"But horror, like its favorite creatures of the night, does not perish so easily. The doomsayers forget its persistence, its uncanny ability to mutate and survive, which ought to serve as the most powerful clue that this fiction is not easily consigned to a category--it exists, thrives, lingers, and occasionally triumphs because, unlike any other supposed kind of fiction, horror is not about anything … It is fiction that explores --or, more often, conveys--an emotion."
--Douglas Winter, "By Any Other Name," Necrofile #13, Summer 1994, p. 23
"Horror fiction has always been a genre of ideas … The very best horror fiction should have the power to disturb and cause us to question ourselves and the world we live in."
-- Stephen Jones, "The Beckoning Void," Necrofile #17, Sumer 1995, p. 23
Shadows, Sadists, and Sandkings: The Modern Tale of Terror, 1967-1997
by Boyd White
Despite what some might think, the tale of terror has never been the special province of just horror writers. In the earliest decades of the 20th century, authors of fantastic fiction moved effortlessly among the slowly codifying genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, often blending them successfully despite the occasional consternation of editors and fans. Readers of Weird Tales, for example, complained that Clark Ashton Smith's "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" (1932) and "Vulthoom" (1935) did not belong in a horror magazine because their Mars settings made them science fiction. Likewise, three of H. P. Lovecraft's greatest stories, "The Colour Out of Space" (1927), "At the Mountains of Madness" (1936), and "The Shadow Out of Time (1936), all considered science fiction by E. F. Bleiler, appeared in Amazing Stories and Astounding rather than in Weird Tales, Lovecraft's usual haunt. C. L. Moore's use of ray guns, rockets, and interplanetary landscapes, however, didn't prevent her Northwest Smith stories, such as "Shambleau" (1933) and "Scarlet Dream" (1934), seminal fusions of space opera and macabre horror, from getting placed in Weird Tales. At the other extreme, weird menace pulps, including the infamous Terror Tales and Horror Stories, offered more supposedly gruesome fare such as Arthur Leo Zagat's "House of Living Death" (1934) and Frederick C. Davis' "The Mole Men Want Your Eyes" (1938), stories that, despite their titles, contained no supernatural content since the "monsters" inevitably turned out to be insane doctors or unscrupulous heirs dressed in outlandish costumes or rubber suits who only revealed their true identities when they finally disrobed to torture their scantily clad female victims. Because genre fiction had not yet been completely ghettoized, even authors of more mainstream work made the occasional foray into the fantastic. After writing three unsuccessful literary novels 1902 and 1906, Margery Williams, who would later pen the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), published The Thing in the Woods, an obscure werewolf novel, in 1913. Likewise, Eleanor Ingram, a successful author of women’s fiction, published The Thing from the Lake in 1922, the story of a songwriter battling dark forces from another dimension in a Connecticut farm house. Regardless of the circumstances under which they were written or first published, all these works aim to evoke a sense of terror in the reader, disturbing us with the possibility that the world as we know it can betray us in an instant and everything we love can be taken away.
By the late 1950s, pulps featuring horror fiction were virtually non-existent, and horror comic books, such as EC’s groundbreaking New Trend line which included Tales from the Crypt, had been eviscerated by the advent of the Comics Code Authority for supposedly fostering criminal tendencies in impressionable adolescent boys. Culturally, horror was considered third-rate, a genre fit only for dreadful b-movie fare like The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958) or The Wasp Woman (1959). No one could have predicted how significantly the landscape would change, however, with the publication of Rosemary's Baby in 1967.
Written by Ira Levin, an author primarily known for the crime novel A Kiss Before Dying (1953) and the Broadway adaptation of Mac Hyman’s humorous No Time for Sergeants (1954), Rosemary's Baby enjoyed enormous critical and commercial success, bolstered further by the subsequent highly regarded film directed by Roman Polanksi. Genre scholar Stefan Dziemianowicz notes that Rosemary's Baby "helped kick off the modern horror movement with its portrayal of a contemporary satanic cult that blends seamlessly in with the urban culture of New York and uses financial and social stratagems, rather than supernatural powers, to control its acolytes." William Peter Blatty, another mainstream writer known for his comic novels, replicated the Levin's success with The Exorcist (1971), another book quickly adapted into a critically acclaimed film, which was eventually nominated for ten Academy Awards. As books and films, Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist not only indicated that a vital market for horror existed, but also proved the genre could produce serious, thoughtful, compelling art. The publishing boom in modern horror fiction shortly followed, and the renaissance in the modern tale of terror had begun.
