Horror Fiction: The persistent popularity and success of scary tales for scary times
By Ali Alizadeh, Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and Creative Writing, Monash University
Progress, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin once wrote, is a storm. The winds that propel us forward also uproot and tear apart what we leave behind. The modern world is a world of progress and it leaves in its wake the ruins of the old world.
Progress, then, is indistinguishable from destruction – creative, positive and necessary destruction, perhaps, but destruction nevertheless. Culture in the modern world has its own tales of progress.
Mass production of the novel in the 19th century; the arrival and domination of cinema in the 20th; the omnipresence of the digital in this century – these all have propelled us forward. Newer and more progressive whims and approaches result in the ascendance of newer and more progressive authors and genres.
And they also reproduce battered remains of literary forms and genres of the yesteryear. Or so it may seem. This essay concerns a literary genre that should, by all accounts, be dead and buried. A coarse, primitive genre that, from the perspective of our unstoppably advancing tastes and proclivities, should have no place in the current pantheon of literary refinement and accomplishment.
But this genre continues to haunt the contemporary. Its ghoulish specter manifests an incorrigible undead spirit, its menace threatens the narrative of unimpeded cultural progress. The genre I speak of is the genre of the dead and the undead, of monsters and malevolence, of specters and sinister spirits. It is the genre of horror fiction.
Horror boom and bust
The so-called “horror boom” is behind us. This term refers to a period in U.S. popular entertainment during which horror fiction nearly dominated the publishing and associated cultural landscapes.
Horror had been present, in one form or another, in the literary imaginary of the Western world from the onset of modernity – at least since Matthew Lewis’s satanic monk died a slow, agonizing death and Mary Shelley’s deranged genius fashioned a body out of corpses.
In the United States, horror fiction had prodigious subcultural roots, dating back to the singular figures of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. But it was not until the late 1960s that the genre reached hitherto unforeseen levels of mainstream cultural prestige and commercial profitability.
The horror boom – which has also been described, perhaps more aptly, as the “horror craze” – owed a great deal to the writers who came immediately before it. These included Lovecraft’s protege Robert Bloch, whose 1959 novel Psycho added the modern serial killer to the rogues’ gallery of gothic monsters, and the scandalous short stories of the deviously talented Shirley Jackson, whose novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” also published in 1959, placed a team of thoroughly modern American youths in a properly spooky old mansion.
It was not until the publication of three monstrously successful bestsellers – Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1967), Thomas Tryon’s “The Other” (1971), and William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” (1971) – that horror fiction transcended its hitherto underground, youth-oriented readership and, for a period, captured the imagination and aesthetics of wider American society.
Accounting for the horror boom could provide an account of its eventual demise. The dizzying commercial success of the boom’s most recognisable protagonist, Stephen King, led to equally high levels of overproduction.
At the height of his cultural power, King would publish no fewer than three novels per year – a feat he achieved in 1983, 1984 and 1987. Even the most optimistic view of the demand for horror fiction could not miss the obvious perils of excessive supply.
King was not the only hyper-commercial, hyper-productive horror writer of the period. The late Anne Rice released three novels in 1985 alone, while Dean Koontz published 17 novels during the 1980s.
This over saturation was not helped by the film industry’s opportunism. The extraordinary profitability of low-budget slasher films spawned franchises of increasingly formulaic sequels. This contributed significantly to the growing perception of the genre as a series of predictable clichés, devoid of the capacity to truly deliver the aesthetic affects – suspense, thrills and terrors – emblematic of the genre.
Ideals and ideology
The decline in the aesthetic and commercial values of the genre only partially explains the somewhat abrupt bursting of the horror bubble in the 1990s. More important to both the rise and fall of the genre’s popularity – and, indeed, premising this popularity – were the fluctuations and mutations in the dominant ideology and ideals in the US during this period.
As King noted in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre (1981), fear of the ultimate triumph of Soviet communism, portended by the shockingly successful launch and voyage of Sputnik One, transformed the young would-be author from a sci-fi aficionado into one of the future purveyors of horror.
Fear of communism merged with the economic crises of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which marked the end of the decades of relative postwar prosperity. These crises were accompanied by acute anxieties about social disintegration, the spreading of cults, drug use and sexual permissiveness.
As the securities of the New Deal gave way to the dreads and inequalities of neoliberalism, a frightened American population – and its youth, in particular – found solace in the cathartic reflection of their fears in the broken mirrors of horror fiction.
They turned to the horrifically shattered dreams of the owners of a monstrous upmarket property in Anne Rivers Siddons’ “The House Next Door” (1978) and to the vengeful ghost of a woman killed in 1929, soon after the Wall Street Crash, whose murderous return in Peter Straub’s “Ghost Story” (1979) augers, however indirectly, the fear of another catastrophe comparable to the Great Depression.
By the 1990s, such fears had subsided. Western capitalism seemed to have survived the dangers of the previous decades and, indeed, emerged from them in an upbeat spirit. Communism had been apparently defeated; the middle and working classes had become enchanted with the euphoric promises of global financial capitalism.
Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” (1991), may appear to be related to Robert Bloch’s seminal serial killer Norman Bates. He expresses an explicit, albeit ham-fisted critique of neoliberalism. But his atrocities are so hyperbolic, so absurd that, despite the moral panic accompanying the novel’s release, none of the horrors in Ellis’s novel can be taken sufficiently seriously to induce fear or suspense and thus constitute horror.
Poppy Z. Brite, now Billy Martin, also committed herself to an ever-expansive, desperately eroticised catalogue of bodily grotesquerie and visceral depredation, only to struggle to find a publisher for her final horror novel, “Exquisite Corpse” (1996). The most promising writer of the late horror boom, Clive Barker, would disappoint his dwindling fans and dedicate himself to fantasy and young adult fiction by the end of the 1990s.
The decade’s most successful horror product was the movie adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel The “Silence of the Lambs” (1991). Despite the blatantly evil presence of Hannibal the Cannibal, it was the foretaste of the kind of dark and bloody crime fiction that would soon displace horror in many bookshops and on most movie and television screens.
A twist of noir
That so-called Nordic or Scandi noir incorporates many of the macabre motifs of the horror genre seems obvious. Indeed, the Swedish novel that launched the global popularity of Scandinavian genre writing in the first decade of the new century was ostensibly a work of horror fiction: John Ajvide Linqvist’s “Låt den rätte komma” in (2004), translated as “Let the Right One In.”
But Linqvist’s novel also signifies a major shift in speculative fiction readership in this period, from the concerns of adult readers towards an unabashed moralism centered on the experiences and expectations of adolescent and young adult protagonists.
This shift is not surprising, given the major trend in commercial genre publishing in both global and Anglophone cultures was now determined by the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises. These works created fictional universes that made use of many aspects associated with horror fiction – the supernatural, the gothic – without aiming to unnerve, let alone horrify, their young readers.
This aesthetic shift coincided with the popularization of the Internet. The threats posed by the digital medium to print publishing compelled many publishers to downsize and terminate the publication of authors and genres that were not immediately big sellers. With very few exceptions – such as King himself, many of the most popular horror writers of the boom period were either unceremoniously dropped or moved to digital-only lists.
E-books, despite optimistic industry forecasts, proved unprofitable. Authors who had swallowed their pride and acquiesced to seeing their works removed from physical bookshops and confined to computer and tablet screens found it hard to compete with the abundance of free online content.
By the first decade of the new millennium, therefore, horror was well and truly dethroned. Horror writers, when not dropped by publishers and left struggling to stay afloat amid the flux of digital whirlpools or trying their hand at writing crime or young adult fiction, had to relabel and revise their works as “chillers” and “supernatural thrillers.”
Horror came to be seen as culturally unpalatable and ideologically unacceptable. Always controversial and transgressive, the entire genre, when viewed through the prism of the progressive neoliberalism of the age of globalization, was deemed guilty of cruelty, misanthropy, misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia. The rediscovery of Lovecraft’s racism instigated online petitions, and some commentators even asked whether horror novels are “bad for the brain.”
The eclipse of horror
A visit to almost any bookshop in Melbourne, where I live, would seem to confirm the view that horror fiction is a thing of the past. Most have no horror section to speak of, and the very few horror titles kept in stock (almost all by King) are scattered among crime, fantasy and sci-fi. And when one does stumble on a horror novel, it is often hard to recognise the work’s genre.
The current edition of King’s “It” (1986) does not feature the word “horror” anywhere on the book’s cover, which classifies it as “epic thriller.” The “Silence of the Lambs” is available as a “psychological thriller.” Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” (1954) remains in print as part of a sci-fi series.
Several years ago, deciding to revive my youthful interest in the literary genre that had so affected my imagination during my formative years as a writer, I walked into the nearest bookshop and asked for new horror fiction. The bookseller handed me a vampire novel, which she had personally read and enjoyed, and which had received positive reviews in mainstream press.
The novel left me unimpressed. Not only was it overwritten, overlong and, truth be told, overpriced, it was also positively not horror, but a rather moralistic dystopian novel about reckless science, featuring one motif associated with the horror genre.
More recently, I was again compelled to ask a bookseller for a new horror recommendation. This time, I was back in Melbourne, and I was in luck. The bookseller recommended Paul Tremblay’s “A Head Full of Ghosts” (2015).
Here was a novel by a contemporary author that not only paid tribute to horror classics of the past – which it did in a rather self-conscious manner, via the figures of demonically possessed teenagers who explicitly evoked “The Exorcist” – but insisted on the currency of the genre. The bedeviled family of this novel were beset by supernatural evil, as well as the terrors inflicted by the Global Financial Crisis, such as unemployment, immiseration, and their resulting social and familial cracks and catastrophes.
Best of all, “A Head Full of Ghosts” was genuinely engrossing and wonderfully unnerving. It did not sermonize about the ills of the world. It did not exploit gothic tropes solely to create atmosphere. And it was not written for children. It was, in short, a proper horror novel.
