Horror has always been the unloved bastard lovechild of fiction. This is no more so than now. Horror books are often derided as puerile or unsavoury. Horror films are often accused of exploitation. Worse still, in recent years, horror fiction has often been diluted and warped into “dark fantasy”, thanks to TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the innumerable “paranormal romance” novels that litter the bookshelves.
But for those who like their horror fiction a little more mature, a little stronger, a little darker, it’s time to share with you my personal love of the horror genre. So here is a compendium of what I think are 13 of the greatest contemporary horror authors.
(One side note: by contemporary, I mean since the 1970s. I struggled to compile a list of more recent authors who ranked alongside these greats. Feel free to agree or disagree. But for argument’s sake, here are my thirteen, in no particular order…)
Okay, let’s get this one out of the way. Everybody knows King’s work, thanks to the hugely successful movies. However, the films do not capture the essence of King, which is his style. Often very detailed to the point of making you believe you are there, his collloquial storytelling manner immediately disarms you. Perhaps his most successful novels (in terms of evoking fear) are “The Stand” and “IT”. But for a real treat, check out his short stories in “Night Shift”.
King once wrote that Herbert was not a great writer, but a great novelist. Whatever the truth of that, when you read a Herbert novel, you are soon unable to put it down. Pages turn with greater and greater rapidity toward an often brutal and apocalyptic conclusion. His novel “The Rats” still aches to be made into a decent film. But for sheer insane brilliance, try “Domain”. “The Fog” also sees Herbert at his catastrophic best. Sadly missed since passing on recently.
The enfant-terrible of horror. Barker has been at it since the 80s, when Stephen King declared him the future of the genre. Belonging more to the school of body-horror than classic scares, Barker’s novels create a fantastical nightmare world where anything is possible. Not satisfied with writing, Barker directed his own novella “Hellraiser” to enormous success. But for me, his novel “Cabal” , filmed as the underappreciated “Nightbreed”, is his best. With the Hollywood machine currently churning its way through his gigantic short story collection “The Books of Blood”, Barker is sure to remain a popular name in the genre.
A totally different entity, Anne Rice has been quietly crafting brilliant, haunting gothic stories since the 1970s. Her Vampire Chronicles have spawned about ten sequels, as well as one good movie and one not very good one involving her most famous creation, the vampire Lestat. Her Mayfair Witches stories are just as good. No serious horror fan should miss her books.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Matheson was a prolific contributor to Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” before penning “Duel”, a young Steven Spielberg’s first feature, as well as “I Am Legend”, a novel that has been made into two very different movies starring Will Smith and Charlton Heston. Capable of writing paranoid sci-fi/horror (“The Incredible Shrinking Man”) to tear-inducing romantic fantasy (“Somewhere In Time”, “What Dreams May Come”). Again, he passed away a few years back, but left us with a truly memorable body of work.
The king of the short story, Bradbury penned the screenplay for “Moby Dick”, as well as the seminal sci-fi classics “It Came from Outer Space” and “The Beast from 50,0000 Fathoms”. His novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes” was once made into a Disney movie, of all things! Also a master of science-fiction, Bradbury wrote “The Martian Chronicles”. But his most eerie stories, almost mythic in tone, can be found in “The October Country”.
Straub’s work has never enjoyed the mainstream success of his sometime co-writer Stephen King. He also often chooses to write mystery novels. However, his titanic supernatural masterpiece “Ghost Story” is one of the best modern books in the genre (once made into a rather forgettable movie with Fred Astaire and Ray Milland). His other horror fiction, such as the feverish “Julia” and “If You Could See Me Now” is rife with ghostly happenings that seem sso realistic, you could almost miss them. A very sophisticated writer who wields a pen as sharp as a scalpel.
CHARLES L GRANT
Although not as well known as he should be, Grant was immensely prolific, writing under several different pseudonyms and in different genres. His major achievement in horror fiction was creating the town of Oxrun Station, introduced in “The Hour of the Oxrun Dead”. His dreamy, poetical style often starts with a slow burn and then reaches a terrific climax. Reminiscent of the “classic horror” movies of the 40s, Grant’s prose dwells less on gore and more on atmosphere and suspense. Another writer who sadly is no longer with us.
A writer of weird fiction, Campbell is perhaps the most successful horror novelist to come out of Britain besides Barker and Herbert. His fiction is characterised by the bizarre breaking through the mundane world. His short story collection “Demons by Daylight” and his novels “The Doll Who Ate His Mother” and “The Parasite” are all highly recommended.
Yes, that Roald Dahl. The man who gave us “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach”. Come to think of it, wasn’t “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” always rather frightening? Dahl also penned some deliciously twisted short stories with a classic twist in the tale in his collections “Kiss Kiss” and “Someone Like You”. In fact, they made a whole TV series out of them, appropriately called “Tales of the Unexpected”
Deserves inclusion on this list simply by virtue of being so prolific, if nothing else. Laymon’s novels are not for everyone. They tend to be as subtle as a brick wrapped in bloody innards. However, their breakneck speed drags you along until the last chapter. So high-concept, it makes you wonder why Hollywood hasn’t bothered with them. Check out the brilliant “Among the Missing” or the downright bizarre “Beast House”. Whether you like his work or not, Laymon’s huge output has helped keep the horror market afloat. Yet another writer who recently passed away.
There were more that I felt could have been included here: Graham Masterson, Fritz Lieber, Virginia Andrews, William Peter Blatty, TED Klein, Robert R McCammon, Whitley Streiber and Robert Bloch to name a few. However, although it surprises me, my thirteenth place goes to…
“Ballardian” has become a phrase to describe the bleakness of modern living. As well as providing fodder for Hollywood with the likes of “Empire of the Sun” (a horror story if ever there was one), Ballard wrote the auto-erotic (in a literal sense) “Crash”, filmed by David Cronenberg. His other works include a novel about a man marooned on a traffic island and a whole apartment complex of people who go insane. Fitting metaphors for the horror of “modern living”, where we can connect anywhere on the planet but still remain isolated. A rare example of a horror writer who was lauded by the literary establishment during his lifetime, Ballard passed away in 2008.
So there you have it, my top 13 horror authors. Each has a distinct voice, from the Gothic to the frighteningly modern. You may also notice that there is a substantial lack of new blood in the field (pun intended). Who will fill the void?
Will it be you?
It won’t be me. I’m more reader than writer. This list was fully defensible. I might have added some authors who write/wrote in a variety of genres (Harlan Ellison, Jerome Bixby, Shirley Jackson) and Dean Koontz sells a lot, even if I don’t like his work.
I think the “new blood” is found in crossover projects from graphic novel authors like Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Robert Kirkman. The books become storyboards for development into movies and TV shows.
Yes to all. Good list. Neil Gaiman is a particularly astute choice. ‘Neverwhere’ whilst not pure horror, has some truly horrific moments.
Some interesting additions here, especially Shirley Jackson. Neil Gaiman will always be the writer of the “Sandman” comics for me. Although, I Ioved “Coraline”. There’s also Joyce Carol Oates and Ramsey Campbell to consider.
Graeme Reynolds should be in there. His High Moor series does for werewolves what Anne Rice did for vampires.
Not so sure about James Herbert. I just finished “the rats” and I actually found it funny. It might have been the numerous and overly detailed sex scenes which probably helped sell the book in the days before easy access to porn. The funniest one was the graphic sex life of a nymphomaniac bag lady who only appears in one chapter. Not sure I needed to know that much about a minor characters sexual past that drove her to the street. Ah well, it was still entertaining!