Crisis on the Leng Plateau: the Struggle for the Soul of American Horror


Maybe it’s Lovecraft’s fault… After all, he did it so well.

But lately I figure somewhere there must be an explanation as to why in contemporary American Horror, the weakest point of the story tends to be the monster. I’ve fallen for blurbs, for cover art, for Famous Horror Writer recommendations. Yet time and again the monster just isn’t scary, or eerie, or haunting. If I come away with any manner of emotional displacement, the author (or the concept) tends to be from an earlier period of Horror history, or not to be American at all.

Could it be that we are so excited about what we hope to write that we forget WHAT we are writing? Are we that ignorant of our own genre history? Is it possible that we don’t even know what genre writing is anymore?

Monsters – By ANY Other Name

The genre of Horror has actual history… it has a bloodline and a marked route of exploration and developmental growth. During its earlier years when the term “Gothic” or “ghost story” would no longer adequately encompass what was being written, writers and editors and publishers began calling what was being produced by new and confusing names – Supernatural Fiction, Spectral Fiction, Strange tales, Weird tales, Terror, and Horror.

True to form, everyone had a different interpretation of definitions and definition boundaries even then. And this confusion continues a bit to this day, but now more in the Critical quarter – because remember that it is the Literary Critic whose job it is to decide how to categorize Literature for the sake of Literary analysis. And we now have actual Critics in our genre corner…

With changing times, the former discourse between writers of subgenre fiction seems broken, its writers (new and seasoned) now scattered about in genre isolation with less publication venues to offer dedicated subgenre havens, fewer informed editors and actual examples of subgenre fiction. So the rest of us just tend to pronounce ourselves as writing this or that with no real forethought or thorough Literary understanding of the definitions we use.

But today we are blessed to have S.T. Joshi and China Mieville in our genre corner. And it is the coming of these two Literary Critics that has lifted our genre from the stage of Literary argument (is Horror Literature) to the stage of Literary analysis (which Horror is Literature and why). Of the two, I find the most useful published Criticism by S.T. Joshi (although I really would like to see something more and intense by Mieville). And it is Joshi who has started me thinking – well, Weird.

As part of his job as a Critic, and one of the first in our genre, Joshi has taken the necessary step of attempting to tackle the definitions of genre and subgenre work in Horror and to nail them down. In his book The Weird Tale, he takes the opportunity to present an argument to clarify his rationale for chosen categories in the genre, and to open the discussion on how the genre should be Literarily argued. What is exceptional here, is Mr. Joshi’s attempt to include the modern Horror reader and writers in this discussion.

He does not “talk down” to genre fans and writers; he simply explains how he sees the parsing of the genre for Literary analysis and –most importantly – why he believes his rationalizations are either correct or ripe for discussion. Yet isn’t it awkward that most of us have no idea what Joshi is talking about? Or know that he is talking? This ignorance of our own literary progression has left our imaginations (replete with monsters) high centered on a plateau of mediocre fiction…a Leng Plateau…

I’m saying that the reason we don’t know is exactly why our monsters are in crisis, why our writing has lost its authoritative voice, why the British seem to have a strong sense of place in their fiction and we seem to be nomads. We have disconnected with the past; we are balloon writers floating above the plains of Leng…

It is also why we have lost our Horror section.

We have allowed ourselves as writers (sadly, sometimes innocently enough) to be led by the public, by publishers’ guesstimates of what the public wants, by editors who might be coerced into finding the next Stephen King instead of the next genre-changer. Worse, we have allowed ourselves to be led by the promise of Hollywood and merchandising. We have committed the greatest sin in Lovecraft’s eyes: writing for money…

Okay, so let’s be clear: Lovecraft desired publication, he submitted stories, he was occasionally paid for them, he lived off an inheritance and a wife as long as he could, then was reduced to editing other authors for a living. Lovecraft was not saying he was against publication. He was saying one doesn’t change the story to get it published. He was saying a writer needs to pursue the higher art offered by the story, no matter how many rejections that equates to; that a writer should be true to his or her vision. In this case, he is firmly in alignment with the Literary Critic.

Yet how many of us actually have cultivated a vision for our writing? How many of us think in terms of legacy instead of simple solvency?

The problem is, no one is out there teaching us about the history and mechanics of Horror. No one except our very own Critics right now. We need to read them. We have artistic decisions to make.

Golden Age writers knew what they were writing, where it could find an audience, what publications were their choices… Today, we just write, and submit to any publication that we can find. Most of us cannot categorize ourselves, let alone our fiction, because to categorize our work would be to narrow our choices, our sense of opportunity.

Example: I recently visited a website for a regional writer’s group, looking for Horror writers. What I found was the comment “is willing to write Horror.” WILLING to write Horror?! Where is the writer who unabashedly is PROUD to write Horror?