Rooted in skepticism about humanity's ability to control its external circumstances or impose order on an otherwise meaningless universe, modern horror fiction uses the tropes and conventions of classic supernatural tales to explore the social and political unrest defining the period. Within this framework, traditional monsters, such as demons and werewolves, serve as expressions of our own darker psychological impulses and perceived threats to the established order, our deepest cultural fears and anxieties. The widespread political and social despair wrought by Vietnam underscores Thomas Tessier's The Night Walker (1979), a modern take on the werewolf tale, and Herman Raucher's Maynard's House (1980), an ingenious reimagining of the traditional haunted house story. Racial oppression fuels John Farris' All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By (1977), an account of the effects of a voodoo curse on a Southern plantation, and Bari Woods' The Tribe (1981), a modern golem myth in which a street gang is ruthlessly slaughtered after murdering a Jewish philosophy professor. Growing concerns with urban decay, street violence, disaffected youth, and an indifferent social elite underlie the gory excesses of influential splatterpunk novels, such as John Shirley's Cellars (1980) and John Skipp and Craig Spector's The Light at the End (1986), unsubtle, over-the-top works that should have surprised no one living in an era plagued by corporate greed, government distrust, the AIDS epidemic, disintegrating social structures, and the shadow of nuclear war. By contrast, quieter modern horror focused on ordinary people subjected to terrors clothed in the routine realities of daily life. In Sub Rosa (1968) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975), Robert Aickman's sophisticated "strange stories," always elusive and ambiguous, navigate the author's own discomfort with shifting gender roles and the power dynamics inherent in male and female sexuality. Ramsey Campbell's Demons by Daylight (1973) replaces antiquarian scholars and lonely spinsters with disgruntled civil servants and unhappily married couples who encounter a range of horrors in isolated playgrounds, abandoned warehouses, and empty bus stations. Likewise, Lisa Tuttle's outstanding A Nest Nightmares (1986) critiques the emotional, physical, and psychological abuse that women often suffer at the hands of family, spouses, and lovers. Similar concerns inform the excellent stories of Angela Carter, a master of dark fantasy who, in collections like The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), recasts classic fairytales and folklore as disturbing examinations of sexual politics.
Like horror fiction, science fiction has always grappled with the most pressing economic, social, and political concerns of the day. Even during science fiction's Golden Age and Atomic Age, significant writers produced excellent tales of terror such as Robert A. Heinlein's "They" (1941), Margaret St. Clair's "Prott" (1953), and Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" (1954). In the late 1960s, the changes in horror fiction were mirrored by parallel developments in science fiction. Influenced by the cultural turmoil typified by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., science fiction writers embraced the narrative techniques and characteristic tropes of modern horror as they pushed themselves in terms of form and content to express their growing concerns with scientific and technological achievements. As these writers struggled with issues involving genetic engineering, biotechnology, cybernetics, and ecology, the optimism in humanity's ability to overcome any challenges to its existence, a defining trait of previous generations of science fiction writers, was gradually replaced by uncertainty and dread, what Michael M. Levy refers to in "The New Wave and After, 1964 to 1983" as a "tend[ency] toward a depiction of disasters and decay, entropy in all its forms," bleak assessments not only of present terrors already engulfing us but also the dark futures towards which we are inevitably headed.
1967, the year Rosemary's Baby became a best-seller, heralded the publication of two groundbreaking apocalyptic modern tales of terror, Anna Kavan's Ice, an unclassifiable surrealistic novel, and Harlan Ellison's Hugo Award-winning short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." A Kafkaesque nightmare in which a nameless woman is relentlessly pursued by two men across a frozen landscape created by a nuclear holocaust, Ice shares thematic concerns with Rosemary's Baby about the oppression and exploitation of women. "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" depicts the aftermath of humanity's extinction by a sentient supercomputer known as "AM" that has left four men and one woman alive so they can be endlessly tortured to satisfy the AM's insatiable need for revenge on humanity for actually creating it. These pioneering works heralded a wave of science fiction authors who effortlessly merged horror and science fiction. Two of Robert Silverberg’s finest novels, The Book of Skulls (1972) and Dying Inside (1972), both nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards, are carefully constructed variations of modern horror, the former dealing with a group of college students searching for immortality and the latter centered on a telepath's inability to come to terms with his fading powers. Likewise, some of the most seminal work produced by female science fiction authors of this period are brilliant tales of terror envisioning grim futures brought about as the result of conflicts involving rigid gender roles. Joanna Russ' "When It Changed" (1972) and James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976) are superb stories of thriving female cultures that have developed after men have been wiped out by disease or war, innovative matriarchal societies that are threatened generations later when men manage to make unexpected returns. Other stunning modern science fiction tales of terror include D. G. Compton's The Unsleeping Eye (UK title: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, 1974), the devastating narrative of a terminally ill woman dealing with intense media coverage of her final days in a future where old age is the only remaining cause of death; J. G. Ballard's High-Rise (1975), the riveting account of tenants in a luxury apartment building descending into chaotic violence and madness; and George R. R. Martin’s "Sandkings," the frightening tale of Simon Kress, a bored, wealthy playboy who forces his highly intelligent alien, ant-like pets to engage in brutal death matches with the dangerous creatures that guests begin bringing to his parties. Combining the past with the future, Connie Willis's Hugo- and Nebula-Awarding winning Doomsday Book (1992) recasts terror as time travel, a tour-de-force in which Willis employs painstakingly accurate historical detail to fully immerse readers in the horrors of the Black Plague as a 21st-century Oxford historian becomes trapped in 14th-century England while a devastating virus threatens to eradicate all future civilization.
