Bookish Trend: Horror Returns From the Dead

Posted by Cybil on October 20, 2020
 
By Michael J. Seidlinger
Goodreads Contributor 

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?
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating

“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. 

Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
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)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by MJ (new)

MJ I've actually been watching a lot more horror movies and reading darker novels. I had no idea this was a trend, but I can totally relate because horror does give me some relief from reality right now. I mean, nothing can be scarier than watching the current news.


message 2: by Isaac (new)

Isaac Mizrahi the news beFORE the pandemic was, many a time, horror-fying...it just didn''t affect YOUR life...not to be disrespectful...it"s true for most of us...
how , in a way, this pandemic came about originated in our neglect to do much about setting up the ecology in a way that would make such things possible...day to day. for a number of decades now...
and people just can''t seem to wait to get back to ''business as usual'''...THIS is the horror story of our time...real and present. and just give it a few more months if you think THIS is bad...
good luck. happy reading...


message 3: by Ken (new)

Ken Mackenzie Best New Horror #30 is due out soon. (One of my stories is in it!)

Here's the details from the publisher, PS Publishing:

https://www.pspublishing.co.uk/best-n...


message 4: by David (new)

David Barber As a long time fan of horror books, comics, and films, I am glad to see the genre making a resurgence. It's been there all along, lurking in the shadows, but definitely looking forward to seeing what new and wonderful creations emerge into the light.


message 5: by Ilene (new)

Ilene G> I read horror long before this trend. I am glad for this resurgence, because I can get more horror books.


message 6: by Victoria (new)

Victoria Lloyd An amazing article and some brilliant suggestions. The article really encapsulates the recent history of horror.


message 7: by Renee (new)

Renee Thank you for the article. I for one love horror and enjoy finding new authors.


message 8: by Roger (new)

Roger Some editor-generated trend who thought they were being clever by linking horror novels to the pandemic.
So transparent and lame.


message 9: by Erin (new)

Erin I have read it 3 times and still thoroughly enjoy it: IT by Stephen King. The Shining is a close second also by SK.


message 10: by Brian (new)

Brian Rosenberger As a genre, it's always been there, lurking in the shadows.


message 11: by Diptanjan (new)

Diptanjan Sarma Purkayastha I like to read horror novels. King, Koontz. Generally I like any "atmospheric" book. 🤡


message 12: by Alan (new)

Alan Aspinall Halloween is my fava time of year, and so a good horror is always welcome. Though sadly it has been a long time since I found a book that truly stood out to me. Lovecraft and M R James are the masters of the classic works, And James Herbert is king of the new.


message 13: by Peter (new)

Peter Cornwell Piaget’s Last Fear. I guarantee that you never read horror like that. And I never thought that underdog, unknown writer could beat the big names like King, Bradbury, or even Lovecraft in their own game. I am forty-five, I love the horror genre, I read and watched it all my life and there is nothing I could compare to Piaget's Last Fear. I will do no justice to the "Fear" if I say that it looks like a mixture of Rosemary's Baby, Silence of the Lambs, 1984, and Breaking Bad, put together "on paper" by Sigmund Freud. Great Halloween read :)


message 14: by Alan (new)

Alan Aspinall I love horror as well, but found it lacking as of late, The few that I have read haven't really touched me like the work of Herbert


message 16: by Alan (new)

Alan Aspinall I don't think Horror died, but I have found many forgettable books that were very dull. Greanted I'm a James Herbert fan, so the bar was set very hight, but still it would be nice to find some other writers on his level.


message 17: by Randy (new)

Randy Money “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 ...

That's not exactly accurate. There was horror from various larger publishers from writers including but not limited to Caitlin R. Kiernan (The Drowning Girl; The Red Tree, etc.), Joyce Carol Oates, Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring; Skin Folk) and Tananarive Due (My Soul to Keep; The Good House), published between the early/mid-'90s and 2020, some of it even reaching the bestseller lists, but not labelled as "horror".

