Want to tackle a challenge? Then try to develop a universally accepted definition of the boundaries of paranormal fiction. Or even a planetary one. There’s just nothing even remotely resembling a consensus, even among some of the top authors with works included in the genre.
Take, for example, the expansive view of Sherrilyn Kenyon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Dark-Hunter vampire series (the 22nd, Time Untime, is due from St. Martin’s in August) and the author guest of honor at last month’s World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City. “To me, the definition is simple; it’s fiction centering around or involving anything that defies scientific explanation. Since I paint the definition with such a broad brush, I see it in every kind of fiction, whether it’s literary, such as Le Morte D’Arthur, Frankenstein, or Dorian Gray, or modern genre.” Kenyon would include time travel, angels, devils, psychics, and the old flyby, vampires.
In January, Darynda Jones published Third Grave Dead Ahead (St. Martin’s), her third novel featuring PI Charlotte “Charley” Davidson, who just happens to have been born the Grim Reaper, and who “solves crimes for both the living and the dead.” Jones considers the category a bit differently. “To me, paranormal fiction is any work of fiction that incorporates paranormal phenomena—that is, elements that are outside the norm and beyond scientific methodology and explanation—no matter how vast or how small, into the fictional world the author has created.”
Think a definition can’t get any broader? Then meet M.J. Rose, author of The Book of Lost Fragrances (Atria, Mar.), featuring the heir to a French perfume company and the search for “The Fragrance of Memory,” a scent that can allow those who smell it to experience past lives. She manages to make the big tent Kenyon would raise for the paranormal an even bigger one, with her view that the genre “encompasses anything that is out of the ordinary.”
Confused yet? Suzanne Johnson has an explanation. The author of the Fiction Affliction column on Tor’s Web site, who also writes what she considers to be paranormal fiction, observes, “There are a lot of very fluid subgenres beneath the umbrella of speculative fiction—including science fiction, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, horror, alternative history, steampunk, dystopian fiction, etc.—so I think any definition is going to be subjective.”
And the wide appeal of paranormal fiction matches the broad spectrum of its numerous definitions. For Kenyon, that’s hardly surprising. “I think it appeals to that most basic instinct all people have to put some form of understanding onto that which defies our best attempts to rationalize the insoluble. Over 98% of DNA is considered ‘junk’ code, but is it? So many things about our lives and the world around us remain a mystery.”
Based on her sales, Kenyon has certainly succeeded in giving her audience what it wants; she’s garnered the top spot on the New York Times list a staggering 16 times in the past three years alone, and PW has dubbed her “a publishing phenomenon.” Far from resting on her wolfsbane, Kenyon continues to produce at an impressive rate, with four separate series going at the moment. The Dark-Hunter books are perhaps her best-known; they center on the eponymous group of eternal soulless guardians of humanity against those who regard people as their (super)natural prey. The Chronicles of Nick is a spinoff, focusing on Nick Gautier, a human with a shady past who finds himself in the middle of the unending war between the Dark-Hunters and the Daimons. The third chronicle, Infamous, was published in March by St. Martin’s Griffin and instantly shot up the sales charts, and with a movie version of the first, 2010’s Infinity, in the works, Kenyon’s profile—and sales—should go even higher.
The themes of her series the League are quite different. Set in another universe, the books explore the unintended consequences of toppling a tyrant, which include the leadership’s fateful decision to create highly skilled government assassins who themselves end up posing a threat to the general populace. The fifth League book, Born of Silence, will be published by Grand Central in May. And terrorists get the paranormal treatment in Kenyon’s Belador series, represented next by September’s The Curse (Pocket).
While Kenyon is clearly in a league of her own, there are plenty of authors in the field who continue to present fresh takes on familiar themes. Alma Katsu’s impressive debut, The Taker (Gallery, Sept. 2011), for example, is a variation on the old gothic horror theme of the alchemist who discovers an elixir of immortality. The story is rich in historical detail, and Katsu’s prose is romantic in the old-fashioned sense, vividly evoking the time and place that her characters inhabit. Whereas many writers of paranormal horror try to humanize their supernatural characters, making vampires, werewolves, et al. appear no different or differently motivated than human beings, Katsu takes the opposite tack: Count Adair, the alchemist, and the retinue of acolytes he has created are somewhat less than human because of their supernatural endowments. Their long lives have made them decadent, uncompassionate, ruthless toward humans, and totally indifferent to the suffering they cause. It makes perfect sense that they would act this way, and that makes Katsu’s story all the more chilling. Gallery will publish the sequel, The Reckoning, in June.
Rose had been known for her Butterfield Institute books, thoughtful psychological thrillers starring a Manhattan sex therapist, Dr. Morgan Snow (The Delilah Complex, etc.). But she moved from the au naturel to the supernatural in 2007, with The Reincarnationist, in which past life memories threaten a character’s future. The Book of Lost Fragrances may well be her breakthrough work. In a starred—and boxed—review, PW wrote: “Rose’s deliciously sensual novel of paranormal suspense smoothly melds a perfume-scented quest to protect an ancient artifact with an ages-spanning romance. Rose imbues her characters with rich internal lives in a complex plot that races to a satisfying finish.”
