Becky Spratford (2021)

Steve Thomas: Becky, welcome back to Circulating Ideas. 

Becky Spratford: Thanks for having me, Steve. It’s always wonderful to be on this podcast. 

Steve Thomas: Well, we already covered your librarian origin story in a previous episode. It’s just how we start a lot of episodes here. So , I thought we could talk about the origin of RA for All. So how did you get started doing that? 

Becky Spratford: Sure. That’s actually a really great question. Thanks for asking. So as this airs in August, let’s see. What would that be? I started in August of 2007, so you can do math while I’m talking, but it’s been a long time. It’s been over 10 years, 14 years this month , and why it started was actually quite innocuous. I had been teaching for a few years at Dominican University in the masters program of library information science with Joyce Saricks, and together we taught the reader’s advisory course. And what we had been doing -and I started that in the fall of 2004- so, you know, I was slow to the uptake of needing RA for All.

It took me three years to figure it out, but this is how the progression went. We would teach together one semester and there were three semesters a year and each separately and wants together. And we were always trying to find ways to save all the information. Not only that we were teaching when the other one wasn’t there and revamped to get every time we came together, but we were realizing what a treasure trove of information our students were creating.

So they had to write five one-page annotations each semester. They were making book lists for assignments. There was just so much and we used to, and believe it or not, one of us would run to the copy machine as people turn things in at the break and make copies of everybody’s annotation. So everyone could have a paper copy of everyone else’s annotation. And the argument was you read five books, but we have 20 people in the class. Together there’s a hundred books that we now know about. People had them in their notebooks. They would refer to them. I would gather them at my work and use them with my patrons, which was at a library, just down the street from the university.

 Then we started to use, let’s remember the days of FTP and we used the university’s larger system to host things so we could link to them. And Joyce, let me do all that. And she was like, I’m not learning this. I’m already too old for it , and then one point I just realized her, I said, Joyce, I can just make a blog. This is silly. Most of it was just highlighting the resources that I was finding that I was using with my students and their work. So it wasn’t lost. So it was somewhere so I could have access to it, to help patrons and realized other people could too.

And so I said, I’m going to do a blog. What should I call it? And , you know, Joyce was very good letting me just brainstorm all these names with her. And I kind of came up with RA for All, and I just went for it and it stuck. And I’ve only built off of it building this whole philosophy of teaching reader’s advisory about all books to all library staff.

Steve Thomas: And when did you add the horror sort of sidekick? 

Becky Spratford: Yeah, so I call it the regular blog’s evil twin, RA for All: Horror, that one came from what I learned by saving material of my students. So when I was working on the second edition of the book, most of which it came out in 2012, most of it though was pretty much completed the research and the titles 2010 with a couple trickling 2011 books.

And it was a huge revamp from the first edition. We’ll talk about the third edition, which is also a huge revamp, but it was also for the series, which at this point now Joyce Saricks and Neil Wyatt were overseeing the series for the second edition and making it a lot more formalized, the ALA Editions Reader’s Advisory series.

So that was really great. And I realized, again, I was getting all this information and doing all this work. And I had been from years between the two editions. And I said, I’m going to put this on the website because what’s the worst thing about a print readers advisory material? The book lists for example, are out of date the second you publish it. And I was already getting frustrated by that. So I said, I’m going to post everything on a blog. And I already had the RA for All brand. Let’s make one that’s just horror. I also realized, as I was working on the book, the RA for All blog was being overtaken by my horror thoughts and my horror resources.

And while I love those and I am the library expert in that, that’s not why people come to RA for All. So by creating it, I had a place where I could put that information, expand upon it, that website, although it’s still a blog, it’s not as much a conversation as RA for All is it’s more of a place. It’s a resource. So there are pages with reviews, resources, publishers that I’m constantly updating, the Summer Scares page. That’s where people can go for more information. I actually call it the online home of the Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror. It is a free update to the book. 

Steve Thomas: In your first full episode on the show, you said that The Ruins by Scott Smith was your favorite horror book of all time, and I was just wondering if anything has knocked that off its perch in the last decade or so? 

Becky Spratford: It’s funny you ask. So in the new book, I will not have a book listed in the list that is older than this century. And I really try to focus on 2010 to 2020 and a couple of 2021 books. I read early, made it , but I did keep The Ruins on my list for nature gone wild.

It did come out in 2000, I believe, I’d have to go check, but it’s toward the beginning. It’s one of the oldest books on the list and I do still love it. I would say have a few other favorites , and we can talk about that. I made a list for the new book of my top 20 of the 2010s , but it’s still one of my favorites, and what I’ve seen is the growth of that nature gone wild, not just werewolves, but plants and eco horror, and like cli-fi horror have grown so much that it stands as an example of sort of prescient of where we were going to go. And that’s one of the things in both the second edition, but also the third edition is I take each sub genre and talk about their appeal and the evolution of it.

