Triology of Terror versus Chucky: Dog-Whistling Through Horror as a White Woman


I just wanted to distract myself. I thought: let’s watch a favorite kitschy 1970’s Horror movie for fun…

Nice to know at my age I can still be naïve. So, so naïve…

For many of us, these times remain endlessly exhausting. It is just so desirable that we find something, anything to stop the loudness of the explosion of truths all around us. We are looking for diversion, for a moment of rest, of pause. But the truth and trouble is we shall not have it. And this is a necessary lesson because those who have borne the burden of our societal failings have themselves been denied respite.

The reckoning has come.

It’s time to not-be surprised.

What’s Love Got to Do With It: The Trilogy of Terror

For most of my life in the genre, one of my favorite films was the 1975 schlock B-movie Trilogy of Terror, which I first saw as a teenager during some late summer night horror fest on television.  Maybe it was because the best offering of the trilogy was about a doll that comes to life (dolls being a chief Horror-button-pusher for me), although others might surmise that it has more to do with Grimm’s Fairy tales, gullible age, and the requisite poking around in the occult and folklore that comes with that stage of youth…

That movie haunted me and I loved it. I even bought a copy as an adult trying to recapture the mood and the fun, and despite the kitschiness of its age, still loved it…

Naivete is an amazing thing… And love (I can tell you as an older person) gets increasingly weird as time passes and you begin to rationalize bad Life choices.

Because for many years, everything that came after – including the whole possessed-doll franchise family of this decade has been subconsciously measured against the Trilogy as remembered in my mind.

I thought loving it was “safe.” I thought grabbing some microwave popcorn and tuning the world out by slipping that movie into the dvd player would make the unpleasantries of the world right now go away.

Imagine my Horror: Trilogy IS today.

Imagine my Horror part two: I have been in love with a damn dog whistle and didn’t even know it.

By the way, this is what happens when white people wake up… why we struggle to stay asleep.

We remember what we wanted (and maybe needed if there was familial dysfunction) to be there…  we were swimming on the surface with sharks and crocodiles, and we felt immortal, untouchable… We “use” it now – we look for diversion from unpleasant Life all of the time; we accept what we need to be leadership because thinking gets to be hard work.

Sadly, we miss those puppet-mastered moments when we thought we were JUST being entertained when what we really miss is PARENTING and slamming the door to our bedroom with the “Private” sign on it–we really miss being mothered and assured that our world will be alright. We miss the illusion that we don’t have to fact-check every word and reveal the magician’s trick every time because that is someone else’s job. We miss the “fun” of BEING tricked, of being children because being a grown-up loaded down with responsibilities isn’t fun after all. And then we discover…(surprise!) we were being TRICKED…by something bigger than strict parents. Talk about your Freud meeting fairy glamour…

Who really WANTS to see the ugly, twisted monster masquerading as messiah? Who ever really wants to see the man behind the curtain?

The whole problem for white people is this: we have been complicit without knowing because we, too, have been whitewashed. We have been raised to not-see and not-hear the things we are conditioned to repeat which Others are meant to take note of; this was part of the plan and a place where the cigar is never just the cigar.

Freud was right. Maybe we can’t help ourselves. Maybe that is good and means there is hope for us if we can learn to see what we really think. And avert the consequences. Do damage control.

Trilogy is a perfect example to understand where we as white people do not hear ourselves.

And it is also a perfect example to explain why the burden of all of this guilt is both unabating, and doubly painful for women in the genre (white women and nonwhite women now being threatened with the additional truth that it is not our star that is or should be rising in the genre or elsewhere, but that we now risk becoming the minority’s minority… shelved again in the shadow of Something More Important – racial injustice… because it IS more important when it supplants all other forms of discrimination, when it precedes and enables all other forms of oppression. And that makes the burden of truth somehow even more heavy for white women.)

So here I am, just another (now much older) white woman dragging her bones out of the shower, mindful of what might lurk outside of the stall. And it is all Trilogy’s fault. Or so it feels good to say, because I am now realizing that this may be the exact moment I went deaf and blind… and fell asleep.

This is the summary of Amelia — the Trilogy’s best offering — from Wikipedia (which just had the best summary I could find), and THE one of the trilogy I am referring to, the one most of us who saw the trilogy misremembered as the Devil Doll one…

”Amelia lives alone in a high-rise apartment building. She returns home after a fateful shopping spree carrying a package containing a wooden fetish doll, crafted in the form of a misshapen aboriginal warrior equipped with pointy, sharp teeth and a spear. A scroll comes with the doll, claiming that the doll contains the actual spirit of a Zuni hunter named “He Who Kills”, and that the gold chain adorning the doll keeps the spirit trapped within. As Amelia makes a call to her mother we learn that she suffers from her mother’s overbearing behavior. Amelia struggles to justify her independence and cancels their plans for the evening by claiming she has a date. As Amelia leaves the room, we see that the Zuni fetish doll’s golden chain has somehow fallen off.

Later, Amelia is preparing dinner, using a carving knife. She enters the darkened living room, and realizes the doll is not on the coffee table. Amelia hears a noise in the kitchen and when she investigates, the knife is missing. Returning to the living room, she is suddenly attacked by the doll, which stabs at her ankles viciously. She attempts to flee, but the doll chases her around the apartment. In the bathroom, Amelia envelops the doll in a towel and attempts futilely to drown it in the bathtub. She later traps it in a suitcase, but the doll begins cutting a circular hole through the top of suitcase with the butcher knife. After several more vicious attacks, Amelia manages to hurl the doll into the oven where it catches fire. She holds the oven door while she listens to the doll howling and screaming as it burns and, while black smoke billows out, she waits until the screaming eventually stops. Opening the oven to ensure that the doll is “dead”, she is struck by some force that pushes her backward and from which she emits a blood-curdling scream.

At some point after that, the audience sees Amelia (from behind) place another call to her mother. In a calm, controlled voice, she apologizes for her behavior during the previous call, and invites her mother to come for dinner. She then rips the bolt from her front door and crouches down low in an animalistic manner, carrying a large carving knife. She is now seen frontally, stabbing at the floor with the weapon, grinning ferally and revealing the horrific teeth of the Zuni fetish doll whose spirit now inhabits her body.”   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trilogy_of_Terror#:~:text=%20%20%201%20Karen%20Black%20as%20Amelia,the%20voice%20of%20the%20Zuni%20doll%20More%20

And now after you have a full appreciation of Richard Matheson’s scary-tale abilities, let’s look at the message in its full Hollywood subtext. Let’s see what is hiding in plain view, and has little to do with the story or its author…

Of course the doll comes to life. Of course it chases a half nude young white woman around her apartment trying to kill her by stabbing her thousands of times with its tiny spear in a blatant (though little “known” reference) to an ancient Chinese torture known as Lingchi, or the death from a thousand cuts… Of course the doll is Africanized in a grass skirt and not-native looking war paint and carrying a spear, yet referred to as a Native American tribal relic (Zuni)… Here we have weaponized and slandered no less than three minorities: Black, Asian, and Indigenous Peoples… dog-whistling our way into the white suburban subconsciousness with a messaging that resonates with any white woman who has ever looked at a minority man in an elevator and wondered if she was “safe.”

Imagine my disgust when I finally – FINALLY—saw this.

Yet this is how it is done, folks. And since it is largely white audiences that this is created for, realize that the conditioning has been just as much for that white audience as it was for minorities.

Doesn’t it make you mad? It should. Because despite all of the defenses offered (including the one that says the writers were products of their times and probably ALSO couldn’t hear themselves over that ever-present whistling in their own ears) THIS is how conditioning is DONE. This is how we look at different peoples and cultures and worry about the “unknowns”… the “unknowables”… the differences between us. This is how we learn to fear each other…

And how do we navigate this in Horror, where fear of the unknown is the single greatest tool in the toolbox?

Funny things happen when you “wake up” to betrayal… First you get mad. Then you get madder. Then you make a decision to just cut this out of the heart of your passion.

This is NOT the time to leave the genre. This is the time to reinvent the genre.

And maybe that means we have to look at Chucky, too…

Child’s Play It Isn’t

How I hated this movie… Still do. And it is not because of the doll, but because of the blatant violence. Where Trilogy gave us the concept of a death of a thousand cuts (less bloody-seeming but equally fatal – if not worse in its execution if you are the victim) and simultaneously instilled some weird sense of random minority vengeance, a 1988 Chuckie in Child’s Play gives us the angry white male killing not just white women, but everyone. How is that better?

For me, even the creepy factor couldn’t save the film from all the pointless violence. And according to a 2019 Variety article, I wasn’t apparently alone:

“Something happened to horror movies in the 1980s, starting a few years earlier with films such as “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”: The villains in brutally violent slasher movies became the heroes — or, at least, the characters audiences found themselves rooting for — which in turn created the opportunity for franchises, where these virtually unstoppable killing machines came back in sequel after sequel, like some kind of recurring nightmare, to wreak more havoc. Michael, Jason, Freddy Krueger loomed iconic in the cultural imagination, spawning a wave of imitators, of which the most surreal may well have been Chucky — a blue-eyed, battery-operated doll possessed, via voodoo curse, by the soul of a deranged psycho.” https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/childs-play-review-1203248744/

(Battery operated… I’m not saying a word.)

Yeah. And on the lower note of being a young adult Horror fan at the time, the movie just seemed stupid. Just like today, apparently the creators then couldn’t just create a possessed doll for the sake of possession or evil, but HAD to include voodoo, with later sequels including a disgruntled Chinese factory worker who tampers with the electronics… (and that sound you now hear: woof).

The plot of a mother bringing home a doll for her son who self-proclaims he is too old (if you don’t have eyes or knowledge about kids in general) and which proceeds to come alive and kill everything in reach just doesn’t seem substantial enough to make a whole movie budget worthwhile. Continues the Variety article:

“This is the new normal for horror movies: The screenplays have to seem hipper than the premise they represent, which puts “Child’s Play” in the weird position of pointing out and poking fun at all the ways it fails to make sense.”

But I do have to at least applaud the fact that the doll was at least culturally relevant to the characters. At least the doll was white and clearly modern and clearly our own invention instead of misappropriated from a culture we feel entitled to rob. Then we had to add voodoo and muck that self-congratulation all up.

So why didn’t I like Chucky better than that cultural mélange of the Devil Doll? Why did the possessed white doll instead annoy me more than scare me? Does it mean that the greater terror for me WAS the racial ambiguity? That was the message I was supposed to get, right?

I think that the subtext is there. And maybe that means I have some soul-searching yet to do. But I also think that it means that fear of the unknown in general is potent – too potent to be removed from the Horror genre. But it is certainly time for it to be redirected.

The problem is that there are so, so many ways to convey the unknown without completely leaving your own cultural context (and I tend to think that Algernon Blackwood’s short story “The Willows” is just such a tale.)  Yet for Americans, that can be still a challenge. Our mistake is that we tend to look at earlier “successes” in the genre without seeing them in historical context – meaning we are unable, and educationally unequipped to discern between plots that mirror their times and plots that exploit the racism of their times. These are not the same, but both can reinforce racist messaging. And if we use them as examples of how to successfully scare audiences, then we are ignoring the truth that audiences and their fears change and should change.

So just like the creators of Chucky, we grab onto a premise, but fail to execute properly. Sometimes that is a matter of Craft, but many more times it is a more human arrogance at work. Our genre is stagnant because we are making it a mockery of itself.

Yet the “solution” of cultural sensitivity is not an easy fix (and maybe especially for white writers in the genre), because there are layers upon layers of questions. For example, being of Scots-Irish descent myself, am I entitled to “borrow” from those mother cultures? Am I entitled to remake those myths and legends for my own storytelling? Or is that just another form of racism, not having come by those stories as a native Scot or Irish person living on native soil, hearing them first-hand? Worse, does my attempt to tell such stories come off as lame, incorrect, and even worse still –make me insensitive if not just culturally wrong? Trust me, the worry is there, exacerbated by our Black Lives moment.

So then and therefore, what can I as a white American Horror writer dare write about? What part of the unknown is rightfully mine to write about? And why can’t I find it?

For minorities yet to write in the genre, this will also become an issue. As we naturally homogenize, those cultural differences handed down proudly from generation to generation will fade. And then you, too, may find yourself a kind of cultural orphan. There will be times when attempting to “write-in” the oppression of whites at the moment will be offensive and stereotypical, where whites will feel culturally assaulted.

This is the curse of finding equality at the cost of individualized culture (formerly buffered by racism into “safe” islands of the oppressed). White people are there, which is why we are all River Dance fans. We ALL start looking backward – to the Good Old Days when we knew who we were even if it was because we were pushing against the weight of the rest of the world.

Native American writer Sherman Alexie has already seen this happening:

And it isn’t just Americans going through this – especially as we embrace a world devoid historical reference and emphasize self-aggrandizement. We are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, divorcing ourselves from the ancestors who were probably a lot more like ourselves than we are ready to admit, yet having this weird obsession with rewriting a history-flavored reality.

How can we reconcile the modern world with future Horror?  How do we keep racial and cultural identity safe and a source of pride without admitting we don’t want to surrender those rich details in order to be the Majority – so big and so anonymous all else is lost?

What is clear is that we cannot look to modern Horror to tell us much. But that is what writers like Stephen King and Clive Barker get so very right in the genre: the sense of folk belief without mimicry. They write Horror that is about us, about now… It feels like the Old-Country stuff, but it is built of our own times and our own fear of the modernized unknown. Race just doesn’t enter into it in the same misappropriated ways.

And we clearly need more of that. But as most writers can tell you, we are victims of our own times. Things are moving too fast to keep ANY of us relevant in our own stories. Increasingly our older writers in the genre – like Stephen King – seem slightly off-step, knocked off balance by the kind of change that makes today obsolete by tomorrow. This is an accelerated normal, and we are supposed to be having new writers ready to step up and lead the genre. But here we have been felled by both these publishing-challenged times, and a lot less effective leadership from within the genre’s elite. So we are stuck in a kind of time capsule, looking for our way out. And that leads right back to these chaotic times.

This is a lesson that is not going to go away with any resolution of Black Lives. Will we only learn it when we are completely homogenized? Or will that kill the messenger of so much Horror?

That Devil Doll haunts me. Trying to understand if the racist accoutrement of the doll made it more scary also haunts me. Because like so many other white people today, I so don’t want that to be true. Yet we have to admit it: we have been conditioned to believe certain things, and this is a danger even minorities on the brink of becoming a majority are facing. We have been made to believe in conformity down to our immediate emotional reactions…Power corrupts.

Why else do we have to stop to ask, “but did he (or she) do something to deserve it?”

Why else do we ask other people as women how we “look” or worry how we dress because we don’t want to be blamed for our own rape/robbery/murder?

Why else do we worry about “good” neighborhoods? “Good” schools? “Good” jobs?

We need to start really looking within ourselves – not for the purpose of confession, but for the purpose of absolution and healing.

We need to exorcize whatever demon made us create that Devil Doll…and then made us like it.

A Cautionary Tale for Future Writers in the Genre

Being not-awake is a lot like death: it’s peaceful, and we can fantasize about what it is or will be all we want – even thinking we miss that sweet promised peace: but death is still being dead. It just seems stupid (and quite vain) to “miss” those times when we thought we were at peace, but were really just dead.

Being woken up roughly feels like waking up old every day: it takes a lot longer to get your bearings, everything hurts, and you miss the days you could bound out of bed in seconds ready for a new challenge.

Today is not those days. Today many white people feel the weight of guilt-spawning centuries we know we weren’t present for, but whose legacy is responsible for all of this mess nonetheless. We cannot divorce ourselves from it; and we just don’t know how to respond. Expecting white people to call themselves racist is wrong. But calling ourselves institutionalized racists is not. We are because we have been. But we, too, must have hope for a better future.

Yet why do I still kind of like Trilogy?!  I want to tell myself it is because I find dolls creepy to begin with. Dolls coming alive is extra freaky for me… and a doll with a secret history and rules of carnage is even more scary. I want to tell myself it was a great story concept, and it was only in the details of Hollywood production that things went horribly awry…But I also now realize that we should have been able to tell the tale without stigmatizing Others. This is what waking up means.

We are not directly responsible for our horrible underbelly of history, but for its edification, for believing that the ends justify the means, for whitewashing the unpleasantries. We are not obliged to self-hate, but to just. Stop. Endorsing by silence or inaction…the INJUSTICE.

(Every Horror fan knows EXACTLY where that leads, and you don’t have to be wearing a flimsy nightie to KNOW it…)

What we are responsible for is what we do in this life; we do not owe our ancestors disgust, but an awareness that they may not have gotten it right even on their best days, that our actions have had consequences, that in a crowded pool, some will be drowned by accident, and some on purpose in the rush for oxygen. Now that we can see that trajectory for what it is, we need to take appropriate action. Just action… motion…movement.

So now that white people have been somewhat rudely awakened to the nightmare that has been playing in theaters near you for hundreds of years, what will you do with the new reality?

The future looks different for all of us, but really we can and should be on the same page. We should not feel threatened if we are white or are white women or minority women. This “awakening” is not about guilt (which is what dog whistlers want you to hear) but it is about taking responsibility for what we have collectively done or enabled.

It is about ending the insanity and valuing everyone’s contributions (including our own).

It is about hearing the dog whistles that we didn’t even know were going off everywhere and making darn sure we don’t accidentally repeat them.

Two wrongs never make a right.

Make it right.

Do New Horror better…

And take us all with you.

Modern American Horror and the Incredible Whiteness of Being: Where Do We Go From Here in the Age of Social Awakening?


Horror changes when you stop just being a reader of Horror and instead choose to write it.  

Not only do questions arise about who you choose for characters and how they are depicted, but questions take shape around the relevance of plots and the potential for constructing a Literary message that might emerge from your once-invigorating first draft. We often aren’t yet thinking too seriously about the Bigger Picture – the one that suggests we might be writing Horror in a bubble. We don’t notice we are picturing an editor who looks like us, and instead we occupy ourselves with the worries of most novice writers – worries about craft and relevance, about choosing just the “right” marketing venue. We are just writers writing. Or so we think.

We never really worry that we might be judged by too many assumptions, although if you are a woman in Horror you are always aware that both you and your work are being measured against a predominantly white male history, specially conjured and mindfully tended for the last several decades of American Horror. But something is happening here, now, in this country. And it would appear that we are starting to really wake up to a lot of truths we never really saw as coexisting with us… the real Monster under the bed.

Now in this age of Covid 19 and Black Lives Matter, the Horror genre finds itself forced to gaze at its reflection in the mirror and ask a seminal question: where do we go from here?

Where do we go from all of those Lovecraft anthologies? How do we pierce the thin skin of that bubble we have been suffocating in? And who, exactly, will we take with us? How do we stop being so darned white, and what do we do if as a writer we just…are?

F1

The Princess Epiphany (Fix Yourself a Drink. Don’t Lose Your Shoes.)

Being white and a writer of Horror, these past seven months of Covid 19 and Black Lives Matter has been a rude awakening. Sadly, I thought I was awake before, but just like a scene out of Nightmare on Elm Street, I discovered I had only dreamed I was awake…

Darn it.

We all wake up in different ways. For me it has been about searching for minority voices in Horror, and learning that most of my youthful favorites are no longer “recognized” as being Horror writers (as though re-categorizing their writings would preserve some “purity” of the genre). It came as a disappointment to realize that what so many of them had in common was simply not being part of an homogenous set – they were often from another race or culture, or gay, bisexual, or transgender writers… and it did not matter how good they were. They were simply made gone, cast into other genres for a “better Literary fit.”

Then I began really thinking about what I was hearing drip from the essays of genre Establishment and even from Critics, asking what they are always asking for, how do we push the genre out of the rut it is in…and then I began wondering why can’t we seem to talk about anything other than Lovecraft tributes?

But then all of …this… happened. And it was my Freddy moment. Say what you will, but I have never been so ashamed of being White, as if being made to be ashamed of being American wasn’t bad enough these last four years.

