Horror, as a genre, often gets an unfair rap. While many classic literary greats would fall squarely into the horror genre – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, for instance, or Dracula by Bram Stoker – it still remains one of those categories that “serious readers” often discount.
In fact, if history seems to have proven anything, it seems to be that horror novels are often only canonised as classics long after their authors have shuffled off the mortal coil – authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, who was relegated to pulp status during his lifetime but hailed posthumously as a master of the genre.
With BestHorrorAuthors.com recently naming its best 10 horror writers alive today, I was curious to see how many on the list would merit a place among the literary greats of today; specifically, how many had books listed in the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die volume.
(Not that I necessarily agree with this list fully; I wouldn’t, for example, classify Neil Gaiman as a horror writer, even though he’s written some dark and disturbing stories. It is worth looking at, however, to get an idea of both the diversity of work that exists under the genre and how underrated the writers are.)
As it turns out, only two: The Shining by Stephen King and Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice.
I agree wholeheartedly with the first, while being a little ambivalent about the latter – I’m a big fan of Interview With The Vampire, but I wouldn’t classify it as a “must read before you die”. If anything, I’m a little puzzled that this made the cut as a horror novel but not Richard Matheson’s brilliant I Am Legend.
There are other horror titles listed, such as The Pit And The Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe and The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James, as well as Frankenstein, Dracula and Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness – but this just goes to prove my theory that living horror writers today aren’t taken as seriously as they deserve to be.
Take, for instance, the inclusion of The Shining. It is, without doubt, one of King’s great works, and has achieved cult status partly due to the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. It is by no means though the only novel by King worthy of recognition, nor even, in this Constant Reader’s humble opinion, his best.
To me, that would be, without a doubt, It – the book that twists the anxieties of adolescence and frustrations of unfulfilled adulthood into one bloodcurdlingly fearsome tale of phobias and nightmares, featuring one of the scariest characters to grace both page and screen, Pennywise the Clown.
A very close second, though, would be Misery, a masterpiece of psychological terror where an author finds himself kept prisoner by a crazed fan who insists he writes her favourite character’s story the way she wants. Despite multiple re-reads, there are still moments in this story where I can’t bring myself to turn the page, frozen in fear of what is coming next.
Others will no doubt cite Cujo, or Salem’s Lot, or The Stand as the definitive King – as a wildly prolific author with nearly 60 novels to his name, there is no dearth of choice.
And yet, apparently only The Shining is worthy of being included as an example of his work; and this despite the fact that there is space for at least four titles by Haruki Murakami and practically everything penned by Charles Dickens in the list.
Of course, the same could have been said for science fiction and fantasy until fairly recently, when literary works like Emily St Mandel’s Station Eleven and the mainstream success of, among others, George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series, seem to have created a sense of legitimacy for the genre – not among its longtime fans, who have never needed that, but for the wider reading audience.
But it can happen. Authors like Lauren Beukes (The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters) and M.R. Carey (The Girl With All The Gifts) have recently managed to cross the horror/literary divide successfully. Perhaps the much-belated respect and acceptance for the horror genre isn’t too far behind.
Sharmilla Ganesan is currently a Fulbright/Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in the United States. She is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.