Why Mainstream Horror is Still Dead and Won’t Become a Zombie Anytime Soon

by Zakary McGaha

A ton of horror fiction fans are currently optimistic. They’re saying we’re due for another horror boom…you know, like the one in Paperbacks from Hell.

Well, I’ve said on multiple occasions in private, and I’ll say it again now: this isn’t going to happen. Nothing is going to bring back the mass-market flood. “But,” they say, “like, Halloween is coming out, and this one’s, like, more important. It’s really about PTSD! Horror has gotten smarter! Also, Stranger Things is really popular! That has to bleed into books!”

Yeah, this new Halloween is going to be about Michael Myers going after Laurie Strode again, and it’s probably going to be awesome, but it’s not going to be smart…at least not in the way you’d be led to believe by trendy people.

Millennials may answer, “Yes, I read,” on surveys, and they may all act like they enjoy smart things, but they don’t.

But I’m a college graduate,” they yell. It’s also easy to skate through college lit courses using internet summaries.

My point is, the demand for a diverse selection of fiction isn’t there these days, as evidenced by publishers and bookstores folding or getting lamer left and right, but the current young-person demographic will never admit that they don’t care while simultaneously claiming they read more than they look at social media.

Assuming my way of thinking is correct for the purpose of this article, does that mean there’s not a demand for a lot of cookie-cutter books that are either a) written by Stephen King, b) literary classics or c) on one of those best-seller lists old people care about?

Answer: no. Adult books falling into those categories still keep publishers and stores alive, but there’s no mid-list. There are no racks spilling over with the newest mass-market releases you can get for cheap. Go big or go home.

You may be wondering where I was going with my reference to Halloween and how it’s part of the new wave of SMART horror films…or isn’t. Well, “supposedly smart” (meaning either it presents itself as being more than it really is, or it’s overtly political in the left-leaning sense; in other words, it’s a gimmick) is trendy these days.

As mentioned above, it somehow compliments 80s horror nostalgia. These things, however, don’t equal NEW HORROR BOOM when added (doubly so for fiction). Sadly, they only equal an increase in revenue for Halloween, any movie that’s 80s-nostalgic or is a remake of a horror classic, Stephen King’s books and, maybe, the works of a couple fiction writers who unashamedly jump on the bandwagon…but they’re the exception.

Millennials aren’t going to be interested in this trend long enough to buy the products and pay the bills of writers they haven’t heard of. Sorry.

That being said…you probably think I hate 80s stuff, don’t you? Well, no. I don’t! I LOVE 80s stuff. I own close to (maybe over) a hundred Zebra novels. Yeah, if you read Paperbacks from Hell, you know what those are.

Back in the 80s, a publisher like Zebra could thrive. People actually read back then, and it was possible for publishers to lazily float along with authors no one knew of or cared about.

Some of my favorite Zebra titles are Celia by Ruby Jean Jensen, Toy Cemetery by William W. Johnstone, and Rockabye Baby by Stephen Gresham. None of these books were intellectually or stylistically heightened, but they all focused on a central component of the human spirit: story.

Celia was an intense tale of a mother and her children on the run from an abusive father/husband…who may or may not be a literal fucking monster. There’s also a ghost in there, but I don’t want to talk about that. Just go read it.

Rockabye Baby is about a guy who pretends to be crippled, then dresses up as a nurse, then walks around the woods to find kids to kill. It gets very cheesy when the supernatural element comes into play, but it’s fun nonetheless. Plus, the ending was surprisingly bitter.

Toy Cemetery differs from the previous two titles in that it’s, quite possibly, the most batshit crazy horror novel ever written that wasn’t trying to be bizarro. Describing it is sort of hard.

It’s got the stereotypical Vietnam veteran who turns out to be a complete bad ass, and it fits well in the cannon of “small town horror”…as each of these three titles do…but the craziness comes into play once you start figuring out which supernatural bogey, outside the Devil, is threatening the town.

It all sort of falls under the demonic category, given Johnstone’s usually religious bent, but damn! These demons must have loaded up on pulp horror before deciding to manifest! It’s an anything-goes type of book, so it’s a hoot throughout.

While, as noted, these novels weren’t deep or meaningful, they could very well function as such at the right time in someone’s life. The problem with modernity started when we rebelled from story, forgot its power, and started thinking we were above it because some stories—which happen to be the popular ones, but not always—are less meaningful and less heightened than others.

Whatever asshole who came along and said good literature is about more than “just the story” didn’t understand that everything meaningful, be it philosophical, theological, moral or conceptual, can, and does, exist within the story of our lives.

That being said, any story can accomplish anything, but we’ve been conditioned to think only the “heightened” stories count. We’ve become snobs who scoff at the low-brow, but, ironically, don’t go for the high-brow that much either… unless it’s in the form of the modern-day literary novel that always seems “meta” at all the wrong times.

We’ve forgotten that genre stuff can actually be good, although the fault of this lies with the mainstream, giant companies producing lowest-common-denominator stuff for quick bucks.

In my opinion, the smoke-and-mirror trick of artsy, meta lit always leads back to self-absorption and “writing about writing.” Trying to break away from the pureness of stories is like trying to reinvent the wheel, but, in this case, that wheel is crucial to our sanity and survival as an intelligent species.

Nonetheless, stories that are “just stories,”dead stories that don’t have meaning or offer any insight into the human condition, do exist and they’re ultimately to blame for our modern fiction crisis; they have ruined the name of stories everywhere, and have caused the masses to deem stories, as a whole, disposable and unimportant, although not necessarily less enjoyable.

