Hi. My name is Brian Keene. You might remember me from my previous Cemetery Dance column, End of the Road. Or perhaps you know me from the many novels and comic books and short stories I’ve written—too many, if you ask some critics. Or maybe you know me from my popular podcast, The Horror Show with Brian Keene. Or, it’s possible you don’t know me at all—or know me only by reputation (and if it’s the latter, then don’t believe everything you read online). Regardless of how you ended up here, welcome to History of Horror Fiction, a new monthly column brought to you by Cemetery Dance.
Why do we need such a column? That’s a good question. After all, a number of wonderful books, articles, essays, and academic studies have examined horror fiction over the years, and a multitude of authors and scholars have written about it in-depth. Stephen King, Ann Radcliffe, Karl Edward Wagner, J. F. Gonzalez, Douglas E. Winter, Becky Spratford, Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, H. P. Lovecraft, Nick Mamatas, Les Daniels, Stanley Wiater, Elizabeth Barrette, Ellen Datlow, S. T. Joshi, S. j. Bagley, John Pelan, Kim Newman, August Derleth, Jack Haringa, Noel Carroll, Grady Hendrix, Drew Williams, Stephen Jones and many others have written at length about the roots and history and traditions of horror fiction. However, they have focused on certain eras or aspects of the genre. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever tried to chronicle the entire history of horror fiction—from the Epic of Gilgamesh and the works of the Ancients Greeks and Romans up to the 1990s implosion and today’s wave of Kindle do-it-yourselfers—in one lengthy, in-depth, comprehensive piece. Much has been written about Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and Richard Matheson, Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson, or Clive Barker and the Splatterpunks. But for each name remembered, for every author who has had almost as many books written about them as book they have written, there are hundreds lost to history or consigned to obscurity or footnotes, and remembered only by horror fiction geeks like myself.
Nope, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever tried to chronicle the entire history of horror fiction…except for one person. J. F. “Jesus” Gonzalez was attempting to do just that, with an ongoing column for Jacob Haddon’s LampLight magazine. Unfortunately, Jesus passed away before he could get very far with the project. Those first few columns were glorious, though, and held the promise of a wealth of knowledge to come. Reading them, I am reminded of so many conversations between Jesus and myself—in our homes or our cars, at conventions or book signings, during innumerable dinners or over drinks. I’m reminded of our full-on geekdom, and how we loved discussing authors like M. P. Shiel, Edward Lucas White, William Hope Hodgson, Manly Wade Wellman, Henry Kuttner, R. R. Ryan, Rex Miller, William Schoell, Ruby Jean Jensen, A. R. Morlan, Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire, Nick Sharman, Frank Belknap Long, and many others whom—depending on your level of geekery—you may or may not have heard of, and may or may not have already read. I loved those conversations and (sometimes) impassioned arguments. Jesus’s column was a glimpse into those. Sadly, like I said, he passed away before he could even scratch the surface.
So, now I reckon it falls on me to do it.
Why? Well, scroll back up to that list of folks I mentioned in the second paragraph of this long-winded prologue. That’s a diverse list of people, but they all have one thing in common. They are all much smarter than me. I would suspect that almost all of them are college educated. I am not. I have never been to college (unless you count the two weeks of community college I took before dropping out and getting a job at a foundry instead). In truth, I barely graduated high school. I would bet that all the folks mentioned above know how to properly use a semicolon. After twenty years of writing professionally and full-time, I still do not. My grasp of proper punctuation and grammar has been known to make editors weep blood. Any one of the people listed in that second paragraph are far more capable and qualified to undertake such a task as this. But all of them are smart enough not to.
When Cemetery Dance’s Richard Chizmar agreed to this column, my girlfriend—author Mary SanGiovanni—asked me, “That’s a lot. It’s going to be overwhelming. Why do you have to be the one to write it?”
And I answered, “Because I’m the only living person stupid enough to try.”
Why do we need such a column?
