Cover image © Shane Rebenschied
"After the end of the Outside world, the Plain folk survived." That's the appropriately unadorned opening line of The Hallowed Ones, a novel that may well be the first true crossover book from the most popular genre you've never heard of: Amish fiction.
The bizarre and best-selling world of Amish fiction fills shelves in Walmarts across the country and boasts titles like The Women of Lancaster County and A Plain and Simple Heart, their emblazoned with blushing, black-clad blonds. Most Amish books—thousands of them, so many that Library Journal now counts them as their own category—are romances written by evangelicals.
But a new Amish novel, The Hallowed Ones, and its gore-drenched sequel, The Outside, are different. Laura Bickle's gripping series is Amish apocalypse fiction. The Undead of Lancaster County versus Bonnet the Vampire Slayer.
I stumbled upon The Hallowed Ones in the "popular" section of my local library's e-lending service and borrowed it for a laugh. Amish vector-vampires, hehe, I thought. But the joke was on me; I had nightmares for days.
"I didn't feel particularly squeamish about it. These are people who slaughter their own cattle; they're less insulated from death than we are in our modern world and our modern society," Laura told me when I asked her how she combined two of the hottest trends in contemporary fiction—vampires and the apocalypse—with the dark-horse Pennsylvania Dutch.
"[Growing up in Ohio] I would see these Amish girls who were my age over the fence, and I would wonder what their lives were like. It popped back into my head when I was thinking about an apocalyptic contagion. I was thinking about the self-sufficiency of the Amish and that they would be really well-equipped to handle a large-scale disaster."
Her 16-year-old heroine, Katie, certainly is, hacking the heads off of bloodsuckers as handily as she hefts 50-pound bales of hay. Laura calls her work a classic young-adult thriller rather than just an Amish novel.
The Amish allure is well documented. The books are popular, the breakout best sellers of the so-called "inspirational"—read Christian—market. Plain novels are chart toppers with multimillion-dollar sales to show for it: Beverly Lewis, the genre's grande dame, has sold more than 17 million books. YouTube trailers for her recent novels The Thorn, The Fiddler, and The Guardian together earned nearly 70,000 views.
But bonnet books are also big business in the heart of the literary community in New York.
"They do well [in] Brooklyn," said librarian Michael Santangelo, who manages the Brooklyn Public Library's digital collection. "They're kind of a subgenre of romance. You have the vampire novels, the urban fantasy, the single mom kind of romance, and then there's Amish romance."
A big part of Michael's business is keeping romance readers satisfied: The genre encompasses about 40 percent of the Brooklyn library's robust online circulation, making it far and away the top category there. The Queens Public Library called its Amish collection "consistently popular."
Other Christian contemporary titles tanked, according to Michael. "It wasn't doing as well," Michael said, explaining that many readers were put off by traditional Christian romance's suburban settings and Midwestern mores. "The Amish seem exotic, or different, or other, so people are very much intrigued by that."
For urban readers, he said, it's all about the bonnet.
"Locally, they call them bonnet rippers, although there's no ripping of bonnets," quipped Mala Bhattacharjee, features editor at RT Book Reviews, a magazine devoted entirely to trends and titles in the romance market. "I think it harkens back to a quieter time, a more peaceful time."
Like Mala, many see the rise of the "old order" romance as a reaction against the whips and chains that topped women's fiction in recent years.
"It's surprising that Amish would be the thing, but it's not surprising that the rise of gentle fiction would be something that we've seen. One thing gets really trendy, and the next thing is the complete backlash to that," said Rebecca Vnuk, a women's-fiction expert at the American Library Association. "It's almost like the antidote to Fifty Shades of Grey."
In other ways, though, the books are quite alike: two cloistered worlds, largely unknown to readers, whose inhabitants cleave to strict rules and speak admiringly and often of female submission. Toss in some monsters, and you're practically guaranteed a best seller.
"Paranormal is huge, and it's been huge for the past few years, so it doesn't surprise me to see the melding of one extreme to another," Rebecca said of The Hallowed Ones series. "Publishers are really out there trying to capture the next trendy thing. Zombie novels are so popular, I'm sure we'll have Amish zombies next."