Horror Books: The Old Horror and the New Dark Fantasy

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Posted on July 29, 2022

In the world of horror fiction, these are strange, transitional — even spooky — times. Publishers Weekly, the industry trade magazine, reported recently that many bookstores are thinning out their horror sections, or jettisoning them entirely, prefering to integrate horror into general fiction.

Some think this is good news: shelving Koontz next to Kafka, and Rice next to Roth, means that horror is now, appropriately enough, a part of literature in general. Others think the shift simply reflects the waning interest in an often formulaic genre — and the fact that most shoppers are just looking for the new Stephen King novel anyway.++

Horror isn’t dead, but it is suffering from a case of what you might call genre creep. Before it became a full-fledged publishing niche in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, horror was simply a plot device — and it’s one today’s writers have become comfortable exploiting. Blood and gore flow more often, and more freely, in science fiction and crime novels than they ever have, and romance authors increasingly toss witches and vampires into their confections. Horror themes are increasingly common in so-called literary fiction, too; the latest edition of “The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror” includes stories by Dan Chaon and George Saunders. And it goes without saying that the horror themes in the Harry Potter novels, and in Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, have had an outsize impact on juvenile fiction.

Stories about haunted houses, undead creatures and everyday paranoia that takes strange and bloody turns persist, though they’re now more likely to arrive in stores billed as “dark fantasy,” “supernatural fiction” or some similar fudge-phrase. The five recent books described below were chosen in part because each deliberately — and grippingly — engages with a familiar horror trope: a ghost, a zombie invasion, a slow-growing madness. These books are very different, but they share an interest in family as the core of modern fear, whether the concern is saving a lost spouse or sibling, protecting a home from invasion or simply guiding a child safely into adulthood. Most of them will also, happily, scare the hell out of you.

In the four novellas collected in FEARS UNNAMED (Leisure, paper, $6.99), the British writer Tim Lebbon displays the sort of cool irony and uncanny mood-making that drive the best “Twilight Zone” stories. One of these novellas, “White,” is set in a bleak postapocalyptic landscape in which a team of environmental researchers is slowly surrounded by a marauding crew of mutant creatures. Lebbon has demented fun with this conceit, yet he also fuses it to more intimate concerns. The gory scenes are woven into the narrator’s memories of his wife, Jayne, who was lost to the chaos. The mutants’ ability to lure him toward his own death by mimicking Jayne’s voice and image adds another layer of cruelty to the proceedings.

Lebbon’s zombie story — its title, “Naming of Parts,” is lovely — is told from the perspective of a boy who is searching for his lost sister. The child’s perspective gives the prose a blunt power, as when the boy observes some zombie rats enjoying their prey: “They chewed slowly, but not thoughtfully because there could not have been a single thought in their little dead minds.” Lebbon’s prose can produce both smirks and shudders — in “Remnants,” an archeologist’s search to resurrect his dead son in the desert produces the punning line “the sun must have driven him mad.” His most fully realized story, “The Unfortunate,” explores a chilling devil’s bargain: a man rescued from a plane crash by a demon is promised a flourishing art career if only he’ll sacrifice his family, slowly. As he discovers that he’s not the only one in such a position, Lebbon’s story becomes less of a supernatural tale and one about more down-to-earth fear: that our failures and sufferings are observed as another’s sport