We keep hearing how everything is ok.
Despite the bodies being carried out the back door, we keep hearing how the Horror magazine market is viable, and traditional book publishers and agents want new writers, and editors are overwhelmed by submissions on every front (sometimes too many good ones to publish them all, and sometimes as proof that indeed just anyone thinks they can write Horror).
We also keep hearing about the many ways we as Horror writers can spend our limited monies and emotional currency on writing contests, conventions, and buying “how-to” products, doling out reader’s fees and professional club memberships like we are made of money…or how we can become overnight successes publishing ourselves – all of this while countless rejections and the narrowing of submission guidelines are shoving many writers into other genres.
These are mixed messages. All of us are confused.
Are we being rejected because of our Craft, our stories, or both? Or are we being sacrificed to the gods of precision branding in this age of one-size-does-not-fit-all commercialism? Is our Establishment trying to exercise control over which direction we are heading, and using the few bestselling authors we have left to psychologically fund their efforts?
We are seeing a narrowing of focus in the Horror genre. We are seeing an overemphasis on the Literary while hunting for bestseller stories told however they get the book sold.
It seems like what they really mean is not that they want new writers or new Horror, but apparently that if they can’t unearth a new Poe, they want a new Stephen King…a Reserve Stephen King, just in case.
Because clearly we are caught in a crisis – an identity crisis where we don’t know if Horror is whatever sells, or what some editor says is Literary enough.
Edgar Allan Poe – yours, mine, Mystery’s and ours…
What Happens in Horror is Not Staying in Horror
If we look at the history of Horror after the Horror Boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s, what we find is a parade of authors escorted to the borders of the genre and unceremoniously dismissed as no longer Horror writers. Sadly, this means we have lost a lot of Horror and a lot of Horror Literature. It means a lot of former Horror writers no longer self-identify as Horror writers. And for others left to contemplate their exile in their new found no-man’s-land, it means a bitter severance of the artistic relationship, hurt feelings, and even disgust.
Why did we lose writers like Clive Barker? Why did we never embrace a Roald Dahl or H.H. Munro? Why were we so brazen to banish Tanith Lee? To ignore Jane Yolen? Or to keep Terri Windling as no more than a casual mention?
This Weird charnel house we are living in seems to have been built on an earlier premise that Horror (not being a “real” or Literary genre) was instead a collection of sometimes Literary writing written by authors from Literary Fiction – in other words, great writers slumming it in the genres.
And in many cases, it was somewhat true – writers like Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Roald Dahl, Charlotte Bronte, Daphne DuMaurier, H.H. Munro (Saki), Joyce Carol Oates, Louisa May Alcott, Shirley Jackson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Cormac McCarthy, Umberto Eco, Orson Welles, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, and Toni Morrison – are today not considered exclusively (if ever) Horror writers. Yet some of their writing places them firmly in our genre as potential providers of canonical works.
The list of such works by these kinds of visiting writers always grows. So why it is so hard for us to look within the genre itself and get a clear picture of what Horror is today – of the writers growing the genre right now? Is it possible the answer is because we don’t welcome our own writers in the genre unless they fit a certain “profile”? Unless they support a certain kind of genre branding as orchestrated by our own Establishment?
Why do we stop at the Weird Writers, sighing and swooning as we look backward to the Good Old Days of Horror? Are we so grieving the loss of those writers that we cannot see the grown children right in front of us?
Horror is an artful mix of different genres and different writers; it should never be so “formula” that it cannot be original, that it cannot display diversity. We should never be willing to bend to a brand.
This is the nature of Horror – it cross-pollinates and is cross-pollinated. We are a little bit country, and little bit rock-and-roll. We are as likely to welcome face-hugging aliens as we are to embrace dastardly lords of the manor who exploit vulnerable orphans, to feed annoying nannies to a horror in a garden shed or drag us through the savage mental decline of a woman trapped in postpartum depression. Horror is about the human condition – all of it in its absolute terror.
So why is it that we are apparently having problems with identity right now?
Who is imposing that identity, changing and tweaking it like a moral authority?
And do they have that right?
We have to ask these questions and find the answers, because we have lost control of what is happening in our genre – mostly because of what is also happening as a result of the Technology Revolution. And what started as the bleeding off of midlist authors in the mid 1980’s has become a new marketing trend of spinning off any and all authors who are not deemed – by someone – to be “proper” Horror.
The result is that it is looking like “no one” besides Mr. King is really writing Horror.
We have “perp-walked” writers who refuse to conform right into other genres, giving them up like we have so many to spare. Yet what we do have is clearly a lot of writers who are all but steered into “writing in the vein of” past icons: we adulate Lovecraft and the Weird Writers to the extent that the message being communicated is that the Weird was the last time we had great, Literary writers in the genre. And that suggests the Weird is all that we were aspiring to become… that at the very moment we have reached that long-fought-for pinnacle of success – actual Literary Critical recognition – we have nothing left in the tank.
