The Best Books of 2019
What a year! As usual, things happen and time moves forward and it’s a delirious mix of good and bad. For me, this was as true as ever. I’ve been lucky enough to write for two different websites (I write about punk rock at DyingScene.com—come find me), giving me the rare privilege to be a hands-on participant in two communities I love. Throughout 2019, I also worked hard on my own fiction writing, and managed to con the overlords at Signal Horizon to pay me for a short story (check it out here). And then, better still, a couple people even read it, and (gasp!) liked it! What a year, indeed!
But now that we’re winding things down, it’s time for what we’ve all been waiting for. End of the year season comes and so does my duty of organizing the media I consume into helpful listicles for those who want to consume in the next year. Truthfully, this is my favorite part of the year. As someone who loves sharing books, this is my opportunity to give you something you might end up loving. It’s a job I do not take lightly.
And that’s why I decided to take a different approach this year to the kind of list I’d make. Most of the time, these are used to reflect on new releases. But, I am one man, and I can only read so many books. It would be a near impossibility for me to read every hot new horror head-turner in one year, so I have decided to amend how I do this. This list will be half new releases that I loved, and half books that might have come out anytime in the past. There were some incredible works that came out this year, but looking through my list of finished books, I found myself equally excited about older releases. Maybe some of you will get a kick out of these, maybe not—but if I’m using this to do one thing, it’s to communicate my enthusiasm over an artform and I think the enthusiasm, and the artform, would be better off if I talked about my favorite books read in 2019, not just written.
So, without further ado, here it is, five of each. Happy New Year and happy reading.
Top Books I read in 2019 (excluding books from 2019)
I’ve grown to consider Straub an all time great off the strength of the two books I’ve read of his (you can guess the other one). He has a knack for storytelling that is rivaled only by his knack for everything else. Koko is no different. It’s a sophisticated thriller full of complex characters filled with complex emotions. One of the best scenes I’ve read all year, and one of the most unsettling I’ve ever read was Straub’s window into a failing marriage. It’s stuff like that, realized with such exacting detail that made Koko one of the highlights of my year.
This was my first DeLillo and it won’t be my last. With this novel, I found what I felt was a kindred spirit. I was laughing along with its acerbic wit, its absurdist takes on our own fear of death and rampant consumption. This might have been my favorite book of the year, but it could also become my favorite of all time.
What can I say? I’m late to the game. I’ve never been a big fantasy reader, but I’ve found more to love in Martin’s saga than I could have ever imagined. I’d guess it all comes down to the characters. Martin has created an entire world here, yes, but it’s the characters who continually drive the action. A Song of Ice and Fire is the perfect series to get lost in. Yes, it’s popular, and of course, it’s nothing new to the rest of the world, but there was no other book on this list that I had to lose sleep over.
This won’t be the last time Cushing is named on this list. In a year, she’s gone from a writer I’d maybe heard of, to one of my absolute favorites. Her stories are dark, transgressive, and oftentimes humorous; she’s Ligottian without being an imitator. Mr. Suicide tells the story of a weirdo outcast trying to erase himself from existence, and in true Cushing form, the journey to the end is bizarre, hilarious, and revolting. Everyone should read this book.
This is non-fiction, but I’d be remiss to exclude it. Propelled by Vandermeer’s incisive observations and whimsical tone, Wonderbook might be the best book I’ve ever read on storytelling. It covers the form from the ground-up, with plenty of illustrations and weirdo-diagrams and in my version: a new extended appendix (in which Vandermeer breaks down the differences in storytelling choices between Annihilation and its adaptation—worth the price alone, if you ask me). There’s a lot to gain from this tome, and better still, it simply looks gorgeous.
My Top Books of 2019
Hauser’s debut novel had me hooked. Memento Mori plays in the same sandbox as The King in Yellow, taking the cursed play and applying it anew. What I think is Hauser’s greatest strength is his use of interesting settings. Here, we are plunged into the world of riot grrl zines, the very art-school punk rock of the seventies, along with the world of experimental film. These are all interesting on their own, but the story Hauser weaves through them makes for a surprisingly grounded experience, strengthened further by its collage stylings. Memento Mori is a good book, plain and simple.
I always worry that I compare Miskowski too much to Stephen King. King is a large overpowering force in the world of horror, and his dominance can come off as stale at worst. Perhaps I should qualify my Miskowski comparisons with “King, but like, the best of King.”
Here’s the facts:
Small town, but instead of Maine, it’s Washington. The protagonists are young adults. The threat seems to be generations old. The story forces your hands to turn the pages with plenty of insight into character along the way. So, sure, Kingian. But Miskowski is also so much more than that. One thing I love about her books is that they are not a page longer than they need to be. If time permitted, I feel like I could have devoured The Worst is Yet to Come in a single sitting. It’s not really cosmic or capital-W Weird, but it’s a classic horror story with a lot to say about the people that inhabit its world. Comparisons don’t do it justice.
I’m almost surprised it took me so long to read Cardin, considering he’s a fairly well-known Ligotti acolyte. But, if there was ever time it was now. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover—I couldn’t imagine a more inviting book. To Rouse Leviathan is one of the most consistent short story collections I’ve read all year. It’s limitations—a laser focus on Weird, religious horror—are also a means to cohesion. And despite Leviathan being a collected works release of sorts, it feels like a well-considered whole.
Brian Evenson is a hall of famer for me. Read Last Days, if you haven’t—it might just be my favorite horror novel, period. He writes so well that the gap between Evenson and second place is a chasm. Song For the Unraveling of the World continually proves he is worthy of his accolades. The stories here are as Weird and literary as ever, and probably his best work to date. There’s nothing else to be said: buy this book and see what everyone else has to live up to.
I told ya’ Cushing would show up again, right? Well, here she is—with probably the most conceptually ambitious book I’ve read all year. A Sick Gray Laugh takes the meta-horror of Thomas Ligotti and runs with it in novel form; along the way commenting on guns, mental illness, and the general shittiness of small, shitty towns. Can it get any better?
A Sick Gray Laugh is a sometimes hilarious, oftentimes unsettling peek into Cushing’s mind that feeds on the transparency between author and character. It’s also my favorite novel of 2019.
If you want to know what were my favorites from last year go find out!
Carson Winter is an author, beer afficionado, and denim vest wearing punk. His story “Zero Boundaries Podcast: Episode 182” has been published at Signal Horizon as well as The Nosleep Podcast. He likes his cats and thinks working for a living is the greatest insult to life since death.