Compiling a Top Picks list is always difficult, at least for me. I think of the ones I left out, the ones who ‘should’ be ranked higher, etc. Yet I think every writer should know whom they admire, and it has been helpful to me to be more aware of the community of well known and far-better-than-I-could-be writers of scary, weird and dark fantasy fiction. No one can write in a void, and appreciation of the rich tapestry of the horror world is an important part of continuing the tradition.
1. Kelly Link. Author of the brilliant, Stranger Things Happen, from 2001, and the equally wonderful 2003 follow-up, Magic For Beginners, Ms. Link is my go-to author for everything unconventional, surprising, and sometimes (really) scary. The searching, post-modern style of her stories isn’t for everyone, but I will always love writers who ask their audience to let go of all preconceptions, to go on a journey that means leaving all of the known world behind.
2. Ramsey Campbell. I’m not sure it gets much better than this. One of the 20th and 21st centuries greatest authors of horror, I’ve never met a Ramsey Campbell I didn’t like, particularly the stories that mix the terror with the sly wit of true humor. He’s also a fine editor, and his anthology work is also excellent. Try the collection, Scared Stiff, sometime; thirteen years after I first found it on a shelf at Borders, the pieces in that one can still make me cringe.
3. Dennis Etchison. The thing I appreciate most about this author of truly frightening fiction is that he has his finger on the pulse of popular culture and its impact on society, particularly through entertainment. My favorite Etchison story is “The Dog Park,” about the misery of life in Hollywood, a place he describes as an environment “where souls are burned for temporary warmth.” How’s that for a line that sticks with you?
4. Laird Barron. Whenever I encounter a book with Barron’s name on it, I know it’s something I’m going to love. How can you not love a man known for saying the Bible “is the greatest horror story ever told”? (True, by the way, as far as I can tell.) My favorite Barron so far is a short story called “The Redfield Girls,” a subtle but disturbing piece about women who drown in a lake in the Pacific Northwest and the mystery it leaves for the survivor. Hard to the story’s depth or complexity, which, like most Laird Barron work, leaves a permanent lingering chill. (Plus, I read he has an eye-patch. What tops a writer with an actual eye patch?)
5. Stephen King. He is still the master. I’m inching my way through one of his more recent books, 11/22/63 and thinking it’s amazing and almost incomprehensible that King is still capable of producing fiction this frightening after publishing for more than forty years. Next on my list is Revival, which has received positive reviews as being exemplary of the author’s “vintage” years. Since the vintage years for me are roughly 1974-84, I’m really excited about Revival‘s potential. I’ve always thought that what made King most enduring was a talent for bringing forth work that encompasses pieces of everything humans have found frightening, from the ancient world right up to our technology-obsessed present. This is a skill only a man still passionate about the craft behind good horror can wield.