Why Is Horror So Anathema In Publishing?

I write horror novels, mostly.

I just don’t call them horror. They’re urban fantasy. They’re supernatural suspense. They’re near-future sci-fi thrillers. But definitely, totally, super-not-horror. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, a finger thrust up before my rubbery latex clown mask where I shush you long, low and slow, shhhhhhhhhh. Don’t worry! Not horror at all.

*squeaks clown nose to comfort you, honk-honk*

Except, psst: they’re totally horror. I don’t even necessarily mean they’re horror as a genre. Horror as a genre is a bullseye on the back of a galloping horse — sure, there are certain tropes and conventions that mark something as horror, but these usually mark it more as a subgenre of horror rather than an overarching convention. Horror, to me, is as much a mood as it is a convergence of tropes or ideas. That mood goes beyond merely invoking fright. It’s about traipsing into the dark, about shining a flickering flashlight beam on some nastiness, and probing fear and discomfort up and down the spectrum. From big stuff (surveillance state, religion, apocalypse) to little stuff (hey guess what there’s a guy in your closet covered in someone else’s skin and he has a camping hatchet covered in blood and hair). I love it. I grew up reading it. I write it. Zer0es is a wet-wired hacker thriller where the surveillance state is so intrusive it might literally be drilled into the back of your skull. Invasive is a fun thrillery Jurassic Park romp ha ha ha oh and did I mention it contains ants who will cut off your skin with their mandibles in order to farm your flesh snippets for delicious fungus? Miriam Black can literally see how you’re going to die, and people get eaten by flocks of birds and there are folks with no eyes and a guy gets chopped up in a garbage disposal. Doesn’t matter that nobody wants to call them horror — the Miriam Black books are horror novels from snoot-to-chute. Exuent will be apocalyptic in its scope, and though I’m sure it’ll be labeled a thriller, it is intentionally meant to be scary, creepy, unsettling in the same way you find The Stand or Swan Song. In other words: It’s horror.

(Okay, no, my Star Wars novels aren’t horror, really. Though they contain scenes of horror — the spiders from Kashyyyk, the Acolytes of the Beyond, and so forth. And the films contain scenes of horror, too: the scary-slasher-masks of the Tusken Raiders, the Wampa attack scene, the seduction of the Dark Side across all the movies and shows.)

It’s not just me. It’s not just my work I’m talking about. Lots of books are horror novels, and don’t really get labeled as such. Jurassic Park is, as noted, a fun thrillery romp, ha ha ha, but yeah, no, that shit is still horror. It’s maybe a sillier variant of horror, but not that silly. (A passage from the book: “Nedry stumbled, reaching blindly own to touch the ragged edge of his shirt, and then a thick slivery mass that was surprisingly warm, and with horror he suddenly knew he was holding his own intestines in his hands.”) Recent novels I’ve read and loved that are clearly horror novels despite not generally being labeled as such:

Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance and Devil’s Rock and Head Full of Ghosts; Sarah Lotz’s The Three and its sequel, Day Four; Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters and The Shining Girls. Jason Arnopp’s Last Days of Jack Sparks is wry and twisted and often creepy as fuck. I don’t know what they called Scott Hawkins’ Library at Mount Char, but to me, it’s horror in the Barker mold — abstract, fantastical, and wonderfully unhinged. The work of Cherie Priest and Christopher Golden and Seanan McGuire is frequently scary as hell. And yet, very little of it earns the horror moniker and is eased quietly into other genres and marketing categories. Fantasy! Urban fantasy! Supernatural suspense! Scary thriller, oooooh!

Is Joe Hill horror? I’ve seen his work discussed as supernatural suspense, but c’mon.

C’mon.

*stares at you like Jim Halpert*

*stares at you like Jim Halpert with cockroaches pouring out of his mouth*

Other books lean into horror, even if they’re not horror novels. Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon has chapters that read like they’re out of a horror novel. Game of Thrones takes on a new dimension when you view it less as epic fantasy and more as epic apocalyptic fiction — a fantasy variant less like Lord of the Rings and more like The Stand. The James S.A. Corey Expanse series frequently puts forward scenes of epic space horror with the advent of the Protomolecule. Again, here horror serving as both a reflection of mood and of its genre trappings, even if it doesn’t ‘take over’ the whole of the narrative.

