How To Pick Out a Good Horror Book

Have you ever had the experience of going into the produce section of the local Hyped-Up Hypermarket to grab something basic like an apple or a melon and found yourself intimidated by the fruit?

I have this problem all the time. I mean there are so many different categories these days, but when you get right up close to them, they all look alike, you know? More alike than they used to, at least. All the apples have exactly the same pigment and the same-sized bruise on them. The melons look like midget green volleyballs, they are so perfect and round and identical. So how are you supposed to choose? You're not allowed to just munch down on the groceries right there in the store, except for popping a few cherries or grapes in your mouth (who me?), so instead you're supposed to rely these rules for how to pick out a good melon. Rules for how to tell the inside from the outside, in other words.

My thing is, I'm always forgetting those rules. Is it supposed to be soft on one end? (But which end? Are the ends different?) I think I heard once you're supposed to prick it with your thumbnail, twirl it around counterclockwise three times, and then see what it smells like. Or do you thump it? And if so, what is it supposed to sound like?

Well at any rate, this happened to me yet again last Saturday and I was standing there in front of the melons, and I started thinking about all the time I spend standing around in front of racks and stacks of books, trying to pick out a good horror book. If you're lazy about it and just walk out with the first book that catches your attention, it may not turn out to be very tasty. You can't always remember which author they recommended in the magazine you read, or what your officemate Jennifer the horror expert said, so sometimes it would be nice to have some rules. Rules for how to pick out a good horror book. Except that unlike the melon rules, maybe you'd do it often enough that you'd remember them. I don't know about you, but I read horror books much more often that I eat any kind of fruit.

So...I invented some rules. Actually, the truth of the matter is, I invented them about fifteen years ago and have been testing them and refining them ever since. But only in the light of last Saturday's melon quandary have I felt ready to share them with the general public.

OK. I trust that all who want to learn how to pick out a good horror book are on board with me at this point, and all who want to learn about honeydews have gone elsewhere. The first step in picking out a horror book is finding out where the horror books grow. You can't just wander out into any old place and expect to find horror books.

"But wait a minute," I can hear you saying. "I thought horror books grew almost EVERYWHERE."

This is true. Horror books DO grow almost everywhere.

It's one of their more endearing characteristics: they are happy, hardy little organisms, managing to survive with some degree of integrity even in the vast poisoned soils of airport newstands, overstimulating supermarkets, and drugstore paperback counters. And you can make some outstanding, even thrilling, discoveries in these unlikely places. I discovered T. E. D. Klein, for example, in the paperback rack of a seedy chain drugstore in Little Rock, Arkansas. Klein, who was at one time the editor of the late lamented Twilight Zone magazine, is a follower of weird fantasist Arthur Machen, and finding him right across from the candy bars in an Arkansas drugstore was kind of like finding an oversized poster of Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" on sale at the local Pier One. The deliciously peculiar in the midst of the grotesquely ordinary, in other words.

But don't let me mislead you with this little brag of mine about where I found T. E. D. Klein. (It was Dark Gods, by the way -- a great collection of novellas). If you're a newcomer to horror, you'll do better avoiding the chain drugstores and such places, if only because it's hard to concentrate on reading while standing in an aisle where munchkins are swiping M & M's and yapping in foreign languages.

You'll do better going to a quality bookstore. Not a mall bookstore, either. A good bookstore.

Once you get there and commence your reconnoitre, you'll notice that unlike the fantasy and science fiction books, the horror books do not always congregate neatly in a separate portion of the bookstore. Sometimes there's a separate section for them, but even then, not all the horror will be in that section -- they'll often be with miscellaneous current fiction, and in so-called "literature," although a few (mostly serial killer stories) may show up in the mystery/suspense/crime category. But you can take it as a rule of thumb that wherever Stephen King is, that's where most of the other new horror is. (We can talk about the old horror -- dusty, creaky, delightful, old horror -- at another time. It's mostly in the fine literature section, where it belongs.)

