DENVER — The Christian book business, optimistic that a little literary escapism might be an antidote for readers in hard times, is turning to bonnets, buggies and bloodsuckers.
Even as Christian publishing suffers during the recession — one study found net sales for Christian retailers were down almost 11 percent in 2008 — several publishing houses are adding or expanding their fiction lines with both the tame (Amish heroines) and boundary-pushing (Christian vampire lit).
The undisputed industry leader is so-called Amish fiction — typically, romances and family sagas set in contemporary Amish communities. They're a surprise hit with evangelical women attracted by a simpler time, curiosity about cloistered communities and admiration for the strong, traditional faith of the Amish.
The success of the genre has spawned not just new Amish fiction authors but spinoff series about other cloistered communities. If you want to sell it, as one literary agent put it, put a bonnet on it.
But not all new Christian fiction is prairie wholesome. There's building buzz — and some trepidation — about upcoming titles that bring a Christian perspective to tales of vampires and the undead.
The consensus of publishers, authors and others gathered in Denver this week for the annual International Christian Retail Show, which closed Wednesday: there's a growing audience for Christian fiction that both comforts and challenges, now more than a decade after the apocalyptic "Left Behind" series took Christian fiction out of obscurity and onto Wal-Mart shelves and the New York Times best-seller list.
"If you look at 'Left Behind,' the moon turns to blood and one-third of the people die," said Karen Watson, associate publisher, fiction, for Tyndale House, which published the series. "Or you have people with bonnets on drawing water from the well. It just tells me there are a wide range of things you can talk about, and Christian books can be a lot of things."
Christian fiction often has mimicked successful genres: Romance. Sci-fi. Legal Thrillers. But in Amish fiction, Christian publishing has something it can genuinely claim as its own.
Much of the credit goes to Beverly Lewis, a Colorado author who gave birth to the genre in 1997 with "The Shunning," loosely based on her grandmother's experience of leaving her Old Order Mennonite upbringing to marry a Bible college student. The book has sold more than 1 million copies.
Lewis tapped into a fascination with the Amish, who base their morals on a literal interpretation of the Bible and are known for their plain clothes and rejection of modern technology.
"For every lineup of Amish women at a gathering of any kind, you'll always see one of them that has her hand kind of on her hip," said Lewis, who grew up a Pentecostal preacher's daughter in Pennsylvania Amish country. "That's my character. She's the one that's pushing boundaries."
Bonnet fiction does play to the base of the market: Three in four Christian fiction readers are women, according to publishing research from the firm R.R. Bowker.
Lewis also credits the genre's growth to public fascination with Lancaster County, Pa., Amish who forgave a gunman who killed five girls at an Amish one-room schoolhouse before killing himself in 2006.
Wanda Brunstetter, who is probably No. 2 to Lewis on the Amish fiction roster, said she's heard from readers turning to her fiction not just for escape but for lessons during tough economic times.
"People are learning from the Amish novels how they can simplify and set their priorities straight," Brunstetter, who writes Amish romance, said between book signings at the retail show.
Lewis' publisher, Bethany House, which specializes in historical fiction, has published Puritan and Shaker stories. Next spring it will release fiction about the Amana Colonies of Iowa, where German pietists lived communally until the mid-1930s, said Steve Oates, vice president of sales and marketing.
"Historical fiction is a great way to have a nice clean story when a certain set of values didn't seem out of place," Oates said.
Mindy Starns Clark, an author of gothic mysteries scrubbed clean of foul language and premarital sex for a Christian audience, set her latest novel, "Shadows of Lancaster County," in Amish country.
"It's got a buggy on the cover," said Clark, who emphasized that she picked the setting before Amish books became a Christian publishing sensation. "But it's also got genetic engineering. It's definitely not your grandmother's Amish novel."
Other Christian fiction shows growing sophistication. No longer must characters follow a predictable path to salvation, for instance. The heroine of Nicole Baart's "The Moment Between," published by Tyndale, is not a conventional believer but a spiritual seeker; the novel is set in a vineyard and deals with a suicide.
On the darker side is Eric Wilson's "Jerusalem's Undead" trilogy from Thomas Nelson, which follows characters who have risen from the dead after being tainted by the blood of Judas, betrayer of Jesus.
Allen Arnold, senior vice president and publisher for fiction for Nelson, the largest Christian book publisher, said the greatest demand is for gentler reads like Amish books. The publisher introduced its own Amish series last fall. But Arnold said messages of hope reside even in exploits of the undead.
"It is fantasy, but he weaves it from a biblical perspective and ties it back to the power of blood," Arnold said — specifically, Christian belief in the atoning power of Christ's blood.
On Sept. 15, WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group will release its take on vampires in "Thirsty," by Christian chick-lit author Tracey Bateman. Not surprisingly, the marketing material mentions "Twilight," the hit vampire book series and movie whose abstinence message resonated with many evangelicals.
Bateman's vampire, Markus, is a character but also a metaphor for demons anyone must overcome, said Shannon Marchese, an editor at WaterBrook Multnomah who sought out Bateman for the project. The object of his obsession, Nina, is a divorced alcoholic dealing with addiction.
"These are themes that work in the Christian life," Marchese said. "You have to fight to say, 'Am I going to choose unconditional love and redemption or a life of following obsessions, a life with holes in it?"
Still, challenges exist beyond what to do with dripping fangs (they were edited out). On the theological front, questions lurk about whether a creature both alive and dead has a soul that can be saved.
"I think we can redeem a vampire," said Bateman, adding that she won't be a spoiler and disclose her character's fate. "I don't think this is a despair too dark to pull out of."