Sometimes I think we lost our own section in Horror because many of us have lost the understanding of what we are intending to write. And marketing departments are only too happy to pronounce the demise of genre writing.

So why does the very thought cause us an instinctive knee-jerk reaction? Is it because the meandering away from genre conventions is an accidental misstep and that we never meant to abandon genre? Yet is that also why our monsters have lost their teeth and grown human appendages where tentacles should be? Do we know how to get back into formula?

My Weird Tales Epiphany

Maybe it’s time we listened to our elders – the genre greats who started a conversation that just seemed to evaporate in the 1990’s altogether, and which has been resuscitated in part by S.T. Joshi. Have we forgotten the rabid dedication many authors and editors once had to the argument over terms and subgenres?

Today if a writer doesn’t research the genre personally or trip over key essays chances are he or she just hasn’t a clue what has gone before and where we are now. For instance, since the genre began to grow in popularity in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there have been arguers and defenders of the usage of the terms Horror, Terror, Supernatural, Strange and Weird to define the many types of writing we may do.

Did you even know that there has been an internal unrest about what our genre should in fact be calling itself for quite some time?

This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Because if you write Horror, you are on the battlefield up to your Muse. Shouldn’t you be at least aware of your place in the tradition? The British (our main competitors) seem ever to be…

While a large part of writing – most specifically drafting – is drenched in magic and mystery and wonder, in the end we need to know as ­authors of a story exactly what we are trying to say. Then we need to revise to be sure we are saying it. Only then can we be certain that the genre is worthy of its name – whichever one is ultimately chosen.

The name “Horror” has taken a beating for a while now. It and “Terror” in its turn has been commandeered by current events to the point that many are reluctant to use it. It has driven genre fans in droves back to more “antiquated” terms like “Weird” and “Strange” to defend and salvage the genre. But I think we shouldn’t be letting “world events” distort our genre to that effect. I think the conversation of what we are writing is germane to what we choose to call it. And I don’t think we can call it something if we don’t know the definitions of those terms.

Horror itself has been keelhauled for being an emotion. Why, ask its detractors, do we want to name our genre with an emotion when almost all other genres are described by nouns or adjectives? I believe that the word – emotion or not – encompasses all that the genre tries to inflict upon the reader – an emotional response. In that capacity, it is like Thrillers, Suspense, and Romance. It is asking the brain to explore dark corners, to revisit the primal place of fear, terror, revulsion, disgust, dread – you know – horror.

But some genre experts (those who have duly earned their stripes as writers, editors, and Critics of the genre) sometimes feel otherwise, that Horror is more about gore and dismemberment – fear of our fellow man or human-ness than that which merely disturbs. They will argue for other terms – like Weird. I’m thinking we are arguing over semantics here, over connotation and denotation... But what is important is agreeing on what our genre is and should be called, what its conventions and formulas should include or exclude. There should not be any question in a writer’s mind.

Enter S.T. Joshi, Literary Critic and the best friend Horror has in Literature right now. Joshi, perhaps the world’s greatest contemporary expert on all things H.P. Lovecraft, has embraced the Weird. Like his object of research, he has come to believe that Horror is more a subgenre of Weird fiction than the other way around. And he uses Lovecraft to explain why. Whereas according to Lovecraft “The crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen” (Joshi 6), Joshi states, “I begin my own study with a rather odd assertion: the weird tale, in the period … (generally 1880 -1940) did not (and perhaps does not now) exist as a genre but as the consequence of a world view…” [his emphasis] (xiii).

Most assuredly, that is the Literary Critic in Joshi talking… because it is the presence, the omniscience of a world view that elevates a work from genre to Literature. And if Weird fiction is more commonly Literature than average Horror fiction, then is it not the tree from which the apple falls?

You can see how quickly this conversation becomes interesting and relevant to all genre writers and fans. It is why Joshi has put his work out there. Discussion is the key to movement… to breathing life into the Critical process.

But it is also integral to creating new Lovecrafts. We all have to be on the same page. And at a time when we seem to have lost our national genre compass, shouldn’t we get on board with this very basic Critical idea – the naming of parts, the re-establishment of genre, the enforcement of boundaries and celebrating rebellions against the very same? How else can we commit to writing a story we can encapsulate with a category name if we don’t know the terms of surrender?

Believe it or not, many of us as Horror writers have never really considered this, and it may be the deserving reason we get rejected.

Here’s a thought based on that statement: to elevate a story beyond the genre, to be genre-changing we must first be able to write genre.

