Bookish Trend: Horror Returns From the Dead
Let’s say it now and say it proud: Horror is back.
This summer, as the world was thrown into uncertainty by a pandemic and our collective sense of normalcy was lost, readers flocked to horror novels, propelling tales of terror onto bestseller lists in a way the genre hasn’t seen in decades.
Here on Goodreads, horror novels were suddenly among each month’s most anticipated books, starting with Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires in April, and followed this summer by a torrent of hot horror novels, including Mexican Gothic, Devolution, The Only Good Indians, Survivor Song, and The Year of the Witching.
In fact, the last time horror held its own at the top of popularity and bestsellers lists (with the exclusion of the one-man genre of Stephen King) was in the 1980s. Horror was a popular commodity, king of the mass-market racks. Publishers rushed to develop imprints dedicated to the genre, pumping out everything readers craved for. Horror had its own section in major bookstores across the country.
But by 1993, horror had stopped selling. This shift in sales made pretty much everyone doubtful of the genre. It became something editors dared not talk about. Never say horror, the “H” word. It meant something that wasn’t going to sell.
“There was no horror being published outside of the small independent presses and micropresses. Horror hadn’t sold for 25 years,” says Silvia Moreno-Garcia, author of one of this summer’s hit novels, Mexican Gothic, which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for more than nine weeks.
In today’s marketplace, specifically over the summer, we’ve seen a rush of interest in horror. The question, then, is why is 2020 the year horror returned from the dead?
“Horror deals in extremes—extreme emotions and extreme situations. When people are in extreme situations, they often find solace in an escapism that provides a counterpoint to that extreme,” says author Nino Cipri (Finna). “History itself is a horror story depending on who wrote it.”
It’s no wonder that horror is seeing a resurgence, since 2020 is nothing if not a year of extremes. But horror was also ready for the influx of readers.
“Horror is where the young adult genre was 20 years ago,” says Joe Monti, editorial director of Saga Press, noting that horror is a way that we can talk about class, and race, and culture. “[Horror can help talk about] all the stuff we are dealing with in our country and throughout the world in an immediate and visceral way that other genres are too removed to examine.”
Publishers are taking notice and establishing new imprints, or dedicated brands, for a certain type of book.
Tor is first out of the gate with its horror-focused imprint, Nightfire. Set to launch in fall 2021, the imprint will publish everything from short-story collections, novellas, and novels to standalone books and long-running series, all dealing with horror. Tor’s president and publisher, Fritz Foy, is confident in the genre’s reemergence, stating in the imprint’s announcement press release that there is “a renaissance in progress for all things horror.”
The progress he mentions involves a rush for a “new generation of horror fans” eating up the macabre and the extreme. Foy also mentions an importance in publishing new literary voices.
Among the titles currently announced include the reprinting of Moreno-Garcia’s third novel, Certain Dark Things, a new novella blending the haunted house trope with Japanese folklore called Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw, and Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt, a new novel set for spring 2022 that riffs on Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man wherein a group of trans women survive in a world where a viral plague transforms all cis men into monstrosities.
Hollywood has also influenced this trend, Foy says, and much of it can be traced back to Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, which is already one of the most influential modern movies, not only reviving the horror flick, but also making horror more diverse.
“Film just changed the perspective on horror. Literature took a little while to catch up to it,” says Monti of Saga Press. In publishing, diversity and inclusiveness is a prevailing issue, and horror, which has long since been a cis white male–dominated genre, is no exception.
We’re finally beginning to see more titles by diverse authors gaining recognition and finding a wider audience. In Mexican Gothic, Moreno-Garcia weaves together the classic Gothic backdrop but goes further by exploring questions of wealth, social class, and stratification.
Stephen Graham Jones’ novel The Only Good Indians is at once a slasher that isn’t a slasher, about the darkness of history and past misdeeds set around issues of race, toxic masculinity, and more. Similarly, Tender Is the Flesh, a recent Argentinian translation by Agustina Bazterrica, utilizes the viral pandemic trope and cannibalism, but where it deviates from the tropes is in how it explores the inherent peril of factory farming while also depicting social and racial inequalities.
Carmen Marie Machado’s acclaimed 2017 collection, Her Body and Other Parties, consists of a dozen stories that each take multiple tropes to explore a dizzying array of issues, including identity, gender, sexuality, and more.
“There are enough of us doing this that there’s enough of us pushing through,” says Jones, author of The Only Good Indians. “It gets to be like a siege or invasion, someone throwing a rope and then there’s plenty of us to help lead the charge and follow.”
Author Cipri notes, “In terms of diversity, it’s not that there are more trans/queer people or people of color in horror, because we’ve been writing it the entire time. [Rather it’s] more that mainstream attention is now being given [to us].”
Tor.com editor Carl Engle-Laird is hopeful of continued progress. “The whole publishing industry is in a transformation and is trying to reach a greater sense of inclusiveness,” he says.
Engle-Laird looks at the strong sales as potential that will bring with it the chance for publishers to invest in creative ideas for new books by more diverse authors: “I’d like it to make room to tell stories with very inventive premises, rich and complicated premises with room to expand.”
Certainly, there have been some horror books entering the mainstream conversation, but Moreno-Garcia is quick to point out: “It is not something that necessarily trickles down because you have one big famous book and suddenly there are more people coming down the line. I would say yes, it’s getting better, but it’s really slow.”
For example, she notes, publishing’s tendency to typecast still exists. “When you’re Latina American, everything you write is ‘magical realism,’ an arcane and meaningless label, and yet it’s kind of the hole where publishing/marketing puts us.”
There’s also another elephant in the room: the pandemic. Should authors, particularly horror authors, be writing about it? Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song is a pandemic novel about a highly infectious rabies-like virus that has an extremely short incubation period. “Survivor Song was prescient,” says Jeremy Robert Johnson, author of The Loop. “Talk about great timing.”
Of course, Survivor Song was written and scheduled for publication long before COVID-19 became our reality. Yet there it is, on the page, the similarities are there.
“I think it’s too close,” says author Jones of more horror writers taking on pandemic themes in the wake of COVID-19. “People probably don’t want to capitalize on it. The reason the virus has been so terrible for all of us is due to population density. I wonder if in horror it might creep out in a different way, like maybe empty places, we might just go to empty places for a while.” What it might come down to is timing. Many of us need time to figure out what our current reality is.
Meanwhile, readers continue to turn to horror to confront reality, as well as for a good old-fashioned, albeit terrifying, escape. It helps when the escape gives readers the chance to trust in the narrative and know well that the horror on the page is far more controllable than the horror outside their front doors.
“It’s sort of funny that people are just now discovering that horror can be an art form,” says Tricia Narwani, editorial director at Del Rey Books. Horror is here to be a balm for our wounds but it’s also here to help us understand the source of the wound.
Industry professionals and authors are taking the sales numbers and other news with excitement.
“I would like to recommend a horror novel to a literary reader and see them not make a weird face,” says author Christoph Paul, who is also co-founder of Clash Books. Clash Books co-founder and author Leza Cantoral shares Paul’s frustration about readers who are quick to judge and push away a horror novel. She hopes the blending of tropes will “blur more and become less about category limitations. Horror is becoming more a part of the ‘literary’ language, and people just need to give it a chance.”
What do you think about this book trend? Have you re-discovered this genre recently?
Comments Showing 1-40 of 40 (40 new)
date newest »
back to top