Because I owe it to my friend.
(And since Rich has already paid me, I now owe it to him, as well…)
I’m not the best person for the job, but I’m the one you’re stuck with.
So, that’s part of the answer. But there’s more to it than that. We still haven’t really answered the Why.
Back in 2011, I gave a keynote speech entitled “Roots”, which was subsequently turned into an essay, and included in my book Trigger Warnings. I’m reprinting the speech below (with some cuts and revisions), because it forms the second part of the answer.
* * *
This speech is supposed to be about the history of the horror genre. In discussing such a topic, I should start with the cave paintings of primitive man, many of which depicted things they were afraid of. Then I should go into the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the various stories that make up the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim holy books. I should talk about Beowulf, and Lucian Samosata’s True History (which, written in 200AD, is the story of the crew of a ship who are transported from Earth to the Moon and Venus, and details the monsters they battle and oddities they find). I should talk about 1796’s The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, and Melmoth the Wanderer, and, of course, the contributions of Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Arthur Machen, and Edgar Allan Poe. But since we only have thirty minutes and since many of you are either hung over or here only to ask me if I’ll ever write another zombie novel, I’m going to focus on Modern Horror—fiction written during the 20th century.
Growing up in the late Seventies and early Eighties, my generation was introduced to horror fiction in one of two ways: kid’s books (John Bellairs was our J. K. Rowling) or comic books (Man-Thing, Weird War, House of Mystery, Werewolf By Night, The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor, etc.). From these, we graduated to Stephen King and Dean Koontz. It was King’s masterful history of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, which introduced most of us to H. P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, and others who’d come before him, and it was the delay between King and Koontz titles that allowed us to discover (in our late teens and as young adults) Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum, Joe R. Lansdale, Graham Masterton, the Splatterpunks, and many others.
These days, we see a new generation of horror writers and readers—and what’s curious is that their generation was not influenced by Stephen King or comic books. Their generation was introduced to horror primarily through video games and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, and they’ve now graduated to books by myself, Edward Lee, Sarah Langan, Steve Niles, Carlton Mellick, Jonathan Maberry, J.F. Gonzalez, Joe Hill, and others of our generation. That seems strange to me. It makes me feel old. It also makes me feel that I should certainly be making more money than I am. But I digress.
This generation also has more competing forms of media and entertainment than any other, and as a result, they are less well read than previous generations. Admittedly, this is a generalization, but it’s one that, in my experience and the experience of my peers, is true for the majority.
And that’s a shame.
A horror writer should know the genre’s history for several reasons. First and foremost, they should know it so as not to repeat the mistakes of its past. They should draw upon that history, letting the books and stories that have been written in the past inspire and inform and shape their own work. You know that novel you’re working on about Nazi ghosts haunting a tank? Graham Masterton beat you to it back in the Seventies. If you’re writing about vampires, you’ve probably read Dracula—but did you also read the works of Les Daniels, or Salem’s Lot, They Thirst, Vampyrrhic, or Lot Lizards? Maybe you saw Ramsey Campbell at a convention and were told he is one of the most important living authors, but you’re not sure why. This is unacceptable. Maybe (and most importantly) you want to become a better writer by studying and understanding the various styles of writers that came before you. The only way to do that is through reading.
Reading is a crucial part of being a writer, and it’s essential at all stages of your development and career. You should certainly read outside of your chosen genre, but it’s also important to read inside your genre, as well. You may not like all of them, but you should read them anyway. Your writing will be better for having done so.
This is just as important for those of you in the audience who have no desire to become a writer, and identify yourselves as readers or fans. If you’re a reader, then you need to read fiction that has inspired and informed and shaped the genre into what it is today. Like those 28 Days Later-style zombies? I bet you’ll love Jim Starlin’s Among Madmen or Simon Clark’s Blood Crazy. Perhaps you enjoy the exploits of occult detectives such as F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, or my own Levi Stoltzfus. But have you read Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John the Balladeer stories or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost Finder? Think it can’t get any more hard-fucking-core than Edward Lee or Wrath James White? Then you haven’t read Echo of a Curse by R. R. Ryan—written in 1939! Like John Carpenter’s The Thing? Yeah? But have you read John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?