So The Ruins by Scott Smith is a fantastic book. It showcases everything that horror is right now. It has that eco trend that’s now huge. But another book I talk about in that chapter came out last year and it’s Eden by Tim Lebbon. And that is just as terrifying and even more hits home on the whole, this, if we destroy nature, nature is going to destroy us theme even more so than, than The Ruins, but if I have to tell an end, there are two books that I say, if I have to say, they’re my favorite books and Steve knows one of them because I made him read it, but it was last year’s universal best book, The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. It is the best book I read in all of 2020. Although I read it in 2019, it came out in 2020. It is the best book I have read in a long time in any genre , and it is not an easy read and it is about, it is a straight up horror novel. It is about what it means to be a marginalized person in America, but it is also a hopeful story about the future and as a final girl angle, and literally the hero is the young generation, a young girl, who’s going to save us all, hopefully the next generation , but it’s a straight-up horror novel. And, as I’ve told everybody who read it , like, make sure you don’t have any ceiling fans in your house when you read it. And if you do, do not go up on a ladder to clean the dust, that’s all I’m going to tell you because it will not go well for you. But when I talk about the decade, the last decade of when I wrote the book, because that’s partially what you’re asking to the number one book, horror book for the last decade, and I think this is fairly universally considered maybe make this book one or two, but it is Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, and I talk about that at length. And I actually talk about Paul Tremblay and Stephen Graham Jones, as well as Carmen Maria Machado, and now I’m forgetting, oh, Victor LaValle. My top four new sort of the voices you have to know right now, the heads of horror, I call them. Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts is the book that really kicked off the 2010s. It didn’t come out in 2010, but it’s a little bit after it takes all of horror into it. It’s an homage to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle , and the Exorcist, but it also refers to lots of different things about horror.

It’s about horror. It’s about modern America. It’s about reality TV. It’s about the horrible things we do to each other. It’s just a really great indictment of current society in a horror novel. It even makes Richard Scarry, scary. I’m going to just leave it at that , and it was the book that broken out into the mainstream. It was not his first novel, but it was his first straight up horror novel. So those would be the two. And then the third one I throw in there is a hundred percent because talking about those four heads of horror, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, which was nominated for the National Book Award, okay? So this is a collection of short stories that showcases body horror and weird fiction from a female perspective. And if you saw in July my Library Journal preview, I do an annual genre preview for Library Journal for horror. The theme of that was the rise of women, even as publishers, writers, so there, those are the ones I would really put right at the top. And actually, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties was my number two book of the 2010s. 

Steve Thomas: So some listeners may be confused by the fact that, so I had an electronic copy of the book, and I did a control- F search for Stephen King and it’s only 27 times. So I’ve talked to you about this already, but someone may look at that and say , and half of those are in citations , so somebody might say, well, how can you do a book about horror, and not include Stephen King and Dean Koontz and all this. How could you do that? How could you do that , Becky? 

Becky Spratford: Thank you for asking, Steve, because I will tell you Joyce Saricks at first, didn’t want me to do this either is to not mention Stephen King , as little as I do, and we had a great back and forth, as my editor, you know, and as a longtime friend and colleague, and I convinced her, so here’s the thing. Yes. Most of those in citations, most of it is referring to him and books he’s written about horror, or comments he’s made. And the other times are me saying, I’m not going to talk about Stephen King and that’s why his name’s in there. 

Why? Well, first things first, this is the Reader’s Advisory Guide to Horror. My audience are library workers. If you are a library worker in a public library in America, in any library in America, and you don’t know who Stephen King is, there is a lot more help you need from me than my book. That being said, also 15 years at a public service desk, as someone who bought books for a popular collection, I know this to be true at most libraries, I don’t have to buy Stephen King. He’s on my automatic purchase list. There are very few libraries in America who had any kind of automatic buy list who don’t have Stephen King. It’s like James Patterson, Stephen King, Nora Roberts. Like, those are like the ones everybody has. There’s there’s a few more, but just to go there. These are authors everybody has on hold. Stephen King is coming into your building without me telling you to buy it. Number one. 

Number two, Stephen King is being read without anyone telling your patrons to read it. What is my book here to do? The goal of this book is to help you understand the current landscape of horror, to understand why people like it and to help you find books to add to your collections for the readers who like Stephen King, who like other horror authors, so that when you know Stephen King is popular, you have other books for people to read. You don’t need my help recommending him. So I straight up say, this is my top 10 of the 2010s, right? Stephen King is not on here, and he had some books that probably deserved it, but I’m giving those spaces to someone else. I liken it to the work LibraryReads has done, which I worked with Rebecca Vnuk when she was talking about adding the Hall of Fame to the LibraryReads list, and there’s a lot of horror authors on LibraryReads. And LibraryReads’ list was starting to be the same authors over and over again. And I remember talking to her about it and she was like, how do I do this? And she came up with this idea , and I sort of used it to don’t give space once someone’s been on the list twice, like Paul Tremblay or Grady Hendrix, like for LibraryReads to use horror authors.