Watching endless hours of Real-Life horror on the television screen, all of that news coverage of inexcusable and seemingly shameless killings of so many African Americans right now when the world is watching… it all got me thinking about the prolific tenacity of racism in all of its forms – the most insidious of which for me is institutionalized racism – a racism slipped in your drink at the bar, when you are having a good time and not thinking about who is around you or their motivations.

It is everywhere. Lie to yourself all you want, you know it is true. It has been in Horror a for decades. And foolishly, I have let myself believe that it was only in the choices of who we allowed in the genre… I had never considered it from the standpoint that it also was about what we have the audacity to actually SAY we want in the genre, or what we SAY is in the factual HISTORY of the genre. Then there had to be yet another Lovecraft anthology…

(Surprise! I was feeling like the only one who was guessing up til now…)

The following is my epiphany of how institutionalized racism moves in Horror. This is how we as writers outside of the Sacred Realm of traditional publishing and its editors have been complicit.

The First Rule: Edify the Writers Who Reinforce the Narrative

New or under-published writers (often referred to as novice or amateur writers) often stand wide-eyed before the high priests of the Establishment and offer their prose souls in eager anticipation of discovery or helpful advice. They read editorial essays and devour the critical comments about staying in-genre and writing original traditional Horror all without a single word or reference as to how to do so. “Write what you know” we are told, “be original,” “Lovecraft is the height of perfection…”

It does not occur to us that we might be just one more obedient and compliant white writer in the herd of the unpublished masses. It never occurs to us that there is anything but a loose history written of the genre because no one in the Establishment endorses any writer of (or writes themselves) said history. We just accept the kool-aid in its enticing cups of promise. We fall all over ourselves hoping to ingratiate our way into print. 

So we feel unanchored, unmoored… and we flail about. We are white, so we do as we are told and write what we know – whiteness. But it echoes in empty chambers because we do not live in a white-only world. And it seems our writing bears only slightly more than a passing resemblance to older white writers – writers from decades ago, in styles that are antiquated. And we are again rejected. We are rejected until all we hear is phrases that include “Lovecraft anthology” and “Legacy Collection…” and how we are STILL not writing original work…  

Confession: writers write for an audience.  The audience inevitably looks like ourselves. Writers – Horror or otherwise – don’t get out much.

The Second Rule: Don’t Get Caught…

We have all heard the mantra “write what you know”… it is kissing cousins with the one that says “don’t write about people and cultures you don’t know.“

What becomes the startling discovery is how hard it is to follow that advice – especially as a modern person living in contemporary American society. We are surrounded by people and cultures, by color… vibrancy… unknown differences. The temptation to use those differences in our worst imaginings is only reinforced by what is held out to us in the genre as all but “perfect” Horror – Lovecraft.

We are rejected again and again until we learn the hidden lesson: it’s not the cosmos, the monsters, the syntax. It’s the subtext. And it’s so obviously the subtext, I now wonder if the editors and the Critics even hear themselves, because thinking that they do is just plain….scary.

In Horror – especially the kind inspired by H.P. Lovecraft – differences and unease around the unknown masses surrounding us feeds the atmosphere we have been groomed to believe belongs in Horror. The exotic unknown provides the magic, the mystery, the sinister imaginings that stalk us…it is so easy to ascribe a monster to some unknown culture, some obscure religion or cult, to create an imaginary group of monster-worshippers with secret powers and ancient, unknowable deities. Worse, we feel endorsed if not pressured to create these mystery stand-in peoples, to flirt with Fantasy and Science Fiction world-building by making up a whole culture in the pretense we are not referencing the very ones living around us. This way, we can have our cake and eat it, too…

Who could possibly be offended? How could this be wrong?

It takes some doing to hear the dog whistles…  

The Third Rule: Don’t Spook the Herd…

But it also leaves white writers in the genre with a conundrum: try to include our growing racial diversity and or risk getting it way wrong and being accused of “entitled profiteering,” or sticking to writing exclusively about other white people and being called racist or tone deaf.

And this is why we really need to learn and study the history of the Horror genre itself: the history of American Horror is a mirror of American history, and as long as we are pressured to ignore that, there will be a lot less Literature happening in the genre.

In his book Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession With the Hideous and the Haunting, W. Scott Poole states: “Something wicked this way comes when we look into the historical narrative…Belief and ideology, the social realities produced and reproduced by the images of the monster, turn into historical actions and events. It is not enough to call these beliefs metaphors when they shape actual historical behavior or act as anxious reminders of inhuman historical acts, a cultural memory of slaughter. How limp and pallid to use the term ‘metaphor’ for cultural structures than can burn the innocent to death, lynch them, imprison them, or bomb them. The monster has helped make all of these things possible in American history.” (25)

Yet, this isn’t really discussed –not in class, not in genre. We are directed to metaphors. And there we languish on the beach, seashells whispering sweet nothings in our ears…

Yet we cannot separate ourselves or our writing from our history as we live it — at least not honestly. And neither can the writers who have gone before. And as we edify certain writers over others, as we hold them out as near-perfect, we lean in… we study with hungry eyes and untold ignorance…and then we mimic. We do not see a difference because the difference is not there. We are still living in Lovecraft’s world of fearing the Other.

F2

The Fourth Rule: Mindless Recitation Becomes Truth

There is systemic and institutionalized racism in our modern version of the Horror genre. We do not admit many writers of color, we do not admit writing that does not conform to an accepted narrative that most of us have not been taught to SEE in its sub-textual proliferation. We are convinced because it is the preferential truth that we are done with all of that. We just “innocently” repeat it because we see it as a requirement, a harmless convention of the genre. We don’t question its presence or its function. We don’t question the success of our own publication, because it doesn’t occur to us that we don’t deserve it, or that someone might deserve it more. That is the very definition of systemic racism…

We have ALL been snowed. We have all been lied to. And worse, we have all been groomed to continue the tradition, with the punishment of manuscript rejection or banishment from the genre to keep it “traditional.” But who defines what is “traditional”? Who IS this Horror cabal in charge of our genre’s narrative?

Do you not find it interesting (if not coincidental) that at the exact time in our history that the Black Lives Matter movement arises in response to a rise in white supremacy and nationalism, that a movie like Get Out! gnaws at the fringe of the Horror universe currently packed with finger-wagging editors seeking more Lovecraft?

And while minorities might think it must be easy-peasy for white writers in the genre to get published, do they know that only white writers ghostly imitating the white patriarchal style of the 1940’s are rewarded, along with “Other” (including female) writers only if they very mindfully write un-offensive stories that do not overtly threaten the status quo?

The Fifth Rule: Rewrite the History to Support the Narrative

You want to know why there is so little Literature happening in American Horror? We aren’t allowed to talk about things that Establishment editors don’t want to hear… not child abuse, not child sexual abuse, not sexual harassment, not rape, not health issues, not homelessness, not job loss, not disenfranchisement or disillusion… and sure as heck not politics or race.

Instead the cry for allegedly “traditional” Horror is deafening…  Yet the truth is that “traditional” Horror addressed exactly those issues.  We have reinvented the term “traditional” and hijacked it to reflect the monsters as white males designed them. Period.

Is that where the ghost story (the vehicle of discontent for women and minority writers historically in the genre) went? Is it a coincidence that it has been “determined” by some that between Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James (two white males) all of the worthwhile and legitimate ghost stories have been told? One wonders… Because isn’t that a little too convenient?

Is also it an attempt to rewrite our history to the exclusion of what is known about Horror in order to favor a very white, very male patriarchal “success story””? And doesn’t that remove the “teeth” from monsters in general?

It is that history of interacting with ourselves and Others that we bring with us and hide under our beds, importing select suspicions when not directly transplanting whole belief systems onto new soil. Says W. Scott Poole: “Our monsters…are not simply delusions, whether they slither toward us as folklore, urban legend, or popular entertainment. Nor are they simply mirrors of social fears or expressions of social anxiety, the catharsis interpretation of the horror tale. They are so embedded in the way Americans talk about class, race, gender, and social structure that they offer a way for people to mark, comprehend, and just as frequently, misunderstand their world.” (xix)

Yet we continue to pretend that monsters don’t exist, all while they frolic in the shadows and dance naked in the sunlight in full view.

Again Lovecraft is the example. Is it any coincidence that perhaps the single most racist writer in the genre – H.P. Lovecraft – is now the genre’s premier Golden Child? Or that the demand for “original” Horror comes with… tentacles?

“Original” is a code word.

“Original” does not mean “different” or “other”… It sure as heck does not mean “new” … It means “differently told, modern” Lovecraft stories.

Can you say censorship and “traditional” in the same sentence?

Lovecraft is often given a “pass” because he is so clearly an institutional racist. Like ourselves, he believed what he was raised to believe and what society reinforced. And when he tells his stories it is not with a conscious purpose to “convert” but is an example of that simple-yet-horrendous assumption that his readers will “get” the terror in ways we may not today interpret it. And this means that modern readers may not pick up on the racism alluded to, but that being presumably, eternally white, we would simply gather in the general atmosphere of imminent dread and make of it what we will. The problem is, we are internalizing that narrative in order to mimic it. How often do we say it, and read it, and edify it before it starts to make some kind of weird sense?

Literary Criticism digs deeper than that first reading, that fan-driven desire for frisson… Criticism looks at subtext. And this is yet another reason why Literary Criticism needs to be introduced to readers in high school – right when Horror becomes a rite of passage.

Look, Lovecraft can be enjoyed, and reading or liking his work does not make you a racist. But I am saying that the longer we emulate and praise the narrative, the more likely we are to become numb if not deaf to the subtext that says Others are scary and are out to end us all.

If a Horror reader is and prefers to remain a “surface dweller” then Lovecraft is fun and kitschy and an awesome representation of British Horror done American style. Nothing has to “change” as long as we clearly identify subtext for what it is: a marker of a moment in time… But isn’t it interesting that we don’t quite know what to do with things when the truth comes out, when we look beyond the surface? The experience is jarring, because when you first fall in love with Horror, the surface is what you fall in love with – the idea of being scared. We do not start out in Horror looking for hidden messages…

So what do we do when we find them? It is a certainty that there will always be subtext – consciously or unconsciously inundating our writing – because we are human and we cannot always stop ourselves. And as time passes and history moves past the moment, we Freudian-slip onto the stage naked. But there is a difference in discussing subtext and how it found its way into our subconscious and conscious behaviors, how it dictates social currency and acts.. and endorses or excuses it.

The fact is, there is indeed an unsavory if unconscious subtext in Lovecraft. And if we are asking for more of that in the Horror genre, what are we really trying to say?

F3

Yes, We Are Waking Up: And We Were Promised a Handsome Prince…

If we are going to fix the problems we have in the genre, then we have to stop trying to avoid responsibility for where we are. This doesn’t mean we must go through and purge offensive writers or racist ones. It doesn’t mean we should write with future Literary Critics in our heads, either.

However it does mean we have to acknowledge as white gatekeepers of the genre, we have let the genre be pixie-led down a dead-end path where a racist and sexist narrative has been used to limit our growth and originality. White writers have also been victimized by this narrative. And no, it is not our duty to apologize to all Other writers, to hang our heads in shame for being somehow complicit.

We have ALL been manipulated and lied to, some of us being more willing to buy into the fairy tale than others. But we must also consider the cost to the genre… Horror is not meant to be spoon-fed to the masses, but to leech into their comfort zones through the skin. And now that we have been roughly awakened, it is time to acknowledge the total absence of the prince.  

We simply need to acknowledge that this love affair with the carefully constructed and insulated world that Lovecraft wrote from within is not a sustainable or defensible (let alone healthy) relationship to have with our genre history or its future. To do so is creatively limiting.

And to demand more of the same is a love song to fan fiction – not genre writing.

What we do going forward in the Horror genre is going to matter, and it is going to hinge on how we treat subtext in writing, how we identify monsters.  But it also means demanding that history remain in its context, and that we in fact and practice live and write in the time we are in. That means hearing all voices, fearing none, welcoming the envelope-pushers, and redefining what Horror is by providing agreed-upon criteria.

Horror in America is still white, because we choose to do little more than briefly mention (and then ignore) the fact that at the precise time in American Literary history that Horror flowered on our shores, we were in the cold embrace of white male elitism, of racism, of misogyny. And then we insisted on telling ourselves a beautiful mythology full of shiny objects to distract from intolerable truths. People do that when they need to believe their own delusions…when the truth is so terrible that the guilt alone would melt us like a Martian ray gun… when the night terrors torment our American Dreams.

How do we get out of this? Be careful how we wake up… and don’t expect a prince.

Says Natalie Wilson in her book, Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror, “…monsterizing the Other was – and continues to be – one of the primary ways to maintain power and shore up existing hierarchies. One such endearing hierarchy, that of East/West, lies at the heart of colonialism and conquest. While denigrating the Other has spanned history, the Western world, as Partha Mitter puts it, ‘forged a monopoly on this’ (339).  Importantly this monopoly is linked to the emergence of race as a concept…thus laying the groundwork for the concept of monstrous races.” (6)

We cannot hope to change things if we refuse to change our trajectory of accepting what institutionalized racism continues to do in its currently unchallenged, understated state of being.

It means that we have to start seeing Horror where Horror is… and that means right here in the ordinary lives of ordinary peoples. It means we have to start talking about all of those things editors have said they want to hear no more about, because out here in the Real World, people are living those things, THOSE Horrors. And they  — we – deserve the acknowledgment of the struggle it is to be a decent human being in this world of subtext. We all have a story to tell.

Horror is not Fantasy, it is Horror.

And we have had enough of the Fairy Glamour.

Take your spells and be gone.

F4

References

Poole, W. Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Second ed. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, c2018.

Wilson, Natalie. Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., c2020.

Death, Disease & Pandemic: How Horror Writers of the Past Translated Illness (Part 2: Stephen King, Richard Matheson & Dean Koontz)


Another way writers wrangle the concept of a pandemic is to imagine one.

Only a few months ago, the very idea of a worldwide pandemic – one that could stop and rearrange everything we thought we knew about the world and ourselves was, well – an idea, an event that happened a long time ago or very far away.

Now that we are faced with a reality that itself reinvents the world, that does not stop hand-delivering difficult truths to us, it seems even harder to credit Horror writers with their earlier efforts to imagine the worst and carry it off with any accuracy. We can look at fiction and see it as superfluous – perhaps even “pointless.” Because in the face of reality, fiction always pales…

But Horror is never pointless – not at its true heart. Horror is the handmaid of horrible truths. And there is nothing like pandemics gone global that deliver our failings on a golden platter.

Here we will look at three Horror versions of the pandemic – Stephen King’s The Stand (a work that rings true in both the delivery of this disease and how we are handling this pandemic); Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (a work dedicated to the personal meaning of social distancing in the book version, and in the most modern film version an echo of the fears we have had and now entertain broadly at China’s expense of science escaping the lab); and Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness (for its now-viral reputation for eerie prediction of this pandemic within a single passage. Note: it is not a book about pandemic, but it is a lesson in naivete, fact-checking, and our modern tendency to believe anything we see on the internet).

K1

Stephen King and The Stand: When Reality Meets Criticism

When we think of modern pandemic Horror, many of us often think first of Stephen King’s The Stand. How could we not? It was one of the first King blockbusters, and is likely one of the first novels that come to mind when we think of pandemics in fiction… a tale about what a Super-flu might be like as a tool of Apocalypse – innocuous, yet savage in a world-order-changing kind of way.

Published in 1978, it happened upon the reading public just at the moment common folk were globally becoming aware of the way diseases spread and decimate… it happened when air travel proved it could deliver all manner of disease in record time and without detection… And when we had begun to realize that all governments (including our own) just might be thinking of disease again (and as we once did before) as a handy way to wage wars…if not to purge undesirable populations.

In that way, The Stand was not prophetic, but it was timely.

In the 1980’s, we first started to understand that disease could be the undoing of us all, and that fact kept The Stand in circulation for some time. All that globe-trotting and the rise of AIDS made us realize that weaponized disease could be a real and scary future for us. Coincidentally, the first step in dealing with a problem is to imagine it. And thanks to the dominance of the paperback (especially in places like supermarkets and – yep – airports), The Stand was one of our first popular modern fictional imaginings. It came at a time when we precisely needed to consider what an event like a Plague could do to a modern and mobile society.

So while some might be tempted to call it a prediction or an interesting stretch in the fictional imagination, it was already a popular discussed topic most preferred not to imagine. It was (frighteningly enough) already an expectation in the scientific community that simple influenzas were on their way to not being so simple. We were already starting to overprescribe antibiotics and see farmed animals moved to packed, unpastured communes that demanded even more frequent antibiotic use in animals.

We were calling this new, looming fear the Super Flu – “known to public health experts as pandemic influenza…which would cause substantial disruption of society and commerce” https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/news/20040826/us-super-flu-plan-reveals-gaps-in-readiness#1 . The last one by King’s novel’s time was the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic, “which killed some 34,000 Americans” but was nothing compared to the title holder – the 1918 Spanish flu, which “was responsible for 675,000 U.S. deaths…” History aside, however, it was the newer discussions held by the scientific community that kept the fears alive and fanned the concerns over a repeat of that history. None of us wanted to go there, but by the late 1970’s it was clear that we were pointed in that direction.

Stephen King did what many of us didn’t want to do – to imagine it and what it would be like to live through a pandemic. And rather than weigh the Literary Craft questions so many are wont to do, what I find most interesting in this King mega-novel is the Literary World View questions King raised but is so often attacked for not (or not thoroughly enough) exhibiting: what does the role of cultural society play in our reaction to an apocalyptic pandemic, and what is the role of religion in our interpretation of pandemic?

Keep in mind that I am not saying King did enough with those questions considering the size of the book, but he did provide quite the interesting national portrait of our country – one which rings true with today’s pandemic as mirrored in The Stand right down to the overinflated sense of patriotism as a backdrop and the ready belief in an underlying battle of good versus evil with the United States as the only relevant battle ground… keeping in mind that today’s coronavirus is not as thorough an executioner as King’s flu.

Long Criticized for not really including The Rest of the World (except in an honorable-mention sort of way), King nailed our now fully-realized selfish, myopic view of ourselves. Maybe Critics did not want to believe that such a reaction would be true – especially given our cultural mythology as the “conscience and savior of the world.” But as the coronavirus has proven, King was indeed correct about our lack of interest in virtually anyone else. And what an ugly theory to be proven true…

In the novel, a Super-flu overtakes the world rather suddenly, leaving small pools of survivors, who soon realize that the pandemic is being used as the stage for the Ultimate Battle between Good and Evil. Once again — even with the religious overtone – the entire book never really concerns itself with the rest of the world. For our own egotistical reasons, the U.S. is the center of the religious universe as well as the human one. Nothing is ever mentioned about why the United States is where Heaven and Hell would choose to argue their differences, but those of us who live here – especially now with such a loud media presence of evangelicals promoting radical views that we are the envy and target of the world because we are religiously right – well, we can see this was all brewing as part of our national self-image as far back as 1978…

(Never mind what stark truths that might bring to our international relations through those same years, or what picture that might paint about a certain set of towers in New York…)

For all of the Criticisms King has taken for The Stand – and indeed there are some Craft/logic issues – what I find significant is that in the book his American characters act as isolationist, evangelical, and self-centered as we really are, and today as we are proving ourselves to be.

Have we not pushed away the World Health Organization (and their coronavirus tests, by the way) as well as any official international collaborations? Has our President not attempted to corner the patent on any vaccine discovered in the U.S. with plans to ransom it to the rest of the world if not our own lower classes?

Do we not toss religious judgment out there when large segments of our population are dying of Covid 19? Is that not the argument certain vocal pockets of the national population are arguing in the subtext of demanding the reopening of churches as “essential” businesses, as though the righteousness of being in a pew guarantees Divine Intervention and lack of virus exposure?

