Essay: The Historical Significance of the Horror Novels of 2020

cover of The End of October2020 was a rough year for the world. A pandemic, lockdowns, police violence, and the protests in response. A year of division and societal cracks highlighted by an election that ended with a coup attempt and supporters chanting to hang the Vice President from their own party. Regardless of your social or political leanings, most people will not remember 2020 fondly.

The entertainment industry was not immune, reeling with theaters unable to open after tentpole horror movies like Last Night in Soho and Halloween Kills were put on the shelves. Thankfully for fans of horror, one corner of the genre thrived.

It was a banner year for the horror novel for both traditional publishers and independents. The list of novels that came out in the year are impressive for their diversity in story as well as in the creators behind the text. I don’t intend to present a complete list, but will look at ways that these releases commented on the unusual times that they were released. I believe decades from now these novels will be read and taught for how they comment on the times they were released in. The connections were mostly unintentional, but several of the major horror novels released in 2020 had uncanny connections to real-life events.

Pandemic Novels in a Pandemic

The production time for most books is at least a year from the time the authors turn them in. The editing and marketing of these major releases are planned for some time. In the case of most of these novels the ideas were gestating for years.

While it is from 2019, Sarah Pinsker’s Song for a New Day[i] was a novel about pandemics and social distancing that had all genre readers praising her powers of prediction and joking that she needed to write a happier follow-up.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned playwright, screenwriter and novelist Lawrence Wright had been thinking, researching, and planning a pandemic novel for a decade before it was released in May 2020. He believed the crisis would come someday, much like Rachel Carson warning of the effects of pesticides in her book Silent Spring, Wright assumed he would be warning about the need to prepare for an outbreak.  The crushing reality of COVID-19 would beat the book by a month. With the release of his novel The End of October,[ii] Wright went from an author unleashing a warning to watching it come to life on cable news.

Wright was a unique person to write this novel; his training as a journalist led him to write the book The Looming Tower, an exhaustive history of the root causes of the 9/11 attacks. This gave Wright the experience and contacts in government to spend years researching a pandemic. The End of October was not marketed as horror, and I am sure many will not see it that way, but perhaps it is one the spookiest novels of 2020 for how much it got right.

What leadership? Tildy thought. The president had been almost entirely absent in the debate about how to deal with the contagion, except to blame the opposing party for ignoring public health needs before he took office.

An interesting aspect of reading The End of October is seeing what Wright got correct and incorrect. Better yet, just lose yourself in this novel and let it show you how much worse it could be.

Paul Tremblay was just as surprised as anyone to be releasing a novel about a pandemic in an actual unfolding pandemic. I interviewed him in the early days of the lockdown for my podcast and he had the uncomfortable position of promoting his novel in this environment.

Although epic, multi-character pandemic novels such as Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers and M.R. Carey’s The Girls with All the Gifts have been done many times and to great effect, the real strength of Tremblay’s Survivor Song[iii] is its tight focus on two characters: Natalie and Doctor Ramola Sherman.

Tremblay explores how the women support and love each other through the first terrifying moments of the outbreak. The novel itself is a pressure cooker that starts with the very pregnant Natalie getting infected, and it becomes a race against the infection to save the child, and at the same time handle the growing crisis. In the final act Tremblay subtly tackles the partisan outrage that develops in these situations. The roving gangs in the novel looked pretty similar to the groups who ended being charged in kidnapping cases against the governor of Michigan over mask mandates and stay at home orders.

While Tremblay doesn’t have the journalism background of Laurence Wright, Survivor Song foresaw with similar accuracy much of what happened.

