How Horror Fiction Has Fallen

So no bites on reading the stories I’ve posted lately, alright.  There could be a variety of reasons for that and not much point speculating and self doubting, but it did put me in mind of cultural shift that happened in my lifetime.  Horror fiction rose to become a giant market in the eighties, then collapsed so utterly there is no longer a horror section in most book stores.

I sometimes encounter this with people I know.  I say, hey, check out this thing over here.  And they say they aren’t into horror.  This makes me wonder what’s different, between now and the ’80s.  Because right now we really are living the cyberpunk dystopia the ’80s predicted, a world of trash and fire and capitalism ripping through everything left that’s good in the world, politics so removed from reality that every apocalyptic thing that happens is just so many data points in the botox’d heads.  Even nuclear holocausts are back on the table of possibilities.  This is the ’80s on speed.  Where’s the interest in horror?

The ascendance of horror back then is often attributed to the dark undertones of the plastic pop universe, but other causes are possible.  The relatively uncensored images of the Vietnam War stained a lot of minds, and our equivalent wars were heavily, heavily filtered.  Desert Storm is a video game and a theme song in a lot of minds.  You could find images of graphic violence from that time if you searched for them, but you would not see them on the evening news.  The military industrial complex learned its lesson, and the reward was a US public very willing to go to war after that point.

There may be other demographic and market factors.  Westerns and other manly genres had a big collapse, almost like men just stopped reading anything?  That’s certainly the case now.  The vast majority of readers are women.  By that theory, it’s like men stopped reading until horror briefly lured them back in, then they fell off again in the late nineties – right as video games became so dominant in boy culture.

One person in my household read horror in the ’80s, but does not now.  She gives a reason which is just counterfactual – that the books got more cruel or violent over time.  She read Stephen King when he was relatively new, and talks like his later work was more violent?  Dude was as skeevy and creepy as anything from day one.  I think this lady’s just one of the blithe readers that somehow didn’t process the pedo content in It.  So I interrogated her a bit more and it seems she just read less of it for a while and lost her tolerance for it.  But why?

Within my own life, I couldn’t handle certain extremes of horror movies for much of my young adulthood, until I rounded some kind of corner on it.  Then I was watching Hellraiser and Dawn of the Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and all that.  But another change came along.  Inspired by Takashi Miike, Eli Roth kicked up the transgressive factor in horror a lot, and I had to draw a line of my own.  I’m not that hardcore.  This mirrors my bf’s mom’s idea about what happened in her own life – “I didn’t change, the horror did” – but I think people can see the difference between The Grudge and The Human Centipede.  Amirite?

But horror literature is a whole other kettle of fish.  Unless your imagination is superb, you aren’t seeing things the way you do on film.  I could read much more violent content in books than I could handle on screen.  I can write horror worse than I’d ever want to see, and it doesn’t bother me.  It’s all entertainment, diversion, spooky fun times.  A spine tingler.

Why are so many people utterly uninterested in horror?  I had a kind of lousy friend who wouldn’t check out me or my bf’s stuff when it was just gothy, not actually involving any horror whatsoever.  Weenies.  Seems like 99% of all reading that happened 2000-2005 was the terf’s kiddie books, and the people who grew up on that never wanted anything substantially different from it.  Or maybe I’m just being a hater.  I don’t know.

This is mainly looking at fiction for adults.  There actually is a lot of horror content now – short fiction, tons of video games, especially in indie spaces – but booksellers don’t want to touch it.  And on a possibly unrelated note, I run into a lot of massive weenies.  Hi weenies.  I’m sure you’re lovely people and make the world a brighter place in your own ways.  Just wish I met more non-weenies sometimes.


  1. Katydid says

    There are prolific horror writers out there: Australia’s Darcy Coates and Britain’s Sarah Rayne being two of them, with many, many books to choose from. In the US, there were a ton of horror novels from the 1960s on through the 1990s and even today. Some of it is reworks of older works–for example, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, which was much better than the 1990s movie version with Liam Neeson but less true to the 1959 novel written by Shirley Jackson (she wrote a bunch of books and all are good reads).

    IMO, the 1980s (which I was a young adult for) were more about mindless slashers and sadism for sadism’s sake. Just gross-out horror. This continued into the 1990s and there’s a lot of it around today. I prefer more psychological horror. For example, a lot of the horror in the novel Hill House was wondering whether everything that was happening was in of Nell’s mind. A lot of the horror in Cloverfield 10 was the ambiguity of the man who saves the heroine from an alien attack–was there even an alien attack? The slow revelation of the situation turns up the horror.