Are we not smirking at the sins of New York and winking at the Purity of the Midwest? Have our political parties not called each other Evil? Are we not  flag-waving, belligerent, and determined at rifle-point to re-establish the government in our own image selves while pandemic chaos rules?

King called it. Just because Critics don’t want to say so, doesn’t make that any less accurate.

The fact that King reframes the pandemic as religious is an important World View statement. Perhaps we don’t have the rise of a Randall Flagg (so far as we could prove it, anyway), but all of the arguments in play today are caricatured to some degree (accidentally or on purpose) in King’s novel – right down to the common Literary Critical criticism that his characters speak in pedestrian language with lots of cursing (Joshi 79-81). Have the Critics been WATCHING the news? Have they been OUT in American cities and towns? THAT IS how we speak and act. Albeit sadly.

And clearly, a real pandemic isn’t going to change that.

Include the interesting point that King used a main character to focus on what would happen in prisons to prisoners in a pandemic and THERE is an interesting prediction. Are we not seeing a slightly scaled down version today in King’s prisoners sealed in and left to die in cells with dead guards and few in charge who care?

And are we not seeing the rise of militant groups that think we need to re-take our own government, re-make our own government, reinvent the government we have convinced ourselves once ruled gloriously in this land…

While we do have to look Critically at our genre works and admit that there might just be some Craft failings here and there, I do think that we are not giving King credit for at least hitting on World View cylinders in this one. Was it too long, too circuitous? Yes, I believe that to be true. Could editing have been better? Yes, I believe that also.

But if we are going to attack contemporary writers for mimicking older styles, then how about at least a nod toward a modern take on the genre – even if and may especially if it is told in our modern vernacular. I think it is quite relevant sitting here in quarantine at the moment.

The Stand offers an old theme of pandemic apocalypse with a modern twist, modern setting, modern characters (though lightly developed)… he employs the Good versus Evil trope, and in the course of the book shows us King’s take on how we might react to it. If we criticize it as being not deep enough, too shallow to compete with Literature, then one has to ask is not King’s audience the perfect accomplice in the book’s popularity – not because we are incapable of appreciating or expecting Literature, but because we are no longer taught how to appreciate or expect it? Is that not also evocative of World View?

This book is all about imagining that which had not yet fully gripped us yet – the threat of pandemic on an ill-prepared nation, the religious reckoning that still functions as subtext in this country, and the “pedestrian” way we are likely to handle it… pandemic drives the plot (although it feels sometimes like a tortured drive and not a well-paced one). King has, after all, described it as his personal Vietnam… and at times it does read that way. But I still find it interesting – especially in light of our current pandemic times.

Is this a groundbreaker in Literature? Probably not. King has always been the writer for the masses, the author of Adult Horror fiction for the Young Adult in all of us… If he inspires others to go longer or deeper or to just keep writing and reading Horror, I am thinking he is doing his job. And with The Stand, he has returned the pandemic to Horror as a plot driver…something not done well since Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend…

So if you haven’t read this tome, now might be the time. And if you wind up having Criticisms, start drafting a work showing how you think it could have been done differently… We’re going to need all of the examples we can get…

K2

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend & the Rise of the Vampire-Zombie Apocalypse

Zombies. Can we not think of the beginning of the Zombie craze without assuming Richard Matheson’s first novel might be to blame? Well if you do blame him, rethink it. Hollywood changed Matheson’s Vampires into Zombies – all likely to the way we look at monsters in the modern world – Zombies being so much more like us than Vampires (or so we think), and Matheson’s pandemic so much more suitable to the Zombie mythology (since we don’t see Vampires as roaming in packs). Since its publication in 1954, the book has been made into three movies – The Omega Man, The Last Man on Earth, and the more modern I Am Legend with popular actor Will Smith. So what has been the creative seed about this novel that we cannot cease to pick at it? Perhaps it is the long shadow that a pandemic threat casts.

Yet why aren’t we bigger fans of it today? We could blame the date it was written… thinking it would be like reading older prophetic Science Fiction – a bit of a let down for some things, amusing for others. Or maybe it is because Hollywood re-shaped it as Science Fiction… Or we could just smirk at the use of Horror monsters to define a real threat of apocalypse-by-disease.

Yet what Matheson gets right is at the very least – interesting. Because the book is often considered to be one of the best in the Literary handling of the topic of human loneliness… something a little social distancing has made perfectly clear to most of us.

I Am Legend is yet another modern take on the pandemic in modern times, a mutation of a virus that leads to the end of the world. Ironically, according to a Literary Analysis from DePauw University’s website https://sites.google.com/a/depauw.edu/i-am-legend/critiques-of-the-novel “the most common theme of this novel is an emphasis on human emotion and how we interact with others”… making it timely, if not in some ways just plain accurate.

Matheson (in the eyes of modern Critics) handles the Literary concept of apocalyptic pandemic in a much more competent fashion than most other Horror writers, but was not so well-received Critically in his day. But does it really catch fire with modern masses in the same way as King? It doesn’t seem to. And maybe that is because none of us like to admit we have a problem with loneliness in particular…let alone the idea of dying a non-glorious death by disease. Worse, we are not sure what we want out of Horror today as readers. And that indecisiveness makes us…fickle.

Interestingly, he sets the novel in 1976 – The Year of the Pandemic – if what plays on protagonist Robert Neville’s turntable in the opening scene is to be believed. He incorporates the then-modern world, he weaves in the necessary Horror accoutrement – including crosses, mirrors, stakes and mallets and garlic – all to serve as Horror placeholders as he unveils the real threat behind the monsters – uncontrolled disease and the Horror of isolation. Yet the book did better once it was re-cast as almost-Science Fiction and film.

Perhaps Matheson wrote genre Horror too literally, anchoring it to genre formula inadequately rather than clearly to the Literary point. Perhaps even he did not see it… Perhaps the general population – as yet un-Kinged by blockbuster Horror – would have received it better as a scientific thriller (like Coma by Robin Cook, for example)… It just seems Matheson had a tale to tell that was bigger than the Horror used to frame it. So perhaps he chose the wrong genre to tell the story in.

Ironically, I think that the reason it appears lackluster is because Matheson uses actual Horror tropes the way they are expected to be used – to the point that they seem trite. According to one Critic (Damon Knight, 1956), “The book is full of good ideas, every other one of which is kicked out of sight…if only the author, or somebody, had not insisted on encumbering it with the year’s most childish set of ‘scientific’ rationalizations….” Yet isn’t that what one would expect when introducing a science-based story concept to a Horror audience? Are we not told to anchor our plot, to provide explanation for how a Horror comes to be?

Matheson chooses Vampires, which Hollywood replaced with Zombies – and that allows a reader to minimize the reality of a pandemic’s effect by almost mocking it with monsters. This book (after all) provided the origin (if not the inspiration) of the concept of The Zombie Apocalypse. But the most amazing thing is that it was all written in 1954 – talk about dancing with the prophetic… (and we could mean pandemic, or even water-cooler expectations of a Zombie Apocalypse…)

Matheson does with pandemic what a good Horror writer should – using the monster to define a Literary World View – that we need each other… Yet unfortunately it can also be said that because his Vampires were “not traditional enough” – not of the Polidori style and more akin to Zombies – that maybe alienation of the Vampire fan was the undoing of it in our genre… We simply fell into the two traditional camps of Horror: those who love pulp roots and demand strict adherence to established handling of tropes, and those who want innovation and Literary elements. It seems to be the undoing of many great writers in our genre… But what he did with I Am Legend is an important example for Horror writers looking for an angle on how to tell a pandemic story in Literary terms.

Clearly it involves flirting with other genres if not Literature itself. But it also means walking that tightrope between Critics and fan expectations. We have to choose. And it would appear Matheson ultimately chose right.

Pandemic and poorly loved Vampires aside, Matheson is the author of titles like Stir of Echoes, Cell, The Legend of Hell House, What Dreams May Come, and stories that went on to become television short story episodes as in TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker, and several more episodes in Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and The Outer Limits. He was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement (1984), Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime achievement (1991) and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010. All in all, not half-bad for a Horror writer whose work often crossed into other genres…and clearly when we are talking pandemic, it pays to think outside the box.

Richard Matheson died June 23, 2013.

K3

Dean Koontz: When Precognition Just…Isn’t

There is a rumor spinning around the internet today about a Dean Koontz thriller written in 1981. There is a passage in the thriller (about a grieving mother who believes she has seen her deceased child in a passing car and begins a grief-driven roller-coaster ride in trying to find him) which eerily predicts a pandemic – this current pandemic – right down to the year, the country and city of origin, and its origin as a respiratory affliction. Or so it would seem.

Have we entered the oft-chartered territory of Science Fiction writers in precognitive fiction?

Try not to get too excited. Even author Dean Koontz insists this is no uncanny prediction – but rather a marketing strategy that panned out.

First, a little about Horror author Dean Koontz, who we have now roundly lost to the Suspense/Thriller genre.

Dean Koontz (born July 9, 1945 in Everett, PA) is another writer who found other work in parallel genres when the Horror Boom dried up. Fourteen hardcovers and sixteen paperbacks reached Number One on the bestseller charts over the years, and most of his earlier work was part of that once-giant Horror section we once commanded as a genre. His work can also be found under pseudonyms David Axton, Leigh Nichols, Brian Coffey, and Deanna Dwyer. Awards include the World Horror Grand Master Award (1996) and the Ross Macdonald Literary Award (2003), with nominations for the Prometheus Award, the Hugo Award, and three Locus Award nominations.

For those of us who grew up Horror fans in the 1970s and 80s, Dean Koontz was a staple. I remember many of his titles being the dog-eared paperbacks we traded in high school – iconic – teen fodder – devoured. Titles like Hell’s Gate, Demon Child, Children of the Storm, Whispers, Phantoms, Strangers, and Watchers… These were the books that fed the Boom, that supplemented books by King, by Bentley Little, Peter Straub, Dan Simmons, Anne Rice, V.C. Andrews, John Saul, and Tanith Lee. These were the books so often picked up in airports and supermarkets, read to pass the time and stoke our love of scary things. For the paperback masses, his name was constant and familiar… and now –prolific as he has been – his section in a bookstore is almost as big as King’s…

But it was none of these books that bring him to my attention now. Koontz did not write a pandemic-specific novel. However, this little rumor of prognostication needs to be cleared up…

Recently, a rediscovery of his book The Eyes of Darkness has found new life on the internet – being touted by some as having an eerie set of passages about what looks like a prediction of today’s coronavirus. And while I freely admit I have not read this title by Koontz, a little research online is important to mention.

Here are the larger-than-life “coincidences” being showcased:

K4

 

Yeah. Wow. Woooo.

But really, what is this all about? Are we really having a Science Fiction moment?

Dean Koontz himself says not. But even if we were and never having read this title, what I CAN tell you about living as a young adult during the 1980’s is this: the idea of pandemic used as a biological weapon by one of our rivals/enemies was an increasingly popular topic of national conversation (because the scientific threat was increasing). The rise of the medical thriller at the time only fanned the flames, and a little consciousness was all that was required to consider the plot or plot device of such a thing, and besides China and Russia, who else would be a likely cold war foil? A little research for one’s novel could easily land one in a place like Wujan, and imagine a Chinese Communist plot to overthrow democracy.

That said, is even this information in the book correct?

Actually, it isn’t, according to website https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/dean-koontz-predicted-coronavirus/ which reveals that the original printing claimed the virus was called – not Wujan 400, but Gorki 400… and that some future editions were re-edited to list Wujan as the city of origin.

Well. Does that mean it is any less…eerily coincidental? Yes, if we want to claim it as a 1981 prediction. I mean let’s face it: as world concerns about pandemics and hostile governments with evil intentions have grown, China has played a greater, more prominent part in our fears and national security concerns. Likewise, I am certain we play starring roles in their nightmares as well, and we have only a bunch of gifted smallpox blankets to Native Americans to thank for that. With a virus research lab located there, Wujan was probably on the map for any thriller writer looking for a pandemic source.

In addition, keep in mind that during the late 1980’s the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union returned to being Russia, and for a brief time there was even hope that we would finally make peace with our former world rivals as Russia struggled to redefine itself. Russia, in the 1980’s, was not the Big Scary Enemy of the past… in fact it was just not as much a part of the national subtext as the Cold War cooled. And a book like The Eyes of Darkness would possibly benefit from a modern rewrite with a new Big Scary Enemy to keep it relevant and less-dated – and China was rising to fit the bill. Keep in mind the rewrite of this passage was meant to reorient the book, to update it so the dated parts would not turn off readers – no other reason.

While the fact-checking site does not mention when the rewrite occurred, the copyright page on a book on Amazon does show a second copyright of 1996 – and I suspect that was to include the revision.

And yes, that kind of sucks the life out of the “prediction” (which is now more like a scientific guess with lottery characteristics).

The fact remains, however, that whether this is an editorial decision to make the old novel more modernly relevant, or some spooky coincidence… anyone who does research on epidemics, pandemics, and viral spillover will smash into China, Africa, and any country that participates by necessity in “wet markets” to survive. The choice of China is convenient and somewhat inevitable as the likely antagonist if we want a political thriller element in our novel or to modernize one; that is the price of having one of the world’s largest populations and being a rising economic and military power.

So was it a strange coincidence? Possibly. Weird? You betcha. But an uncanny prediction from 1981? Nope. Just good old marketing savvy mixed with…luck.

 

REFERENCES

DePauw University, “Critiques and Literary Analysis: I Am Legend/Richard Matheson” retrieved 5-9-2020 from https://sites.google.com/a/depauw.edu/i-am-legend/critiques-of-the-novel

Evon, Dan. “Was Coronavirus Predicted in a1981 Dean Koontz Novel? A Speculative Anticipation of a Possibility is Very Different Than a Prediction” www.snopes.com, 18 February 2020, retrieved 5-15-2020 from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/dean-koontz-predicted-coronavirus/

Joshi, S.T. McFarland & Company, Inc.: North Carolina, c2001

Knight, Damon (1967). In Search of Wonder. Chicago: Advent

 

Death, Disease & Pandemic: How Horror Writers of the Past Translated Illness (Part 1- Bram Stoker & the Rise of the Vampire)


It should seem obvious: death is that “thing” behind the “fear” that Lovecraft used to define our genre. Yet for the most part, Horror writers seem to prefer the more visceral kinds of death – the vainglorious, the heroic, the tragic – death that glorifies the person or the plot. Therefore, Horror writers also tend to avoid the obviousness of rampant disease as their story-behind-the-story. When it comes to death-by-disease, our genre prefers to utilize the mystery of illness and disease (if not life and death) as a way to explore human nature, leaving the horrific details of unfolding pandemics to the Science Fiction genre.

But we have had writers who embraced the horrors consequential to pandemics – specifically Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Matheson, Bram Stoker, Stephen King and even Anne Rice.

So perhaps now is the time to discuss what those writers did to translate disease and death into top-rate reading experiences, and to add a few titles to your pandemic self-isolating reading lists.

As fans and readers, we might learn something about ourselves and our often-forgotten national and international histories when whole peoples are faced with the overwhelming, unthinkable effects of uncontrolled contagions of the past. But if you are a writer, you may also see a way to bend your current sense of personal trauma, your own fears and grief into something that might propel your next piece of fiction well past the inevitable crush of future publications about pandemics.

BS1

Vampires: the Undead for a Reason

I have a confession to make: I am absolutely weary of Vampire stories.

But there is something inevitable about them in our genre, and perhaps we should be glad to have them stirring things up now and again. However I admit I draw a heavy sigh of resignation to think that, well, here we go again…Because sure enough, Vampires have their origins not merely in folklore, but in premature death as dealt by disease and pandemic. In his book The Vampire: a New History, author Nick Groom states that despite those more remote folk origins:

“Many accounts of vampires associate outbreaks of vampirism with contagion, making them vectors and consequently part of the history of infectious diseases. Although the means by which illness and infection spread was not fully understood until the middle of the nineteenth century, William Harvey had, in 1628, published his theory of the circulation of the blood…Circulatory networks are the very media of vampirism: they roam, feed and infect through the circulation of blood.” (15-16)

We are indeed doomed, if only because we as humans will never completely control the versatility and lethal beauty of the biology of viruses. That fact has left many a creative door open, many plots and superstitions circulating…with Vampires to carry them into our imaginations. They nest there, never fully staying buried.

Yet if we as writers of the genre really look at what the genre did well for Critics or well for readers (often not exactly the same thing), we might perchance envision how to turn our own, more recent personal experiences into both original and unforgettable Horror. How do we turn this pandemic into something we can write about (if not within)? How do we stay the course in Horror writing?

When we think back on earlier times when science was new or nonexistent (or merely outdated and outclassed by modern medicine), what we see are the Horrors of our own making – grisly deaths marred by our own inability to understand how people pass viruses on to each other. We see theories about transmission and consequence that dumbfound and horrify us reading about them today – theories that transmission occurs by the mere glance of an ill person (resulting in blindfolded patients), by simple breath of or conversation with a sick person (resulting in a whole other kind of isolation), “venomous and infected air,” complicated “fear of standing water in ditches or sloughs or other corrupt places,” dread of decay and physical corruption, all mixed with the even more terrifying fear of it all being the instrument of Divine Judgment on a person or a people…. (Groom 16-17)

Mix all of that fear with the rush to get dead and decaying bodies off the street and underground, and the Horror of bizarre medical practices, untold suffering and the possibility of premature burial begins to surface…

From the Black Death to cholera – another disease that could be carried by infected persons up to two weeks before the exhibition of symptoms – our international history of pandemic is carried on the backs of war, travel, and commerce. (Groom 164) Yet our core fears of not only dying, but of contracting disease and being judged for it if not exiled because of it has never left us.

We have not really changed all that much from our ancestors. For example, by the nineteenth century multiple pandemics of cholera were no longer legitimately associated “with meteors or divine visitation but with barges and ships, railways, markets and fairs, and mass movements and assemblies of people – be they marching troops, escaping refugees, or crowds gathered at political rallies and popular demonstrations. In tune with the modernity of the disease, traditional scapegoats such as witches and Jews escaped blame: instead it was the medical profession who were first held responsible…” (Groom 165).

We can see today how easily we all slip into the blame-game just like those ancestors, even if we have to embrace a little superstition or magical thinking now and then to carry it off: isn’t it true even today that we cast suspicious eyes on those we presume to “know more” than we do ourselves? Are we not blaming a lab in China right now for a virus that originated in nature –no matter how it jumped species?

We are not so different than we were in those times. But indeed those times had significant differences because medicine was evolving in plain sight – not in laboratories with top secret clearances and nondisclosure agreements.

Enter the age of early medicine and body snatchers and those characters today we might find unsavory – yet whose relentless pursuit of knowledge while sometimes marred by tales of gruesome scenarios where live patients thought dead were buried or vivisected by misadventure – led us to understand the nature of disease and the frailty of human flesh. As we struggled to understand pandemics and control the outbreaks, we sacrificed some of the things that allowed us false senses of control. Our lack of control became bold-faced truths.

That we were in those times surrounded by blood – from animal husbandry to hunting to daily life and death – did not alleviate our terrors. That science was getting involved in mystical, magical, paradoxical and experimental thinking did little to help human imagination. Even now, we have trouble separating pandemics from Divine Judgment. (It just seems easier to control our own religious devotion or to game God than it does to outsmart a virus.) But then a lot more of us had no clue what medicine was ultimately about. In fact, most of us still don’t.

But that certainly has never stopped Horror writers from “going there”….

When it comes to pandemics, however, it is true that most fiction works surface in Science Fiction. Perhaps this is because we (as a general reading public) don’t really want to explore the raw, methodical, Horror of death-by-disease — let alone the dull scientific details; it can be far more entertaining and mentally engaging to dive right into the what-if scenario of apocalypse if we are looking at things as probable survivors instead of likely victims.

But that is often where Horror diverges from the rest of the genres. We do describe the ugly stuff. We do imagine or document the gritty details of death and describe them liberally. But the best of Horror doesn’t stay there… Pandemics, disease and death-by-illness are often consequences of humanity’s conscious choices and consequential collateral damage. It is our job as Horror writers to point that out – especially in the subtext.