In the coming days, conditions will continue to deteriorate. Emergency services and other public safety nets will be stretched to their breaking points, exacerbated by the wily antagonists of fear, panic, misinformation; a myopic, sluggish federal bureaucracy further hamstrung by a president unwilling and woefully unequipped to make the rational, science-based decisions necessary; and exacerbated, of course, by plain old individual everyday evil.

cover of The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel KrausSurvivor Song was not the only major release of a zombie novel in 2020. Daniel Kraus, co-writer of the Best Picture-winning film The Shape of Water, finished the ultimate zombie saga with George Romero’s The Living Dead[iv].  Romero’s films have always spoken to the times, as far back as the racially charged ending of Night of the Living Dead in 1968. In the 1970s, Romero moved the story to a shopping mall in one of the most on-the-nose commentaries seen on the growing suburbanization of consumerism. Romero tried to remind us over and over that we are them, that the line is paper-thin between the hungry consumers mindlessly ending the world slowly and the zombies. This became clearer as we were reduced to hoarding and fighting over the last of the toilet paper supplies and watching the daily infections and death tolls rise. The novel the Living Dead is subtle through most of its epic length, but speaks to 2020 in the closing pages.

People, zombies – we’re all dying.” He said gently. “Here’s what we need to accept. We’re smart zombies as much as they are dumb humans. Any second now, those two lines are going to converge, and us and them will be exactly the same. Body and soul back together. I can feel it.

Another release in 2020 that I felt unintentionally commented on the pandemic was Josh Malerman’s Malorie[v], the sequel to his blockbuster hit novel Bird Box. Yes, it is a more fantastical novel about monsters who drive you crazy if you see them, but in the novel, people protect themselves by wearing blindfolds. The story hit the mainstream in 2018 when the Netflix film starring Sandra Bullock went viral. Memes cropped up of fans taking the ‘Bird Box challenge’ doing ridiculous things blindfolded. The level to which Bird Box entered the mainstream conversation can’t be overstated.

Writing the sequel Malorie was a big swing for Malerman, whose debut novel was good enough to deserve the hyperbolic response. Bird Box was a scary book that played with paranoia so effectively in the first act the film couldn’t replicate it. For the first 75 pages it is impossible to know if the monsters are real or Malorie is crazy. As viewers of the film, we saw the monsters and their effect, but the novel made us ponder reality itself and perfectly laid the groundwork for Malorie’s undying NEED for the blindfold. Plenty of humor came from the memes, but in the story it was a thin piece of cloth over her eyes that kept her alive. Malerman had no idea that he had narratively stepped into something that we discussed at length in my September 2020 podcast interview: “Of course I didn’t see any of this coming, but I am proud that she {Malorie} landed on this side of the debate.”[vi]

Society in Malorie is learning to live with the blindfolds, yet Malorie is so dependent on it that many of the novel’s most powerful moments come when she struggles to take it off — even in private, behind closed doors. In a year when angry soccer moms were having meltdowns in Trader Joes and school board meetings were turning into battlegrounds over wearing masks, it was uncanny. We are not the only ones to see the connection — in May 2020, before the release of Malorie, McSweeny’s published an article by Joanna Castle Miller titled “The Mom from Bird Box Has Some Thoughts About This Pandemic.”[vii]

In one powerful moment, Malorie meets a man whose son died. The man is convinced that he died because the mask let in a tiny sliver of sight. It is Malorie’s worst fear. It makes it even more painful when Malorie’s child Tom, who has only known a world with blindfolds, rebels.  He desperately wants to know if there is a better way to handle the crisis than a blindfold.

Despite the behavior by some that she considered unfathomably dangerous only fourteen days ago, she also gets it. People in the new world fall into two categories: safe and unsafe. But who’s to say which lives the better, fuller life?

It is also true that the inciting incident of the novel speaks to the era moving beyond 2020. At the end of the first novel, Malorie thought she found sanctuary at a school for the blind. This would make the community immune to the insanity-inducing monsters. For a time, she raises her children around the blind and blindfolded, but the peace is broken when a blind woman goes mad like the others. Was it touch? Sound? One cannot help but think about the various COVID-19 variants when thinking about this.

Malorie is a fantastic sequel that speaks to the times in unintended ways that went over the heads of many readers who just thought it was a fun monster sequel.

