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After reading all of the commemorative end-of-the-year lists celebrating films and novels that regularly crop up in my news feed (and having taken part in one myself), it occurred to me that there aren’t enough Best Of-lists giving a shout-out to short stories. To my eyes, there’s only been a few this year relevant to our studies: Richard Thomas’ picks over at Lit Reactor, James Everington’s list on his blog, and a mid-year compilation of exemplary speculative fiction over at i09. If you know of others, please prove me wrong!

So it only seemed natural that the Haunted Omnibus should help fill this gap and bring some much due attention to tales of the weird and horrific.

A few notes before we start.

One: I didn’t try to limit my choices to a nice round clickbait number, because that is surely the way of madness in endeavors such as these. All the stories gathered here have been chosen because some aspect of them has stayed with me past the initial reading; in the best of ways, they have haunted me.

Two: The stories are not ranked. (See earlier “way of madness” comment.) Aside from the “Top Picks” and “Most Honorable Mentions” delineations, they follow the ego-friendly categorization of the alphabet.

Three: Obviously these are not “The Best Stories of 2015” but rather “The Best Stories I Read in 2015.” The title says it all.

Four: To provide the widest range and diversity of voices possible, I limited my “Top Picks” to one story per author. If there were multiple stories by a single author that I loved, they show up in the “Most Honorable Mentions” section. The selections that show up in the “Top Picks” list shouldn’t necessarily be considered the “better” story. At the end of the day they’re all great and I encourage you to seek out as many as possible.

Five: Due to the large number of stories under focus here and the fact that they are all contenders for future (and longer) study, I will be forgoing my usual thoroughness for (relatively) concise reactions to each story this time around.

Six: Each story has the title of the source I originally read it from. Where applicable, I’ve included links to the stories so that you may read them and confirm my great taste in literature.

Seven: Not everything on the list is traditionally viewed as horror, but they are all most certainly dark. And that’s how we like it around here.

Eight: There were only books in that picture when I took it earlier…

That’s it for the intro. Now for the list!


THE TOP PICKS

• “Allocthon” – Livia Llewellyn
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

A dreary, gray-hued hellscape of a tale that captivated me not so much for its considerable weirdness in the mysterious ceremony surrounding a rocky monolith but for the way in which it brought the monotonous horror of one woman’s marital/home life to soul-crushing heights. There is as much terror in repetition and ritual as there is in being herded into friendships with the horrid wives of your husband’s friends who drain your will to live through the utter vacuity of their existence.

• “Bestseller” – Michael Blumlein
(The Brains of Rats)

The writer we read about in Blumlein’s story is far from the glamorized fantasies of the profession we regularly see on television: he’s published a few stories, has one mid-selling novel on the market, and is terrified at the prospect of being unable to support his family and get a real job. So when opportunity comes knocking the writer jumps at the chance, even if it means literally selling himself piece by piece. The results are inevitable and beautifully heartbreaking.

• “Blackwood’s Baby” – Laird Barron
(The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All)

“Hand of Glory” and “The Men from Porlock” seem to get most of the accolades, but the first story in Barron’s collection set its hooks in me good and proper. Though its climax is a steaming blast of horrific imagery and occultic terror, it’s the sumptuous boiling of menace that Barron manipulates over the course of the characters’ hunt for a legendary monster-stag during the middle stretch that keeps my mind returning to its phantasmal forest of wonders again and again.

• “The Blue Room” – V. H. Leslie
(Skein and Bone)

In a collection containing unique and memorable ghost stories, “The Blue Room” is easily Leslie’s best. It has a harmonious quality to it, a “unity of effect” as Poe would say, that stems from its central image and colors everything it touches. It is a tale that reads blue: it is mournful, bruised, lost, and finally as hopeful as the sky of a new day.

• “The Burned House” – Lynda E. Rucker
(Nightmare, Mar. 2015)

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Rucker’s story is a lullaby. Even with its brief glimpses and shadings of violence, “The Burned House” sings us through a fugue vision of times gone by, of youthful stories about forbidden abodes at the end of the street, and it wonders if we ever do grow out of those stories as adults or if we simply carry pieces of them with us, filling their halls with the ghosts of our own doubts and regrets.