These are books that, were they given the label of horror, would elevate the genre above the schlock some people believe it to be and give it the credit the genre is really due.

And yet, despite all this, horror really isn’t a thing. You won’t find many bookstores who have horror shelves anymore. (And here I pour a little on the curb for Borders, whose horror shelves were a dark land in which I dwelled often.) Publishers shy away from the label. Agents do, too.

And so do writers, then.

Because, as we’re told, “horror doesn’t sell.”

But that’s fucked. And it’s sad. It’s both fucked and sad because horror is having a moment. Horror is not a genre at the fringe. Walking Dead is arguably the biggest damn show on TV — and it’s about as straight-up nasty-ass horror as it comes. It’s not the only horror on TV, either. Black MirrorChannel Zero: Candle CoveThe Exorcist?

Horror movies — especially when made with quality and care — cost little to make and tend to bring in bank (The ConjuringSinisterLights Out). Ye cats and fishes, have you seen the trailer for Jordan Peele’s upcoming Get Out? Holy fucking fuck does that look creepy. (And socially relevant, to boot. Jordan Peele, you magnificent bastard.)

Horror comics? Sure, got those, too. WytchesAfterlife with ArchieOutcastNailbiter, Clean RoomNo Mercy, and of course, Walking Dead.

That’s all just a sample of what’s out there.

It’s great stuff. It’s astonishing fiction. It forms my diet.

And it’s part of a legacy, too. Stephen King is maybe the only one out there who gets to wear the horror moniker easily and proudly, because he’s so damn good and so damn old-school that if you try to take it away he’ll drag your ass behind the barn to fight you like he’s Uncle Joe Biden. But I grew up reading King, McCammon, Barker, Poppy Z. Brite (who is now Billy Martin, but who holy shit just released a brand new pair of stories, Last Wish & The Gulf under the Brite name), Yvonne Navarro, Caitlin Kiernan, and on and on. And then there are those authors I read who are horror-adjacent: Joe Lansdale, Robin Hobb (sure, the Assassin’s Apprentice series isn’t horror, but c’mon, it’s often horrific), Christopher Moore (funny horror!), Bradley Denton (holy fuck you guys, Blackburn). Consider the horrific dimensions of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

We need to look long into the dark. It’s part of who we are. We like to be scared. It gives us context. It gives us control. It helps us take the horror of the real world and give it shape so that we can conquer it, if only a little. Out of discomfort we find comfort.

I miss the days where I could find a shelf labeled horror. I miss the days where we didn’t shy away from that genre label as if it were a dirty, cheap word. Horror isn’t marginal, not at all, yet we still treat it like it is — like it’s the weird cousin who accidentally got invited to dinner, all the while failing to realize that the weird cousin grew up a long time ago and now runs a successful tech company and makes more money than the rest of us combined. It’s not that the genre isn’t well-represented. Like I said, it is. I just hope we get back to the point where we can call it what it is, loud and proud, with hiss and with shriek, with gibber and wail.

Me, I’ll be over here writing my supernatural suspense, my creepy near-future thrillers, my explorations of dark and urban fantasy. But you and I, we’ll share a little wink and a high-five, because we know what it is I’m really writing, and what it is you’re really reading. Then we’ll clink our butcher knives together and drag the latex masks down over our faces once more so we may resume our hunt for the blood of the innocent.

(Shout out in the comment your favorite horror novels — even if they’re not labeled as such.)

(Or even your favorite scary scenes in otherwise non-horror books!)

109 comments

  • The horror aspects of any story should be like the jam, cream on a sponge cake, they should make the cake delicious, they should add to it, but they are not the sum of the cake. You need a good sponge/plot as your base, because who wants to sit down and eat a bowl that’s nothing but jam and cream.

    I love horror movies and books and I’ve loved Stephen King since I was a teen. To me a good horror story is cleaver and has more layers then an onion. It makes you think, it shakes up your perception of who the real monsters are and forces you to ask yourself terrifying questions like, what would I do and how far would I go given the right (or should I say wrong) circumstances?

    Bad horror relies on gore and is nothing but an excuse to see how sick a writer can be, those kinds of stories are usually lazy, boring, full of plot holes and are the reason that horror has a bad name.

