Why horror writing will be big in 2007

Keep all the lights on! Horror is set to be one of the coolest literary trends of 2007, but these ghosts, beasts and ghouls are subtle, not schlocky. Danuta Kean reports on a reanimated genre

There can't be many men who have turned down Nicole Kidman, but author Steven Hall is one of them. The Oscar-winning actress phoned the 31-year-old author as New Line Cinema's trump card when it tried to buy film rights to his debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts. Hall rejected her advances in favour of Film4, knowing the book, a Donnie Darko meets Memento supernatural thriller, already has the kind of industry buzz around it that makes star endorsement unnecessary.

Nicole shouldn't worry. There are plenty of other books coming out this year that could turn into the kind of up-market horror movies she likes. Hall is in the vanguard of a horror revival that is expected to rehabilitate the genre among the literary cognoscenti in 2007.

The writers leading the new wave are all young debut authors or authors moving in to the genre for the first time. Their inspirations are as likely to be Haruki Murakami and Kôji Suzuki's The Ring as Anne Rice or James Herbert. Many have a more literary style than is usual in a genre that has been in the doldrums since the early 1990s. Some could compete against the more anodyne lit lite choices on Richard and Judy. All should benefit from growing demand for horror from mainstream readers.

According to Nielsen BookScan, which compiles the nation's book charts, sales of titles classified as horror and ghost stories almost doubled to just over £7m by value in 2006 from £3.8m in 2005. The number of copies sold increased from 566,000 in 2005 to almost one million (892,000) over the same period. Though old-school writers including Herbert, Dean Koontz and Shaun Hutson continue to dominate, new names are emerging, though not all are classified as horror.

Publishers remain nervous about the genre after the bubble burst at the end of the 1980s, and most prefer to leave the word off the spine. Instead, novels filled with vampires, werewolves, ghouls and ghosties have been reclassified as dark fantasies, supernatural suspense or even, if they look likely to hit the hip lit market, general fiction.

As a result, the increase in sales of books you and I might regard as horror is far higher than BookScan implies. One of the biggest selling books of last year was Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, a Richard and Judy choice classified as "general fiction" by publisher Time Warner. A modern-day hunt for Dracula, it had all the hallmarks of classic horror. Susanna Clarke's 2005 fantastical debut Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell also reached a mainstream audience thanks to being labelled general fiction by Bloomsbury, despite the fairies and resurrected brides that populated its pages. Even Stephen King published his latest horror shocker Cell under general fiction.

Philippa Pride, King's British editor at Hodder and Stoughton, sniffs: "Steve does not see himself as a 'horror' writer. He sees that as a label put on by publishers or booksellers to have a place to shelve him. I have taken off the genre 'horror' from the back of his books and put just 'fiction: general' for a long time."

Steven Hall admits his publishing deal was influenced by Canongate's decision not to label his novel as horror or fantasy, even though its protagonist Eric Sanderson is pursued through such horror staples as abandoned hospitals, disused sewers and darkened warehouses. "I wouldn't have given it to them, if they had wanted to publish it as a genre novel," he says. "It's not snobbery, but my book is different and placing it in the horror section would mean other readers wouldn't find it."

Even Stephen King's son Joe Hill appears to be eschewing the label, despite writing a novel aimed at scaring the bejesus out of readers. The trade buzz surrounding Hill's debut Heart-Shaped Box is such that proofs were being snapped up long before the secret of his parentage slipped out and are now appearing on eBay, something that usually only happens to established stars.

"It's a hot proof," enthuses Michael Rowley, horror aficionado and Waterstone's buyer. "It is not because of whose son he is. It is a very good book and is very interesting as a first novel, a little bit different."

Already a legend has grown around Heart-Shaped Box. Hill kept his parentage secret for 10 years, choosing to be known among the horror cognoscenti as a writer of chilling short stories, as Steve Jones, editor of the Mammoth Book of Horror and Hill's first publisher in the UK, recalls: "I first published his short stories four years ago and had no idea who he was until last year when the story broke. He was such a good writer he stood out anyway."

Jo Fletcher, Hill's editor at Gollancz, also claims not to have known who he was until after she paid "a realistic, not over-the-top" advance for his novel. "We were already getting amazing reactions to the book within the trade before anyone realised who he was," says Fletcher, buzzing at the thought that she may have one of the hits of the year on her hands. "No disrespect to his father, who is an amazing writer, but Joe has the freshness of youth."

There's a generational change not only among authors but editors, claims Steve Jones. "A younger generation of editors who grew up reading horror came up through the ranks and had horror on their wish list. Now they are in a position of power, and that is what is behind the sudden upsurge."

Darren Nash, editorial director at Orbit, which publishes rising stars such as Mike Carey and Charlie Huston, adds: "Horror is an area that has been waiting to be exploited. A lot of readers have been reading Tolkienesque novels and asking themselves, 'Why does fantasy always have to be set in medieval Europe, why can't it be now?'" He creditsBuffy the Vampire Slayer as by far the biggest influence on the resurrection of horror.