Rose, a self-described control freak, is drawn to the sense of power she gets from “recreating the world even if it’s just on paper—or a computer screen” with her paranormal books. She’s described her reason for writing such books as being the same as why readers lap them up. They are escapes “that allow the reader to travel to a world where extraordinary things can happen that are beyond their own everyday lives. It’s a way to experience magic and wonder and at the same time explore emotional truths and conflicts in a perhaps nonthreatening way.”
In 2011, Jones published First Grave on the Right (St. Martin’s), followed that same year by Second Grave on the Left. Apart from the original conceit of a female Angel of Death, who also serves as a gumshoe (her debut outing centered on a request from three lawyers at the same firm who were murdered to catch the killer), Jones concentrated on injecting humor into her story lines.
That orientation is consistent with Jones’s view of trends in the genre. According to her, there could be a “leaning away from truly terrifying stories because so much of paranormal fiction is either romance or has a strong romantic element, as in urban fantasy. It makes sense that the horror element would decrease as the romantic element increased. But also because the vast majority of readers of such novels are women, and women, more often than not, want the love story in lieu of blood-curdling horror.”
And Jones’s recent success means that a book she wrote long before she created Charley Davidson, Death and the Girl Next Door, will see the light of day, kicking off a trilogy also to be published by St. Martin’s, in October. Jones isn’t slowing down anytime soon, attracted by the “unlimited possibilities” paranormal fiction offers. “Adding a paranormal element to genre fiction destroys the barrier of normality and, as long as the writer does his or her job, is as believable and everyday as seeing a kid on a skateboard. It catapults the reader into a new and unique experience. One that takes her breath away or leaves him with the impression that maybe the president would be better off if he had a vampire or two on the payroll. It’s fun and engaging and is limited only by the writer’s imagination.”
Originality, a rare commodity in such a frequently tapped genre, is also a hallmark of Vicki Pettersson, whose The Taken (Harper Voyager, June) inaugurates her Celestial Blues series. Her pairing of an ex-PI, Griffin Shaw (who, incidentally, is a fallen angel), and Kit Craig, a reporter on the rockabilly beat, on the trail of conspiracies in high places in Las Vegas, gave her publisher several marketing options. Diana Gill, executive editor for Harper Voyager, noted that the book “appeals to both the supernatural and mystery audiences, so we’re working both sides of the aisle there. Plus, the heroine is a rockabilly reporter, so we’ll have postcards at the upcoming Viva Las Vegas convention in early April and will hold a rockabilly dressup contest with prizes closer to publication.”
Columnist Johnson is also starting a new series this year. Royal Street (Tor, Apr.) begins a paranormal/urban fantasy series set in New Orleans during and just after Hurricane Katrina, where she lived at the time. “It’s based on this paranormal what-if: what if Hurricane Katrina, in addition to destroying the fragile levees surrounding the city, also destroyed the ‘metaphysical levees’ separating our human world from the ‘Beyond,’ where paranormal creatures exist outside of space and time as we know them?” (The second book in the series, River Road, comes out in November).
Extreme productivity is a hallmark of today’s paranormal authors. Yasmine Galenorn writes three books a year—up next is Night Seeker (Berkley, July), the third in her Indigo Court series. Her work is noted for its darkness (“I don’t do HEAs [Happily Ever Afters],” she writes), but, paradoxically, that element is actually inspirational for many of her fans. “I get a number of letters from people who have overwhelming issues in their lives—be it cancer or family problems,” Galenorn says. “They see my characters—who are flawed and often vulnerable—facing up to the evil coming their way and still battling, even when they get slapped down. This mindset—we may be overwhelmed but we’re not giving up—seems to give some of my readers the courage to face their own problems. And magic—inherent within my books—promises the hope that life can change, that transformation is possible.”
Matt Baldacci, St. Martin’s marketing director, finds paranormal fiction readers, whatever exactly draws them in, passionate. “They are more likely to be committed and overly enthusiastic,” he says. “These buyers are more likely to preorder and the book will have a higher concentration of sales in the first week than others. So marketing campaigns are heavily skewed toward letting the audience know things like on-sale date, plot hints, and how they might find exclusive content about the book and author. The audience is more participatory. We have had fans creating cover art, character art, and even videos of the books and posting and sharing them across social platforms. Rather than intrude on the integrity of the authors’ intellectual property, encouraging these fans helps word-of-mouth and buzz about the authors.”
