The End of the Horror Novel?

Reading & Writing

Back in the seventies, one of the biggest categories on bookshop shelves was horror. Novels from Stephen King, Michael McDowell, Thomas Tryon, Jeffrey Konvitz, James Herbert and many others proliferated. My favourites included the brilliant sextet of McDowell’s mysterious Deep South ‘Blackwater’ novels, ‘Harvest Home’ by Tryon and Konvitz’s ingenious sequel to his ‘The Sentinel’ (ruined as a film by the ham-fisted Michael Winner).

But what happened to the horror novel? They have now almost completely vanished.And it’s the reason why my new ‘Hell Train’ novel has a distancing framing device; horror novels can no longer be properly ‘horrific’ because horror films outpaced them in terms of visceral scenes – the only way to recapture the flavour is to make them nostalgic or aim them younger, so I opted to write in the style of John Burke, who created all the Hammer novelisations.

Of course, horror novels were rarely very horrific. Most, like ‘The Shining’, created a dark atmosphere and developed a supernatural tale within it (I’ve never understood why ‘The Shining’ needed a secondary plot of the boy being supernaturally gifted in a haunted hotel, when the story would have worked perfectly without it). ‘Blackwater’ has a series of deaths centred around family with a strange connection to water, while Tryon was especially good at creating disturbances in pleasant midwestern towns.

In truth, we don’t need the distinction of ‘horror’ in novels now. Tales with a supernatural edge can quite easily be incorporated into mainstream fiction. I’ve always felt that slapping labels on books was a bad idea – there was a trend for subdividing bookshops into hundreds of specialist shelves for a while, which probably contributed to the collapse of Borders. However, the old covers were charming, and I’ll continue to collect the paperbacks from the period.

3 comments on “The End of the Horror Novel?”

  1. Paul says:

    When my wife and I aren’t devouring Christopher’s own books we are equally hooked on those of Phil Rickman, particularly his series involving a diocesan exorcist Merrily Watkins. Not horror in the usual sense of the term but very believable novels involving possession, apparent hauntings and what have you in darkest rural Herefordshire.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more.
    I have always felt the shelving of fiction by genre, sub-genre?, was a disservice to authors and their novels/short story collections and turned more buyers away than it drew in. In fact, a tight focus on shelving designations, such as ‘horror’, ‘hard boiled’, ‘romance’, ‘thriller’, etc. leads eventually to dull ‘pot-bound’ work. (When a plant’s too long in a particular size pot, its roots grow round and round, and its roots are eventually unable to grow and spread; the plant is no longer healthy, ceases to grow, becomes weak, withers, and dies away. Not unlike much of today’s pumped-up pop culture.)
    I like novels and stories that have good pace, a sense of place, interesting details (details that are supportive of the story, not chucked in for the sake of having details – five pages on the vending machines in NASA headquarters, yuck), and have a story that draws you in. That happened for me with the Blackwater series which you write you also liked: six paperback novels with water-related titles, from The Flood to Rain, that appeared monthly in the spring of 1983(?). Once I’d started the first, I couldn’t wait until the next was released and, of course, the publisher provided a brief preview of the new book and exactly what day of the coming month it would be available. Another hook-you-in and keep you reading was Dan Simmons Song of Kali, but at the end I was rather let down. Clive Barnes’ six Books of Blood had many great stories and many had grim endings, all were quirky.
    In 1931 Dashiell Hammett (with help I’m sure, at least with the drinks) selected 20 tales for a wonderful book called Creeps By Night (John Day). Every tale was enjoyable reading. In the introduction, Hammett wrote about the then-called ‘weird tale’: “Brutality, often an excellent accompaniment and a means to an end, is never more than that in this field, and some of the finest effects have been secured with the daintest touches.” (a la M.R.James?) Then he quotes from a pre-1930’s story by Thomas Baily Aldrich: “A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living being is dead. The doorbell rings.”
    Now that sounds a bit like something your facinating Bryant might say to May, through low hanging strands of fetid pipe smoke: “She was alone in that wet house, May. She had very reason to know by then that she was alone, quite alone in the whole of the project, every other living being in the building’s 12-stories either dead of the fumes from the hidden river running under the basement, or warned out of the place by the Metro boys.” Puff, puff. Bryant handed down a bit of red herring and triangle of curry pocket to the office cat, who was grinning while rubbing against the pot plant. “You must realize the woman had to had heard the window above the kitchen sink slide open.” May snorted, before saying: “Oh good heavens, Arthur, what can possibly make you think that? She was hard of hearing and lived on the 8th floor; eight floors up and four floors down.” Bryant opened the last extant copy of Odd Happenings, which he’d borrowed on a decade ago from the Queen’s own library, and hadn’t yet got around to returning. “Indeed, but you’ve apparently forgotten there was that nasty trail of little footprints over the kitchen counter, down the cabinet to the tile, then out of the kitchen and across the carpet, and finally into the poor dear’s bedroom.” “No, Arthur, I have not forgotten. There were little foot prints ac ross her silk nightgown, too, as I well remember.(Fullest apologies extended here for my attempt at Solar Pons-ing your great series.)
    Chris, a new year is coming. I hope A Memory of Blood is only the first of a sextet of B & M adventures with a glorious five still to go; at least. Write faster, write faster.

  3. Wayne says:

    Hell Train should be here within the next two days, it was dispatched from Amazon over the Christmas period. I have to say I am not too happy though the original pre-order at £3.99 was Deleted by Amazon and I had to re pre-order and the price increased to £5.45. For me on a fixed income it all adds up. Enough of that though, I agree with you Chris.
    I would like to thank you in advance too for giving us some new frightners to read. Also Red Gloves was a cracking read, even if it did leave me a bit uneasy sometimes.

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