• “The Children of Hamelin” – Dale Bailey
(Lightspeed, May 2012)

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If it hasn’t already been made clear, I love tales of heartbreak, and Bailey’s is as raw and aching a wound as anything else in the field. Every sentence is a painfully eloquent extrapolation of an unreal situation: the disappearance of every child on Earth, and the parents who are left to mourn them. The adult characters stand at the edge of an emotional void and all they can whisper into its echoing depths is “I miss you… I miss you…”

• “Clara Militch” – Ivan Turgenev
(The Dark Descent)

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There are other fans of dark fiction who I know that have taken David G. Hartwell’s doorstopper omnibus to task in one form or another, one saying essentially that many of its contents are a bit too “academic” for the layman horror fan while the other equated it to the Norton Anthology of horror. Though both statements have truth to them, Turgenev’s novella truly represents the best of both worlds, an exquisitely rendered portrait of what it is to be haunted by a living person, or the ideal of that person, and how it can only lead to very real obsession and literal heartache. It’s literature with a capital “L” and it’s superb.

• “Dark Wings” – Fritz Leiber
(Smoke Ghost and Other Apparitions)

Leiber achieves one of my favorite moods here, just as Barron did in his story, that of striking an atmosphere of the strange and the alien without anything truly supernatural actually occurring. It’s a locked room romance of an exceedingly twisted bent, with two nearly identical women exploring their lives and fears while contemplating the idea that they could be sisters. And perhaps they are, or were in some previous life when they were goddesses who soared over the earth. Cue Danzig.

• “The Dog Park” – Dennis Etchison
(My Favorite Horror Story)

Talk about ambiguous horror. For the majority of Etchison’s story, there is not a single overtly frightening element to be found. And yet… there’s a certain sorcery about the Californian dog park at sunset, isn’t there, or the almost psychotic way in which nearly every character is driven by the idea of making it big in Hollywood. We can’t help but feel that something terrible will unfold with the coming of darkness, and as the protagonist discovers it is a terror that comes with its own audience.

• “The Father-Thing” – Philip K. Dick
(Between Time and Terror)

The ultimate boogeyman story realized by a master of science fiction. What leaves one reeling the most about this classic is that Dick never pulls any punches: when our boy hero sees the fleshy remains of his real father tossed aside like so much refuse, Dick refuses to turn back. There will be no safety and no redemption, only the hoped-for defeat of this alien impostor. And even if our hero does prove victorious in the end, we know from the start of the story that it’s a battle he’s already lost.

• “The Festering” – Ray Cluley
(Probably Monsters)

As I said in my review of the collection, Cluley expertly taps into the painful awkwardness and fear of falling into a vicious cycle that children of incompetent parents inevitably feel. In the story, the stubborn hold Ruby’s mother has on retaining her own youth essentially robs Ruby’s of hers, and the living protoplasm that the preteen keeps in her drawer and whispers all her secret desires to is a creation made from necessity, a companion to her in a friendless, dreamless existence.

• “Gas Station Carnivals” – Thomas Ligotti
(Teatro Grottesco)

A pervasive sense of rot sets in when reading Ligotti’s fictions, and there’s always a fascination with that rot, with the disease of personal nightmare. “Gas Station Carnivals” is a recounting of one of these fascinations, the kind of eccentric fantasy a grim-minded child might concoct, where fly-by-night carnivals set up camp in flea-bitten filling stations and “entertain” travelers with the likes of ratty-haired fiends playing peek-a-boo games with the audience. One of the most genuinely creepy items on this list.

• “Honeymoon” – Maureen McHugh
(After the Apocalypse)

I discovered McHugh’s work based on a recommendation I read by Nathan Ballingrud, and her collection After the Apocalypse remains one of the most finely compiled gatherings of a single author’s stories I’ve seen in recent years. In a book full of glittering gems, “Honeymoon” is the one that came closest to making my stomach sink in dread. McHugh’s knack for drawing out tension is performed masterfully in this tale’s ultimate moment of crisis: a woman’s belief that she, along with other volunteers who have signed up as test subjects for a new drug, has been inadvertently exposed to a fatal virus. You’ll be wringing and washing your hands well past the final page.