While COVID-19 dominated many of the headlines, any connection to the horror novels or 2020 were accidental. Another of the major issues facing society was one the horror genre intended to address directly.

 Race, Climate and Social Justice Issues

The whole world witnessed an act of horror on camera on May 25, 2020, with the vicious murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Horror as a genre was in a unique position to explore this turning point in history.

Jordan Peele has been producing socially relevant genre fiction since the break-out success of Get Out in 2017. HBO was airing Lovecraft Country during this time. That novel is one of two books released on the same day in 2016 (the other being The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle) that used horror to confront H.P. Lovecraft’s well-documented racist legacy. Confronting the horrors of racism in the horror film has a long tradition. Director Roger Corman did it in the underrated 1962 film The Intruder starring William Shatner, shot from a script by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont. That film is significant because was released a year before MLK’s I Have a Dream speech.

cover for Ring Shout by P. Djeli ClarkIt should be no surprise that one of the major award-winning horror novels released in 2020 deals directly with the legacy of racism and slavery. Ring Shout[viii] hit the streets at the same time as most major cities were in turmoil with protests demanding justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. History repeats itself and no one knows that better than an actual historian. P. Djéli Clark is the pen-name for historian Dexter Gabriel.

…Right up to the incidents on January 6th at the Capital. This is like if Ring Shout had a Syllabus all of this stuff that seems so related. There is a focus on the power of white supremacy and people are remembering and recounting all these historical incidents like the overthrow of the government in Wilmington. It is interesting how these histories are converging at this moment. [ix]

Ring Shout is a dark fantasy that is not only in conversation with history, but confronting it. This novel is a cutting piece of commentary that was published a century after the events that inspired it…and sadly doesn’t feel distant enough. The novel deals with the aftermath of the 1915 release of the racist film The Birth of a Nation. Maryse Boudreaux leads a group of resistance fighters who use swords, bombs, and guns to fight back against the evil in white hoods.

This novel explores the trope of the monster hunter and puts it squarely into the battle against racism and the white supremacy. In our history as a species very real-life monsters have often inspired mythological creatures. To the people of color in the south, the ghosts and demons hiding behind white cloaks were very real.

They come one night, while we were sleeping. Men, wearing white sheets and hoods. Daddy open the door holding his shotgun, and they start quarreling. My Brother, he say they look like ghosts. But I can see proper. They ain’t men, they are monsters.

The Klan were real monsters that roamed America; they were very human and they haunt our history. Worst of all, they refuse to die and are transforming for the modern age. Ring Shout is more than a dark fantasy horror novel — it is an important lesson in the roots of the very rotten system that for years turned a blind eye to systemic violence. A theme that runs through the novel is the thin line between demon and human. It also manages to explore the mythology of the Klan, the racism of Lovecraft and the effect he had on the genre. Most importantly Ring Shout does this while telling an effective story.

Ring Shout wasn’t the only fantasy book released in 2020 to confront the Lovecraft legacy While marketed as Urban Fantasy and written by the only author to win the Hugo three times in a row, N.K. Jemison’s The City We Became[x] confronted Lovecraft as well. The novel is about the neighborhoods of New York coming to life to stop an evil threat that is purely based on Lovecraft’s mythos. The connection to the mythos is actually stronger than the novel that bears his name in Lovecraft Country.

Lovecraft was right, Aislyn. There’s something different about cities, and about the people in cities. Individually, your kind are nothing. Microbes. Algae. But never forget algae once wiped out nearly all life on this planet.

It would be easy to overlook the social issues in Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Wonderland Award-winning techno-body horror novel The Loop[xi], but the main character is a Latino immigrant living in a very small, very white town. It is subtle, but more than once the novel addresses the dehumanization of the border debate and ties it nicely to roots of the techno-horror story and the general horror and isolation of growing up different in a small community.

All of that requires that they do what you’re talking about: destroying our empathy and reducing our faith in reason. Those guys on the border laughed when they let you through because you’re not even human to them. You’re a unit of something else. They rename you ‘test subject’ or ‘enemy,’ or they assign you a race or a nation or a class—and then they don’t have to think about you anymore.

