For those who would read our genre because they were seduced by the emotionally rich words “tales of terror” in a title, there has been an unfortunate turn of events. The word “terror” in the Horror genre has joined a pantheon of keywords that seem to have lost their spark, their ability to sizzle and frighten. We loyally buy books labelled “tales of terror” only to come away feeling misled, cheated, confused.
Did we not understand what was intended?
I have long asked myself why old works are still potent even today, and new works are simply flat and featureless. What has changed in the geography of our prose? If being modern and sophisticated does not neutralize stories of the past, then we are surely doing something different now. But what?
Something has clearly changed. Something wicked this way comes. And it is looking like fans of the Horror genre are now caught between two new influences on the marketing of our fiction that may explain some of it: one is the emergence of the Literary Critic rummaging about in our stuff; the other is the misdirection of our writers into popular fiction – the belief from the inside out that genre is no longer good enough…
The Monstrous Assumptions of the Under-Published
Let’s face it. Most of us do not fully grasp the full array of conventions and subgenres available to us. And the reason is that unlike the more intimate times of Lovecraft and Poe, despite the internet and all the talk of global associations, Horror writers seldom know much about each other. In those earlier times there were far more editors to guide us, far more publications to be rejected from, and far more authors willing to comment on each other’s contributions to the genre. In other words, there was more – if not better – communication in the genre.
Today we operate more in the dark where constructive criticism is concerned. And we are alone in there with an enormous collection of how-to magazines and books…all of which offer solutions like our Great Aunt Margie’s Secret Family Recipe which (conveniently) seems to leave at least one important ingredient out. We have less formal education about Literature, about Literary Criticism, about elements of craft in creative writing, and seriously less education about the specifics and histories of different genres.
Speculative fiction is out on the fringe – not because it is unloved – but because when the Arts are under fire, it is the extremities that suffer most from amputation.
This means that novice writers in the genre are feeling their way along, not only wondering if they are being rejected for failures in mechanical mastery, but trying to predict what publishers are thinking and desiring…and those messages are typically mixed.
The rumor that genre is defunct and all writing is going popular and somewhat Literary is pure poison, injected directly into our genre roots. Literature never spawns from genre; genre spawns from Literature – sometimes carrying just enough Literary mastery that it remains Literature as well. Contemporary Literary writing that aims to sneak genre in typically fails because it satisfies neither potential audience. So why are we being encouraged to play at this style?
It may well have to do with the influence of the MFA and its multitude of graduates. It may have to do with publishers listening to rumors or trying to manipulate the market and sales. It may have to do with the whining of Critics who want a more pasteurized genre. But there are also new Critics who – like many of us – just want better genre.
So let us coalesce… Let us embrace our differences from the Lit crowd without excusing bad writing. Let’s recreate our writing groups, our Amateur Press Associations, our newsletters, our inner circle. And someday, we will get our publishing mojo back…once the internet exhausts its efforts to orchestrate our demise and discovers business is just no fun without us.
But let us do so wisely. Professionally. Educated about our own past and about Critical influences – intentional or accidentally imposed.
Because out there in the darkness stalks the New Literary Critic. And all of the free-for-all efforts, the gyrations, the morphing of shapes is leading to a bastardization of our genre which is being force fed to us as genre….
Take modern tales of terror.
Sometimes they are. And sometimes they aren’t.
Tales of Terror: What They Are When They Aren’t
The word “terror” today occupies a crowded space in our minds, and this is an unwelcome complication. For genre writers, it is a word corrupted and hijacked by modern events, twisted into political tools that steer our imaginations away from the Literary term that punctuates the Horror fan’s earliest adventures into classic works. Because believe it or not, to some degree the term has always been Literary; it is only that the literary interpretation has also begun to change.
Readers uneducated in our genre might automatically assume a book with “terror” in the title has international influences. But the word “terror” in the Horror genre is a an old term, previously attached to ghost stories and other tales of the supernatural, to “strange” tales and tales of the “unknown” and “suspense.” It blossomed under the umbrella of pulp, flirted briefly with the Weird, and then slipped into that netherworld of fan-led connotation.
In other words, the word “terror” occupied a nebulous and changing place in our minds while we attempted to define our own genre both from the reading and the writing perspectives. Until certain authors of canon-worthy fame began to see a need for categorization in our genre… and they raced ahead of any would-be Critics to establish some standards.
Both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft knew enough about Literature and Literary Criticism to understand that in order to capture the attention of Critics, there would have to be some standards in our genre, and if we ourselves could not identify those standards, then they probably weren’t there. So they set about through various essays trying to eke out a semblance of structure to the genre – which included naming the genre, and defining its subgenres and all relevant conventions.
The discussion continues to evolve – even today – with a good many very smart people reluctant to keep the name “Horror” as the main term for all cascading genre nomenclature.
