The Care & Feeding of Genre: Pulp, Lit, and Why “Bad” Horror Matters


For every writer who feels there are just not enough venues in which to sell their work, there are often essays and outbursts from editors who vent their frustration at such claims, citing a certain laziness or lack of talent or persistence in the unpublished. Adding salt to those wounds, they complain that they are overwhelmed by mediocre if not poor writing, and a genuine lack of imagination—never seeing the forest for the trees: that “bad” writing is the price of admission in Horror. Then they go and pull off the scab and suggest that there are “plenty” of resources for the diligent…

I respectfully disagree. If there were, self-publishing would not be so prominent a “remedy” to getting new writing out there, and so many writers would not be giving up on Horror.

What will our Establishment do when the light show that is Stephen King is gone? When there is no Horror writer to point to who can make a living just writing or just writing Horror? When those who dream of a Kinglike career go elsewhere in order to find it? What’s The Plan?

These are important questions someone in the Establishment had better be paying attention to.

Because here is the truth from the trenches: markets are so narrow, so temporary, so often disreputable, too often not-paying authors for the work published, and incredibly difficult to find in the same place twice or even being willing to risk publishing work by novice writers… the result is a lot of us just give up – not on writing – on the genre.

The sad fact is that we are sick of the constraints, the ever growing long list of things we are not supposed to do in Horror. Worse, we had the answer to stagnation in the genre once and we let it wither on the vine: we had trade publications. We had Pulp. And it may be to the consternation of our own Establishment, but the fact of the matter is that Great Horror is just “bad” Pulp Horror gone rogue…

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Our History is Pulp (And That Means a LOT of Magazine Markets)

There seems a curious reluctance to admit it, but the Horror genre would be nothing without Pulp.

Pulp publications offered writers like H.P. Lovecraft an opportunity for targeting a market and getting his work “out there.” Pulps churned out their editions (even if often irregularly), and in their many incarnations running from the 1890’s to the 1950’s – a “boom” unequalled until the 1970s-1980s Horror paperback bonanza. Such routine production schedules provided exactly the right kind of environment for writers and their creativity. This why between one magazine in particular (Weird Tales) and one rabid fan (August Derleth) that we even have anything of H.P. Lovecraft to drool over.

So why aren’t we looking to recreate that environment in the genre? What exactly are we afraid of if it isn’t living down the “threat” of “bad” writing? And what exactly is “bad” writing?

Today the answer seems to be “writing that embarrasses the editor and publishers harboring Literary ambitions.” And while that goal of selective perfection in itself is not a bad goal, it is a wrong one if it is the only one. According to David Bayles and Ted Orland in their book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (Santa Cruz, CA: The Image Continuum, c1993):

“Artists who need ongoing reassurance that they are on the right track routinely seek out challenges that offer the clear goals and measurable feedback – which is to say, technical challenges. The underlying problem with this is not that the pursuit of technical excellence is wrong, exactly, but simply that making it the primary goal puts the cart before the horse. We do not long remember those artists who followed the rules more diligently than everyone else. We remember those who made the art from which the “rules” inevitably follow.” (95)

In other words, it is the writers who take chances, who push the envelope, who break the rules because their story and their vision demands it that we remember. And when those stories take flight, they take the genre with it (Anne Rice and the whole rise-of-the-Vampire in the 1970’s is a perfect example). But when there are no fireworks for a story… it is labelled “bad”… Just exactly as in Lovecraft’s case – until such a story or writer is “suddenly” discovered to be innovative instead.

But what if we can’t get the work “out there”? What if it isn’t in print at all to be “discovered” later?

Perhaps it is my age (or so some might argue), but I view the Tech generation as a wee bit Pollyanna about the permanence of internet derived work. It seems only the nasty stuff put out there is forever “visible.” Important things tend to “disappear” into some SEO graveyard.

Print, on the other hand,  has a habit of resurfacing at just the right times…it has longevity.