BS2

Dracula, Disease, and Bram Stoker

Fear of disease and its evil cousin pandemic was often associated with fears of blood and decay and bodily fluids. This would be because medicine took a while to catch up to understanding cause and effect, and the rest of the world was left to care for and dispose of disintegrating flesh. Many illnesses cause the body to bleed, spew, leak and smell…not a pleasant thing to experience or suffer, but definitely a thing to fear if the word “contagion” is added or bandied about.

Says author Nick Groom, “Early theories of plague considered it to be an instrument of holy displeasure…” (16), something we ourselves do even now on a regular basis (we have only to look at the AIDS crisis to see how quickly we are willing to accept the superstitious rationale if doing so can possibly save the rest of us from contagion). Continues Groom, “Early vampires need to be understood within this sacred context. These mystical plagues were manifested through invisible forces – qualities that would come to characterize vampires – and the more radical conjectures on contagion speculated that it could be spread by immaterial means, by the words, or simply the breath of an infected person.” (16)

Toss in humanity’s groomed fears of new medicine at the time, the mysteries of death and illness, a little awkward knowledge of human biology, and a certain fever pitch of panic could be generated. This is how Dracula was born – straight out of the fears of preternatural contagion, a rich history of vampire folklore, and one Bram Stoker. States biographer David J. Skal in his book Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker:

Bram Stoker came into the world midway through a century of scientific and technological change more rapid and destabilizing than human beings had previously experienced. The tension between religious and scientific world views was especially pronounced, and Stoker’s own intellectual development and literary output would amount to a lifelong juggling act of materialism versus faith, and reason against superstition.” (Skal 7)

Does it not feel like we are experiencing similar times right now? We should then keep in mind that this was (and still is) the perfect breeding ground for vampire novels, as Nick Groom states: Dracula is the climax to over 70 years of vampire tales…But the vampire clearly existed before Dracula as a species of Enlightenment thinking in the contexts of medical science, theology, empiricism and politics, and it was this figure that both thrived in the nineteenth century and was adapted by Stoker.” (170)

Combine that understanding with the devastation of what was happening at the time of his birth in November of 1847 – the Irish potato famine, wherein “starving and evicted tenants flooded into the city slums and workhouses, and with them dysentery, famine, fever, and typhus. Terrifying accounts reached Dublin from County Mayo, where workhouses had begun the inexorable transition into death houses.” (9-10), and the stage is set. Life in grim times has a way of feeding a writer’s imagination and Literature of the time. And while we think of popular Gothic Romances of the same period as islands of Literature, what they really were is fictionalized documentation of what was happening during the period. So would become Dracula…a Gothic Horror story reeking of its historical time.

Continues Skal, “The years of Bram Stoker’s childhood were filled with oral accounts of horrors attending the famine. Most poignant and tragic were the now-legendary tales of the “coffin ships” which carried typhus and cholera along with desperate immigrants to North America. Many never arrived alive; as many as a hundred thousand refugees were interred in one mass grave at a St Lawrence River quarantine station in Quebec. Bram undoubtedly heard these stories, told and embellished like folktales, and later could have read published first-person accounts of doomed passengers…” (22)

Thinking about that should get our attention; as of today the U.S. alone has attributed more than 74,595 deaths to the coronavirus pandemic. And just as what was obvious and part of daily life served as the backdrop for the story of Dracula, we are painting our own backdrop right now.

The fact of pandemic today is likely to influence coming new fiction for our century. Now is the time to take in the details – perhaps to journal if not to write the story needing to be born. Little details may fade if we ever get back to “normal”…But even if we don’t, this moment of transition is not unlike the birthday of Dracula. We should never forget the feel of a mask worn across the face, the suppression of breath, the inability to read faces, the heat of exhalation against layers of linen, the burn of the ears from hours of loops affixed there…the freedom of pulling it off in a car with the windows rolled up, the endless long lines and the types of things limited and the times they are limited for (including the order in which they go missing from stores). Details need to define a character and a character’s actions and available options. Don’t count on your memory. Write it down.

Then let it bake in the imagination.

BS3

Bram and the Rest of Us

When we want to understand how an author takes the external raw facts of happenings, configures them with his or her own experiences and reshapes them into fiction, it pays to have Horror authors as examples of how it was done. Bram Stoker is just such an author, battling with something arguably more powerful and intrusive than the internet: surviving Victorian Society as an Irishman during pandemic and famine…

Here we have an example of how a writer living through times of immense change (such as now) dealt with oppressive religious mores and social constrictions. There were other peculiarities affecting the period of his youth, including being one of many photographed male children dressed as little girls and living through an ever rising tide of disease and illness accompanied by folk and fairy lore and abuse of opium and laudanum for controlling disease and the vivacity of children… Stoker himself suffered a mysterious paralysis, leaving him bedridden during his childhood (and which may or may not have been connected to period parental use of opium or laudanum), and tying him to so much post-mortem speculation about his sexuality and internal struggles with the changes in play around him – all of which consort with an imagination that could have drafted a monster like Dracula.

Says Skal, “How many nineteenth century writers, especially writers of horror and fantasy, had their early imaginings or mature productions colored and intensified by childhood perceptions of death and the experience of opium? Early death was everywhere, and laudanum use was so accepted and widespread that it may not have registered as a particularly remarkable reminiscence. But it is almost impossible to imagine Poe’s claustrophobic tales not being informed by his famous abuse of alcohol…” (40).

What are you experiencing? Are you writing it down?

When we are given such details in historically framed prose that has a distant and clinical feel, it is not then so difficult to see how earlier Horror writers have been influenced by their times. Yet it often remains a mystery to us as to how to turn the fears and dread we experience today into actual working fiction. For example, we hear fellow contemporary writers talk of the struggle to concentrate, to imagine, to construct stories; we hear about disorientation and distraction. No doubt, writers like Stoker had similar competing distractions, although not on the exact level of the loud and intrusive internet.

In those earlier times, one could shut the door to turn off the stimulus. But that doesn’t mean the imagination didn’t work, or that mass burials and the accoutrement of mass death wasn’t lurking right outside.

We should not underestimate the complexity of those earlier times with their own challenges. Rather, we should accept every generation has its own burdens to carry, that all great things take time, and all writers – even the old greats – are often riddled with the self-doubt we may feel even today as we are overwhelmed by the modern flotsam of facts and rumors. We should take heart, as even Stoker struggled to get it all down in those gritty times of his.

Says Skal, “The reason Dracula took seven years to write was that Stoker had great difficulty writing it, especially through the overload of his own imaginative clutter. The process was twisted, arduous, and constantly interrupted. He stopped to write other books. He questioned himself. He censored himself. He had second, even third thoughts about almost everything.” (306)

We have to remember that even as we are affected by and then separate from times of historic change, the way to arm our Muses is to take in the experience with all of our senses: the details will convey the Horrors more profoundly than trying to explain them. Show, don’t tell…and always, always dig deeper.

Today, when students of the Vampire look at Dracula-the-written-work, it is the details that impress. Says Nick Groom in his foreward for his book The Vampire: a New History:

“I had originally intended to downplay Dracula simply as a representative example of late-Victorian vampire fiction; but the novel is so profoundly informed by the myriad deliberations of its time on vampires, blood, science, technology and literature that all the paths of the (un)dead lead to Dracula, just as they lead away from it”(xv)

Stoker then proves that knowing the vehicle of destruction is as important as knowing the path of destruction.

And whether we like him (or her) or not, the Vampire fits the Literary bill to frame such a period of history as any ravaged by pandemic. In the Vampire we have a fear of contagion; fear of the night when death often descends to spirit away beloved souls; we have a stirring of confusion about sexuality and the role of blood in both sex and disease; we have the debate about what life and death and immortality mean; we have the rich fabric of folklore and superstition juxtaposed against new science and the efficacy of religion; we have fear of what nature can do and might have done to us, combined with dread of what mistakes in society and even nurture might have caused… Stoker’s times were loaded with internal and external battles that we can identify with if we only choose to look at them.

We can see where his inspiration came from – especially when we consider the prominence of Varney the Vampire and theatric pantomimes in Stoker’s life. But this tells us little about where the focus comes from to sit down and write a Dracula…

Instead, it tells us that we have to see a novel not as a playful hobby, a hope for a surprise bestseller, but an act of sheer will. Writing an artful work of fiction, an original, a Literary statement, a genre-changer… that is an act of work. It is childbirth – agonizing and bloody labor…

It takes conceptualizing and research, it takes feedback and beta reading, it takes revision and pause. It even takes doubt.

We have to be willing to see the Horrors for what they are. That means seeing the details of this modern pandemic for what they are… raw, unadorned and paralyzing with perspectives akin to war… We have to be willing to ride the tides of PTSD, of nightmares rooted in truth, of the dead and dying coming in endless waves without repose.

Some of us will succeed in doing this. Some of us will create Draculas. But we cannot think of Bram Stoker sitting blithely at his writing desk, wringing his hands in glee, already spending his author’s profits. He would have done no such thing. There would have been no such promise in writing a work of Horror. We must stop imagining that the greatest writers of Horror had no troubles like our own, and did not suffer as we suffer; each had his or her own demons to battle. And in truth, translating the horrors of death and illness into something like Dracula is more about the ability to take our internalized fears and marry them with the mythology and society of our day.

Do you dare look? More importantly, will you dare remember and remind the rest of us? Will you speak for the dead?

BS4

 

References

Groom, Nick. The Vampire: a New History. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, c2018.

Skal, David J. Something in the Blood: the Man Who Wrote Dracula. Liveright Publishing Corporation: New York, c2016.

Nameless Horror: Monsters, Metaphor & the Coronavirus in Modern Life (Are You Writing or Are You Blocked?)


Social unrest, political distrust, unbreachable financial divides, and now a global pandemic… Has there ever been a more fertile time for writing Literature?

Yet here so many of us are, so incredibly overwhelmed by the high, swift tides of information overload, emotional distress, and outright confusion about where our place actually IS in this historical mess that we are like so many deer in the headlights: frozen in stunned silence. If you are suffering from a new and frustrating writer’s block right now, you are not alone…

Is the constant inundation of data that we accept as the price of admission for living in the modern world creating circumstances that are any different than the times writers have lived and written through before?

And does it contribute to how we interpret a pandemic as a kind of “nameless monster” that runs rampant through our emotions, devouring our creativity?

And if that is what Horror is all about, why can’t we harness the chaos?

M1

Nature as Monster

As Horror lovers in times like these, we are forced to confront the real truth about our genre: that the best of Horror is homegrown in the soil of Real Life Horror. Every monster in our genre was spawned from the very scary realities of actually living in the world. And we should not be surprised that as a genre that revels in the macabre accoutrement of death, Horror has been influenced a great deal by plagues and pandemics, disease and human vulnerabilities.

So here we are again… starting to understand how villages of old came to fear strangers, how peculiar or selfish habits carry very real threats, how peasants were once wont to queue up outside castles with pitchforks, and how throughout the ages the threat of death remains so very personal and terrifying.

Small wonder that some of us might flinch under the weight of it all…

Disease emphasizes very powerful fears: will there be anyone left to help or bury us respectfully? Is there a God and life after death, or is this really “all there is” and “have I wasted my life”? Why me, or why not me? What will we do without the ones we love most? How will we survive so much change alone?

Horror responds to these queries with Vampires, Ghosts, Zombies, and even Mummies. To make ourselves feel powerful, to mock what we cannot control, Horror offers up Witches and Sorcerers, Priests and Angels, Amulets and Ancient Texts… And to keep the battle accessible to even the most timid of our readers, Horror provides formulas to defeat monsters like Werewolves, Poltergeists, Demons, and Maniacs with hooks and hockey masks.

By injecting the supernatural into Real Life, Horror has always mitigated and satirized Real Life Horror.

So what is stopping us now?

Why is the coronavirus the game-changer for many writers?

The answer is: because this just got personal.

Viruses go anywhere…striking in what seem like random patterns like tornadoes. They are invisible, seemingly arbitrary yet horribly specific, and potentially lethal – if not to us, then to those we love and things we need to make our lives routine and familiar enough to be safe. Worse, viruses invade those “safe” places…

Viruses as an extension of what we thought of as “domesticated” Mother Nature are exactly as Philip Athans says about Stephen King’s The Mist in his book, Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: [it] “is as much a monster in the story as the Lovecraftian horrors it hides. It’s something that you can’t stop, can’t predict, and can’t fight – and in a very real sense it acts in collusion with a panoply of dangerous outsider predators.” (Athans 104)

M3

Perhaps our mistake has been in miscasting Nature altogether (which is really not all that surprising or unlikely if we consider how easily we tend to miscast members of our own species, for which we have oodles of proof of unpredicability).

Native Peoples have said from the beginning that the earth is a living, breathing entity; that it demands to be treated respectfully, or it will defend itself in quite lethal ways. They weren’t being “cute,” “quaint,” or “naïve” when they said this; they meant it. And now here we are… watching a naturally born virus erupt among humanity — the biggest most harmful infestation the earth has had to endure.

As writers, we are observers. And thinkers. It is so very easy right now to wonder if we have done this to ourselves in so many ways. And guilt is yet another suffocating emotion in the Arts.

Yet is this any different that the plagues writers like Shakespeare composed through?

I say it is. And it is because Shakespeare may have had to deal with the closures of theaters, the layoffs of himself and actors, the fear and devastation of those dying around him… But he did not have media 24/7 blasting the devastation at him every waking moment. He wasn’t told to isolate in place, to scrub his doorknobs and food items like a neurotic raccoon, to love and fear his grocer, to keep seven-figure body counts in his head, to be shown on a map that there is no escape, to hear a litany of symptoms that mirror so many other less deadly diseases, to be designated “essential personnel” enough to wait on his fellow Elizabethans wholeheartedly but without the panicked, demanded-for protections of other essential personnel… Shakespeare could retreat if he was able, to write if he was able, to take the time to assimilate what the plague meant to him and his audience…to turn it into poetry…

I am not saying he had it easier. But there is a profound difference in helping your village dig a mass grave and filling with known folk to watching a military as large and “great” as our own being ordered to use heavy machinery to dig trenches in preparation… To see technology used via refrigerated semi trucks to store bodies (still keeping it distant and less real for those of us hunkered down in front of our television sets and not being able to realize the magnitude because we are blessedly protected from the reality…)

Reality is needed…even ugly reality, and there is something profoundly important about burying one’s own dead, about witnessing death.

Our country’s leaders (like so many) wonder why we don’t “get” the danger…. It is because we are being sheltered from the truth… that people are DYING. And it is not a pleasant death. It is not an attended death. And death is not at all like cleaned-up-grandpa-in-a-fancy-box-with-flowers. It is not take the beloved dog to the vet and tell the kids he’s gone to live on a farm. Death is a battlefield. Death is watching the body fight for life with a person trapped inside. It is a twisted shell left gaping, ravaged by the wounds of that battle…And it is gritty and horrible, eviscerating, emotionally devastating, and will torment the dreams of those forced to live through it.

If such a witness to this kind of devastation is a writer, much of what is witnessed is not written on the battlefield. It is written after the nightmares wake the soul and spill their truths out onto the page. Such writing is another kind of death – one with rebirth. But it very often takes time… Reality comes rife with ghosts.

Some of us as writers have already been there at one time or another…in my case, watching my mother die of cancer. It devastated my ability to write. I couldn’t abide Horror, which suddenly seemed so incredibly trite. And that drove the stake deeper into my heart and twisted it. Because writing has always been my way to cope.

Reporters can tell me a thousand times the “GOT author is writing” and all it does is make things worse. Like many Horror writers, I know I should be writing. But I can’t right now. It just doesn’t feel decent somehow.

The thing is… that’s okay.

What I learned from last time – from that ten year writer’s block – is that we have to sort through our emotions. We have to experience what we are feeling. It’s the only way to come out the other side.

Because when nature is the monster, the overwhelming properties of that monster means we are often robbed of words.

M7

Indescribable, Unutterable Horror

Says Athans, “Every story is about something.” (75) Monsters are often used in our genre to represent the real something… Monsters are metaphors… and “some of the scariest monsters are the ones that attack our psychological well-being.” (74)

Are we not there with the coronavirus? Are we not asking ourselves if we have been the agent of cause behind the rise of this disease? Do we not question everything from morals and politics to global warming and tinkering with Mother Nature? Are we not freaked out?

Yet we are unable to really envision this monster as it ravages continent after continent. All the slides in the world, all the explanations…. Most of us just cannot envision it… So we default to the imagery we all understand because it is not specific. We call it a Monster…

Says Athans: “You can’t see a virus, let alone slash it with your trusty broadsword, shoot it with a blaster, or drive a stake through its heart. It gets inside you and starts eating, and the only reason you know its there at all is the horrific effect it’s having on your body.” (123)

How can we really look into that horrible maw of disease we have named the coronavirus then, and not be made insane?

We have to realize that as writers, really seeing and on some level experiencing this Horror is also the way out of the block. It is our job and our nature to observe, to record the details, and regurgitate it all in some semblance of acceptable order…

We have to realize that this is what Critics mean when they talk about Literature… and why Horror should include more of it. Literature is about how humanity functions in the crisis of Life…

Soldiering through this incredulous time of pandemic is providing you as a writer with information that while overwhelming now, will inform every piece of writing you do from this day forward.

And if you are a Horror writer, it will also be colored by the indescribable moments, by the awful silence that fills the mind when the world as you know it stops.

M6

Wordlessness for a writer sounds like death. But it is truly the sound of rebirth in the making. From that unutterable mass of emotion will come the monster you need to tell the story.

One theory of why Lovecraft is so successful in Horror and monster-making attributes his choice of words in descriptions – words like abnormal, accursed, amorphous, antediluvian, blasphemous, cyclopean, daemonic, eldritch, fetid, gibbering, indescribable, iridescent, loathsome, squamous, unmentionable, unnamable, unutterable…. (Athans 214)

Do we not talk about the coronavirus using similar vocabulary?

The deliberate rendering of the monster’s description as indescribable and defiant of all sane envisioning opens the door to our worst imaginings. It personalizes every monster, tailor-making each one into a very precise creature in our very different heads. All versions can be true at the same time. And such monsters are not only unforgettable, but immortal in our memories – fear first.

How we are seeing the coronavirus is doing the same thing to our mental processing. It has become a Lovecraftian monster whose terrible imagery has merged with our own vision of it.

When we deconstruct fictional monsters into their basic and indistinct parts, we can either deduce their weaknesses, or become disoriented by the Horror – losing ourselves in the very type of  insanity Lovecraft loved to dangle over his protagonists. This makes Lovecraft a writer whose astute observation of his own personal fears allowed him to create a most effective emotional maze to draw his readers into. It is why we remember Lovecraft stories for all of the right reasons – for the Horror of them (and not for the almost-dull prose created to stall the sense of urgency we have come to expect in contemporary American Horror).

There is just something particularly terrifying about the slow, steady advance of a lethal monster with no known weaknesses…

Says Philip Atkins, “Many of Lovecraft’s stories lack immediacy; the threat is always subtle, implied, still developing, rarely seen in its entirety, or shown doing horrible things.” (201)

Is this not how we frame the news of today?

The pandemic is not expected to crest until July or August… although most states have a stay-at-home order, you can go for a walk, go to the grocery…

No one wants to alarm the public, to start a stampede or a panic. Today we have grown accustomed to the fact that everything is administered in measured, acceptable doses. Wars and massacres and even pandemics are interrupted by commercials for better pillows and soothing medications, and ways to waste hard-earned money. We are provided the necessary distractions to pacify and anesthetize our reactions.

M4

Yet when the monster is big enough, bad enough, universal enough… then the parts we do not see cast long, scary shadows. The horrible things come closer, seem more personally possible – even if there is denial. And when the monster takes someone we know, when it stands drooling outside our front door, and worse – when it is invisible – we feel real terror.