    The “Exorcist” is a great book, because primarily it’s a story about a man struggling with and questioning his faith. The movie, The Babadook is one of my all time favorites because it’s not just about a scary monster, it’s about the darker side of loss and the responsibility of motherhood.

    • I know I’ve all ready put more than my two cents in but I just found this quote by SK himself which sums up why I love his work, “The best stories always end up being about the people and not the event.”

  • maybe it’s because of all the horrid horror movies that have come out as of late? Horror as a movie and video game genre has a reputation for being badly written and predictable, full of jump scares and cliched tropes that have everyone bored. Labeling a book (which requires more time investment than a game or flick) such is like spraying repellent all over it. Horror may be presented more often now, but I don’t agree that it’s presented *well*.

    There’s plenty of good horror out there. People just focus on the horrid stuff *cough cough*OUIJA*cough cough* because there is so, so much of it.

  • When I was at school in the 80s we passed round horror books like they were drugs. They were exciting, they had blood and death and (hopefully!) sex, we knew our parents would disapprove and they certainly didn’t have horror books in the school library. I can’t recall many of them although James Herbert’s “The Rats” Is one that I can remember well even now. We also read a lot of war books which had many of the same elements.
    There’s a lot of talk about ‘getting boys reading’ in the UK, maybe this is the sort of stuff they need.

    • Funny that you mentioned there were no horror books in your school library. My first taste of Stephen King was when our school librarian recommended “Carrie” to me. 🙂 Either things changed from the 70s to the 80s, or things were different in our little East Tennessee rural community.

      • It was a boy’s grammar school, very traditional. 70s Tennessee was probably way ahead of 80s northern English grammar school.

        On a brighter note, I was in Waterstones in London today and they had a whole Horror section.

  • October 27, 2016 at 9:50 AM // Reply

    Almost anything by Neil Gaiman. Especially his short story collections which usually give me chills and nightmares even while I’m falling in love with his voice. “Ocean at the End of the Lane” was particularly good. There were some really great moments of visceral horror in that, and deep darkness. And, of course, the “Sandman” series, because DUH.

  • Pacific Rim. Giant monsters terrorizing the world, people forced into little enclaves, parts of monsters being harvested, cut up and sold on the black market. Great stuff.

  • October 27, 2016 at 12:30 PM // Reply

    *cracks knuckles* Okay, here we go…

    Almost anything by Orson Scott Card or Neil Gaiman has a horror element to it. (Card, specifically, prefers to refer to it as ‘dread’.) Ray Bradbury is good for that sort of thing, too.

    One of my favorite graphic novels, ‘Locke & Key’, is horror disguised as urban fantasy. I highly recommend it.

    ‘House of Leaves’ is definitely horror, whatever else it may be.

    …And I know there’s a lot I’m missing but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

  • Some favorite horror reads:

    AUDREY’S DOOR by Sarah Langan (spooky, creepy, atmospheric)
    THE WASP FACTORY by Iain Banks (gutpunching, dread)
    THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy (truly horrifying)
    HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill (spooky and suspenseful)
    SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King (comfort food of vampire stuff)
    BOOKS OF BLOOD by Clive Barker (crazy good)

  • I grew up devouring R.L Stine’s Fear street saga, then graduated to Stephen King, and Dean Koontz. I seem to go through moods where I need to read/watch/listen to things that are pants shittingly terrifying, and then I can go back to my regular day to day terror of bills and adulting.

  • Great article! Just finished reading Hunter Shea’s “The Jersey Devil”, definitely horror. I have another of his titles in the To-Read Pile along with some King. My first two novels were paranormal murder-mysteries .. aka Horror. One was complete with a dead, fly-covered baby dangling from the hand of a possessed scarecrow. All time favorite horror novel is now and ever shall be, Shirley Jackson’s, “The Haunting of Hill House”. Spooky good time there.

  • illuminae Files #1…. near dead zombie like little girls clutching bloody dolls wandering in a ship chanting “kill” holy crap that’s scary!! its a Sci Fi YA!!!!

  • Kaaron Warren’s exquisitely skewed horror in novels like Slights and short fiction collections like The Grinding House.