And what of the prominence of deadlines in a writer’s life who aims at an environment like mass-produced pulps? What about the necessity of actually having the possibility of publication in a writer’s life because the bar IS lower? Because “perfection” is not demanded or expected every time –just good storytelling?

And while we (just like editors and publishers and Critics) may feel moved and inspired by what seems to be the success of the moment if not the Classic of Old, say Bayles and Orland: “Making art is bound by where we are and the experience of art we have as viewers” (52). In other words, we cannot BE Lovecraft, we cannot BE Stephen King; we have to be ourselves in order to write and in order to be found by our intended audience…in all our badness, in all our boring modern lives…with all of our common problems be they child molestation, sexual assault, drug addiction, PTSD, psychological illnesses, poverty, identity battles…

And no editor, publisher, or Critic has any business telling us not to write about those things.

In fact, maybe our writing in the genre is so prominently “bad” because they keep asking us to imitate King or Lovecraft without us being so bold as to actually suggest we are trying to “BE” them… And maybe we ourselves are at a loss as to how to find our own voice, our own stories because these writers are so shoved at us for their successes, their originality. Again, Bayles and Orland capture the problem precisely:

“As viewers we readily experience the power of the ground upon which we cannot stand – yet that very experience can be so compelling that we may feel almost honor bound to make art that recaptures that power. Or more dangerously, feel tempted to use the same techniques, the same subjects, the same symbols as appear in the work that aroused our passion—to borrow, in effect, a charge from another time and place…” (52-53)

As writers, we should never confuse wanting to recreate the feeling a work gives us with wanting to write exactly like a successful author…

It is difficult to break the cycle when the entire system used to build our genre’s best writers is gone, when we are left to chase a mythology that we can earn livings as writers just because one of our Greats still does so.

Aside from the cost, aside from the Tech assault on print (formidable excuses as those are), why aren’t we trying to build a grassroots system of grooming new writers in the genre?

The answer is apparently somewhere between pride and shame.

Ever since Horror went slasher and visceral in the late 1980s, there has been a steady push toward more Literary writing in the genre. It seemed a noble goal, except that there is Literary Fiction and there is Literature… These are not the same things, even as the former aspires to become the latter. And most Horror is not even Literary; most Horror is campfire tales, folk tales, and the manipulation of simple emotions – not the complex emotions employed by Literature.

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This is not a bad thing. This is the addictive thing that attracts our audience to Horror – the fun of being tricked, of being jolted awake, of being scared without our own permission. And nothing does that like Pulp.

But it doesn’t do it every time or for every one. This is why we need so many writers, so many different tellings of the same tales…And this is where mass market Pulps come in. This is where the grinding production of a weekly or monthly cheap magazine with garish art feeds all of the genre monsters: writers work and often get paid for experimenting with stories and monstrosities, writers get published without “waiting” until they are perfect, best-selling authors.. This is where new writers cut their professional teeth and young people meet and fall in love with Horror.

Furthermore, it is where Great Ones are rediscovered in back issues if we miss them the first time around…

Yet we are repeatedly assaulted by the opinions of editors who cannot and will not build their catalogs or “risk” their reputations on what they judge or assume to be “bad” Horror, let alone on lots of “bad” Horror…Who would risk their future name on editing Pulps today? It’s a tough question. But it shouldn’t be: risk is part of the adventure.

Yet just like in the Golden Age of Hollywood where gems like Casablanca and Rear Window were made as part of a weekly churning out of mediocre and even sometimes “bad” acting, Horror pulps offer that same opportunity, at much the same rate of return. And it is not just because “great” actors or writers also start at the bottom, but because it takes a lot of chaos and a lot of failures to accidentally wind up in a Perfect Storm of Classicism…Just as it did for Poe and for Lovecraft… or Bogart and Bacall.