They moved to a Hall of Fame. There’s still shown on the LibraryReads list, but they’re not taking one of those 10 limited spots. I had to cut 30,000 words from the book. I had lists of 20 to 25 books in every sub genre , without Stephen King. And so they’re like, we want to have these lists, but this books, these are not, you know, it’s an academic press.

It’s expensive to print these books. So we decided to cut the list, even without Stephen King, I do mention him in like books you should know with no annotation , but you know, yes, Salem’s Lot is in there in the vampire chapter. It’s just not annotated, right? It’s just listed. But I do have lists in the back, that are the titles I cut, and then you go to the RA for a horror to see the annotations, which have been running all summer, starting on June 1st, every Tuesday for free as in advance of the book. And they’re going to end the beginning of August. So they’re already done by the time you listen to this. And by the time the book comes out at the end of August. That’s how little space we have. I don’t need to waste my time telling you, even in the audio book section, Stephen King’s audio books are amazing. They always are getting awards and that’s because he’s very strict about who will narrate them. And he’s very involved with the process. So I don’t need to tell you about those audio books I’m telling you about other well -narrated at once. So yes, there is love for Stephen King there, but you don’t need my help. So I’m going to give those words to someone else. 

Steve Thomas: And you’ve got the acknowledgement in there in the book, it says, yes, he is the reason that horror is popular today because of Carrie that he wrote in the seventies. Okay. Let’s move on. 

Becky Spratford: Let’s expand our knowledge. Yeah. 

Steve Thomas: And I’m sure Stephen King would say that too I think he likes having other voices out there.

Becky Spratford: He loves it. Yes. 

Steve Thomas: To explain to some people who don’t read horror , why do people read horror? 

Becky Spratford: It’s also a great question.

And the argument I’m making for years was further proven by a pandemic, which has made me unfortunately, feel better about what I’ve been saying. So why do people read horror? And I have an entire chapter explaining it, but here are the basics. Fear is a primal instinct. It is something we’re born with. We’re genetically programmed to feel fear as an animal. It is one of those basic instincts and feelings that you don’t have to think about to elicit. There is something thrilling and exciting, and it gets your blood racing, even if it makes you uncomfortable to feel scared. 

We have been telling ghost stories as humans, since the beginning of storytelling. I like to say that like, you know, like ancient myths, ancient stories were all like this bad thing will happen to you if you do this, right? Or some supernatural thing to explain the bad things in the world, these have existed, but let’s not go back to the beginning of storytelling because that’s getting far back in the weeds, let’s think about yourself.

You know, kids telling each other scary stories by a campfire in the dark at sleepovers. These are some of the first stories we encounter. Getting scared is like this feeling it’s elicit and exciting and different , just like pure joy makes you feel so good now. Okay. Maybe you don’t like being scared, but I’m going to tell you that when times are bad and I have a quote from Stephen King that proves this from a book Danse Macabre, but also let’s look at our current situation. I like to say Hallmark movies and horror did great in 2020, because when people -and there are statistics to prove this- when people are upset and uncomfortable with their real life, fiction is an escape forever. How you choose to escape, may be different. A lot of people escape by going to something more gentle or happy.

 One of my other favorite books of 2020 was the House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, which was a feel -good fantasy story. And one of the reasons it’s a great book, but one of the reasons it was universally just applauded and won all the awards is because of its feel good nature. It made you feel good about humanity, good about people. Fredrik Backman is the same way. Okay. That’s why people like a Man Called Ove. But some people look to find something even worse than their real life situation when things are bad, you know, as bad as my life is, there’s not a zombie chasing me down and trying to kill me and my family. There’s not a plant trying to eat me, right. There’s all these things that aren’t as bad, and it gives you perspective. 

Now people are different. Not everyone wants to escape by being scared, but this is one of the reasons people enjoy it, or also has a really strong coming of age theme with protagonists you care about, and that is something that’s popular across literature, coming of age themes are popular. Stephen King is a great example for anyone who’s read Stephen King, but coming of age, how I grow up. And even if the characters are adults, there’s some law they have, let’s take The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. The flaw that is at the heart of this story are these four grown men, 10 years before, as in their late teens, committed a bad act. They knowingly killed a pregnant elk on reservation land when they one, weren’t supposed to be hunting because it wasn’t their turn because it was for the elders and they killed a pregnant elk, which is like the worst thing you can do, and that elk comes to get revenge 10 years. That is what we’re dealing with. Right. And they have to overcome their flaws to get to the story. They’re not just coming of age. And even though they’re flawed, you still have a connection to them and you want them to succeed , and you want people to come through and if you didn’t… horror doesn’t work if you’re reading a story and there’s a monster chasing the protagonist that you are connected to, and you are rooting for the monster, it doesn’t work.