From its earliest days, 20th-century crime fiction, like horror fiction, has been fascinated with serial killers and homicidal schizophrenics, individuals whose shocking crimes are outward manifestations of their distorted internal psyches, a key component of novels such as Joel Townsely Roger's Red Right Hand (1945), Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (1952), Margaret Millar's Beast in View (1955), and Robert Bloch's Psycho (1959). These novels are structured primarily as mysteries in which the revelation of the killer's identity and mental condition serves as the solution not just to readers but also, in first-person narratives like The Killer Inside Me and Beast In View, to the killers themselves who often unaware of their own insanity or how deeply it has shaped their behavior. Such novels are among the earliest examples of dark crime or dark suspense, a subgenre defined by its intense focus on violent crimes and the psychology of those who commit them. The fact that Robert Bloch's Psycho is often discussed or categorized as a classic of horror fiction indicates how dark crime virtually obliterates the boundaries between horror and crime fiction.
As dark crime coalesced into an important subgenre in the late 1960s, authors began exploring more explicit content, often drawing direct, uncomfortable connections between sex and violence. Far from exploiting such material for mere titillation or cheap thrills, the most accomplished practitioners of dark crime have always devoted attention to, and promoted more awareness of, the various cultural forces plaguing their characters, especially the killers, whose crimes and aberrant behavior reveal not only the damage society has done to them but also what society is doing to us. A seasoned student of twisted psychology effecting seemingly normal people, Patricia Highsmith provides several examples of her skilled artistry with the macabre in The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories (1970). The title piece follows Peter Knoppert, a mild-mannered broker whose voyeuristic passion for watching his pet snails mate and reproduce eventually leads to him being eaten alive. Highsmith's equally chilling "The Terrapin" describes the plight of Victor, an 11-year old boy whose domineering , emotionally abusive mother continues to infantilize him through the clothes she forces him to wear and by constantly referring to him as her "lee-tle boy still," a situation that takes a nasty turn when she brings home a terrapin Victor becomes attached to only to realize his mother is going to kill it to make soup. An equally sharp observer of the irreparable harm that can result from unhealthy parent/child relationships, Ruth Rendell's A Demon in My View (1976) charts the demise of Arthur Johnson, a strict, middle-aged clerk abandoned as child by his mother who now routinely "strangles" a mannequin hidden in the basement of his apartment building in order to control his homicidal urges. A superior prose stylist and a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, Stanly Ellin dissects the familial and societal causes of racism in his outstanding novel The Dark Fantastic (1983) in which retired college professor Charles Winter Kirwan, dying from cancer and slowly losing his mind, is determined to blow up the apartment building he owns in an African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, killing himself and all his tenants in the process. The most extreme dark crime novels from the 1980s and 1990s include Jack Ketchum's Off Season (1981), Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, and Ian Banks' Complicity (1993), all serious novels, albeit very disturbing ones, steeped in graphic sex and violence, that rise above their seemingly sordid subject matter to provide compelling, insightful commentaries about gender and class that cannot be easily dismissed or forgotten. None of these novels, however, approaches the Grand Guignol of Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho (1991), a scathing indictment of yuppie culture and Reagan-era consumerism in which Wall Street banker Patrick Bateman plunges into a maelstrom of rape, torture, mutilation, and cannibalism, acts inseparable from his obsessions with his physical appearance, designer clothes, expensive watches, and five-star restaurants. Although Ellis' novel was reviled by critics and authors alike upon its initial release, any perceptive reader could easily discern Batemen's horrific crimes as emblematic of the vicious, predatory nature of Wall Street and corporate America.
