LJ Talks to Becky Spratford, Author of ‘The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror’

Becky Spratford talks with LJ about writing the third edition of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror and the changes to the genre since she wrote the second edition.

Becky Spratford is a readers’ advisory (RA) specialist in northern Illinois and LJ’s horror columnist. She runs the popular blogs RA for All and RA for All: Horror.

She talked to LJ about writing the third edition of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror (ALA Editions. Aug. 2021. ISBN 9780838948767) and the changes to the genre since she wrote the second edition.

It’s been nine years since your previous edition of this guide came out. What are some of the biggest changes in the horror landscape since then?

The short answer is everything and yet nothing at all. Horror feels real right now, as we live through a pandemic, but the complex, biological processes that elicit fear, dread, and anxiety in humans are emotions that every person experiences in their own unique ways, and that is why horror tales go back to the dawn of storytelling. That is what hasn’t changed. But due to a variety of reasons, which I explore in the book, horror has seen an explosion in mainstream popularity in these nine years, one that I don’t think anyone saw coming. Here are just a few obvious examples from that time frame: The Walking Dead went from a cult graphic novel series to a television show and pop culture obsession; Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was a National Book Award finalist for fiction; multiple horror titles by people not named King made the New York Times year-end notable books list; and new horror voices—authors who were not even mentioned in my previous edition—like Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Grady Hendrix, and Stephen Graham Jones, have appeared on the New York Times best-seller list.

The other big change is that the authors who are emerging as the best in the genre, those who are winning the accolades and awards, are those whose voices have been marginalized as a result of systemic oppression. But here is the thing—it is precisely their experience of living in real fear and facing horror in their daily lives that makes their horror so much more convincing and real. There is a quote that I first used in the July 2020 issue of LJ, and also included in the book, that sums this up well. It’s by John Fram, debut author of The Bright Lands, which features an unapologetically queer hero: “We live in a gaslit era, a time when straight, white society is finally being visited by the fears and uncertainties that the rest of us have been battling all our lives. Horror seems ready to tell us that yes, things really are more terrifying than you could have imagined…. What a time to be alive.”

But it was also important for me to note my part in this systemic oppression. I’m still proud of parts of the second edition of my book, and even used some for this edition, but others, well, not as much. While writing the new edition, I often shook my head in disappointment at “past Becky.” Not only did the book and its lists include overwhelmingly white, male authors, I thought I was being helpful by spotlighting “Women of Horror” in a special section. Thankfully I was able to rectify this in the third edition by making the entire book more representative of the genre and its diverse creators, but I was also very honest in this new edition about my own previous failings and made sure to point them out as a learning experience for everyone who reads the book.

Can you talk a bit about the intended readership of this book? How do you expect librarians with varying levels of familiarity with horror to use the material?

This book is part of a larger series of titles [“ALA Editions Readers’ Advisory” series], and each author within the series is required to address this question head on. As I was writing, I imagined the average library worker who, according to statistics which I include in the book, is afraid of horror. As a result, I made sure I presented clear information about the current state of the genre, its appeal, and the most important authors to know. However, I was aware that many fans will also consult the book. The organization of the book itself makes it easier to use based on your level of familiarity and comfort with the genre. So if you need context, the opening three chapters are key. If you just want to learn more about a subgenre and get title suggestions, the middle 10 chapters will work, and if you want to go beyond the basics and expand your reach, the final three chapters are where you go. As someone who worked 15 years at a readers’ advisory service desk, I thought long and hard about the balance of information vs. ease of access, and I think that thoughtfulness is well reflected in the final product.

The book includes marketing and programming ideas in addition to all of the valuable advisory information. What are some misconceptions you see around marketing horror collections or planning horror programming? Are there easy ways to make those efforts more effective?

The biggest misconception is that you can only offer horror programming or do marketing during October; that patrons won’t be interested in horror except in the spooky season. Most of the book is a direct argument against that misconception. The popularity of the genre in print and film is now a year-round occurrence, with some of the biggest authors in the genre (Paul Tremblay, Stephen Graham Jones, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Grady Hendrix) publishing new titles anytime but October. I offer ideas from my experience and other libraries throughout the country to help others get over this outdated stereotype.

With a huge genre like horror and a limited number of pages available in your book, deciding what to leave out must be as important as deciding what to include. How did you approach those difficult decisions?

Seriously, this was the hardest part of writing the book. I had to constantly remind myself that I was never going to get to write about everything I wanted to include. And I mean constantly. More than once I had to walk away from the computer screen to stop myself from writing too much about a very specific subtopic. The book does not work as a useful tool if it is too long. And even after keeping that in mind, and self-editing along the way, I had to go through and cut 30,000 words from the final draft!

One of the earliest decisions I made as I wrote the book was to only give the briefest of histories of the genre. Instead of the past, I focus on the present, presenting the genre as it stands right now. Another choice I made, and stated at the outset, was that I was not going to waste anyone’s time annotating books by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or Anne Rice. Most libraries receive their books as an automatic purchase, or simply buy them on name recognition alone, so including them is not really helpful to anyone. That space would be better served by introducing readers to authors they might not know about but whose works should be on their shelves. Also, when I was writing the second edition, I set up a separate horror website, RA for All: Horror, and branded it as “the online home to the Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror.” This website serves as a free update to the book, but it is also a place where the information I couldn’t bear to cut can live again; kinda like a zombie, only without the insatiable appetite for brains.

For example, much of those 30,000 words I cut from the manuscript came from the 10 chapters which are the annotated lists of reading suggestions by subgenre. I had between 20–25 annotated titles in each list. To conserve space but not lose any of that valuable information, I picked my top 12 to remain in the print book, with their annotations in each chapter, and then moved the other titles to an appendix where they are listed with a note that the annotations are available for free on the horror site. So if you have a reader who craves body horror, you have 12 titles in the book, with three marked as Becky’s top picks, and 10–12 more on a special page on the blog for free. I began releasing those lists, one a week for 10 weeks, starting on June 1, leading up to the book’s release in August.

But this is about more than just offering overflow on a website. After the book comes out, much like I did with the second edition, if there are areas where readers ask for more depth, I can explore it through articles on that site. This allowed me to focus on the most important information in the book, while alleviating my anxiety about not getting to talk about every possible thing. I have kept the book to a useful size but have also allowed myself a space to expand over time. It really is the best of both worlds for me, the library workers who read and use the book, and, ultimately, their patrons.

Editor’s note: LJ Reviews Editor Neal Wyatt is co-series editor, with Joyce Saricks, of the “ALA Editions Readers’ Advisory” series.

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