A consideration of the state of horror fiction in 2012 would seem to present a tale of two cities. On the one hand, many bookstores no longer feature dedicated horror sections. Barnes & Nobles, aka The Last Behemoth Standing, integrated horror into its general fiction section some time ago. The few horror sections that remain are predictable in the extreme: several anthologies, a host of “V C Andrews” books (she’s long dead), bigger hosts of Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels, and the public domain favorites (Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, etc.). Many of the new works that might find their way to these shelves are labeled “suspense” or “psychological thrillers” by publishers and authors eager to avoid being stranded in what’s perceived as a genre ghetto.
The flip side of this coin turns up in any perusal of a supermarket book rack. The bodice-ripping pirates and cowboys of years past, while still present, have been somewhat shunted aside by a new breed of competition: werewolves, witches, private eyes who are witches, female werewolf private eyes who date warlocks, and vampires, vampires, vampires. My description of the horror shelves left out one omnipresent resident: Laurel K. Hamilton, who’s 21(!!!)-volume-and-counting Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series practically invented this incredibly lucrative publishing niche. Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” and its sequels are their own beast, spawning blockbuster films and no doubt helping to drive young fans interest in such successful shows as “True Blood” and “Vampire Diaries”.
So which is it? Has horror gone to ground or is it out conquering new territories? An answer might be found by casting our gaze back to the last time everyone in publishing seemed to agree on just what horror was: the 80s.
The 1980s was host to the last boom in horror publishing. We could look at a lot of reasons for that, but it’s probably easiest to boil it down to two words: Stephen King. King was an absolute juggernaut in the 80s. He sold books by the millions and had the power to focus the reading public’s attention with a simple endorsement. Clive Barker is talented, but the value of having King’s statement that “I’ve seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker” plastered on his book jackets cannot be overstated. Drug store spinner racks (remember those?) and bookstore shelves wound up groaning under the weight of works by Barker, Peter Straub, T. E. D. Klein, John Saul, James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell, Robert R. McCammon, Dean Koontz, Brian Lumley, and others. There was even a fun schism to follow, as the “splatterpunks” such as John Skipp and Craig Spector, whose philosophy could best be expressed by the “Hellraiser” tagline “There Are No Limits”, squared off against the likes of prolific author and anthologist Charles L. Grant and his advocacy of “quiet horror”.
Of course, where there’s success there’s copycats and bandwagon jumpers ready to flood in. Horror looks easy- describe old house, add ghost/masked killer/werewolf, stir- and when it looked easy AND profitable there were more than a few hacks willing to grab whatever genre trope was nearest to hand and churn out 250 brutal pages. Too many publishers were more than happy to foist the results on the public. It was thought that all you needed was an appropriately lurid cover to move units.
The 80s saw horror paperback covers reach a zenith of terrible awesomeness (awesome terribleness?) that almost certainly will never be equaled. They were uniformly black and cherished motifs included but were not limited to: claws ripping through a black background, embossed drops of red blood, embossed screaming faces, embossed anything, enough creepy children to fill 8,000 “The Ring” sequels, holes in the cover through which said children could peer menacingly, names and titles rendered in “spooky” fonts, implements of torture/evisceration, skulls (Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series often seemed to be sponsoring an ongoing “How Many Ways Can You Draw Fangs on a Skull” contest). Such questionable artwork can be cherished in a nostalgic fashion if you’re of a certain questionable bent (author raises hand), but it’s all quite dire if you’ve passed your twelfth birthday. It also has the effect of lending the same air of hackery and desperation to whatever works of quality manage to squeeze through the vetting process.
In time the glut of product and the woeful state of its presentation caused the bottom to drop out of the market. Many of the biggest names soldiered on- King, Koontz, Straub- but many more fell away from the genre- McCammon, Klein, Poppy Z. Brite, etc. Clive Barker morphed into more of a fantasist than a horror writer. A number of writers turned to small presses where they could be published in limited-run collector’s editions and sell more expensive books to a diminished circle of devotees. More and more writers seemed to rankle at the horror tag and insist that they wrote thrillers. Serial killer novels offered as much horrific content as many a work of horror, but were somehow perceived as being more respectable. For the record, Hannibal Lecter eats people for pleasure and wears a guy’s face after helping Clarice find a man making a lady-suit- I’m sorry, that’s horror.
There have been a few attempts to revive horror in the mass marked, such as the defunct Abyss and Leisure Books imprints. But the status quo for some time has essentially been the scenario laid out at the beginning of this article. Many very popular works trade in the trappings of horror, but few seem committed to the task of frightening a reader or inducing a sense of dread.
Thankfully, there are reasons to believe that things could change. Much in the same way that books by Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and others have helped to make mainstream literature safe for concepts once consigned to the fantasy/sci-fi ghetto, writers like Brian Evenson (Immobility) and Justin Cronin (The Passage, The Twelve) are reminding an increasing number of readers that serious writing chops and things that go bump in the night need not regard each other across an insuperable gulf. Who knows how many of those teenagers transfixed by “Twilight” and its many imitators are going to go looking for a more interesting and complex dose of the horrific in the years to come.
Perhaps the most encouraging way to look at the current state of horror is to view it as a necessary element of the genre’s cyclical nature. Horror isn’t polite. While everyone else is on the front porch drinking in the sun, horror putters around the basement looking for the things we don’t like to talk about on a summer afternoon. Maybe it’s in horror’s best interests to take a cue from some of its most famous protagonists and shun the light, husbanding its strength so it can burst from the darkness stronger than ever when the time is right. Only time will tell, but I know where I’m placing my bets.
William Ambler lives, works, and reads in Rhode Island. If you badmouth Charles Dickens, he will fight you in the street. He also writes for Huffington Post.