I don’t buy it. Our own genre history suggests otherwise, subgenre building on subgenre…Why is Weird any different? Why didn’t we learn our lesson from that period? Why aren’t we interested in seeing what ALL writers in the genre can concoct? To see what direction we will all lurch next in a burst of rabid creativity? Why aren’t we mining pulp? Experimenting? Publishing Horror? Connecting and communicating with our fans?
More importantly, why are we so eager to expel writers who are not seeming to stay within “approved” Horror guidelines, and exactly who has determined those guidelines?
One thing is for sure: it is NOT the Literary Critic who is doing this.
But the Literary Critic IS ABOUT TO…bwa ha ha…
Hiding rebel authors in other genres is not going to work – although it may certainly slow down the Critic in finding them. The Critic will decide who is Horror genre and who is not.
Is someone running about, clearing the road in front of the bus? And what exactly is their right to do so?
Take a deep breath. We are going to have to lean backward to see how we got here.
When Booms Collapse
When Horror went off the rails in the 1990’s, it went amidst turmoil in the publishing industry itself. We cannot dismiss the importance of the impact of the Technology Revolution on our genre, because we were among the first to see cutbacks in publication and a rethinking of marketing strategy. The sudden lack of air in the room meant that all of the machinery that had sustained our genre and the publishing Boom of the 1970’s-1980’s ground to a halt. We lost a lot of publishers, imprints, magazines, editors, and writers at a time we had also already begun losing fans.
Some said it was proof that the Baby Boom generation which had propelled Horror in those two Power Decades was at last “aging out”… that we were “growing up” and moving on to more adult subjects, at long last disenchanted with scary stories because we had begun actually living them.
It was also theorized that Horror had “bottomed out”… that there were no more stories to tell, and no one left to read them. Slasher fiction and visceral Horror were offered up as examples for the creative desert, and the genre clearly began to struggle with an identity crisis.
But this is a tale of dominoes falling…
At the same time, Literary Critics had fallen out of favor. The constant railing against the really pulpy writing that came out of the publishing Boom had caused academic panic – the previously reciprocal relationship between publishers and Critics and editors seemed to have broken down, and the search for Literature seemed to have been abandoned in favor of the blockbuster bestseller. The constant Critical rants against authors who the public cherished and who the publishers couldn’t afford to continue to do business without lit fires everywhere. Hostilities broke out, insults were standard fare, and the public became increasing estranged from what the Critics were saying.
As Critics disappeared from newsprint and public view to be replaced with reviewers who thought more like us, we didn’t realize that the fracture of the relationship was a harbinger of troubled times in education, publishing and the field of Literary Criticism. But it was.
So the Literary Critics retreated into their ivory castles to try and decipher what exactly had gone wrong in contemporary writing that we did not seem to be producing any modern Literature…as well as why no one seemed to care.
This retreat was a coincidental consequence curiously timed with sudden cutbacks and restructuring of our educational system, which shifted into high gear to focus on standardized tests and herd high school graduates away from vocational schools and into promised-to-be-forever careers as wranglers of word processing and computer data entry operators. With the internet looming, the predecessors to the online world invaded our workspaces with word processors and data programs to the detriment of language arts and the Humanities in general.
What this all means is that while we were becoming cogs, we lost traditional publishing venues, editorial expertise, Literary Critical feedback, and the kind of education that taught writing, reading, and Literature all at the same time. It was a perfect storm.
While the Literary Critics were off reinventing themselves (simultaneously discovering that the reason no Literature was being found was because the Literary Critical Theories used to determine Literature and created for writers like Shakespeare and Homer, were not broad enough to accommodate actual changes that happen in living language…they then had to create new Theories and recreate themselves), Horror was also making discoveries.
During the last hundred years, the argument so well made by writers like Poe and Lovecraft that Horror was at least sometimes Literature had begun making inroads into Literary Critical circles. And at the precise moment we all had surrendered to the thought we would never gain recognition from Literary Critics as a genre we began to draw that exact attention. Critics were looking at Horror – largely because of that very group of Baby Boomers who had pushed the genre into new heights of production, sales, and attention during the Horror and Publishing Boom. It was those very Boomers who were now amongst the Critics asking questions like “why isn’t Stephen King Literature?”
We had moles. We had champions. And all of a sudden, we had the ear of New Literary Critics…and Horror became Literary-Elect. This means that for the next few decades, Literary Critics will begin the formation of Horror as a Literary genre. And if all of us who love it are right, it will not be found wanting. But this also means that Literary Critics have to begin committing facts to paper: they have to look at enough works to contrive a Canon of works – works that are Horror works, foundational works, works that define and shape the genre.
They will need to compile characteristics, formulas, subgenres, tropes, conventions, and terms that are standardized.
It also means that they will have to determine who our genre Canon authors are (the ones who write Horror most, if not all of the time – and whose works clearly define the genre) and those who sometimes write canon works (writers who visit our genre, write a tale or two, a poem, anything that is so full of Horror DNA it is part of the evolution of the genre – that it cannot be excluded… and then go away).
There will be lists, and debates, and arguments. Those lists, debates, and arguments will define, establish, and support proposed criteria and standards in the genre.
(Again, hint to English BA graduates: we need Literary Critics. Get your master’s degree. Get your Ph.D. and be part of an historical moment in Literary Criticism and the Horror genre!)
