"Short Novels Got No Reason to Live."
Last week, one of my regular customers had seen a posting of mine somewhere that I was eager to read John Wyndham’s “Midwich Cuckoos,” as I had never read it before despite reading countless books which undoubtedly used “Midwich” as their inspiration. Being a kind and wonderful soul, the customer dropped me a used paperback of it.
While the book only took me all of 4 hours to read, it blew me away. Clocking in at a lean, mean 180 pages, “Midwich Cuckoos” basically had its hooks in me within 10 pages of the start, and didn’t let go for even an instant until the final words.
As I put the well-worn paperback on my bookshelf, I noticed how many of my very favorite horror novels come in at under 200 pages, and many times a lot lower. Given how today’s horror paperbacks all seem to use 300 pages as a bare minimum, it makes me wonder how many classics may never have made it to publication. Books that include:
- John Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids”
- Ira Levin’s “The Stepford Wives”
- Robert Bloch’s “Psycho”
- Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″
- William Peter Blatty’s “The Ninth Configuration”
- Thomas Disch’s “The Genocides”
- Jack Finney’s “The Body Snatchers”
- Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”
- Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”
- William March’s “The Bad Seed”
There’s also countless truly fast, fun joyrides of novels that, while they may not be considered classics, pack a ton of horror punch into less than 200 pages. On the bookshelf in front of me right now are such thin under-200 page volumes as:
- Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Drive-In”
- Ed Gorman’s “Nightmare Child”
- Stephen Gilbert’s “Willard”
- Charles L. Grant’s “the Dark Cry of the Moon”
- Tanith Lee’s “Sabella”
- Thomas Tessier’s “The Nightwalker”
- Bernard Taylor’s “Moorstone”
- Guy N. Smith’s “Crabs”
- Al Sarrantonio’s “Campbell Wood” and “The Worms”
You get the idea.
So when did mass market paperback publishers decide that horror readers didn’t want to pay $5 for a short novel? I’ve heard the arguments made that it’s not economical to publish short books — and yet, you often find under-200-page books in the romance, western, and young adult genres. (In fact, the world would be a much worse place if Robert Cormier’s countless works of genius never got published because they rarely crack 200 pages).
If the United States has 15 or 20 million people willing to shell out $5-$10 to see “The Ring” in the theater for 90 minutes, are we so sure we can’t get even 1 out of every 500 of them (a 40,000 copy seller) to shell out $5 for a killer horror book?
I’m not suggesting that authors chop down works to make them shorter. I’m not suggesting that books are too long. Or even that people don’t enjoy long books.
But I AM suggesting that some works just naturally fall perfectly into the short range, and just because it provides 4 hours of reading instead of 6 or 7 hours of reading doesn’t necessarily mean readers will reject it.
And they may be more eager to embrace it specifically BECAUSE of the short length.
I LOVE paperback books that are slim enough to fit in the back of my jeans pocket (remember when most books could do this?) I love picking up a book where I know that for better or worse, I’m going to be in the thick of the action within a half hour of reading. Sometimes you WANT a short but breakneck stomach-turning, spine-shaking roller-coaster ride. We don’t pay less money at the movie theater to see a 90 minute zombie movie than a 180 minute war movie.
My suggestion? Some New York publisher needs to take a little money — not a ton — and experiment. Try a line of short horror novels and advertise them as such. Advertise them as a roller-coaster ride of horror that fits in your back pocket. Charge a buck or two less than usual to get the ball rolling.
Leisure’s done an admirable job of finding creative ways to get some modern horror novellas out there. Douglas Clegg’s phenomenal “Purity” (possibly the best horror novella written in the past decade) was a bonus added to the paperback release of “Nightmare HOuse.” Leisure released a collection of Tim Lebbon’s novellas called “Fears Unnamed.” They got Jack Ketchum’s stunning short novel “Red” into print with a bonus novella tacked on to thicken out the book a little.
But why not release these books on their own? Let’s acknowledge that I’m probably not the ONLY one with a short attention span. Let’s just try it in the mass market and see if it’s something people have been waiting for.
The small press has been doing an amazing job with novellas and short novels. The past decade alone has seen Cemetery Dance, Subterranean Press, Bloodletting Press, Necessary Evil Press, and more produce profitable, critically-acclaimed novella lines. Go after some of those works by authors like Douglas Clegg, Gary Braunbeck, Ray Garton, Edward Lee, Mark Morris, Lucy Taylor, Nancy Collins, Poppy Brite, Thomas Tessier, Tom Piccirilli, Jeffrey Thomas, Kealan Patrick Burke, Patrick Lestewka and more, and get them into the mainstream. Give it a creative, targeted ad-campaign PROMOTING the short-shock factor and see what happens.
The risk factor is small. And the upside may be huge. These are great, great works — modern classics every bit as deserving to become household names like “Stepford Wives” or “Body Snatchers.”
It’s fun to dream what you would do if you ever won the lottery. One of my dreams (and this will tell you just how particularly sad my own fantasy life is) is to start a mass market paperback line focusing on modern classics of horror between 100 and 225 pages.
I want to be able to go to some of today’s underrated, incredibly talented authors and say “You know that mind-fucking terrifying novella you wrote that you can’t find a market for? That market has arrived.”
The short horror novel — it’s an art form I’d hate to see go by the waysides simply because publishers fell into a habit of assuming that readers only wanted longer books.
Here’s hoping I win the lottery. But just in case that doesn’t happen, here’s hoping a New York publisher picks up the slack. Either way, the horror world will be a much better place for it. And my guess is that, ultimately, whatever publisher tries it first will have a much better bottom line to show for it as well.
– Matt Schwartz