How can we defend against the seeming indefensible? A Zombie Apocalypse is preferable — or a rise of Vampires, the stirring of Mummies and the howling of Werewolves… we know each of us can figure out how to fight those.

Viruses take special knowledge. Wars take special luck.

So when the monster – the metaphor for all we dread, hate, or fear – materializes ever so briefly, ever so fatally from the darkness… we need a modicum of control.

And when our fingers cannot find purchase as we dangle from the cliff we never saw coming, we have mere seconds to save ourselves or be lost to irrational terror.

We may see the coronavirus – but we only see it in glimpses of statistics, in the sudden, inconceivable loss of someone we love who was just fine so short a time ago. We never quite see the monster, even when we are shown images of it on a slide… it remains indescribable.

The monster-virus is as much a mystery as the code behind the internet. We see proof it is there, but we cannot truly see IT. So we imagine it. And it wreaks its Horror from our emotions outward… it remains unthinkable, shapeless…amorphous…unreal….

And for many of us, the writing stalls. We cannot muster the muses from those gloriously fertile adjectives.

When we compare ourselves as writers to those who invoked novels from battlefields, from prisons, from oppressive governments and bestial thugs…even those who write in famines and even older plagues (yes, even Shakespeare wrote through two), we start to wonder what is wrong with us.

Yet unlike those wondrous writers, our own modern world seems to move through two very different realities simultaneously. Our world is “crafted” for us…filtered…. We don’t see the wars coming; we don’t comprehend the epidemic, let alone the pandemic. We are subject to numerous layers of “spin”… and the shock of the truth hits us in relentless waves when the storm finally approaches.

We are willingly lulled into numbness, into stasis…a bespelled slumber…

M5

For countries like the U.S… this has been a rude awakening… a reminder that where monsters are concerned, we are all meat.

So not being able to write right now is more than understandable; this is unfamiliar to our senses. We don’t know how to process the flood of data pouring into and all over our Art. For too many of us, this is like listening to The War of the Worlds on radio…real only by its reporting…by images we cannot recognize of places made into Hollywood sets. We are waiting to hear someone announce April Fools…

Writer’s block is a natural reaction.

It is okay.

Not-writing might even be the righteous thing to be doing at this moment in our history. Writing will come back. Some people will not.

So if you are blocked, and not writing like that GOT author, or Shakespeare… Rest assured you are not alone. And you are no less a writer for it. You are doing research, willingly or not.

Live in the moment.

Be human.

The words will come later… When the rest of the world needs a little reminding of what Real Horror is all about.

M8

 

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…

G1.jpgG2.jpgG3

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.

G4.jpgG5.jpgG6.jpg

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.

G7G8

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.

G9G11G10

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.

G12.jpg

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.

Monsters on Milk Cartons: Where Is Our History of Horror & Who Is Writing It Now?


Once upon a time, when the Horror genre was at war with the Literary Critic over whether any Horror was ever Literature, essays, reviews and opinions abounded. Everyone got in on the act – from writers like Poe and Lovecraft, to pulp writers and editors and reviewers.  Their commentaries and essays often appeared in genre magazines, anthologies, and in the front and back matter of novels, anthologies, and classic reprints. Horror lovers had opinions, and they argued them passionately.

Horror, like the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, had very articulate “experts” and defenders; we were a sentient genre. But ever since the 1980’s Slasher end to the 1970’s Horror Boom, we seem to have lost our voice. In fact if it were not for Critic Harold Bloom’s attacks on Stephen King, there would have been an even more alarming radio silence since then.

What happened? Where is our genre narrative? And why in the age of “communication” and social media, is there less conversation? Why is there no apparent documentation of our history?

In fact…where IS our history?

Milk1

http://ninapaley.com/Portfolio/Nina6B.htm

The Inevitable Identity Crisis

It may be unpalatable to some, but one reason we have lost cohesion in the genre is because we have gained the interest of Literary Critics. In other words, we have proven just enough of our genre argument that Horror does descend from and occasionally revert to Literature that we “won” the war. However now the Hard Stuff begins. Now the Critic is asking questions we have no one willing or prepared to answer.

The problem is that the Literary Critic is asking questions we didn’t even know we had ourselves. We have been left alone so long to stew in our imaginative juices that we never stopped to think that maybe our own ideas about Horror were just our own and no one else’s. We had our own concepts of what tropes were and should be, of what conventions were required or self-eliminating, or what formula existed or did not; but there were no real, firm rules written down anywhere. We had writer’s beliefs, public opinion, and editorial preferences.

We have been our own authority for so long, it never occurred to us that we had no authority — just opinions. But now the Critic comes along asking what should be simple-to-answer questions. And they are turning out to be not-so-simple.

Questions are essential to the Critical purpose of recognizing our genre. To be clear, they do not establish what the Horror genre is defined by; they detect patterns.

Critics then are looking at what our editors, publishers, and writers have called Horror through the years. They are plumbing the depths of our print history looking for the bread crumbs that tell them what we think Horror is. Then from that, they will look for Literature…

This does not mean that pulp would be excluded as a sort of waste product; rather it would find itself relegated to a subgenre defined by strict and predictable formula. It would exclude itself from Literature, but not from the genre itself. But it does mean that all of our writing will have to be measured against an agreed-upon criteria, and some of us will not find the works we think we should find as the apple of the Critic’s eye…

What the simple beginnings of this process has done is to rightly shine a light on our genre’s internal conversation – which seems to have almost completely stopped or been stopped. And make no mistake, we are all stumped at the absence of words.

Our history is nowhere to be found at the moment. Our commentators are not commenting. At the precise moment when we have the Literary Critic’s long-awaited attention, we have no one to respond to it. And this is as alarming as it is embarrassing.

The reason for this silence is multi-fold, but the effects of it have been nothing less than devastating, because for the bulk of our historical record destruction, we can thank the internet. Nothing is turning out as promised. And the erasure of the old system of traditional publishing is having a crippling effect on our genre — precisely because of our years of battle. It absolutely does not help that the internet wooed us into certain false beliefs about how immortal all writing would become — how accessible…

For example, we have long had it preached to us that the internet would open all doors and that people of similar minds would find each other and unite, and wondrous alliances would form and knowledge would spill forth into and all over the universe.

It didn’t.

In fact, all it did do was kill print – the very medium in which the bulk of Horror lives, and the exact place documentation of our entire history was placed for safekeeping. Print, you see, was believed to be the medium that would last long after most if not all of humanity perished.

Since around 3400 BC, we have been collecting writing as a species. So the rise of Amazon and the virulent attack on the hard copy medium of all of the Arts, the open invitation to theft of intellectual property was certainly on nobody’s radar. But the Tech Revolution has made it a point of its rise to obliterate Art as a living for Artists, and in that process, everything our genre produced in writing in the very public battle of that Critic versus the Genre War has been all but lost.

This has been a devastating blow to the genre. And from the current trajectory of technology, we may be losing literally everything we have worked centuries for.

Milk2

You think I am kidding about where we nested our history? Go here https://www.amazon.com/Classic-Horror-Collection-H-P-Lovecraft/dp/1788285387/ref=asc_df_1788285387/ and read the introduction…

Our History in Reprints

In the Horror genre, we have always had dedicated fans. And for us, our most vocal writers and editors independently kept the flame of defending our genre’s Literary integrity alive for decades. We did it in print, and relied on its immortality in reprints.

People get to know each other by reading their words. Oral tradition becomes written tradition. And through that process, we all get to see where we fit in, where we have come from, and what our predecessors were thinking.

But we also through print get to peek through the window of time to see where we have come as cultures and societies. This means that essays included in the front of those books often say as much about our changing values as they do about Literature or individual writers’ lives. But it also means we sometimes have the privilege to discover lost or hidden gems in details about certain publications, publishers, editors or writers; we get to see the unvarnished history of the genre…

In Horror, we had begun to assimilate and collect our own history because no one – especially not the Literary Critic – was doing it. There was a strong sense of torch-passing, of keeping the words and opinions of our own greatest writers alive. There were those who collected the good stuff and saw to it that our most influential writers were reprinted often with or within the genre Classics – the ones that were so indisputably Horror and so probably Literature that we wanted to educate new initiates to the genre. Along with those works came the arguments for their defense – either Literarily, or simply for the pleasure of their existence.

Editors came to play a big part in this, primarily because they oversaw the genre during the publishing boom that happened from the 1950s to the 1980s. They were in perfect position to have opinions and gain battlefield experience and expertise, and so they wrote about it.

For anyone who wants to “read” the history of the Horror genre, you need to find old magazines and old reprints of Horror books and read the front matter – the prefaces and introductions and forewords written by our genre experts. In those you will witness not only what Horror was doing in every decade, but what writers and editors felt about the definitions and directions the genre seemed headed in. You will find essays on classic writers, including hard-to-find details about writer biographies and publication history, battles with Critics and editors, opinions about formula, conventions and terminology.

This peculiar way of documenting our history was oddly what the internet was supposed to be about…everyday fans and genre Establishment discussing the genre…

And because print lives in a world where reprints also live, even if you missed a great essay, chances were it would be reprinted enough times elsewhere than the original publication that the everyday fan could find it…eventually. Now, however, the silence on our historical journey is deafening.

With the single exceptions of editors Stephen Jones and Ellen Datlow, no single editor is being published in print regularly enough to establish those historical breadcrumbs. No one.

And I absolutely bristle when anyone in the Establishment says we can of course have access to our own history through the internet.

Take editor Paula Guran as the most horrific modern example. One of our genre’s finest editors and one who will historically go down as one of our century’s most prominent editors as well, Guran once produced email Horror newsletter Dark Echo “for horror writers and others”… http://paulaguran.com/about/ This was not only well-received by the Establishment, but was touted as one of the finest publications in the genre; I personally visited its pages on the net frequently. And I never would have guessed based on the mythology that I would one day not have it as a reference. Well, the day came.

Within those pages, Guran often discussed pertinent changes happening in the genre – living history…It was part of the literal pulse of the genre. And now that it is no longer in production, you cannot retrieve it on the internet. Period.

ALL OF THAT INFORMATION IS LOST. GONE. IRRETRIEVABLE.

Guran, an undisputed contributing authority on an important period of our genre, has been silenced – first because the what’s-on-the-internet-lives-forever myth really was a myth, and because the internet’s evisceration of print has led to the loss of yet another regularly employed editor in the genre: her. (And when the genre is willing to lose its Number Three editor – Number Two in the U.S. – then Houston, we have a problem.)

We are fast approaching an unsustainable new fiction-breeding population: less than two established editors in a genre equates to homogeny in that genre. And that is a direct result of the Tech Revolution’s plan to end print… which is starting to suspiciously look like a plan to end a lot of writing and writers along with it.

But there is another problem – the problem that ending the print industry means an end to the collecting of those previous and historical works (let alone modern ones), and an end to accessibility through availability, and the established cycle of reprints.

Not only can we not get reprints of older historically-relevant essays, but we cannot get what was printed (or internet generated) a decade ago.

How long are we going to put up with this?

Why is the solution someone else’s problem?

And where the hell is our Establishment? Rubbing their hands in glee anticipating a total takeover of the genre from the inside out?

It certainly feels like it.

I will say it again: our complete history exists in the front and back matter of countless, previously published books. NO ONE has collected them all in one place. NO ONE has sat down to collate the information into one or more volumes so that real Horror fans and writers who want to be educated within the genre can at least self-educate.

And what about future editors?

Does no one think that what has transpired over this tumultuous three decades of internet intrusion deserves documentation?

Really?

If all we have are MFA programs that despise genre writing, and virtually no print magazines, and limited markets for new and upcoming writers, and one remaining reputable and traditionally trained/established editor, and an elitist professional organization… How exactly are we to prevent uneducated-in-the-genre-history editors from misguiding the genre? How do we stop what will most certainly become ignorance?

With the loss of print, we have lost not only paying jobs in the genre, and training grounds in the genre for editors and writers, but we have lost the collective memory of our history.

How then can we also possibly help the Critic help us?

More importantly, how do we keep Horror on life-support until a real plan shakes out?

Milk3

 Critics and Comic Books

This is what the internet has reduced us to:

One freaking editor still working in this country who knows her stuff.

And no one is saying anything. Are you kidding me?

It seems right now that the only passionate people who give a flying **** about the genre are comic book/graphic novel writers and our one single official Literary Critic – S.T. Joshi. And while we have “people” doing what is being called Literary Criticism – as in the case of Jeff Vandermeer – keep in mind the field of Literary Criticism is not the field of criticizing Literature, but a Ph.D. level educational credential.  (Vandermeer does awesome critical work but I do not yet see the credential behind his name, so can recommend him as an awesome essayist but not as a Literary Critic.) There is also real Literary Critic and writer China Mievielle, but at this time I am unaware of any published Critical work by him (which I fervently hope he will change soon), and can only point to a few front matter works by him, which are impressive and worth the read.

Milk4

Go here   https://www.amazon.com/At-Mountains-Madness-Definitive-Classics-ebook/dp/B000FCK5US/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=mountains+of+madness+mieville&qid=1567428014&s=books&sr=1-1-catcorr#reader_B000FCK5US    to read his fantastic Critical essay on Lovecraft.

Comic books and graphic novels is where a lot of writers and opinionated fans have retreated. Perhaps it is because of this age’s reliance on the visual, or perhaps it is because these subgenres of Horror have always been underrated and a bit rogue. Campy and rich with pulp, they represent the roots of our genre in a unique way, and within their own worlds, they may well be living and holding the hidden history of the genre right now. But if you are looking for “official” history, you will have a hard time cumulating it in the here-today-gone-tomorrow Print On Demand environment of our hide-and-seek world of the internet.

You are, I think, better served to look to the Critics. And in this case, our one Critic.

S.T. Joshi, once a writer in the genre himself, has taken it upon himself to try to do some of the heavy lifting in getting Horror established as a Literary genre. He has begun not only looking for the history of the genre and the works and writers that make up that history, but has begun the much harder conversation of defining the genre…

What is Horror? And is “Horror” the right name for the genre?

He has begun looking for terminology, to come up with a common lexicon so there is absolutely no confusion about what is meant when Critics and others sit down to talk genre shop.

There was a time when we would have had “people” to engage in this conversation. But either they are not out there, or the internet has made darn sure they cannot be found.

This is a problem. And I am sure that not even a Literary Critic believes that his or her singular voice should be the only voice in a discussion.

But right now, Joshi is the only one consistently publishing his continuing analysis of the genre, and he is a bit handicapped, because being human, he has preferences and aversions. He is, at least, uniquely honest about them as he sets about his mission to establish definitions and ground rules for the genre. And as such, we are privy to some very revealing internal discussions he is being forced to have with himself, and the opportunity for fans and writers of the genre to learn something valuable about the genre and Literary Criticism is priceless.

I recommend Joshi highly, because whether you agree with him or not, he is helping the genre understand not only Literature, but its own role in it. He is inadvertently speaking TO us as a genre, showing us how Criticism works and why it needs from us what it needs.

He helps us see the reasoning Critics use to determine Literature, and in doing so helps us to look at our own writing and works differently – in such a way that we can either say we don’t write Literature and don’t want to, or that we would like to try our hand at it and therefore how to get into the mud with it.

Either way, he is educating us about how Literature and Critics work — how they think. What we do with it and how we argue and debate about it can and should be informed by just this type of academic writing structured for the layman.

So here are his works that you need to read and force yourself to read completely (whether you agree with him or not) because IF you don’t agree, learn what he (a Critic) needs to hear back from you on why or why not. If you don’t speak his language, and he does not speak ours, then we are just yelling at each other.

Milk5Milk6Milk7

 

What To Do About Our History Amnesia

The most important thing a fan can take away from this is that Horror as a genre has had many growing pains and has had many people that stood up to document those pains. We have a written history that is splashed all over the front matter of books we cannot get or find anymore.

But there are people. We still have “people.”

And our history was never intentionally lost but deviously and unceremoniously erased by the Tech Revolution fallout.

We need to set about reacquiring it, republishing it, and making it available to novice writers, editors and new fans.

I recommend reading the essays of Lovecraft and Poe where ever you can find them. But I also recommend reading essays by Stephen King, and S.T. Joshi (who admittedly dislikes his writing). I recommend reading anything written in front matter by editors Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, Jeff Vandermeer, Stephen Jones, and occasional editor British Literary Critic China Mieville. And anything written by writers like Ramsey Campbell, Robert Bloch, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, and Joyce Carol Oates are also vital to the ongoing discussion of our history.

For “documentation” of the genre’s ongoing history, I strongly recommend the Mammoth Book series of Best New Horror (an annual publication of international repute). Currently edited by British editor Stephen Jones, the voluminous front matter includes the Year in Horror summation with genre news, new and defunct publications, industry changes and effects, books, movies and anthologies published/produced, awards and obituaries. Read it and you will be fully “up to speed” on the year.

Because this is all that remains of our historical narrative…

And if we don’t do something definitive and soon, we are going to be lost to another kind of history.

It’s time to start reconstruction. It’s time to start working with Literary Critics. It’s time we starting talking to each other as a genre again… It’s time to be monstrous.

Milk8

https://www.amazon.com/Lunarable-License-Monsters-Parenthood-Aluminum/dp/B078J5YV7V

That Woman In Black: Susan Hill — a Gothic Writer for the Canon


It’s time we got one thing straight: what all seminal writers of what should become our Horror canon have in common is this – whatever they write, from wherever they come, however long they are with us, their stories shape the genre in some important and unforgettable way.

Yet at this moment in our history, we have apparently “decided” that along with writers who also write in other genres, the ones we should ignore are the ones who “reject” our genre or who write limited works in our genre.

This is stupid and a horrible, intentional oversight.

We can excuse Literary Critics who embrace their favorites based on their academic interpretations and understanding of not only what makes Literary writing great, but what qualifying mechanics they also prefer to see in their own love of Horror. But in truth, for the rest of us what truly belongs in our canon are works that drive the evolution of our genre, stories that beget stories and ever newer interpretations of Horror, tales that reinvent established subgenres so that modern times can participate in the traditions of the genre.

Yet this is not what is happening. There are certain authors whose names seem “forcibly” and reluctantly mentioned when the Establishment is pressed to supply qualifying names for our as-yet-established canon…and Susan Hill is just such a writer.

H1

It’s All About the Writing, Right?

Susan Hill was born in Scarborough, England, February 5, 1942, educated at a convent school, a graduate of King’s College, London. Her first novel was published while in school in 1961, and she was a freelance journalist from 1963-1968, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1972. She has been described as a “prolific writer of numerous novels, collections of short stories, non-fiction and children’s fiction as well as a respected reviewer, critic, broadcaster and editor.” (British). In 1975 she married Shakespearean actor Stanley Wells, leaving him in 2013 to move in with her current partner… “The unexpected happened to me: I fell in love with another woman who fell in love with me.” The woman is screenwriter and producer Barbara Machin, creator of Waking the Dead, for whom Hill left her husband of almost 40 years, the respected Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells….” (Kean)

Why Hill appears to be so easily dismissed by the genre seems to have an unnecessarily complicated motivation – one that may have more to do with her rejection of us…because she has indeed repeatedly tried to distance herself and her works from the Horror genre.

The question I have, is did we at any time encourage her or writers like her to just go away?

Have we gotten so arrogant in our Establishment that we banish works from writers who want nothing to do with us and do we ever ask why? When a writer recoils when called a Horror writer, should we be offended or take a much harder look at the type of works we are allowing the genre to be represented by? Furthermore, shouldn’t our Establishment be taking that very opportunity to educate both writers and readers about the true nature of our genre’s historic meanderings through so many genres, its influence on and from so many genres – and its very impressive depth?

But we also have to ask if there is something even more insidious at work here. Is our Establishment choosing and excluding writers also based not only on written content, but perhaps their own personal lives? Are we miscommunicating and even limiting the genre by our inherent “favoritisms”? And are those favorites more likely to be at least white, preferably married men, preferably within a certain agnostic or atheistic circle? Are we playing conformity games with presumed moral authority?

