundreds that is actually trying to “get” them? Despite the house’s fall into ruin, it becomes the focal point of Faraday’s longed for acceptance by the local gentry, and his stubborn, extreme rationalization plus this fixation that has dominated his imagination since childhood prevents him from actually helping before it’s too late.

The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros (Toby Press) is a nicely told novel about New Orleans in 1891. The one year old child of a lynched Sicilian immigrant has been possessed by a demon and after the doctor flees in terror, several others attempt to save the child’s life. The repercussions on those involved ripple over the years into a complex (sometimes too complex) tale of jazz, love, hate, betrayal, death, and redemption. Well worth reading for the way it brings New Orleans of that period alive.

The Lovers by John Connolly (Atria) is the eighth Charlie Parker book in the series. I’ve only read a couple, and not the immediate predecessor to this one, but the author provides enough back story for this hardboiled supernatural novel to stand on its own. Parker’s private eye license has been pulled, and he works in a bar. Restless, he investigates events from when he was fifteen: his policeman father killed a pair of unarmed teenagers and then killed himself. As Parker probes deeper, he uncovers secrets that were meant to protect him from the mysterious, eponymous lovers.

Audrey’s Door
by Sarah Langan (HarperCollins) is a riveting novel of a promising but emotionally troubled architect who takes up residence in an infamous old building in New York. As in Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the Breviary --as a result of its mad creator, founder of the cult of Chaotic Naturalism--houses great evil that influences those who live there.

Therapy by Sebastian Fitzek, translated by Sally-Ann Spencer (St. Martin’s Press) from the original German, and published in the UK in 2008. A deft psychological thriller about a famous therapist who loses it when his 12 year old daughter goes missing. Four years later, his marriage is finished, he's quit his practice, and moved to the peaceful island where he and his family had a vacation home. Then things really go bad. This is the kind of book that 3/4 of the way through I was afraid to continue because I couldn't believe that the author would be able to pull off a believable, satisfying ending. I feel he certainly succeeded.