Publishers in the 1980s glutted the market with not so good work -- see Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction -- and decreased sales lead them to abandon the genre. Titles that might have been called horror in the '80s sneaked over into mystery/crime, thriller, fantasy or s.f. publishing categories. Maybe the resurgence in popularity will lead publishers and genre critics to sift through what was published in that time period and identify works that might be more popular now than when published.


message 18: by Liam (new)

Liam Ward Horror is easily the worst genre of books by far


message 19: by Randy (new)

Randy Money Liam wrote: "Horror is easily the worst genre of books by far"

Does your opinion come from having read books labelled as "horror" or from a general distaste for works that approach subjects you're uncomfortable with?


message 20: by Noora (new)

Noora Liam wrote: "Horror is easily the worst genre of books by far"

is chick lit DEAD?


message 21: by Tyler J (new)

Tyler J Gray This makes my horror loving heart so happy! I don't think horror was dead but it wasn't in a healthy state...now it's full of life and back with a vengeance! Yessss And I love that we're seeing more diversity in horror, FINALLY! I am too excited. *squee*


message 22: by Elizabeth (last edited Oct 26, 2020 10:38AM) (new)

Elizabeth I'm sure horror as a genre is overlooked due to readers' perspective on it being too much of a specific genre--if you will, but I also will say that while horror has always been a favorite of mine (mostly movies), there are a lot of people out there who still do not like to be scared. While I am happy the genre is getting more recognition currently, I'm not sure how big it can get with many people still out there who are not fans of the frightening, the creepy, and the crawly. Also, it's tough for novels to provide that same scare that movies can due to their visuals. Just more observations, regardless, happy to see more horror, more diversity in genres available, and more diversity in general.


message 23: by Cássia (new)

Cássia Sousa MJ wrote: "I've actually been watching a lot more horror movies and reading darker novels. I had no idea this was a trend, but I can totally relate because horror does give me some relief from reality right n..."

I'm in the same mood.


message 24: by Randy (new)

Randy Money Elizabeth wrote: "I'm sure horror as a genre is overlooked due to readers' perspective on it being too much of a specific genre--if you will, but I also will say that while horror has always been a favorite of mine ..."

I agree completely.


message 25: by Kyle (new)

Kyle Isaac wrote: "the news beFORE the pandemic was, many a time, horror-fying...it just didn''t affect YOUR life...not to be disrespectful...it"s true for most of us...
how , in a way, this pandemic came about origi..."


All of my household members including myself, are recovering from it (the pandemic), and I'm currently making my way through The Shining. It's been the year of Stephen King for me.


message 26: by Kyle (new)

Kyle Randy wrote: "Liam wrote: "Horror is easily the worst genre of books by far"

Does your opinion come from having read books labelled as "horror" or from a general distaste for works that approach subjects you're..."


Good question, I don't see any reason that the horror genre is "easily the worst genre of books by far". That's only one person's subjective opinion; someone else could easily state the same about romances or historical fiction.

Before this spring I was primarily a non-fiction reader and I had only read a few horror novels and only one by Stephen King, which was decades ago. I enjoy sci-fi and increasingly, dystopia, so horror wasn't too far of a genre jump for me. In fact, Stephen King's dystopian The Running Man was a stepping stone for me to explore some of his horror titles, beginning with 'Salem's Lot.

As others have expressed here, I have found some "horror" reads comforting during these challenging times. The characters and situations have helped me realize how good I have it.


message 27: by AJ (new)

AJ I love horror (both reading and writing it) and have found that COVID has gotten me even more interested in the genre.


message 28: by Alan (new)

Alan Aspinall You said you like to write horror? Do you have and published works AJ?


message 29: by Kaitlan (new)

Kaitlan I love reading horror. I love writing horror. I love watching horror. It has been my absolute favorite genre across all mediums since I was a child! I'll admit, there are PLENTY of duds, but I've been really impressed with a lot of the horror novels that have been published in the past few years. There's some good stuff out there!


message 30: by Vanessa (new)

