Kicking things off with a decidedly non-horror favorite before we dive deep into world of frights.
I have missed going to the movies. I love being in the theater. The pandemic has seemingly made many people realize that they in fact don’t like going out to the movies. They might even be willing to pay extra to bring the movie straight to the comfort of their living room or bedroom (or home theater, if they have it like that). And if that’s your preference, it should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with that. I like the big screen, myself, even when there aren’t many other people in the theater. Hell, especially when the the theater is sparsely populated. I caught Summer of Soul with my significant other and it was the first time I’ve ever been “alone” (save for my partner, obviously) in a theater to see a film, and it was a fantastic experience. Of course, at least 90% of the good vibes I felt while watching it was a product of the film itself.
The movie is as full of outstanding music as you should expect, but the stories of the performers, organizers and attendees elevate it that much higher, even when they aren’t anything extraordinary. The story that gave me the widest smile was that of one man talking about seeing Sly and the Family Stone in person for the first time at this concert. Beforehand, he and his friends were more influenced by Smokey Robinson and the The Miracles, getting suited up when they would go out on the town. After seeing Sly, he and his friends, “weren’t suit-and-tie guys anymore.” When you see Sly and the band perform, you can easily understand why.
Favorite Horror Film
Some might consider Last Night in Soho more of a “supernatural thriller” or “supernatural mystery” than a horror film. I’ve mentioned here multiple times before that I tend to favor inclusivity when it comes to identifying horror fiction, as opposed to trying to find any ol’ reason to say, “That doesn’t count as horror,” or “That’s not a real horror story.” Even with that in mind, I can see why Last Night in Soho might lean farther away from the genre than into it for some.
But you already know where I stand on this, given I’ve got it bolded here as my favorite horror film of 2021. Part of me wonders if this edged out other contenders like The Medium, The Power, and, especially, The Vigil 1. because I saw it in the theater, and, as already established, I love and have missed theaters. I’ve also seen other “Best Horror of 2021” lists include movies from 2020 (like The Empty Man) that would otherwise be a strong contender as well.
Ultimately, for me, out of the movies I’ve seen this year that can reasonably be said to be of this year it came down to Soho and The Vigil (see above footnote for why I’m allowing for it as a 2021 release). Soho wasn’t nearly as frightening, but as others have pointed out, a horror movie doesn’t have to scare you personally to be great. The Vigil got under my skin because of a fondness / weakness I have for a particular horror trope, which I wrote about in my review of the film. As much as I love that aspect of the movie, and the film overall, Soho made me care that much more overall about its story, characters and outcome. And for any still questioning its horror bonafides, it has some memorably horrific imagery that only gets more pronounced as the film goes along. Ultimately, it makes me wish for another non-comedic horror effort from Edgar Wright that tries even harder to scare the hell out of people, and I count that as a point in the film’s favor. Sometimes you’re left wanting more because you’re less than satisfied. Other times you’re left wanting more because what you were given was just that good. Soho, for me, is an example of the latter.
Favorite Horror Novel
My favorite horror novel that I read this year was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, but I was a year late on that and it is not of 2021. Still, since I didn’t do one of these last year and I love Mexican Gothic that much, I wanted to at least make mention of it here, as it’s still my favorite book of the very young decade thus far.
As for horror novels released this year, my favorite was My Heart is a Chainsaw. If you’re at all familiar with the horror literature scene, you’ve probably already heard that it’s one of the year’s best from numerous other outlets and authors, and that Stephen Graham-Jones has created an exceptional, clever and thoughtful love letter to slasher cinema within it.
The interesting thing for me is that I’m not particularly fond of slasher movies. I like many of them and grew up loving and being influenced by them far more in my youth than in my adulthood, but outside of a blip of time when I was enamored with Scream and Scream 2, they’ve never been something I’m overly drawn to.
Nonetheless, My Heart is a Chainsaw captivated me, much like its lead character, Jade, is captivated by identifying who her town’s “final girl” must be, who its killer must be, and who will be next to die by following the guidelines seemingly laid out by slasher film history. Because Graham-Jones is a devious mastermind, the story ends up going both where you might expect it to, and simultaneously somewhere else entirely.