• “The Inner Room” – Robert Aickman
(My Favorite Horror Story)

“The Inner Room” is a strange tale about a dollhouse, but you should stop right there. It’s going exactly where you think it is and yet not at all. Aickman’s skill at dashing reader expectations and taking remarkably fresh and disorienting detours has brought him no small acclaim, and this story is no exception. Related in that smooth and refined manner that seems to come so naturally to the British, “The Inner Room” switches up its narrative trajectory so effortlessly in the final act that it leaves you much like the heroine, wandering through a dark wood in hopes of finding your way back to a neater reality.

• “It” – Theodore Sturgeon
(Br-r-r! Ten Tales to Chill You to the Bone)

Much like “The Father-Thing”, we watch as the titular beast of Sturgeon’s story wages (unwitting) battle against the equally unwitting humans who cross its hoary path, but whereas Dick’s intergalactic mimic was a cold malevolent threat, Sturgeon’s “It” is an anomaly, a biological misfit that can not even understand how It came to be born. At least Shelley’s Creature had a father and creator; It is the accidental step-child that nobody can claim. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Alan Moore had Sturgeon’s story in mind during his run on Swamp-Thing.

• “Kaleidoscope” – Ray Bradbury
(The Illustrated Man)

Read Online

I was really considering placing “The Exiles” in this slot, but for as fun and magical as that story is it didn’t knock me upside the head with the same kind of force as “Kaleidoscope.” From its opening lines it presents a situation that is already hopeless: a team of astronauts have been scattered into the far reaches of space after their rocket ship is destroyed, with no chance of being rescued in sight. Most stories would end at that point, but Bradbury takes this as his starting point and draws out these desperate men’s final moments as they grapple with the imminent and very real concept of their deaths. Crushing.

• “Lazarus” – Leonid Andreyev
(East of the Web)

Read Online

I came across this one after Laird Barron praised it on Facebook, and while I don’t normally get around to reading every recommended story that’s available online, I am very glad to have made time for this one. In the manner of an ancient fable, we hear of the days following Lazarus’ miraculous resurrection from the cave, but in the tradition of Poe we find out that the man’s episode in the abyss has left him scarred and emptied, the same effect his black gaze now has upon anyone who dare hold it for too long. Like those poor lost souls, we are hypnotized by Andreyev’s prose and made to feel as if we could follow it all the way to doomsday.

• “Mrs. Midnight” – Reggie Oliver
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 2)

Simply marvelous. Oliver’s theatrical background comes to life in so many ways in this beautifully chilling ghost story, for it is a tale of the stage related in true showman fashion, a voice equally friendly and foreboding that makes it seem like we are hearing this over drinks at the pub on a frosty winter’s eve. The title character and her circus of performing animals could certainly give Ligotti’s wretched gas station performer a run for its money for Most Unnerving Boogeyman on this list, but what makes it all so truly frightening and memorable is Oliver’s keen stylistic eye and masterly control of the narrative. “Why am I always the bridesmaid, never the blushing bride…?”

• “Night Dog” – Matthew M. Bartlett
(High Strange Horror)

Much praise has been justly heaped on Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination, but for my money the power that this single story packs is easily on par with the cumulative effect of that entire collection. With “Night Dog” we get the best of everything the author has to offer. While the rampantly wild vibe of Gateways may be toned down, Bartlett’s ability to unsettle his audience and elicit emotion in the most unexpected of ways is on full display here. I only see great things from him in the future.

• “The Only Ending We Have” – Kim Newman
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

It seems that every time I read a Kim Newman story I fall in love with it. In many ways he is the writer I most wish to emulate: not only is he a compellingly good fantasist, but he’s one of the sharpest film critics and scholars of the genre out there. Few can rival his skill at mashing and interweaving fictional worlds, and here we see him in full speculative mode as he imagines a most curious episode for Janet Leigh’s body double during the filming of PSYCHO. It shows Newman’s deep appreciation of the movie and all its tangential historic ephemera while also being a crackling read to boot.