There is an importance of having your early attempts answer to publication, editing, and deadlines…newspaper reporters prove this all of the time. But so do art students. Bayles and Orland give a great example of this artistic lesson (known – if not acknowledged – by anyone who labors in the arts):

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of their work, all those on the right solely on its quality…Came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay…” (29)

There is simply no substitute for rote production of art and writing and the possibility of participation in the production process; this is why we produce some of our best stuff in school or writing clubs – we are acknowledging deadlines. The minute we leave school or our writing programs, we drift. Writing and art become subverted and fall victim to other priorities. And the problem is that dedication to your art of choice is hard to accomplish even with the support of your own conscience and your family if there is absolutely no chance of a paycheck, let alone a career – especially as bills and obligations pile up.

We don’t have a go-to method of apprenticeship for fiction writing in these times… even though the potential for making a lot of people a lot of money is often greater for writers than artists, writers are roundly condemned to the salt mines, ordered to labor alone until a masterpiece is presented in all its total, screen-ready, editor-free perfection. We are all in the Quality Group.

And our work shows it.

State Bayles and Orland: “Good artists thrive on exhibit and publication deadlines, on working twenty hours straight to see the pots are glazed and fired just so, on making their next work greater than their last…” (71)

But there is something else besides creating good writing habits that Pulps and their “bad” writing do for us: they ignite imagination – not because they are Literary, but because they are so not…

If you did not grow up in that era of the Pulps or its afterglow, you have no idea how much simple fun it was to read the stories your parents swore would give you nightmares, to sneak-read them under the covers with a flashlight…and if you were lucky, they DID give you nightmares, and great writing ideas…. Today we seem bent on ruining everything. Even though we have a few examples of similar tales still alive in print anthologies, artwork sentences them to graphic novels, or Young Adult fiction. Horror is being downgraded and hidden. Why? Because of the artwork?!

We NEED the art. It works in tandem with the writing of Pulp fiction. And the two together are indescribably awesome, creating new fans and new writers in the genre…all because of the PROMISE of a career of sorts.

If you don’t know Pulps, you don’t know what it was like closing the covers of one and feeling like we now do coming out of a darkened movie theater, breathless and full of ideas…

You can’t know it because between Technology (which ironically promised all manner of artistic freedom) and our beloved Establishment (which went from loving curators straight to dictatorship) we are led to believe that only certain Chosen Ones should ever see publication, let alone get paid to write…

Worse, we are led to believe that if we write something…”bad”… we will ruin everything the genre has worked for.

But it only ruins what some people want for the genre…what some people seem to think they were put on the earth to decide for the rest of us…

It might just be time to take our genre back.

Because we are seeing an unprecedented stagnation (if not suffocation) of new work, deviant-from-the- norm work, and novice works in the genre. Look, we are not the Country Music Industry: we don’t need moral and technical oversight. We are the Horror genre and we love warts and flaws. So do our readers.

We have seen opportunity taken away from writers who want to write for a living…

We are seeing publishers make decisions against our genre, sabotaging new works intentionally or otherwise by eliminating spine tags that tell readers something is Horror, by eliminating our section, by promoting classics over new publications, by restricting sales performance to mere weeks for discovery and success or failure of new titles by new authors, by reframing our authors as writers in other genres, by laying off our editors, by not offering imports from the UK, Canada or Australia or even translations of foreign writers in stores… I could go on.

We cannot rely on ANY establishment to help us (and apparently, sadly, not our own, either). We are going to have to decide to help ourselves, and that means supporting each other… from the trenches up.

It may mean reinventing the wheel. Or Pulp. Which in Horror is the same thing.

We also have to just get over the belief that we are guaranteed a good time every time…Stories are gambles, and the “bad” ones make the Great Ones shine. This is true especially with Horror stories – stories that are trying to scare us…because we all scare differently. There will be duds. But we need to not to have bet the mortgage or the kid’s braces on the cover price.

