Wrestling With the Best: Why Today’s Horror Isn’t As Scary

People who love Horror love being scared – just for a few moments, and in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sort of way.

So imagine the Horror of purchasing a Best Of Horror collection and not being scared. Not even once.

Increasingly, this is a complaint made by Horror fans. What has happened to Horror? we demand. Where’s all the good scary stuff?

And why we challenge, isn’t the Best of Horror striking us all as the best of the genre?

“Best” is a Relative Term

For one thing, where any of the arts are concerned, “best” depends on one’s own perspective. Should “best” mean the scariest? Those utilizing the most accepted tropes and conventions? The most capably written? The most genre or the most Literary? Those only birthed by accomplished and previously published writers?

Someone somewhere has to decide on the criteria which defines the “best”… typically that is not you or me, but established and well-read editors of Horror. Because we may not agree already on a molecular level, it’s hard to know as a reader whether one is even being guaranteed to be scared – a given most suppose is inherent to the genre – although one should at least expect to be disturbed.

Still, an editor has a lot on his or her plate; everything from demanding a good story to demanding a well-told story and maybe—just maybe—having a totally different opinion on what is scary while being significantly different than what he or she has read before. So.

One should never confuse the best with the best that crosses the desk of any given editor.

Furthermore, with less print magazines and even less newspapers printing Horror stories, with less print books being published the old-fashioned way in general, there cannot be anything but less Horror being published to be judged than in Horror’s heyday… (clearly a point upon which I and some editors professionally disagree.)

This should never be mistaken for opportunity to be “published” – either online, self-published or subsidy published. However. If Literary Critics, the Horror Writer’s Association, and our top-notch editors are all going to disregard or downplay those publishing “options”… if they are going to automatically judge them as untidy, improperly edited, illegitimately birthed bastard children of the genre and thereby refuse to acknowledge or consider them as entries for The Best… then I argue that they don’t exist. At least, not in the average genre editor’s mind …and certainly not in a print anthology of The Best.

This means that for story, for concept, there can be more scary Horror stories out on the web or in some self-or-otherwise published format than in a print anthology. But it may also mean that their elements of craft and editorial merits are – in genre terms – unverified if not found wanting altogether.

This has to mean something, and it is most often not good for e-written, self-published Horror.  Being so-published puts “published” in quotes, and disqualifies the work in the minds of many of the genre elite.  But it also establishes standards for how we judge The Best and opens a whole other conversation about what said standards should be, even as this still equates to less Horror being defined as “properly published,” and/or less Horror being entered into the judging.

It also tends to mean that those previously published in print tend to provide stories which more consistently fire on all editorial “required and desired” pistons… making them both more attractive to editors and more likely to provide marketing power and purchasing incentive (admit it: how many times have you walked away from an anthology because you didn’t know the writers or the editors?)

Furthermore, even though I fully understand the need for publishers to balance their new publications on the backs of established writers to navigate these shark-infested, crisis-corrupted waters and guarantee some modicum of profit… at the same time it means less gambling on both new writers and deeper adventures and experimentation with originality in the genre.

Because like “best,” “original” is another matter of opinion.

What we are seeing is a kind of mainstreaming of Horror – ironically created by fear and stroked by strong inner desires to see Horror legitimized as Literary. (That would be fear of not-selling enough books or magazines to turn a healthy profit, and Literary enough to warrant Critical attention if not acclaim.)

So while we can say that what we read as The Best is properly edited, soundly constructed and at least “good”… some fans are coming up for air and wondering why they read a whole anthology of The Best and weren’t feeling properly scared.

Then we have to look again at what the word “Best” really defines. Is it merely a question of a “good” story with “good” technique? And is what scares you the same as what scares a Horror editor?

We have to face yet another important truth here: Horror is relative: we all fear different things, and different things at different stages of our lives. Editors are not exempt from this rule. So maybe we simply have a disconnect that is lodged somewhere between taste, and generation.