• “The Paperhanger” – William Gay
(Online)

Read Online

This was one of the spectacular stories I was introduced to by Richard Thomas when I took his Lit Reactor class on writing short fiction. Some of the best literary horror can be found in this wrenching tale. After its conflict is revealed to us—the infant daughter of a prominent family has seemingly disappeared from their mid-renovation home into thin air—every passage and revelation from this point feels like a small twist of the knife. While it turns into an exemplary story of human cruelty at the end, Gay plays with the idea that this could all possibly be an invasion of the numinous into our reality, almost just for the hell of it. Only a writer of his caliber could make a tangent like that feel so right.

• “Past Reno” – Brian Evenson
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

Evenson is an author who can show us that it only takes something very small and seemingly insignificant to set us ill at ease. A hazy memory, an endlessly circling road, a convenience store packed with beef jerky. There is ominous portent to be found everywhere, if you look hard enough for it. Our sympathies are immediately tethered to Evenson’s protagonist; haven’t we all had an episode from our childhoods when one of our parents was cruel to us, or when there was something we saw that we still can’t quite put into words upon recall? This is a story of being lost, both physically and figuratively, and of trying to move past those dark times in spite of them constantly pulling you back. Like those memories, this story will haunt you.

• “The Pattern” – Ramsey Campbell
(My Favorite Horror Story)

For the majority of its length, “The Pattern” doesn’t seem to be a horror story at all, but then it is. In a big way. To be sure, there are some rather bloodcurdling screams heard by the married couple at the tale’s center during their holiday in the countryside, but the descriptions of said countryside’s languorous beauty and the artistic frustrations suffered by the couple have the bigger narrative share here. But as the Big Bad Wolf crooned, “All the better to eat you with, my dear.” We find out at the last minute that Campbell has made us care about these people and feel safe in the comfy environs just to pull the rug right out from under our feet, and, stunned, we fall into the dark side of the meadow.

• “Pig” – Roald Dahl
(The Best of Roald Dahl)

For those of you who know only of Dahl as the author of children’s classics like Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you are in for a hell of a surprise. (If you read The Witches, then maybe not.) Long before he ever conceived of those fantasies, Dahl made a name for himself as one of the sharpest writers of modern contes cruel in the field. “Pig” is him at his most merciless; the fact that he tells it in the fashion of a fairy tale only makes its satire more stinging and its turnabout more ruthless. Once you hear that the protagonist, a sheltered vegetarian cook who has never eaten a bit of meat in his life, is now making his virgin voyage to the Big City, you spend the whole time waiting for the other shoe to drop. And sure enough it does, but I can guarantee you that it won’t be remotely close to what you’re expecting.

• “The Projectionist” – Mer Whinery
(High Strange Horror)

In all of this list, there probably isn’t another living writer more under the radar than Mer Whinery. Despite having two collections out in the ether, the author hasn’t garnered much notice or acclaim outside the small press field, but it only takes a story like “The Projectionist” to prove that Whinery has the goods. The tale has the same skuzzy feel as the movie-house where the title character works but by inches it gradually descends (or ascends) into a diabolical vision full of cold cadavers and hot celluloid gods. This is all that I’ve read of Whinery so far, but I can tell you with confidence that I am officially a fan.

• “Skullpocket” – Nathan Ballingrud
(io9)

Read Online

A sugar-coated confection in a roadkill wrapper. I’m nowhere near the first to commend Ballingrud’s tale since its publication in Ellen Datlow’s Nightmare Carnival, nor am I likely to be the last. “Skullpocket” is refreshingly wild and imaginative in its vision, a freakshow amalgam of Mignola and Bradbury that delights with its bursts of black humor and finally astounds with its emotional provocation. It is not one of my favorite horror stories; it is one of my favorite stories, period.

