This year, we didn't quite get a novel that reached the heights of last year's best, John Darnielle's National Book Award-nominated Wolf in White Van and Monica Byrne's The Girl in the Road, though Julia Elliott's The New and Improved Romie Futch and what I've read so far of Sean Jackson's Haw come close. We did get a fascinating variety of very good books, far too many for a definitive list. So here's a, not the, top 10, mostly from my bailiwick of speculative fiction—our region's most active, close-knit writing scene—with something for everyone: horror, short stories, mythopoeia, nonfiction, weird fiction, memoir, comics and even a prose B-movie. For a snapshot of the year in (for lack of a better term) literary fiction, see Brian Howe's blog post.
Nathan Ballingrud: The Visible Filth (This Is Horror)—This Asheville author's stories should come with a physician's warning. His 2013 collection, North American Lake Monsters: Stories, won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. I have similarly high hopes for this novella, in which a bartender's life descends into nightmare when he discovers a cellphone left behind after a brawl. The book slowly drowns you in rising dread, an unease born of infidelity, weakness, inadequacy, irrevocable violence, inevitable mistakes and decay.
Dale Bailey: The End of the End of Everything (Arche Press)—Shards of hope glimmer in Bailey's grim worlds and poetic words in this collection of nine of his best stories. "A Rumor of Angels" is a melancholic Dust Bowl fantasy that leaves your mouth full of grit and your eyes glinting with sunlight on wings. The titular, Shirley Jackson Award-winning novelette, "The End of the End of Everything," is an unshakable vision of personal disintegration—and perhaps, redemption—amid decadent house parties at the end of the world.
David Niall Wilson: Crockatiel (Crossroad Press)—This Hertford, North Carolina, author has written dark, lyrical, award-winning horror and dark fantasy for decades, but this isn't that. This is (intentionally!) a Syfy Channel B-movie at its best/worst. It concerns a biologist trying to clone some ancient crocodile DNA (because of course he does) when a hurricane hits his Outer Banks lab (because of course it does). He needs an incubating genome to make it work, and he chooses his beloved pet cockatiel. Let the feathers fly!
Renée Ahdieh: The Wrath and the Dawn (G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers)—UNC-Chapel Hill graduate Ahdieh's reimagining of One Thousand and One Nights and The Arabian Nights turns both the original story of Scheherazade, and perhaps even Stockholm Syndrome itself, a bit on their heads, combining mystery, myth and romance in a lushly textured, quick-witted story that dares you to belittle "YA" fiction.
Teresa Frohock: In Midnight's Silence (Harper Voyager)—Reidsville's Frohock has been quietly perfecting a blend of dark fantasy and horror since her 2011 debut novel, Miserere. She conjures up another original mythology in this first installment of her "Los Nefilim" series, where the fate of mankind rests on the inhuman shoulders of Diago Alvarez, half angel, half "daimon," who wants nothing more than to be left alone in Barcelona with the man he loves. Unfortunately for Diago, fortunately for us, neither angels nor daimons are content to leave him out of their spiritual civil war.
Adam Morgan: North Carolina's Wild Piedmont: A Natural History (The History Press)—Charlotte's loss was Chicago's gain this summer, as Morgan now calls the Windy City home, but his time hiking and exploring in North Carolina leaves us with this slim, accessible, essential guide to the formation and ecology of state parks and "other wild places" in the Piedmont that need preservation.
Julia Elliott: The New and Improved Romie Futch (Tin House)—I have to nod to South Carolina for Julia Elliott's remarkable debut novel. The New and Improved Romie Futch (following her collection The Wilds, one of the best books of 2014) is a dark comedy complete with taxidermy, cybernetics, biotechnology and a quasi-mythical "Hogzilla." In weird, delightful prose, Elliott summons an all-too-near "New South" that's by turns hilarious, wondrous and frightening.
J.J. Johnson: Believarexic (Peachtree Publishers)—Durham's J.J. Johnson is the author of the YA novels This Girl Is Different and The Theory of Everything, but before fiction, she earned a graduate degree in education from Harvard and counseled at-risk teens, having passed through treatment centers herself. In Believarexic, she draws on that period of her life to create an "autobiographical novel" expanding on her journal entries while hospitalized in 1988. It's part horror—what we know now about mental illness makes the '80s unbelievably cringe-worthy in retrospect—and part hope. We do know more now, and the conversation about mental illness grows more open every year.
Mark L. Van Name (Editor): Onward, Drake! (Baen Books)—This tribute anthology features many local authors, including its subject, longtime Chapel Hill and Pittsboro author David Drake, who contributes both a comedic historical fantasy and his first new "Hammer's Slammers" military science-fiction story in years. Edited by Raleigh author Mark Van Name, the stories range from avant-garde (Gene Wolfe's "Incubator") to homage (Wake Forest author Tony Daniel's "Hell Hounds") to tie-ins (Larry Correia's "Hammers" story) to something delightful between memoir and tall tale (Sarah Van Name's "The Village of Yesteryear," which takes as its starting point a real trip with Drake to the state fair). Van Name's moving "All That's Left" encapsulates what the military fiction of Drake, a Vietnam "Black Horse" veteran, is all about: reportage, not advocacy, about the horrors of war—the price paid that you wouldn't trade for blissful ignorance. We are who we are, in part, for our wounds.
Jeremy Whitley: Princeless Vol. 4: Be Yourself (Action Lab Entertainment)—Despite being in demand on higher-profile comics (My Little Pony, Powerpuff Girls, Marvel's Secret Wars: Secret Love) Durham author Jeremy Whitley keeps returning, with artist Emily Martin, to his Eisner Award-nominated all-ages Princeless series. See if you can guess some of the themes of his work based on the book titles so far: Save Yourself, Get Over Yourself and Be Yourself. Issue titles like "Girls Who Fight Boys," from spin-off series Raven: The Pirate Princess, may also provide a clue that Whitley's princesses do not sit around waiting to be rescued.
Honorable Mentions—The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins (Soft Skull Press); Dawnbreaker by Jay Posey (Angry Robot Books); The Mussorgsky Riddle by Darin Kennedy (Curiosity Quills Press); Hashtag by Eryk Pruitt (280 Steps); Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty (Disney-Hyperion).