At least once in every decade since the First World War, the public has had a renewed interest in horror fiction. For the interests of our discussion, I have broken this era of modern horror down into six waves.
That first wave, spanning from 1900 to the mid-1920s begins, more or less, with the 1901 publication of M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, a post-apocalyptic novel. In it, much of humanity are killed by a mysterious, toxic purple cloud that floats across the Earth. The survivors learn that they are pawns in a battle between the forces of “The White” (representing good) and “The Black (representing evil). The themes and ideas presented in The Purple Cloud are ones that have echoed in post-apocalyptic horror fiction for more than 100 years, influencing everything from Matheson’s I Am Legend to Stephen King’s The Stand.
That first wave of modern horror also gave us authors such as Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson, and saw an increased public interest in ghost stories, particularly the work of M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Edith Wharton (among others). 1923 brought us the birth of Weird Tales, a magazine whose long and varied history is so entwined with modern horror that it’s as difficult to imagine the genre without it as it is to imagine the genre without Stephen King.
The second wave, spanning the mid-20s through the late-40s, was an important period that gave us H.P. Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Shirley Jackson, and Seabury Quinn, among others, and the early works of Fritz Leiber.
The third wave, spanning the Fifties and Sixties, gave us more mature works from Fritz Leiber, as well as the work of Anthony Boucher, Theodore Sturgeon, John Farris, Ira Levin, and five writers who are as important, if not more important, to the genre than even the works of the esteemed Mr. King: Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, and the early works of Ramsey Campbell. These five writers were among the first to truly begin centering horror fiction in contemporary settings, rather than crumbling New England waterfront towns or sprawling Victorian mansions. Their impact and themes still inform much of today’s horror fiction.
During the first three waves, horror fiction was published as either mainstream fiction, science fiction, or mystery fiction. There was no horror marketing category. That category wasn’t invented until the rise of the fourth wave.
The beginning of the fourth wave, the Seventies and Eighties, brought us Stephen King, Dean Koontz, F. Paul Wilson, Thomas Monteleone, Karl Edward Wagner, Peter Straub, and others. When King became a bestseller in paperback, the marketing category of HORROR was invented. The genre waned briefly around 1979-1980 but then came back with a vengeance. The fourth wave ruled all through the Eighties and into the early Nineties, giving us Clive Barker, Charles L. Grant, James Herbert, TED Klein, Robert R. McCammon, Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, Rick Hautala, Ronald Kelly, the Splatterpunks, Brian Hodge, and Poppy Z. Brite. This era also saw the early works of such current luminaries as Edward Lee, Tom Piccirilli, and James A. Moore. These were beautiful, golden years. A great time to be a fan, and a wonderful time to be a writer.
And then came the mid-90s crash.
Some say horror died in the mid-90s, but this is patently untrue. HORROR as a marketing category to be stamped on the spine of a book certainly died, but the stories and books and readers were still there. From 1991 to 1995, the most prominent mass market horror publishers were Zebra Books and the Dell Abyss line.
Zebra was your traditional mass-market pulp house, cranking out novels with garish covers. Dell-Abyss was a little different. Started with the mission statement of getting away from the traditional horror of King, Koontz, and Straub, Dell Abyss was to publish more cutting-edge horror and, for a while, they did. Then the whole thing came crashing down, leaving folks like Brian Hodge and Kathe Koja homeless. Meanwhile, over at Zebra, authors weren’t getting paid on time. Zebra collapsed, too, which left authors like Rick Hautala and Ronald Kelly scrambling.
Does any of that sound familiar? If you’re thinking, “Hey, that sounds like what we just went through with Dorchester and Leisure Books” then you win.
