Why You Don’t See More Jewish Horror

THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR, the anthology I edited for Denver Horror Collective (DHC) in late 2021, just won a bronze medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and had previously made it onto the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Awards. Meanwhile, at a recent horror writers conference, I lost count of the authors who told me they loved the book, which sold well at the DHC table, as it has been literally around the world.

While readers are hungry for Jewish horror as a unique exploration of the larger genre, I think I finally understand why THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR was one of the only Jewish horror anthologies ever released (all by small presses). And why nearly every working author who also writes Jewish horror tells me they have difficulty getting those stories published.

Because while pitching my Jewish folk horror novel to the editor of a large, established horror fiction publisher, one of my sneaking suspicions as to what’s been turning off so many gatekeepers was finally confirmed.

While the vast majority of horror publishers and agents are thankfully searching out diversity in terms of race, gender, and sexual identity, few have yet to welcome a Jewish flavor. A book called JEWS DON’T COUNT by David Baddiel offers an intriguing theory as to why we Jews–the #1 target of hate crimes of any ethnic or religious group in the world–tend to fall through the diversity, equity, and inclusion cracks so often.

But I’d long suspected that the main obstacle to the literary establishment’s green lighting of Jewish horror may be the fact that, unlike other diverse identities, the descriptor “Jewish” refers not simply to a race and culture but a FAITH. And, indeed, this prominent and influential editor told me flat out that the reason she wouldn’t look at a single page of my manuscript was that she doesn’t do “religion” (perhaps the only time in nearly a decade of me pitching at conferences where an editor or agent didn’t at least ask to see some pages).

Though I usually have an answer for everything, I was so surprised by her admission that I forgot to respond that while my main character is culturally Jewish, Judaism is merely a background element to the horror, which if anything manifests as Jewish folklore. Plus, as a non-practicing Jew myself, I’m certainly not proselytizing a belief system.

But it probably wouldn’t have helped, anyway, as a common take these days is that the Judeo-Christian tradition is completely backwards. Which of course in many ways it was and still is…along with a lot of good we take for granted, such as, you know, the foundation of modern ethics and law.

So, aside from the policies of the Israeli government, it may be that this reflexive distaste for religion amongst so many literary gatekeepers, and the conflation of the Jewish people and culture with the Abrahamic religion—that, ironically, few Jews actually practice today—is what makes Jewish horror such a hard sell. (At this point I would be remiss to leave out how unease about the Jewish religion IS the historic root of all antisemitism.)

If I had pitched an Irish folk horror novel, would the editor have turned it down because she wasn’t a fan of Christianity or Druidism, which would inevitably find its way into the book? My guess is no, because Irish isn’t also the name of a religion. Not sure how to get around this, although one member of the Jewish Horror Authors group I started on Facebook suggested framing our work as “Jewish folklore” might do the trick.

And just the other day I got an email back from a Jewish literary agent living in Israel who had asked to read my manuscript after I queried her agency. Though she praised the novel itself–which she read in its entirety–ultimately she, too, passed on it, saying, “This was such a close call!…I just don’t think I have the right vision to know where to sell this and how.” Which could mean one of two things: That she didn’t think this particular story made the cut. Or that the mainstream publishing industry simply won’t buy Jewish horror.

Despite these new insights, I still don’t plan on changing ANY of the Jewish elements of my manuscript. However, sadly, to slip under the radar, I may try removing overt mentions of “Jewish” in my query and pitch it solely as the folk horror novel it is. Then, maybe editors can come at the pages with an open mind. And perhaps when they get drawn into the story and realize Jewish horror isn’t about selling religion but simply another face of the diversity they say they want, they’ll give works within this long overlooked subgenre a chance at being “chosen.”

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4 thoughts on “Why You Don’t See More Jewish Horror

  1. Josh, I know this true and have experienced it myself. I’m lucky that my publisher was completely open to a heroine of Jewish faith in an urban fantasy, but trying to sell something “Jewish” is basically impossible to a mainstream market, and yet, when I hand sell at cons, people are thrilled to find TJBOH and my short stories, Seder in Space. There is an audience, if only the publishers could see it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s an interesting topic, Josh. I think you may have hit the nail on the head: the conflation of Jewish people with the Abrahamic religion. Still, I don’t understand publishers’ hesitancy. Chaim Potok was (is) a beloved author, and you seriously can’t get more faith-infused than Potok!

    Liked by 1 person

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