Ten Great Horror Authors (Who Aren't Stephen King)
Horror is a genre that few writers can do well. Perhaps it is because it is so easy to fall into formula, and unlike other genre fiction, horror gains a lot of its power from the ability to surprise the reader. Horror has to take readers to a place that is truly unsettling and new and with so many writers already trudging through the same territory, it becomes increasingly hard to write great horror. The old monsters, vampires and werewolves, have since vacated the confines of the horror novel and now are looked at mostly as creatures of fantasy. When writers like H. P. Lovecraft were writing horror stories it was simply called "weird fiction" and its audience was small. It was the stuff of pulps and comic books. But since Stephen King the genre has gotten more mainstream, though still it inhabits the genre ghetto, further down than perhaps any genre except perhaps the paperback romance. The ten writers on this list have elevated that genre to the level of art. They have managed to make something fresh out of tired cliches and make art out of the unlikeliest material.
Probably the most famous on this list Barker hasn't written any real horror in years, vacating the dark confines of the gruesome in favor of the more palatable genre of fantasy. But when he wrote real horror he was good at it. His novella, The Hellbound Heart, served as the basis of his movie Hellraiser and though the imagery from the film is unsettling, his words cut even deeper into the reader's imagination. For a great collection of scary stories you can't do better than Barker's series The Books of Blood. Once collected in six volumes, Barker was able to rework the common tropes of horror tales past with a sly wink, without sacrificing a bit of the terror that is the heart of a good horror story.
POPPY Z. BRITE
She doesn't write much horror anymore, growing tired of the limitations that the genre and her own fans tried to place on her work. When Brite came on the scene she was like a hipper, funnier and more colorful version of Anne Rice, her books often set in New Orleans with vampires and gay men as protagonists. Her work walks right up to the line between literary fiction and horror. Drawing Blood is a ghost story where we aren't even sure we have experienced anything supernatural. The book is as much about underground comics, music, computer hacking and a gay love story as it is a horror tale. Her novel Exquisite Corpse, borrowing its title from the literary form, is a mix of psychological metaphor, sharply written southern Gothic and Splatterpunk. Are You Loathsome Tonight? besides having one of the best titles of a horror collection ever, is like reading the literary equivalent of a jazz rift as Brite transports you through her strange little world of gruesome treasures.
Gaiman is a fantasy writer and some of his work is light and whimsical, which makes a lot of people not realize that he sometimes writes some of the best horror you will ever read. His most famous novel, American Gods, fits into the category of "dark fantasy." The distinction between this and horror can barely be drawn once one enters the unsettling world of the book itself. His short story collections, Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things are filled with brilliant horror gems. The Wedding Present, hidden in the introduction of the former book, manages to be a truly disturbing and unbelievable romantic within a brief number of pages. The latter books A Study in Emerald, a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and H. P. Lovecraft is worth the purchase of the book all by itself.
Joe Hill changed his name to try to distance himself from his famous father, Stephen King, but he need not have worried too much. Though the two write in the same genre, Hill is much more playful than his father, borrowing techniques from postmodernist and just as willing to end his stories with a punchline as he is with a big scare. His short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, brilliantly alternates from heartfelt nostalgia, surreal satire and gut wrenching horror. Just because a story begins with one tone doesn't mean it will end with the same one, and Hill's mastery of tone shifts makes each story truly surprising. His two novels, Heart-shaped Box and Horns show the same ability to juggle tones masterfully. The former is a creepy ghost story, while the latter is a satirical dark fantasy about a man who wakes up with devilish horns and creepy powers.
Keene was one of those writer's I would have dismissed as a hack, due to the cheap looking paperbacks I have seen and the seemingly silly plots of some of his books. This would have been a big mistake. I discovered Keene by reading his short story The King, In Yellow (a play on the Robert Chambers 1895 classic The King in Yellow) in a Best New Horror Anthology. His story was easily the most original, funniest and scariest one in the collection. His zombie novel, The Rising, won a Bram Stoker award but now is hard to find. Recent work, such as the fable Tequila's Sunrise and the tongue in cheek thriller Kill Whitey show that Keene is still getting better.
JOE R. LANSDALE
Lansdale is best known for his crime series starring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. The first novel in the series, which is substantially gruesome, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award for Best Novel. I discovered Lansdale from his short story The Night They Missed The Horror Show, one of the most brilliant and controversial short stories I have ever read. This story is collected in Lansdale's By Bizarre Hands. Probably best known for the movie adaptation of his novella Bubba Ho-Tep, Lansdale uses language like few writers in any genre, spinning a unique vernacular coming out of his home state of Texas and melding it with his own brand of unique weirdness.
The legendary Ira Levin has been praised to the skies by contemporary horror writers like Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk, and many of his novels have become hit movies, but he is still sadly underrated by many horror fans. His masterpiece Rosemary's Baby is a great template for how to construct both a brilliant thriller and a first rate satire. The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil and especially Sliver all top their movie adaptations. I'd recommend avoiding the sequel Son of Rosemary, (The ending not only ruins the book but tarnishes the original as well.) but otherwise you can't go wrong with Levin. Nearly every one of his books is as well-constructed and as entertaining as books can get.
Much of what Lumley writes is pastiche of Lovecraft and this will appeal to Lovecraft fans but few others. Lumley's series Necroscope however, may be an antidote to the Twilight series. In Lumley's universe vampires are not supernatural beings but biological ones and they reproduce by impregnating human women, after which their children eat their way out. Lumley's series is full of fun and gruesome twists on conventional horror tropes. Unfortunately, he has never been able to work his way out of the pulp fiction ghetto to find mainstream success but his Necroscope series is a must read for any hardcore horror fan.
Matheson is best known for the many short stories that he contributed to The Twilight Zone. He also invented the zombie novel with I Am Legend, a novel that has been filmed three times (most recently with Will Smith) but has never matched the original source in terms of great storytelling. Much of what Matheson has written fits into other genres. He has written as much science fiction as horror (like his contemporary Ray Bradbury) but when he has turned to the horror genre he has consistently done great work. His ghost story Stir of Echos remains an underead gem.
Straub started as a serious literary writer but when his ghost story Julia became a huge hit he switched over to horror for good. He has since won multiple Bram Stoker awards and collaborated with Stephen King on a series of novels. His novel Ghost Story deserves to be held up one of the great Gothic novels of all time. He won the World Fantasy Award for his novel Koko, one of his most famous and best works. Perhaps because of his literary origins Straub is one of the more subtle horror writers on this list, but it makes him no less effective.
More by this Author
An overview of the books of John Irving. Analysis of all his novels over his entire career.
An overview of the important themes about science and religion that are explored in the novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.
A harsh critique of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, with comparisons with Kant, Hume and Descartes.