by Jay Wilburn
I’ve always loved shared universe stories as a young reader in sci-fi and fantasy. The Thieves World books were some of my favorites. They were set in the same fantasy, sword-and-sorcery city and each author in the anthologies added onto the world and characters as they went. My father read them and I later picked them up from him. By the time we were reading them, they were in reprint. Top fantasy writers at the time contributed stories to these books and I looked forward to particular characters. The later anthologies grew a little thin on story. I was no discerning critic as a reader at the time, but even I saw it. It wouldn’t be until much later that I would find out the behind-the-scenes turmoil around that particular world. The saying went that the first story was written for fun and the second was written for revenge as authors killed off and resurrected characters to get back at each other. I just enjoyed the stories.
Shared worlds were a little less common in horror and even went out of style for a while in most genres. There was a complexity to writing and organizing them that was in addition to the struggle to edit an anthology anyway. In 2014, Max Booth III tackled a shared world horror anthology with Truth or Dare. The premise is that a bunch of high school kids meet in the woods around a campfire and play truth or dare on Halloween night. Some of the results are wild, supernatural, and deadly. The book boasts several great authors including Joe McKinney, Usman T. Malik, William Meikle, James Chambers, and many more. In an essay about the experience, Booth discussed several of the complexities he did not realize until after the call for stories went out. He said he did not world build enough in telling about the high school, who the mascot was, where was the town located, what highways were nearby, etc. He said that he was lucky in that authors kept those details broad enough that the stories ended up fitting together nicely anyway.
Many shared world experiences between horror writers today come in the form of cowriting. Authors join together to create a story in tandem. There are many examples where authors take characters from their signature series and bring them together in a new novel where these characters meet. One recent standout example is The United States of Apocalypse by Mark Tufo and Armand Rosamilia. Tufo used Michael Talbot from his Zombie Fallout series and Rosamalia used Darlene Bobich from his Dying Days series. They moved these characters out of their zombie universes and placed them in a different sort of apocalyptic scenario. This book is set to be the first in a planned trilogy.
It was fairly common in past years for authors or publishers to create promotional anthologies around a popular horror series or title. Sometimes fans or other authors would be asked to create stories within those universes. Some of these turned out to be solid anthologies while others fell short. There was more than one case where this was used to promote sales of the book by those that aspired to be included and then mysteriously the proposed anthology project was cancelled. Writer beware!
One of the better and more reputable of this type of anthology was the Still Dying series by Armand Rosamilia. A number of invited authors were brought in to create stories within the Dying Days universe. These anthologies, particularly Still Dying 2, proved to be of quality for the readers, fans of the underlying universe, and the authors involved.
A few more shared horror universe anthologies are in the works and coming soon within the next year as of the publication of this article. Most of these build from an existing universe created by a particular author.
Chris Philbrook is the author of the Adrian’s Undead Diary series. He has previously released a shared world anthology based out of that complex post apocalyptic world called Only the Light We Make and he is in the process of putting together another edition of that anthology.
James Wymore approached author Steven L. Peck about doing a shared universe anthology around his concept in A Short Stay in Hell. The anthology is tentatively titled Windows into Hell and each author took their own version of an afterlife punishment based on the rules of Peck’s universe. Curiosity Quill picked up the anthology for publication. Wymore was previously successful in creating a shared world anthology around his own Actuator series. He also created an online role playing game connected to that anthology release.
Jonathan Maberry recently released an anthology of stories taking place in and around the events and characters of Night of the Living Dead, the bedrock film of zombie fiction by George A. Romero. There had been previous attempts at this by various publishers due to the copyright snafu which opened this work up to public domain. In a sense, all zombie stories may be looked at as a shared universe with Romero. This was the first anthology of its type sanctioned by the creators of the film. Nights of the Living Dead shared tales from an all star cast including Brian Keene, Chuck Wendig, George Romero himself, Joe Lansdale, Joe McKinney, John Russo, and many more.
A little bit of a twist on the shared world anthology is found with Middletown Apocalypse. In the first anthology of the series, zombie heavyweights such as Joe McKinney, Mark Tufo, Armand Rosamilia, Eric A. Shelman, Shawn Chesser, and many others appeared.
Unlike a true shared universe, Middletown Apocalypse is a shared premise. The first anthology is based on the premise that a sample of a virus is accidentally mailed to Charlie Noble at Middletown University in fictional Middletown, Indiana. Each author took that premise and wrote different stories with different characters added in. The result was a dozen stories that seemingly start from the same seed, but are completely different from each other. The anthology may do more than any other to show the untapped potential of the basic zombie story.
The second anthology includes a couple shared characters, too. It will begin in a high rise in Midtown New York, the headquarters of the company that mailed the virus to Middletown. In an attempt to cover-up the accidental mailing of the virus, the virus is accidentally released in the building. As before, authors had a starting and ending point, but they build their own story in between.
Shared universe stories have a dubious track record in the horror genre. There are a number of good examples coming out now. This will likely spawn imitators and innovators. Hopefully, we will see a few more unique and original universes created for authors to play in. Maybe one of these will rise to be the next Thieves World of horror. We can hope. Some of the imitations will likely water down the concept and defuse the magic they are trying to capture. Ultimately, a few great works will rise to the top to give fans something special to enjoy.
I’m certain this list is incomplete and not exhaustive. If you know of some good, shared universe horror anthologies out there, tweet me some titles @AmongTheZombies so I can check them out. Be sure to mark you tweets as #SharedUniverse or something like that so I don’t think you’re some weirdo tweeting me a random book titles.
Jay Wilburn is the author of the Dead Song Legend Series and coauthor of the Enemy Held Near as well as many other books and stories. He is also the host of The Matters of Faith Podcast on Project Entertainment Network. You can follow his writing and other activities at JayWilburn.com or have access to exclusive material through his page on Patreon.