“There are fools out there who really do think that clothes make the man, and that labels define the literature. Most of them don’t read horror stories. Why should they? The term itself condemns the genre as surely as a cheap off-the-rack polyester suit condemns the man who wears it. Great literature should concern itself with life in all its infinite variety, with love and death and birth and hope and lust and transcendence, with all the experiences and emotions that make up the human condition. A sort of story by its very name proclaims its obsessive interest in only one emotion, that exists solely to evoke fear in its readers, well, that’s obviously second-rate stuff, hardly worthy of attention…”
George R.R. Martin (from the introduction to the 1989 horror compilation Night Visions 3, published by Dark Harvest)
Mirroring the simultaneous explosion of horror in film, the ‘70s and ‘80s were a boom time for horror writing. Small publishing houses such as Dark Harvest, Scream Press and others specialized in the genre, marketing books with the collector in mind. Often slip cased and utilizing archival quality paper and binding methods, the books featured fantastic cover art and illustrations, as well as limited signed editions.
Scream recognized Barker’s potential early on, getting the jump on the much larger Ace/Putnam, who would go on to publish their compilation of Books I-III in 1988 (shortly after Barker made his directorial debut with the now-classic film, Hellraiser.)
We love selling collectible horror. Horror fans, more than perhaps any other customer, are genuinely excited to collect. There are none of the cool analytical questions we might receive from a potential buyer, keen to put the book behind glass and quite possibly never touch it again. Instead, the communications are peppered with exclamation points and joyful emoticons.
Of course, the subject matter, the “obsessive interest in one emotion” which Martin refers to, can be perplexing to those who are immune (or perhaps uninitiated) to the appeal.
Why would anyone want to read something that chooses to focus on the unspeakable, the horrifying and the downright creepy?
With this in mind, it seemed fitting this Halloween season that I reach out to some of my favorite horror fans, the folks who can truly make the best case for this often disparaged genre.
Any conversation of the genre, for me, has to begin with The Bookman. Over the course of our time together, he more than anyone else, has informed my understanding of the nuanced relationship people can have with genre fiction, consistently advocating for the value of literature that has traditionally been filed away as “lowbrow.”
He describes his first encounter with horror in glowing, almost romantic terms:
“I fell in love with horror when I was fifteen years old. That was when I found Stephen King.
I had gone into my parents bedroom to get something, I don’t remember what. They weren’t home. Just me in the house….…There was sunshine coming through the southern windows that lit the room with summer light, making everything glow. And sitting there on this wonderfully sensual dresser amidst the glow of summer was this dark paperback with bold red letters, a kid’s handmade paper boat, and green claw reaching up through a grate in the street…”
The book was IT, King’s epic fantasy horror novel about a group of friends who do battle with a great evil, first as children and then later as adults, captured The Bookman's imagination, and has maintained its impact into his adult life as one of his favorite books.
“Part of the reason I like Stephen King,” he says, “is that many of his heroes have to figure out how to overcome obstacles while keeping a sense of integrity and honor.”
And for The Bookman, a large part of the appeal, as well, was precisely the same outsider status that has long marginalized horror:
“Horror very much became part of my teenage years. An exploration of things that were different. Of things that were hidden. Of things that were both bad and gloriously pleasurable. Horror feels the same to me as getting drunk and staying awake until dawn with my best friends. Drinking beer hard won by approaching “cool” looking grown ups in the grocery store parking lot. Buying my very first bag of weed from that hot girl with really long legs and extremely short shorts….Horror for me, is about all the great teenage things. About that moment in time where childhood and adulthood meet and hang out. Where the pain and joy of life walk hand in hand.”
Says Jeff, graphic designer and musician, “It’s a genre that you could always find something new and different in. To best describe it for myself, it’s like watching your favorite villain get their way, and for a reason, you smile because of it. People read/watch Horror to be scared, but you’re also there to watch the Villain do what they do best. It's whats most enjoyable for me.”
Echoing the sentiments of many of the people I talked to on the subject, Jeff first fell in love with horror via the medium of film:
“I remember my older sister watching A Nightmare On Elm Street on HBO when I was 5 or 6. I wasn’t allowed to watch it, but in those couple of minutes, I got to see Johnny Depp explode out of a bed and onto the ceiling. I was told to go to bed. I didn’t have nightmares, but I didn’t sleep just due to curiosity. I then began setting alarms and planning my nights according to the TV Guide. Some nights I would wake up, set the VCR to record a horror film, go back to bed then wake back up and take the videotape out so my Mom wouldn’t find out…”
Reflecting on the instantaneous appeal, he explains:
“I had a bit of a rough childhood and found solace in these films. They offered a getaway to a different world that was much worse than mine at the time. While kids were playing with He-Man, I wanted to be Freddy or Jason. You can't really hurt them, and if you do, they'll just come back stronger. I found that something to look up to, I guess. ”
This early fascination with film eventually led Jeff to explore horror in the written form, via H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe.
“I first fell in love with horror at 10 years old when I watched Alien and couldn't sleep in my own room for a week…” says Lisa, whose shop La Creeperie specializes in vintage paperbacks from the 60s,70s and 80s.
Describing the appeal of horror for her, she adds that: “I believe it gives us the most freedom to be creative. And, for me, it has always brought a cathartic element to my life.”
“FANTASTIC PLANET, SOYLENT GREEN, PHANTASM…weird shit that blew my mind cuz this cinema was WAY MORE INTENSE than life, ” says writer/director Jon Morigitsu , describing his early relationship with horror through film.
“And that was its allure…” he elaborates, “Horror rephrased and appropriated my feeling/situation/life... but threw all this shit into a dark miasma of extreme right/wrong and grotesque hyperbole. Horror allowed me to examine my own mundane situation through the radical lens of excitement and blood + guts.”
Chris, a writer who maintains the book focused instagram @mrwood1979, points out that “…the genre takes you into a world light years away from your own. Like most people I live a pretty safe and boring existence but with horror you're in the thick of some of the worst situations imaginable. Depending upon the book you're reading or the TV show or film you're watching you can be taken into a world of aliens, serial killers or supernatural entities hell bent on murder and destruction. Depending upon how involved you become in the story the threat posed to characters you become involved with can have real emotional impacts that other genres just don't offer.”
In talking to these people, it becomes clear that they all read horror because they want to, not because they feel they must. Horror, rarely granted “top shelf” status, is meant to entertain. The reasons for the reader’s (or viewer’s) enjoyment may vary, with the impact feeling so distinctly unique to each individual.
✮ HAPPY HALLOWEEN!! ✮