Or maybe modern Horror has lost its edge? Maybe we aren’t writing the same kind of Horror many of us grew up with.

There are reasons for this. So let’s take a look at a few of them.

We’re All Grown Ups Here: Adult versus Young Adult Horror

When Horror began getting ‘critical’ attention, it was basically negative – denigrated as a pulp category designed to titillate pre-pubescent boys. But it has been in this century that Literary Critics have begun – due to no small amount of urging by our genre writers and editors (including some of the Greats like Poe and Lovecraft) – to rethink the issue. What was found is that entangled in the roots of Horror were a surprisingly large chunk of women writing for women in the early days of pulp (or Sensation Fiction as it was once known). The need or interest in titillating young boys and men came later. And all of it came after fairy tales and cautionary stories told in caves and around campfires to keep children close and mindful.

So even though we can trace a male-generated lineage all the way back to Walpole and his Castle of Otranto (commonly accepted as the earliest modern work of Horror), we also have the depth of women’s writings to glean from and gloat over which added literary concerns to the genre – social, cultural, racial and gender issues masked by ghosts and monsters. That helped in redirecting the attention of Critics to early male writers anew with different Literary perspective. And it wasn’t long before Critics began to realize that the Critical arguments put forth by Poe and Lovecraft were…right.

Therefore, Horror developed creative branches deserving equal attention quite early in its evolution. And as we have traversed the eras since its initial seeding, the light of critical focus and popular focus have not always agreed about…well, what is best.

This has changed Horror. We are renegotiating the terms upon which good Horror is written, read, and Criticized. These are –alas – not equally motivated.

The contemporary “discussion” has snatched the argument from the hands of Critics and landed it squarely in those of the reading public in a battle for the best storytelling – because readers don’t read like Literary Critics or editors, and because in today’s world we are talking SALES. Readers of Horror want to be scared, to have a bit of macabre fun. This has baffled Critics and led to authors like Stephen King becoming canon bestsellers while defying older theories and forms of Literary Critical analysis. There is a rift in Criticism, a rift in readership, and a rift in editorial oversight. We simply can’t agree yet.

Somewhere between the urge to read well-told Horror stories and to flee the whole argument over Literary-ness, a lot of readers – including adult readers –  have discovered Young Adult Horror. This general adults-reading-Young-Adult-fiction has been so unsettling to publishers, that they invented a whole new category called “New Adult Fiction” to blur the lines drawn in the sand.

But in Horror the lines remain clear: adults are not being scared by most current adult Horror.

Forget for a moment that some of us may be wont to recapture our youth… that we still like to identify with the perils of young adulthood and still see scared fifteen-year-old eyes in much older visages that greet us in the morning mirror. Today’s Young Adult Horror is priced better, has great marketing in book cover design, is well-edited, well-written, and offers creative (although due to the genre often under- or lesser-developed) plot lines and characterization.

Small wonder that we have lost many adult readers to Young Adult fiction. And I don’t think creating a whole ‘nuther genre called New Adult fiction is going to fix things for our genre. But we need to take a page from Young Adult Horror if we are going to “fix” what is broken in Adult Horror.

Horror fans want to be scared – not just grossed out, not dazzled by Literary execution. While readers do want quality technique in Adult Horror (they know it when they see it and drop it when they don’t), they don’t want Jane Austen, either. They are genre readers. So publishers need to reel in the rush to Literary Horror and let the genre writers have their heads.

We need to experiment – even if that means producing some particularly garish failures. We have only to look at the history of the genre to see that it is most frequently the writers on the edges of acceptability who turn out to be the genre changers… the ones who up the game.

But Adult Horror – if we are going to win back those readers that fled to Young Adult fiction – also needs better pricing (even if it means a return to mass market paperback or cheap pulp formats), more of an investment in quality book cover art and design (including the utilization of new and unknown artists), better advertisement that it is there (a return to spine categorization that identifies a book as Horror would really, really help if we can’t our section back in bookstores), and accepting that it is okay if new writers fall flat in a cheap format because (again) in the trenches is where you find innovation as well.