Tremblay is one of the main figures in what may be described as a contemporary resurgence of horror fiction. His recent acquisition by publisher William Morrow could be seen as an indication the genre is making a comeback, although it is worth noting that his forthcoming novel has been labelled a “psychological thriller.”
That Tremblay has been deemed worthy of investment by global publishing powers is exceptional in the contemporary context. Most of his peers publish with small independent presses or self-publish. It remains to be seen whether Tremblay and those few horror authors picked up by publishing giants will resist the pressure and/or temptation to move on to more commercially and ideologically desirable genres such as young adult, dystopian fiction or, indeed, the psychological thriller.
A stronger sign of horror’s survival and revival may be found in the fact the genre’s industrial demise has not resulted in artistic decline. The horror novels written and released since the 1990s have been among the genre’s best.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s immense “House of Leaves” (2000) may be irritating, pretentious and, for some, simply unreadable. But it is also, quite possibly, the most ambitious, most astonishing American novel of the current century.
Sara Gran’s “Come Closer” (2003) is as creepy a tale of supernatural possession as one could wish for. It has also received belated praise from no less a mainstream outlet than the Guardian for its striking capacity to “probe female passions and frustrations.”
Dathan Auerbach’s “Penpal” (2012), which began life as a series of stories on the news aggregation and discussion website Reddit, is a horrifying page-turner as well as a most ingenuously structured narrative.
Catriona Ward’s “The Last House on the Needless Street” (2021) is, as the Stephen King blurb on its cover would have it, a “true nerve-shredder.” It features the most effective, most devastating peripetia or plot reversal I have read in a work by a living author.
I found out about the last two titles via the Facebook group Books of Horror. With more than 21,000 members, it provides a space for fans of the genre to recommend, read and discuss their favourite books. It also provides a crucial channel for the genre’s current practitioners to make their works known to a readership excluded from mainstream literary scenes.
As someone who has hitherto worked within the confines of official literary publishing – with its preoccupations with literary reputations, awards, sales, reviews, moral pretences and the like – I have been entranced by the Books of Horror members’ passion for new, unknown, independent writers.
The members have an unapologetic love for the simple and sophisticated pleasures of reading. They are utterly uninterested in ideological postures and “culture wars” that characterise so much of today’s highbrow literary trends. Their staggering erudition and knowledge of genre writing outshines many a university professor’s claim to popular culture expertise.
Books of Horror is one among many online phenomena that have transformed the digital milieu from one of the causes of the genre’s decline in the 1990s to one of the sources of its revival today.
A more fundamental reason for horror’s resurrection, however, is to be found in the state of our world. The 2008 global financial crisis ruptured the narrative of global capitalism’s invincibility. It ushered in the contemporary period of economic, political and social instability. The crises of global warming and the coronavirus pandemic have only intensified our fears about the trajectory of human civilisation.
In addition to the contemporary works I have already noted, most other horror works of the current period testify to the fears and dangers of life in a shaken, precarious and frightened world.
“HEX” (2013) by Dutch novelist Thomas Olde Heuvelt is set in a fictional village under total digital surveillance where a contemporary high-tech Big Brother tries and fails to protect the business interests of the local petty bourgeoisie from a brutal, supernatural curse.
In Canadian writer Gemma Files’ “Experimental Film” (2015), a struggling film scholar and her rivals, faced with economic austerity and professional insecurity, resort to excavating a work from the silent era to safeguard their livelihoods, only to discover that the obscured film evokes ancient cosmological evils.
In Franco-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani’s Chanson douce (2016), variously translated into English as The Perfect Nanny and Lullaby, a disenfranchised working-class woman from a poor outer suburb of Paris is employed as a nanny by a professional middle-class family in the affluent heart of the French capital, with horrific consequences.
These works are only a very small indication of the international reach of horror writing today. The boom of the 1960s-1990s period was primarily a US cultural phenomenon. The concurrent popularity of the genre in other regions (including the United Kingdom and Japan) was premised on the fortunes of the genre in its U.S. core.
Today’s revival seems less US-centric. Even Australia, a country whose literature has long been subsumed within US literary production and consumption, is showing signs of a native horror fiction scene, evident in the work of committed horror authors such as Kaaron Warren, Alan Baxter, Kirsten McDermott and Greg Chapman, among many others. There has also been a horror-turn in the work of more literary authors, such as the late Andrew McGahan, whose final novel The Rich Man’s House (2019) features a domineering American mountaineer who gets his comeuppance courtesy of supernatural terrors unleashed by a mountain.
I don’t know whether all this will amount to a second horror boom any time soon. It is very hard to imagine that, in the age of cancel culture, trigger warnings and sensitivity readers, a genre that is categorically dedicated to shocking its readers could again rise to mainstream ideological prominence.
It is equally difficult to imagine that the ultra-commercial publishers that backed the likes of King during the early years of his career would offer such support to a burgeoning writer of the genre at a time when bestseller lists are dominated by young adult, crime, self-help and celebrity memoirs.
Horror authors will continue to find it hard to overcome current commercial and cultural obstacles. But great horror novels continue to be written and they are being read and appreciated by informed, passionate readers of the genre. Horror is far from dead.