Still Scary After All These Years: A History of Tor Horror

Tom Doherty Associates (which houses the imprints Tor, Nightfire, and Tordotcom, among others) launched its first titles in 1980, publishing at first in the mass market format. From the beginning, alongside legendary science fiction and fantasy authors, Tor published horror authors such as Graham Masterton and T.M. Wright, Charles Grant, John Farris, Dan Simmons, Richard Matheson, Fred Saberhagen, and Ramsey Campbell. 

The late 80s and 90s saw the addition of Brian Lumley to Tor’s horror roster, along with authors like Joe Lansdale and Robert Bloch. Late, great Tor editor David Hartwell put out horror short story anthologies throughout the 90s. As the genre gained prestige and libraries grew more interested, Tor shifted over to hardcover for horror, then began publishing in trade paperback as well, with many of the same authors who were part of Tor’s early horror program, plus new additions like Mick Farren and P.D. Cacek. 

The 1980s were the heyday of mass market, and horror mass market was big. By the 1990s, though, the mass market horror boom started to wane due to a number of factors (among them a glut in the market and changes to the mass market distribution system), and sales began to drop. Some stores dismantled their horror sections and folded horror back into other sections–these days you’ll most likely find horror grouped with “fiction,” though some retailers are bringing back the designated horror section.

Over the decades, Tor has remained committed to publishing horror throughout the genre market fluctuations, shifts in prevailing formats, and trends in popularity of different kinds of monsters. The Tor horror line has seen everything from ghosts, vampires, and zombies, to haunted houses, demons, and hell dimensions; from witches, curses, and serial killers, to forest spirits, creepy dolls, and even Freddy Krueger tie-in novels

In April 2019, Tor announced a brand new dedicated horror imprint, Tor Nightfire, set to launch in fall 2021. The Tor Nightfire imprint will join horror’s modern resurgence in books, movies, and television, one that reflects an ever-expanding point of view and willingness to push the limits of the genre and reinvent or subvert standard tropes.

Genre fiction is an alternate prism onto our reality, giving us another avenue to reflect on the world and ourselves, while offering escape. Horror gives us the freedom to experience fear and look at darkness from the safety of our comfy chair. It is often laced with social commentary, and taps into deep-rooted societal fears, legends, and beliefs.

Below are a few notable titles from Tor’s history in horror publishing.

The 1980s

An Old Friend of the Family, Fred Saberhagen

Though it was first published at Ace, Tor added An Old Friend of the Family in mass market to its lists in the late 80s, and it has been reissued at Tor several times since. This is part of Saberhangen’s “Dracula” series. An Old Friend of the Family takes an unexpected approach to Bram Stoker’s vampire as Kate Southerland and her little brother Johnny face a threat from a foe you wouldn’t expect to see in the vampire genre. A mix of horror and mystery, magic and vampire lore.

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Necroscope, Brian Lumley

The Necroscope series by Brian Lumley is a horror staple. Originally published by Voyager in the UK, Tor brought Necroscope out in the US in the late 1980s, and continued to publish Brian Lumley for decades. Harry Keogh can talk to the dead, and rather than doing it combatively or out of fear, he reaches out to befriend them, learning from and guiding them. Involving multiple worlds and demonic hybrid warriors called the Wamphyrii, Harry and the members of a secret British organization (the E-Branch) fight to save the world.

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The 1990s

I Am Legend, Richard Matheson

No discussion of horror is complete without Richard Matheson, who has a large backlist as well as a long list of credits at IMDB as the writer on legendary tv series such as The Twilight Zone and dozens of films. It’s hard to pick just one Richard Matheson book, but I Am Legend is most definitely a stand-out of post-apocalyptic horror. Originally published in 1954, Tor acquired the rights in the 1990s, publishing this formative work of vampire and zombie plague fiction in mass market and then trade paperback. Robert Neville is the last, lone survivor of a virus that has turned everyone else into a vampire. The hero takes a scientific approach to battling the vampires, trying to survive as he searches for the cause of, and cure for, the virus.

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2000s On

Midnight Mass, F. Paul Wilson

Much like I Am Legend, Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson (author of the Repairman Jack series) involves vampires taking over most of the world. Worse, they have human allies called cowboys who round up humans to be the vampire’s victims. Pockets of human resistance remain, struggling to survive. A priest, a warrior nun, an atheist, and a rabbi join forces to form a rebellion to fight back against the vampires, and they set out on a mission to kill the vampire king of New York. 

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The Family Plot, Cherie Priest

Switching over to ghost stories, The Family Plot by Cherie Priest is an atmospheric haunted house story in the vein of The Haunting of Hill House. The Dutton family are estate salvagers, who sort, gather, dispose of, or sell really cool stuff from old homes. Dahlia and her crew get a gig clearing out the Withrow mansion in Tennessee, but the ghosts on the property are reluctant to let the past go. 

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Alone with the Horrors, Ramsey Campbell

If you want an overview of the work of World Fantasy and Bram Stoker Award-winning author Ramsey Campbell, check out Tor’s edition of Alone with the Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of Ramsey Campbell 1961-1991. This is a seminal collection of short fiction from the acclaimed British horror legend, and includes an introduction by the author. 

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Hex, Thomas Olde Heuvelt

The brooding Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is set in New York’s Hudson Valley, an area filled with its own ghost stories and legends. The cozy little town of Black Springs is cursed by a seventeenth-century witch with her eyes and mouth sewn shut. If residents try to leave, the curse brings some nasty consequences, so Black Springs has quarantined itself in a bubble cut off from the outside world. The town’s teens decide to go public online with the witch’s curse, unleashing dark forces.

Editor’s Note: Nightfire will be reissuing Hex as part of our launch season this September!

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Dark Harvest, Norman Partridge

Speaking of small towns with horrifying secrets, check out Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge, which hits a retro Americana horror chord. Set in 1963, a small midwestern town prepares for its annual ritual involving the October Boy, a monster with a jack-o-lantern for a head and a butcher knife in his hand. Each year, the teens of the town must hunt the October Boy. Whoever kills him will be rewarded–but the town’s young people don’t know the whole truth about the October Boy legend, or the real danger of the hunt.

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Inferno, ed. Ellen Datlow

Another significant part of Tor’s horror line over the years are Ellen Datlow’s anthologies. The award-winning horror collection Inferno gathers together scary stories from a powerhouse list of authors. In the introduction, Datlow says she asked authors to produce stories that would make readers “compelled to turn on the bright lights and play music or seek the company of others to dispel the fear.”

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The Living Dead, George A. Romero & Daniel Kraus

Just published in August 2020, Tor returns to the ultimate in zombie horror with the posthumous completion of an unfinished manuscript left by the late horror film legend George Romero. Completed by Daniel Kraus, The Living Dead tells the story of a modern-day zombie plague, told through an interwoven chain of different point-of-view characters.

Editor’s Note: Nightfire will be releasing The Living Dead in paperback as part of our launch season this September!

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Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark

One of Tor’s most recent horror titles is Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, published under the Tordotcom imprint. Set in 1915, this is a powerful, fast-paced punch of a horror novella, as Maryse Boudreaux and her group of Resistance fighters battle demons known as Ku Kluxes. Though it’s set in the past, Ring Shout is very much about the now, with an appealing group of monster-fighters who have to save the world from forces that want to make earth into Hell.

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Nightfire will carry on Tor’s scary lineage this fall, when our first season of books hits shelves!

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