A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Evil
"9-11 resembled cheap, lazy fiction," says horror author Neil Gaiman, whose slim volume Coraline is already being called the scariest novel of the year, "and because it did, it made it strange for writers to decide what is valid artistically."
Gaiman's domain is often looked down upon as hack work, but the attack on the World Trade Center and the subsequent social dislocation have dovetailed precisely with the field's new themes. After a spasm of doubt within the genre, which was just beginning to find new voices and readers at the close of a decade-long downturn, horror is back, freshly relevant and ready for a prime place on the shelves. On July 11, Gaiman will read from the macabre Coraline under the bright lights of New York's Union Square Barnes & Noble.
Too often, the category Gaiman sometimes calls home has itself been cheap and lazy, but it is also expansive, a genre named after its effect on readers rather than its content. Poe fits in alongside medical thrillers. Postmodern puzzle books with creepy elements like Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves make the cut, as do Dennis Cooper's bloody, transgressive sex fantasies. Vampire romances, crime fiction with high body counts, and Stephen King's post-Bag of Bones "mainstream" novels all inspire both fascination and fear, the central elements of the horror reader's experience. But missing in action for the past decade were horror novels proud to have the word Horror stamped on the spine.
Gaiman is among those poised to bring horror back. He first came to public attention in 1988 with his graphic novel series Sandman, which has over 10 million copies in print. Last year's American Gods, a road novel featuring ancient deities and their modern-day jobs, was nominated for the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards for horror, the Mythopoeic award for fantasy, the Hugo Award for science fiction, and the mainstream literary Minnesota Book Awards.
And now comes Coraline, the story of a young girl who peeks into the apartment next door and finds her other mother, one with black buttons for eyes and an appetite for souls. Coraline's real parents go missing, but the other mother offers her a life of magical toys and lots of quality family time, provided Coraline agrees to gouge out her eyes and replace them with buttons of her own. "I wrote it for my daughters," Gaiman explains, but it's adults who snapped up $10 tickets to Coraline's West Coast launch at the 800-seat First Congregational Church of Berkeley on July 2.
When he began the book a decade ago, Gaiman was told that Coraline would never see print. Since then children's books have gotten darker, thanks to the monster-filled kiddie thrills of the Goosebumps series, Harry Potter, and Philip Pullman, whose Whitbread Award-winning His Dark Materials trilogy features God as a villain.
Unable to get their horror fix, adult readers have been turning to these children's and young-adult books. While King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice have transcended genre with gargantuan sales and bestseller status, the midlist dropped out of horror after the 1980s boom. Well-respected writers like Richard Laymon, whose horror novels were bestsellers in the U.K., struggled to stay in print in the U.S.
Publishers "weren't so concerned with the quality as long as they could slap a skeleton on the cover and get it on the racks," says Leisure Books editor Don D'Auria. Leisure is an imprint of mass-market paperback publisher Dorchester, producer of just the kind of title that drove horror to such heights in the first place. "Whenever you flood a market with books that were only written to quickly fill slots, readers are going to start being disappointed," he says. After the deluge came the collapse. Most bookstores eliminated their horror sections after readers grew wary of black covers and lurid art.
D'Auria, trying to rebuild Leisure's horror list, sought the best authors from the 1980s as well as new writers inspired by the successes of the genre. The late Richard Laymon is finally available in the U.S., next to the usual bestselling suspects. Laymon's best work includes One Rainy Night, which explores the lynching of a black man by rednecks. After the murder, a black rain falls on the town and white skin privilege disappears as the violence spreads to whoever gets caught in the storm. Laymon's latest, Island, hit the USA Today bestseller list and stayed in the Barnes & Noble top 10 for three weeks.
Jemiah Jefferson probably would have been out of place in the '80s boom. She's a 30-year-old black woman in a field dominated by white men. A Reed College grad and indie rock fan, Jefferson owes as much to zines as she does to Anne Rice, and it shows in her vampire novels. Wounds moves beyond the AIDS hysteria of older vampire stories, making them a symbol for decadent capitalism. Her protagonist Daniel is a leftover from the Weimar Republic who finds the upper echelons of Manhattan's art world eerily similar to the trash culture that prefigured the Nazis. "There is something very vampire-like about the United States," Jefferson says. "Charming, attractive, downright sexy, but sucking all the life and resources out of the planet, and making most of the rest of the world want to do so too."
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 modelhomebrew publishing, cross-promotion, and grassroots marketing. Keene has a coveted mass-market deal, but has also signed to write for the tiny Delirium Books.
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.