But protagonists that we sympathize with is a huge thing across literature. And then also the idea of the final thing and there’s a lot more, but the final one I find that is really cool. All who were in some way deals with life after death. A lot of it is monsters that have come back from the dead. There’s things that are outside our knowledge, even if it’s not after death, but outside of knowledge of the real world, it gives people solace in a very weird, and maybe you would think twisted, but I like horror so I don’t. There’s something bigger than what we have on this world. And it may be monstrous, but it’s there. And especially with ghost stories, which is probably the most common and popular trope, it is all about something happening to us after we die that we can tangibly experience. 

Steve Thomas: That’s a good explanation. So you’re coming out with this third edition of the book because there’ve been a lot of changes in the horror genre over the last 10 years. What are some of the big changes that are really different from the last edition of the book? 

Becky Spratford: So the first thing is, and the first, most obvious is I also was in discussion with Joyce Saricks about this. History. I’m not spending time on history. There are better books that do history. Last time they wanted me to give a basic history. I give what is a flash fiction history of horror, give you some titles and some authors and point you to other books because I’m a librarian. That’s what we do. We send you to more resources. That is one of the most obvious that you will see a lot more time is spent on the authors that are important right now.

And at the second half of the book, helping readers, that was greatly enhanced. Last time I had to argue why you would want to promote horror outside of October. And now I’m like, here’s all the reasons why you can’t not do whirl your lawn because look how popular it is all year long with proof. Again, I’ll use Sylvia Moreno- Garcia, Stephen Graham Jones and Grady Hendrix, all on the bestseller list not in the Fall for New York Times best seller list. So don’t tell me it’s only popular, right, in the Fall. So instead of saying, here’s why you have to promote it other times, it was just like, here’s how you promote it other times. 

But the major, major, biggest thing is , I am correcting all the past Becky’s mistakes. I thought I was being, first of all, my last book was way too white male , and I can’t make excuses about it. We were all doing it. I do a lot of work with equity, diversity, inclusion training in the outside world. Before recording this did an entire hour and a half session on that. I’m trying to be a better person, just like the rest of us and realize it. 

Now. Yes. Was it that the publishing landscape for horror was so limited anyway, that I had very little, yes, but there’s still no excuse. I also, and this is embarrassing as a strong woman myself, had a section on the women. I had the, you know, the heads of the genre in that case were Jonathan Mayberry and Joe Hill, and I was going out on a limb with both of those. They weren’t bestsellers yet when I did that. And then I had the Pulp Kings and I had people there, they were all white males. And then I had women to pay attention to, like a special women of horror. And I somehow thought that that was better to have their own section and it’s not, looking back, right. We’ve all learned and grown. Like it’s not okay to segregate them in their own section as women. In this case, I made a conscious effort to make sure all of my lists, just like if you’ve heard any of my EDI talks, I tell you to audit the way you suggest, there is not a single list in that book that is not at least 40% marginalized voices with women.

In fact, some of my lists on the website that you’re going to see, and I make comments when they go up, are overwhelmingly white and male because those books got cut. Not only, but those books got cut because they didn’t need the space in the book. And the good news is the best horror right now, I didn’t have to try that hard, is being written by women and marginalized perspectives, and do you know why? Well, because they experienced real life horror of oppression and subjugation more. I start the book with one of my favorite quotes that I included in my horror preview in 2020 in July, by then debut novelist, John Fram, who calls himself Stephen Queen. He is a very proudly gay horror writer, and he had this amazing quote about how finally the rest of America is starting to see what it was like to be marginalized and the horrors and that he didn’t have to try to come up with it.

 It’s a really great quote, it’s in the preface. I believe they are running the preface of my book, slightly edited for length in the August science fiction, fantasy and horror spotlight issue of Booklist in August along with another special piece about scare levels, which Steve, I know you’ll like, about scare levels that I did with Susan Maguire, but it’s going to be in there, that quote from John Fram. That was the quote that I put at the beginning of the book, because it informs the whole book. The marginalized perspectives are the best, the best example of where this is happening is two of my brand new sub genres that I added, which are the Lovecraft and cosmic horror, the entire point of the Lovecraft section is Lovecraft, who was a horrible person, misogynistic racist, anti-Semitic, the authors who are taking him on and doing the best with him are all the people he would have hated in real life. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is the best example. “The Horror at Red Hook” is Lovecraft’s most racist story, and what has Victor LaValle done and turned it into one of the best books, honestly, again, on my best list of the 2010s? He took it, and he flipped the script and made it a black hero. This is how I describe it in the book and all the time. It’s like he’s giving Lovecraft a hug and a middle finger at the same time, and that’s the story. And that’s the crux of that genre right now. The reason we have Lovecraft Country on TV and all these great stories is because of those people.