Is it a coincidence that Susan Hill is yet another writer in our genre who is living a nontraditional lifestyle? Whose private life is public knowledge? Who might be lesbian or bisexual or any other label so easily affixed?

We need to be asking and answering these questions. And this is not the job of the Literary Critic, but the job of those of us who collectively make up the genre. This may mean it is time for editors to explain their selections, for governing bodies to explain their rejections, and for fans to demand access to the best writers in our genre regardless of sexual orientation, lifestyle choices, or even “home” genres…

Without pressure from the Horror base, we are going to see increasingly institutionalized discrimination against new and old writers in the genre. We are going to see publication choices made that will have a chilling effect on the future trajectory and evolution of the genre. We need variety of story and voice, not censorship. And Susan Hill’s modern journey in the genre is a perfect example of what happens to writers who fall “outside” the lines… Because those other questions remain: do you know who Susan Hill is? Do you know her work? If not, why not?

Is our collective silence in the face of Susan Hill’s subsequent rejection of the genre the only reason we tend to reluctantly “mention” Susan Hill when we are talking about modern canon-elect authors? Did her rejection of us happen because she dislikes what Horror the genre is being interpreted to represent, or because she in her personal life didn’t fit the desired stereotype? And has anyone at all got a really legitimate reason why Susan Hill is never really mentioned as a foundational author in our genre?

We as a genre have begun to put out certain “vibes” that only passionate followers willing to conform to historic whim and dedicated acolytes willing reinforce emotionally-driven criteria need apply, and that everyone else who might reject or refuse to “toe the party line” will be summarily excluded. We have given the Cold Shoulder to quite a few writers and their works in our rush to enshrine Lovecraft and Poe… writers like Susan Hill, author of many well-known, well-respected ghost stories such as The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror…Does this bother anyone else out there? Does it bother anyone else that “certain” writers are given honorable mention in the most reluctant of ways – even when the general public can see a relevant contribution when it is made?

We have spent so much time in the genre clamoring for Literary writers… and Susan Hill is exactly that. Yet once again, despite the raw obviousness of her ghost stories being Horror stories, we have shrugged her off. We have come to pretend that works labelled “Gothic” aren’t really Horror because they aren’t “hard core” enough. But…the Gothic, people…. this is our foundational HISTORY.

Susan Hill walked away and we just let her go…

And yet, instead of holding the Establishment accountable, we default to blaming Hollywood, using the success or box office failure of the film to justify rejection of the work. Such is the unfortunate case with The Woman in Black (where the book is in fact, better)… Hollywood managed to botch the film – an otherwise capable tale told with substantial actors – with what looked horribly like poorly rendered, drawn-in, cartoon Dementor-like ghosts and whereupon reviewers spent most of their critical currency discussing Daniel Radcliffe and comparisons to Harry Potter films. But sadly, the presence of the film has overshadowed the wonder of the work.

Indeed, it seems that most people don’t realize that there even was a book that preceded the movie – let alone that it was fantastic in its own right. We are unfortunately today more likely to assume a work began on film instead of looking for the book that the film was created from. And perhaps – just perhaps that is a little of why we don’t really know the name of Susan Hill, but honestly the more I dug into her biography, the more I suspect something more sinister has happened to erase Hill from our present catalog of works.

Susan Hill, you see, is another author whose sexual identity is at crosshairs with the old way of seeing things, and whose works have been summarily exiled to “Literary Fiction.”

Are you seeing the same pattern I am seeing? It looks like once again exile has nothing to do with Horror. And I am embarrassed for our genre.

Furthermore, I really don’t know when we are going to get our noses out of everyone else’s personal business. But this type of “problem” we have in our genre is yet another reason I support the Literary Critical position that the author does not matter in the analysis of their work…

How can we read The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror, Dolly, or The Small Hand and ignore the legacy of Susan Hill in our genre? She has a place with us… She fills a spot emptied by the passing of the great Ghost Story Gothicists… She is a British Joyce Carol Oates, a more modern heir to the tradition of Daphne DuMaurier, her work so molecularly related to the important strands of Horror DNA that her exclusion from reading lists and recommendations is flat-out glaring.

Yet she is not touted by the genre as one of our own. Our Establishment barely acknowledges her.

Could it be because Hill rejected us first? Or because she did so very publicly?

Are we three years old and playing in sandboxes?

H2

Fixing Our Image Problem Is Not Done With Censorship

Susan Hill, you see, seems to shrink from any association with our genre – and while I would like to think that this is because of her age, that it has more to do with her own memories and rejection of the 1980’s shift to the sloppy work that spewed from the exhausted Boom or the emergence of the slasher subgenre – I suspect it might be the ghost of Clive Barker rising again… that once more our Establishment decided to play both moral and creative judge.

We are, I believe, losing authors due to two things in the Horror genre – arrogance in the Establishment that is both unfounded and totally undefined by established criteria, and a lack of official history in the genre that tells everyone interested in Horror exactly what genres and subgenres Horror encompasses.

The Horror genre is dominated by a collective ignorance – not because people are stupid, but because none of us are being educated about the genre today and because the Tech Boom’s obliteration of traditional publishing models is pushing our more modern “classics” from print and/or availability. Readers in the genre today are having a much harder time finding historically rendered Horror written by established or accepted top tier writers (like Poe, Lovecraft, King, Campbell, Barker, Rice)…let alone newer (and what would have been) mid-list authors or Literary cross-pollinators like Hill.

Worse, we have NO requirements. No matter what the Establishment says or implies, no one has drawn up any definitive and historically derived guidelines… they cannot even agree on tropes and conventions. They cannot even assemble those in one place with easily interpreted, applicable definitions. Instead any student of Horror will find not only variable lists of “accepted” authors and works, but additionally a wide interpretation and usage of terms whose definitions and usage vary according to the “authority’s” needs. No one EVER explains anything thoroughly in the genre…because clearly THEY don’t know either…and pretending it is a secret or that only Real Writers Know is just plain conceit.

This has resulted in a total identity crisis… And all the time we keep saying it is all about the writing.

Horror is what anyone says it is. And that has led to the exposure of yet another truth: our history (with the exception of recent efforts by Critics like S.T. Joshi and a few dedicated fans) remains predominantly and officially undocumented…

In other words, when a writer (let alone a reader) sees the “Horror” label, even today most do not see Classic Literature, Science Fiction, Detective/Mystery Fiction, Fantasy/Dark Fantasy Fiction, the Gothic, New Gothic, Southern Gothic, Gothic Romance, the Ghost Story as tributaries of a huge, historic Horror river. Instead they see Halloween, Chuckie, Nightmare on Elm Street, and all the really kitschy summer blockbusters of yore…

Is this what happened to Susan Hill? Was it her interpretations of self and works — or ours?

Our editors tend to look upon writers whose works mimic in any way the styles of earlier Horror incarnations as “bad” writers…as “uninteresting”…”too slow-paced”… “not modern enough”… They want something equally as yet undefined but that will please Critics, reinvigorate the genre, and sell like Stephen King… But they can’t tell you what it is…only what they think it isn’t.

And if you don’t like them…it isn’t. And increasingly, it also looks like if you are a gay or transgender writer, you probably don’t belong to us either…

Perhaps it was her own opinion of her own work, then, that reinforced one part of our Establishment’s opinion of her. As stated in piece by The Guardian, she tries mightily to distance herself from the genre:

“It is a ghost story – not a horror story, not a thriller – and not a gothic novel; although the terms are often used very loosely, they are not by any means the same thing…” (Mullan)

In the article, Hill explains herself, stating:

“I set out to write a ghost story in the classic 19th-century tradition, a full-length one. There have never been many, writers perhaps having felt the form would not stretch successfully. By the time I began mine, in the 1980s, full-length ghost stories seemed to have died out altogether. I read and studied the Jameses, Henry and MR, and Dickens, and I also had beside me the “bible” – Night Visitors by Julia Briggs (still the best study of the form).

“The list of ingredients included atmosphere, a ghost, a haunted house and other places, and weather. A footnote to “ghost” was a) of a human being; and b) with a purpose. There are dozens of little books of “true” ghost stories, usually sorted by geographical location, but almost without exception the ghosts have no purpose and so the stories are ultimately unsatisfying… There has to be more to fiction than that. There also has to be more than an easy manipulation of the reader’s superficial emotions – unless making someone jump out of their skin is the writer’s only aim. Not that trying to induce a delicious thrill of fear is bad – it is another form of entertainment, and what is wrong with being an entertainer? Dickens certainly considered himself to be one.” (Mullan)

Did she give our Establishment a way out of recognizing her work?

Worse, is she a product of the times when Horror had a less-than-savory reputation for mass market writing that was seriously less than Literary? Is she missing the forest for the trees? Does she not see her own importance to our genre based on the resonant DNA? Don’t WE?

Or is this about her sexuality? I cannot help but wonder…Because the writers I have loved as a fan are almost unanimously turning out to be gay or transgendered or wrestling with sexual identity (as well as excluded from the genre)… a fact I neither knew nor cared about growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s…because for me it has always been about the writing….

H3 H4 H5

Reclaiming the Gothic

I think the technical problem we have in the genre is a misplaced sense of “purity”… of pedigree that has not yet been firmly established by Literary Critics. But that fact does not give our Establishment free rein to declare who is and is not in-genre – not when the same Establishment cannot or will not provide clear definitions and guidelines for what it argues IS the Horror genre. Neither does it excuse the eviction of authors who are not straight, white, Christian-or-rebel-atheist and male…

Ultimately it will be the Literary Critic who decides about technical definitions – something perhaps we all conveniently forgot when we threw ourselves at the Literary Critic and demanded a belly-rub. And now that we are firmly in the sights of Literary Criticism, having finally arrived at a point where Poe would be proud, we are trying to shove innumerable authors under the carpet. Why?

In a time when we are hearing a demand for better, more Literary fiction in the genre, why are we dismissing so many writers as “other-genre”? Why aren’t we fighting for them?

Despite Hill’s own assessment of her work, I argue she most certainly does write Horror. Literary Horror. The kind of Horror that blooms from very old roots. And her writing these ghost stories prompts some very important questions for our ghost story subgenre – especially in lieu of S.T. Joshi (our one dedicated Horror Literary Critic) to state his belief that the ghost story is “done” as a subgenre, and cannot be improved upon after M.R. James… While many there may be limits on how ghosts are pressed into service, why are they any different than Vampires? Why isn’t it about telling stories and original angles? About scaring anew?

This could not be more important or timely. Do we really believe the Ghost Story is dead? Can it be properly adapted in both short story and novel to sustain originality expectations? Believability?

And what does this say about the Gothic thereafter? Is this the reason we have seen both Gothic and Southern Gothic go “silent” in the genre?

How we got to a point in Horror where we disavow the Gothic for heaven’s sake, I don’t know. I cannot imagine. While Gothic Romance teeters on the fringe of Horror to the point it leans into another genre entirely, the straight Gothic and Southern Gothic are right here… in our subgenres…most often as Ghost Stories.

Yet no one speaks on their behalf. Not the genre, not the readers, not the publishers… and sometimes, not even the writers…

Perhaps Hill does not wish to be identified as a Horror writer, and I understand: the 1980’s left a particularly bad taste in the mouths of many readers and Critics who wanted so much more from us. Maybe we need to acknowledge the price this decade has also had on what were then “future” writers; because even I have to admit, the 1980s is precisely when I began to drift away from Horror. Perhaps the slasher/trashier sloppiness of the published writings drove away a lot more people than has been explained as fans aging out. Hill is a perfect example; she was born in 1942, writing her first novel her first year at university (which was criticized as “unsuitable” for having been written by a schoolgirl), and writing eight novels between 1968 and 1974. She wrote The Woman in Black in 1983 – just as the publishing mills were spinning gold, but not much in the way of Literature – especially in Horror.

Yet one can only split hairs so much. The Woman In Black may be Literary, may be Gothic… but it is indisputably also a Ghost Story. We can empathize with her ambitions to write “better” than what was exemplified by Horror at the time. However Hill is definitively Gothic… even somewhat in her more recent move to Crime Fiction. Since its inception, Horror has been irretrievably linked to both Science Fiction by way of Lovecraft and Detective Fiction by way of Wilkie Collins. In leaving the genre Hill (on her own or otherwise) has not really, fully left the genre…

I argue this is not a bad thing. And I hope Hill herself will come to see it.

I would say that Horror needs writers like her in it, needs her works filling out the spice rack. Writers in the Horror genre today are writing in the dark. We have no real, definitive guidance as to who among modern writers have or are shaping the genre today… we barely have acknowledgement of which writers have partially solidified the still-fuzzy boundaries of the genre. All we have to tell us are the plethora of theme-based anthologies, tribute anthologies, editorial stylings, and Hollywood.

It’s time this changed. We are just now beginning to have Literary Criticism look at the genre. We need to help Critics plow through the massive dump of writings out there… to make suggestions as a genre as to who we find to be significant influences on modern works so that future Literary Critics can take a hard look at the nominees and see if they have the merit we sense they do.

Clearly, we cannot rely on our Establishment to do this, at least right now. For whatever reason, heads are firmly planted in the sand. And with the internet severely cutting into the way Classic Horror is published (so many falling out of copyright protections so that “anyone” seems to be publishing them, leaving their rightful legacy unacknowledged by the authorities of the genre) that some very important names are not being given their due respect. New readers in the genre do not know who they are. And all too often, many are falling out of publication (where in the past history of publishing houses these authors might have been backlisted but they were still proudly available).

Meanwhile in our own genre, we are seeing a tendency toward separating the Literary from Horror, and wielding what looks like moral judgment.

In fact, the presence of so many Literary talents who also write occasionally in our genre should be a welcome thing. Naming them as part of the genre could be an educational thing — an elevating-our-game thing.

H6

When Gothic Is Horror: Is Horror Literary or Not?

After everything Poe and Lovecraft went through, and all of those marvelous essays by our genre’s writers and editors… What the hell is going on?

All of a sudden a Literary writer is not a Horror writer.

Funny. I don’t see the Establishment banning Poe or Lovecraft, two of our most Literary writers. And this means we all have a burning question for the Establishment as readers AND writers:

What do you want?

And don’t think Literary Critics won’t notice the choices being made and who is making them: Literary Critics thrive on pattern recognition…

To deny a writer because they either consistently write as Literary writers, in other genres, or even if they totally disdain our genre is totally irresponsible. By their works ye shall know them… And if that denial has anything at all to do with sexual orientation, we have and even bigger problem…

Susan Hill wrote Horror. (Sorry, Ms. Hill, but this is true. And it is awesome.)

But is this also a case of moral exclusion?

Are we again seeing a case where a writer’s personal life has colored the perceptions of our Establishment?

Especially with today’s proliferation of the internet and social media – with the amount of pure, adulterated, unfounded gossip… The very idea that Literary Criticism might be conducted with a writer’s reputation and scandal-meter in mind is absolutely horrifying. If we are, for example, excluding a writer like Hill based on the “limited” scandal of her sexuality in her time, what damage could be done to the whole of Literature if we do not firmly and immediately embrace Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author”?

If we are excluding her because she doesn’t like us, maybe we should be asking if we are like-able…Or if we are all doing our jobs properly.

It is time to put a stop to this, no matter where it is coming from. Writing, like music and any of the Arts, should stand alone, to be let to speak its truth. Knowing about the biography of the writer, musician or artist should enhance the work… not define it. A writer’s sexuality, except perhaps in its Literary influence in his or her work has nothing to do with the work.

Susan Hill belongs in our canon.

I am not a Literary Critic, so I am not sure where in it she belongs. But I DO know her writing helped bring our attention back to the ghost story. She is part of the new movement of gothic ghost story currently gaining a bit of leverage, but left to languish in the orphaned “Gothic” (which is ours and us, by the way)… writers like Canadian author Simone St. James, Australians Darcy Coates and John Harwood, and English author Judy Finnegan, and American Jennifer McMahon…

Have you heard of THOSE writers? If not, why not? We need to be asking – no – DEMANDING answers from our establishment…and we can begin by demanding recognition of Susan Hill.

To say that they are mainstream, or too other-genre, or not interesting enough is flat-out insulting. This is Horror now: we are not Poe or Lovecraft… and many of us are WOMEN… but all of us love the stories that make Horror Horror…

And that is how “trends” start… One writer at a time… with a writer who remembers the way another writer once made him or her feel…

 

Bibliography

2014 The Soul of Discretion

2013 Black Sheep

2012 Dolly

2012 A Question of Identity

2011 The Betrayal of Trust

2011 A Kind Man

2010 The Small Hand

2010 The Shadows in the Street

2009 Howards End is on the Landing

2008 The Battle for Gullywith

2008 The Vows of Silence

2008 The Beacon

2007 The Man in the Picture

2006 Farthing House: And Other Stories

2006 The Risk of Darkness

2005 The Pure in Heart

2004 The Various Haunts of Men

2003 The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper to Read

1998 The Service of Clouds

1997 Listening to the Orchestra

1997 The Second Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1995 Contemporary Women’s Short Stories

1995 Reflections from a Garden

1994 The Christmas Collection

1994 Pirate Poll

1993 Mrs de Winter

1993 King of Kings

1993 Beware, Beware

1992 The Mist in the Mirror: A Ghost Story

1992 A Very Special Birthday

1991 The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1991 The Glass Angels

1991 Air and Angels

1990 Ghost Stories

1990 The Parchment Man: An Anthology of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1990 Stories from Codling Village

1990 I Won’t Go There Again

1990 Septimus Honeydew

1990 The Walker Book of Ghost Stories

1989 Family

1989 Suzy’s Shoes

1988 Can It Be True?: A Christmas Story

1988 The Spirit of the Cotswolds

1987 Lanterns Across the Snow

1987 Shakespeare Country

1986 The Lighting of the Lamps

1986 Mother’s Magic

1985 The Ramshackle Company

1984 One Night at a Time

1983 People: Essays and Poems

1983 The Woman in Black

1983 Ghost Stories

1982 The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year

1980 New Stories

1979 The Distracted Preacher and Other Stories by Thomas Hardy

 Awards

2006 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year

1988 Nestlé Smarties Book Prize (Gold Award)

1972 Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize

1972 Whitbread Novel Award

1971 Somerset Maugham Award

 

References

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Retrieved 7/16/2019 from https://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/Barthes.pdf

British Council of Literature. Retrieved 7/25/2019 from https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/susan-hill

Kean, Danuta. Interview. “Susan Hill: I am Not Pro-Trump! Really? Do People Think That of Me?” The Guardian. March 4, 2017. Retrieved 7/15/2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/susan-hill-i-am-not-pro-trump-really-do-people-think-that-of-me

Mullan, John. Book Club Books. “The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.” The Guardian. Feb 17, 2012. Retrieved 7/15/2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/17/woman-in-black-book-club-susan-hill

Tales of the Unexpected: Roald Dahl, Literary Device, and the Horror Canon


Most of us remember the first time we read a real Horror story. But the one author who opened that door and lured so many of us through it is typically forgotten when it comes time to assemble a Horror canon…

The author is Roald Dahl– that Roald Dahl – the one of children’s book fame; author of Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG… and like Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm before him, we have decided that his stories are for children. But what we tend to forget are the tales he wrote for adults – his much celebrated Tales of the Unexpected – that can effectively teach modern Horror writers how to take simple situations and common characters that occur in our day-to-day lives and lay out a startling, resonating and lasting Horror on the page.

His is a modern style – one that is often considered an anathema to the genre because Lovecraft opposed the tendency toward Horror that utilizes anything deemed “common”… Yet his stories are enjoyably effective, and reading him is a lesson in language usage – primarily satire and irony.

Have we decided his adult stories are not Horror because he also writers children’s stories, or because his adult stories are not Weird? And are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Are these not only the Horror tales we seek, but ones that we seek to tell and all too often fail at?

