First, they came for Hollywood. Now, a literary scene dominated by Stephen King.
Blumhouse Productions, founded in 2000 by Halloween producer Jason Blum, established itself with a group of efficiently produced, aesthetically unsettling films like Paranormal Activity, the Purge series and this month’s Halloween. In recent years it has expanded beyond the confines of traditional horror, most prominently with the likes of Get Out and Split, and outside the medium itself, making strides in episodic work with Netflix’s Ghoul and HBO’s Sharp Objects. Low budgets, a penchant for experimentation and knowing the audience have all played a part in this particular success story.
The company also broke out into an unlikelier space: published fiction. The relatively new Blumhouse Books, quietly founded in 2014, has included everything from bleak visions of a devastated near-future to collections of holiday-themed horror stories and unpredictable mash-ups of familiar genre tropes. The imprint has published work by folks like The Purge creator James DeMonaco and award-winning writers like Stephen Graham Jones, Elizabeth Hand and Joe R. Lansdale.
Blumhouse isn’t the first production company to make a foray into books, but it is in a unique position, riding widespread coverage for its critical and commercial hits to become a household name in horror. But how well does the aesthetic of a production company, known for its wide-ranging and frequently experimental approach, translate to words on a page?
Blum himself has a history of flirting with the literary: in a 2017 New York Times Magazine profile, the producer revealed that he’s been working for over a decade on bringing an adaptation of John Williams’ novel Stoner, a cult novel beloved of many a literary fiction reader, to the screen. While Blum told Polygon that he’s involved “a little bit” with the publishing side of his business, he views Blumhouse Books as one more way of getting “interesting, scary stuff” out into the world.
”Jason Blum came to Knopf Doubleday about four and a half years ago with the idea of looking for a venue for stories that he couldn’t tell on [13th Floor, Blumhouse Productions’ former blog],” recalls Tim O’Connell, a senior editor at Knopf Doubleday Group who edited Dathan Auerbach’s recent novel, Bad Man, for Blumhouse.
The line between the publishing and movie businesses can get blurry, however, most notably in the case of the 2017 novel Feral, a collaboration between The Purge’s James DeMonaco and Brian Evenson, author of heady and unsettling books like The Warren and A Collapse of Horses.
“[DeMonaco] had a concept for a film he hadn’t yet made,” Robert Bloom, an editor at Doubleday who has worked on a number of Blumhouse titles, told Polygon. “So we paired him up with a fantastic horror writer.”
Like the Purge franchise, Feral blends grindhouse violence with social commentary. In this case, the world of Feral is one that’s been devastated by a plague that makes nearly all men violent, inarticulate and hyper-aggressive. If the real monster of The Purge is societal inequality, the real monster in Feral is a very literal form of toxic masculinity — here escalated to something even more monstrous and lethal.
DeMonaco and Evenson are writers well-versed in high concepts and immediate thrills. Evenson began his work on the book based on a screenplay DeMonaco had written. “I developed the novel based closely on that, and then we had a back and forth with it — he was very involved in terms of responding and working with me, so I think we ended up with a novel we’re both really happy with,” Evenson told Polygon.
DeMonaco mentioned that he and Evenson were discussing ideas for a followup to Feral in a 2017 interview with Entertainment Weekly, and that he hoped to bring the series to the screen. “[DeMonaco’s] notion of what Feral was went through some adjustments because of how they were thinking about the film,” Evenson said, “ and I think writing about it and considering it on the page was a big help.”
Evenson also welcomed the ability to expand on aspects of the world only hinted at in DeMonaco’s original screenplay. “One great thing about writing from a movie script is that you’re moving from a 100 page script to a 300 page book, so you have a lot of room to interpret and elaborate, and a lot of space to really explore character,” he explained. “That for me was my favorite part of the process, being able to bring things that are only implied in the movie to life.”
One can see Blumhouse’s genre-hopping tendencies — which have manifested onscreen in films like Upgrade and Split — represented on the page via Edgar Cantero’s novel Meddling Kids. The book is a riff on Scooby-Doo, as anyone who grew up with the cartoon will tell you based on the title, following the former members of a group of teenage paranormal investigators years after their group tragically dissolved. The surviving members reunite to explore strange activity and unravel uncanny occult rituals, ominous secrets and the presence of a long-lived cosmic horror. It’s Scooby-Doo vs. Cthulhu, which is not a bad elevator pitch at all.
Bloom had an existing relationship with Cantero before Blumhouse Books; Doubleday had published Cantero’s first novel, The Supernatural Enhancements. “When [Cantero] came up with the idea for Meddling Kids, they immediately thought it was a good fit for the imprint. And everyone agreed,” Bloom said. He described Meddling Kids as “a new take on horror” and “definitely self-referential, definitely meta.”
The bleak psychological horror of Dathan Auerbach’s Bad Man sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from Cantero’s more playful, self-referential novel. Bad Man is the story of Ben, a young man still reeling from the disappearance of his younger brother, Eric, years before. The book follows Ben’s obsessive search to discover the truth about his brother’s fate. It’s the kind of horror story in which ambiguity plays a major role, questioning whether Ben’s observations are reliable and whether this is a story about supernatural evil or monsters wearing a human face.
Auerbach attracted the publisher’s attention through his self-published novel Penpal, which had developed a cult following. For O’Connell, the mood of Bad Man meshes with what he refers to as “this slow fuse terror that would build” that he noticed in a number of Blumhouse’s films. “We felt that Dathan and Blumhouse were sort of a natural fit,” he said
For his part, Auerbach agrees. “Working with Blumhouse and Doubleday did me a lot of good — for Bad Man and for my approach to writing in general,” he told Polygon. “There were more opinions about design and direction, more conversations about how to best accomplish what I was aiming for. I was worried about that kind of friction, but that back and forth turned out to be really interesting and instructive, something I know I’ll be seeking out on the next go-round.”
The process of creating Bad Man also fortified Auerbach’s own thoughts on horror. “We watch the character find hope, and then we watch what that hope does to him. That’s what I’m most interested in in horror,” Auerbach explained. “The things that undergird our lives — hope and friendship and love — can also corrode. Maybe they always do.”
Some of the titles released by Blumhouse Books have attracted interest from other studios: Bloom mentioned that Amazon has optioned Meddling Kids, while Dreamworks has optioned S. L. Grey’s The Apartment, about a couple whose Parisian vacation goes horribly awry as they deal with the after effects of trauma.
But as Blumhouse Books continues to release works that approach the genre from multiple angles, the relationship between publisher and production company remains deeply organic. “On the publishing side, we have the autonomy, but we’re in constant conversation with Blumhouse,” Bloom told Polygon. “They look to read everything that we’re doing and see if there’s something that they can work with or develop on their side.”
And there’s a cinematic quality to much of this written work. The forthcoming anthology Hark! The Herald Angels Scream is made of horror stories set at Christmas. The best of them have a wide range of tones: Joe R. Lansdale’s elegiac “The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel” concerns aging and a long-unsolved mystery; Josh Malerman’s “Tenets” finds a disgraced cult leader awkwardly attending a holiday gathering; and Sarah Pinborough’s “The Hangman’s Bride” delves into history for a tale of a grieving husband, an orphaned child forced into a life of crime and a restless spirit roaming around a desolate home.
These stories share little outside of the time of year in which they’re set — save the sense that each of them could make a fantastic, and terrifying, movie. Creating a literary aesthetic to match an onscreen one is no small task, but the work being done at Blumhouse Books has set an interesting template for others to follow.
Tobias Carroll is a writer covering many subjects, cultural and culinary. He’s the author of the books Reel and Transitory.