Favorite YouTube Horror-related Video
I thought about dividing this into multiple sub-topics, but figured that would dilute this category too much, especially considering I wouldn’t even be sure how to label certain topics anyway. It’s probably unfair of me to lump all of these together given the quantity and variety of YouTube videos out there directly related to horror, but you know, this is my list, which doesn’t count for anything to anyone, so I’m just gonna do what I feel.
And what I feel like doing, first of all, is making mention of the videos that were very close to being my absolute favorites of the year. Sapphire Sandolo’s “Can You Make it Through the Video,” from her Stories With Sapphire series, was the one I returned to most out of all the fun animated videos on her channel. I love when a horror story makes use of its medium in a way that wouldn’t entirely work in a different format.
On the documentary / horror-lore / legends front, The Paranormal Scholar has a long history of fascinating videos. While her most ambitious project to date, the full-length documentary In Search of the Dead, released just a month ago, was an interesting watch, it’s much more of a research endeavor into metaphysics than something even remotely meant to stir up feelings of fear. Her video titled “5 Horrifying Hellhound Encounters in History,” however, is something I’ve watched at least once a month since it came out in June. Her deliver made even the stories I was already broadly familiar with (like that of England’s Black Shuck) feel eerier than I anticipated. This was only magnified when she spoke of legends I hadn’t heard of before, like El Cadejo. I am an absolute sucker for this sort of thing. Legitimately can’t get enough of it.
My absolute favorite YouTube video(s) of the year, however, come from Dark Corners Reviews. A pair of late entry documentaries about the horror films of Val Lewton, one focused on Cat People and its sequel 2, the other on the rest of his career and output. Much of Dark Corners’ content consists of quick, amusing skewering of undeniably bad and often cheap films. Their more documentaries, however, are consistently well-made and captivating, and direct, and the Lewton double-feature is simply wonderful. Similar to the recent, excellent video covering the Grendel series on the Comic Tropes channel, Dark Corners‘ breakdown of Lewton’s output places a spotlight on work that might be reasonably well-known to certain genre devotees, yet isn’t nearly known well enough.
Favorite Horror-related Podcast
Another unfair category, because, once again, it covers a huge range of territory. Also because I spent a significant part of this year (as with, seemingly all years since podcasting has really taken off) catching up with stuff that is not of 2021. The Magnus Archives, for instance. Something millions of people were already listening to, and I’m the Johnny-Come-Lately just now getting done with the episodes that wrapped in 2017. You’ll have to forgive me. There’s just a lot of quality content out there in the world, and I wasn’t good at keeping up when there wasn’t a quarter as much of it out there as there is now.
There’s much to be lauded and enjoyed in the wide world of horror podcasting. I’m a big fan of the Dark Histories podcast, and the episode about the supernatural in warfare was not just my favorite of the year from that channel, but my favorite that the host has has ever produced, which is saying a lot.
More on the reviews front, I enjoy the Dead Meat Podcast and was particularly fond of the episode covering Lake Mungo, and the “Guess the Kill” episode where Chelsea repeatedly stumped James (to be fair, having to guess a which movie a kill takes place in solely from the audio and a handful of hints is an absurd challenge). Normally any kind of trivia game that’s so difficult you can’t imagine the contestant getting even a tenth of the answers right is frustrating to sit through, but not this time, quite the opposite.
Getting back to the bounty to be found on the horror fiction front, PseudoPod celebrated its 15th anniversary this year which more than qualifies it as a bit of an institution at this point. It’s been around for almost as long as the term podcasting has, and is one of the OG’s of horror fiction podcasting. Yes, I’m probably a bit biased seeing as to how I’ve been published there three times, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s outstanding, and has been around this long for a reason. Episode 769, released just ahead of their birthday on August 11th, featured the story “Songs in a Lesser Known Key.” A PseudoPod original written by Mjke Wood would have had to stumble backwards into a sad pit of bad writing not to be one of my favorite works of the year in any medium, given my former infatuation with the song, “Gloomy Sunday,” the subject of the story. Fortunately it does not stumble in any direction, much less backward into said sad pit, but moves deftly and effectively toward grim inevitability.