  2. says

    If you had asked me, “I’m not into horror” is indeed what I would have said. Admittedly this is based primarily on visual media, where based on experience I haven’t liked a horror… ever actually. Okay, if I think back a decade or more, there were some horror films we saw during bad movie nights, although based on the context we would have interpreted them as camp rather than horror. The social context was required for this interpretation–I know there are a lot of horror movies that people see as camp, but if I were to sit down and watch them on my own I do not think I would see it that way.

    Literature, I suppose is different in that it can’t really hold the threat of jumpscares over you, and it’s something you (usually) read alone. But I don’t really know because I think the last horror novels I read were seriously like Goosebumps in grade school. I then remember a bunch of people saying that the kiddy horror stuff is hardly scary at all by adult standards, a notion that very much discouraged me from reading any more. I dunno, I make so little time to read novels these days, and have such poor luck even with genres that I supposedly like, the idea of reading a horror novel is several steps removed from the realm of possibility for me.

    It occurs to me that horror is a bit like spiciness in foods. Some people can’t stand it, some people love it, and some people can tolerate it but still just don’t like it. Also, tolerance for both horror and spiciness is inexplicably tied to masculinity in a way that probably doesn’t do any favors to either the lovers or haters.

  3. marner says

    I read SUPPLY CHAIN BANDITOS and it was well-written, had some great imagery and dark humor. Its short everyone and well-worth the time investment, but truthfully I never would have read it except that I feel kind of bad that no one has commented on it. You are a very good writer, but I don’t find myself reading short fiction much anymore.

    I used to read a lot of horror. This doesn’t mean I no longer enjoy it, there’s just so many new options to consume it. Katydid mentioned Hill House, but Squid Games, Lovecraft Country, Archive 81 and even Stranger Games have also been recent popular season long horror. There’s something to be said for having 8 episodes to tell a story.

    What I like best, though, are podcasts. Shows like NoSleep remind me (except NoSleep is much better) of listening sneakily to CBS Mystery Theater as a 9 year old when I was supposed to be sleeping.

  4. says

    1 – that was horrible indeed

    2 – i think they called that subset of 80s horror “splatterpunk.” i think the biggest boy in america at the time – king and koontz – were sometimes like that, but more often not. they were apiece with the horror TV shows and movies of the time like Tales From the Darkside and whatnot. creature features. jack ketchum had more transgressive cruelty on the regular, from what i’ve seen. all that said, i’m poorly read, so you may well know a lot better than me. i’m mostly lamenting i keep finding that people i know won’t even look at the word blood without jumping out the nearest window.

    3 – mst3k time babey. i recently had a chance to do that with the ’90s Haunting katydid mentioned, and that was a hoot.

    4 – i suppose if i wanted to reach le masses, i’d best look into audio &/or visual media. i’m OK where i am for the moment. and thanks so much for reading my story!

  5. moarscienceplz says

    “Unless your imagination is superb, you aren’t seeing things the way you do on film. I could read much more violent content in books than I could handle on screen.”
    Then maybe I have a much more vivid imagination than average because I almost always get more emotionally involved during reading than I do watching a film. I could not finish reading Misery because I identified so strongly with the writer character that I felt almost that it was my foot being chopped off with an axe, but when the Alien baby burst out of John Hurt’s belly I found it kind of funny, and the rest of the movie was pretty boring. Just some guy in a rubber costume chasing people up and down the same length of movie set corridor over and over.

  6. lochaber says

    Apologies, I haven’t been keeping up with things lately, work and related commute has been pretty thoroughly kicking my ass lately. I’m hoping to give the recent posts a proper read-through when I have some more time/energy.

    Aside from that, I’m not much of a humanities person/literature critic to really be in much of a position to offer much more than a random lay-person’s opinion (I feel like that’s a dated term, what’s replace it/is more current?).

