Reading and Appreciating Horror Book Reviews
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Book reviews: a budding author’s best friend or worst enemy. A review can either make you hit “Order now” or turn you off a book completely. That’s a lot of power to be wielded and there is only one prerequisite- reading!
Okay, so anyone can review a book. Technically someone leaning over your shoulder at Chapters and saying, “Oh I looooved that book!” is a book reviewer. And with the power of social media, a review can be shared easily and widely.
So while you’re being bombarded with book reviews, here are some things to keep in mind:
First and foremost, did the reviewer FINISH the book? The ending of a novel can change your perspective entirely. Remember when the author was babbling on and you thought it was pointless and boring? Turns out it was really important. “This book was so bad I couldn’t even finish it” is NOT a review you should be listening to.
Secondly, how well read is the reviewer? What other work does the reviewer have to compare the book to? If it is the reviewer’s first foray into the horror genre, can they really judge the book properly? A well-read reviewer is much more trust-worthy than a newbie.
Look at the other reviews of the book in question. If a book has an average of 4.5/5, take the 1 point reviews with a grain of salt. Of course there are bound to people who won’t like a book- you can’t please everybody- but keep in mind that the majority was impressed.
Finally, keep in mind the notoriety of the reviewer. This doesn’t always matter. A book review is just someone’s opinion, right? And surely I can have opinions that are just as well-formed as Lev Grossman’s. However, a New York Times reviewer should be taken a little bit more seriously than your average Amazon user. They’re notorious for a reason.
The paradox of the horror book review:
Horror is one of the only genres in which a bad review can be a good review. Obviously words like “boring” and “predictable” are always bad. But some things that are considered negative by many reviewers really aren’t a turn-off for a horror reader. Words like “twisted”, “gory”, “disgusting”, “disturbing” –especially with “too” in front of them!- tend to be describing my kind of book. Add in the word “controversial” and I come running.
Take, for example, this review by GreenGables on Amazon of Stephen King’s IT:
“After 900 or so pages a nasty, detailed, child orgy happens… If you are a morally upright person you will not like this book. I am upset with myself for allowing curiosity to expose my mind to such filth.”
Clearly I lack the innocence and morality that GreenGables seems so proud of but let me just say that this 1 star review is not a deterrent for me.
Another example is this review of Poppy Z. Brite’s book Exquisite Corpse by Stephanie on GoodReads:
“Well this was certainly not a joy to read. I spent most of the book being disgusted by the hideous main characters and the graphic descriptions of their victims' murders. Unlike American Psycho, where you'd read a particularly gory bit, but then have a chapter about Huey Lewis and the News to recover from it, there is no recovery time in 'Exquisite Corpse'. You get through one vile murder, and then before you know it, it's on to the next.”
Stephanie actually gave this book 3/5 stars so clearly she’s a wee bit entranced by the darkness too! It is a review like this that makes me lust after a book.
One more King review from Amazon, just for kicks? This one is by ‘a customer’ and they are reviewing The Green Mile:
“What the horror in the book is about is how cruel and unsensitive (white) men can be.”
A little in controversy in my horror goes a long way.
Any book- and this goes for any genre- that is strong enough to make people feel passionately is a book that is probably worth my time. 1 star and 5 star reviews are equally passionate.
Book reviews are a great tool for choosing what to read next, but I personally don’t avoid a book based solely on the fact that it got a poor review. Remember that not all reviews are equal- unless you happen to have a lot of professional book reviewers on your Facebook, I wouldn’t be too concerned about what your friends have to say. But you know that woman who looked over your shoulder in Chapters to gush? Take her seriously. I’d have to be REALLY passionate about a book before I got all in your shoulder space.