So we need freedom – freedom to experiment as writers and as readers. We need to develop a sense of humor, and tolerance. We need to appreciate the attempts at storytelling, because it is not easy and should not be. The good news, is that Pulp still lives….and the power to transform our genre is still potent.

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Scary Is as Scary Does…

It is vital for our Establishment to recognize that there is a value and importance in Pulps because they deliver…scenes…images…folklore…

And most writers can tell you, it is not an entire story that leaps to or from the imagination, but a series of emotion-evoking images that emerge from their own minds that leads them to a story or to have nightmares about it…

This is why we read other writers’ work, and watch Horror movies…we are waiting for an image to grab us, to suggest something, and then we derive the story from the inspiration another piece of art suggested to us – art as interpreted by our own fears and reshaped into new art…

But we also value (if not envy) the freedom of storytelling Pulp writers have. It’s all about the monster…there is not so much agonizing over plot and character development as there is about monster reveal – ironically the one thing Literary Horror grapples with and fails at most.

Reading Pulp can lead to an inner explosion of creativity – all wrought by that inner child that drew scary pictures and told stories that raised adult eyebrows. It helps us reconnect to that kid who saw the monsters…

We also have to realize that as we age (even out of the teen years) we subvert our very real fears, mostly in order to keep other adults from finding out about them and exploiting them. But the fears are still there, and as writers, it is our job to excavate them – to not write about what we think will scare other people, but what we know still scares US. This is increasingly hard to do with the burden of perfectly executed Craft hanging above all our heads like an anvil of Doom…

We need air to breathe. Pulps are pure oxygen – heady and hallucinatory.

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One of the greatest contemporary examples of American Pulp doing its thing is the website CreepyPasta , https://www.creepypasta.com/ which has recently been mining the print market with anthologies. Here, many writers write under the cloak of anonymity… pseudonyms…”handles”… Readers can give advice, feedback, and rate; there are “stars” and favorites, and story rooms where tales are dedicated to certain characters and certain monsters. For any Horror writer trapped in stasis, trying to manage a block, this is where you need to go for a Pulp Poultice.

Look, “bad” writing is more than okay. “Bad” writing is necessary because through that dark wood lays the secret to great storytelling… Our roots are in campfire tales, stories told to startle and warn – not in perfect grammar and stellar Craft, not in some plot defined lock-step whose prerequisites an editor can check-off.

We have to shed the shackles and mental editors that our Establishment tells us makes for “acceptable” Horror. We have to read everyone who ever wrote in the genre – and maybe especially if they left or were exiled or are just largely ignored. We have to read more Clive Barker. More Neil Gaiman. More Brom. More Tanith Lee.

We have to see ourselves in Horror in order to write it.

And we have to feel free to write it – not worry about whether it’s been done before, not worry about an editor who has gone “on the record” to say he or she doesn’t want to read this or that, not worry about getting into a magazine the Establishment says is cutting edge.

Cutting edge for an editor or a Critic is not cutting edge necessarily for a reader, or a writer. Writers need honesty, to be true to their vision no matter what.

Again, according to Bayles and Orland:

“The unease many artists feel today betrays a lack of fit between the work of their heart and the emotionally remote concerns of curators, publishers, and promoters. It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of this problem. Finding your place in the art world is no easy matter, if indeed there is a place for you at all. In fact one of the few sure things about the contemporary art scene is that somebody besides you is deciding which art – and which artists – belong in it. It’s been a tough century for modesty, craftsmanship and tenderness.” (70)

As writers, we need to write about what moves us…WE are the ones out here – among the rest of humanity…seeing what we are not supposed to acknowledge, feeling what we are supposed to rationalize…

We see crime, we see poverty, we see bigotry, we see racism, we see sexism, we see classism, we see suicide, drug abuse, homelessness and hopelessness, war…all manner of things that shape our intimate lives and which we have so little control over. We want to scream. We do it in art. In writing.