    As far as fiction goes, I kinda feel like “horror” has been engulfed by the ever-expanding sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction category, and maybe also have a bit of derailment/hijacking by the urban fantasy genre – it used to be werewolves, vampires, etc., were just flat-out, no-discussion, evil enemy bad-guy types. But I think more recently (I want to say becoming more popular in the mid-late 90sish? with stuff like Buffy, Anne Rice, various Anime, Vertigo comics stuff (also Blade, Spawn, etc…), other things I’m forgetting), various authors/etc. popularized “humanizing” what was the previous “go-to-monsters”

    again, not an expert, or even a connoisseur, but I feel like at least with movies there have been some notable trends, with the 80’s being the sorta glory/defining period with horror movies, with multiple slasher franchises – Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc., the 90s being a bit of a transition period? maybe? or something…, the aughts being dominated by adaptations of east Asian films (the Ring, the Grudge) or torture porn (Hostel, SAW,etc.), and the teens/recently, having some pretty quality independent stuff – The Babadook, It Follows, Hereditary, Byzantium, The VVitch, Raw, The Ritual(don’t read the source material, it’s misogynistic as fuck, and then some…), Let the Right One In (aughts, but it’s good (IMHO)) BirdBox, A Quiet Place Midsommar, numerous other stuff that doesn’t immediately come to mind, but I’ll probably be kicking myself in the shower tomorrow morning when I realize what I’ve omitted…

    For graphic novels, I really liked Gail Simone’s “Clean Room” and Grant Morrison’s “Nameless”, and both had a lovecraftian/cosmic horror element.

    For novels, I think the Cherie Priest’s “The Family Plot” is probably the closest I’ve come to a written jump scare, and her other stuff is pretty great. I think Lauren Beuke’s recent stuff has been tilting more steadily into some sort of sci-fi-horror territory, with “The Shining Girls” and “Broken Monsters” (and I just realized she has some more recent titles out, that I’ll have to put on my request list from the public library…).
    And I feel that Charles Stross’s “The Laundry Files” has been tilting from sci-fi/urban fantasy into more urban fantasy/horror.

    I’m sure I’m going to be kicking myself in a few hours or so when I wake up and realize some of the stuff I’ve omitted, apologies in advance…

  7. Cutty Snark says

    OK, sorry for not posting on the threads. I did actually read “Locusts”, and intended to comment, but [gestures vaguely at the surrounding hellscape], life got in the way…

    Partly I think because I don’t really have anything much to say – it was enjoyable and interesting, I thought it was well written, the (almost discordant?) style suited the topic, and the premise was intriguing enough to keep me reading. The mental image conjured by hordes of ravenous-yet-still-polite people (“excuse, me, so sorry, thank you” they murmur as they devour everything including their own dead) was both amusing and creepy (I got almost Junji Ito-esque vibes, and was able to picture the transition from besuited “respectable” to naked voracity while still somehow aware as several panels – so I almost feel this would work equally well in that sort of visual style).

    If I put on my “GCSE in English baffleglab” hat, I could probably draw parallels to not only the inevitable post-disaster capitalism of our consumerist society (which was less subtext and more actual text), but also to topics such as addiction, media manipulation, hubristic overestimation of our ability to control our environment, and anthropogenic climate change. But I suspect that would be less “death of the author” and more “kidnapping the author and planning to wear their skin”, so I’ll leave my shallow analysis to one side (much, I’m sure, to everyone’s relief).

    All in all, in the unlikely event that my uneducated plebian opinion is of any interest, it seemed pretty good – sufficiently good I would re-read it again in the future.

    I did try Supply Chain Banditos too, but I’m afraid I didn’t get on with it so well – not that it was less good than Locusts, but rather it didn’t resonate so well with me. I think this is because (and I do want to emphasise this is purely the personal and subjective – not a comment on your writing but rather my reading) the style didn’t grab me so well. I understand the 1st person narration (almost stream of conscious-style? not sure the correct terminology here, I’m afraid) is well suited to the story, but I’m afraid I’ve never been able to get on with it – again, not you, but rather any time I’ve encountered it. So, in summary….it seemed OK, but I really wouldn’t take much stock of what I have to say on this simply because of my personal bias here.

    I haven’t yet read your suggested alternative by Joseph Kelly yet, but I am planning to when [gestures at the whole UK-is-on-fire-while-moronic-and-evil-politicians-cheer-on-the-destruction-of-what-little-public-service-we-still-have-remaining-thing] I have time.

    So, sorry this probably isn’t a particularly useful or interesting comment, but hopefully you can at least add it to the “people did actually read this” pile.