• “Snow Monsters” – Stephen Graham Jones
(After the People Lights Have Gone Off)

Dipping into Jones’ latest collection was a joy from beginning to end. His is a voice so different from anyone else I’ve read in the genre; as Stephen King said of Elmore Leonard, his narrative style is like a fingerprint. There were some bloodcurdling tales between the covers of People Lights, but where Jones really packed a punch for me was in this brief study of parental sacrifice. It is magical in its way, dreamful—the snow cottage with its smoking pipe-chimney stack is as charming a vision as any. But the magic comes with a price: Wouldn’t you want your children to be able to see all this beauty that you treasure? Would you be willing to take their place at death’s door if you had the chance? It sounds as if it should be tragic, but in the end it is affirming because, as any good parent knows, there can be only be one answer to the question.

• “The Spider” – Hanns Heinz Ewers
(The Weird)

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Ewers must have had an interesting relationship with women. His best-known work, Alraune, concerns the resulting female child of a prostitute artificially inseminated with the semen of a hanged criminal. Although a little less seedy, the central figure of “The Spider” is no less strange and provocative. A man attempts to investigate a series of inexplicable suicides committed in a hotel and becomes intrigued by a woman in the opposite building who entrances him with her sewing. What follows is a tale of deepening madness and depression that is every bit the equal and, if you ask me, the superior to Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla” in its depiction of a soul-consuming horror.

• “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” – Robert Shearman
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

The most slyly-told tale of perversion I’ve read in some time, or perhaps ever. On the surface it seems blatantly Freudian in its obsessions, sexual complexes taking a trip through the valley of the uncanny, but at every step of the way Shearman is there with us, poking the narrative into directions we don’t and couldn’t expect as if to say “Ah-ah-ah… not so fast.” It’s a twisted black comedy that spills no blood and yet is abundant in cruelty and sadism. If the prompt to this doll-filled derangement was “Why do we hurt the things we love?” Shearman’s answer would be “Because we are human, and that is why we can’t have nice things.”

• “The Traditional” – Maria Dahvana Headley
(Lightspeed, May 2013)

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End of the world stories are a dime a dozen these days, but Headley does something really special with it in her tale. A couple who meets on the eve of the apocalypse exchange unconventional anniversary presents while their world falls to the rule of its new worm overlords. At first glance our heroes are the complete antithesis of fawning romantics, and yet by the tale’s end they’ve taken the skin off their backs and swan-dived into the belly of the beast to preserve this, this… crazy thing they got going on. Though these kids would probably be sick to hear it, their story is about how love can persevere even as the world burns.

(Note to self: Pitch idea for apocalyptic soap opera called As the World Burns.)

• “A Warning to the Curious” – M. R. James
(My Favorite Horror Story)

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Distance plays a vital role in the ghost stories of M. R. James in more ways than one. In “A Warning to the Curious,” the haunting besieges neither the narrator nor his friend but rather a young chap they make acquaintances with on holiday. The terror of his malady is observed second-hand. One would think that this fact should make us feel safer, but no. Like the narrator we have glimpsed something from the corner of our eye, something most dreadful, evidence of things which we can neither give name to nor know, and it is only in the sting of the tail that we see the remains of that unknowable thing’s vengeance up close and uncomfortably personal. Reading James is like seeing a lone figure on an empty shore and then feeling the touch of a hand on your neck.

• “Within the Walls of Tyre” – Michael Bishop
(The Dark Descent)

Finally, a tale of cruelty and heartbreak, this time set during the Christmas season. (I told you I was a masochistic reader.) We meet our protagonist, the manager of a shopping mall perfumery, on the other side of middle age and in the middle of a fairly listless existence, one full of buried memories and “balky Yuletide nerves” before a charismatic salesman enters her store one afternoon pitching his wares. From there we watch Marilyn open up to this stranger, slowly and gradually, and it’s in those secrets and past hurts she whispers of in the dead of night that she tries to make a connection to the world leaving her behind but succeeds only in sealing her doom. The ending is brutal, unfair, and it hurts so good.