Episode 409 of the Night Light Podcast doubled up on flash fiction pieces, one by L. Marie Wood, the other by Tyhitia Green, each of which pushed a particular button for me. The last six words of Wood’s story, “Family Dinner,” are just phenomenal. You can never go wrong with a great stomach-punching closing line. Green’s story, “Date Night,” delivers on something I won’t write about here, since the story is brief enough for just about any revelation of its content could count as a spoiler. I’ll only ask that you trust me enough to go give the episode a listen for yourself.
There are too many more noteworthy stories and podcasts to mention here without this post becoming unwieldy, so I’ll just get to my my favorite horror podcast of 2021, the new anthology horror series Nighty Night with Rabia Chaudry. If forced to pick a favorite episode, I’ll go with its inaugural episode, “Rot,” an inspired, loose adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” that replaces being tormented by sound with being tormented by stench.
I routinely feel like the sense of smell doesn’t get enough attention in horror fiction. Every time I see a zombie movie or series, for instance, that features decaying corpses shuffling about, it stands out to me that no one ever reacts to the smell of death. That should be a dead giveaway that zombies are about, shouldn’t it? You start approaching a building, hoping it could be a sanctuary, but you’re greeted with the funk of forty-thousand years, as Vincent Price once put it, and you immediately know that place is probably choking with zombies, and you keep it moving. That sort of thing is not what “Rot” is about, but it does take advantage of the fact that smell is the sensation tied most to our memories, be they pleasant or horrific. It is an adaptation
What, No Favorite TV Episode or Series?
Like I said earlier, I’m pretty bad at catching up with anything, and television series, for whatever reason, frequently tend to end up on the backburner for me. I love a good series or mini-series, but don’t think I watched anywhere near enough television content to make a declaration of a “favorite” worthwhile. So, sure, I could say it’s the penultimate episode of Midnight Mass or the finale of Squid Game, and even if I watched a ton of other series this year that’s a great chance that one of those two would end up being my favorite of the year. But I’m still way the hell behind on Them. I’ve only caught bits of Brand New Cherry Flavor. I’ve heard that You season 3 was terrific. I only ever got a few episodes into season 1, and not for lack of interest. Just, again, I never feel as motivated to go all in on a tv series–even when I like it–as I do just about anything else I watch, read or listen to. I’ve only listed a handful of examples here, there are many others I am all but hopelessly behind on. With that in mind, I’m punting on declaring a favorite television episode for 2021. Maybe I’ll feel better about claiming a favorite next year.
Okay, Well What About a Favorite Short Story Then?
Kind of the opposite problem there. I read more short horror fiction this year than I had in quite some time, making a concerted effort to consume and try to support this fertile territory for terrifying tales, and I want to try to break that down in a different post. I say “want to try” because given my propensity for neglecting this blog for extended stretches, in part because I want to write about 20 things at once on it and give up after getting frustrated with my failure to figure out which topics I should prioritize, it feels like one of those things that might get lost in the mist.
So just in case I don’t get back to it, here are two things I definitely want to call out regarding my favorite short horror fiction of the year (podcasted shorts being in their separate category above, obviously):
- Donyae Coles went on an absolute tear in 2021. And I thought my 2020 was a good year (writing-wise). Holy shit. I’ve only managed to read seven of the eleven (eleven!) works she had published in various magazines or anthologies this year, but haven’t come across anything less than excellent yet. If pressed to pick a favorite, I’ll go with “Sometimes Boys Don’t Know.”
- Of the many, many, many books and short stories I’m lucky enough to have early access to courtesy of my HWA membership, The Jewish Book of Horror made me feel the most fortunate to be a member. Definitely most impactful anthology or collection I read this year.