With the cancellation of Zebra and Dell-Abyss, other publishers began shying away from horror, as well. Or they called it something else. Unable to sell their work to mainstream publishers, horror authors turned to the small press. Likewise, readers who were unable to find horror novels in stores did the same. The late 90s saw the rise of the small press, something which had always existed, way back in the first wave, but which really came to prominence at the end of that decade.
The 90s didn’t kill horror. It was just a transition period. Horror fiction was still published, it just didn’t reach as wide a readership. And it was also the birthing ground of the fifth wave.
My generation—the generation of the New Weird, the New Pulp, Bizarro, and typified by writers such as Sarah Langan, Joe Hill, Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, Jonathan Maberry, Carlton Mellick, Jeff Vandermeer, Bryan Smith, Sarah Pinborough, Weston Ochse, JF Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Tom Piccirilli, Jeffrey Thomas, and many more, including a good cross section of the folks in this room—make up the fifth wave. We rose to prominence in that last decade and in the first decade of this new century. We were the first generation to have the Internet. We bridged the gap between the fourth wave—authors who had to adapt to new technology—and your generation, the post-internet generation. As Mary SanGiovanni pointed out to me a few weeks ago, “We’re the turning point generation, in a unique position to use both experience/history and technology/adaptation.”
For your generation, the Internet was already there. You didn’t have to bend and shape it and figure out how to use it to the advantage of your writing or reading. We did that for you. And you do use it. You use it, and you use all of the other technology that’s available. You post on Twitter and you play Farmville on Facebook and Dead Island on X-Box, and you get the Nightmare on Elm Street series streamed from Netflix. But what you’re not doing enough of is reading.
The editors and publishers your generation are submitting to come from the fourth and fifth waves. They know the genre’s history. And while good writing will always triumph over anything else in the slush pile, if you submit something that you think is original and fresh and has never been done before, and the editor can think of twenty examples of it being done before, what do you think will happen to your manuscript? I mentioned the thematic similarities between Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and King’s The Stand—the end of the world, humanity dying off, the eternal struggle between good and evil. And yes, the themes are similar, but The Stand is King’s own take on those themes, as is McCammon’s Swan Song or Graham Masterton’s Plaque or James Herbert’s Domain or any other novel of that type.
I truly believe that in horror fiction, there is no such thing as an original idea. They’ve all been done before. What’s original is your take on the idea, your spin on the familiar old tropes and monsters, your unique perspective and voice—your twist. Don’t waste a year of your life writing The Stand. It’s already been written. Instead, write your take on the themes presented in the book—themes that have existed in horror fiction since primitive man first started painting stories on cave walls. Themes that make up those holy books I mentioned at the beginning. Themes that were tackled in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Novelist and comics writer Warren Ellis often says, “Tell people who you are and where you are and what the world looks like today.” And that’s what writing horror fiction—or any type of fiction—really is. It’s taking universal themes and truths that have been examined by other writers for thousands of years, and offering your own perspective on them.
My novel Ghoul is a coming-of-age novel about kids fighting monsters. There’s nothing new about that. King did it. Dan Simmons did it. Jonathan Bellairs and Don Coscarelli and Joe Lansdale and dozens of others did it. But Ghoul is my coming-of-age novel. It’s who I was at the age of twelve. It’s where I was, and it’s about what the world looked like then. And if it hadn’t been that—if it had just been a retread of all those coming-of-age novels that came before it—it would have been rejected by my publisher, and rightfully so. Or, I would have self-published it and then discerning readers would say, “There’s nothing new here. It’s all been done a thousand times before.”
Know your genre. Know your history. Read a book.
I talked earlier about the collapse of Zebra and Dell Abyss back in the mid-90s. Last year, we saw something similar happen with the collapse of Dorchester-Leisure. The year before that, myself, JF Gonzalez, Bryan Smith, Mary SanGiovanni, and other Leisure authors saw what was coming and prepared ourselves. This was long before the whole mess went public. How did we know to do that? Was it some form of intuition or ESP? No. It was because we know the genre’s history. We saw the signs, saw the similarities to the Dell Abyss situation, and each of us took steps to prepare ourselves for the worst. And, in the end, we came out okay, while many who ignored the warnings have not. We knew the genre’s history, and we knew that history was about to repeat itself.
