Horror is the unloved hound of literature. It’s hard to find it in bookstores, beyond the names that have been representing the form since the seventies and eighties: King, Rice, Koontz, and Barker. Forget about specifically designated shelves; those days are gone. It’s got a bad reputation. Some of that’s due to the lingering effects of the paperback horror boom of the eighties, which nearly choked the market to death, but in truth, it’s been on the wrong side of public opinion since way back. (You can thank horror comics for the Comics Code, that odious, self-imposed mark of shame that kept the medium shackled to its own adolescence for decades.) Most people find something distasteful about horror fiction. They’re quick to define it by its worst examples: it’s gratuitously violent; it’s misogynistic; it’s shallow and moralizing on one end of the spectrum, nihilistic and cheap on the other. No wonder the bookshelves aren’t exactly groaning under the weight of these books, right? Who reads this crap, anyway?
To all this I say: good. Keep misunderstanding. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Like any mongrel dog, horror fiction thrives on the outskirts.
When horror hits the mainstream, it begins to conform to mainstream expectations: it either becomes domesticated or it goes feral. One the one hand we have safe horror, which takes on the role of morality tales by punishing transgressors against the social code; on the other we have shock horror, which quickly exhausts itself in the indulgence of transgression, usually manifesting in misogyny and buckets of gore. The first can come off as paternalistic or pandering, while the second is simply juvenile and boring.
Horror thrives beyond the light of popular attention. At its best, horror is the literature of antagonism. It sets itself in opposition to the reader. It’s about undermining systems of belief, and unraveling preconceptions. It can also, sometimes, be about finding beauty in the midst of fear and tragedy. It can be about learning to love the monstrous. Because those, too, are subversions of our understanding of what is true or possible. They are best practiced away from the influence of mainstream sensibilities.
Despite the dismal condition of the bookstore shelves, horror is thriving. The advent of the small and specialty press has been a boon to literature across the board, but perhaps no branch has benefited quite as profoundly as horror has done. Thanks to The Swan River Press, we still have J. Sheridan LeFanu, Lucy M. Boston, and Mervyn Wall in print. Tartarus Press is publishing the full catalogue of Robert Aickman stories, several major works by Arthur Machen, and brilliant modern writers like Reggie Oliver, N.A. Sulway, Angela Slatter, and Mark Valentine. Centipede Press brought Dennis Etchison, Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Shea, and so many others back into print. Add to this list Subterranean Press, Sarob Press, Lethe Press, PS Publishing, CZP, Dark Regions… the list goes on. Never has there been a wider spectrum of horror fiction available to us, both ancestral and modern, than there is today, thanks to the proliferation and accessibility of the small and specialty press.
Those writers and publishers exist well outside the awareness of the primary book-buying public. And though I do wish greater fortunes for the living writers listed here—as well as the many I haven’t named—I am pleased for the genre that they are working in these smaller venues. The small press is fundamental to the survival and the continued health of horror fiction; it’s here that it proves itself a vital literature, both energetic and incandescent. Let the trawlers of the box-store shelves hold onto their ill-informed assumptions. Horror is still ravenous here in the dark, outside their lighted homes, alive and running hard.
About the Author
Nathan Ballingrud is the author of North American Lake Monsters: Stories, from Small Beer Press; and The Visible Filth, a novella from This Is Horror. His work has appeared in numerous Year’s Best anthologies, and he has twice won the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives with his daughter in Asheville, NC.