Friday, February 6, 2009

The Death of Horror?

I've been noticing a trend over the past year or so, one that caused me more than a fair amount of concern. It seems like Horror is slowly fading away.

It all started during a visit to a local Borders book store last Spring. I was browsing around, not looking for anything in particular, and decided to take a look at what was on the shelves of the Horror section.

But I couldn't find it. I spent a good ten or twelve minutes pacing up and down the isles, sure that I had simply overlooked or missed it. Finally fed up, I confronted the guy at the Information Desk, who informed me that they no longer had a Horror section.

I'm not proud of it, but I will admit that I spent several minutes arguing with this poor clerk, who obviously had no direct say in corporate policy. I asked him what they did with Stephen King, Charlaine Harris, Michael Laimo, Douglas Clegg, Bryan Smith, Brian Keene, John Saul, Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum?

"You can find them mixed in the 'Literature' section."

I checked other stores in the chain, and even jumped over to a few Barnes & Nobles, in the hopes that this was an isolated incident. But it wasn't. The major bookseller chains have, for some reason or another, declared that Horror is no longer a viable genre. Even iconic horror novels like Dracula and Frankenstein have been given the boot over to the "Classic Literature" department, where they can rub shoulders with Ethan Frome and Anna Karenina. No matter how gruesome, bloody, or horrific it is, you aren't going to find it labeled as Horror.

But that's it! Maybe this is just the corporate big-wigs protecting themselves from some imagined stigma. I'll bet that the smaller, independently owned bookstores aren't running scared from a legitimate genre with a huge fan base! To prove my point, I hit the website IndieBound, dedicated to promoting local privately owned businesses, grabbed the addresses of half a dozen nearby independent bookstores, and went on a little road trip.

I succeeded in proving myself wrong.

Most of the stores I visited did indeed have Horror sections, but for the most part they seemed generally ignored and left to their on devices. If the Horror section was there, it was very well hidden.

I asked the owner of one store why his Horror section was only three shelves of one bookcase. He replied that no one seemed to buy anything from that section, so he had to cut down. I took a closer look at the shelves and found that ninety-percent of his Horror section consisted of three authors; Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Saul. Of those three authors, ninety-percent of the titles were reprints of older titles. No wonder your Horror books aren't selling, when the bulk of your selection can be found at any yard sale for a nickel a piece.

Almost all of the other local bookstores were the same. They figured that Horror doesn't sell well, so they only stocked well-known authors that have already sold millions, not taking into account that this means millions of people already own these books. What they were all missing were new Horror authors, up-and-coming Horror stars with small followings, and Horror novels from small independent presses.

The last store I visited was the scariest of them all. It was just a local town book store, and the owner was that kind of straightforward that bordered on rude. She didn't stock Horror or Science Fiction books because, honestly, her customers didn't buy those kinds of books.

Three things about this statement struck me as funny. First, she told me this during the peak shopping time on a weekend, and the store was completely empty; I was her only customer. Second, her clerk behind her was noticeably entering books into an online database, leading me to believe that they sold books online as well (most bookstores these days make roughly 80% of their profits online) to a universal retail market. Third, she had just lost me as a potential customer, thus proving her self-fulfilling prophecy as spot-on accurate.

All of this left me somewhat depressed. Were all of these people correct? Was Horror on the way out? Had the world as a whole given up on scary books, and I just hadn't received the memo in time? Is Horror dead? This concept was jarring to me not only as a fan of Horror novels, but as an author currently at work on a Horror novel of my own. Was this the end for all that I loved? Should I abandon my second draft, start writing a self-help book with cooking recipes, and trade in my copy of Castaways for Marley & Me?

Just to make sure, I went to Amazon's main page and clicked on the link for the top twenty-five sellers. The list is updated by the hour, so I knew I wasn't getting any long term data. But still, even a list of the top twenty-five sellers on a Friday afternoon should be a good indicator of how bad things are for Horror novels.

The results? Out of the top twenty-five best selling novels in that hour alone, nine of them were Horror related. Granted, a good portion of them were related to Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, but that just cheered me up even more. Here is a series of Vampire novels that not only became a top-selling series, but gave birth to the seventh-highest grossing film of 2008.

So what does this mean? Horror novels (and films as well) are still raking in the money, but no one in a position to cash in seems to want to call it what it is. Has the genre as a whole gone underground? Let's be honest with ourselves; Horror has always been underground. It's the black sheep of the literary world, the dirty little secret that nobody wants to recognize as a viable entry into the art world that is literature. Do you read Maya Angelou? Of course! Did you purchase the newest politician's autobiography? Well, I do like to keep informed. Did you see Jack Ketchum's latest novel? What am I, fifteen? I don't read scary books!

But millions of people are, and I know you are. You're buying them new, purchasing them used, and swapping them with friends. But for some reason, the bookstores are ashamed of you. They want you to sneak in and hunt for your Horror novel in the general fiction section. They've taken away your Horror section so you don't hang around and browse, on the off-chance that you might scare off their real customers who are just swinging by to pick up the latest self-absorbed addiction/abused/mental illness autobiography. And your local privately-owned bookstores, the ones who don't want you to shop at the big commercial chains with wider variety and better selection, they're unhappy with you because you haven't bought that copy of Pet Sematary that's been sitting there since 2003.

So what can you as a Horror fan do? How do you deal with a retail market that doesn't respect you as viable customer? The answer is simple.

Don't shop there.

The bookstores need you, not the other way around. You like a Horror author that the bookstores either don't carry or hide away next to the Clancy novels? Go to his publisher's site and buy directly from them. Even better, go to the Author's website and order an autographed copy directly from him, let him know you care. Or buy it on Amazon. If the Border's chains and Mom & Pop bookstores want to compete with the online Goliath, maybe they should offer more to their customers than overpriced coffee and disdain for their reading choices.

Of course, when I went to browse books at Amazon, guess which genre didn't turn up? That's right, no Horror. They've got a Horror section alright, but it is a sub-category under Literature.

I didn't say it was going to be easy.

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