Vanessa I would not have touched the horror genre 2 years ago. Maybe it is indeed the political, social, and pandemic climate that has drawn me to it as of late. My primary interest stems from the diverse authors getting recognition. You can't revive something traditional (i.e. white, cis males who have been writing the genre for decades). You can revive it by including more female and trans author, and by including more POC authors. If a new book comes out by another white, male author I gloss over it. I need to see myself in a story to read it.


message 31: by Eon daly (new)

Eon daly Best books ever


message 32: by Tara (new)

Tara Looks like yet another genre is about to be ruined by wokeism. Can't they leave anything alone for people to just enjoy for what it is?


message 33: by Randy (new)

Randy Money Vanessa wrote: "I would not have touched the horror genre 2 years ago. Maybe it is indeed the political, social, and pandemic climate that has drawn me to it as of late. My primary interest stems from the diverse ..."

If you look into the history of ghost/horror stories, you'll find women were a formative influence. Though anthologies of the time and later don't always reflect it, magazine editors were open to their ghost stories -- including an editor like Charles Dickens who published Mrs. Gaskell.

It's probable that male editors of those anthologies were put off by the domestic focus of many of the women's stories. For example, one of the standard anthologies for works before 1940 is Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. While it's a great anthology and even had a woman as co-editor, only 3 women -- Dorothy L. Sayers, Edith Wharton and Isak Dinesen -- appear in it. That skips Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Vernon Lee, Mrs. Riddell, Mrs. Molesworth, E. Nesbit, Ellen Glasgow, Margery Bowen, May Sinclair, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and probably a dozen or more others I'm not remembering or I'm unaware of. I think "The Yellow Wallpaper" (Gilman) and "Amour Dure" (Lee) alone would have raised the book's overall quality.

For what it's worth, something similar can be said about the mystery/detective/crime genre. Women writers found ways to voice their experiences in these genres that weren't always open to them in more mainstream fiction. And, I suppose, their readers were mainly women who were not exactly in charge of the publishing world then.


message 34: by AJ (last edited Oct 27, 2020 06:45AM) (new)

AJ Alan wrote: "You said you like to write horror? Do you have and published works AJ?"

Yes, though nothing big. I've been in a few anthologies and one zine for horror poetry.

I find horror helpful to write when I'm really stressed out as it helps contextualize my fears. It's the same as when I read it. I prefer ghost stories as they are rarely about the ghosts and are about society at the time.


message 35: by Michelle (new)

Michelle I also didn't know this was a trend, but have particularly enjoyed getting into it myself after being totally uninterested in the "true crime" fad of the last few years. I've particularly enjoyed the (relative) increase in diverse authors, as you point out, and the newer viewpoints they've brought to the genre.


message 36: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Randy wrote: "If you look into the history of ghost/horror stories, you'll find women were a formative influence. Though anthologies of the time and later don't always reflect it, magazine editors were open to their ghost stories -- including an editor like Charles Dickens who published Mrs. Gaskell."

Randy, thanks for pointing this out! I mentioned in a previous point that i've really enjoyed the recent diversity in published horror authors, but one thing that really got me into the genre again was reading classic authors by way of classic Gothic Literature. It's a great way to be reminded that the classics are varied.


message 37: by Adriana (new)

Adriana After watching The Haunting of Hill House I have slowly become more interested in horror. I'm curious if that has been the case for others too.


message 38: by Alan (new)

Alan Aspinall Hay Adriana, my love for horror came more from the books my mum got me as a teenager, sadly when I was growing up most of the horror that came out were the slashers, which I found boreing, that sais the orginal Fog by John carpenter was a truly great ghost story


message 39: by Randy (new)

Randy Money Adriana wrote: "After watching The Haunting of Hill House I have slowly become more interested in horror. I'm curious if that has been the case for others too."

The 1963 movie of the novel led me to the novel. They were part of my early experiences with the genre along with Poe.


Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Well done article.

We have had some excellent horror books released this year. It's always been a favorite genre of mine, so glad to see some new fans finding these books. The thing with horror is, that like many sub-genres of romance and fantasy, there is a variety out there --- even if you don't like certain types of horror, there are subgenres out there that you will likely enjoy.


back to top