And then body horror. Women rule that genre. I talk about it in the book and I say, you know, what is more body or than being a woman going through puberty , having to feed a human inside of you, expel it, you know, there’s just so much, that’s not even taking into account the horror inflicted upon women by men. And that’s what Carmen Maria Machado stories are all about. She has a great memoir In the Dream House, which technically is a memoir and not horror, but the entire book is framed as a haunted house story of her life and her experience with lesbian domestic abuse, which is never talked about. That’s what I changed. I realized that the best stories are being told by these marginalized voices. I’m not trying to make this a political statement or a diverse book. That’s the best stuff. The two best books in 2020 on every metric are The Only Good Indians by a Native American member of the Blackfeet.

And Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, a Mexican- Canadian woman. You can’t make this up. And again, Carmen Maria Machado, lesbian, Hispanic woman, National Book Award nominee. We’re not talking niche here. 

Steve Thomas: What are some of the other sub genres that you cover in the book?

Becky Spratford: So of course we have ghosts and haunted houses and vampires and zombies. I do break up monsters into three separate categories. And in the book I talk about how you should refer to each chapter. The Lovecraftian monsters are one, but I do sort of your traditional monsters in ancient evil, and then nature gone wild, which are monsters that include shape-shifters.

And what’s interesting is it’s a lot of it is, and there’s a few more, but a lot of it’s semantics, but I explain the differences of appeal with an essay at the beginning of each chapter and do tell you when you can go somewhere else. So for example, psychological horror is a new one I added. Psychological horror used to be a topic, and then it kind of went away, and I brought it back. I use Paul Tremblay as an example, and if you like Paul Tremblay you’ll understand their stories that could be real or could be supernatural, and it’s up to you to figure it out. I took small town horror, which is a trope, not really its own sub genre because so many books do small town horror. And I grouped a lot of them into my witches and the occult, and I explained my small town where it works there because a lot of it is just this nefarious sort of thing that’s out there that’s magical and it might not be a monster you can see. So that’s important. And then, like I said, body horror and the Lovecraftian. There are 10 lists. Each one has a essay about the appeal. Then I also pick my top picks three books for each for you to start. And there are 12 annotated titles. And again, there are at least 10 more that go with it on the website, on the RA for All: Horror that you can access at anytime.

Steve Thomas: On the blog and in the book, you mention using awards a lot of times for a reader’s advisory. Why do you think those are good tools and what’s the best way to kind of keep up with those? Because there’s so many awards.

Becky Spratford: There are so many awards. First of all, Book Pulse by Library Journal, every day you can sign up for that newsletter and they list every award. I was just looking the other day at like, oh my goodness, there’s this Southern debut novelist award. This looks really cool. Here’s a whole bunch of books I can recommend to people who like Southern-set debut novels. But for horror, I have an awards database also, and I talk about the major awards and then send you again for word count to the blog to read about them.

Why I love using awards lists. It’s literally my favorite readers’ advisory tool. Why is that? Well, because when you take the list of all nominees in a category and whatever that category is, whether it’s a genre or something like debuts, you see the breadth of what is considered the best for that genre.

So in the case of the Bram Stoker awards, which is the highest horror award we had the Only Good Indians, Mexican Gothic, Malorie by Josh Malerman, a smaller book Devil’s Creek by Todd Keisling who’s a smaller author and Alma Katsu’s The Deep. Those were our five nominees, interestingly only two by white men, just saying that’s important.

And the Only Good Indians won, and although people were thinking that that, and Sylvia Maria Garcia would cancel each other out and that Alma Katsu would win, which didn’t happen, but it was the Only Good Indians. However, you could see the full breadth because there’s also novella stories, right? All these other categories we can learn about new people. When you use awards list and not just the winners, you get to see a lot of what’s really popular and good. Great, you can make displays, you can do suggestions. You can do collection development, but it’s also when you look at the past five years of any award, any award, again, this case horror, but we can do this for, like I said, that it was called the Crooks [Corner Book] Prize for debut novelists who the Southern and see how things have gone, what books are still talked about, what authors are still there. Josh Malerman’s appeared a few times. If you live under a rock and you don’t know who Josh Malerman is, now you do know who he is. Paul Tremblay, Alma Katsu returned again, these are names that have shown up before you can learn about so much more. I love that there’s always debut novels. 

So for horror, we have the Bram Stokers, which is like the big one. I’m on a jury for the Bram Stoker Awards as a member of the Horror Writers Association. But also we have the ones that just came out this summer, actually we’re in July now, and they came out this last week, the Ladies of Horror Fiction, which is an independent group of women who promote women, and they came out with their list. My favorite award, if I had to pick an award of all awards, Is the Shirley Jackson Award, which is not just a horror award. It’s basically anyone who writes like Shirley Jackson. And that is the only goal. And they pick lots of authors from science fiction, fantasy or psychological suspense to be judges.

That is a great list to see just creepy, weird books. There’s also a British site, “This Is Horror” that does a podcast. They do an award that takes in nominations and votes from the public, which I really like too. When you look at them over time, you can see trends, you can see what’s popular, you can see what people are reading and liking when you combine them all together and use that to make your suggestions.