Roald Dahl, I suggest, is one writer whose adult work not only belongs in the Horror canon, but whose writings should be studied for their ability to use language devices… the very ones we hear tell of in English class, but seldom see so efficiently and accurately wielded. Roald Dahl is yet another author you should know, and have on your Horror shelf.

D1

Irony and Satire: Do You Know Where Your Outrage Is?

Author of 19 novels, 9 nonfiction works, 13 collections, and 3 poems, Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales on September 13, 1916 to Norwegian parents. “Following his graduation from Repton, a renowned British public school, in 1932, Dahl avoided a university education and joined an expedition to Newfoundland. He worked from 1937 to 1939 in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (now in Tanzania), but he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) when World War II broke out. Flying as a fighter pilot, he was seriously injured in a crash landing in Libya. He served with his squadron in Greece and then in Syria before doing a stint (1942–43) as assistant air attaché in Washington, D.C. (during which time he also served as a spy for the British government)…” he died November 23, 1990…. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roald-Dahl

In order to talk about why Roald Dahl affects and enhances our canon, we have to talk about using Literary Devices. Dahl’s work is not only riddled with them, it teaches us by example how to employ them…and this is a lesson we desperately need in this age of gutted Humanities education.

Along the way to modernity in the Horror genre, we as readers and writers have lost the understanding of the many possibilities proffered by alternative functions of language – not just those constructions which communicate a story, but which can also communicate the subtleties of human interaction. We in American Horror are so impressed with pointless diversions like found footage and swinging light fixtures in the “fun” of Horror, that we forget what Horror was meant to do – to reach down deep inside and pull out our still-beating hearts. Horror is meant to connect…to draw blood. Yet modern American Horror is still not fully succeeding at this; our Horror tends to be fleeting and disconnected. And missing that use of the versatility of language is yet another reason our Horror tends to just lie about on the page, not-working to its fullest effect.

This is also why Literary Critics are so frustrated with us. And it remains the unspoken criticism of editorial rejections. We may have a command of language in terms of vocabulary and grammar and sentence structure, but we have lost all of the shades of meaning, the Art of Language that is so central a part of sound storytelling.

And while we can enjoy the superficial window dressing of modern Horror fiction, getting deep into the story is our responsibility as readers and providing those many sub-basements and hidden attics are our responsibility as writers. Only by having and peeling back such layers can we gain that frisson of terror – and it is not about having to know the names for things, the rules of technique, the secret of the magic trick; it is knowing that a magic trick is happening and still not catching the magician at the illusion. It is a subconscious exchange of awareness.

When we talk about inserting Literary elements and World View into Horror in the hopes of building better fiction, we absolutely have to talk about HOW to do it.

Time and again we are” taught” by inference that genius wills out and the rest of us need day jobs. Yet we are also underestimating the value of a sound Classics education on the young writer’s formative mind; on how early and thorough education about language and storytelling pound in place a subconscious narrative on how to use language to do more than basic communication. Put Lovecraft in a cave, and I wonder if we would have gotten the Weird…I wonder if we would be calling the man a genius. He had access to a Classics education, to all of the most modern science of his day, to the entitlement mentality of the rich (even as he languished in the loss of his family fortune). We cannot say the same of our young writers today. We cannot say it even of MY generation.

For those whose intentions are both artistic and honorable, the confusion comes when genius is not equated with sales but with Criticism. And when publication is equated with either talent in telling the tale OR telling a really merchandisable one; the two are not exactly or always compatible.

There is no absolutely black-and-white formula for getting there. There is no education. There is no mentoring. There is not a whit of conversation, encouragement, or guidance. We know we have a story to tell, we might even be Literarily angry… but we have no clue in how to start, revise, or finish.

Fiction writing is not generally taught – or not taught early enough.

And this is why in lieu of actual fiction writing instruction a novice writer does best to read the Classics of the genre… Read enough, and hopefully an epiphany will occur – either subconsciously or consciously – enabling the elevation of one’s personal craft…Because we don’t tend to see much in the way of education fitting the bill. And for the most part, we can forget guidance within a genre that does not commit to discussion, the formal establishment of our history, let alone invite experimentation in its writers. There is an informational and authoritative black hole.

We are, instead, left to deduce how language works…there is no clear disclosure of the fundamentals beyond grammar and its crazy rules, but instead a patchwork of seemingly unrelated and un-relatable terms and concepts. But I found that the adult short stories of Dahl can briefly turn the light on in these empty rooms. And when it comes to pressing Literary elements into Horror, this makes Dahl’s stories integral, and consistently unlike most others in the genre. His use of the Literary Devices of irony and satire are as close to a formula as we could ask…his execution almost textbook.

None of this, however, is any good if we do not understand “Literary Devices”…

My own experience with education and fiction writing has been more about reading and creating essay papers systematically called the “Literary Analysis”… Here, teachers briefly suggest one look at the use of Literary Devices: satire, irony, allusion, diction, euphemism, metaphor, analogy, allegory, imagery, personification, etc… all terms with which to construct observations in the form of an essay. They did in fact attempt to give examples, but many teachers and professors clearly feared giving too good of an example would lead to plagiarizing that example in the assignment. Therefore, students tended to leave the classroom even more confused about what was expected, even more mystified about the actual techniques utlilized by the Masters of good writing which we were expected to deduce (for instance, were they intentionally planted by the author? Or did they just happen in merry coincidence? No one ever said). For most of us – even inexcusably English majors – the entire concept of Literature continues to grow even more muddy.

Worse for us, however, that exact educator fear of explaining too much also means no one really, thoroughly ever talks about Literary Devices. Terms like “satire” and “irony” become key words we as students learn to name-drop in class and in papers without really understanding what they actually define and how they are connected, how structure in writing happens. We are never given the mental picture of any hierarchy of language elements. Terms are free-floating in balloons, sailing well over our heads. And when we consider how many people are not teaching us about language and writing…well, it is a wonder we still manage to produce ANY level of Literature in this country.

(I say again: we need classroom education in the art of writing fiction. We need instruction in technique. We also need it by middle school. And that requires more time, not less… it means STEM needs to learn to work with the lion’s share of educational funding attention it gets and leave what is left of the Arts alone.)

Most of us exited class and even high school and sometimes college wondering how important this all was, and why we should care. Yet we need to care. Understanding all of the hidden meanings and disguised references are a crucial part of discovery in Literature; that private “aha!” moment that might be unconsciously derived or blurted out in excitement is what makes reading a more deeply rewarding experience.

You have probably experienced it when you realized what else a story might be talking about, like theories that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are possibly allegories for World War II…or if you wondered who was right about the Don McLean folksong American Pie (is it about the history of rock and roll, or about the Kennedy assassination?) What we need to understand is that a “device” in Literature moves subversively – like it does in poetry. It is communicated like Morse code; there are patterns, bread crumbs that web the ideas in the mind. And then epiphany happens when the possibility that this is what the author is really saying materializes.

Then everything changes. And that, friends and neighbors, is what “allegory” is all about, strung up on the trellis of Literary Device.

Literary Devices, therefore, are not merely created to become subjects for term papers. They are writing tools. They are there for your reading pleasure, and sometimes as fragments of unconscious expression of the writer’s deepest beliefs – perhaps deep enough the writer is not aware of having revealed them, sometimes intentionally crafted to goad the reader into action while reveling in the story itself, perhaps indeed acting in service to allegory.

Roald Dahl is a writer who uses satire and irony. And he also does it with a touch of Horror and psychological terror. Through it he is pointing out the annoying, tortuous foibles of modern society – from institutionalized cultural behaviors, to the psychological gymnastics we all perform to stay sane. We can read the story without taking its elements apart and be strangely sated. But what happens if we look deeper? First we must know about the Devices he is using.

So what is satire?

“Satire is all about mockery and shaming– typically of social conventions, politics, and the people who serve as figureheads for disagreeable behaviors. And it uses irony as its main delivery system. Dahl uses a great deal of dramatic irony – where the reader or spectator knows something one or more of the characters do not.” https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/why-does-author-roald-dahl-use-verbal-dramatic-536945

What is irony?

Dahl introduces us to two forms: “Situational irony”( an event that is opposite to what is expected), and “dramatic irony” (where the reader knows what the characters in the story do not). (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire)

It is through these two main devices that we meet the real Roald Dahl – the one who seems to have an uncanny understanding of how any social injustice or slight can make us feel; he takes us unceremoniously to the cliff edge and we willingly topple right over at his urging. This is artistry in language at its best: every story is an exercise in the economy of words, nothing extra is there. Every word works. Every Device is working right alongside: irony and satire in Dahl’s writing are the draft horses.

This is also exemplary of Dahl’s style – so simple and plainly exposed on the page. This is an art we seem to have lost – the art of simple, uncontrived storytelling. And I blame the modern mad rush to action-adventure in the genre, the muddying and blurring of lines of genre made to serve as a guideline for writing in the genre. There has always been more than one way to do most anything, and if we all do the same thing even on orders, where does originality go?

We are talking about the modern imposition of style preferences… and if criticisms and editorial displeasure is to be believed, even that has gone awry. And maybe it has gone awry because when we aren’t writing to spec for Hollywood, then we are tending to refuse to accept anything Lovecraft wouldn’t have approved of as Horror – anything not Weird. And it is time we started asking how many Roald Dahl’s can we afford to lose?

Diversity in storytelling is important for the genre – it is the way we find our audience and our next artistic direction. We are at risk of losing a lot of Horror if we are going to eliminate everything not written in the style of Lovecraft – and perhaps we should even be asking if that is why Young Adult Horror is well out-performing Adult Horror – precisely because they don’t have Lovecraft hanging over their heads…

According to Joyce Carol Oates, we can hear the bell ringing with Roald Dahl:

“Though a number of Dahl’s most engaging stories, particularly in his early career, are cast in a realist mode, his reputation is that of a writer of macabre, blackly jocose tales that read, at their strongest, like artful variants of Grimm’s fairy tales; Dahl is of that select society of Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro), Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Iris Murdoch, satiric moralists who wield the English language like a surgical instrument to flay, dissect, and expose human folly. As a female character says in the ironically titled “My Lady Love, My Dove”: “I’m a nasty person. And so are you—in a secret sort of way. That’s why we get along together.” Given Dahl’s predilection for severely punishing his fictional characters, you might expect this nasty lady to be punished, but Roald Dahl is not a writer to satisfy expectations.” https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Some of us hunger for that kind of Horror now and then, because instinctively we know that fairy tales so very often got it right…

D2

Using Dahl to Understand Literary Horror and the Power of Simplicity

One of the reasons Dahl has risen in my estimation as a Horror canon writer is because writers who belong in our canon should be writers who in some way shape it. Dahl brings to the fore the importance of the mainstream and commonality of our shared world, elevated by shock value as delivered by Literary Device reflecting the flaws of our times and executed with the precision of a technical writer. This is what reading short stories should feel like. When we read Dahl, we bless him for not making us think: we can enjoy the show. But we can also lift the curtain and see the man behind it if we choose. We can poke about for analogy, and we can study his sleight of hand for his magical technique.

But unavoidably, we see, hear, and feel the Horror. And it is powerfully experienced. It is memorable. It stays with us like it was our own personal and painful memory. Dahl haunts us for years after reading him.

This Literary lesson is not readily found in most of our genre – at least, not so clearly. This makes the lesson of how to employ Literary Devices accessible – even attractive to novices. And isn’t infusing Literary elements into the genre the main goal of both Literary Critics and contemporary editors?

When we look at Dahl, we can see how uncomplicated effective and “effortless” original storytelling could and should be. Yet his stories are also a great read. Why then is he never really mentioned within our genre, let alone adult fiction writing? Why, especially, in times like these when we seem to have lost our ability to understand how to create original fiction from commonplace life?

And is that why he is not considered a Horror writer – because his stories are about common people, places and things – in exactly the way Lovecraft said dooms great Horror? I have little more than theories. But at this moment in time our genre seems to not know what it is or what it wants, beyond the scope of demanding undefined “good,” “Original,” “approved” Horror…and that also makes a ton of money.

Yet don’t we have to write about our own times? Aren’t we obligated, if we are to create Literature and Literary Horror?

We need to be asking what we want from our modern writers when it comes to non-Hollywood-oriented writing. And we need to read and study writers like Roald Dahl. That means we need to acknowledge him as part of our genre. Says Margaret Talbot in her 2005 article titled “The Candyman: Why Children Love Roald Dahl’s Stories – and Many Adults Don’t” (further proof the man is writing Horror):

“Most of Dahl’s early writing was for adults. He specialized in wartime stories and macabre tales with surprise endings, or what the British call “a twist in the tail.”… But by the early sixties… The New Yorker, which had earlier accepted several stories, now sent rejection notices. Dahl’s adult stories were crisply, shiveringly enjoyable—rather like “Twilight Zone” episodes—but they showed little compassion or psychological penetration. It was children, it seemed, not adults, on whom Dahl could lavish empathy.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/11/the-candy-man

Yet he wrote stories for adults… and they are great stories that remind us that concepts handled correctly can drive great stories – whether driven by satire or not, irony or not, Literature or not…but the better ones do have such elements.

D3

If we wish to do the deep-dive of Literary Criticism, we can look into the rise of feminism at this early time in Dahl’s life – we can see evidence in the repetitive patterns of female characters he sketches for us – the stereotypical wife gone off the rails, acts of revenge that tickle the spine and the imagination.

Here is an excerpt of my favorite story of his titled Lamb to the Slaughter, delivered with his typical simple and direct style:

“This is going to be a bit of a shock to you, I’m afraid,” he said. “But I’ve thought about it a good deal and I’ve decided the only thing to do is tell you right away. I hope you won’t blame me too much.”

And he told her. It didn’t take long, four or five minutes at most, and she stayed very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word.

“So there it is,” he added. “And I know it’s kind of a bad time to be telling you, bet there simply wasn’t any other way. Of course I’ll give you money and see you’re looked after. But there needn’t really be any fuss. I hope not anyway. It wouldn’t be very good for my job.”

Her first instinct was not to believe any of it, to reject it all. It occurred to her that perhaps he hadn’t even spoken, that she herself had imagined the whole thing. Maybe, if she went about her business and acted as though she hadn’t been listening, then later, when she sort of woke up again, she might find none of it had ever happened.

“I’ll get the supper,” she managed to whisper, and this time he didn’t stop her.

When she walked across the room she couldn’t feel her feet touching the floor. She couldn’t feel anything at all- except a slight nausea and a desire to vomit. Everything was automatic now-down the steps to the cellar, the light switch, the deep freeze, the hand inside the cabinet taking hold of the first object it met. She lifted it out, and looked at it. It was wrapped in paper, so she took off the paper and looked at it again.

A leg of lamb.

All right then, they would have lamb for supper. She carried it upstairs, holding the thin bone-end of it with both her hands, and as she went through the living-room, she saw him standing over by the window with his back to her, and she stopped.

“For God’s sake,” he said, hearing her, but not turning round. “Don’t make supper for me. I’m going out.”

At that point, Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head….” https://4.files.edl.io/4a65/10/23/18/235824-cd055462-e062-467c-a8ae-492f46d8caad.pdf

What is most useful about Dahl, is the direct way we can see everything laid out in his stories. If a writer is looking for a how-to, Dahl is your man. His works are uncomplicated – even while wielding Literary elements. We can see the story. We can go back and see the elements.

Clarifies David Ulin in his 2016 article titled “Roald Dahl’s Twisted, Overlooked Stories for Adults”:

“What we’re seeing is a style, a sensibility: that sophisticated, offhand voice, that air of a story heard and repeated; fiction as gossip or conversation, a game of telephone. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of Sherwood Anderson, that master of the story within a story, but even more, perhaps, of Kurt Vonnegut, who was writing his early short fiction at the same time Dahl was producing his. Vonnegut ultimately gave up on writing stories, put off by what he saw as their contrivance: “Short stories are artificial; they are very clever misrepresentations of life,” Vonnegut told me, in 1997. “You can be fairly truthful about life if you have a little length, but a short story has to be awfully cute—it has to be a con.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Yet Dahl does con us. He makes Horror look easy. Because maybe it is easier than we have been wont to make it, so accessible we could all of us BE any of his characters… Yet this is not the only reason Dahl succeeds in hooking us. Says Joyce Carol Oates in her 2007 article titled “The Art of Vengeance,”

“Dahl has a zest for blackly comic sadistic situations in which characters, often hapless, are punished out of all proportion to their wrongdoings. In one of the more subtly crafted stories, the ironically titled “The Way Up to Heaven,” first published in The New Yorker in 1954, an exasperatingly slow, doddering, self-absorbed old coot, seemingly so rich as to live in a “large six-storey house in New York City, on East Sixty-second Street, [with] four servants” and his own private elevator, is allowed by his long-suffering wife, to remain trapped in the elevator as she leaves for six weeks in Europe to visit her daughter:

The chauffeur, had he been watching [Mrs. Foster] closely, might have noticed that her face had turned absolutely white and that the whole expression had suddenly altered. There was no longer that rather soft and silly look. A peculiar hardness had settled itself upon the features. The little mouth, usually so flabby, was now tight and thin, the eyes were bright, and the voice, when she spoke, carried a new note of authority.

“Hurry, driver, hurry!”

“Isn’t your husband traveling with you?” the man asked, astonished.

“Certainly not…. Don’t sit there talking, man. Get going! I’ve got a plane to catch for Paris!”

In a mordantly funny coda that must have stirred visceral dread in male, upper-middle-class New Yorker readers of that pre-feminist era, the elderly liberated woman, returning from her highly enjoyable trip, is pleased to discover when she reenters the townhouse a “faint and curious odour in the air that she had never smelled before.” https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Does he get it “right” every time? No, no one does. But that doesn’t mean those stories considered less artful aren’t somebody’s favorites. And isn’t that also the point – that writing is an Art? That it is relative?

Maybe the most important thing Dahl’s writing does is to open the conversation about the proper application of craft and technique, about originality versus the contrived that we need to have within the genre and within novice writing and education. He not only awakens the pores of the Horror skin, but he sets it a-tingle. He makes us feel like we can do it – we can pull great Horror out of ourselves because it isn’t far away from us. It isn’t about genius but more about observation and using every tool we have in the writing toolbox.

Continues Ulin:

“Not all of Dahl’s stories are equally effective, of course. More than a few (“The Sound Machine,” “Edward the Conqueror,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.”) echo as unrealized conceits. Still, even at its least resonant, his writing raises questions about what we want or expect from fiction, what a story ought to be.” https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Maybe that is the question we should all be asking, but don’t tell us Roald Dahl is not of the Horror genre; his work reeks of Horror conventions modernly rendered.

Let’s add him to the list. Let’s ask Literary Critics to look again at Roald Dahl for a foundational author of our canon. But for Horror’s sake, let’s read him.

D4

Works:

Novels: (Young Adult):

The Gremlins

Sometime Never: a Fable for Supermen

James and the Giant Peach

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Magic Finger

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Danny, the Champion of the World

The Enormous Crocodile

My Uncle Oswald

The Twits

George’s Marvelous Medicine

The BFG

The Witches

The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me

Matilda

Esio Trot

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke

The Minpins

 

Short Story Collections:

Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying

Someone Like You

Kiss Kiss

Twenty-Nine Kisses From Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

The Best of Roald Dahl

Tales of the Unexpected

More Tales of the Unexpected

A Roald Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories

Two Fables

Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life: the Country Stories of Roadl Dahl

The Roald Dahl Treasury

 

 Edited by:

Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories

 

 Nonfiction:

Boy-Tales of Childhood

Going Solo

Measles, a Dangerous Illness

Memories with Food at Gypsy House

Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety

The Dahl Diary 1992

My Year

The Roald Dahl Diary 1997

The Mildehhall Treasure

 

References

Dahl, Roald. “Lamb to the Slaughter.” https://4.files.edl.io/4a65/10/23/18/235824-cd055462-e062-467c-a8ae-492f46d8caad.pdf

Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 6/15,02019 from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Roald-Dahl

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Art of Vengeance.” The New York Review of Books, April 26, 2007 edition. Retrieved 6/15/19 from https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/the-collected-short-stories-of-roald-dahl/the-art-of-vengeance/

Talbot, Marion. “The Candyman: Why Children Love Roald Dahl’s Stories – and Many Adults Don’t.” A Critic at Large. The New Yorker: July 4, 2005. Retrieved 6/16/19 from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/07/11/the-candy-man

Ulin, David.”Roald Dhal’s Twisted, Overlooked Stories for Adults.” Page-Turner. The New Yorker: July 21, 2016. Retrieved 6/14/19 from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/roald-dahls-twisted-overlooked-stories-for-adults

Webster’s Dictionary. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire)

 

 

Racism, Bigotry & Misogyny: Why Being Morally Dubious Does Not Affect the Prominence of Lovecraft


As new biographies and Critical works and essays are published, more and more people are learning the awful truth about H.P. Lovecraft – the man ascribed to be the Father of the Modern Horror genre – that he was a racist, classist, arrogant bigot and misogynist.

