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.