Now if you happen to live near a specialty bookstore, then you're in business. Bookstores dealing only or mostly in horror are as rare as quality video places, but often mystery, sci-fi, or comic bookstores will support some horror in a separate section. You'll always be ahead of the game buying horror at a specialty store, because the buyers are more inclined to pick up some of the lesser known authors, instead of just the big blockbusters.

Let me put in a plug here for used bookstores. Even in small towns that wouldn't dream of having a separate horror section in the local high-inventory outlet, you can almost always find used bookstores with special horror racks. Often the racks will even be decorated with blood-red "dripping" letters or clip art of a skull-and-crossbones. These racks can be great fun. But they are not for the faint of heart, believe me -- they can be formidable and mind-numbing, and they definitely are at least 90% pure crap (Sturgeon's Law). But they are cheap. They are comfortable places to browse for hours on end. You can pick up the books that are a few years old. And sometimes, you can meet people in there who know enough about horror to give you some pointers. (You might even run into me.)

But no matter where you go -- the well-lit book emporium or the quirky second-hand shop, you can't just walk in and hit paydirt if you don't know what you're doing. You must develop a search technique for horror books. You must develop your own set of nearly infallible rules for separating the yummy from the sour.

I've been reading paperback horror, now, for eighteen lucky years. I am willing to share my own personal horror-book rules with you, but I must caution you from the start that these are the rules of a person who has a literature background and tends to prefer books that are well-written over books that are not. They are also the rules of a person not easily disgusted or offended. I enjoy flayed skin and dripping flesh. I also enjoy subtle, highly psychological terror. Most of all, I enjoy the nightmares I get from these books.

Actually, if you don't relish a good juicy nightmare, or a nice eerie paranoid evening all by yourself, you may not want to get into this genre at all.

Enough caveats. For starters, this is the short version of my rules:

1) Text -- small print that passes the random page test
2) Blurbs -- the more, the more prestigious, the better
3) Little niceties -- the more, the more interesting, the better

Let's start with the text of the book. Don't bother with the cover at first: go straight to the words inside. Flip the pages with your hands. Is the print reasonably small and attractive? Are the chapter headings visually satisfying? Laugh if you want, but I think you can indeed judge a horror book by its appearance. (But NOT by its cover -- more on that later.) The text itself is very important. If the print font is large and clumsy-looking, forget it. You may lose a few gems that way, but if they really have staying power, they'll get reprinted in a more attractive format and you can pick them up later.

If you're satisfied with the size and look of the text, then go for a random page test. Now what you're scanning for, in a page test of a horror book, is a negative thing: you're scanning for an absence of really egregious writing. If you happen to find some good writing, that's gravy, but don't be turned off if your random page turns up a workaday narrative of what seem to be ordinary events. I don't know other genres well enough to comment on their styles, but some of the best horror books have very plain, unembellished prose. But if you find something on that page that turns you off immediately -- a hackneyed metaphor or a fuzzy description -- the book hasn't passed rule number one. I don't want to be tacky here and name too many names, but examples of authors that (for me) do not pass the random page test are V. C. Andrews, John Saul, and Rick Hautala. Remember: this is a negative criterion, not a positive one.

Once your book's made it through test number one, it's time to look at the blurbs. You know, those quotations praising the book that you find plastered on the front cover, back cover, and inside first several pages. The more blurbs, the better. Many blurbs means a lot of people thought this book was worth their while to read and review. The more prestigious publications, the better: if the New York Times liked it, if the Washington Post liked it, even if the Houston Chronicle liked it-- if any big-city newspaper gave it some words of encouragement, that's a good sign. So is a positive review from Locus, the sci-fi/fantasy news rag. But please note: don't waste your time reading the blurbs at all -- they're all going to be positive, and be more or less the same anyway. The important thing is, where are they from? Be careful about blurbs from California -- they're often unreliable. Blurbs from ditzy magazines or nowhere newspapers aren't worth very much. And pay no attention to blurbs from Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, or Kirkus Reviews -- be especially wary of books for which those three publications are the only blurbs they could find.