All of this means that the game is on.
For new writers in the Horror genre, it means you are walking a knife’s edge. For example, it has not yet been determined that pulp will or will not be included as a subgenre (although I personally believe it should be a subgenre and held to formula within the Literary Horror genre).
So as a writer you now need to know what Literature is and if you want to try to write it or purposefully choose NOT to write it. If you fall anywhere on the cracks, Critics will likely rule you out; you will need to commit if it is their attention you want, and becoming a canon author your dream. And that means you are also going to have to self-educate, because with the educational emphasis on STEM-as-Life, you will not receive educational support in the way it is most needed. To learn how to write with Literary elements, playing Russian Roulette with submission and editors is not going to be enough. This is not an area for guessing, but for lifelong study.
At the very moment we have the Critic’s attention, we are not at our best. We are not even able to get our work out there if it were worthy. We have saboteurs and empire builders all in a time when we have absolutely no access to Craft that is not attached to financially motivated teachers, publishers, and editors… at a time when finding publication and then readers is as random as squashing your novel in a wine bottle and tossing it out to sea.
It means we need to get our ship in order.
But it also means that whoever is trying to create a catalog of published Horror for the Critic to see clearly doesn’t understand Literary Criticism. (And isn’t that amusing?)
Writing. In Other Genres.
For decades we have been losing authors to other genres – mostly to Fantasy, but many to Science Fiction and Psychological Thriller.
Just who is threatened by our rejection of trying to continue the Weird and being weary of Zombies or Vampires? Who is threatened by fairies of the Unseelie Court or the djinn of the 1001 Nights, or the killer who may or may not be dead? The insane who may or may not be crazy? The alien no bigger than a virus?
We have to grow or we die. We have to experiment with other genre elements in order to infuse new life into worn tropes. It’s just how it’s done….
The idea that a writer who uses elements from other genres belongs SOLELY in that genre is a cheap shot and an ignorant one. It is evidence that we have ceased to understand what makes Horror, Horror – especially if “experts” in the genre cannot or will not explain it to us with diagrams, pie charts, and standard formulas…
If no one in our illustrious Establishment will deign to step forward and claim the responsibility for defining what is “acceptable” Horror writing in the genre – no one who will go out on the limb to nail all definitions down – then I vote we write like the wind until the Literary Critic does the job.
Because it IS their job…
Exiling writers someone doesn’t like for whatever reason translates into a cheap power grab.
It is also evidence that someone is trying to dash ahead of the Literary Critic to create that body of work…to direct the Critic’s attention to what is perceived to be “better” Horror.
We’ve done it with Stephen King – demanding that any Critic who writes Criticism about the genre dedicate some analysis to our best-selling author. But Critics are not having it. This is because Theories are still being formed, the author is still alive and working, and sales figures are not an indicator of Literature. King will be more fairly analyzed long after his demise, long after Critics who know anything about him die. It’s just the way it is.
Meanwhile Literary Criticism is compromised not only by the sheer volume of works awaiting Criticism, but a lack of enough Critics to do the job of analysis, and Theories to be fully developed and applied. They have neither the time nor the manpower to pander to “expert” opinion…
This acceptance and analysis of Horror as a genre is all going to take time. Lifetimes of time.
But when those Literary Critics start to look at works, they will also be looking at those cross-pollinators.
That means for example that Clive Barker may yet be named a foundational author of Horror (I believe he is) and that many of his fantasy-in-exile works will also be included because of the dark elements. But it also means that Charles Dickens will be there on our lists with a work or two (those Christmas Carols no doubt!) as a writer who sometimes supplied canon works… and so we may also find Alan Dean Foster with Alien…even J.K. Rowling…
It’s only fair.
And it is Literarily normal….
Poe will be in the Horror canon, the Mystery canon, the Poetry canon, the Western Literary Canon. He is ours. He is theirs. This is why Literature is Literature – it services many genres and many needs.
So there are contemporary Horror writers in Thriller, in Fantasy, in Science Fiction, in Mystery – heck, even in Romance where we started! Why don’t we get to see their stories? Why don’t we get to write those stories ourselves? And who bloody well cares if they aren’t “pure enough” Horror for someone’s tastes? Neither was Lovecraft, once upon a time…
It’s time we stopped exiling authors and started welcoming them back into the fold.
It’s time we started rebuilding our genre for the benefit of both the genre and the Literary Critic.
It’s time we stopped stifling creativity and censoring perfectly good writers out of Horror – some of whom were perfectly great, even if it was for just a story now and then.
We still have fans. Some of us are left over from that great Boom. And guess what? We want our Clive Barkers back… We want our Tanith Lees… We want our C.J. Cherryhs and our Jane Yolens. Our Neil Gaimans and our Raymond Feists… Give’em back. Lure them back and I’ll bet you’ll see a new “boom” of readership…
Seriously. Stop trying to manufacture our trends and control our writers.
We can do way better than genre suicide. And there are a lot of us out there trying to write some good, scary stuff…because we want to READ it ourselves…
Horror happens. It is organic. And it belongs to us, no matter what section it gets filed in.