MOST HONORABLE MENTIONS

• “The Atlas of Hell” – Nathan Ballingrud
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

• “Blood Disease” – Patrick McGrath
(Blood and Water)

• “Born Stillborn” – Brian Evenson
(Catapult)

Read Online

• “Brushdogs” – Stephen Graham Jones
(After the People Lights Have Gone Off)

• “The Cork Won’t Stay” – Nate Southard
(Nightmare, Jul. 2015)

Read Online

• “The Exiles” – Ray Bradbury
(The Illustrated Man)

• “the gathering in deep woods” – Matthew M. Bartlett
(Gateways to Abomination)

• “Godfather” – Megan Arkenberg
(Niteblade, Mar. 2014)

Read Online

• “Hand of Glory” – Laird Barron
(The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All)

• “The Hell Screen” – Ryunosuke Akutagawa
(The Weird)

Read Online

• “The Hospice” – Robert Aickman
(The Dark Descent)

• “The Human Chair” – Edogawa Rampo
(My Favorite Horror Story)

• “In the Penal Colony” – Franz Kafka
(The Weird)

Read Online

• “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” – Caitlin R. Kiernan
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

• “It Flows from the Mouth” – Robert Shearman
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

• “Jetsam” – Livia Llewellyn
(Nightmare, Mar. 2013)

Read Online

• “Lowland Sea” – Suzy McKee Charnas
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 2)

• “The Men and Women of Rivendale” – Steve Rasnic Tem
(Nightmare, Aug. 2015)

Read Online

• “Mr. Fox” – Norman Partridge
(Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales)

• “Nigredo” – Cody Goodfellow
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

• “Only the End of the World Again” – Neil Gaiman
(Smoke and Mirrors)

• “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” – David Morrell
(Between Time and Terror)

• “Plink” – Kurt Dinan
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

• “The Repairer of Reputations” – Robert W. Chambers
(The Dark Descent)

Read Online

• “Schalken the Painter” – Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
(The Dark Descent)

Read Online

• “The Screaming Skull” – F. Marion Crawford
(The Weird)

Read Online

• “Shark! Shark!” – Ray Cluley
(Probably Monsters)

• “The Sill and the Dike” – Vajra Chandrasekera
(Nightmare, Sept. 2015)

Read Online

• “The Soul in the Bell Jar” – K. J. Kazba
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 6)

• “Srendi Vashtar” – Saki
(The Weird)

Read Online

• “The Thing Itself” – Michael Blumlein
(The Brains of Rats)

• “This is Not for You” – Gemma Files
(The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 7)

Read Online

• “To Sleep in the Dust of the Earth” – Kristi DeMeester
(Shimmer, Nov. 2015)

Read Online

• “The Town Manager” – Thomas Ligotti
(Teatro Grottesco)

“The Trampling” – Christopher Barzak
(Nightmare, Jan. 2015)

Read Online

• “Ulterior Design” – V. H. Leslie
(Skein and Bone)

• “Where It Lives” – Nathaniel Lee
(Nightmare, Aug. 2015)

Read Online


Looking at the above entries, I think it’s fairly clear to say what my favorite anthology of 2015 was. With ten placements between the two lists, Ellen Datlow’s 7th edition of The Best Horror of the Year easily edges out all other contenders. I hadn’t immediately realized it upon completing the book, but Datlow’s latest anthology was in fact one of the most consistently enjoyable compilations of its kind, succeeding in bringing together a host of diverse voices that all accomplished the primary goal of offering accomplished writing and wonderful stories.

I’ve been hounding Nightmare Magazine’s archives since its inception, so it’s inevitable that it gets the lion’s share of my love each year, here culling seven placements on the two lists. (Mini-resolution for 2016: Read more online venues. If any readers out there have recommendations for other great electric magazines [or specific authors/stories], I’m all ears.)

The Dark Descent and The Weird each scored five placements on the two lists. This is especially impressive for the latter anthology. I haven’t even gotten halfway through The Weird and of the entries that I hadn’t already read, almost every new story has been wonderful in its own way. It bodes well for the rest of the mammoth contents. In the case of My Favorite Horror Story, there were 6 of its 15 contents I had already read, and of the remaining 9 stories that were new to me 6 of those have made their way into my favorites. Not bad! Those horror writers really seem to know where to get the good stuff.

Overall, I would count this as a successful year of dark fiction-reading. I am always on the lookout for recommendations, and if you have your own best-ofs from 2015 be sure to share them in the comments below. Here’s to an equally prosperous and enriching 2016 for us all!


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Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.

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