Scary stories: a single-volume anthology from the British Library provides a cogent and concise history of the literary horror genre

Horror: A Literary History, Xavier Aldana Reyes, ed.

Literary horror fiction reached the peak of its popularity in the 1970s and ’80s. The three books that opened the floodgates – Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), Tom Tryon’s The Other (1971), and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) – were massive bestsellers, proving to publishers that there was a large audience willing to shell out cash to be scared. Three years after the one-two Tryon-Blatty punch, a then-unknown American writer named Stephen King would publish his first novel, Carrie, which would be adapted into a successful film by Brian de Palma, and the storm would turn into a veritable tsunami.

The ’70s and ’80s were the decades in which literary horror came into its own. Brand names like King, Clive Barker, James Herbert, John Saul, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice began building huge followings among readers eager to scoop up whatever they put on paper, while a swath of other names – Charles L. Grant, Lisa Tuttle, Bari Wood, Dennis Etchison, Dan Simmons, Robert R. McCammon, Michael McDowell, J.M. Williamson, John Farris, et al. – remained lesser known but built a solid fan base among genre aficionados. Dedicated horror lines – Zebra, Leisure, Tor Horror, Abyss – cropped up to publish paperbacks that appeared at a furious pace, eventually over-saturating the market.

This, along with the rise of the ultra-graphic splatterpunk movement in the early 1990s, helped signal the end of the golden-age boom in horror publishing. Though the genre never went away. In the 21st century, specialty publishers like Cemetery Dance, Undertow Publications, and Subterranean Press continue to bring out horror and dark fantasy for a dedicated audience – smaller, but no less enthusiastic than the people who once clamoured for what Grady Hendrix termed “paperbacks from hell.”

But if literary horror fiction didn’t die with the dawn of the ’90s, neither was it born with Rosemary Woodhouse’s demonic spawn. Humans have enjoyed scary stories for as long as stories have been told: some of the earliest literature extant – from The Epic of Gligamesh to Beowulf – features monsters as central characters and fear as a pervasive subject. The British Library single-volume survey, Horror: A Literary History, doesn’t reach quite that far back; it locates the germ of contemporary horror fiction in the Gothic novels of the 18th century, beginning with Horace Walpole and – especially – Ann Radcliffe. Dale Townshend, in his essay “Gothic and the Cultural Sources of Horror, 1740–1820,” does reach back further, illustrating the influence of Shakespeare’s ghosts and terror tropes on Walpole’s writing in general, and his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto in particular.

The essays in this volume, elegantly and cogently edited by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Xavier Aldana Reyes, offer an overview of the genre for general readers and those wishing a thumbnail précis of the trajectory of horror fiction from roughly the 18th century to the present. The contributors to the book focus on British and American writing, since these are the two countries most responsible for the bulk of horror fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The term “horror” was not applied to Gothic or early American writing by figures like Poe and Hawthorne, who would otherwise be considered proto-horror scribes; it was largely a carry-over from the Universal horror films of the 1930s, which offered weary and distressed audiences an escape from the realities of the Great Depression and the rumblings of a resurgent Germany in Europe. And while Bernice M. Murphy locates the Universal horror cinema boom in the Depression, this anthology refrains from making the connections W. Scott Poole does in his indispensable Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror, which argues that the majority of tropes characterizing contemporary horror – from body horror to zombies – can be traced to the carnage of the First World War.

The resolute focus on English-language fiction does limit the scope of the book, ignoring as it does significant writers such as Kafka, Borges, and Gogol, while also completely eliding the undeniable influence of German expressionism on Western horror, both cinematic and print. Focusing on “post-millennial horror” in the globalized 21st century, Reyes can’t help but highlight some international authors writing in a language other than English. He singles out Sweden’s John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of the neo-vampire novel Let the Right One In, for extended consideration, but also acknowledges Japan’s Koji Suzuki, Denmark’s Stefan Brijs, and Russia’s Sergei Lukyanenko. Here, he runs afoul of what numerous essayists in the anthology rightly point out is a casual sexism that ignores or downplays women working in the horror genre; among the current crop of international writers Reyes does not mention are Mariko Koike and Asa Nonami, both from Japan, and Argentina’s Samanta Schweblin. Also missing are figures such as Mariana Enriquez (also from Argentina) and U.S. writer Carmen Maria Machado, though these authors published their first books after 2016, when Horror: A Literary History first appeared. (The trade paperback edition came out in 2020.)

One welcome aspect of literary horror the anthology does highlight is the importance of the short story to the genre’s development and persistence. In America, both Poe and Hawthorne were known for their short fiction, the former almost exclusively. Other writers whose short fiction contributed to the bedrock of the horror genre in the 19th and early 20th centuries include Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and – somewhat surprisingly – Louisa May Alcott. Once the pulps began proliferating in the late 19th century, they became home to writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont, the last three of whom would go on to write for television series such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery.

“Almost all of the major American horror writers of the 1940s and 1950s first established themselves as short story writers before turning to novel-length publications,” writes Murphy. “Indeed, up until the early 1970s, when ever more lengthy novels began to dominate the industry, the short story remained one of horror fiction’s main publication modes.” It still does. An argument could easily be made that Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ramsey Campbell have all produced more consistently strong work in the short form than in their novels, and contemporary writers such as Brian Evenson, Livia Llewellyn, Nathan Ballingrud, and Helen Marshall have made the short story their preferred genre.

If horror fiction no longer retains the iron grip on the literary market that it did in its heyday, that does not mean it is no longer influential. As Stefan Hantke writes in his essay, “The Rise of Popular Horror, 1971–2000,” “Horror would still be around, would linger and last – but as a clearly defined presence in the marketplace, it had vanished. And yet, in its commercial implosion, horror had passed on creative impulses to other genres. Detective fiction and police procedurals, for example, would never be the same again. Romance writers had tuned in to the enduring appeal of slightly darker, more brooding, more dangerous strangers. And here and there even mainstream fiction had tasted blood.”

Hantke’s assessment is preferable to Reyes’s, which ends the book, emphasizing the cultural importance of zombies at the midpoint of the millennium’s second decade. Although this trope, closely aligned to the ubiquitous post-apocalyptic narrative in both adult and YA fiction, does hold sway on the popular imagination, horror fans with a yen for “new weird” writing (influenced by people like Lovecraft and Robert Aickman), body horror, or even trashy exploitation still being written by the likes of Edward Lee and Wrath James White will not have difficulty satiating their particular tastes in the current market. (To be fair, Reyes acknowledges these various subgenres elsewhere in his essay.) The popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead notwithstanding, literary horror fiction, though past its (first?) golden age, remains much more heterodox than this narrow analysis would have one believe.

Scary stories: a single-volume anthology from the British Library provides a cogent and concise history of the literary horror genre