When our establishment slaps parameters on what we can write and how we should write it, it is censorship.

Pulp is the ultimate rebellion.

And if the establishment thinks there is no interest in Pulp, they should revisit the sales statistics on Anime, on Graphic Novels, on Comics.

Readers want to exercise the surface emotions. We can’t appreciate fine Literature if we have mentally exploded or imploded all over ourselves. We can’t muster the patience it takes to critically think if we cannot express ourselves in the most basic of our experiences.

Sometimes we just have to strip down and run naked among the monsters… daring them…counting coup…

It’s part of being human. And if a writer cannot connect with that on an elemental level, there will be no Horror, let alone Literary Horror.

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https://dailydead.com/clive-barkers-seraphim-comics-to-release-hellraiser-anthology-volume-two-graphic-novel-this-september/

When will our genre wake up?

When will publishers?

“Bad” Horror is good for the genre. It’s good for writers. It’s good for readers (especially if “great” is not promised). “Bad” Horror matters because it moves the creative needle in Horror and within its pulpy heart hides the Next Great Horror. Are we really willing to risk the loss of all that? Are we so ashamed of the process?

Get over the judgement. Or say goodbye…to writers, fans, artists…and our genre’s future. Pulp is who we are. It’s how we birth a Lovecraft, a Poe, or a King.

And it is nothing to be embarrassed by.

14 thoughts on “The Care & Feeding of Genre: Pulp, Lit, and Why “Bad” Horror Matters

    1. I hope I have been able to show readers that Horror is so much more than just a romp at the theaters.. the history of Horror is laced through and through by so many social movements and social commentaries on events, people, and times that can lead anywhere from comics and graphic novels to the highest circles of Literature. It is a deep genre with so much creative potential… I would love to see how far we can move the needle in light of the world events today!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I’m a sci-fi writer, not horror, but I wonder if the same isn’t true for all genres. And if it is, hasn’t Indie publishing taken the place of pulp in the modern world? Interesting analysis of the Horror genre.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think in some cases Indie Publishing has, but not-having the access to cheaply produced magazines with stories one knows will be sometimes more kitschy than technically correct has taken its creative and inspirational toll — Indie Publishers have less flexible bottom lines for chance-taking, and brick-and-mortar stores don’t carry magazines like they used to… It makes for a tough hunt, and harsher judgment on new and novice writers… I confess I miss the Pulp Days because of access and visibility… But novels and even graphic novels and comics have left a void of magazine markets needing to be filled. And new magazines just don’t seem to be able to stay in print, stay visible, and stay solvent long enough to find their audience… A shame…(And as a mutual Science Fiction fan, I have to say I miss the artwork for both genres in Pulp!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know some of my favourite ‘classic’ sci-fi authors got their start in Pulp and magazines, but the medium itself just doesn’t seem to be viable any more. As you say, they don’t stay solvent long enough. Like it or not, digital has taken over. Even print books are waning. :/

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting aside, though… After working for six years at a major bookstore chain, I can say print was rebounding in sales — especially for YA, children’s books, Manga and graphic novels… while magazine sales were “healthy” at the check-out, theft was unfortunately healthier, and delivery of even solvent magazines was erratic at best, thwarting many customers’ attempts to actually BUY them… As for adult print books, it was all about PRICE. And if we had not lost the cycle of print we used to have (first the hardcover edition, then a second potential edition, then the trade paperback, then the mass market paperback edition…) OR if we went directly to paperback and bypassed hardcover as a limited offering, sales would be even HIGHER… Many people including 20-somethings have begun to rediscover the joy of actually holding a book in their hands… 🙂 Print will (I believe) remain, even if it becomes a niche of the market…It has an audience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And thank YOU for making all of us think with your very timely and needed blog! I recommend it highly for those who think Indigenous Peoples should “just get over it”…and those who understand why they shouldn’t. (Wonderful thinking is more universal than so many assume…)

      Liked by 1 person

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