It’s nearly Halloween, so I’m always on the lookout for horror. I mean, I am the rest of the months, too, but this time of year it seems the search should be easier. And yet, it’s not. Most of the time I find myself actually inside my local B&N using their app to browse the horror tag then asking clerks where I might find individual books since they don’t have a section. Thank Stoker for the general fiction anthology section, where you can usually find the latest collections of spooky tales in Haunted Nights, co-edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton, and/or the output from Blumhouse. That’s how I found John Langan’s story “Alone in the Dark,” which is for my money the scariest thing on the written page I have ever read period.
In Paperbacks from Hell, Grady Hendrix’s amazing book about horror publishing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he says, “The success of Silence of the Lambs convinced marketing departments to scrape the word horror off spines and glue on the word thriller instead.” He’s got a point. How anyone could consider, say, Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls anything but horror is beyond me, but you’d never get that from the cover or its placement on shelves.
Or consider what’s now called either paranormal romance or urban fantasy. I’m talking Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, Kelley Armstrong, and so on. These are shelved as fantasy, which maybe speaks to the evolution of that genre but feels more like the gentrification of vampires, witches, and werewolves. It’s not like smut and mystery were absent in horror publishing before. Occult detectives were all the rage for a while, reaching their peak with Michael Avallone’s Satan Sleuth series in the mid-‘70s. Ed Wood and Brian McNaughton wrote what would probably be classified as paranormal romance today, though I think both would like have felt being too much of a wienie to say “porn” was very much missing the point of the books.
The best example of the disconnect comes from two stories, one by Clive Barker called “Midnight Meat Train” and one by N.K. Jemisin called “The City Born Great.” Barker published his in the first volume of Books of Blood in 1984 and Jemisin hers in How Long ‘til Black Future Month in 2018. Barker was not just marketed as horror, but “the new face of horror” as baptized by Stephen King himself. Jemisin is a science fiction author, the first person ever to win back-to-back-to-back Hugo Awards for best novel.
Yet the stories are functionally identical. I don’t mean that Jemisin ripped off Barker. Their messages, for instance are entirely different and their main characters are complete opposites besides both being artists. However, the stories break down exactly the same. They take place in New York where dark forces that embody the city itself pursue a protagonist who eventually becomes the new protector of the city. In Barker’s case, it’s strange man-eaters that live below the subways, and in Jemisin’s it’s that the city itself is a living being experiencing its birth while monsters who are kind of a sentient abortion try to stop its ascension.
It helps to consider genre as a spectrum, not an absolute. Barker is obviously deep into horror and always has been. Jemisin is science fiction-fantasy, but more in the way Harlan Ellison (who was often closer to horror than not) was than, say, Robert A. Heinlein. But Jemisin’s story and most of the stories in the collection honestly, have undeniable horror elements. Instead of the super-strong yuppie-suited butcher Mahogany, she has protoplasmic, almost Lovecraftian cops that lurch like a living cancer after her hero in a similar symbol of toxic authority.
If Jemisin had been writing in the ‘80s, would her book be called “Red Dirt Witch” instead, and would she be sitting next to Peter Straub with a spooky cover instead of beside Larry Niven? I’m not saying it’s bad. The stories are the same wherever you find them. It’s just that the mainstream book industry is so shy about horror that it's constantly hidden in a labyrinth of other genres. That’s such a shame, because horror is one of the best vehicles for tackling social anxiety and change.
There’s a reason Ari Aster and Jordan Peele are superstar filmmakers right now, and it’s because people are starved for scares that embody a terrifying world. I think it was King who said, “If a hundred people dream of a vampire, one person – probably a child – will dream of the stake that’s needs to be put through its heart.” We're denying people the stake. It’s great that science fiction has voices like Jemisin’s, and if that where she wants to be then more power to her. But it’s been more than 30 years since Silence of the Lambs and horror has gone into a self-perpetuated spiral of doom. It would be lovely if publishers and booksellers would make some room for horror. After all, they’re still publishing and selling it. They just won’t call it what it is.