Novellas, the Bogeyman of Publishing
Novellas, the Bogeyman of Publishing
by Cassondra Windwalker
Literature and publishing are forever squabbling like impassioned parents, leaving readers to look on morosely from their hiding place behind the couch. In this case, the argument is especially silly, as its conclusion has been decidedly proven on the best-seller lists already. Still, agents and publishers will claim that books must be a minimum of 70,000-80,000 words long to even be considered for publication, while authors point miserably to the insistences of successful writers from Beatrix Potter to Truman Capote to Ernest Hemingway to Charles Bukowski, each of whom loudly proclaimed the superiority of paucity.
Brevity is especially well-suited to horror. Horror, like seduction, relies more on the imagination of the reader than the dictation of the writer. Should the writer give in to her self-indulgent desire to painstakingly explain and describe every detail of every scene, to plumb the depths of every motivation, she would remove the reader entirely and leave them outside the pages, a mere observer. Worldbuilding serves the author well, but it should never be used to bludgeon the reader into docile submission. The reader needs to feel the cobblestones under their feet and choke softly on the cold smog filling their lungs, not visit the bricklayers’ yard and measure out the particulants in the air.
The cornerstone of horror lies in its reliance on humanity’s shared terrors. I do not need to tell the reader why the cellar is frightening. In fact, I do not know why the cellar is frightening. I know what lurks waiting in those damp shadows for me, but only the reader knows what waits for them. The practiced writer will always leave room on the cellar stairs for the monsters the reader brings with them. It is the silhouette that thrills the heart with that awful pang, not the anatomically correct description of intestines.
And it’s certainly not the case that the modern reader craves massive tomes over thinner volumes. If anything, the attention span of the consumer is significantly less than what it was a hundred years ago, or even fifty. Many readers never even heft a spine in their hands anymore, preferring the convenience of ebooks or the accessibility of audiobooks to a print edition. Not having to wait to visit a brick-and-mortar bookstore and the bottomed-out prices of ebooks means that readers are able to fill their bookshelves, both virtual and tangible, at a rate unlike any other in history.
Readers have always been willing to champion shorter books. Some of the most famous and beloved classics would today languish in a slush-pile as a dreaded novella: The Great Gatsby, Candide, Animal Farm, The Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Heart of Darkness, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Imagine if an agent or publisher had gone back to one of these authors and said, “Great concept, but could you stuff about 20,000-30,000 extra words of fluff in there? I just can’t sell it otherwise.”
Well-crafted horror is intoxicating and irresistible and wonderfully dangerous. Novellas of the craft are perfectly suited to this cocktail. The reader finds themselves drinking down the whole libation without a pause. The effect is heady and unforgettable, as the whole world takes on a terrifying flavor unmarred by interruption.
In spite of the reluctance of Big Publishing to back shorter books without the guarantee of a name like Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, some stubborn and intrepid writers have nonetheless created remarkable little nightmares of mind-wrenching impact. Caytlyn Brooke’s Dark Flowers, Gemma Amor’s Dear Laura, and Laurel Hightower’s Crossroads each represent transgressive and terrifying forays into the world of horror that cannot soon be forgotten, regardless of their length. And as horror ought, they force the reader to examine the unexaminable, to confront what society would prefer to obscure.
Horror has often been dominated by male writers, so when women take the genre in their hands, all sorts of different monsters are brought into the light. Publishing needs to embrace what it likes to label as novellas and look only at craft and creativity and chills, not at word count. Will you remember this monster? Have you met it before? Does it summon up old terrors and stay with you even in the light?
My new release Hold My Place, from Black Spot Books, is technically a novella, but the ghosts between its spines aren’t tethered by pages. They take their life from the reader’s lungs. Hold your breath as long as you can.
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About Hold My Place:
From the Helen Kay Chapbook Award-Winning poet Cassondra Windwalker, an unsuspecting librarian falls head-over-heels for a married man, but when she finds herself caught up in a whirlwind romance, she discovers her new husband’s past wives have all met early deaths—and some aren’t ready to let go yet.
Obsession never dies.
When librarian Sigrun falls head-over-heels for the sophisticated and very married Edgar Leyward, she never expects to find herself in his bed—or his heart. Nevertheless, when his enigmatic wife Octavia dies from a sudden illness, Sigrun finds herself caught up in a whirlwind romance worthy of the most lurid novels on her bookshelves.
Sigrun soon discovers Octavia wasn’t Edgar’s first lost love, or even his second. Three women Edgar has loved met early deaths. As she delves into her beloved’s past through a trove of discovered letters, the edges of Sigrun identity begin to disappear, fading into the women of the past. Sigrun tells herself it’s impossible for any dark magic to be at play—that the dead can’t possibly inhabit the bodies of the living—but something shadowy stalks the halls of the Leyward house and the lines between the love of the present and the obsessions of the past become increasingly blurred—and bloody.
Mixing lyrical prose with simmering terror, Hold My Place is a modern gothic horror worthy of Shirley Jackson’s nightmares and Daphne DuMaurier’s dangerous lovers.