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The Heart of Horror: How Indie Publishing Keeps the Genre Alive

Smaller presses deliver bigger screams.

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  • Photo Credit: Tengyart/Unsplash

Horror found its beginnings in oral history as grim warnings—fairytales and folklore that taught generations of children how to behave. 

As horror grew into the written form—and eventually into its cinematic one—it began to encompass society’s greatest anxieties. The horror genre has been (very fairly) critiqued over the years for many things, but one good thing has always been true: it is a haven for weirdos.

Who are the weirdos?

The weirdos are the social “misfits” who were the villains in those first fairytales: ugly stepsisters, wolves in women’s nightgowns, single women who may or may not be witches, the disabled and disfigured, and any number of thinly veiled metaphors for people of color.

The thing about horror is that it so often flips the stories we’re used to on their heads, and it makes the monsters (those of us who have been cast as the thwarters of true love and pristine princesses) feel at home.

Frankenstein’s monster felt achingly alone. Carrie just wanted a nice Prom night. Louis and Lestat crave companionship.

Trust me when I say there is one place you’ll always be able to find the weirdos: indie horror publishing.

Diversity in Indie Horror

As a reader, it’s easy to forget that publishing is a business. As an author, it’s impossible to ignore. Horror masters like Stephen King and Anne Rice really changed the game, and while their works are inarguably seminal, not everyone is going to fit into the mold they’ve made. Of course, this often means horror that falls outside this narrow spectrum is labeled as one of two things: low brow, or perhaps an even worse kiss of death, “artsy.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love mainstream horror. I read mainstream horror. It’s mainstream for a reason—largely its broad appeal. But publishing, like any other money-making machine, has a history of uplifting authors who are distinctly white, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied. These are the creators that people with power are willing to take chances on.

This is, of course, the point in this article where the arguments arise. But there are BIPOC/queer/disabled authors in the mainstream! But this white/male/heterosexual/able-bodied/otherwise-privileged author has wonderful books! Good news! You’re right! Both of these arguments are true. But a study done by the New York Times in 2020 determined that, across the major publishing houses, 95% of the fiction books published between 1950 and 2018 were written by white authors.

The disproportionate weight given to non-marginalized voices not only robs readers of wonderful talents that are being overlooked, but also generates a mass of stories that are coming from similar life experiences. Frankly, I love turkey, but I don’t want it on my sandwich every day. The same sentiment applies to my horror stories.

Indie horror not only has more space for marginalized voices, but many smaller publishers often push to highlight these diverse authors. Remember: I’m talking in general terms here. Obviously, nothing is perfect, and indie horror has seen its fair share of moral failures. But compared to the powerhouse publishers churning out books, indie demographics are night and day.

And while my own choice of reading material is personally influenced by my moral standards, I know not everyone feels the same way. So in terms of a diverse set of authors, it boils down to this: a diverse range of authors means a diverse range of perspectives, and different perspectives mean stories that we haven’t seen before. New voices bring new fears to the page, fresh takes bring unique protagonists. 

Indie Horror Shatters the Mold

To double-back on the publishing industry being a money-making machine, there are a lot of pitfalls that come with that sort of stance taken on an art-based industry. For example, in the film industry, it’s remake after remake. In the theater industry, it’s adaptations of things from 50 years ago. Investments are given to ideas that have already been declared a success, because no one wants to part with a scrap of their money.

Mainstream publishing suffers the same philosophy, though maybe not so blatantly. More often than not, they’re going to acquire and push titles that fit a reliable formula, present easily digestible content, and feature protagonists perceived to be broadly relatable (i.e. white). There have been some big moves in the past few years on both the diversity and the content front, but compared to the breadth of the problem itself, they look like mere baby steps.

Of course, indie publishing is still a business. They still want to make money, both for themselves and for the authors. But in most cases, indie publishing is a labor of love running on small teams and big dreams.

The riskiest stories you’ll ever find exist in indie horror publishing. Some are dark and depraved, some are poetic and thoughtful, some are downright revolting. But that’s horror, baby!

Indie publishing is where all the ideas that are “too much” go to live. Too political, too disturbing, too complicated, too bizarre. It’s a great place for subgenres often snubbed by the mainstream machine—quiet horror, erotic horror, body horror, etc.—to really thrive.

These stories feel more intimate, more raw. These stories are about grief, passion, hatred, fear—everything. Sometimes it’s a bafflingly bizarre (yet undeniably moving) tale about a teenage girl who magically changes lives through sex, a la Autumn Christian’s Girl Like a Bomb. Sometimes it’s an exquisite story so taut with grief you feel like you might choke, such as Crossroads by Laurel Hightower. Sometimes it’s an aggressively political vehicle, as seen in the anthology collection ANTIFA SPLATTERPUNK edited by Eric Raglin.

But the most wonderful thing of all about indie horror publishing is how open these presses are to new voices! If you’re someone who loves discovering debut authors, then you’ll be like a kid in a candy store in the indie publishing world. These small presses often cut out the middleman of agents, making writing so much more accessible to people who want to tell stories—especially stories that defy formula and comfort.

How Can You Support Indie Horror?

The biggest problem indie horror presses face against the “big 5” publishers is that they don’t have the same resources to give to marketing. This can make it hard to generate buzz, which helps these fantastic stories get to the readers who need them. And low sales also means it can be hard to keep the lights on.

So how can you support indie horror? Well, there’s the obvious: buy indie horror books! Buying from large retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble will always be helpful, but to keep as much money going to indie publishers as possible, consider buying directly from their websites.

Word of mouth is also vital to indie publishing. If you loved an indie horror book, tell everyone about it! If you read an indie horror book that was so disturbing you couldn’t finish it, tell everyone about that one, too! Share your favorites across social media, and follow and interact with the posts made by indie publishers.

Just getting into indie horror? Looking to expand your repertoire? Here are some of my favorites!

Featured image: Tengyart/Unsplash