A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Evil

Horror Lit Finds Its Voice After 9-11

Jefferson was worried that 9-11 would prompt Leisure "to ax me from their release schedule." D'Auria didn't blink, though, and Wounds was released to critical acclaim. Jefferson says, "I should hope Wounds makes people think, and/or gives them the absolute willies. It's ugly, but so's civilization."

The small presses have also nursed a number of writers during horror's marketplace coma. Brian Keene is a blue-collar guy who lived and wrote in a trailer before discovering the small press. Now he's one of the leaders of "gangsta horror," which mixes supernatural elements with black comedy, protagonists with few hopes and low expectations, and a familiarity with the streets.

Keene explains, "Some anonymous idiot on a message board said we were nothing more than 'gangsta horror' and went on to equate us as horror's version of Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Ice-T. It was meant as an insult, but we took it as a compliment." Gangsta horror also matches gangsta rap's business model—homebrew publishing, cross-promotion, and grassroots marketing. Keene has a coveted mass-market deal, but has also signed to write for the tiny Delirium Books.

illustration: Jack Black

Keene's work, like his short story "A Darker Shade of Winter," has the usual messing around with magic and monsters, but it is as much about the sense of isolation that accompanies the long-dead economies of western New York as it is about blood and guts. "I think horror may speak louder to that social structure than an Oprah book," Keene says. "At its core, a good horror novel deals with everyday issues and events twisted horribly awry but still recognizable to the common man."

The everyday twisted horribly awry is, of course, the state of the nation post-9-11. The public is embracing writers who aren't afraid of the word horror. Keene nails the general vibe of the industry: "The next Stephen King is going to be the person who, with his or her horror fiction, can evoke fear of the magnitude we all felt on September 11."

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