    The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington is full of horrifying events told with crackling, maniacal glee.

    Crossed: Wish You Were Here is to my knowledge the only long-form story in the splatterpunk “Crossed” series of shared-setting horror comics. Epic, bleak, surprising and visceral.

  • Spores by Seanan McGuire. Easily the best horror short story I’ve ever read and it’s free on the Nightmare-Magazine website. Was published in their June 2014 issue and the single biggest reason I started subscribing to their magazine. Still think of this story whenever I compare it to others.

  • I’m gonna shout out for The Black Prince Trilogy by P.J. Fox. Billed as a ‘Paranormal Romance’ but definitely NOT of the Mills & Boon variety, it’s dark and creepy while having a strong female protagonist who is more than a match for the brooding male love interest/antihero.

  • My pretty much all time favourite horror moment is when Tense, deep in the labyrinth in Leeds Guin’s Tombs of Atuan, says ‘I am scared of the dark’. It’s such a simple sentence but in the context of this novel, after the long, long lead up, in this incredible atmosphere Le Guin concocts, it is just so, so amazing

  • Could there also be some genre lines at work? Like I want to write horror – I’m currently outlining a modern ghost story – but my passion really lies in urban fantasy, so I’m going to package it as a “supernatural suspense”, even though, yeah Chuck you hit the nail on the head, it’s totally horror.

    It feels like in general genres have become more definite, even if cross-genre (horror comedy, space opera, paranormal romance) has become more acceptable. But remember, before Jurassic Park, there was Jaws – also definitely a horror movie in spots – and it kicked off the blockbuster craze we still see today.

  • The Cal Leandros series by Rob Thurman. Billed as Urban Fantasy, which it is, but also very much horror. In one book, Madhouse, Cal gets a chunk of him eaten (and this is told from first person). Also, the troll from the first two books will haunt my memory forever.

  • October 30, 2016 at 7:31 PM // Reply

    It’s funny, because I actually struggled a little getting into Zer0es because the beats didn’t quite mesh with the thrillers I was used to. Then shit hits the fan and bodies start piling up and I went, “Oh, this is horror” and it made much more sense.

  • Favourite horror novels? SALEM’S LOT by You-Know-Who, THE HELLBOUND HEART by Clive Barker, MOCKINGBIRD by You (that stuff was disturbing, man!), and for my non-obvious pick — ICE by Anna Kavan.

    But I’d add that the genre works in short stories perhaps better than any other.

  • Non-obvious horror? “The Handmaid’s Tale” is real and horrific. So’s the series Atwood began with “Oryx and Crake.”

    Obvious horror? Obviously, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman et al. Does anyone else remember Ira Levin? The way you don’t know *exactly* what happens to “The Stepford Wives,” but you know it has to be horrible….

  • I prefer psychological horror to slasher-type, and I’m not crazy about the erotica that tends to go with it, although I don’t mind so much if it’s well-written. And really, there needs to be more than simply horrific sights, sounds, and situations to keep me interested. From my limited reading of the genre, then, my favorite is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I also have two of his books of short stories: Fragile Things and The View from the Cheap Seats (the last being non-fiction essays). Love his writing voice.

    I’ve also not read a lot of Stephen King, but Carrie, The Mist, and The Langoliers are favorites of mine.

  • My first legit horror novel was THE EXORCIST. A truly frightening work on a number of levels for me. I grew up Catholic, so the religious significance of what was taking place had a special impact on me, the use of the crucifix… well, nuff said. It was a complete game changer for me in a lot of ways. Still is a work of deeply frightening situations and implications. Remains one, if not THE scariest things I’ve ever read.

  • I’ve been writing horror for about 40 years.

    I also write regional ghost story collections and I cannot begin to tell you how many full grown adults walk up to my book table and say something along the lines of “Oh my, I just don’t do scary. Don’t you have anything that WON’T give me nightmares?”

    We are becoming a world of wusses.

    I’m not just talking about fear-of-chainsaw-massacres.

    I’m talking total phobia about anything remotely resembling honest-to-god-booga-booga.

    I just don’t get it.

    Not one freaking little bit.

    Nice article, Chuck. Keep on juggling those chainsaws.
    🙂

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