As for blurbs from other horror writers, you'll have to wait until you've read those writers, to be able to evaluate them. Stephen King throws out a lot of blurbs -- he's been called the "blurbmeister" of the field. In my experience, he never plugs a book that's actively bad, but his blurbs do show up on some mediocre stuff. It goes without saying that if you don't like John Creepy, you probably won't like a book whose only claim to fame is that John Creepy liked it. Reviews from big-city newspapers are more trustworthy, believe me.

This seems like a good point to pause and talk about the cover art and cover graphics. My rule is: pay absolutely NO attention to the cover art and cover graphics. If you're going to read a horror book, get used to the idea that you may be reading something you're tempted to put a brown paper cover on, because the big embossed silver lettering and the fakey-looking monster on the cover look really stupid. What I've noticed is, the more books an author sells, the more veto power they appear to have over their cover art, and thus the art improves with time. Why this should be the case, is beyond me. You'd think the publishers would want to give the most attractive cover art to an unknown author, to make them appear classy or literary. At any rate, some of the best horror has truly lousy cover art.

All right now -- if your book's made it through the first two gauntlets, you're probably going to buy it, but if you want to be really sure, you can move into an area that I call "the little niceties." These are the fussy-fussy things that authors and publishers attach to the text to doll them up: introduction, preface, acknowledgments, dedication, quotations, and (at the end) mini-biography of the author. For the most part, the more of this fussy stuff, the better, because it indicates that someone cared enough about this book to put a little effort into doing it right. The acknowledgments section, for example, may tell you that the author talked to a doctor to improve the accuracy of le filet de human heart, or talked to a homicide bureau to figure out what kind of donuts cops eat. A mini-biography at the back is always an encouraging sign, no matter what it says, because it shows that the author is (at least apparently) a real person who's not ashamed to admit having written this book. And most important of all, in my personal view, are the quotations: if the author can appreciate the English language as found in Edgar A. Poe or Wallace Stevens or the Talking Heads or whomever, they may well have a decent critical eye for their own prose.

Don't be disappointed if it takes you a while to get the hang of it. When you find a horror book, pick it up and quickly run through the three tests. Remember: first the text -- scan the pages for visual appeal and then read a little. If it doesn't pass the first test, put it down and move on to another book. Seriously -- you should stop right there if you don't like the text. Then the blurbs -- don't waste your time reading them, just scan for names of publications. If it doesn't pass the blurb test with flying colors, don't be put off immediately -- you may be dealing with an unknown author. (As you get more proficient, you'll get in the habit of checking the spine for a press you've had good luck with in the past.) Move on to the third test, see what there is in the way of little niceties, and decide whether it all adds up to a "YES" vote or a "NO" vote.

And then, after you've read the book(s) that you picked out with this technique, look back and see if the rules were valid, or if they need to be modified in some way to suit your particular taste.

If you want, drop me a line and let me know what books you tried these on and whether they worked for you.

1995 Update: These remarks have been updated a bit to reflect market changes since 1991, when I first wrote them. Another, more substantive, change is worth noting, though -- which is that I rarely shop for horror in bookstores anymore. Why? Because if you're a serious, long-term committed horror fan, you'll be reading the reviews in the horror specialty magazines (my favorite is Necrofile), and keeping up with the horror news on alt.horror and other forums on the Net, and you'll pretty much know in advance what books you wish to purchase. Not that standing in front of bookstore shelves and picking them out like melons isn't gratifying, for sure; but the trouble with that approach is, you mostly miss out on the small-press and UK publications. So now I do a lot of mail-order buying. (Actually, whom am I kidding? I don't order this stuff by mail -- I order it over the phone. Very decadent, I know.)

But... if you're a relative newcomer to horror, you can still find good stuff in the bookstore -- if you know how to look. Happy hunting!

Copyright © Fiona Webster 1990

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