During my last visit to one of my favourite Melbourne bookstores, I unashamedly made a beeline straight for the horror section. I had worked up an appetite for a chilling story (perhaps prompted by my recent Netflix binge of American Horror Story) and it had been a while since I had proactively looked for a new horror novel.
So, as anyone can imagine, I was excited about the accumulated stack of horror fiction that was waiting for me. But as I made a quick scan of the single horror shelf, I quickly realised that the selection was pretty dismal.
Most of the books on the horror shelf were 80s Stephen King novels and Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles series, with the odd V.C Andrews novel thrown into the mix. It was truthfully more of a dedicated Stephen King shelf than a display of modern horror fiction. I had thought there were only so many editions of Pet Sematary that a bookstore would be inclined to carry but clearly, I thought wrong: in a Twilight Zone-esque moment it felt like every edition of the 1983 novel was staring at me. It had me feeling a little disorientated.
Unless I have been incorrectly informed, Stephen King is far from being the last remaining horror novelist on Earth. So, the only other plausible explanation is that the bookstore I was relying on for my fix was simply not keen on stocking horror novels. It was at this realisation that I had to ask myself, an avid horror fan, a perplexing question: does anyone really read horror anymore?
I can’t feign surprise that Australians are not too fond of horror stories. I find most horror sections in Melbourne bookstores are severely lacking compared to the far more popular fantasy/sci-fi, true crime or historical fiction sections.
The reason may be as simple as traditional horror novels and writers being marketed under these more popular genre fiction categories in order for the book to sell more copies. But I also can’t help but wonder if there was a more deep-seated cultural reason as to why Australians readers are less likely to pick up a horror book.
When trying to find out what Australians actually like to read, I decided to take a look at the current bestsellers. With the addition of further research, I was able to determine Australia’s literary palate: true crime and crime fiction.
Most Australian bookstores’ websites or monthly magazines are plastered with advertisements for the latest crime book, while horror fiction barely gets an honourable mention.
When taking a look through the websites of some of Melbourne’s more popular bookstores (such as Readings, QBD, Robinsons Bookshop and Dymocks), I found that they didn't even list horror as its own category of genre fiction on their site’s homepage. It is not farfetched to assume that it is not one of their better-selling genres.
This assumption is further backed by the results of a survey conducted by the Australian Council for the Arts and Macquarie University in which only 2% of participants described horror as their favourite genre. When looking at the most commonly read fiction genres, horror doesn’t make the list at all. The survey found that most Australians much preferred crime, thrillers and historical fiction.
In particular, Australia’s obsession with crime fiction is on a whole other level: it is the most commonly read genre, being read by 49% of Australians. As well as satisfying our desire to play detective, I think the horror behind a real murder mystery is a lot more captivating and interesting to us. One man’s morbid fantasy of burying your loved one in a pet cemetery and consequently reviving them as a demon entity can be seen as pretty asinine in comparison – no offence to Stephen King.
I think it is very likely that vampires and ghouls don’t really cut it anymore for a good, decent scare. There isn’t a need for make-believe monsters when real life is pretty damn scary. We already live with the impending threat of nuclear war, Donald Trump’s America and the threat of climate change looming over our heads while our politicians remain obtuse about the issue.
In fact, a new genre that has risen to popularity over the past decade is climate fiction, or cli-fi. Many of our existential horrors and anxieties are now being explored and imagined through the possible dystopias that could be brought on by climate change. An exciting mix of dystopian and sci-fi, a flood of cli-fi books have hit the Australian shelves, including the hugely successful MaddAddam trilogy by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and the multi-prize winning Who Fears Death by Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor – both of which are being adapted for TV.
While I can definitely see how it would be cathartic for Australians to see their everyday anxieties and fears being explored within cli-fi or true crime, I feel it is tragic that good Australian gothic horror is going underappreciated. Australia has a rich history of mythology, legends and ghost stories that in the right hands can inspire the grisly Australian novel we have all been secretly hungering for. We have recently produced some well-received horror films, with The Babadook (2014), despite being overlooked in Australia, going on to do well internationally – showing that Australian writers are capable of creating great stories that deal with the macabre.
With the lack of interest in horror fiction shown by most Australians – as showcased by the Australian Council of Arts survey – I feel that there is a significant gap in our culture that needs to be addressed by Australian novelists and publishers. I know horror fiction may never catch up with other, more popular genres, but I think with a little encouragement, Australians could develop a taste for a uniquely Australian ghost story. It would certainly be nice for the horror section at Robinsons or Readings to not be a Stephen King-dedicated shrine for a change.