So, yes, the Only Good Indians is hard to find right now. And Stephen Graham Jones, his new book is coming out in August, My Heart is a Chainsaw, which will be hard to find, but a couple of years ago, his Mongrels was on there. Let’s go see who else was nominated for novella. Let’s go see who else was nominated for novel a couple of years ago. Those are the same level. Let’s just try those. It’s just a great way to inform yourself and your patrons. 

Steve Thomas: You also recommend some publishers, but the one thing that I wanted to call out since this is a podcast, you mentioned some horror podcasts. Can you talk about some of those that you like? 

Becky Spratford: Yes, I definitely can. This Is Horror, which I already mentioned it does awards, does a fantastic podcast, and it’s a British guy and an American guy and they interview people, but they also just talk about horror in general, what they’re reading, what the trends are, and they sometimes bring people on to talk about horror in general. It’s one of my favorites. One of my other favorites is, the Ladies of the Fright. I asked them to be a sponsor of Summer Scares, which is the reading program I run for the Horror Writers Association with libraries, bringing authors in, and I have a whole webpage about that at the top of RA for All: Horror always. And, they do a great job because they talk about tropes, ideas, things that are going on, not just the books. Those are some of the ones who talk about horror and there’s more in the book. 

But another thing is, don’t forget how many of your patrons are listening to things like PseudoPod or Welcome to Night Vale, things that are horror that are fiction based that are original fiction. These are websites and I only do ones that pay authors for their stories. One of my favorites is NIGHTLIGHT pod, which focuses on black horror creators. And I’ve met the woman who runs it, Tonia Ransom. She’s amazing woman. I really like her. She’s also a novelist, but PseudoPod does the same thing, right? They pay authors for their stories. So they are promoting the paying of authors and not expecting just free publicity, and putting out new things. And your patrons, whether you know it or not, and I often talk about this with podcasts, especially fiction podcasts, you don’t know the user stats on that because they get them for free outside the library. I’ve actually gotten into discussions, heated discussions with library administrators that “Becky, don’t tell my staff to promote podcasts. We don’t get circ counts on those.” And I say, look, I am a 20 plus year library trustee. I understand. And I ran a department for 15 years. I get stats, but you know what, if they’re horror fans and I’m promoting PseudoPod or I’m promoting, you know, NIGHTLIGHT pod so they can hear different stories, and I can give them in the library, they are going to come back and ask for more. And I have a whole section about story collections and the best horror editors too for you to look at in the book. Story collections are always popular in horror, much more so for genre than they are for regular fiction, because people like to just get a sampling of different types of stories. That’s how Stephen Graham Jones got to be a household name. He was in Ellen Datlow’s Best of the Horror, then she invited him to things. A lot of these people started this way in fact, the new every October is when the Best Horror of the Year comes out. It’s one of my favorite resources of any resource, because not only can you see the titles of all the authors that she’s including, some of which I had never heard of, and then it gives you a rundown for like 60 pages of everything that happened in horror that year. So, you know, the podcasts are a key place and we have to be promoting them to our patrons and asking them, Hey, tell me if you hear about an author, I can try and get their books and all of this. Don’t count it out just because you’re not getting a circ stat for it.

Steve Thomas: A lot of reader’s advisory or most of it, I would probably say is one-on-one, you know, library staff talking to a patron or maybe not. You’re giving me a look. So some of it is one-on-one and then some of it is through displays and through programming. So would you like to talk about that? 

Becky Spratford: I do! Thank you, Steve, it’s a great question because one of the things I do when I teach readers’ advisory in general, we’re going to talk about programming, but when I teach readers’ advisory in general it’s very important to understand that readers’ advisory used to be transactional. It used to be about, I’m going to ask you a question, patron. You’re going to give me an answer and that’s when we started to get into it but no one’s asking us the question so we shouldn’t have the service.

And the way I teach readers advisory is it’s conversational based, not transaction based it’s about relationships and creating relationships. So yes, you have the people you talk to, but having your shelves very clear and easy to browse and making sure you’re weeding out books that people don’t like anymore and having displays and making lists and suggesting books in different ways. It’s all on RA for All, you can read all about it. 

I was very lucky, for 15 years I worked at a readers’ advisory desk and supervised the department that we also were in charge of adult programming. So we were able to very easily connect the adult programming with the books. It’s harder at some libraries and like the library where I’m on the board, it is a committee that does programming. So they’re all working together and trying to make sure it’s supporting the collection, but there’s no easier way for you to support the collection than with programming. And I’m not just talking about, yes, you bring in an entertainer in October and you have something about spooky stories or currently in my work as the co-chair of the library committee for the Horror Writers Association, I actually set a meeting yesterday with a library in Hampton, Virginia, where they are doing a month long celebration of horror in October. And we were helping connect them with authors. And he said, but you know what, cause it’s all virtual now, we’re still getting clicks on that all year long, right? And it’s great cause it’s up on our website so we can do that. 

