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An Alternate History of Horror XX: Blood, Brains, and Broadband.

By Ryan Fleming.

Villa Diodati, the birthplace of both Frankenstein and Polidori's The Vampyre.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As the oldest format for horror fiction, literary forms of it have undergone much evolution since the story writing contest at Villa Diodati in 1816 during a wet, ungenial summer. From there to the novels of the Victorian age to stories of the pages of magazines to the paperbacks of the latter 20th Century. Now we are two decades into it, how has horror literature changed further thus far into the 21st Century? How has the general way in which prose is consumed altered horror fiction?

At first it seemed that horror literature was becoming, like films and video games, a slave to popular trends in the genre. That may have created a stagnation, but one in which there was still plenty of new and interesting ideas to be found, albeit one either had to know where to find them or find them wrapped up in the clothing of the prevailing trends. In the space of a decade, almost the exact opposite became the norm, with a seemingly infinite variety to be found in new avenues by which readers could access their favourite types of fiction.


In that respect, compared to a decade ago, one might almost say that horror literature is currently in something of a minor golden age. That, however, could only be said in comparison. What preceded it was a lack of variety hitherto unseen in that particular medium for the horror genre. For a period across the 2000s and early 2010s, it seemed that popular horror literature only knew two things. Those two things were, however, treated very differently in their target audiences. They were vampires and zombies.

Both vampires and zombies had been around for a long time by the dawn of the 21st Century. They both had their ultimate origins in folklore. The former had been popular going back to the mid 19th Century and had been a fixture of the horror genre in each new medium. The latter has a more recent origin in the form most well-known today, dating from Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was that form, re-popularised via video games like Resident Evil (1996), that would become one of the dominant strands of the 2000s.

Zombies as portrayed in Night of the Living Dead.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Night of the Living Dead inspired zombies had been part of the literary horror offerings from 1989. That year saw the first Book of the Dead anthology, edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector, published with stories from the likes of Ramsay Campbell, Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale, and Richard Laymon. The foreword was even by George A Romero, director of Night. Zombie fiction has a lot of cross-over with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, perhaps because, as one author observed, whilst many monsters are threatening at an individual or group level, the living dead may represent a threat to humanity as a whole. The author making that observation was Max Brooks, whose The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) took a satirical look at the creatures through the lens of a disaster preparedness manual. It would be a precursor to his 2006 follow-up, World War Z, which took a more serious tone looking at a global zombie outbreak whose format was inspired by Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (1984). That same year saw Cell, by Stephen King, released, which abandoned the idea of living dead for its aggressive hordes but otherwise portrayed the familiar tropes of a zombie apocalypse. Zombie fiction reached such a popularity during the late 2000s that even popular multimedia franchises could not resist offering their own novels using the concept. Death Trooper (2009) by Joe Schreiber, might not have stood out amongst a litany of other examples, but as a tie-in to Star Wars, it stood out.

Cosplayers of Death Trooper and Zombie Leia. The trifecta of horror.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The 2000s saw zombies become an existential threat to humanity, the other major trend in horror fiction during that decade went in a complete opposite direction. The vampire as a romantic figure was another trend with precedent in literature. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles began in 1976 with Interview with the Vampire and had a total of thirteen novels published in the series.


A similar example was The Hunger (1981) by Whitley Strieber. That subgenre boomed in popularity during the 2000s, largely thanks to two series. The Southern Vampire Mysteries, by Charlaine Harris, began with Dead Until Dark (2001). By the time it ended with Dead Ever After (2013), the series totalled thirteen novels, like Rice’s series but published in a little over a single decade rather than over four of them. The second series began with the eponymous Twilight (2005) by Stephanie Meyer, which was targeted towards younger readers. The main series concluded with Breaking Dawn (2008), the fourth novel, but there have been companion novels and a novella released since, all by Meyer. Though perhaps better described as both fantasy and romance before horror, the series could still act as a gateway drug to horror content for its readers. Both series managed to cement the paranormal romance as a distinct subgenre, or cross-genre, of both horror and romance, through their best-selling books and adaptations. Primarily driven by female authors, the recent genre remains a fixture, especially in young adult genre fiction.


Zombie fiction during the 2000s may have crossed over with other Apocalyptic fiction; vampire fiction during the same era could be as much romance and fantasy as horror, but those were not the only genre mashups that emerged during that era. Writer Seth Grahame-Smith would combine seemingly disparate elements using both vampires and zombies. The latter came first in 2009 with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which combined Jane Austen’s classic novel (Austen was credited as co-writer) and elements of modern zombie fiction. The same publisher would also release Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (2009), that time with Ben H Winters adapting Austen. It was seemingly not as much of a success as the first version of the gag, which may have received positive attention for its sheer ridiculousness, no further iterations were forthcoming. Grahame-Smith would turn in another mashup, this time using vampires, in the shape of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2010), which turned the 16th President of the United States into a historical vampire hunter.

Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter. Comment is superfluous.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

These examples were perhaps more noticeable for combining such seemingly antithetical sources, but they were not the only mashups. With both zombie fiction and vampire romance popular during the 2000s, it was only a matter of time before someone had the idea to combine these.