Much like the classic film The Breakfast Club, Johnson uses The Loop to tell a coming-of-age story that addresses the classism that gets weaponized in the hands of high schoolers. Small towns and class are also important themes in Sam J. Miller’s The Blade Between[xii], a very special book in the tradition of the small-town ghost novel. Drawing on the special and unique home town of his youth, Miller’s ghosts are not people of the past but the whales on which his upstate New York hometown built their economy. The novel is at its best when it is personal and heartfelt. Like the best small-town horror novels, the clash between the old world of the dead and the new of the living drives much of the narrative. The horrors of the big city hipster invasion looking to make the town hip balanced with ghosts both positive and negative are the beating heart of this story. That novel also hits on one of the most powerful things connecting the horror novels of 2020…

Diverse Voices and Post-Colonial Horror

As long as I can remember, gay voices have been a part of the horror community, Clive Barker being the most famous. Barker’s first short story collection featured a gay couple “In the Hills, the Cities.” Still, in the ‘90s he had to fight to feature a gay lead in his novel Sacrament.

cover of The Blade BetweenMiller’s The Blade Between features suspense beats and plot points that hinge directly on the function of gay dating apps.

This provides the biggest scare in a novel concerned with issues like eviction and housing, corporate invasions, historical racism, LGBT+ discrimination, and class warfare. One of the issues it brings up is how modern technology and social media is used and sometimes weaponized in the queer community. Also, the idea of Grindr online fantasies becoming solid and real threats provides one of the best horror suspense beats of 2020 with a modern update of “the call is coming from inside the house.”

While it is a great time for LGBTQ+ horror fiction, the novel that really got my attention comes from newcomer Hailey Piper. The Worm and His Kings[xiii] is simply one of the most exciting works of cosmic horror I have read in years. The story is about Monique, who is homeless on the streets of New York City. One of the few places of shelter she and her partner Donna have is a tunnel they call the freedom tunnel. Despite the diversity of characters that are far too uncommon as typical protagonists, the LBGTQ+ and homeless main characters are very well written and refreshingly relatable for all readers.

Monique is a transgender character. Monique’s experiences in the book as someone with gender dysphoria and as a homeless person leads to some heartbreaking moments. Those emotional beats are balanced with moments of vast cosmic horror. No moment expresses this better than this one:

And here, in the darkest place, Monique found monsters. Maybe if her parents knew how far she’d fallen, they would at last regret having bashed their only child. Unlikely. That was her imagination preying on her thoughts with something more painful than monsters in the dark-The illusion that her parents could accept her.

Hailey Piper is a bold new voice in the genre. Thankfully, the diversity of voices is becoming more of the norm in horror.

Two of the most awarded and top-selling horror novels of 2020 are political novels, but they are subtle and almost as important for their unique voices. Mexican Gothic[xiv] by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a breakthrough book by an author that is no surprise to those in the horror community who have been reading her work for years. In this novel she plays with well-known gothic tropes and even a classic of feminist literature. With a period Mexican setting, well developed characters, and a subtle political theme, this novel is the product of a singular voice. This is a spooky, atmospheric gothic that goes to strange places in the third act. In the final act it touches on race, colonialism, and eugenics, with a surprising turn into body horror.

Mexican Gothic won the Goodreads Reader’s Choice Award, but it was rightly nominated for everything: World Fantasy, Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson. Some years the categories are stronger than ever, and in 2020 there was one novel that stood above all for most horror readers.  It also broke out of the genre ghetto and won The Mark Twain House & Museum’s American Voice in Literature award. That book of course is Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians.[xv]

cover of The Only Good IndiansJones has written about the Indigenous American experience before, but, coming off the genius werewolf novel Mongrels, this novel was something different. There is a classic trope in horror: the angry Native American spirit. The Only Good Indians is at its heart a reversal. Even if you understand what is coming you are helplessly watching it unravel. This novel shares many elements with Stephen King’s classic Pet Sematary.

