Jennifer Sullivan’s Top Reads From 2021
That’s right, I’m not going with 5 or 10 book recommendations for 2021, but 6 because a weird year deserves a strange number. Actually, it’s not as random as it sounds. Last year I read a lot of Short Story Collections, Novellas, and Novels, and I couldn’t choose between my top 2 in each category, so top 6 it is!
Anthologies and single-author collections were a big part of my reading list last year. Given everything that was going on in the world, I felt drawn to short stories more than ever. They served as dark distractions to briefly immerse in, and they made my days better, like small venting sessions so I could hold onto my sanity.
One of my first reads of 2021 was Anoka by Shane Hawk. I knew it would be nearly impossible for anything to knock it out of my top books of the year, and I was right. That’d be impressive for any single author collection of short stories, but is even more mind-blowing when you realise this is Hawk’s debut collection.
Within these stories of Indigenous horror, you’ll find a sinister doppelgänger, a necklace of human teeth, insomnia fuelled visions, and the creepiest spider sequence I’ve ever read. Beyond the surface details, these are also tales of grief, family bonds, and generational rage. Hawk digs in deep, turning tropes into fresh perspectives and he isn’t afraid to shed light on the ugliest layers of the human condition.
Next up is Side Roads: A Dark Fiction Collection by Rachel A. Brune. For the second year in a row Brune has been on my ‘best of’ list, in 2020 as editor of the fantastic anthology Coppice & Brake and now as the author of her own collection of short fiction.
This collection has everything from poetry to short stories to a novelette, and the tone runs through nearly every subgenre of dark fiction there is, each mesmerizing and incredibly written. You’ll meet unlikely monster hunters, experience a hospital evacuation, witness lives fading from an old photograph, and travel to a post-apocalyptic nightmare where allies become enemies and wolves may not be foes. There are also layers of trauma and heartache within the collection that feel so raw they evoke an immediate connection with the reader.
Novellas were another refuge for me through last year and it was really tough to narrow this category down to only 2 recommendations. But the ones I settled on impacted me so much I don’t think they will ever fade from my memory.
Taking a dive into the treacherous world of surrealism was Punishment by Hope by Erik Hoffstatter. This tale follows the life of Nim, who is guided by a giant half-lizard to collect canisters in the sea from his forbidden love. Erotic delusions, and perhaps memories, flood through Nim each time he sees her, attracting the attention of a shapeshifting jellyfish who offers to help unite these lovers. But sometimes getting what you want is a worse fate than pining over something you can never have.
Dreams and nightmares fuse together in this tale, exploring subconscious symbolism, sexuality, destruction, and rebirth. Hofstatter’s prose is rich and poetic in style, using vivid and complex imagery which at times is beyond beautiful and in other moments is absolutely grotesque. This story ebbs and flows like the tide, pulling the reader to sympathise with lovelorn Nim, only to turn around and leave you feeling repulsed by his actions.
And, speaking of repulsion, this next book included scenes that made me wish I hadn’t eaten before I started turning the pages. I’m talking about Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca. As much as this novella serves as a character study, the author also incorporates body horror, and I’m talking Cronenberg levels of terror. The writing is lean and purposeful with each sentence revealing the characters, their motivations, and actions.
Told exclusively through correspondence, readers are pushed into the role of voyeurs as harmless online flirting between Zoe and Agnes soon progresses into divulging family secrets, rebelling against the workplace status quo, and evolves into a sadomasochistic Master/Slave contract. While that might sound like an enormous leap, the author has crafted the story so authentically that the journey of this online relationship feels almost natural. The former loneliness experienced by both Zoe and Agnes drives them into codependency which results in stomach-churning decisions after Agnes pleads to have a baby. (I still get shivers thinking about this!)
Last up are 2 novels that grabbed me by the throat and refused to let me go until I read the very last words.
If you’ve ever wanted to poke around the mind of a serial killer, then pick up The Bedwetter: Journal of a Budding Psychopath by Lee Allen Howard. Now, this will not be a book for everyone. If you cannot handle subjects such as psychological and sexual abuse, homophobia, urination fetish, and animal abuse (to name but a few), then this is not a story for you. To give you an example of what level of uncomfortable you can expect, the novel begins with a dream sequence where the main character urinates on his naked mother to induce electrocution because she has electric hair clippers shoved up her vagina. And that’s only the first paragraph! However, for those of you who can handle these triggers, The Bedwetter is a transfixing read that gets up close and personal in the thoughts and actions of a serial killer in the making.
For the past few years Russel’s life has been fairly stable – his sister Becky helped him get clean from drugs, he works at an animal testing lab, and he adores taking care of his nephew Aiden. But everything is about to change. Becky is getting serious with her boyfriend and Russell doesn’t fit into her new life. These changes trigger Russell to start to wet the bed again, awakening memories of his abusive past and building his dark obsessive thoughts.
Howard’s writing is exceptional, not wasting a single detail or line within the story. He even manages to make mundane experiences feel hyper-realistic, like Russell making grilled cheese sandwiches. In those moments you almost forget Russell’s monstrosity, and I think that’s part of the point – as reprehensible as killers are, they also do normal things, and outsiders don’t always see the monster lurking within.
My last recommendation is for anyone looking for a haunted house story. Good books in this subgenre build the sense of danger, nearly suffocating the characters. But in the best haunted tales, that sense of dread bleeds off the page, drowning the reader in despair. Society Place by Andrew David Barker does all that and more, and is one of the best haunted house stories I’ve ever read. The setting, characters, and evil entities are all chilling, but the style of writing is so immersive I almost felt I had to claw my way out of impending doom.
Recently widowed, Heather is pregnant, alone, and trying to hold onto a glimmer of hope that her life is about to get better as she moves into Society Place in 1976. After some unsettling events, she reaches out to her brother Mike. Embracing the role of protector, Mike tries to shield Heather from a disturbing discovery in the cellar, and as the story progresses, he’s pulled between pursuing his own dreams and remaining Heather’s support system.
The narrative then flips back and forth between supernatural events of 1976 and 2019. Both are incredibly intense, and the author deftly uses this timeline tug-of-war to heighten the anxiety of the reader. And should you take a trip to Society Place, be careful not to disturb the nest of ghosts, for the “Once-Man” is waiting there and he is horrifying.
J. A. Sullivan is a horror writer and paranormal enthusiast, based in Brantford, ON, Canada. Attracted to everything non-horror folks consider strange, she’s spent years as a paranormal investigator, has an insatiable appetite for serial killer information, and would live inside a library if she could.
As curator of “Scary’s Voices” on Kendall Reviews, an article series reviewing horror podcasts, Sullivan loves listening to all things spooky. If you have a horror podcast recommendation, let her know.
On top of contributing short stories to Kendall Reviews, her fiction has appeared in Don’t Open the Door (2019), It Came From The Darkness (2020), and she acted as an assistant editor for Black Dogs, Black Tales (2020). Other spooky tales and updates on her writing journey can be found on her blog.
You can follow J. A. on Twitter @ScaryJASullivan
Check out her blog https://writingscaredblog.wordpress.com
Find her on Instagram www.instagram.com/j.a_sullivan
Find her on Instagram www.instagram.com/j.a_sullivan