As bad as 2020 was, it turned out great horror. I kept up with what I could for a change, and seldom found myself disappointed by the books and movies released. Below are my favorite horror books published during 2020, all of which I recommend.
- The Wise Friend by Ramsey Campbell. One of the greatest horror writers returns with a moody, atmospheric novel about the nephew of a deceased occult artist whose work begins to seep into his daily life, threatening his family. A rich, haunting novel.
- Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare. Don't let the young adult label fool you. Adam Cesare's first Big-Five release pays homage to the great slasher films with its story of a young girl who has moved to the small town of Kettle Springs, where tradition and progress meet by attempting to cull its population of its most troublesome kids. It's a treat, especially for those who lived during the slasher genre's heyday.
- Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby. Getaway driver Beauregard "Bug" Montage takes part in a diamond heist after a series of financial crises made worse by the bigotry of the small town where he lives. But things go south quickly, putting him and his family in danger. Ostensibly a crime novel, Shawn Cosby's incredible debut is an uncompromising look at the heart of darkness that beats within all of us.
- The Boatman's Daughter by Andy Davidson. A mad preacher makes a demand of a woman who ferries contraband, forcing her to consider what sacrifices she can make for the witch and a young child she must keep safe. Davidson's second novel evokes the spirit of Michael McDowell, full of dark imagery and richly drawn characters.
- The Only Good Indians and Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones. The always fantastic Stephen Graham Jones published two incredible novels this year. In The Only Good Indians, four men fight for survival after a disturbing incident when hunting. Night of the Mannequins concerns a teen prank gone horribly wrong. I give the edge to The Only Good Indians, but both show Jones at the top of his game.
- Eden by Tim Lebbon. A master of terror, Lebbon's grisly new novel channels Jeff VanderMeer and Michael Crichton, but it's all Lebbon. Humanity creates the Virgin Zones to curb the changes brought on by climate catastrophe. A group of explorers ventures to one, Eden, to discover what happened to a previous expedition, but are unprepared for the changes nature has wrought. An engaging read.
- Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Debutante Noemi Taboada travels to High Place, a house in the Mexican countryside, after receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin. There she encounters mystery and terror as she uncovers the house's mysteries. Moreno-Garcia's richly textured novel is reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier with the Weird cranked up to 11.
- Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay. Tremblay's latest novel, all too relevant for 2020, takes place in a Massachusetts overrun by a rabies-like virus spread by saliva. A pregnant woman must make her way through this dangerous landscape after her husband is killed and she has been bitten. Taking place over several hours, Tremblay propels the reader forward to a harrowing conclusion.
- Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner. Horror master Tim Waggoner, author of dozens of novels and stories, talks about the nuts-and-bolts of horror writing, offering useful writing exercises at the end of each chapter as well as insights from writers and editors, including Ellen Datlow, John Langan, Jeani Rector, and Joe Lansdale, among many others. There are many how-to-write books out there, but Waggoner's is one of the most useful, and one of the most engaging.
Movies didn't have as groundbreaking a year as in previous years, for obvious reasons, but that doesn't mean worthwhile efforts weren't released on streaming services such as Shudder. There were a lot of great movies available if you knew where to look. Of the movies released in 2020, I'd recommend the following.
- Anything for Jackson (d. Justin G. Dyck). A couple kidnaps a young woman about to give birth in an attempt to bring back their son using a ritual. A paranoid and chilling tale with echoes of Richard Matheson as well as Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.
- The Color Out of Space (d. Richard Stanley). A meteorite crashes on the Gardner family's farm and begins to radically transform the flora, fauna, and eventually the people. Stanley's adaptation of the classic Lovecraft story provides plenty of scares, with Nicolas Cage by turns underplaying and overplaying his role as the family patriarch succumbing to the meteorite's powers.
- Gretel and Hansel (d. Osgood Perkins). Stunningly photographed and genuinely creepy, Osgood Perkins puts a feminist spin on the classic Brothers Grimm tale, with Sophie Lillis demonstrating why she will be a major screen presence in the coming years.
- His House (d. Remi Weekes). A refugee couple travels across the Mediterranean to England, where they seek asylum. Strange events occur in the house they are provided, and they learn their home is inhabited by an apeth, or "night witch." An understated but terrifying gem.
- Host (d. Rob Savage). A group of friends meet during a Zoom call to conduct a seance. They are visited by a presence when one refuses to take the gathering seriously. Short (it's not even an hour long) and creepy, this novel take on the found-footage picture was one of the best movies to be released in the age of covid.
- The Invisible Man (d. Leigh Whannell). Loosely adapted from H. G. Wells's classic scientific romance, Leigh Whannell's follow-up to his fantastic science fiction thriller upgrade concerns a man who has developed a technology to render one utterly invisible, and uses the technology to torment his girlfriend after she leaves him. Elizabeth Moss is great, and Whannell keeps his pace relentless, though the screenplay has a few bothersome loose ends.
- The Lodge (ds. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala). Here's a claustrophobic, nightmarish tale about a man who leaves his children in their winter home with a woman whom they blame for their mother's death. The woman is the survivor of a cult mass suicide whose sanity begins to unravel as a snowstorm makes leaving the lodge impossible. I had to get past what seemed to be a contrived setup, but once I did the movie delivered incredible tension.
- Underwater (d. William Eubank). The integrity of a drilling and research facility in the Marianas Trench is breached after a strong earthquake, and its inhabitants attempt to escape both the crushing depths and humanoid creatures hunting them. It's a fun if imperfect b-movie in the tradition of Alien.