The novel has different styles and points of view in each of its distinct acts. The characters at times are strange and frustrating; other times, amusing. Jones uses several different styles and methods of storytelling throughout. The book has a cast of characters that internalize colonialism and the effects of racism in subtle day-to-day moments. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines of dialogue, and experimental methods of using speech tags and internal monologues done in imaginary self-depreciating newspaper headlines. Some of these effective moments occur when one of the main characters, Louis, is at work at the post office, or come in the details of the sweat lodge that has music piped through the siren speaker on a police car.

Jones was inspired to write the novel when, having moved to Colorado, he walked around his neighborhood trying to give away the elk meat he had in his freezer.

I was feeling so guilty, I don’t know if they are going to eat that elk meat. I don’t know if my promise is now broken to that elk. I have been carrying around that guilt for ten years.[xvi]

The story takes the idea of a spirit of vengeance and turns it on its. Few horror writers understand the cycle of violence that is life in colonized America better than Stephen Graham Jones. The Only Good Indians earns its spot as the horror novel of 2020, not just in award recognition but in resonance. It is connecting with readers still.

It is a common opinion among horror fiction fans to consider the short story or novella as the best format for tales of the macabre, but 2020 was a powerful year for the horror novel. I believe the horror novels released in this year will be remembered the way science fiction films are connected to 1982. It wasn’t just the quality of the novels released in this year, it was the deep meaning and connection the social issues that made the year 2020 so different. It will be interesting to see how historians of the genre teach the horror novels of 2020. The conversation has already begun.

Full Interview Links

I interviewed many of the authors featured in this article for my podcast Postcards from a Dying World. Below are links to those interviews. Every author was contacted, if possible, I interviewed everyone I could line up schedules with.

Paul Tremblay

Josh Malerman

Stephen Graham Jones

Jeremy Robert Johnson

Daniel Kraus

P.Djeli Clark

Sam J. Miller

Hailey Piper

David Agranoff is a novelist, screenwriter and a horror and science fiction critic. He is the Splatterpunk and Wonderland book award nominated author of eight books including the novels Ring of Fire, Punk Rock Ghost Story and Goddamn Killing Machines which he describes as The Dirty Dozen meets PKD. His non-fiction articles have appeared on and NexoText. As a critic he has written more than 1,100 book reviews on his blog Postcards from a Dying World which has recently become a podcast, featuring interviews with award-winning and bestselling authors such Stephen Graham Jones, Paul Tremblay, Alma Katsu and Josh Malerman. For the last three years David has co-hosted the Dickheads podcast, a deep-dive into the work of Philip K. Dick reviewing his novels in publication order as well as the history of science fiction. His novels are available on Amazon or

[i]  Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker, Berkley 2019

[ii] The End of October by Lawrence Wright, Published April 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf

[iii] Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay Published July 2020 by William Morrow

[iv] The Living Dead by George A. Romero, Daniel Kraus Published August 2020 by Tor Books

[v] Malorie by Josh Malerman Published July 2020 by Del Rey

[vi] Interview with Josh Malerman – Postcards from a Dying World Episode 14

[vii] The Mom from Bird Box Has Some Thoughts About This Pandemic by Joanna Castle Miller May 14th 2020

[viii] Ring Shout by P. Djéli Clark October 2020 by St Martin’s Press

[ix] Interview with P. Djéli Clark – Postcards from a Dying World Episode 34

[x] The City We Became by N.K. Jemison March 2020 by Orbit

[xi] The Loop by Jeremy Robert Johnson September 2020 by Gallery / Saga Press

[xii] The Blade Between by Sam J. Miller December 2020 by Ecco

[xiii] The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper November 2020 by Off Limits Press

[xiv] Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia June  2020 by Del Rey

[xv] The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones July 2020 by Gallery / Saga Press

[xvi] Interview with Stephen Graham Jones – Postcards from a Dying World Episode 15

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