Given the range of writers revisiting and reinventing the tale of terror during this era, mainstream authors, including a few literary giants, inevitably tried their hands at crafting horror novels, some with excellent results. Two of the most effective haunted house novels of the second half of the 20th century have been produced by authors with no connection to supernatural fiction at all, including Paul Theroux's Black House (1974) and Anne Rivers Siddons' The House Next Door (1978). Although he's certainly never even been remotely associated with dark crime, Cormac McCarthy's interest in social isolation, sexual perversity, and extreme violence achieves one of its most disturbing expressions in Lester Ballard, the central character in Child of God (1973), a transvestite serial killer and necrophiliac living in Appalachia far beyond any societal norms. Arguably the most important American novelist since 1950, McCarthy has done more than any actual genre writer to push the literary possibilities of Gothic conventions and the tropes of modern horror. His magnum opus Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), regarded by noted literary scholar Harold Bloom as the finest American novel since Moby-Dick (1851), reads like the bastard love child of William Faulkner and H. P. Lovecraft, a dense, phantasmagoric, bloody Western chronicling the exploits of the Glanton gang, a band of scalp hunters, along the Texas-Mexico border circa 1850, a tale filled with enough visceral carnage to churn even the stomach of the most jaded splatterpunk. Ian McEwan, another of modern literature's brightest lights, has produced what Paul Di Filippo terms "postmodern macabre," novels that include The Cement Garden (1978) and Enduring Love (1997), tense psychological thrillers in which all human relationships ultimately seem pathological with the potential for violence always lurking beneath. The finest example of the modern tale of terror's ability to achieve enduring literary significance, however, might be Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Beloved (1981), a haunting, beautifully written, brutal ghost story that explores the long-lasting horrific repercussions of slavery.
Like all good things, the renaissance in modern horror finally came to end with the implosion of the horror fiction publishing boom in the late 1990s as a result of a glutted market and surplus of inferior product. Merely competent writers like Anne Rice and Dean R. Koontz clogged the best-seller lists with endless variants of clichéd scenarios while hacks such as Rick Hautula, Andrew Neiderman, and J. N. Williamson cranked out forgettable paperback originals as fast as they could type, obscuring the work of superior authors such as Charles L. Grant, Kenneth Greenhall, and Melanie Tem. No one should be surprised that as we approach the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, readers and collectors show little interest in anyone from modern horror's heyday except for Stephen King, and to a lesser extent, Clive Barker, both of whom have had their work endlessly repackaged in a variety of signed limited and anniversary editions.
The most compelling writers from the modern horror movement and the most important examples of the modern tale of terror, according to Lloyd Currey, "are now lost in the continuing deluge of mostly crap--importantly, the recycling of hoary old 'classics'--which has buried books that should be better known and acquired by intelligent and/or seasoned devotees of modern and strange stories." Who bothers to seek out Michael McDowell's fine paperback originals like The Elementals (1981) or Katie (1982), much less A. R. Morlan's chilling Dark Journey (1991)? Who's even heard of Steve Fisher's Saxon's Ghost (1969) or Marcy Heidish's The Torching (1992)? Who cares about Jack Cady or Dennis Etchison, much less foundational works of "dark science fiction" like Thomas M. Disch's 334 (1972), Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (1979), and Michael Marshall Smith's Spares (1996)? How central is terror to the macabre humor of cartoonists and illustrators like Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, and Edward Gorey, all of whom for years have unsettled children and adults alike with delightfully wicked works such as Favorite Haunts (1976), I Paint What I See (1971), and The Dwindling Party (1982)? Can anyone be convinced to read Joan Aiken, John Gordon, Philippa Pearce, or Robert Westall, young adult writers of supernatural fiction whose well-crafted stories leave the work of most contemporary horror writers in the dust?
These authors are The Other Masters of Terror, every bit the equal of their more well-known contemporaries. Regardless of what classification one prefers--horror, dark crime, dark fantasy, ecofiction, cybernoir, the new weird, or the new Gothic--the great works of modern horror are, at heart, all tales of terror that explore their thematic concerns by evoking strong unease and discomfort in the reader, tilting his or her world slightly askew. As the Other Masters of Terror continually remind us, nightmares need not be supernatural or cosmic to jolt us awake covered in a cold sweat, gasping for breath as we fumble for the lights.
Please note: The selections in this catalogue, which we hope you enjoy, represent only a portion of the titles that constitute our recommended reading list The Other Masters of Terror: 1967-1997, which we invite you to peruse. We welcome inquires about any titles on this list, in stock or not.Read More