In cinema’s case, we’ve become a race of “artsy” cynics who pretend to love what’s been labeled by conglomerates as “heightened” or “meaningful” (usually political), and turn pulp stories from every decade (especially the 80s!) into our disposable treats that exist to satisfy our totally-natural appetite for trash.

While we’re indulging in our trash, we may as well poke fun at it, too. And not read a lot of it. Why bother? It’s no different than, like, scrolling through Facebook or playing Mario.

With story dead, and all the career-oriented psycho storytellers out there selling their souls to Trendy Satan to stay afloat and, thus, leaving all the other writers in the dust, souls intact, but careers forgotten, it’s no wonder we’re not going to see a boom of any kind.

Writers of today are strangled by trends, political correctness and everything in between: the publishing world is keeping them from success, but it’s not all the modern publishers’ fault, as mentioned above.

In horror’s case, the mass-market boom, while awesome, helped to push the agenda that pulp fiction was entirely disposable, held no value, and was harmful to literature. It caused a rebellion, but, as I’ve said numerous times in roundabout ways…we rebelled too far!

But you said the new trend is for smarter things! How can that go out of style? Doesn’t that sound like a trend of quality over quantity, Zak?”

No. Nu-Smart, as I like to call it, is simply the modern aesthetic gimmick, and no one is allowed to challenge the status quo of modern, enlightened, progressive culture, so we’ve reached a mainstream version of intellectualism that makes me picture a Bic Mac wearing a smoking-jacket, a top-hat and a monocle, with a college diploma in place of the cheese.

Let me reiterate: the only horror-related stuff that will profit from this recent hipster-ish trend of “smart horror” mixed with “80s nostalgia” are the things contributing directly to it, such as coffee-table books and novels that try too hard to capture that 80s feel while simultaneously either missing the authenticity or poking too much fun.

As sad as all this sounds, it makes me genuinely curious what the next big, cultural trend will be…but I can bet you it won’t have anything to do with horror.

However, that doesn’t mean horror is doomed, nor does it mean that it’s completely dead now. Simply put, it’s doomed in the mainstream sense.

First off, let’s differentiate between books and movies, since much of this article has dealt with the mainstream line of horror, which, of course, exists in cinema. I flat out think mainstream horror movies are doomed, as stated above.

They’re only experiencing a tiny resurgence now because corporations have figured out how to make them trendy. The indie front is the only place good, new horror can possibly stay fresh…but indie films can fall victim to the same pitfalls, or they can just be stupid.

For every Sam Raimi or Phil Stevens (Flowers) you’re going to get twenty or thirty imitators who simply don’t have the magic touch. We need to hold indie horror to higher standards, but that also means we need to pay more…as in save up for the good stuff and pay for it instead of just watching whatever’s free on streaming. Support indie film companies like Unearthed Films. Buy DVDS. Review them. Keep the scene alive. WRITE ARTICLES. Everyone has to be active in this subculture.

Then, and only then, will the mainstream companies look at the little guys, scratch their chins, and say, “Well, these fellas are turning a profit. Let’s put some cash in this so they can make movies while not starving to death!” And trust me, I don’t think this will happen. It’s a possibility. But, where there’s a will there’s a way…so start paying for stuff and reviewing it.

Now, as for books, mass market is doomed. Period. There are multiple reasons for this, but the biggest reason is the lack of reading going on today. I know a ton of writers producing stellar work. I’ve criticized the indie book scene before…it’s not exempt from criticism, nor should it be…but, for the most part, I’m hopeful.

Although there’s a lack of money coming in, it can sustain itself on pure awesomeness. Most good writers aren’t in it for the money, nor are the publishers. Sure, some of the bigger small-presses keep profit in mind, and that’s all well and good, but, from what I can tell, the majority don’t.

Buy books from Permuted Press. Buy books from JournalStone (I don’t say that only because I signed with them). Buy books from Sinister Grin. Hell, buy the books from some of the bigger guys, too, because it’s not all bad. Some of it’s unimpressive and not genius-stricken like Trendy Satan would have you believe, but I’ve not read too many things that were inexcusably awful (but maybe I’m easier to please than some).

Buy books from authors who self-publish. These days, that’s the only option for most writers, and it’s increasingly proving itself to be the best option for everyone. Some people, including me, have criticized the small-press game as being likened to a pyramid scheme, in that very few people have “made it” financially, and everyone else is just leaching off their success.

Ironically, the people who have made it financially were either popular before the small-press boom or they became the editors and owners of multiple different imprints, but this is a small gripe. If good stuff is being written, support it.

I get it. Sometimes it’s easier to look up movies on YouTube and other places than it is to buy them new. Same thing for books (minus the YouTube part). Maybe you know people with lots of new books and read their copies instead. Fine. I’ve done it, but we need to keep in mind: support, review, and enjoy.

The more we succumb to the groupthink that limits the artistic expression of people, such as shaming those with different opinions or laughing when someone gets deplatformed (which apparently isn’t a word, but it should be these days), let’s fight against that. Let’s read and watch everyone’s stuff, and, if it sucks, say so, but if it’s good, give credit where credit’s due.

Most of the mainstream stuff has abandoned its audience in pursuit of lame-brains’ money. They’ve also tried converting their old audience members into cultish psychos who bash people going against the status quo. The only way to end that is to support everyone’s artistic expression by not throwing your money and time at the same tired places.

Zakary McGaha is a writer, dog lover, and horror hound living in the eastern, mountainous part of Tennessee. His novella Locker Arms is currently available from Kensington Gore Publishing. Another book of his, Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast, will be out sometime in 2018 from JournalStone/Bizarro Pulp Press. He is also currently a college student, studying both accounting and film.