Yet if our genre is to gain respectability and regain marketable tags that help genre readers find their authors, then the discussion must not only be had, but terms and definitions must be decided upon once and for all.
Lost in the translation is the modern Horror reader, awash in terms we all thought meant more or less the same things.
For all those years the word “terror” was ours to toy with. And toy we did. At no time did we assume it to be more than just an adjective meant to allude to a certain level of emotional disturbance to be harvested from the prose. We did not suspect it was morphing into a category that should have clear Literary delineations other than it having the capacity to scare and unsettle us. In fact, we still do not suspect anything… as evidenced by our own baffled expressions after reading “modern” tales of terror.
Typically, we find ourselves on the opposite side of reviews with the Critics. But if we dig deeper into Literary Criticism, we can understand how and why that is.
For one thing, it is perhaps a sad state of the Critic that being “scared” in our genre is of secondary – or even tertiary importance. In a broad and enlightening discussion on Weird fiction, Critic S.T. Joshi points out an important viewpoint of the Critic for our genre: “If I may utter an apparent paradox: horror fiction is not meant to horrify… [and] mere shudder-mongering has no literary value, no matter how artfully accomplished” (Joshi, Modern 2).
This means that our interests are sometimes diametrically opposed. Critics by and large – although passionate folk – are not typically emotional; they don’t read for the thrill – they read for the technical mastery behind the thrill. So what a Critic will call a “tale of terror” is far and away a different animal that what we in the genre want to call a tale of terror.
Critic S.T. Joshi, makes his Critical point this way: “The horror story (whether supernatural or not) somewhat untidily encompasses those works that focus on the emotion of fear, largely to the exhaustion or minimization of elements, emotions, or motifs – specifically a broad portrayal of character or of those human relations where fear of terror does not play a role [my emphasis]” (Joshi, Unutterable Gilgamesh to the end of the 19th Century, 3).
So when a Critic calls a tale a tale of “terror,” he or she is likely not calling it a Horror tale that the Horror fan expects to read. But if the publisher categorizes the collection of such tales as Horror, the miscommunication has begun: the Critic may adore it, and the Horror fan may sit all wrinkle-browed and frustrated. In just such a case as this, the Critical argument that not all in our genre is Horror appears to have traction, if not its own fan base.
It’s also why we so often disagree with Critics – we are reading for entertainment and love something more when we discover something deeper sleeps under the prose. Critics, however, toss away the chills and thrills like they were old clothes, rummaging about our stories for what they savor – that something “more” that Literature contains by its own definition. In the case of “terror” – and the Horror genre as a whole – that often includes unearthing a little realism and postmodernism in the works.
Terms like these typically mean a lot less obvious genre terror is going to go on. It means the work in question is doing Literary things, playing with prose, and embracing the secrets of being human and cloaking world view and statements about ourselves and our societies.
Remember that what is Literary is not necessarily Literature, but containing elements of Literature. Literature must meet a long list of Critical criteria that only academics study and fully appreciate, and which most often happen by happy accident in the bulk of writing. So while we may have many stories in our genre – including a handful of writers who are considered by many to be “Literary” – neither they nor their works automatically or even often ascend that ladder to those ebony towers of Literature.
But in order to be considered Literature there must be a nice, clinical list of criteria (see any word that looks like “critic” in there?) that is established and agreed upon by the whole school of Literary Criticism. This takes time, Critics, and debate. But it also takes a body of literature (small “L”) from which to deduce these criteria.
And believe it or not, the examination of that literature body and debate of its points has been going on for some time… sometimes by Critics themselves who do not like our genre…and sometimes by writers within it, or even new Critics who have decided to tackle our genre for the purposes of opening up the genre for Literary Criticism.
This is big, you know. HUGE.
But it means that things are changing in our genre, words are being confiscated for Literary Use. Terms are being established. Categories.
It is the job of the Literary Critic to establish categories in fiction.
It also means that when you pick up a book with “tales of terror” in the subtitle, it might well depend on who wrote them as well as what’s actually in them as to whether or not you wind up properly terrified or the Critics think you should have been.
An example is Joyce Carol Oates’ latest title – categorized as Horror fiction – The Doll-master and Other Tales of Terror. They are, and they aren’t. They are mildly disturbing, slightly unsettling. But they say more about humanity than actual emotional terror. The tales are not spine-tingling. They are not going to keep readers awake nights. But they will provoke thought and linger a bit longer in the mind than anticipated. In other words, they do what Literary Critics want our genre to do, while forgetting what genre fans want it to do.
For those who might not know, Oates is the Critical darling of our genre. And she is clearly a master of the craft of writing. But many Horror fans don’t really know her work, and most who know her work do not think of her as a Horror writer…She is clearly a Literary writer who uses supernatural elements to color her prose a lovely shade of disturbing.