Know your genre. Know your history. Read a book.
On a popular message board right now, there’s a thread about Robert Bloch. I briefly explained why Bloch was so important and influential. I know that because I’ve read him. Here are some quotes from members of your generation, taken from that thread:
First Poster: “Aside mentions about Psycho and Yours Truly Jack The Ripper, some funny quotes from him, his Lovecraft connection and that he often wrote stories with predictable 50s comic book twists (not that he was inspired by the comics, I presume he had more influence on them), I rarely see Bloch discussed… I would have thought the success of Psycho would have made the rest of his work widely read too. Did his other books sell well? I haven’t read a single word of his fiction but what do you think of his stories, novels, screenplays and what on earth are the Psycho sequels like? I can’t begin to imagine what would happen in them.”
Let me repeat that last sentence: “I haven’t read a single word of his fiction.” So here we have a young man with a sincere wish to be an artist, and has some vague sense of who Robert Bloch was, but he’s NEVER READ A SINGLE WORD OF BLOCH’S FICTION. He can use Wikipedia to give him enough information to post about it online, but he apparently can’t be bothered to pick up a fucking book and read it.
Second Poster: “In Bloch’s version of Psycho 2, Norman hacks a nun to death, escapes the mental hospital dressed in her habit, and returns to the motel. Don’t know what he does there, the back cover of the book didn’t give that much detail and I’ve not actually read it.”
Again, note the last sentence. “I’ve not actually read it.”
Third Poster: “I can’t imagine Bloch’s name fading entirely, but it will be interesting to see how his legacy fares, in time. I’m not certain he’ll be much more than a footnote, twenty or thirty years from now. But who knows? It’s not about liking his work or not liking it (I can’t even guarantee that I’ve read him.)”
And again, note the last sentence.
Now, let me be clear. I am not making fun of these three young authors. What I’m doing is pointing out the ridiculousness of the situation. Do you see the common theme here? They can use the internet and all of the other technology available to them to discuss Bloch’s career and quote the back covers of his books and pontificate about his importance, but none of them can be fucking bothered to pick up one of his books—or better yet—utilize that same technology and try reading him for themselves.
But it goes beyond that. This isn’t a case of young people who have simply not heard of Robert Bloch. That would be excusable. But as evidenced here, all three writers know that Robert Bloch is considered important. They just don’t have a sense of why. Maybe that’s our fault. I don’t know. I know that the writers I looked up to from the fourth wave were always quick to recommend authors from waves one through three. I’d like to think our generation does the same. So, maybe it’s not our fault. At the end of the day, what matters is that they know Bloch is important. They just don’t know why. And I bet some of you in this room today don’t know why either.
Well, the only way to get that sense of why is to read him. Know your genre. Know your history. Read a book.
There’s no excuse for not reading. Sure, maybe there’s no bookstore left in your town. Maybe Borders closed up shop and the local used bookstore only carries inspirational fiction and Chicken Soup for the Soul books. But that’s no excuse, because your generation has the Internet. We already tested it out and broke it in for you. It’s there for you to use. There’s Amazon and Kindle and Nook. You can read on your cellphone or iPad or even on your video game console. And, if you’re old school, I’m sure you have a library nearby.
What’s infuriating to me is that the public has greater access to books than at any time in our history, and yet less people are reading. You can change that.
Where do you start? Start anywhere. When I was younger, in addition to Danse Macabre, we had a wonderful list created by Karl Edward Wagner that spotlighted forgotten gems of horror fiction. Your generation has no list, and Danse Macabre is outdated, but it’s still a good source. Start there.