In a world where we are increasingly affected by the consequence of such views, where do we draw the line? Where should we draw the line? And why – because of his contributions – do we seem so willing to look the other way?

What makes Lovecraft different? And how can we look to Lovecraft as a creative example with all of the things we now know about him?

The answer is complicated. But for those who recoil in disgust or offense, there are very important reasons why Lovecraft cannot be damned for his faults. And while we may wish to condemn him for his offensive-yet- period-driven personal views, if we are wont to do so we must also look at his own personal arc of growth.

The lesson is this: once we open the door to weighing an author’s work based on his or her personal life, we must include the totality of that life.

L1

The Literary Defense

For those who dislike Literary Critics for seeming arbitrary in their judgments, Lovecraft seems the perfect example of the divide between Critics and fans of the genre. Have they not dirtied their hands and sullied their reputations elevating the creative status of a man who was not shy in his contempt for almost everyone else?

Lovecraft himself makes it easy to think so. As Charlotte Montague states in her biographical work, HP Lovecraft, the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness, “Indeed racist sentiments can be found in his stories. ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ – described by the English fantasy fiction author [and Literary Critic], China Mieville, as ‘extraordinarily racist’…going further in my opinion than ‘merely’ ‘being’ a racist – I follow Michel Houellebecq…in thinking that Lovecraft’s oeuvre, his work itself, is inspired by and deeply structured with race hatred…” (Montague 101)

Make no mistake: this is not a maligning of Lovecraft, but a fact he himself boldly advertised in his own words and letters, confessing to being “known as an anti-Semite” (despite having married a Jewish woman), and displaying “contempt and even disgust for black people…Asians, Arabs, Mexicans, Italians, the Irish and Poles…” (101)

Yet such a reprehensible man sits at the top of our genre…

Do we not have an obligation to question why we select the people we do to elevate by excuse? Is this a case of “the end justifies the means”?

Surprisingly, the answer is no.

And a great deal of that answer has to do with Lovecraft himself – a man who “derived greatest pleasure from ‘symbolic identification with the landscape and tradition-stream to which I belong…” (Joshi 216). He was therefore a man caught in the constrictions of his own race and class at the time, a man whose search for understanding led to tremendous attempts at self-education and philosophical thought, whose own views changed during his relatively short life. This meager transition of personal growth (which some may see as underserved and inadequate), has importance in the Literary Critical scheme of things. Because an arc is an arc…

While we can recoil in disgust or “enlightened” superiority at many of his early enunciations against other races and classes, we also must acknowledge that we ourselves live in another time; we cannot know the struggle he might have had to understand his own world in the context of his personal, yet tightly shaped world view. Yet the needle did move.

For example, according to S.T. Joshi (todays’ most erudite scholar of all things Lovecraft), “Initially, Lovecraft felt that a frankly hereditary aristocracy was the only political system to ensure a high level of civilization” – an important observation when “in his preferences for political organization, Lovecraft again made it clear that the preservation of a rich and thriving culture was all that concerned him.” But during his lifetime, he did in fact begin to change, leaving fascist views behind “…as the prosperous twenties gave way to the Depression of the thirties, he began to realize that a restoration of the sort of aristocracy of privilege, cultivation, and civic-mindedness advocated (and embodied) by Henry Adams was highly unlikely, in the days of labor unions, political bosses and crass plutocrats of business who did not have sufficient refinement to be the leaders of any civilization Lovecraft cared about. The solution for Lovecraft was socialism.” (Joshi 217)

This one example reveals the simple fact that Lovecraft explored his own theories of not only what classes of peoples constituted “civilization” but how it should unfold during his brief life. We cannot know where his unrealized contemplations and potential epiphanies would have taken him; we simply know that he was a person whose ideas were in constant transit. We simply have as evidence an abbreviated life’s peripheral writings like correspondence and essays in which to frame his writings.

Should we then be privy to that private journey? Some Critics say yes, some say no.

But whether we do look at the private side of Lovecraft or not also can be said to have less direct bearing on his body of Literary work. Its total impact on the genre is not about his personal views but his world view as depicted BY his work…not so much about race as about humanity’s futile place in the cosmos. And while his personal views certainly “color” how he depicts this world view, it does not serve any greater purpose in his writing.

For Literary Critics, the reasons for this have more to do with what Lovecraft does with his writing that makes him what he is within the future Horror canon. The changes he makes there are Literary changes.

Again, we must remember that Literary Critics do not read for Criticism in the way WE might do while on vacation at the beach – the way we do every day. This is not “rationalism” but a reality. Neither is it the sign of a dog whistle – which is never heard if one is not a dog.

We read texts at face value – as fun romps through Horror universes. We are not seeking out double entendre, hidden meanings, subtext, or moral messages. In fact, we used to cede that intermediate ground to reviewers, who would point out details that made us sigh, “oh yeah…neat…” and triple our admiration of our chosen authors. Now we simply read in abject ignorance.

And we can do that with Lovecraft, seeing only the surface story. Lovecraft made such intriguing monsters – so many of them derived from real-life night terrors he experienced as a child – some still so reeking of childish imagination that we can easily identify with them– like the monster described as a mass of cosmic bubbles and sometimes seen in streams…Yog Sothoth… And for many of us any further allegory to racial superiority or class superiority is lost on us; we are indeed too obtuse to see it, too untrained, too not-caring.

It is easy to be bewitched by both monster and story… we identify with them without seeing anything nefarious, without suspecting too much in the way of bigotry or misogyny, forgetting our indoctrination by period pieces like Disney princesses because we are in fact indoctrinated…

This is not always part of a subversive plot, but more a matter of sociological evolution… we are all victims of our times – Lovecraft being no exception – and it is hard to clearly see something so thoroughly incorporated into our culture that it seems like this is the way it always was…like it has some divine endorsement.

Shaking loose of that takes generations. So when Literary Critics are faced with someone who so reeks of his time period that we can be properly “taken aback” at his “normalized” view of his fellow human beings, at his atheism, his love of Classic history, at his embrace of the scientific and the promise of astronomy… they see time capsules. And while we can cringe in discomfort at what a man like Lovecraft really, truly believed about his fellow human beings, we can also see the world he was living in.

L2

Lovecraft in His Time

It always sounds like an oversimplified, if not convenient excuse to say, “he was a product of his times.”

But we need to acknowledge that the further back in history we go, the more this is true. We are spoiled today with access to information – to such an extent, in fact, that we have little sympathy for those who think in narrow ways, because we cannot imagine what it is to live in small, isolated, rigidly contained islands of carefully constructed and forcefully maintained social hierarchies. Perhaps a brief recollection of high school would be helpful, because if we think our own times do not contaminate our beliefs, then we are fools.

Yet we do have to look at that – at what surrounds a writer or an artist when they are creating their life’s work – especially if we are threatening to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Lovecraft was a sickly child of failing upper class parents. Early in his life, his father suffered from a “psychosis” ascribed to syphilis by some, dying when Lovecraft was a toddler. Lovecraft, however, would claim his death was the result of a “paralyzing stroke.” The loss of his father and his father’s income resulted in he and his mother removing to the Phillips family estate, placing him under “the smothering attention of his mother and two aunts, his grandmother, and the maidservants… (Montague 15) With the death of his grandfather at age five, he began having night terrors, suffering what he called a “near breakdown” in 1898 and another two years later…Students of his life have in fact suspected he might have also suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome as well , as he showed a number of known symptoms such as antisocial behavior, reluctance to leave familiar places, etc. (26) At times exhibiting signs of depression and suicidal thought, he was frequently plagued with intolerance, insecurity, and “nervous fatigue”… (34)

People do not live in vacuums. We have families and circumstances unique to ourselves. But we also are ships on our own cultural oceans.

And if we are going to weigh the soul of Lovecraft, we must also look at the culture that was influencing him; it does not exclude him from being an often reprehensible, unpleasant creature, but it just might explain why Lovecraft successfully exploits the fear of the Other without being an instigator of it. In Lovecraft’s writings, his racism is used as setting to fuel “fear of the unknown” and “fear of invasion” and “fear of something without conscience.” Had he been alive in the 1980’s, he might well have written a literary version of Jaws….

“Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.” – H.P. Lovecraft

No, we cannot escape the impact of a writer’s experiences on his writing. Sometimes our own culture informs our writing, and sometimes it confirms our own terrors so that we write with a perceived, implied authority – convincingly… and in ways that span lifetimes. It does not help our case if we write stories published by our own, read by our own, judged by our own and preserved by our own.

Indeed, a whole lotta Lovecraft resonates with disenfranchised white males today. And here is an example of the how and why any buried dog whistle – that institutionalized dog whistle inserted by rote in his works – might sometimes have that particular sociological effect. But what should concern us here as we judge Lovecraft the man, is that it shows no evidence of ever having been meant to.

In preparing for this post, I was immediately struck by the truth of how shaped we are by our peers when I happened across these two paragraphs while reading The Trial of Lizzie Borden: a True Story by Cara Robertson. And while that real-life Horror story does not sound like it would hold any relevance, keep in mind the Borden drama took place a mere 18 miles to the southeast of Providence and some 200 miles east from New York City, sharing by proximity the same social Petrie dish…

“In this era [1892 for Lizzie, Lovecraft—1890 to 1937], America derived its vision of the criminal classes from European models of criminality… [Cesare Lombroso, a leading proponent from the Italian school of criminology] drawing upon contemporary anthropological studies of ‘other races’…believed the physical structures of their bodies displayed their criminal natures… ’he is like a man who has remained animalized…’” (Roberston [25])

and

“In one of her popular lectures, the prominent suffragist [my emphasis] and temperance advocate, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore contended: ‘an invasion of migrating peoples, outnumbering the Goths and Vandals that overran the south of Europe, has brought to our shores a host of undesirable aliens…Unlike the earlier and desirable immigrants, who have helped the republic retain its present greatness, these hinder its developments. They are discharged convicts, paupers, lunatics, imbeciles, peoples suffering from loathsome and contagious diseases, incapables, illiterates, defective, contract laborers, who are smuggled hither to work for reduced wages, and who crowd out our native workingmen and women.” (Robertson [26])

How amazing (and disappointing) when we are faced with the fact of how little our political rhetoric has changed…even as our targets have changed, as evidenced again by Robertson:

“…Large influxes of immigrants into Fall River – mostly Irish Catholic, French Canadian and Portuguese – altered the composition of the city in the course of the nineteenth century…Irish Catholic and English immigrants comprised the majority of workers in the textile mills by 1850. By 1885. French Canadians were the most important single ethnic group employed in the region’s textile industry…Each of the city’s social groups inhabited distinct geographical sectors. The segmentation into ethnic ghettoes paralleled the pattern of settlement in other industrial New England towns of the same period…” [20-21]

This means that Lovecraft – despite what appears in his work as uniquely bigoted and racist and misogynist – was a social conformist in his time; he was not alone in his prejudices and suspicions, which were at the least regional and publicly reinforced. The fears of the sociological moment fanned his own, and did so at such an extent that those fears are inseparable from his work.

But it is also a unique characteristic of inherent and institutionalized racism that the arrogance of the moment leads to the assumption that all people of reason, all people of your own class – agree.

So there is no preaching to the reader evidenced in his writings, because in Lovecraft’s mind, only white males like him would read and assess his works and any dog whistles were naturally, subconsciously infused with no conscious effort: Lovecraft’s intended audience was mostly himself and those like himself. There was no need to explain or recruit. He simply “reported” his observations and documented his fears.

It doesn’t mean that there are not images or allegations within his stories that now rub with the intensity of a Black Lives Matter moment… but they are more like Disney films…like the horribly racist drawings meant to be amusing in those wink-wink-nod-nod ways that are so clearly institutionalized racism today that we can finally see what minorities and Others have been telling us for centuries.

No doubt Lovecraft could not have seen the forest for the trees; he was far too self-centered, too paranoid of all outsiders, of all people he deemed not his equal – which his peers acknowledge was pretty much everyone else.

But it also means that Lovecraft probably could not help himself, either. He wrote the world as he – a white male whose wealthy family lost its wealth and who needed a reason to explain his own misfortunes, turned to other white males to establish an acceptable reason. He found it in racism against immigrants and people from other classes… including women, who at the time were often ghosts in their own lives. Continues Robertson on this matter:

“In the words of a contemporary journalist Julian Ralph, her [Lizzie Borden’s]situation exemplified ‘a peculiar phase of life in New England – a wretched phase’ suffered by ‘the daughters of a class of well-to-do New England men who seem never to have enough money no matter how rich they become, whose houses are little more cheerful than jails, and whose womenfolk had, from a human point of view, better to be dead than born to these fortunes…” [24-25]

As any writer can tell you, the best stories come from the singular place in self where real fears are harbored. Lovecraft mined terror from his personal nightmares, his personal dread of women and immigrants, his awe of the universe, his doubt about God, his loss of wealth and standing and the struggle to cover it up, his need for his talents and efforts to be recognized if not valued, and the irritations that come with native bigotries – close proximity to people abhorred, sounds of languages, smells of foods, suspicion of religious practices, constant and inescapable human presence.

Once again, we have to look at Lovecraft closely…to see that much of his behavior – while blatantly racist – also masked what was probably a host of antisocial if not psychiatric disorders.

It was a perfect storm of sorts for concocting his monster mythos replete with sinister, exotic characters. We have to “own” the social messaging of the times before we can shrink from Lovecraft and his flaws. We have to see the context – even if in Lovecraft’s case it is because he so impacted the genre…

Again, this may feel far too much to be like we are using the lexicon of Literary Critics. But in this case they are correct. And the more our skin crawls, the more we need to see why they are right.

It was not only natural at the time to believe the immigrant mythologies created by frightened white people, but it was white people who controlled all media, all “official” and socially acceptable behaviors – like moving white households uptown, and passing rumors about Other cultures downtown so not-understood.

This provided a ready-made foil for Lovecraft to terrify his characters with – cultured, upper class men lost among exotic (immigrant) cult worshippers, and rural-therefore-dark and ignorantly populated (lower class) settings to seat his creative world in. In a time where “science” was looking to explain human inferiority in animalistic terms, where fear became revulsion and an almost psychiatrically derived aversion to Others, prejudice takes on a frightening life of its own reinforced by mainstream culture. These are all the ingredients a Critic can dream of. And they were the very real interpretations of the ruling class – well-to-do white people – at the time.

But do those facts exonerate Lovecraft, once it becomes impossible to not-see the truth?

As reprehensible as it might feel, the answer is yes.

L3

Seeing What We Want To See

Sometimes it feels like the bigger question is: do we all have our own motivations for seeing what we want to see when we look at Lovecraft?

And to some degree we do. Critics are as mesmerized by his writings as we are – so much so because for the first time they have the whole butterfly under glass – one whose life is documented, whose influence on a genre is indisputable and profound and authenticated, who provided so much information that can be used to analyze not only invention of story and impact of society on writer, but on the creation of genre…something that happened previously in the anonymity of indistinct pasts…It is the Literary equivalent of getting to see the Big Bang. They are – in a word – dazzled by the prolific collection of cross-pollinating information never before succinctly gathered in one place.

Yet for those who want to see just another angry white male, they will find plenty of evidence speaking to that – plenty of imagery that seems to reinforce that very institutionalized racism and misogyny we know we need to fix right here in our modern world…And those who just love a good mythos can get lost on a stormy afternoon as well…

For genre readers in general, there will always be some semblance of separation of author and intent, a blissful ignorance of what motivates the Horrors he or she writes about. We have come for the thrills, for the entertainment, for the escape. There really isn’t any subversive motivation to our willful blindness.

Again, when we read Horror, we read at face-value…

But we cannot escape Lovecraft’s influence. Lovecraft brought us a refinement of The Weird, he delivered us to the Literary Critic; he gave us the tentacle, and reconnected us to our English Literary roots via Dunsany and Blackwood. He opened the door to the unholy marriage of philosophy and Horror, of science and monstrosity, stretching the supernatural into the unknown cosmos.

Most of us are neither privy to nor interested in the man or his motivations. We fall in love with the monsters, the mythos, the scope of the dream worlds, because they resonate with us – not because of latent racism in ourselves, but because we are looking superficially at the monsters. We are fine with engaging in a shallow way with the decorations on the page.

In fact, we prefer not to see them… we don’t want our vision of Lovecraft or his writings sullied or ruined. Besides, we would then know we would have to ask ourselves that if we enjoy them…does that mean WE are racists, too?

The surprising answer is no. Sometimes a monster is just a monster… a cigar, just a cigar.

It really does depend on what level we are reading on…

Institutionalism from the inside is hard to spot and easy to rationalize. We might then wonder if we are doing that with Lovecraft – rationalizing for the sake of the genre’s Literary gain, and wonder further if we should be subsidizing his work, calling him the Father of the Modern Horror genre, emulating him, etc…

Indeed, Lovecraft is perhaps THE representational argument for debating the relevance of an author’s life and views on his or her work – should an author and his or her life be considered in Literary Criticism?

This is part of the big upheaval we now see in the field of Literary Criticism, where the discussion has great relevance. And I think – especially when one sees the volume of evidence and peripheral information on the life of Lovecraft – that there can most certainly be importance in Literary Criticism steeped in that author knowledge. But I also think that what cannot be applied to all authors should not be applied as a general rule of Criticism… knowing the details makes his case so very different from others and there will always be and have always been authors about whom we know precious little.

Lovecraft is that rare exception.

And through the lens of Literary Criticism, Lovecraft rises bereft of racist promotion. Rather, it is a geographical feature in his work, an accent, a layer of setting. His World View, in other words, rises free of his own prejudices to question the purpose of humanity among the cosmos…Incredibly, Lovecraft is more about religion than race.

But why, we ask, do we not penalize Lovecraft?

Again, the difference is that Lovecraft ‘s works do not preach his bigotries – but reflect them – and which are unfortunately, a product of their historical times. What we know about Lovecraft is there because other people noted and kept those details, not because of some arrogant plan for infamy and immortality; he wrote letters to acquaintances, not manifestos.

That he also did things never done before in our genre is what makes his contributions irreversible and inseparable from modern Horror fiction.

Lovecraft’s morally dubious quality of racism remains unavoidably burdensome and is not attractive, and neither was his arrogant classism. But we are stuck with him. Because there is absolutely no avoiding him or the impact of his work in the Horror genre.

So here is the truth: Lovecraft is a one-man branch of Horror tradition who represents a mere moment in time but also an incredible leap in philosophical Horror; where we go from here we go because of him or in spite of him.

But we go in his shadow. It’s time to get familiar. We don’t have to like him; but we cannot and should not ignore him.

L4

 

References:

Bilstad, T. Allan. The Lovecraft Necronomicon Primer: a Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, c2009.

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, c1990.

Montague, Charlotte. H.P. Lovecraft: the Mysterious Man Behind the Darkness. New York: Chartwell Books, c 2015

Robertson, Cara. The Trial of Lizzie Borden: a True Story [Advance copy]. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2019.