  8. says

    moar – that’s wild, bud. can’t say janis joplin barfing up maggots in a stephen king short story hit the way the “damn fine custard” in dead alive did, for me. interesting to see the inverse in someone.

    loch – all evidence i overstated my thesis, lol.

    cutty – thanks very much for reading and reviewing! i’ll be interested to see what you think of Sapsucker. it definitely hits very differently from my stuff.

  9. lanir says

    I’m not that into horror. I read some in the timeframe you’re thinking of but I read a lot of stuff. The psychological horror could be interesting. Still can be on occasion. But the 80’s were all about Stephen King, Freddie Kreuger and Jason from what I could tell.

    King was sometimes interesting, the rest were not. And unfortunately I started to see a pattern with King. His shorter works were pretty solid but sometimes he’d write this epic of normality for several hundred pages for the setup before he tore it all apart at the end. That “normal people, normal problems” bit for several hundred pages alternated between cringe-inducing and boring for me. I just didn’t care about any of his characters so when they began tearing into each other I was just disgusted. I got over King after about the second time I saw that sort of mess.

    Later on, some films caused me to realize I was still into psychodramas (Fallen, and Dark Water, maybe others I’m forgetting). But I’m pretty picky. I think that’s the problem, really. I’m fine with darker elements in other stories but if you tell me it’s horror I lose interest. All the pointlessly gory nonsense films have done their job. The gore is still a bit shocking but I know what it’s about and how it’s done. They’re mostly very cheap storytelling tricks. Once you learn that a lot of it feels like a waste of time so it’s easier to just avoid the whole genre rather than waste hours trying to sift through trashy bad fiction to find the gems.

    And just to be perfectly clear, none of this has much of anything to do with any stories posted here. I had the same thoughts about horror long before I found this website.

  10. Cutty Snark says

    GAS – thank you for your contributions, and for highlighting the collection in the first place! I plan to read through the collection and I suspect that regardless of whether or not I find the stories my cup of tea, they will likely be interesting and thoughtful which is (at least to me) the important bit.

    I’m afraid I haven’t had time to organise my thoughts regarding Sapsucker (as much as I can ever be said to have organised my thoughts!), but hopefully the following notes are…interesting?, if not useful.

    On to Sapsucker:

    The heavy use of imagery is striking, and perhaps (at least to me) a little overpowering. It conveys sensation and emotion, certainly, but does so to a degree which seems almost deliberately oppressively overwhelming – I feel almost battered by the prose, but in a good way. Had to read in parts though.

    Compulsion seems to be a reoccurring theme in these stories – in this case compulsion to create (to produce?) art and compulsion to consume (an ouroboros?) what seems to be a source of inspiration. Muses can be dangerous, perhaps, and I feel there is almost an element of “Greek tragedy” to the way the protagonist’s character is driving them. Despite the almost dreamlike elements, the compulsions are more explicit than I thought they might be (birds, deer, bees, etc. seem to show compulsion despite danger – I wonder what desires they are finding fulfilled).

    I wonder if the title is a play on words. Sapsucker in the obvious, literal sense – but also recall sap and sucker are colloquialisms for someone being fooled? Perhaps reading too much into this?

    This one I found quite in tune with my sensibilities. Good (if a little heavy) to read, but also a few minor things which didn’t quite jibe with me (again, this is particular to my sensibilities, not a comment on the writing). Tropey though it may be, I think I would have also quite liked it if the effects of the sap and the existence of the “sap creature” were far more ambiguous than it appeared to be. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice (after all, such ambiguity has been done repeatedly before), and the surrounding narrative was more important – stories about the journey and not destination. Again, just personal taste, but I think I would have quite liked it if it wasn’t clear that the protagonist was even consuming sap at all or whether it was all in their mind (e.g. handprints could be feasibly from him, or not), and if there was some ambiguity over who/what Kyle was talking to in the final paragraph. Not a complaint – merely a subversion of expectation (which, in itself, might be considered a sign of good writing!).

    To be clear, I think the writing and the premise were both very strong and carried me through. Certainly I will be reading more of the collection, and I think I will read with interest any more you or Joseph Kelly might write.

  11. says

    lanir – there you go

    cutty – hell yeah! i won’t be too sad if you don’t get around to reviewing the rest of the collection or even reading it, because i greatly appreciate what you’ve done so far. thanks for the thoughts!

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