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Black Static

Dark Fiction & Film BLACK STATIC ISSUE 61 OUT NOW!

Bestselling Horror Books Since 1900

24th Jun, 2011

Author: Peter Tennant

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I'm a great fan of lists. I find them endlessly fascinating and can literally spend hours musing over them, and so The Book of Lists: Horror edited by Amy Wallace, Del Howison and Scott Bradley is a volume to be treasured and mulled over at great length.

One list in particular stands out for me - 'The Fifty-Six Bestselling Horror Books Since 1900'

Almost immediately you will no doubt be wondering, as did I, why only fifty six books. Why not a round hundred? My suspicion is that only fifty six titles were eligible, thanks to the methodology used by the list's compiler.

To cut a long explanation short, they 'examined each year's national hardcover bestsellers as determined by Publishers Weekly'. Each entry is shown by title and author name, the year that it appeared on the bestsellers list and its sales position in that year. For example:

1902    #7        Hound of the Baskervilles       Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

And, judging from the positions shown, I'm guessing that the PW list only covers the top ten sellers.

Given all that, it's not going to be a particularly accurate determination. Paperbacks are not included, and the figures only take into account US sales. And while some titles make the list in consecutive years, there's no way of tracking the 'long' sellers, those books that never have huge sales in any specific year, but remain in print and accumulate sales over a longer period of time (Dracula would be a good example).

For all that though, this list is probably the best that can be done without somebody undertaking what's undoubtedly an impossible task, and it makes a nice talking point for a blogger in need of something to blog about.

The first observation I'll make is that twenty eight of the books on the list, exactly half, were written by Stephen King. These include the two novels he co-wrote with Peter Straub, but not the early books that many people now regard as his best work - Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining (though the 1990 revised edition of The Stand does make the cut) - or recent titles such as Cell, Lisey's Story and Duma Key. Nor does it include any of his epic Dark Tower sequence, though I can't say if this was because they didn't sell sufficiently well or were excluded as fantasy (but if the latter, it seems inconsistent to include Eyes of the Dragon). King debuted on the list in 1979 with The Dead Zone and last appeared in 2002 with Everything's Eventual, though the list doesn't go any further than 2005, so things could have changed since then. (The Book of Lists: Horror was published in 2008, and I have no idea if this list ended in 2005 because no more horror titles made the PW bestseller chart after that date or for some other reason.)

The first book on the list is The Hound of the Baskervilles from 1902, and the latest is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova from 2005.

If we take the fabled 'great horror boom' as beginning in 1967 with Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and ending at some nebulous point in the late 1980s/ early 1990s, then at least as far as the bestseller charts are concerned, thanks to King, there doesn't seem to have been any slackening off.

Prior to 1967 is another matter, with only eight of the fifty six predating the Levin.

The gender divide is interesting. Fourteen of the titles on the list are by women (25%), including the two repeat offenders, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938 & 1939) and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002 & 2003), and with Anne Rice taking the crown with four titles. Of the eight titles that appeared prior to the 'great horror boom', six were written by women (75%), as opposed to eight out of forty eight after that (17%). The figures are nowhere near detailed enough to draw any hard and fast conclusions, but we can theorise as to whether horror became a predominantly male dominated genre when it also became marketable.

But of course, King is distorting the figures when it comes to gender. If we ignore the books and simply go by authors on the list, then eight of the names that appear are female and eleven male. But among those eleven males, Straub is paired with King and Jerry B. Jenkins with Tim LaHaye, so it might be more accurate to say there are nine males, as near to a 50/50 gender divide as it gets.

The writing team of Jenkins and LaHaye dominate the list post-1999 in a similar way to King before that, with seven titles appearing under their byline between 1999 and 2004. I'd never heard of them before reading this list, and so did some checking. They are American evangelical Christians, writing apocalyptic horror fiction that reflects their beliefs. LaHaye is a minister, a supporter of the Moral Majority, who believes that homosexuality can be cured, though he thinks it unlikely, and that the Illuminati are engineering human history to overthrow America. (Source - the hopefully unreliable Wikipedia.)

And they say horror fiction isn't scary any more.

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