Harper Voyager’s Gill, who believes that having the relationship as the focus separates dark paranormal from horror and urban fantasy, views genre readers as “strongly online and tech-savvy, so we do a lot online, from blogging and social media to online advertising. Many authors also know and are friends with each other (and authors in other genres like romance or mystery or audiences like YA) and will talk back and forth and cross-promote each other’s books. However, the story is the key thing, so we also offer early excerpts of many books so that readers can try the books and see if they like them, and offer galleys as widely as possible for advance reader reviews. In addition to the usual print advertising and blog tours, we also have panels, presentations, and a booth at Comic-Con International and the New York Comic-Con, and design author-specific promotions as well.” She sees the success of dark television shows such as Grimm and True Blood as showing “the huge demand for supernatural stories with a strong element of terror (and often violence),” that will be reflected in print as well.
In the end, given the vitality of paranormal fiction, is a precise definition a must? Jacquelyn Frank, author of the Nightwalkers and the Shadowdwellers series, doesn’t think so. “I think in my field, there is room to split off into true subgenres and not be afraid to call a spade a spade. I think with the fading out of bricks-and-mortar over the new love for digital, we don’t have to worry so much about which shelf we’re found on because all it will take is keywords to bring us to the attention of the readers who have inclinations toward what we are writing.”
World Horror Highlights
“At the Mountains of Madness,” the tag line for the 2012 World Horror Convention held in Salt Lake City, March 29–April 1, is of course the title of H.P. Lovecraft’s novel of cosmic horror in the Antarctic, one of his greatest works. We Lovecraft fans can now add a new, if considerably less important, work to the canon.
Soon after arriving in the dealers’ room at the downtown Radisson Hotel that first afternoon, I heard from Derek Hussey, proprietor of Hippocampus Press, which specializes in Lovecraft-related publications, that Paul Anderson, a book dealer with a table in the room, was selling a hitherto unknown Lovecraft manuscript. I rushed over to Paul’s table, where Paul was kind enough to allow me to peruse the 30 or so handwritten manuscript sheets, collected in a binder and protected by plastic.
It was an article attacking astrology written for magician and escape artist Harry Houdini. (In the mid-1920s, Houdini had hired Lovecraft for various ghostwriting projects, most notably the story “Under the Pyramids,” which appeared in Weird Tales magazine under Houdini’s name in 1924.) On the last page Lovecraft had scrawled in pen: “The End. Thank Gawd.” Next to this Houdini had signed his name in pencil. Paul assured me Houdini’s signature was authentic.
As was typical for the thrifty Lovecraft, he had used old correspondence with blank backs for the purposes of composition. Nearly all the letters on the reverse of the manuscript dated to 1922, but one was dated September 1926. Paul knew that Houdini toured New England in the fall of 1926. Perhaps Houdini called on Lovecraft at home in Providence, R.I., where Lovecraft gave him the manuscript. Lovecraft would’ve awaited Houdini’s verdict before bothering to type this draft. Soon after, Houdini toured the Midwest, where he died on Halloween of a ruptured appendix after being slugged by a college student keen to test Houdini’s ability to withstand stomach blows.
For decades this manuscript rested in the Houdini archives, until someone connected with the Houdini estate realized that Lovecraft was now an important literary figure whose letters, postcards, and other original writings were much sought by collectors. It was time to sell.
Might Jared Walter, who had a table displaying books published by his Centipede Press (known for its high-end, beautifully produced collections of the stories of such classic genre authors as Lovecraft’s best friend, Frank Belknap Long), bring out a deluxe hardcover edition? Might Hippocampus issue the trade paperback, complete with facing pages of original manuscript and transcribed text, with introduction by leading Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi? And will the manuscript remain intact, purchased perhaps by Brown University, which has the country’s largest collection of Lovecraft papers, or will it be sold off sheet by sheet to individual collectors? Stay tuned.
Bram Stoker fans also had reason to celebrate at World Horror. The second day, Dacre Stoker, Bram’s great-grandnephew and the coauthor with Ian Holt of a Dracula sequel, Dracula: The Un-Dead (Dutton, 2009), gave a PowerPoint presentation about his illustrious relative and the publication this month of The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years (Robson Press), co-edited by Stoker scholar Elizabeth Miller and Dacre himself. Written between 1871 and 1881 and discovered in the attic of Bram Stoker’s great-grandson Noel, this journal offers many new insights into the character of the author of the world’s greatest vampire novel as well as tantalizing tidbits that foreshadow details in Dracula.
The publication of The Dublin Years coincides with the centenary of Stoker’s death on April 20, 1912, an event overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic. Dacre hopes the book will generate renewed interest in an author about whose life relatively little is known.
Finally, as someone of pioneer Mormon stock, I had to wonder if Mormons and horror fiction ever mixed. My prayers were answered when I encountered Jaleta Clegg, who read from her story “Charity Never Faileth,” included in the anthology Monsters & Mormons (Peculiar Pages, Oct. 2011), edited by Wm Henry Morris and Theric Jepson. Alas, the book wasn’t available in the dealers’ room, but I’ve since ordered a copy that promises: “Bishops battling demons, the ghosts of past wives, and missionary work among the zombies.” —Peter Cannon