While Steven Hall is less enamoured of Buffy, he admits his penchant for the genre reflects popular culture and a more general acceptance of the fantastical by younger readers. No longer do we have to read or watch imaginative fantasy movies with a postmodern sneer. Nerd chic is cool. "We do seem to be less cynical now than we were," Hall claims. "Storytelling no longer has to be grittily real like it was 10 years ago."

Hall believes a literary revival in horror has been bubbling for some time. "One of the biggest influences on me was Mark Z Danielewski's House of Leaves, which came out in 2000," he says. "It looks difficult to read, very postmodern, using unusual layouts, but it is also a brilliant horror story - a horrific Tristram Shandy. I think a lot of my generation of writers absorbed it. It has definitely been a big influence on me."

The imaginative freedom offered by horror is also an attraction for the new generation of writers, says author Will Elliot. "I find more is possible in a story when the rules of reality can be disregarded. Writing in, I guess you could call it magic realism, makes it possible to hold up a warped mirror to our world and laugh at the strange shapes reflected in it. That way fiction can be a complete escape from our world or, if you want, you can analyse the reflections and try to apply them, extracting some kind of relevant meaning."

What meaning 21st-century readers are seeking in the new horror is disputed. Gollancz's Jo Fletcher is convinced that the prevailing culture of fear created by the "war on terror" and rising crime has helped create a market for books in which fear is contained, even though unknown "others" haunt the page. "When things are going well in the world people are less interested in horror," she claims. "When times are dark, then horror becomes more popular."

Fletcher's theory stands up when a comparison is made between the heady days of horror in the 1970s, as inflation bit, the Cold War sent a chill across the world and unemployment rose. However, her theory receives short shrift from Francis Bickmore, Steven Hall's editor at Canongate, who is also publishing Scarlett Thomas's fantastical The End Of Mister Y in June. "I'm incredibly cynical about 'war on terror' theories about horror's new popularity," he says robustly. "I don't think people are that afraid of terrorism. Actually, I think that we are so safe now that our primal instincts to hunt and run used when pursued by predators are unchallenged, so we choose to run away imaginatively from ghosts and monsters." He concedes: "Of course writers are trying to decode the war on terror through literature, but I think fundamentally the interest reflects the human condition."

THE NEW FRIGHT FIC

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (Gollancz, March) Stephen King's son turns out to be sexier, smarter and cooler than his dad with this tale about a fading death metal star who buys a ghost over the internet.

The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliot (Quercus, Jan) Slacker Jamie finds himself in a circus run by a werewolf who is in an eternal battle with his brother, George. Spins circus stereotypes into a comic tale with a horrific edge.

Already Dead by Charlie Huston (Orbit, Feb) Zombies threaten New York's vampire community, and it's up to one rogue bloodsucker to investigate. Philip Marlow meets Lestat as crime noir turns spooky.

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall (Canongate, March) 'Donnie Darko' meets 'Memento' and 'Jaws'. Eric Sanderson wakes up, his memory gone, then starts to receive letters sent by himself before his blackout. He is also being hunted by a conceptual shark. A postmodern spin on horror with a hip, Alex Garland vibe.

The Terror by Dan Simmons (Bantam, Feb) Science fiction writer turns to horror with tale of an 1845 Arctic expedition that goes wrong as an entity picks off the sailors, man by man.

Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert (Bantam, April) Contemporary Gothic romantic chiller has Londoner Gabriel Blackstone using his psychic gifts to help his ex-lover.

Darkside by Tom Becker (Scholastic, Jan) Atmospheric tale of London ruled by the offspring of Jack the Ripper. A contender for the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize, it has 'crossover' written all over it.

PARA PORN

Chick lit is also getting a horror makeover, thanks to a new generation of writers inspired as much by Buffy as Jane Austen. Paranormal romances, to give them their official title, are on the rise. Independent publisher Piatkus pioneered them, but all the leading players, including Headline, Orion and Time Warner, are moving in this year.

Horror expert Steve Jones says that "Para Porn" represents a new genre, though he regards it disdainfully as women's fiction rather than horror. "It's aimed at a different audience to traditional horror," he says, with the hint of a sneer.

Darren Nash of fantasy publisher Orbit says: "Blame Buffy, but the sci fi and fantasy lists in the US are rife with kick-ass chicks who fight vampires and have romances, and they are starting to sell really well over here." He recently published Stephanie Meyer's sexy teen vampire romance Twilight, already a hit in the US.

Vampires are in vogue. "There's a lot coming on to the market this year," says Waterstone's buyer Michael Rowley. "Random House has Fang Land by John Marks in April, which is basically a retelling of the Dracula legend using email and diaries. It is very smart and up-to-date, a sort of The Vampire Wears Prada."

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