Nobody who knows me will be even remotely surprised that one of my favourite pastimes is reading books about horror fiction in all its manifestations. I’ve read quite a few of the things since my teenage years, and I felt it was time to celebrate the ten books that did the most to shape how I think about horror…
[Living in] Fear: A History of Horror in the Mass Media by Les Daniels (1975)
Les Daniels is remembered mainly for his writing for and about comics, but he also wrote Living in Fear (title shortened to Fear for paperback), which is the single best overview of horror that I’ve ever read. Okay, it was published in 1975, so it’s a few decades out of date, but it more than makes up with this for its sheer breadth of scope in examining horror’s history. Daniels covers literature, cinema, television, theatre, music, comics and even religious tracts; his analysis kicks off in earnest with the gothic novels of the 18th century and continues up to the 1970s. Horace Walpole, Vampirella, Bram Stoker, John Zacherle and depressing pop songs about dead teenagers each have a part to play in the grand narrative.
Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen since the 1960s by Kim Newman (1985, 1988, 2011)
Nightmare Movies starts with the irresistible premise that the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968 marked a sea change in horror cinema, with that film’s unflinching, nihilistic approach becoming dominant across the genre. Kim Newman spends his book analysing the state of horror cinema after that fateful night in ’68 and discussing what makes the genre tick in the era of Romero. Which makes it a pretty good follow-up to Les Daniels’ book, now that I think about it.
One thing that sticks in my mind about this book is the introduction to the 1988 edition, where Newman talks about how, as a young film buff in the 70s, he became frustrated with how contemporary books on horror films were dismissive of so many later releases. He then notes the irony of his own creeping fogeyism, and bewilderment at the likes of Friday the 13th being hailed as modern classics… and then concludes by expressing the hope that, someday, an 80s kid will grow up to write a book that completely contradicts Nightmare Movies. In fact, Newman himself has already got started on that job, thanks to his 2011 expanded edition of Nightmare Movies.
The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror by David J. Skal (1993)
I’ve written about this one before. The Monster Show really is a masterclass in how to analyse the ways in which horror fiction reflects the anxieties of its age. David J. Skal tells a captivating story with a cast of characters that includes carnival performers, film directors, disfigured soldiers, iconic actors, presidents, censors, AIDS victims, pop stars and novelists.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say that a work of non-fiction reads like a novel, but that’s exactly the praise I’d direct at The Monster Show.
Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years by Wayne Kinsey (2002)
There’s no shortage of books about Hammer horror, but Wayne Kinsey’s Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years and its sequel Hammer Films: The Elstree Studios Years must surely be the most detailed. Kinsey moves his focus away from the films themselves (which, let’s face it, anyone can write about) and towards their production, offering a thoroughly researched and meticulously detailed behind-the-scenes account of the company’s golden years. If you want to know what went on when your fave Hammer was being made, this is where to look.
Alas, both books are out of print and go for hefty sums second-hand, particularly the second one. Still, well worth picking up if you can get your hands on them.
The Annotated Dracula by Bram Stoker and Leonard Wolf (1975)
Get past the curiously baroque cover art and this is a great book for anyone who wants to deep-dive into the context surrounding Bram Stoker’s masterpiece.
The book contains the complete text of the novel, along with annotations with historical notes, cultural references and musings about Stoker’s creative choices. The perfect place to start if you want to step back from the films that followed and get closer to Count Dracula as Stoker imagined him.
See No Evil: Banned Films and Video Controversy by David Kerekes and David Slater (2000)
See No Evil isn’t the only book on the video nasties controversy that scandalised Britain in the 1980s, but it has to be the most substantial. The book is divided into three main sections: the first is a history of the moral panic; the second and largest section is an in-depth look at each film caught up in said panic; and the third takes a look at later, smaller-scale panics and censorship controversies, discussing the role of the media in stirring such matters up.
What I admire most about this book is how the authors combine an obvious passion for horror and exploitation cinema with a sober-minded approach to the wider issues. So much anti-censorship discourse in fandom circles has always struck me as rather smug and adolescent, but Kerekes and Slater do a splendid job of disentangling the misinformation spread whenever the press manufactures a scare over horror. The icing on the cake is the sheer amount of analysis and behind-the-scenes details they offer for even the most obscure nasty.
The same pair also wrote a book called Killing for Culture, about films which show (or purport to show) actual death. The subject is unpleasant, but the analysis remains lucid and fascinating.
A [New] Heritage of Horror by David Pirie (1973, 2007)
Want a comprehensive and reliable history of horror films from the UK? Then you’d probably best check out Jonathan Rigby’s English Gothic. Want an overview of British horror which, while flawed, is positively oozing with personality? Then track down David Pirie’s A Heritage of Horror.
When the book was published in 1973, David Pirie was a rebellious youngster flying the flag for a genre that much of the British critical establishment dismissed as unworthy of attention. He even made the claim that gothic horror films are to England what Western films are to America; a bold assertion at a time when critics were fascinated by Westerns.
Admittedly, Pirie’s argument does have his weaknesses, including his uncritical adoption of auteur theory (something that doesn’t really apply to the Hammer directors) and sloppy treatment of nationality (can the Dracula and Carmilla films be claimed as quintessentially English, when their source texts were written by Irishmen?). But Pirie himself came to recognise these lapses, and offered a heavily revised version of the book in 2007, called A New Heritage of Horror. This edition removed some of the original’s material and added some new content of its own, reflecting how much times had changed since 1973. In an era where respectable publications fawn over J. K. Rowling, Pirie is far from alone in flying the flag for British fantasy.
A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign by Martin Barker (1984)
We all know about Fredric Wertham’s crusade against horror comics in the 1950s, but with A Haunt of Fears, Martin Barker explores how the scare manifested across the Atlantic, and digs up some intriguing information along the way. Most notably, he demonstrates the role of the far left (including the British Communist Party) in campaigning against horror comics; quite unlike the video nasty scare of thirty years later, where it was social conservatives such as Mary Whitehouse who whipped up the moral panic. Barker, himself a lefty, does a good job of analysing and refuting the arguments made by these British Werthams. He also reprints some choice stories from 1950s horror comics and mounts a sturdy defence of their content, avoiding the twin pitfalls of condescension and fanboyism.
The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley by Phil Baker (2007)
Dennis Wheatley isn’t the easiest author to warm to these days, but even those who never embraced Wheatley’s novels should find something to enjoy in this splendid biography. As well as offering a comprehensive account of Wheatley’s life and times, Phil Baker explores how the late novelist approached black magic and Satanism in his stories, borrowing from various contemporary influences such as Aleister Crowley and coming up with a literary conception which (thanks in large part to Hammer) became the dominant image of devil-worship in the popular imagination. An intriguing case study of how horror fiction engages with the wider cultural landscape.
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix (2017)
Here we have the new kid on the block, and an instant classic. In Paperbacks from Hell, Grady Hendrix celebrates the paperback horror boom that began in the late 60s and was fizzling out by the 90s.
A big draw to the book is its gallery of lurid cover art, but more than a coffee-table book, it also takes a look at what made these novels tick. Hendrix divides the books by theme (Satanism, creepy children, animal attacks, haunted houses and so forth), and delivers brisk but insightful commentary on how these topics tapped into the anxieties of the era.