Generation Dead (2008) was a zombie romance novel aimed at young adults, which saw two sequels and married the three trends of popular horror fiction by mashing up the two most popular genres.


The 2000s were an exciting time for a horror fan, provided that one loved vampires and zombies and had little interest in anything outside of those two aspects of the genre. However, as has been repeated throughout the history of the horror genre, whenever one particular aspect of it becomes so popular that it is done to the point of stagnation, it helps those that buck the trend to stand out. Eventually, every boom has to bust, and when that comes, experimentation can begin again.


Other types of horror did not disappear during the early part of the 21st Century. Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) has been simultaneously described as horror, satire, and metafiction, though the author has endorsed it as a love story too. The same era saw Dan Simmons’ The Terror (2007) present a fictionalised account of Franklin’s lost expedition besieged by a monster in the Arctic. It would not be until after the vampire/zombie boom that other types of horror would receive the notice House of Leaves did, but broader trends represented a split in how modern horror is published.


Paul G Tremblay was inspired by the lack of a specific kind of horror literature in writing A Head Full of Ghosts (2015). Despite the popularity of Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and the continued popularity, bordering on obsession, with demonic possession in horror films, that part of the genre was underserved by horror literature at the time. Tremblay’s books has its possessed character first diagnosed as having severe mental illness, then when its nature is revealed, becoming a reality television show, and being unashamedly modern in its handling of the subject matter. The novel would win the Bram Stoker Award for Novel in 2015. Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World (2018) would not only win the same award in 2019, but also the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel. That novel focused on a couple and their daughter being the targets of a group that claim sacrificing one of them would prevent the apocalypse. It would later be adapted into the film Knock at the Cabin (2023) by M Night Shyamalan.


Authors like Tremblay return horror to standalone novels rather than multi-volume series, bucking a trend seen in other genres, especially fantasy and science fiction. He has also represented a return to the old habit of using a pseudonym for writing outside of one’s principal genre or target audience. The novella Floating Boy and the Girl Who Couldn’t Fly (2014) was credited to PT Jones, but the young adult targeted horror work was actually co-authored by Tremblay and another modern horror mainstay: Stephen Graham Jones.


Jones, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Native Americans, has managed in the modern day to avoid being pencilled into a single genre. His works include examples of crime fiction, science fiction and, of course, horror. Jones had actually been a published author since 2000 with his debut novel The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, and his horror works have been nominated for awards since 2007 with Raphael by the International Horror Guild Awards. He would later earn back-to-back Bram Stocker Awards for Novel with The Only Good Indians (2020) and My Heart is a Chainsaw (2021). The latter was inspired by and deconstructing the slasher film genre, like Tremblay’s possession novel representing a strand of horror not seen much in literature at the time. 2020 also saw his novella Night of the Mannequins win both a Bram Stoker Award for Best Long Fiction, along with a Shirley Jackson Award for best novella in 2021. Don’t Fear the Reaper (2023) was a follow-up to My Heart is a Chainsaw, being the second part of a planned trilogy known as The Indian Lake Trilogy. Jones also stands as an example of increasingly diverse voices in horror writing, even from mainstream publishers. That diversity can be seen both in authors and on the written page, with Ally Wilke’s All the White Spaces (2022) having as its protagonist a trans man on an expedition to Antarctica in the 1920s.


The broadening of the horror genre in terms of authors and content moving away from the vampire/zombie dichotomy has not completely abandoned some aspects of prior eras. The works of Grady Hendrix, which tread a fine line between horror and comedy, all carry titles that feel like they could have been released ten years earlier.  That postmodern trend that inspired works like The Zombie Survival Guide and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can be found in his works like My Best Friend’s Exorcism (2016). That combined the familiar demonic possession with the tropes of 1980s US High School set films. It was followed by The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (2020), The Final Girl Support Group (2021), and How to Sell a Haunted House (2023).


At a time when sincerity seems to be the prevailing trend in mainstream published horror, tongue-in-cheek works can stand out. Like Tremblay and Jones, what marks Henrix’s works is the way they do not deal with the same horror subject matter. Possession gave way to vampires which gave way to work inspired by slasher films which gave way to a haunted house tale. It is this variety that distinguishes traditionally published horror content from the prior decade, which placed more of a focus on the prevailing trends in wider popular culture also seen in films and video games. Variety is the spice of life in most things, and the horror genre is no exception.


The works of the 2010s hitherto described have been traditionally published in the mainstream. The early part of the 21st Century saw incredible technological change in how people can access fiction. That begat cultural changes in the way people seek out and consume fiction. Horror was no exception to these trends. That has meant that, now more than ever, mainstream publishing is not the only option to a majority of horror fans. There are now electronic books, self-publishing, and crowdfunding routes to publication.


The explosion of independent horror publishers during the 2010s has created a lot of variety, especially when compared to the vampire/zombie era of mainstream publishing. Now these companies could offer their works to a wider audience than would have been possible in prior decades.


Now these companies could offer their works to a wider audience than would have been possible in prior decades. However, many of these specialist publishers have also created a nicheness, one that might not be sustainable in the long term. It has also created an environment where one has to know where to look to find the latest works. In some regards, it is not unlike the state of mainstream publishing during the vampire/zombie era on a far smaller scale.