And the truth of that is confounding.
A self-professed writer of “Gothic” fiction, Oates herself describes such work as designed to be “willing to confront mankind’s – and nature’s – darkest secrets” (Oates 6). This means that realism is at work in her writing – Literary elements over speculative ones.
And what is realism? According to Nick Mamatas in his essay “Depth of Field: Horror and Literary Fiction” (On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association), “Realism refers both to a set of techniques that simply render reality accurately, and to a genre of fiction that examines the psychology of characters existing in everyday life” with plots that utilize “intense, even minute descriptions of ‘how we live now’…”(114).
In other words, there is not the natural and familiar rhythm of genre fiction to stir the emotions. “Terror” comes at us in a completely different way with completely different results. Continues Mamatas, “’Where’s the payoff?’ you can hear the Horror fan crying out, and the answer is that there isn’t one, and that is what leads to the horror of the novel” (114).
While this sounds like a recipe for fan disappointment, it is part of the recipe for Critical interest. Here a writer must decide how to tell the story, and if that telling serves both the story and the writer’s own expectation of it.
This does not mean that all Critics like this type of tale when considering the genre. Says S. T. Joshi of Oates’ work in the genre, “in all humility, a number of the tales in Haunted and other Oates collections would never have been published were it not for their author’s celebrity” and that “Oates is manifestly more interested in human relationships than in supernatural phenomena, and oftentimes the latter serve merely as symbols or reflections of the former… “ (Joshi, Unutterable 20th and 21st centuries , 683-4).
Therefore, even for some Critics the trade-off of mechanics and mastery is not worth the dilution of too many genre standards – especially to the point that a tale runs the risk of leaving the genre entirely. This should give us hope…
But for now, all of us are too-frequently baffled by words we used to understand – readers and writers alike. Words are our tools to communicate to readers and publishers what we are attempting to do in the genre. But definitions are now fluid. Words are showing up in titles, blurbs and book covers that don’t mean what we thought they meant.
And in just such a world, the growing problem in our genre is not living up to our own vocabulary… and part of that problem is a vocabulary that is under revision, dividing words we use to describe what we read and want to read into a Literary term for which we as readers in the genre have lost the agreed-upon definition.
So what does this mean for the genre fan, or the writer marketing their work? It means that we all need to be aware that terms are changing, being applied and misapplied. Here again we need a unified and authoritative voice, an executive decision made – but not made without due discourse. One of the best ways to finalize such a process is through Literary Criticism and the discussions it rightfully raises.
When tales of terror are not, we need to look at why they were called that to see if it is we who misunderstand the game…and if it is a matter of Critic versus Genre, maybe we all need to get on the same page…for the readers’ sake.
“Terror” is not what others make it. “Terror” may not be pirated for exclusive use. Because “terror” is one of those cousins of fear that made the Horror genre what it is, and it is ours by birthright. “Terror” is a genre term that should not be taken lightly when attaching catchy tag-lines onto book titles, or tucked between the flowery praise of a review or recommendation because “terror” occupies a unique place in our pantheon of primal responses to our world – real or imagined. And when we see it attached to story, it needs to mean something.
Terror—according to Hollywood Horror legend Boris Karloff – is “rooted in cosmic fear of the unknown. It is the more dreadful experience… but its very profundity makes it more difficult to achieve artistically….the psychology of terror, like true erotica, demands far more technique to comprehend and employ… [whereby] horror is a mere insistence on the gory and otherwise repugnant… “ (Masterpeices, xv).
Are we writing terror in the genre differently today? I think the answer is yes; for some reason we have decided that the blunt fun of the pulps is not worthy of Literary consideration, not worthy of further print. For some reason we think deciding this means an elevation to Literature, that real terror is in the subtext, and is something to be deciphered from cryptic and potentially boring prose. Maybe some of it is. But to call a thing a tale of terror, there should be some genre blood coursing through its veins; the average person should be able to see, feel, and appreciate it. This means there is much to discuss in our genre, ground rules that need to be established and adhered to — because Literature is most definitively not genre….but some genre is Literature.
Most of us don’t want to analyze that. We just want to know a tale of terror when we read one. We should know by the way it makes us feel…
Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction Vol. 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.
Joshi, S.T. Unutterable Horror: a History of Supernatural Fiction Vol. 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. New York: Hippocampus Press, c2012, 2014.
Joshi, S. T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, c2001.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Madness of Art.” On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association p. 4-6. Mort Castle, ed. Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2007.
Mamatas, Nick. “Depth of Field.” On Writing Horror: a Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, p. 113-117. Mort Castle, ed. Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest Books, c2007
Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown: a Treasury of Bizare Tales Old and New Selected by Marvin Kaye. Marvin Kaye, ed. Garden City, New York. Guild America/Doubleday Book and Music Clubs, c1993.