Adult Horror also needs – apologies to those offended – more than three editors. We need enough editors that a reader and a writer can find his or her niche in the genre and the audience can drive trends. They do this when they can find writers, editors and publisher that they like (Look at Prime for Horror and Baen Books or Tor for Science Fiction as examples.)

Sure there is expense. There is because you have to spend money to make money.  Horror cannot live off Stephen King alone. And readers and writers both in Adult Horror want some sense of variety. But just like the Publisher, we can’t afford to spend a lot of money on a gamble. So give us the B-list, the minor leagues, the feeder teams. Give it to us or we will be forced to elbow Young Adults in their own Horror section.

And that is just a little bit too sad.

Adult Horror needs to be lean and mean and competitive. It needs to be cheap and easily available. As a reader and writer of the genre, I say: Help us.

Coming of Age: Horror Goes Legit

There is another, more subversive reason Horror isn’t “hitting” most of us right. There really is something different. The difference has to do with the Quest for Critical Acceptance; i.e., the development of Literary Horror.

Up in the Ivory Tower, those of us lower down have the impression that “They” think “we” supposedly “don’t get it.”

“They” could not be more wrong. “We” have been reading and loving Horror for almost as long as “They” have. We have defended our reading (and in some cases, the writing) of it to parents, friends, teachers, and coworkers for years…years I tell you.

We detest “badly” written Horror as much as the most snobbish Literary Critic. We cringe at the same bad editing, bad ideas, bad monsters. We laud Lovecraft, worship Poe, defend King, miss Barker, applaud Rice, and endlessly search for Lee… We love-hate the British, scorn-yet-purchase-tickets for Hollywood, and endlessly hunt an oft-referenced canon that does not exist yet.

Like the genre itself, we have come of age as well. We know the time for Literary Horror has come. But we also know it has not flowered and matured properly yet. We know that because we are reading The Best, and most of the time we are not scared. Still, we are not stupid.

We appreciate the stories that titillate, but voraciously defend the legitimacy of our genre and the right of many of its writers to be included in what is called Literature. We know there is a difference between what is called “genre” and what is called “Literature” even though many of us do not understand what those differences entail. Some of us do; some of us have been educating ourselves on the matter… and like editors of The Best, like publishers, like Critics… we understand the very battle we have been fighting since we sensed something special was going on with certain of our writers.

The reason is quality.

We recognize that the Horror genre is still fighting back from the dark days of pulp Criticism. As a result, we have seen the genre elite close ranks when they are confronted by upstart, poorly edited, poorly constructed works. And we understand. This is where storytelling and craft part ways, and this is a dangerous intersection for the genre. As painful as it may be to admit, we all have to confess that proper structure and proper editing are important elements that must be safeguarded and even demanded.

But we also have to admit that Horror is not just Literature any more than it was just pulp. It is both. At all times and sometimes at the same time.

There is nothing wrong with pulp. It is simply seldom Literature.

It seems that in the rush to gain the Horror genre its rightful legitimacy, we are out to crucify its roots and slash-and-burn its more unruly branches.

How un-Horror-like.

But this is one of the reasons why so much Horror found in a “Best” collection isn’t scary. Horror is exploring its Literary heritage and testing Literary avenues. It is redefining itself from the Best Scary to the Best Executed Scary… and that means a shedding of some of the more recognizable genre conventions… which ironically, have made the stories less scary while increasing the Literary quotient.

This is not all bad. But it does mean that the genre is having growing pains while attempting to serve two masters – the readers and editors who are on-board with the Critics.

(NOTE: Critics are NOT Lucifer. They ARE good for the genre, and a LOT of Horror deserves to be recognized as both Horror AND Literature, for which we need CRITICS.)

However. We also need to let Horror be Horror, to be genre. It’s okay. Some of us can do both. Many of us like things that way.  We recognize and support the battle and The Cause. But we also like to be a teeny bit scared and to have a little pulp with our caviar.