I mentioned Summer Scares. It’s a national reading program that I started with the help of the Horror Writers Association, United for Libraries, one of our original sponsors was Library Journal, but now we’ve moved to Booklist and Book Riot. We get all areas and we focus on horror and getting horror books vetted by library professionals and into collections, and I was sending an email yesterday, so that Alma Katsu who’s one of our authors this year can go talk to a library. And I set up a meeting with Lily Anderson who was one of our YA authors to go talk somewhere. That’s what we do, but also I talk about putting horror books into your book discussions. My favorite, I’m going to try to make this a thing: Halfway to Halloween. I talk about in my book, I first proposed it in the book in 2012 and at my library, I did it and people thought I was silly. Library Journal let me do a column every April that was halfway to Halloween before I had my regular column but you better be sure when they told me four times a year, I said, April has to be one of the columns because it’s halfway, April and October, it’s halfway to Halloween. It’s a thing! And in fact, we did it so much that people started asking for Second Halloween at the library. They started asking like in February, “When’s Second Halloween at the library?” 

So, you gotta think about it all the time and making connections. In the book, I have a quote about summer being a great time for horror from my colleague, Lila Denning at St. Petersburg Library. And she says, you know, being there, they get a lot of vacationers, but also their patrons going to the beach. And she does, you know, thrilling reads for the beach or she has some very nice way to say it in the book. And she started putting horror in there and along with her thrillers and her mysteries and they go like crazy. She can’t keep them on the shelf. So programming is not just having a performer. It’s all the things you do to promote your collection, which is part of reader’s advisory. 

Steve Thomas: In several places in the book, you talk about some children’s horror titles, like Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark. You don’t really cover it that much in there, cause this is more for an adult audience here, but, what kind of books scared you when you were a kid and did you have any other like children’s horror titles that you would recommend? 

Becky Spratford: Yes. Thank you. I was drawn to creepy books my whole life, you know, working in a library, you get asked, like during Children’s Book Week, they ask the whole library to participate, share what you, the library workers, favorite book was as a kid and every year I was like, oh, I always say Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends. And looking back, those stories were very macabre like those poems. I mean, my favorite one was always, I read it over and over again, the one about the girl who wouldn’t take out her garbage and it got so high, it buried her and she died. And I read that over and over and laughed every time. This is the trajectory of where you get when that’s your favorite, but it was clearly his poetry was my favorite thing growing up and there was nothing that substituted for it until I found the occult section at my local Waldenbooks at the mall in New Jersey, because I am a walking stereotype. And I don’t remember how old I was, but I know I wasn’t yet 13 because I would go to the store Wednesday nights after Hebrew school. So I know I was less than 13. My dad would pick me up. We would go to the mall and we would go to the bookstore and he’d go to the record store. And it was a way to kill some time while my younger sisters were being put to bed, so I didn’t come home at bedtime. And he let me roam the store and wouldn’t buy me a book every time, but my family was one that said, you know, if it’s, you know, not expensive and you know, you’re going to read it, I’ll get you a book, every couple of times. I found the occult section and I found VC Andrews.

And, you know, the more work I do with talking to people about why they love horror, the more women I find, you know, I’m in my mid forties and we’re women. I find around my age a little bit older, a little bit younger, who that was our entry to horror. And it’s being talked about now, it was disparaged because it was mostly men talking about horror. And now we’re all coming out of the woodwork and saying, if it wasn’t for VC Andrews and Flowers in the Attic and all that, we wouldn’t be here writing these stories and telling these stories and helping people. That is my origin story. My dad was a huge Stephen King reader. He was the dad that took, when the Stand came out in the unedited version, you know, the 1500 pages, he was reading it at the lake on our vacation, on the beach, the hard cover with the cover off, you know, to keep it safe.

So it was always around in my house, reading anything wasn’t discouraged, Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark was really popular. It’s why I was so excited to do Summer Scares, which our program takes three books a year that we see, we recommend as library workers, to libraries and to parents for three middle grade, three YA, and three adult. And those middle grade ones have been some of the most fun work I’ve gotten to do in the last few years. We work with an expert. It used to be Kiera Parrot from Library Journal, now it’s Julia Smith from Booklist, who does the middle grade. We have a middle grade expert for Booklist and horror. And we have conversations, picking the books, about like the best books that are no earlier than two years old and no more than 10 years old.

And you go look at my Summer Scares archives. Those are some of my favorite books that have come out. Jumbies was one, Spirit Hunters, a book I read, I never would have found out Summer Scares. It was a 2020 selection, so not a 2021. It was called Hoodoo by Ronald Smith. And this was one of our scarier middle-grade stories.