The first major change was the rise of e-readers, exemplified by the Amazon Kindle, first introduced in 2007. These devices could hold thousands of books and are usually no larger than a conventional book. Books could be downloaded straight to these devices rather than having to physically buy them in a store or order them online and patiently wait for delivery.


Most of these devices are also designed to only offer access to a single provider of e-book, most often an online company like Amazon themselves. Online sellers such as these not only could offer e-books directly to readers, but books could also be published directly online without the need to go via traditional publishing routes. With fewer barriers of entry to online publishing, it allowed for many independent publishers to form releasing works in every conceivable genre, including one specialising in publishing alternate history.


With such a niche marketplace becoming crowded, soon it was not enough to simply be an independent horror publisher; many only offered one particular strand of horror. Some specialised in Lovecraftian cosmic horror, others specialised in action-derived monster tales, and many more examples. The trend towards specialising has been great... if you like what that particular publisher is publishing. Surely not so much of an issue; one now has all the publishers directly available to them online. Too much of the same can, and often does, lead to stagnation. That leads back to publishing diverse kinds of horror, but entering a market in a general way can be more difficult than entering in a specialised one.


The larger of those online booksellers can also offer a route to self-publication for authors. However, such efforts are subject to the whims of the algorithm that determines which works get seen, appear in lists, and turn up high on a search. This is true of the works of independent publishing companies too, of course, but is magnified in self-publishing examples. It is better to go via these publishers, but the ability to submit directly comes with its own caveats. The trend has been towards publishing novels. Though the rise of online booksellers and independent publishers has allowed for more routes for novel publication, this has come at the cost of closing avenues open to writers to have shorter works published to hone their craft. Calls for shorter pieces are not non-existent, nor rare, precisely, but they are limited in comparison to novel requests. Novels are easier to publish; collections of shorter works, especially from different authors, will have to be sourced, compiled, and edited – hopefully with the involvement of the authors. Being presented with a finished work that can go straight to publication, perhaps with some editing if you’re willing, and only having to deal with a single author, is the easier path.


What is strangely missing is one of the oldest forms of genre fiction: regularly published magazines of short fiction. Again, novels are probably easier than committing to editing a regular magazine. They also have to be marketed differently to novels, which might be why most short fiction calls are done for very narrow definitions of genre for a themed anthology.


There will always be an audience for almost every conceivable subgenre of horror. Perhaps that is why themed anthologies are popular as crowdfunded works. Would a traditional publisher be willing to take a bet on combining the works of HP Lovecraft and film noir? Or bringing together Robert E Howard’s two genres and mashing sword-and-sorcery fantasy with cosmic horror? Or a series of stories expanding the universe of a largely forgotten cult horror film? Likely not, but fans will pay directly. These can be marketed directly on their theme, instead of marketing on variety and highlighting individual stories in a regularly published, broad scope anthology. As these themes get more and more niche, from already niche independent publishers, will there continue to be interest once the definitions get so narrow that each and every story therein will be indistinguishable, or you have to circle back around and do follow-ups to themes already covered? There is now more horror literary content in many styles and subgenres available than at any point in history. You do have to know where to look: the independent publishers don’t have the advertising budget of a traditional publisher; their works and those of the self-published are dependent on how a mega-corps algorithm pushes them; and you have to wait until these anthologies open either submissions or crowdfunding. More content available, but in some ways more difficult to get. Increased availability and fewer barriers have, paradoxically, made discovery and being discovered tougher.


In the mid 2020s, horror literature is, much like all literature, somewhat in flux due to recent technological changes. It is now easier than ever before to set up a publishing company, release your own works online, or even directly solicit financing from your prospective end consumers. It is also difficult to submit some forms of horror, to find works that interest you, and somehow have infinite variety encourage you to stick to only one flavour.


Where will these trends lead? I’m already cutting it fine having a series on the history of horror discuss the present, let alone the future.


The early decades of the 21st Century have seen massive changes in horror literature. For a time in the 2000s, it seemed that it was becoming more like other mediums like film in finding something that was hot and sticking to it. The stagnation that this led to in turn led to a return to greater variety from traditional publishers. Technological changes created a thriving independent scene of horror literature, but not one without its own issues.


In the modern day, the horror genre is perhaps more recognised for its cinematic offerings than its prose. With that in mind, our next and final article will take a similar look at the development of horror films in the past decade. It seems appropriate that a series looking at horror that began with literature should end on film. Horror cinema is also in slightly less flux than its literary form, but there are some common threads.


In the 2020s, horror literature has a lot to offer any fan of any particular strand of horror. Perhaps what is missing is a stop for the fan who likes all kinds of horror. For those who believe the anthology is the perfect vehicle for horror, with examples in literature, radio, film, television, comics, and even video games. How will it look by the 2030s? It has evolved this far, and like any good monster it will be difficult to knock down.



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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.


There is also SLP’s own Horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land (edited Katherine Foy).


SFP has an anthology of ghost (and similar) stories, Ghost Written.





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