Making Time to Discover the Best

Readers today expect instant Horror. And when they get it, they claim it wasn’t rich enough, wasn’t real enough, wasn’t scary enough.

Enter the Age of Technology, complete with its alleged disinterest in lengthy prose and less time to read it in.

But here’s the truth: It takes time to be scared. It takes an investment by the writer to create heavy, heady atmosphere, and it takes an investment by the reader willing to follow us down the darkening path.

Good Horror cannot be rushed. But we as writers are told that we shouldn’t waste time on big sentences, on flowery delivery, on excessive adjectives, on big words no one wants to look up. We are told we have mere phrases to “hook” a reader, and that no one really wants to read something that takes more than a couple hundred pages in the telling.

Yet this goes against every writer-ly grain. The selection of the exact right word or phrase is part of the creative process… it is frequently nonnegotiable. It contributes to “voice” and atmosphere. It is part of the story.

We have been told this for years… we have been told to “dumb down” our writing for the New Generation Who Doesn’t Like to Be Bothered.

Lies. All of it.

Stephen King – our current genre patriarch – writes tomes… hundreds and hundreds of pages and we still can’t get enough. “Today’s youth don’t read”? Kids and Young Adults are the ones driving modern bookstore sales. Young Adult Horror outsells Adult Horror. Classics written a century ago outsell newer Horror bestsellers… Liar, liar, Zombies on fire.

We have been told that technology has created a class of reader who skims, who cherry-pick information.

Well Horror writers don’t write for them. We write for readers who want to be submerged in murky detail and mere suggestions of things moving around them in the dark. Good things come to those who wait – both monsters and readers. Sure, sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes a climax is too anti-climactic. But one never knows who likes what. We try. Sometimes we succeed… And then Horror sprouts wings….dark leathery wings that smell like serpents.

Every Horror story is a gamble. Some will scoff at the ending. Others may need therapy. It’s why we read Horror and why we write Horror.

But it means a person must be willing to take the time to let the spell work. No skimming. No cherry-picking. Otherwise a reader has no business complaining that they didn’t feel scared; you have to trust the writer who intends to betray you to the monster. You have to accept that a writer has very specifically chosen the words used to lure you into the deep woods.

And maybe – to be properly scared – that’s where you should go to read it. At the very least a reader may need to turn off the technology. A reader needs to be isolated for the monster to approach. Go somewhere where you are uninterrupted, where you can be alone. Turn down the lights. Take Poe or Lovecraft or Machen with you… just see if you aren’t scared after reading – after digesting – one story.

Why doesn’t an anthology pick scare you? Did you give it your full, undivided attention? All great Horror requires the investment of time. Without it, you will never find the Best. Or perhaps you just didn’t like it. Maybe you don’t like that editor’s tastes and preferences. Try another. And another. When you find The One – your personal “Best” – it will be worth it. It’s quite okay if a Top Editor didn’t feel the same, or if it isn’t Literary. Best is a relative term.

Ultimately, all of this means that not every collection will measure up to your own, very personal expectations. And yes, it is tiring to sort through all of the different styles of writers and editors. It is also getting much harder to weed out nuances being created by MFA program writers, the re-structured New York publishing preferences, the influence of Literature on writers trying to “up the game” in Horror, the motivations of reviewers, the jargon of Critics…

Horror is redefining itself, looking for that new-and-improved identity that will help reclaim sales and market share. It is looking for you.

Keep searching. Keep reading. When we catch the wind again, when we uncover the next Stephen King or Lovecraft, you will want to be there.

And when will Horror be consistently scary again? When we’ve mastered our own egos enough to let the monsters out of the closet, whether they climb out of the pulps or claw their way from in between lines of Literature. It will happen in those brittle and fleeting moments when a writer suddenly and unexpectedly connects with a reader. Horror will be scary when the turn of a phrase keeps us awake at night, wondering what we would do…when the formula catches up with what we believe –and fear – is possible.

Until then, read The Best. And keep demanding better. We will get there again.

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