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.
*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 Mirror? Channel Zero: Candle Cove? The Exorcist?
Horror movies — especially when made with quality and care — cost little to make and tend to bring in bank (The Conjuring, Sinister, Lights 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. Wytches, Afterlife with Archie, Outcast, Nailbiter, Clean Room, No 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!)