THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR, the anthology I edited for Denver Horror Collective (DHC) in late 2021, won a bronze medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, a Silver medal in the 666 Awards, and had previously made it onto the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Awards. Meanwhile, at a 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 (CHARWOOD will be published in 2023 by Aggadah Try It, the Jewish horror imprint of Madness Heart Press) 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 violent 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).
Of course, while my main character is culturally Jewish, Judaism is merely a background element to the horror, which if anything manifests as Jewish folklore or mysticism. Plus, as a non-practicing Jew myself, I’m certainly not proselytizing a belief system.
But that doesn’t seem to matter, anyway, as a common take these days is that the Judeo-Christian tradition is behind the times. Which, of course, in some ways it was and sometimes 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 I can’t help but puzzle over an email received from an American 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, stating in so many words that anything Jewish is a hard sell to U.S. publishers.
Despite these insights, I didn’t change ANY of the Jewish elements of my manuscript. However, sadly, to slip under the radar in the future, I may try removing overt mentions of anything “Jewish” in queries. 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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