Track down some of the non-fiction of Douglas Winter, Stephen Jones, Karl Edward Wagner, John Pelan, Les Daniels, Stanley Wiater, or ST Joshi. All of them have written at length about the history of our genre, and there is a wealth of information and recommendations to be found in their work.
Ask your favorite author for recommendations. When I was a young man, if I wanted to ask Stephen King or Dean Koontz a question, I had to write them a letter and buy a stamp and wait (hope) to get a reply. These days, you can log online and talk to your favorite writers pretty much instantly. Most of them will even talk back. Ask them who they recommend. Ask them who their influences were, and who they think you should be reading. They’ll be happy to tell you, because they want to share the enjoyment they get from those author’s works.
I can’t tell you how many teenagers and twenty-somethings have come up to me in the last ten years and thanked me for recommending Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum, or Joe R. Lansdale. In almost every case, they say something like “I never heard of him until you mentioned him online, but wow—this stuff is APESHIT!” And that makes me happy, because their stuff is indeed apeshit, and it should be read by everybody.
Maybe you won’t care for Laymon or Ketchum or Lansdale, but you’ll never know unless you try. Maybe Peter Straub will be more to your taste. Or Tim Powers. Or Melanie Tem. Or Norman Partridge. Or David J. Schow. Or James Moore. Or Joe Nassise. Or Chet Williamson. Or Sarah Pinborough. Or M.R. James. Or Bentley Little. Or Thomas Ligotti.
It doesn’t matter where you start or who you start with. All that matters is that you start. Once you discover horror’s rich history for yourself, I guarantee you that you’ll never stop…
* * *
So, that’s the second part of the answer.
Now, we’ve already established that I am not the most qualified person to undertake this task. Let’s give voice to the elephant in the room—I’m also not an impartial observer. I’ve been a fan of horror fiction for all of my life, but for the last twenty years, I’ve become part of the story itself—part of the history.
I turned fifty back at the end of September. We had a party here at my home along the banks of the Susquehanna River. A bunch of writer friends attended. During the weekend, somebody asked me what book I’d regret not finishing were I to drop dead right then and there. I thought about it for a long time. I’ve got a bunch of stuff cooking right now—a television thing, a few novels and novellas, collaborations with Bev Vincent, Wrath James White, and Bryan Smith. And beyond all those, I have stories I’d like to write—stories I truly hope the universe allows me to tell. But if I dropped dead tomorrow, there’s only two things I’d regret not finishing. The first is an autobiography I’ve been working on privately for my sons.
The second is this series of columns.
Because, yes, I’m part of the story and part of the history—but I am also still a fan. I started out as a fan, I remain a fan, and I’ll leave here as a fan. With that in mind, maybe I’m somewhat qualified to write this after all. The abuse of grammar will make your eyes bleed, and I might go on a maniacal semicolon spree that leads editor Blu Gilliand to beg Richard Chizmar for a raise, but I’ll approach this with passion and earnestness and love. I’ll approach it with heart. I’m going to tell the story of something that is near and dear to me, and I hope you’ll listen.
We’re going on a journey, you and I. Just like we did for End of the Road. But this time, the journey isn’t on a book signing tour across a dark and tumultuous American landscape. No, this time, the journey is through time itself. We’re going to travel through time. We’ll start in a cave, where a primitive man named Thurg is painting on the rock wall. I don’t know how many months our journey will take. I told Cemetery Dance I estimated it to be thirty-six months, but if I get off in the weeds talking about the rise and fall of Arkham House or Varney the Vampire or the differences between Splatterpunk and Extreme Horror, it could take longer. And I probably will do those things. But don’t worry. As I said, this is time travel. We can take as long as we want, and when we’re done, I’ll bring you right back here to modern times. To 2020, in fact, where we’ll see how the children of Thurg are faring.
My name is Brian Keene and this is the History of Horror Fiction…
Brian Keene is the author of over fifty books, as well as hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books. He also hosts the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.