From the late 1970s through much of the ’80s, horror fiction, long one of the most marginalized forms of popular entertainment, experienced an aesthetic and cultural resurgence. The “horror boom,” propelled largely by the phenomenal success of Stephen King, paved the way for numerous writers — Peter Straub, Thomas Tessier, Chet Williamson, Ramsey Campbell and Dan Simmons, to name just a few — who brought talent, intelligence and seriousness of purpose to the genre. But every boom has a bust, and cynical, second-rate imitations featuring haunted mansions, rampaging demons and evil children soon overran the marketplace.
It’s been apparent for some time that a second horror renaissance is underway, one that is quieter and less market-oriented. There is a growing reservoir of first-rate work coming from both mainstream publishers and small, independent presses with names like Cemetery Dance, Subterranean Press and Bloodshot Books. One of the first to notice this resurgence was Peter Straub, whose 2009 anthology “Poe’s Children” remains one of the most reliable guides to the developments still taking place.
The field’s current vitality springs from a potent combination of gifted young writers and recognized masters, many of whom are writing as well and prolifically as ever. A case in point is Campbell, now in his sixth decade as a published writer. Through the auspices of PS Publishing, which has done so much to keep Campbell’s work before the public, he has now produced a late-career masterpiece called “The Three Births of Daoloth.” In three volumes spanning 60 years, the books recount the ongoing struggle of three lifelong friends against inimical forces from beyond the universe, forces determined to dominate and transform the mass of humanity. This is pure cosmic horror, Lovecraftian in its essence, and it brings to mind Campbell’s first published work, “The Inhabitant of the Lake.” No one writing today does this sort of visionary fiction more effectively. In addition, the trilogy serves as a deeply felt reflection on loss, mortality, and the harsh realities of aging.
Campbell’s vision of cosmic terror recalls another recent release from PS Publishing: “The Ceremonies” by T.E.D. Klein. This is one of the signature horror novels of the 1980s, and it has been out of print for much too long. This lightly revised new edition tells of a young literary scholar caught up, without his knowledge, in a series of rituals designed to bring about the end of the human world. This is Klein’s only novel, and it is a gem.
The kind of fear that Campbell and Klein evoke so effectively is primal in nature, infused with a sense of strangeness and existential threat. But the uses of horror are many and varied, and the best of today’s writers bring a wide range of approaches to their explorations of bizarre circumstances and extreme states of mind. With apologies to the laundry list of gifted folks I’m overlooking, here’s a sampling of the best new horror currently on offer.
“Experimental Film” by Canada’s Gemma Files tells the story of a film critic whose research into a piece of ancient footage leads to violent and unexpected consequences. The novel balances Hungarian folklore and the history of Canadian cinema with a bruisingly realistic account of a young couple struggling to raise their autistic son. This is one of the most original, accomplished horror novels of recent years.
“The Loney” by Britain’s Andrew Michael Hurley likewise deals with the impact of damaged children on family life. During Easter Week, a deeply Catholic family travels to a distant shrine on the English coast, hoping to find a miracle cure for their mute older son. Miracles, they discover, do exist, but always at a cost. It’s hard to believe that this mysterious, richly atmospheric book is a first novel. Hurley’s second novel, “Devil’s Day,” will be published shortly, and anticipation runs high.
“Widow’s Point,” a collaborative novella by the father-son team of Richard and Billy Chizmar, is an epistolary rendering of a classic horror trope: a psychic investigator’s encounter with a Bad Place and its animating spirits. Set squarely in the tradition of Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson, this is a slow burn of a story best read in a single uninterrupted session.
More in the populist mode of Stephen King, Tom Deady’s “Haven” features adolescent heroes, cyclical murders in a small New England town and government malfeasance, not to mention a monster in the local river. The King influence is clear and not yet fully digested, but Deady’s novel has its own unique virtues: a compelling sense of character and place, an underlying warmth and a propulsive, steadily increasing narrative drive. In dark times, such dark fiction has its own special place. We may never have needed it more.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”