Can you? Can you structure a monster based on a subgenre? Do you know what that means? I am not so sure we do, because I don’t see any establishment figures laying out the formula they claim is criteria. I see allusions to formula, partial lists of conventions, scattered tropes…I do not see a book or website or rule guide dedicated to defining the genre as only this and never that. A writer should not have to piece genre formula together like a quilt, over decades of rejections and gleaning gems from essays and editorial forwards and interviews. Yet only the subgenres of Weird (pardon me for the classification liberty) and ghost story/Spectral fiction have easIER guidlelines to find…

Editors have pronounced themselves too busy. Universities are teaching and preaching against genre. Workshops are a gamble, writers groups may “accept” but don’t generally specialize in genre writing, how-to’s have Gone Hollywood. What’s a genre purist to do?

If you want technical assistance, you need a Critic: read Joshi.

If you want written examples, read Golden Age genre writers – read Weird Tales from the day.

That’s right. Under the scales and leathery wings of the greatest of all Literary Horror monsters (Horror being the overarching term I am predisposed to), beats a heart of pulp.

Get thee to a collection of early Weird Tales… I recently found a copy at a used book shop, one edited by famed genre editor Marvin Kaye, who back in the 1990’s also edited several anthologies of the subgenres including Terror, the Supernatural, the Unknown, Ghosts, Witches, Devils and Demons… I remembered having read many of the stories when I was a kid, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I assumed I would read them, smile in remembrance, and move on.

Wrong.

I was awed. Stunned. My imagination was RE-filled with the passion that started my love affair with the Horror genre. How did we lose this? I wondered aloud. How did we lose this awesome ability to tell tales that in mere pages can keep us up and night and hungering for more?

Is it because authors in those days had a bevy of magazines whose “bar” was set a bit lower to acquiring and keeping a basic readership – not set to making an author’s or an editor’s Big Break, not set to doubling its subscription base annually or it is a “business failure,” not reliant on burying writing among ads just to stay in print… not set to the equivalent of tossing a bottle out on the ocean so it could be “discovered in its excellence” by the masses who would theoretically spend lavishly to keep it on the internet ocean?

Is it because it was “just pulp” and not overreaching to call itself high Literature, its writers happy to just spill its monsters into cheap prose to see what else might hatch? Is it because no matter how poorly writers were paid, writers could by being prolific, actually make a poor living doing it?

Who knows? But those very circumstances led to some of the absolute greatest writing of our genre – some of it now admittedly Literature…

It also inspired contemporary writers – like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell – our current models of success with totally different styles. It set the standard for Horror in Literature by revisiting Poe and Lovecraft, Machen and Blackwood, Dunsany and Bierce. It made all of us want to be Horror writers…

Calling Central Casting

To perform at our best, to exercise the boundaries of genre and flirt with the meaning and power of Literature, we cannot be trying to manipulate our fiction so Hollywood can use it. We cannot be motivated by fame and fortune. We cannot allow ourselves to be told we either “write for Hollywood or for Critics.”

It’s not about starving. It’s about producing ART, not mass producing drivel. Because if that is what we are teaching ourselves to write, then we roundly deserve the stinging criticisms of editors and Critics. We are rolling our monsters out on a rack time after time and expecting a different result.

Stop the insanity!

We need to write for ourselves. For our genre. For our audience.

When you read fiction written for you, there is no doubt; you are sitting next to the campfire, the storyteller is looking at you right in the eye, and the monster is drooling just at the edge of the darkness. You can feel his breath on your neck, imagine his fangs tearing at your flesh…and anything is possible…even the impossible.

So are you writing Weird or Horror fiction? Or are you perhaps writing in the subgenre of Terror or Strange tales?

And if you don’t know, shouldn’t you be finding out? Because right now our monsters are suffering from a clear identity crisis. We don’t seem able to write them without it looking like we are attempting a parody or poking fun. American monsters leap, crawl, and ooze onto our literary theater with the impact of a stage magician pulling a very tired old rabbit out of the hat. We have lost something besides the element of surprise.

Surprise! Storytelling is an art that has its own rules. I say again…look at pulp.

Stories fail for so many different reasons. They should not be failing because we glimpse the monster, or we rolled him out on a rack. That should be a moment of pure Terror. Horror. Weirdness. FEAR.

Surely, we can still manage that…

 

References

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, c 1990.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft:the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books, c2015.

Weird Tales. Marvin Kaye, ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, c1988.

Recommended Websites:

Weird site: http://greydogtales.com/blog/?p=1336

Horror site: http://www.thisishorror.co.uk/category/columns/

 

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Crisis on the Leng Plateau: the Struggle for the Soul of American Horror

  1. A great deal to think about here;but it is about producing art, not drivel, whatever the genre. Once one begins writing for money (which many have had to do, and I don’t fault them for it, we all have to eat) it’s easy to lose one’s vision and voice. And there you have it; a fat Christmas makes for a tight graveyard. Very thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was very thought provoking. I consider myself a horror writer and have often had trouble conveying what I wish on the fear that others won’t perceive it as it is intended. But I’m more than proud to write horror and strive to improve. You article has given me much to think about.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s