The Hunt for Horror: Using Short Fiction to Navigate A Genre
Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
― Neil Gaiman
Everyone has heard the phrase, "So many books, so little time." As a genre buff reading almost exclusively horror books all year (which is a small genre compared to SFF or Contemporary), I am overwhelmed by the volume of quality horror being released in a single year. I wish I had the time to read everything I want to read, but it's absolutely not possible. I average around 150-200 books read a year, which seems like a lot, but I have friends who can easily clear 300. Even reading hundreds of books doesn't make me feel like I'm making a dent in the amount of unread books I have in my library. But in the last couple of years, I have been able to manage a system for buying, reading, and reviewing books that really works for me, and I'm ready to share it with other readers in the hopes that I might be able to help others feel like their bookshelves are not so out-of-control.
I present The Hunt for Horror: Using Short Fiction to Navigate a Genre.
Buying an anthology with a theme that interests you is one hundred percent the best way to find out which authors in your favorite genre are worth further investment. Anthologies are typically curated by one or two editors and include short fiction following a specific theme, sub-genre, or concept. As you go through and read each story, have a notebook nearby to record any thoughts or ideas you have. Take special note of the storytelling that really caught your attention and write down the author's name so you can go back and research the books they have available to you. Here are some recommendations of anthologies that I have enjoyed and used to discovered new-to-me authors.
An anthology focused on a sub-genre. Most memorable stories are from Terry Dowling, Nathan Ballingrud, Kij Johnson and Tananarieve Due.
Seasonal stories to put readers in the holiday spirit. Favorite stories by Scott Smith, Josh Malerman, Sarah Langan, Joe R. Lansdale, and Sarah Pinborough.
An anthology following a specific writing style/atmosphere. Make sure to read the stories from Gemma Files, Kelly Link, Stephen Graham Jones, and Benjamin Percy.
An anthology full of ghost stories. Make sure to check out the stories from Todd Keisling, Jason Parent, Kenneth McKinley, and Catherine Cavendish.
A horror fiction podcast dedicated to showcasing short fiction in audio format. I have found so many new favorites by listening to stories by authors that are totally new to me. I haven't heard one yet that hasn't wowed me. This is where I discovered Wendy Wagner and went on to buy two signed books for my collection, and A.C. Wise, who recently released a short fiction collection through Undertow and I had to have it.
Horror Writers Association
The Bram Stoker Awards | Winners & Nominees
For any given year, you can scroll down the list to "Superior Achievement in Short Fiction" and find the nominees and winner for that category. For example, in 2020 Josh Malerman won for his story, "One Last Transformation", which was in the anthology, Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities, and Other Horrors. Reading this story would be an excellent way to find out if you should buy some novels by Malerman (the answer is yes, you should! Start with Bird Box).
FREE Short Stories Online
There are so many free stories online! It's madness! Once you know where to find them and start reading, it's addicting. Very, very, addicting, so be warned! Here are some of my recent favorites.
This story will make you a new Ian Rogers fan. It is absolute nightmare fuel.
""Frontier Death Song"" by Laird Barron
Come to this story totally unprepared and then leave with a strong thirst for more Laird Barron.
""The Night Sun"" by Zin E. Rocklyn
Heart pounding suspense and lush visuals. Check this out and then seek out more of Rocklyn's work.
You hear of an author and you really want to read one of their books, but you don't know which one to buy because they're all different sub-genres and you want the best, possible first impression. My recommendation is to buy a short story collection BEFORE making that selection. Authors who have been around awhile sometimes have more than one short story collection. This is the perfect way to get a sampling of all the different writing styles and sub-genres the author dabbles in. Let's take a look at John Langan.
Perhaps you've heard all these glowing reviews for John Langan's book, The Fisherman, but you're still on the fence about making that time/financial commitment. What if you don't like it? Is cosmic horror *really* your thing? My recommendation is just buy the damn thing because it's one of the best books you'll ever read, BUT, if you want to experience Langan's storytelling voice in a shorter amount of time first, you're in luck! He has three amazing short story collections available to you now with a fourth on the way from Word Horde called, Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies, Summer 2022, and a re-print of Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters. I will stand in line for any short fiction Langan has to offer.
Other short story collections I recommend for any serious horror collector. These are must-haves:
And here is what I have on my shelves that I am eager to read:
In case it's unclear, I think short fiction is the best possible format for horror. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of horror novels that more than represent the genre, but I do love the way a shorter, tighter story can give readers that glorious tension all the way through in one fell swoop. Need more convincing? Check out this piece I did for LitReactor called, Confessions of a Short Story Addict: More, More, More!
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