And it is a African American Southern folktale based story about a family where, basically they have powers, the young boy is just coming into his, but the entire town is going to be destroyed if he doesn’t rise to the occasion and use his powers, which is a common story in middle grade, it was scary. I’m so jealous for all the kids right now. There’s so much good stuff. 

Steve Thomas: So to wrap up, you mentioned earlier that you made me read Only Good Indians and I’m scared of elk now. Another one was the Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. That one was good too, but also it’s still scary. So I was gonna wrap up with letting you scare me again and recommend another one to make me read. 

Becky Spratford: So it’s interesting. So I give you, because I know you, Steve, as a person where, you know, we’re friends, as well as colleagues and I purposely picked books, I knew would push you to the edge, but that you would finish. And I also picked books. We’re not like when we talk about cosmic horror, like other worldly monsters, very unbelievable. I picked books rooted in the real world. They had supernatural aspects, but they were rooted in the real world. And the book that I am most excited about that is about to come out this fall and it’s already out in England and I gave it a star review in Library Journal is the Last House on Needless Street by Katrina Ward.

 First of all, you need to know it’s from Nightfire, which is a brand new horror- only imprint from Tor who was putting out the Ballad of Black Tom as a novella, as and all of Stephen Graham Jones’s novellas that have won awards. And so they’re doing horror and this is a British author. So this book I can not talk about too much because it gives it away. So the way we describe it is, It’s a mind blow and it is right on the edge of realistic thriller and horror. In fact, if you took my strict definition of horror in the book that it must have a supernatural aspect, technically this would not a hundred percent fit my strict definition, but it brings you all the feelings. And this is story of a man who lives in the last house on a street called Needless Street, which is already creepy. And, you know, from the start that something is not right. He lives in a house where all the windows are boarded up. He barely leaves and there’s something going on. And the story slowly unfolds and unravels tighter and tighter. There are multiple narrators. Here’s a way to get the librarians to read it. One of the narrators is a cat! It’s not a slow burn because you’re reading to figure out what’s going on as the narrators change. And they’re clearly overlapping what’s going on. Every detail matters. You get to the end and you are just dazzled by what she has done, how she has kept your attention for 400 pages and you don’t want to let go. And yet you want to run away screaming and hide the book at the same time. It is masterful. So that is the book I think right now that I am just telling everyone to read because it walks that line. You can give it to thriller readers, you can give it to psychological suspense readers. You can give it to horror readers. You can even give it to literary fiction readers, and that’s why I’m telling you and everyone else to read it. 

Steve Thomas: All right. Well, I can prove that it’s on hold at my library. I have it up to the camera! 

Becky Spratford: It’s on camera, guys, I’ve seen it! 

Steve Thomas: It’s on order at my library. So I can’t read it immediately. 

Becky Spratford: Yes, it’s coming out in September and everyone can go to Library Journal cause I gave it a star review. So you can read my review of it. I am not the only one giving this book. It’s one of those books that everyone is giving a star view and it already came out in March in England. And it’s been hugely popular there, too. 

Steve Thomas: Well, I will read that one. Not by the time this episode is out. Cause the book won’t be out yet, but I will read it and be scared again. So Becky, thank you so much for coming back on the show. I think this is your seventh time if anyone would like to count, 

Becky Spratford: Sorry, everyone. One time we had fun with Grady Hendrix! 

Steve Thomas: Yes, that was very fun. And now I miss in-person conferences, things like that and you gave me the copy of the Only Good Indians advanced copy at the last PLA right before the pandemic. 

Becky Spratford: Yeah, it kind of was a good harbinger book for that. I mean, I could’ve given you a Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay, which would have been even better.

Steve Thomas: Well, if people wanted to follow up on this, how can they get in touch with you? 

Becky Spratford: Sure. So I am very easy to find you just type RA for All into any search engine. But I’m on Twitter @raforall. And if you go to the blog and you click on the logo, which is on the top, right gutter of every single page, you’ll go right to my contact information. If you email me and you want to talk to me about something I said during this podcast, put that in the subject heading, I get a lot of emails from libraries who want me to come present and say, you know, and then I’ll prioritize reading that because I know it’s going to be more time sensitive. Ask me any questions about readers’ advisory or the book? There is a coupon at the top of both blogs for the book. It works with your ALA discount. So you click on it to go to the ALA additions page, log in, get your discount, and then $5 off and the ebook version will be coming out soon. I think once the book is ready, they start selling the ebook version.

Steve Thomas: Awesome. And so that book again is the Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror, third edition. Don’t buy the second one anymore. Wait for the third one now.

Becky Spratford: I mean, you can, I get royalties that are higher rates, but yeah. 

Steve Thomas: And ALA probably still has some in the warehouse they want to get rid of, maybe they’ll put it on, put it on sale or something.

Becky Spratford: The third one is much better for today. 

Steve Thomas: All right. Thank you so much, Becky. 

Becky Spratford: Thank you, Steve. Bye.